Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have responded to a
14-question presidential campaign quiz on science and technology issues.
GOP presidential candidate John McCain has joined Democrat Barack Obama in providing answers to 14 questions on science and technology. On two of the campaign's biggest science issues - climate change and stem cell research - the rivals aren't all that far apart, at least when you look at the big picture.
The questions were posed by Science Debate 2008, which has been working to raise the visibility of sci-tech issues in the campaign for nine months. The grass-roots group couldn't get the candidates together for a debate during the presidential primary season, but today's answers from McCain have finally turned the project into a two-party system. (Obama provided his answers to the 14-question quiz two weeks ago.)
"Most of America's major unsolved challenges revolve around these 14 questions," Science Debate 2008's chief executive officer, Minnesota screenwriter Shawn Otto, said today in a statement laying out McCain's answers. "To move America forward, the next president needs a substantive plan for tackling them going in, and voters deserve to know what that plan is."
Both candidates declare that technological innovation will be key for America's future, but each puts his party's particular political spin on proposals for promoting that innovation. Obama stresses the need for increased funding for basic research and education. McCain says he would provide "broad pools of capital, low taxes and incentives for research in America." He'd also streamline regulations and "eliminate wasteful earmarks in order to allocate funds for science and technology investments."
Climate change and energy
McCain's biggest departures from the traditional GOP spin come when he's talking about climate change and stem cells. For example, the party's conventional wisdom calls for a go-slow approach to doing something about greenhouse-gas emissions, but McCain has always bucked the trend.
Like Obama, McCain calls for a cap-and-trade system to encourage a departure from the carbon-based energy economy, with a reduction of carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Obama would like to see further reductions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 - McCain calls for a 60 percent reduction by that time. (Actually, it'll be up to successors in the White House to hit any of those goals.)
Both candidates give a nod to alternative energy sources (including nuclear power) as well as higher energy efficiency and cleaner-burning coal. McCain mentions specific proposals such as a tax credit of up to $5,000 for zero-emission cars and his plan for a $300 million prize program for better batteries. Obama serves up a smorgasbord of proposals in a $150 billion, 10-year R&D program.
Stem cell research
Embryonic stem cell research is another area where McCain has parted ways with the Bush administration in the past. Like Obama, McCain supported the expansion of federal funding in that area - even though President Bush vetoed the measure.
Some political observers wondered whether McCain would change his tune now that he's the GOP standard-bearer. His answer to ScienceDebate 2008's question indicates that the tune is still the same, but the volume has been turned down.
"While I support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, I believe clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress," McCain says. "Moreover, I believe that recent scientific breakthroughs raise the hope that one day this debate will be rendered academic."
McCain is referring to last year's dramatic finding that skin cells could be chemically converted into cells that appear to have the stemlike ability to transform themselves into a variety of tissue types. That research raised hopes that embryonic cells may not be necessary to create patient-specific tissues for transplant or medical testing. However, even the discoverers of the technique say embryonic stem cells will remain the "gold standard" for regenerative medicine - and the moral and ethical debate isn't likely to become academic anytime during the next four years.
Obama promises to ease the current limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research by executive order, while making sure "that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight."
... And much, much more
When the answers to the other questions are put side by side, it's clear that each candidate devotes the most attention to his own familiar political territory: For example, Obama provides more specifics on health care. McCain lays out a more detailed agenda for space exploration, including references to commercial spaceflight and efforts to bridge NASA's spaceflight gap. In contrast, Obama's big space pitch focuses on reviving the National Aeronautics and Space Council.
The topics covered in Science Debate 2008's questionnaire range from national security and bioterrorism to water and ocean policy. You'll want to check out the full rundown, as well as other comparisons of the candidates' stands that are sure to emerge in the next seven weeks.
Are any of these issues likely to come up in a real-time, head-to-head debate? That question itself is debatable - but Science Debate 2008's president, Matthew Chapman, is holding out hope.
"Science Debate 2008 and its partners once again extend an invitation to both candidates to attend a televised forum where these vital issues can be discussed in front of a broader audience," Chapman said.
Fabrice Coffini / Pool via AFP - Getty Images
Scientists watch the computers at CERN's control center for the Large Hadron
Collider, near Geneva, during Wednesday's "First Beam" startup.
This week's startup of Europe's Large Hadron Collider didn't generate a big bang or a black hole, but it did generate a big reaction from folks who followed our series on the "Big Bang Machine." More than 40,000 people voiced their opinion by clicking through our unscientific survey or by discussing the issues in online forums.
To my mind, the scariest thing that came up was not the discussion over whether or not the collider might create a cosmic catastrophe (the overwhelming scientific verdict is that it won't), but the mortal fear that the discussion sparked among kids around the world. For those young people - and not-so-young people as well - I have two words of advice, taken straight from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy":
Ask an expert if you can. Sign a petition if you wish. But don't give in to dark thoughts because some people are talking about microscopic black holes, strangelets or other high-energy hobgoblins. Remember, history is filled with other way-out doomsday scares ranging from Y2K meltdowns to alien invasions.
This week's startup went as smooth as silk at the CERN particle-physics center near Geneva, but that won't necessarily stop the doomsday talk. Over the next few weeks, the LHC will be building up power and starting collisions, while the legal issues surrounding high-energy physics will be debated in the courts - and that means the worries about the LHC will continue to come up in public forums.
In fact, there may always be a background buzz of subatomic scariness, just as some folks keep insisting that the Face on Mars (or Mermaid on Mars) is an alien artifact. But there are more serious things to worry about, ranging from the monster hurricane slamming the Gulf Coast to the chances of a killer asteroid heading our way (estimated background risk: 1 in 500,000 for any given year).
The online survey we conducted this week is by no means reflective of true public opinion, as we repeatedly remind people. I suspect that a lot of people don't know or don't care about the Large Hadron Collider. Nevertheless, the results indicate that a lot of people know enough not to panic: Just under 60 percent of the responses were clicks of enthusiastic support for the experiment. About 20 percent said they were worried about a cosmic catastrophe, and another 20 percent thought the device was a waste of money.
Here's an annotated sampling of the feedback from readers, starting with some of the messages that sparked the "Don't Panic" advice:
Nicole, 10-year-old 5th grader: "hi mr allan boyle? i seen the ad on msn.com of your science experience collider and i just wanna say please, please please dont do it! who knows! it might destroy the world.... in only a ten year old girl but im really concered about this. please mr allan boyle, please dont do it! just to be safe. please mr allan. im really scared ... i know i should'nt worry about it but for some reason i do! ... im just in the beggining of grade 5 and i dont know much about science as you would but please mr boyle...... i really enjoy life and i dont want it to end soon because of science. i really LOVE science but please mr allan. im scared ..."
Lauren: "Dont' do it! why risk it. I don't want to die! We still have millions of years to the sun blows up. so why not wait to see what happens then kill us all. i love my life and i dont want to lose it. Please Alan i repeat dont do it. Im just a kid and i have so much more to live for."
Lucy: "i dont wona die im only 12."
William E. Cox, Nidderau, Germany: "If this thing even has a slim chance of causing the havoc that some say it might, would you bet your child's life on it? Or your children's children? Build the damned thing on the moon or on another planet and test it there. We have done enough to start and accelerate the destruction of our planet, why keep taking the risk that we may see Armageddon before the next century is upon us! Think about it! Seriously!"
Brenda Baldino, Scranton, Pa.: "I am a mother of a 4-year-old boy, John, and a 2-year-old girl, Madison. I read your story pertaining to the Big Bang Machine and I don't mind telling you that I am scared. I scoured your article for rays of hope and I was comforted a little, but not enough to stop me from staring at those little faces on my children as they are sleeping right now and not be petrified for what can happen. Please sir, I need to hear that more scientists than not agree nothing will happen, we will not destroy ourselves. I need to have hope that my children will have children one day. I need to hear of the positive outcomes this will bring the human race."
I told Brenda and the others that the potential risk has been analyzed, and the people who know best about such things have concluded there's no catastrophic risk. ("Are you sure?" Nicole wrote back.) Some correspondents wondered whether the atom-smasher might set off earthquakes or other dangerous rumblings:
Paul A. Nadeau: "... Given the environment of whether the particle accelerator resides, it will be 'interesting' to see if the slightest vibrations resound through the rocky earth of Switzerland resulting in an abnormally high season of avalanches this winter given the scientific studies on how the slight vibration can set off the most destructive forces in a mountainous region. It would be one place or geographical area I would not seek to vacation around knowing with those scientists are doing below the surface of the earth in the region."
I'm not aware of any evidence that the collider, which was built under 330 feet (100 meters) of rock, will have any substantial seismic effect on the surrounding countryside. In fact, scientists have been studying the effect that natural ground motion might have on the collider's experiments (see page 265 of this study). That leads me to suspect that the LHC can't be blamed for earthquakes and avalanches.
One student had this question about the temperatures achieved by LHC collisions:
Ryan Curry, Tupelo Middle School: "What is inside the LHC that prevents it from melting once the temperature has reached 10,000 times hotter than the sun's core? I would figure anything would be vaporized at that point. What holds it together? (Asbestos? lol!)"
The collisions take place in a vacuum that is more empty than outer space, and the high temperatures occur in a vanishingly small subatomic volume. In a flash, all that energy is converted back into decay particles. Yes, there is heat and radiation, but nothing the LHC's supercooled system of vacuum pipes and magnets can't handle.
Some correspondents weren't at all happy about the way I handled the doomsday question in Tuesday's installment. Here's a sampling:
Jeff Krantz: "Seriously!? How can any self-respecting 'science editor' live with himself after posting a story with the headline about black holes consuming the earth. I just can't even express my frustration over this. I wish I could never read your site again. Inciting public panic against science is one of the worst things someone in your position could do. Maybe if you use that article to get people into science more it would be worth it, but I highly doubt it. You're just going to get people more anti-science than there already are."
Some of the people concerned about the LHC touched upon their scientific background:
Patrick: You start off with [the question] 'will the newest supercollider save or destroy the Earth,' of which both scenarios have probabilities of occurring. However, the most likely scenario is that academic understanding is advanced to some level that will be meaningless in the grand scheme. I am a trained research scientist in molecular genetics and believe that academic knowledge should be expanded upon. However, I also, like most people believe that governments are failing in their defined roles that people gave up personal freedoms to form and participate in. For example, education, road, bridge, water reserves, Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, etc., in the U.S. are beyond disrepair. Governments run by special interest groups and flashy election issue-driven topics are the driving force behind our resources.
"Finally, you touch on another point in the article that I have always found disturbing about how science works - we can do this, so let's. Lawyers are trying to stop this supercollider because of the slim chances of safety issues, but they are doing it after how many billions of dollars of resources have been invested? To me the likelihood of an adverse event occuring must be weighed in conjunction with the severity of the potential event. I recall a little discussion around this when this project started, but not much.
"Issues that affect the entire planet should err on the safe side, at least until we have another planet to go to. I applied this logic to global warming as well to try to convince skeptics who [think] there is no problem instead of trying to wade through the science to determine the actual information, which has been definitive for several years now. I am not saying we should ban supercollider work or cloning, or stem cell research or genetic modified plants and animals or ... I think that more education, knowledge and thought should go into the flow chart. Think first then ..."
Other scientists took umbrage at the religious reference that I worked into the first article in the series. Here's an example:
Nathan Epler, Ph.D., principal hydrogeologist: "I know I am being oversensitive, and I am not an atheist, but why couldn't you leave God out of your article? To me, as a scientist, 'God' represents what we - as a primitive species (only a few thousand years removed from stone tools) - don't know about the universe and nature of existence. Which is, to say the least, a whole lot (i.e., we don't know a whole lot). The more I learn, the closer to the divine I feel. To most other people, unfortunately, 'God' represents what they do know. They are right and everyone who doesn't agree with them is wrong (and going to hell, by the way). So, could you leave God out of it when you are talking about science? It just muddies the message."
Thursday's installment focused on the comparative standing of America and Europe in the scientific world - and drew a wide spectrum of feedback. One correspondent stuck up for the red, white and blue in what some might see as politically incorrect terms:
Paul Hernandez: "The U.S. has contributed over $500 million to the collider, which actually gives us part ownership as I see it. The U.S. is in effect all of NATO, and since so much of our manpower and treasure goes to protect the free world, it sure seems to free up plenty of money for those gutless, good-for-nothing, who-needs-enemies-with-allies-like-these, no-armies-to-speak-of, scum-sucking Europeans to use for research. The title to your article seems to want to ignore that and give Europe something it does not deserve. Why do you need to make scientific endeavors a competition in the first place. You should know better."
Putting aside the tough talk, some Europeans might agree that too much is made of the competitive aspect. After Wednesday's startup, CERN Director General Robert Aymar said Europe may have displaced America as the locale for the world's largest particle collider, but he also noted that collaboration always follows competition. Big Science has become bigger than any one country.
Nevertheless, some correspondents recalled the aborted effort to build the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas during the '90s - a machine that would have been bigger than the LHC:
Cynthia: "So now it's happening. I worked on the Superconducting Super Collider with the most talented physicists in the world. It was canceled, and hundreds of scientists were left without the tenured positions they gave up to join the Collider. The SSCL was looking at a $10 billion budget, yet the Congress canceled it with a vote on, ironically enough, my birthday. The U.S. gave funds for the LHC after the SSCL was canceled.
"None of us was from Waxahachie, Texas, so we formed a 'family' of our own at the SSCL. Everyone worked very hard, long into the night. We had the technology and the brain power to build it, but it was evidently wrong time, wrong country. I sat in congressional hearings where opinions were read from other U.S. scientists who said it wasn't necessary and little benefit would come from building it. If you have ever been involved in government budgets, you know they get pretty political. If other scientists had their budgets decreased due to the collider, they weren't going to support building it.
"The 'story' is that Ann Richards was offered either NASA or the collider for funding by Bill Clinton. She chose NASA, for obvious reasons: Texas has much more of its economy built around NASA. But did it serve the best interests of scientific research? George Bush wants to go back to the moon, but we've been there, done that.
"If I sound bitter, I am. The 'it coulda been us' that I feel whenever I hear about the LHC won't go away. The research facilities for our colleges and universities that were to be a part of the SSCL didn't happen. People were displaced from homesteads they held for generations and the equipment was sold or given away at bargain prices. Funny, all the laboratories wanted our equipment when we were canceled.
"Maybe it would be valuable to follow up with some of the senior scientists at the SSCL - but don't expect those scientists at U.S. colleges and universities to criticize it - it's just not politically correct."
On the Newsvine discussion site, another physicist looked backward - and forward:
"I was in graduate school (in physics) when the SSC was cancelled. Since there was already a substantial oversupply of Ph.D. physicists at the time, the cancellation gave further impetus to a movement that was already under way from pure science to greater emphasis on technology. After the collapse of the telecommunications boom, followed in rapid succession by 9/11/01, the focus switched almost entirely to military and security-related technologies. So that is one area in which the U.S. is probably still in the lead. It reminds me of how some people used to describe the Soviet Union: 'a third-world country with first-world weapons.'"
And here's another Newsvine comment, this time from an immigrant:
"As an outsider (immigrant) living in the United States, I can see thing the most Americans fail to recognize - that the U.S. is losing its edge to focused, hungrier and driven people from other countries. The U.S. of A. has immense potential and it could all be lost if the people here continue to act like sheep and be blind to what is happening around them.
"I was an average student in my country and had decent opportunities back home, but when I moved to the U.S., I was ahead of the crowd by a good margin. In the companies I have worked (mostly high-tech), there are very smart people at the top but the fresh talent pool is quite lacking in basic skills (science, math, etc.) and we have had to look outside the country for average talent. If this continues to be the trend, the U.S. will find itself sooner in the back seat, watching the rest of the world in control of science and engineering."
What do you think? Feel free to add your comments about the Big Bang Machine - or the bigger implications.
Past chapters in the atom-smasher saga:
Peter McCready / Special to msnbc.com
|Click for high-def slide show:
360-degree HD View photos let
you zoom through the Large
The world's biggest atom-smasher is a smash hit on the Web: It's only been one day since the Large Hadron Collider's startup, but the device has already generated an explosion of cool stuff online, including black humor about black holes.
We're offering a selection of photographer Peter McCready's 360-degree, zoomable panoramas of the collider's hot spots as part of our special report on the $10 billion project - but if the HD View plug-in doesn't work out, you can still take a Flash-based tour of the LHC on McCready's own Web site.
McCready, who is a system administrator for Queen's University in Belfast in Northern Ireland, has been taking 360-degree panoramas for years at the European Space Agency and other high-tech locales. It's all part of his personal campaign to add some extra gee-whiz to the genre.
"It seemed to be more used for the leisure-hotel industry, and I always thought there should be more to it than that," he told me.
Under the aegis of the World Wide Panorama project, McCready went to Geneva in 2005 and was permitted to take his first set of all-around pictures of the ATLAS experiment. Since then, he has documented all the main experiments with the enthusiastic support of the LHC's science teams. He just finished up his most recent visit, and the latest set of 10 panoramas should be available on his Web site in four to six weeks.
"It was a massive privilege to visit parts of the experiment that members of the public never get to see," McCready said.
Here are some more big bangs on the Web (and on TV):
Wednesday's startup was "just the beginning of the story," said Eric Prebys, the head of the USLHC accelerator research program at Fermilab in Illinois.
Since then, scientists have been shooting proton beams around the collider's 17-mile-round (27-mile-round) ring hundreds of times, even though today is an official holiday in Geneva. From now on, testing will continue seven days a week, night and day, Prebys told me.
He said those tests will fine-tune the beams going in opposite directions and more than double their energies from the startup level of 450 billion electron volts to around 1 trillion electron volts - which is about the maximum energy achievable by Fermilab's Tevatron, the world's current record-holding atom-smasher.
Within a few weeks, the two beams will be brought into collision. That milestone may come in time for the next big celebration on CERN's schedule: an Oct. 21 gala, attended by heads of state, that will mark the LHC's formal inauguration.
For updates about the home team, keep tabs on the USLHC blogs and the Symmetry Breaking blog. And for a teen perspective on the LHC's "First Beam" events as seen from Fermilab, check out the QuarkNet blog and this YouTube video.
This item was last updated at 8:45 p.m. ET.
Past chapters in the atom-smasher saga:
|Theoretical physicist John Ellis writes out equations at
Europe's CERN nuclear research center near Geneva.
John Ellis juggles the concepts of dark matter and dark energy, supersymmetry and black holes as if they were playthings. The British-born physicist chose his calling 50 years ago, when he was just 12 years old, and he's spent the past 35 years as a theoretician at Europe's CERN particle-physics center near Geneva.
So if you want to know what mysteries the world's largest atom-smasher could crack open, Ellis is your man.
It may sound as if Ellis is one of those long-haired physicists who never has to interface with the real world, but nothing could be further from the truth:
During my visit to CERN last year, I sat down in Ellis' office, looking around stacks of piled-up research papers, as the physicist gave me an entry-level explanation of what the Large Hadron Collider is all about. I've used some of Ellis' quotes in previous stories about the LHC, but here's a fuller version of the edited Q&A:
Cosmic Log: What are people looking for with the Large Hadron Collider?
Ellis: The LHC is the most powerful microscope that's ever been built. It will be able to explore the inner structure of matter on a scale that is 10 times smaller than anyone's been able to do before. Also, the LHC, I would say, is the most powerful telescope that's ever been built, because we know that the way elementary particles interacted with each other controlled the very early history of the universe.
So with the LHC we are able to in some sense re-create the conditions that existed in the universe when it was just a fraction of a second old - the sort of thing that the optical telescopes and just can't see. So, most powerful microscope … most powerful telescope.
Then, of course, there's the question whether there's any reason to expect, if you look on this particular very small scale inside matter, is there going to be anything there? And I think we have a couple of reasons for thinking there will be something there. We have this theory of elementary particles and the forces between them, the structure of matter. This model works extremely well, but we know it's incomplete. And one of the reasons why it's incomplete is, if you write down the basic theory, it looks like all the particles would be massless. That's clearly not true. If you look in the universe today you see that some particles are heavy, some are not. So there has to be an explanation for that.
Now, in fact, this "Standard Model" of particles contains an explanation, but at the moment, it's very much a theoretical explanation. It's a hypothesis. We don't know whether it's correct or not.
This is an idea that was suggested by Peter Higgs and others way back in the 1960s. According to their idea, there should be a new particle which could be produced and observed at the LHC, called the Higgs boson. This is in some sense the holy grail of particle physics, to find this missing link in the standard model. So that's one thing that we're really looking forward to with the LHC. In fact, back when we persuaded the politicians to stump up the money to build the thing, that's probably what we told them.
Now, the other reasons for thinking there are new physics … one of my personal research interests is dark matter. Astrophysicists tell us that something like 90 percent of the matter in the universe is some sort of invisible stuff, and nobody knows what it is. They can see that it attracts gravitationally visible particles, and presumably it's not made of the same constituents as the visible matter. It could be something that we're going to be able to produce with the LHC. There are various different ideas about what might be, but quite generally I think there are good reasons to think that these dark matter particles, if they exist, will be observable at the LHC.
Q: Just speaking about dark matter, is there thought that these are particles that exist homogeneously in all of reality? Are there these sorts of particles in this room, or do they only exist under special conditions that you would create at the LHC?
A: They exist everywhere in the universe, and not uniformly distributed. So if you go out in between the galaxies, there would be some low density of these things. But in fact galaxies were formed because these dark matter particles clumped together - and then the regular visible matter, you and me, were attracted by this dark matter and formed the visible galaxies and stars that astronomers look at. So the density in this room would actually be quite high, because we're sitting inside a galaxy.
What's estimated is that if you took a liter bottle of mineral water, then on average this would contain something like one dark matter particle at any one time. However, this dark matter particle is traveling quite fast. It's traveling at some fraction of the velocity of light, so it doesn't stay inside the bottle. Also, this dark matter particle has extremely weak interactions. So most of the time, it would pass straight through the bottle without leaving any trace.
One of the challenges is how to verify that this thing exists. Basically, there are two approaches for this. At the LHC, what we do is we hope to produce heavier particles which decay into this invisible particle. So we wouldn't actually see the dark matter particle directly, but we would see the heavier particles which decay into it. Then there are astrophysicists who plan to look directly for scattering of this dark matter particle in their detectors. Not in bottles of water, but detectors in deep underground experiments.
Q: Some people wonder what happens if these particles are not found. Perhaps there would be traces found in earlier experiments, such as the Large Electron Positron collider [LEP] or Fermilab? Is it just that they weren't able to achieve the energies that could have found the traces of the Higgs boson, or supersymmetric particles, or other candidates for these dark matter constituents?
A: The LHC is far and away the most powerful particle accelerator that's ever been built. These previous accelerators, like LEP or the Fermilab accelerator, explore some of the possible theories, but not all of them. Well, LEP didn't find the Higgs boson. Fermilab has a chance. We're breathing down Fermilab's neck. It's quite possible that Fermilab might be able to discover the Higgs boson before the LHC get started.
These other sorts of particles, the supersymmetric particles that are related to dark matter, there I think probably Fermilab just doesn't have enough energy. It's just not a powerful enough "microscope." so I think that the LHC might have that particular field to itself, pretty much.
Q: Has it gotten to the point where people can talk about potential applications of the discoveries that might be made at the LHC? I'm sure when the politicians approved this money, they said, OK, you'll find the Higgs boson, but what is the payoff? Is it going to lead to limitless energy or other things that politicians like to talk about to their constituents?
A: We don't justify CERN or other big particle accelerator laboratories on the basis of spinoffs or technology transfer, or anything like that. Of course, we do have programs for that. Personally, I believe that the most important knowledge transfer that we can make is by training young people who then maybe go off and do something else. I think that's probably more important than some particular technological widget that we may develop.
I think the primary justification for this sort of science that we do is, fundamental human curiosity. I think people ever since the ancient Greeks and probably a long time before that have wanted to understand how matter is made up, how it behaves, where the universe comes from. And so we are responding, I think, to that continuing human urge.
It's true, of course, that every previous generation that's made some breakthrough in understanding nature has seen those discoveries translated into new technologies, new possibilities for the human race. That may well happen with the Higgs boson. Quite frankly, at the moment I don't see how you can use the Higgs boson for anything useful. But maybe I'm wrong. It's particularly difficult to predict technological applications decades away in the future.
Q: Anyone who's tried to predict that a big discovery is not going to make a difference is generally proven wrong, going back to the Wright brothers. A century ago, people were asking whether there'd be any benefit to having airplanes. It's been that way with other innovations as well. You have that unpredictability, I suppose.
A: Right. Or consider Einstein's theory of relativity, for example. This was pure knowledge. But now, the GPS systems that everybody has in their SUV have to incorporate Einstein's theory of relativity in order to figure out where they are. Well, an SUV you don't need to know so accurately. But airplanes, if they're going to land without making a bump, OK, they have to incorporate both special and general relativity into their calculations of the signals from GPS satellites. So even apparently abstruse things like general relativity turn out to be relevant to the human race. Not back in 1915, when Einstein thought of it, but in 2007, yeah.
Q: I know you've spoken about what's at stake in this search for the Higgs boson. Maybe you can elaborate a little bit about what happens if it's not found, or what happens if it's found but people don't learn anything more about its properties other than that it exists. What does that do to the Standard Model?
A: I like to compare the situation in particle physics to our room, where there is a doorway. The Higgs is the door. So, it could be that when you go to the doorway and you open the door, there's nothing outside. This seems very unlikely to me. So, I don't think that the Higgs door, if you like, is just closing off the room and there is nothing beyond. I believe there's going to be a lot more physics beyond. What it's going to be, I don't know. Maybe it's supersymmetry. Maybe space has additional dimensions.
Maybe it's something that we haven't thought of yet. I certainly hope it's something that we haven't thought of yet. It would be great to come across a real surprise. When we look deeper inside matter, we shouldn't be overconfident that we know everything that's possible down there.
In fact, one of the most interesting possibilities of all is that there is no door there at all. That there is no Higgs boson. Well, this might be a little bit difficult to explain to our politicians, that here they gave us 10 billion of whatever, your favorite currency unit, and we didn't find the Higgs boson. But in some ways, theoretically, that would be the most interesting possibility, because it would really mean that we had to tear up our notebooks of the last 45 years and start more or less from scratch.
Of course, if there's no door in your room, then you can get outside very easily. Then I think there has to be something outside. Probably the most likely option then might be extra dimensions. And there are some ideas where if you have some additional dimensions of space, you could somehow do the job that the Higgs does in the standard model.
Q: What would you look for if you were looking for extra dimensional physics of some sort?
A: I think the first thing that you would look for is the "dog that did not bark," to quote Sherlock Holmes. Remember the short story where this was the most important clue, the dog that did not bark? So you would first look for the Higgs in all the standard ways that we expect it to show up. The first very important statement to be able to make would be, "The Higgs does not exist. We have looked for the Standard Model Higgs, and it is not there."
Making such a statement would be an incredibly difficult thing to fit to do, because it involves looking for the Higgs in very many different ways. The detectors have to be understood very well, the accelerator has to work very well. It's not going to be something that one says immediately. One might say we haven't found the Higgs yet, or we're getting more and more concerned that Mr. Higgs has disappeared and so on. It might take a while to say, actually, Mr. Higgs doesn't exist at all.
Then, of course, there's the question of "what is there if there isn't a Higgs?" There are particular types of events that you could look for in the LHC where you could find evidence for these extradimensional theories that replace the Higgs. So, I guess at the same time as some team is trying to find the Higgs, or maybe prove that it doesn't exist, there would be some other team looking for these distinctive features of these extra dimensions.
Q: Are some theorists already starting on non-Higgs theories for how things work?
A: For sure. There have been ideas about so-called "Higgsless" theories around for some time. Most of these theories don't work for some reason or another. They run into some problem with the data taken with previous accelerators. There are perhaps one or two variants of those ideas which are not in serious conflict with previous data. It's actually pretty difficult to come up with a theory that doesn't have a Higgs in it.
Q: We've slipped into this concept of supersymmetry – I wonder if you have a stock explanation for how supersymmetry figures into the frontier of particle physics.
A: Supersymmetry is an idea according to which in parallel to the particles that were made of, the electron for example, that goes around an atom, or the photon, which causes light, in parallel to those particles there would be other particles, call it the selectron, call it the photino, which have identical interactions. So, the selectron, for example, would have an electric charge, and it would couple to the photino in the same way that the electron couples to the photon – and that's the way that electromagnetic radiation works, and TV and computers and so on.
These would have the same forces has regular particles, so what's the difference? The difference is in the way in which these particles spin. This is maybe somewhat of a different concept to get across, because it doesn't have any obvious metaphor, but you have to think of elementary particles as being like ballet dancers. Ballet dancers can spin. And different types of elementary particles spin at different rates. So, for example, the photon spins twice as fast as an electron. The Higgs boson would be the one particle in the standard model that doesn't spin at all.
Now, according to supersymmetry, all the known ballet dancers have partners, and these partners of the ballet dancers spin at a different rate. So, for example, the supersymmetric partner of the photon, the photino, this would spin at half the rate of the photon. The supersymmetric particle of the electron, the selectron, wouldn't spin it all, just like the Higgs boson.
So why on earth would you postulate such a thing? When I say all this, this all sounds very complicated and arbitrary, and I can just imagine people saying, "These guys are completely crazy." The reason why people like this idea is … well, there are many reasons. One very concrete reason is that supersymmetry would help the Higgs to its job. You can write down a theory where there is just a simple Higgs boson that gives masses to the other elementary particles, end of story. But such a theory is a very unstable theory.
It's a little bit like if you had a hill and you put a ball on the top. You give it a little tap, and it runs away. In the same way, this Higgs theory is very unstable. So what you want to do is to make it, in some sense, as if it was not sitting at the top of the hill but at the bottom of the valley. In some sense - and my physicist friends will raise their hands in horror at what I'm saying - but in some sense, the job of supersymmetry is to put the Higgs at the bottom of a nice, stable valley so it doesn't roll away. This trick works just simply because these supersymmetric particles have the same interactions as regular particles, and because they have this different rate of spin.
Q: You mentioned that the LHC would be a telescope as well as a microscope. Could you explain that a little bit more? You're looking back, I suppose, at the phenomena that existed at the very beginning of the universe. Is that how you use it as a telescope?
A: Yes, we know that the universe is expanding. This was discovered by Edwin Hubble in the 1920s. So what this means is that if you go back to earlier and earlier times in the history of the universe, all the stuff that we see in the universe today would have had to be much closer together, and would be much denser.
There are various pieces of evidence from astronomers and astrophysicists that indeed that happened. For example, the universe is full of radiation that was sent out when the universe was a few hundred thousand years old. We believe the abundances of light elements in the universe like helium were made when the whole universe had a temperature about the same as the center of our sun. That's what you need in order to get nuclear reactions to take place. So we have some confidence in this picture of a universe expanding from some initial very small, very hot, very dense state. This is the right way to go. This is the big bang.
With the collisions at the LHC, we are able to re-create the energies that particles would have had, the density of material that the universe would have had when it was something like a millionth of a millionth of a second old. So this is what I mean, that it's the most powerful telescope ever built, because we can see things that happened way before the production of this radiation that fills the universe.
Q: Some folks have been worried about the LHC and wonder whether this would destroy the universe. Maybe you could explain why those people can be reassured that the universe would not be destroyed.
A: There's no danger from LHC collisions. The collisions that we produce have an energy which is much less than some of the cosmic rays make.
The experiments that we will do with the LHC have been done billions of times by cosmic rays hitting the earth, they're being done continuously by cosmic rays hitting our astronomical bodies, like the moon, like the sun, like Jupiter and so on and so forth. And the earth's still here, the sun's still here, the moon's still here. LHC collisions are not going to destroy the planet.
That being said, indeed it will be extremely exciting if the LHC did produce black holes. OK, so some people are going to say, "Black holes … those big things eat up stars?" No. These are microscopic, tiny little black holes. And they're extremely unstable. They would disappear almost as soon as they were produced. The theories which predicts such things are theories with extra dimensions of space, and you can calculate in these theories how these things would be produced and how they would decay.
Actually, this would be very exciting, because it would be a way of testing our quantum theories of gravity in a way that nobody could imagine doing any other way in the laboratory. So, if the LHC were to make microscopic black holes, it would be tremendously exciting, and no danger.
Q: Are there any specific experiments, if you were to say, OK, we will be looking for these miniature, microscopic black holes, and we would expect to see that in ALICE, LHCb, or ATLAS, or CMS? Are there particular experiments that would provide the evidence for that?
A: There are two big discovery experiments which are going to be looking for things like the Higgs boson, dark matter particles and black holes. Those are ATLAS and CMS. I would say that both of them are equally good. They look at these Higgs bosons, and supersymmetric particles and black holes in somewhat different ways, but the basic ideas are rather similar. They use different technologies, but the physics objectives are very similar.
We believe that either of the experiments could, within maybe a couple of years, start to provide us definitive answers about whether the Higgs exists and whether supersymmetric particles exist. These definitive answers won't come as soon as you flip the switch. It won't be on day one or even day two that you learn about whether the Higgs boson exists. It will take a while. But I think that either or both of ATLAS and CMS should be coming up with answers after a year or two.
Atlantis astronaut Mike Massimino practices using the Mini Power Tool to remove
screws from a circuit box for the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrometer. The
screws will be retained in the color-coded, see-through capture plate - a device that is attached over the box and keeps the tiny fasteners from floating away in space.
Overhauling the Hubble Space Telescope requires much more than astronaut elbow grease in zero-G: More than 60 new tools had to be created in a multimillion-dollar effort that involved trips to the hardware store - and to the toy box.
The tools took their share of the spotlight during this week's briefings on NASA's final Hubble servicing mission, conducted at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland as well as Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"We had to develop a whole new class of tools for spacewalking," said astronaut John Grunsfeld, who will be making his third service call on the Hubble during next month's mission.
At Goddard, we got an up-close look at the gizmos in action from the engineers who developed them for Grunsfeld and the Atlantis mission's other spacewalkers.
One of the indispensible items for Hubble's handymen will be the Mini Power Tool, a shiny pistol-shaped screwdriver/drill that has an LED light at the tip to illuminate the space telescope's innards.
For the first time, astronauts will actually be swapping out bad circuitry on two out-of-commission instruments inside the 18-year-old telescope. The instruments' circuit boxes "were basically never designed to be accessed," said Tomas Gonzalez-Torres, lead spacewalk officer for the mission. But they'll have to be accessed next month if NASA hopes to revive Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph.
The electronics box for the camera equipment has a protective mesh and 36 fasteners that have to be removed. The spectrograph's circuit box has a cover held in place by even more fasteners: 117, to be exact.
Imagine trying to twist out more than 100 tiny hex-head screws in zero-G, with your head buried inside the Hubble itself, and you get a sense of how devilish the job could be. One loose screw could ruin a billion-dollar telescope.
To do the job, the Goddard team fashioned ingenious boards that are designed to be clamped onto the box covers, leaving color-coded, see-through receptacles for each screw. They're called capture plates, but they look more like the "busy boards" that parents buy to keep their toddlers occupied.
The holes on top of each board are big enough for the power tool's screwdriver bits to go through, but not big enough for the loosened screw to float out into space. When all the screws are removed, each cover will be stowed with the screws trapped inside. The circuit cards will be replaced, and then the astronauts will clamp on brand-new covers with an easy-on, easy-off design.
Tools and toys
That's just one example of the tool team's ingenuity. Matt Ashmore, the lead engineer for the Mini Power Tool, said that he designed the device's pistol grip after going to the hardware store with an astronaut glove.
"We held every single power tool they had in the store, to see what kind of handle felt really good with an astronaut glove," Ashmore told me.
Even the astronauts got into the act: Grunsfeld and his Atlantis crewmate, rookie spaceflier Drew Feustel, came up with the idea of using a reach extender (nicknamed the "PikStik," after the commercial product) to push Hubble's new gyroscopes into place.
Feustel said he was inspired by a play version of the reacher that he pulled out of his children's toy box. "That was the first thing that I had envisioned using on Hubble," he said. It turned out that Grunsfeld had a similar idea - and they worked with Goddard's team to develop an industrial-strength version with a locking trigger mechanism.
Pit crew in space
Both Ashmore and Feustel said they've put in a lot of tool time working on cars in their garage. Feustel was an auto mechanic long before he was an astronaut, and Ashmore spends his off time tinkering with a '69 Dodge Polara. "That's my baby," he said.
That experience came in handy during the tool development effort. "We wanted to be able to do this pit-crew-style," Ashmore said of the power-tool job.
In such matters, practice makes perfect: When the astronauts started training for the Hubble spacewalks, it took two hours to unscrew the fasteners on the STIS electronics cover. Now Ashmore says they can do the job like an Indy pit crew, in less than a half-hour. That translates to one loose screw roughly every 15 seconds.
Even a simple unscrewing job doesn't always go smoothly - so NASA's spacewalk planners are ready with backup plans: Some of the screws on the Advanced Camera for Surveys will have to be loosened manually, due to the weird angle of attack inside the telescope. If a screw doesn't come out easily, it'll be OK to break the screw head off with the bit and leave the threads behind. And if a screw won't budge at all, there's always the option of drilling the darn head right off.
Not your typical tools
Such scenarios may sound familiar to anyone who's had to do some home fix-up, but this is not your typical worksite. So the tools can't be typical, either. They have to be custom-made, with materials and lubricants that can stand up to the rigors of space.
And that means they have to be expensive. E. Michael Kienlen Jr., deputy project manager for Goddard's HST Development Office, said the cost of Hubble tool development hasn't been broken out for this mission. He noted that an earlier effort to develop a bigger pistol-grip power tool for use with Hubble and the international space station costed out to about $10 million, or roughly $1.5 million each for seven of the tools.
Common sense tells you that developing more than 60 tools for the upcoming Hubble mission probably carries an eight-figure price tag as well - which means you won't be seeing the Mini Power Tool at Home Depot anytime soon. But if the tools produce new dividends from a mission that NASA estimates has cost about $10 billion so far, the price will be well worth it.
Scott Eklund / Seattle Post-Intelligencer file
University of Washington physicist John Cramer has designed an experiment
in reverse-time causality - and has written a novel about time travel as well.
Have you heard the one about the physics experiment that created globe-gobbling black holes? Or killer neutrino beams? Or the voice of God? How about antimatter explosives and the boson bomb? There's even a supercollider that set off a crisis so huge that scientists had to be sent back in time to make sure the supercollider was never built in the first place.
All these subatomic nightmares, and more besides, are pure science fiction ... with a bit of science woven in.
Several rounds of scientific studies, considering increasingly outlandish scenarios, have ruled out the black-hole threat. The evidence shows that the collider is absolutely safe, and poses no chance of cosmic catastrophe. Nevertheless, the hysteria continues: Part of the reason for that is that scientists say it's conceivable that a less threatening breed of subatomic black holes could be created. But another factor is that there's so much science-fiction appeal to the tale of the black hole that ate the earth.
In fact, the idea goes back at least several years before Europe's CERN particle-physics lab even gave the go-ahead for building the LHC. Physicist/author David Brin used the black-hole scenario as a plot device in his eco-disaster novel "Earth," published in 1990 (and Brin has said the idea didn't originate with him).
Campaigners worked the cosmic-catastrophe theme into their opposition to Fermilab's Tevatron in Illinois (starting in the mid-1990s), the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in New York (starting in the late '90s) and the LHC (starting a couple of years ago).
Those real-life atom-smashers, in addition to the never-built Superconducting Super Collider in Texas, figure in a bevy of subatomic scare stories. Perhaps the eeriest one is "Einstein's Bridge," by University of Washington physicist John Cramer.
It's eerie on at least two counts:
Cramer, who's also on one of the research teams using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, has often said that he'll write either a scientific paper or a novel about backward causality.
"If the experiment works, then I will be on to some very interesting roads to success," Cramer said, "but I'll probably end up writing the novel rather than making the discovery. In a sense, doing the experiment is background for the novel."
The Large Hadron Collider just might provide Cramer and other science-savvy novelists with new material for their stories. Probably not about world-threatening black holes, though. That plot has been around for years.
Like most scientists, Cramer says the same theory that suggests black holes might be created at the LHC also says they would fizzle out instantly - which he explained in his "Alternate View" column for Analog magazine, more than five years ago.
In fact, Cramer doubts that the LHC will ever find black holes. He's more hopeful that physicists will detect their main target, a fundamental particle called the Higgs boson.
"It's fairly likely that they will see the Higgs at some point, but it will be a while before they can make a case for it," he told me. "It's fairly unlikely that they'll find black holes. And it's also fairly likely they'll see something they didn't expect at all."
Are you looking for more thrills and chills? Here are 10 other novels that explore the fictional frontiers of particle physics. Some of them have already been featured as selections for the Cosmic Log Used-Book Club.
Do you have further suggestions for subatomic stories? Feel free to leave them as comments below, and they just might turn into future recommendations for the Cosmic Log Used-Book Club.
Update for 11:50 a.m. ET May 21, 2009: I traveled back in time to let you know about the status of Cramer's retrocausality experiment. He's gearing up for "phase 3," but there are still no results to report.
Jae C. Hong / AP
Delegates are showered with balloons after John McCain's acceptance speech
during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain didn't benefit from that big of a bounce today in the post-convention prediction markets. Then again, Democratic rival Barack Obama didn't get much of a bounce from his party's convention last week, either.
In fact, the idea that political conventions produce an upward "bounce" of popularity doesn't really apply to the prediction markets, and economists think they know why.
By the way, McCain's surprise selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate didn't move the markets either, for different reasons.
The no-bounce campaign
Prediction markets represent an attempt to bring the dismal science of economics into the political sphere: Instead of relying on polls of representative voter samples, the markets simply provide an online method for buying and selling "stock" in various candidates of political propositions. (Similar markets have been set up for contests ranging from the Super Bowl to the Oscars race, by the way).
The Iowa Electronic Markets have offered real-money trading in political futures since the Bush-Dukakis campaign of 1988. Over the past 20 years, the IEM has been at least as accurate as political polls when it comes to picking the winners.
Here's how the system works: If you think McCain will win, based on his showing at this week's convention, you could plunk down up to $500 to buy shares that fluctuate based on his fortunes. The shares pay off at $1 each if McCain wins in November, but become worthless if he loses.
As of 5 p.m. ET today, McCain's shares were trading at 41.3 cents, which means the traders' consensus view is that McCain has a 41.3 percent chance of beating Obama. On the other hand, Obama's shares were valued at 59 cents - meaning that the Democrat is still the strong favorite, at least as far as the market is concerned.
The funny thing is that those values on the IEM have been basically unchanged (with one exception, detailed below) since Aug. 25, the day the Democratic convention opened. That runs counter to the conventional (heh, heh) wisdom that candidates enjoy a surge of popularity after their turn in the national spotlight.
"If you look at the prediction markets, it's been the most boring two weeks of the campaign," said Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School who has studied the dynamics of such markets for years.
This year isn't unusual in that respect. The IEM has never seen a post-convention bounce in the 20 years that it's been gathering statistics, said Tom Snee, a spokesman for the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business.
"We speculate that's because the people on the IEM are really into politics, and they can see through a lot of the rhetoric and the stagecraft," Snee told me. "They look for substance - and there's not a lot of substance anymore at these things."
Obama's stock actually saw a significant but short-lived dip during the Democratic convention. That left the IEM's economists scratching their heads, but they did find that the dip correlated rumblings that Hillary Clinton's supporters might rebel against the presumed nominee. (Here's a pre-convention report that hinted as much.) Once Clinton gave her strong support to Obama, the downward plunge was reversed.
On InTrade's prediction market, there has been more of a bounce: Obama's shares have moved up and down, going from a little more than 58 cents on Aug. 23 to almost 62 cents on Wednesday, then dropping to today's closing price of 55.5 cents. As you'd expect, McCain's trend line went down (to 36 cents last week), then up (to 43 cents today). But in the grand scheme of things, not much has changed.
Wolfers' hunch is that traders generally discount the upward swings in the post-convention polls as being in line with expectations - just as traders on the stock market would shrug off expected good news about a company's quarterly earnings. "We think that financial markets are forward-looking in a way that political polls are not," he told me.
Standing pat on Palin
The current price stability doesn't mean the traders are frozen in place. So if the conventions' glare doesn't move the market much, what does?
"News," Snee answered. "News is really the big thing that moves it."
He pointed to the example of fallen Democratic hopeful John Edwards: When word got out that his wife had cancer, his shares fell from 7 cents to 2 cents. And when he announced that he wasn't quitting the race because of it, the shares rose to 11 cents - but then eventually settled back to 7 cents. Of course, now his shares aren't worth the paper they weren't printed on.
So wouldn't you think Palin's debut as McCain's vice-presidential pick would shake up the market? Neither her surprise selection, nor the reports about her political baggage, nor her raucously received convention speech made any difference in the GOP price levels.
"Apparently the traders didn't think it would help or hurt," Snee said.
Wolfers noted that there were wild swings last week in the prediction markets for GOP vice-presidential candidates (would it be Tim Pawlenty? Mitt Romney? Tom Ridge? Sarah Palin?!), but those swings had zero impact on the presidential prognosis.
"I think the most obvious inference from this is that no one thinks the VP matters," Wolfers said.
(After the Palin pick was announced, InTrade set up shares for "investing" in the chance that she'd be withdrawn as the GOP vice-presidential nominee. A couple of days ago, the stock was trading as high as 19 cents, but today it was in the 7-cent range.)
Maybe it's time to wave bye-bye to the bounce: Even political insiders are focusing less on the post-convention poll numbers and more on the complex perceptions hidden within those numbers - perceptions that could eventually affect political strategies as well as the marketplace.
The interpretation of those polls over the coming days could well make a difference, even in the prediction markets. "It's absolutely possible for the wonks who are trading to not be able to read Joe Six-Pack," Wolfers said.
Unless something unexpected emerges, the next big opportunity for a move in the market will come during the debates, which open with an Obama-McCain faceoff on Sept. 26. If nothing happens to change the equation, the Democrats will likely retain their market edge. But if McCain or Palin score points, watch how the traders react.
Speaking out on science
Speaking of debates, ScienceDebate 2008 is still working to shed more of the spotlight on issues that have a scientific or technological twist. We're not just talking about the outrageous price of lab helium here, but about concerns ranging from climate change to international competitiveness, from fuel cells to stem cells.
ScienceDebate 2008's organizers couldn't get the candidates together to talk about such issues during the presidential primary season, but in July they offered up 14 questions for would-be presidents to answer. (Scientists and Engineers for America have drawn up a seven-question version for congressional candidates.)
A week ago, ScienceDebate 2008 announced that Obama had sent in his answers to the questions.
"Most of America's major unsolved challenges revolve around these 14 questions," ScienceDebate2008's chief executive officer, Shawn Otto, said in a news release. "To move America forward, the next president needs a substantive plan for tackling them going in, and voters deserve to know what that plan is. We're pleased that Senator Obama has provided voters with that substantive plan, and we're hoping for similarly thoughtful responses from Senator McCain."
In his response, Obama said "ensuring that the U.S. continues to lead the world in science and technology will be a central priority for my administration."
Obama talked about expanding scholarship programs to beef up teaching resources in high-need schools; encouraging reductions in carbon emissions through a market-based, cap-and-trade system; increasing federal spending on energy research and development; boosting support for embryonic stem-cell research; and much, much more.
McCain - or members of his campaign staff - could no doubt send ScienceDebate 2008 a similarly detailed case for his science and technology policies by distilling all the statements he has already made on such issues. So why haven't they done so already?
Update for 7:30 a.m. ET Sept. 8: McCain's shares did post a 4.5-cent day-to-day uptick on the IEM in the latest trade on Sunday night, based on the daily price chart. The average price showed a 1.3-cent rise, so that would qualify as a bounce. The message to be drawn from that could be that traders saw something in the post-convention enthusiasm worth acting on. But the rise was nowhere near the kinds of jumps that were reported by traditional polls, first for Obama, and now for McCain.
As of late Sunday night, Obama's shares were valued at 56 cents, and McCain's were at 44 cents in the winner-take-all market. In the vote-share market, traders try to figure out how much of the vote the Republicans and the Democrats will get: In the day's final trade, The Democrats' projected share was 52.2, and the Republicans' share was 46.5. Because these are all separate trading propositions, the totals don't necessarily add up to 100 percent.
As Europe's CERN particle-physics center is counting down to the official startup of the Large Hadron Collider, a report reassuring the public that the world's largest atom-smasher won't destroy the world is getting a second wave of publicity.
The report was prepared by CERN scientists and outside researchers and released in June, updating a 2003 safety study. Now the new study has been published by the peer-reviewed Journal of Physics G: Nuclear and Particle Physics. CERN used the occasion to emphasize the mainstream view that the collider won't create globe-gobbling black holes or other types of doomsday phenomena that have put folks on edge.
"The LHC will enable us to study in detail what nature is doing all around us," CERN Director Robert Aymar said in today's news release. "The LHC is safe, and any suggestion that it might present a risk is pure fiction."
The report concludes that if the collider could create catastrophes, the much more powerful particle collisions that continually occur in space would have wiped us out long ago. "It points out that nature has already conducted the equivalent of about a hundred thousand LHC experimental programs on Earth - and the planet still exists," said Jos Engelen, CERN's chief scientific officer.
Critics of the collider weren't satisfied when the report first came out in June, and they're not likely to change their mind now that it's been formally published in the scientific literature. The hysteria over the LHC and black-hole boogeymen has been rising with the approach of next Wednesday's low-energy startup, as detailed in this report from The Telegraph.
Update for 7:30 p.m. ET Sept. 6: You might want to give another look to this item about Tuesday's court hearing in Hawaii. I've added some material from a copy of the court transcript.
Past chapters in the doomsday saga:
Alfred A. Knopf
|"Icarus at the Edge of Time" features
text by Brian Greene and images from
the Hubble Space Telescope.
Physicist Brian Greene usually writes about string theory and other stuff most adults can't understand, but his latest book is a black-hole tale for kids - and he hopes the idea of turning cutting-edge science into gripping tales will catch on.
"If you had fantastic films like 'Star Wars' that were based on real science - where you go into the film, you get excited about the story, but you leave with an appreciation of some real science - that's a wonderful package," the Columbia University string theorist told me this week. "This book is a very first step in that direction."
The book, "Icarus at the Edge of Time," re-imagines the Greek myth of the boy who flew too close to the sun on waxen wings. Greene has updated the tale with a black hole, spaceships and imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope, combined in a 34-page cardboard storybook that's built to stand up to the worst a preschooler can dish out.
"Icarus" had its genesis in a bedtime story Greene told his 2½-year-old son, about space travelers moving near the speed of light. Afterward, his son began telling his own tales about dinosaurs and monsters outrunning the "speed of dark" - which sparked an inspiration for Greene, author of "The Elegant Universe" and "The Fabric of the Cosmos."
"Since having kids, I've felt more of a need to connect with readers on a more emotional, visceral level," Greene explained.
In recent years, Greene has branched out from his research in theoretical physics to focus also on public understanding of science, through his books as well as through the World Science Festival, which he co-founded. The challenge of getting kids interested in science is particularly acute nowadays, when so many kids get their thrills from movies and video games rather than chemistry sets and electronics kits.
Scott Gries / Getty Images
|Physicist Brian Greene is co-founder of the World Science Festival.
"If science was dealing only with the things that Newton dealt with - flying through the air, or the motion of the moon - that's great stuff, but it doesn't really have a chance of competing with all the distraction and noise of the 21st-century world, " Greene told me.
"But the physics of black holes, the quantum physics of elementary particles, the possibility of extra dimensions, maybe black holes at the Large Hadron Collider ... all of those do have the capacity to have a powerful grip on kids and adults, as long as it's presented in a way that doesn't get them bogged down in details that they don't need to know to get excited about the science," he said.
"Icarus" plays off the mystery of black holes and the implications of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. Black holes are chunks of collapsed matter so dense that not even light waves can escape their gravitational pull. But that's not the only weird thing about them: Such concentrations of mass distort space and time if you get too close - and that's what causes all the trouble for Greene's space-age Icarus.
"Rather than fashioning wax wings and flying too near the sun, a boy in essence takes a spaceship of his design and flies near a black hole," Greene said. "Just as in the original Icarus tale, his father warns him against doing that. He is as headstrong in this version as he was in the original. The main difference is in the end. Rather than paying the ultimate price for not heeding his father's warning ... Einstein's general relativity kicks in, and gives a twist to the ending that in some ways is more startling but in other ways is more hopeful."
Greene said other out-of-this-world scientific subjects could well benefit from the storybook treatment - such as his own work in string theory and extradimensional physics. "People really light up when I talk about extra dimensions, possibly more than the three we experience," he observed.
"With the LHC coming around, there's a chance it could change everything, and that is where many of us are mentally at the moment," Greene said. "We're waiting for whatever comes out, and if it suggests that there are vast new realms that need to be investigated, we're ready to jump in and do that."
Do you have an extradimensional plot line worthy of a children's storybook tale? Feel free to provide a quick outline below (no more than 200 words, please). The story that gets the best review (from me and other commenters, but mostly from me) will earn its author a copy of a black-hole book for grown-ups, "The Black Hole War" by Leonard Susskind.
Mike D'Angelo / Rocket Racing League ®
|Click for video: Watch the Armadillo-powered
rocket plane take off for a test flight in Oklahoma.
The Rocket Racing League says it has successfully finished a series of seven test flights for a new type of racing plane that could someday compete on a "racetrack in the sky." Now it's up to the Federal Aviation Administration to decide whether the rocket-powered craft is ready to show off to the public.
As we first reported a week ago, the Armadillo-powered prototype was put through its paces repeatedly at the Oklahoma Spaceport in Burns Flat.
"We are thrilled to have been selected as the facility of choice by the Rocket Racing League for its initial flight test program," Bill Khourie, executive director of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority, said in a news release issued today.
Khourie said the flights were "incredibly successful" and ranged up to altitudes "in excess of 12,000 feet."
The league's co-founder and chief executive officer, Granger Whitelaw, was quoted as saying the test campaign validated "our rapid prototyping capability in bringing new and innovative rocket-powered vehicles from concept to flight inside of a six-month development period."
Whitelaw told me the results of the tests would figure in the FAA's decision on granting an experimental airworthiness certificate for future exhibition flights. It's doubtful that decision would come in time for next week's Reno Air Races. However, Whitelaw is already looking ahead to a potential demonstration next month in New Mexico - perhaps in conjunction with the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight or the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.
Whitelaw said he's making plans for still more demonstrations, leading up to what he hopes will be a "televised showcase" for the racing planes next spring or summer. He said the league's racing schedule would begin in earnest in late 2009 or 2010, with rocket racers competing against each other on an aerobatic race course.
Meanwhile, XCOR Aerospace, the California-based company that provided the initial engine for the league's prototype plane, isn't standing still. XCOR spokesman Doug Graham told The Lurio Report that his company is performing the remaining tasks covered under its contract with the league.
"Graham said that XCOR remains ready and willing to supply engines to the league if requested," consultant Charles Lurio wrote in the report, "but for now is concentrating work on the Lynx [suborbital spacecraft] and on fulfilling contracts on the books for other customers. Moreover, the demonstration of the racer at the Oshkosh AirVenture show impressed many, and resulted in a wave of interest and investments in the company."
This demonstration shows how a cylindrical "invisibility cloak" bends microwaves
moving from left to right around a interior space, concealing the space from view.
First, scientists developed a real-life invisibility cloak. Now Chinese researchers are working on an anti-invisibility device to see through the cloak.
This may sound like a development that would concern the Romulans in a "Star Trek" episode rather than real people. But the research, published online today on the Optics Express Web site, addresses real-world concerns about the cloaking devices that are being built in labs today.
Such devices can make whatever is inside invisible to particular wavelengths, by bending light around the sheath of the "cloak." They've been compared to the magical invisibility cloak in the Harry Potter novels as well as the Romulan cloaking device on the classic "Star Trek" TV series.
The real thing, however, is much more limited than the fictional items. The cloaking device developed a couple of years ago at Duke University, for example, looks more like a slide-projector carousel and can make something seem relatively "invisible" only to a narrow band of microwaves.
"Cloaking is an important problem, since invisibility can help survival in a hostile environment," Huanyang Chen of Shanghai Jiao Tong University said in the American Institute of Physics' report on the research.
The theoretical anti-cloak that Chen and his colleagues describe would cancel out the effect of a cloaking device by coming into contact with the inner surface of the cloaking device's refractive material.
To some extent, it's a matter of scientific one-upsmanship. The researchers say they've shown that even the best cloaking device would not be a perfectly stealthy shield, "as there exist some objects that it cannot hide." But the anti-cloak would also address a problem even Harry Potter could understand.
Any device shielded in an invisibility cloak would not be able to sense the waves being bent around it. For example, suppose you had a remote-controlled sensor sitting at the bottom of the ocean, shielded from radar or sonar by a cloak of metamaterials. Occasionally you might want to pick up on the signals in the "invisible" wavelengths, just to see what's in the area, but the cloak would block your sensor from seeing (or hearing) those signals.
That's when you would press your anti-cloak against the cloak and take a peek - just as Harry Potter might lift a corner of his invisibility cloak to look out at Lord Voldemort's minions (and hope they don't look in while he's doing it).
"With the anti-cloak, Potter can see outside if he wants to," Chen said.
Chen's colleagues in the anti-cloaking research include Xudong Luo and Hongru Ma of Shanghai Jiao Tong Univeristy as well as C.T. Chan of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Amid all the talk about strangelets that may or may not destroy the earth, there's some real news about strange matter: Researchers at Fermilab's DZero experiment say they have detected a new type of particle that contains two strange quarks as well as a bottom quark, known as the Omega-sub-b (Ob).
Quarks - the constituents of protons, neutrons and more than 200 other subatomic particles - come in six "flavors": up and down, charm and strange, bottom and top. The proton, for example, has two up quarks and a down quark. When the DZero team went through about 100 trillion proton-antiproton collisions from Fermilab's Tevatron atom-smasher, they found 18 events that carried the signature of the unstable Omega-sub-b. The mass of the particles matched what theorists had predicted (about 6.165 GeV/c2, if you must know).
Fermilab says the Omega-sub-b is a relative of the even stranger Omega-minus, which is made up of three strange quarks and was discovered back in 1964. Finding the strange-strange-bottom combination fills in one more slot in what scientists consider a "periodic table" of quark combinations. It also confirms that one of the scientific world's most successful theories is on the right track, even if scientists don't exactly know why.
J. Pequenão / CERN / ATLAS
This artist's conception simulates the particle tracks that could be left behind by
the creation and decay of a black hole in the Large Hadron Collider's ATLAS
detector. The researcher with a hardhat is shown only to give a sense of scale.
Critics who say the world's largest atom-smasher could destroy the world have brought their claims to courtrooms in Europe and the United States - and although the claims are getting further consideration, neither court will hold up next week's official startup of the Large Hadron Collider.
The main event took place today in Honolulu, where a federal judge is mulling over the federal government's request to throw out a civil lawsuit filed by retired nuclear safety officer Walter Wagner and Spanish science writer Luis Sancho.
Meanwhile, legal action is pending as well at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Last week, the court agreed to review doomsday claims from a group of professors and students, primarily from Germany and Austria. However, the court rejected a call for the immediate halt of operations at the LHC.
What it's all about
In the U.S. as well as the European lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that those involved in the particle collider's operation have not adequately addressed the idea that the LHC could create globe-gobbling microscopic black holes or other catastrophes such as matter-wrecking strangelets or magnetic monopoles. They're calling for further safety reviews to be conducted.
The defendants - including the U.S. Department of Energy as well as Europe's CERN particle-physics center - say such fears already have been knocked down in a series of safety reports. The reports, drawn up by leading researchers in high-energy physics, note that cosmic-ray collisions are many times more energetic and prevalent than the collisions expected at the LHC. If the LHC were capable of creating cosmic catastrophes, they would already have been seen many times over in the wider universe, even in the unlikeliest circumstances, the researchers say.
Past "big-bang machines" have faced similar legal challenges, but the worries are emerging anew because the LHC will smash protons together at energies seven times higher than the current world record, held by the Tevatron at Fermilab in Illinois.
Physicists hope to gain new insights into mysteries of the universe ranging from dark matter to supersymmetric particles. The main quarry is an as-yet-undetected subatomic particle called the Higgs boson, also known as the "God Particle." The Higgs boson is the only fundamental particle predicted by current theory that has not yet been found. If it does not exist, that would add weight to alternative theories that depend on extra dimensions of space-time.
Theorists say the LHC could create microscopic black holes - or, more accurately, subatomic knots of ultra-concentrated energy - only if there are extra dimensions. Current theory also dictates that these knots would unravel instantly. The LHC's critics take issue with that particular claim.
In any case, the collider won't be in a position to create any type of black hole for months. The scheduled Sept. 10 turn-on would circulate only one beam of protons around the LHC's 17-mile-round ring at low energy. The first low-energy collisions won't occur until at least a month from now, and the device won't achieve its top collision energy until next year. That's why the courts are not rushing to rule on the critics' claims.
What's happening in court
Both sides in the federal lawsuit contributed to a flurry of filings in the days before today's hearing in District Judge Helen Gillmor's Honolulu courtroom.
The federal government's attorneys, representing the Energy Department, wanted Gillmor to dismiss the suit or render a summary judgment against Wagner and Sancho - on the grounds that the suit's outcome won't affect operations at the European collider, and that the plaintiffs missed their deadlines for legal filings.
In response, the plaintiffs insisted that their challenge was timely and said the defendants' past assurances did not ease their concerns about the safety issues. They called for the case to continue toward trial, with a tentative date of June 2009 already scheduled.
In the next legal volley, Bruce Strauss, who was the Energy Department's associate program manager for the LHC construction project, took aim at Wagner's credentials as well as his arguments. Strauss wrote that assessing the LHC's safety would "require competency in the field of high-energy physics, not health physics or nuclear medicine." Strauss also questioned Wagner's claims about his role in research, citing recent searches of scientific literature.
Strauss said that the federal lawsuit would have no effect on LHC operations because the federal role in building the collider ended a while ago. He said federal funds were now slated to go only toward supporting research activities at the LHC, to the tune of $10 million a month.
On the safety issue, Strauss said CERN's recent report, which was reviewed by outside experts, covered all the realistic scenarios for out-of-control black holes as well as the other doomsday scenarios - and he pointed out that experts at the American Physical Society recently endorsed the report's conclusions. Two Nobel laureates (Sheldon Glashow and Frank Wilczek) as well as a prominent Harvard physicist (Richard Wilson) have also taken the government's side as friends of the court.
Wagner responded to the government's volley just before today's hearing with yet another round of documents. He contended that the LHC would search for strangelets, insisted that yet-to-be-published research "absolutely refutes" claims that the LHC is safe and complained about Strauss' "ad hominem" attacks - while adding a little hominem of his own. For example, Wagner said Strauss once was searching for evidence of magnetic monopoles himself and was "apparently rankled that my work was successful, while his was not."
If this sounds to you like a blizzard of documents, you're not alone. At today's hearing, Judge Gillmor took both sides to task for filing so many disjointed documents and for failing to follow the local rules of the court, Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames told me. (I've left a phone message with Wagner to get his side of the story.)
Gillmor took the case under advisement and will decide whether or not to dismiss the case at a later, not-yet-determined time. If the case goes forward, the next step would be to consider the plaintiffs' requests for a preliminary injunction against LHC operations as well as for a summary judgment against CERN.
Will the judge weather yet another storm of paperwork? Maybe not. "She doesn't want any more filings without her permission," Ames told me.
Update for 6:50 p.m. ET Sept. 3: In the wake of Tuesday's 52-minute hearing, Judge Gillmor agreed with the federal government's claim that it is immune from any legal action based on European legal documents (specifically, the European Council's Precautionary Principle and the European Commission's Science and Society Action Plan).
She also denied the request to enter a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the three physicists because she received no legally admissible evidence (such as an affidavit) that the physicists were actually involved in the filing.
Update for 7:30 p.m. ET Sept. 6: The transcript of the Hawaii hearing, provided to me by Wagner, sheds more light on Judge Gillmor's thinking. No. 1 is that she's taking the case seriously. At one point in the proceedings she took Wagner to task for filing some documents after the deadline, but added this:
"I'm not going to strike your filings because, while it is difficult to make our way through all of these documents that are quasi-appropriate, the nature of the issue raised is too important for the court to strike them just as a matter of course."
Gillmor focused on the legal process rather than the minutiae of scientific theory: Was the Energy Department required to address the doomsday scenario in an environmental impact statement? Has the statute of limitations for that requirement expired, now that the federal money is finished spending money for LHC construction (but is still supporting U.S. researchers involved in LHC experiments)? How much should the federal government be held accountable for activities in Europe? Is the United States a partner or a mere observer at CERN?
In an occasionally tart exchange with Justice Department attorney Andrew Smith, the judge discussed whether Wagner and Sancho had the proper standing to sue:
Smith: "OK, let's assume that there was a NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] obligation, and maybe there's a NEPA document out there, maybe there's not. But we don't even need to get there. Plaintiffs' complaint says they have to be injured by this project. Their only claim to injury..."
Gillmor: "... is that the world might blow up, and so we shouldn't get concerned about that. You're right. Why was I even considering it? Mr. Smith, I mean, I really find that, you know, I don't know if there's anything to this case, but that's just not a great direction to be going."
Smith: "I'm not following you. I mean, if their only claim to injury is that the world's ..."
Gillmor: "That they might die."
Smith: "So they have to show that that's a credible injury. Is it actually going to happen? I can't just go into federal court and say, you know, 'the United States is participating with Israel to launch a nuclear missile, satellite that has nuclear material in it, and that nuclear material might land on my house in Albuquerque. They didn't do NEPA. I have standing.' That's what this case is about."
Gillmor: "I understand what you just said, that hypothetical, but that's not his [Wagner's] hypothetical. His hypothetical ... I mean, and you know, his hypothetical is that the world would be made into a, you know, hard iron rock, which is different than 'I might be an unintended casualty of something that's happening half around the world - way around the world, but the person next door wouldn't be.'"
Gillmor said her first task would be to figure out whether she had jurisdiction over whatever was happening at the Large Hadron Collider. "Right now I don't know if it should even be in this courtroom. ... If there's no basis for me to be making a decision about this, I'm not in charge of supervising what the federal government does," she said.
The judge is now considering these issues, and in the meantime she told both sides to cool it with the voluminous filings. She noted that the papers already stacked up to measure more than a foot high. "I don't want any more of these raining declarations that I am receiving in these various filings," she said.
Update for 7:52 p.m. ET Sept. 6: On Friday, the government added to Gillmor's stack (with her go-ahead) by lodging its opposition to the plaintiffs' motion for a default judgment against CERN. As expected, the government said that the court lacked jurisdiction over CERN, and that there was no evidence CERN was served in accordance with international procedure.
The government urged the judge to turn down the plaintiffs' request for an injunction against CERN, saying that their claims of potential injury were based on "unfounded and incredibly speculative doomsday scenarios that are not supported by the scientific evidence but only on plaintiffs' 'expert' opinions that they are not qualified to give."
Update for 11:35 p.m. ET Sept. 12: The hearing on the motion for a default judgment against CERN has been rescheduled for Oct. 14 at the plaintiffs' request.
Past chapters in the doomsday saga: