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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Physics &, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 34
1. BICEP2 finds gravitational waves from near the dawn of time

By Andrew Liddle


The cosmology community is abuzz with news from the BICEP2 experiment of the discovery of primordial gravitational waves, through their signature in the cosmic microwave background. If verified, this will be a clear indication that the very young universe underwent a period of acceleration, known as cosmic inflation. During this period, it is thought that the seeds were laid down for all the structures to form later in the universe, including galaxies, stars, and indeed ourselves.

The cosmic microwave background (CMB) is radiation left over from the Hot Big Bang, first discovered in 1965 and corresponding to a temperature only about 2.7 degrees above absolute zero. In 1992 the COBE satellite made the first detection of temperature variations in the CMB, and successive experiments, including satellite missions WMAP and Planck, have been accurately measuring these variations which have become the key tool to understanding our universe.

In addition to its brightness, radiation can have a polarisation, meaning that the electromagnetic oscillations that make up the light have a preferred orientation, e.g. horizontal or vertical. This same effect is used in 3D cinemas, where light of different polarisations reaches your left or right eye, the lenses in the glasses blocking out one or other from each eye. In the CMB the polarisation signal is very small, and moreover comes in two types, known as E-mode and B-mode polarisation. The second of these, corresponding to a twisting pattern of polarisation on the sky, is what BICEP2 has discovered for the first time. This twisting pattern is the signature of gravitational waves, created in the early universe and whose presence causes space-time itself to ‘wobble’ as the light from the CMB crosses the Universe.

The Dark Sector Laboratory at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. At left is the South Pole Telescope. At right is the BICEP2 telescope. Photo by Amble, 2009. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Dark Sector Laboratory at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. At left is the South Pole Telescope. At right is the BICEP2 telescope. Photo by Amble, 2009. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The BICEP2 team have been working for several years with the single aim of measuring this signal; inflation predicted it to be there but said nothing about its strength. Based at the South Pole, where the unusually clear and dry air creates an ideal viewpoint for accurate measurement, three years of observations were carried out from 2010 to 2012. Their experiment differs from others measuring the CMB polarisation because they focussed on covering as large an area of the sky as possible, at relatively moderate angular resolution, in order to specifically target the B-mode signal.

While the discovery of gravitational waves had been widely rumoured in the days leading up to the announcement, including even the size of the measured signal, what took everyone’s breath away was the significance of the signal. At 6 to 7-sigma, it exceeds even the gold-standard 5-sigma used at CERN for the Higgs particle detection. Most would have expected something tentative, 2 or 3-sigma perhaps. We will want verification, of course, especially because the use of just a single wavelength of observation (the microwave equivalent of using just one colour of the rainbow) means the experiment is a little vulnerable to radiation from sources other than the CMB, such as intervening galaxies or emission caused by particles spiralling around our own Milky Way’s magnetic fields. The strength of the detection suggests that will not be an issue, but for sure we want to see independent confirmation by other experiments and at other wavelengths. Some may have announcements even before the end of the year, including the Planck satellite mission.

The response of the cosmology community to BICEP2 has been staggeringly swift. Early communication and discussion was already underway during the web-streamed BICEP2 press conference, via a Facebook discussion group set up by Scott Dodelson at Fermilab. The first science papers using the results were already appearing on arXiv.org database within the next couple of days (including these ones by me!). By the end of March, only two weeks after the announcement, there were already almost 50 available papers with ‘BICEP’ in the title, written by researchers all around the world. Papers on BICEP2 are clearly going to be a main theme for astronomy journals, including MNRAS, for the remainder of the year as we all try to figure out what, in detail, it all means.

Andrew Liddle is Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at the Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh. He is an editor of the OUP astronomy journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) is one of the world’s leading primary research journals in astronomy and astrophysics, as well as one of the longest established. It publishes the results of original research in astronomy and astrophysics, both observational and theoretical.

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2. Minority women chemists yesterday and today

By Jeannette Brown


As far as we know, the first African American woman PhD was Dr. Marie Daly in 1947. I am still searching for an earlier one.

Women chemists, especially minority women chemists, have always been the underdogs in science and chemistry. African American women were not allowed to pursue a PhD degree in chemistry until the late in the twentieth century, while white women were pursuing that degree in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Racial prejudice was a major factor. Many African American men were denied access to this degree in the United States. The list of those who were able to receive a PhD in chemistry is short. The Knox brothers were able to receive PhDs in chemistry from MIT and Harvard in the 1930s. Some men had to go abroad to get a degree; Percy Julian obtained his from the University of Vienna in Austria.

In 1975, the American Association for the Advancement of Science sponsored a meeting of minority women scientists to explore what it was like to be both a woman and minority in science. The meeting resulted in a report entitled The Double Bind: The Price of being a Minority woman in Science. Most of the women experienced strong negative influences associated with race or ethnicity as children and teenagers but felt more strongly the handicaps for women as they moved into post-college training in graduate schools or later in careers. When the women entered their career stage, they encountered both racism and sexism.

STS-47 Mission Specialist Mae Jemison in the center aisle of the Spacelab Japan (SLJ) science module aboard the Earth-orbiting Endeavour, Orbiter Vehicle (OV) 105. NASA. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

STS-47 Mission Specialist Mae Jemison in the center aisle of the Spacelab Japan (SLJ) science module aboard the Earth-orbiting Endeavour, Orbiter Vehicle (OV) 105. NASA. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This is still true today in some respects, but it is often unconscious. For example, the organizers of an International Conference for Quantum Chemistry recently posted a list of the speakers. They were all men (the race of the speakers is not known). Three women who are pillars in the field protested and started a petition to add women to the speakers list. The organizers retracted the speaker list.

In 2009 the National Science Foundation sponsored a Women of Color conference. When I attended the meeting and listened to the speakers, it sounded as if not much had changed for women in science. There is still racism and sexism. Even Asian-American women, who do not constitute a minority within the field, were experiencing the same problems.

The 2010 Bayer Facts of Science Education XIV Survey polled 1,226 female and minority chemists and chemical engineers about their childhood, academic, and workplace experiences. The report stated that, girls are not encouraged to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field early in school, 60% colleges and universities discourage women in science, and 44% of professors discourage female students from pursing STEM degrees.

The top three reasons for the underrepresentation are:

  • Lack of quality education in math and science in poor school districts
  • Stereotypes that the STEM isn’t for girls
  • Financial problems related to the cost of college education


In spite of all the negative information in these reports, women are pursuing STEM careers. In the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) women dominate the organization. Years ago, men dominated that organization. The current vice president of the organization is a woman chemical engineer, who is is striving to make the organization better. Many of the NOBCChE female members went to Historically Black Colleges (HBCUs) for undergraduate degree before getting into major universities to obtain their PhD. The HBCUs are the savior for African American students because the professors and administration strive to help them succeed in college.

I am amazed at all these African American women scientists have done in spite of racism and sexism — succeeding and thriving in industry, working as professors and department chairs in major research universities, and providing role models to young women and men who are contemplating a STEM career.

Jeannette Elizabeth Brown is the author of African American Women Chemists. She is a former Faculty Associate at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. She is the 2004 Société de Chimie Industrielle (American Section) Fellow of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and consistently lectures on African American women in chemistry.

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3. Understanding the history of chemical elements

By Eric Scerri


After years of lagging behind physics and biology in the popularity stakes, the science of chemistry is staging a big come back, at least in one particular area. Information about the elements and the periodic table has mushroomed in popular culture. Children, movie stars, and countless others upload videos to YouTube of reciting and singing their way through lists of all the elements. Artists and advertisers have latched onto the iconic beauty of the periodic table with its elegant one hundred and eighteen rectangles containing one or two letters to denote each of the elements. T-shirts are constantly devised to spell out some snappy message using just the symbols for elements. If some words cannot quite be spelled out in this way designers just go ahead and invent new element symbols.

Moreover, the academic study of the periodic table has been undergoing a resurgence. In 2012 an International Conference, only the third one on this subject, was held in the historic city of Cuzco in Peru. Recent years have seen many new books and articles on the elements and the periodic table.

Exactly 100 years ago, in 1913, an English physicist, Henry Moseley discovered that the identity of each element was best captured by its atomic number or number of protons. Whereas the older approach had been to arrange the elements in order of increasing atomic weights, the use of Moseley’s atomic number revealed for the first time just how many elements were still missing from the old periodic table. It turned out to be precisely seven of them. Moseley’s discovery also provided a clear-cut method for identifying these missing elements through their spectra produced when any particular element is bombarded with X-ray radiation.

800px-Hf-TableImage

But even though the scientists knew which elements were missing and how to identify them, there were no shortage of priority disputes, claims, and counter-claims, some of which still persist to this day. In 1923 a Hungarian and a Dutchman working in the Niels Bohr Institute for Theoretical Physics discovered hafnium and named it after hafnia, the Latin name for the city of Copenhagen where the Institute is located. The real story, however, lies in the priority dispute that erupted initially between a French chemist Georges Urbain who claimed to have discovered this element, which he named celtium, as far back as 1911 and the team working in Copenhagen. With all the excesses of overt nationalism the British and French press supported the French claim because post-wartime sentiments persisted. The French press claimed, “Sa pue le boche” (It stinks of the Hun). The British press in slightly more restrained though no less chauvinistic terms announced that,

“We adhere to the original word celtium given to it by Urbain as a representative of the great French nation which was loyal to us throughout the war. We do not accept the name which was given it by the Danes who only pocketed the spoils of war.”

The irony was that Denmark had been neutral during the war but was presumably considered guilty by geographical proximity to Germany. Furthermore the French claim turned out to be spurious and the men from Copenhagen won the day and gained the right to name the new element after the city of its discovery.

Why are there so often priority debates in science? Generally speaking scientists have little to gain financially from their scientific discoveries. The one thing that is left to them is their ego and their claim to priority for which they will fight to the last. Another possibility is that women first discovered three or possibly four of the seven elements left to be discovered between the old boundaries of the periodic table (when it was still thought that there were just 92 elements). The three who definitely did discover elements were Lise Meitner, Ida Noddack, and Marguerite Perey from Austria, Germany, and France respectively. This is one of several areas in science where women have excelled, others being observational astronomy, research in radioactivity, and X-ray crystallography to name just a few.

One hundred years after the race began, these human stories spanning the two world wars continue to fascinate and provide new insight in the history of science.

Eric Scerri is a leading philosopher of science specializing in the history and philosophy of the periodic table. He is also the founder and editor in chief of the international journal Foundations of Chemistry and has been a full-time lecturer at UCLA for the past fourteen years where he regularly teaches classes of 350 chemistry students as well as classes in history and philosophy of science. He is the author of A Tale of Seven Elements, The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction, and The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance. Read his previous blog posts.

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Image credit: Image by GreatPatton, released under terms of the GNU FDL in July 2003, via Wikimedia Commons.

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4. Six methods of detection in Sherlock Holmes

By James O’Brien


Between Edgar Allan Poe’s invention of the detective story with The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841 and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet in 1887, chance and coincidence played a large part in crime fiction. Nevertheless, Conan Doyle resolved that his detective would solve his cases using reason. He modeled Holmes on Poe’s Dupin and made Sherlock Holmes a man of science and an innovator of forensic methods. Holmes is so much at the forefront of detection that he has authored several monographs on crime-solving techniques. In most cases the well-read Conan Doyle has Holmes use methods years before the official police forces in both Britain and America get around to them. The result was 60 stories in which logic, deduction, and science dominate the scene.

FINGERPRINTS

Sherlock Holmes was quick to realize the value of fingerprint evidence. The first case in which fingerprints are mentioned is The Sign of Four, published in 1890, and he’s still using them 36 years later in the 55th story, The Three Gables (1926). Scotland Yard did not begin to use fingerprints until 1901.

It is interesting to note that Conan Doyle chose to have Holmes use fingerprints but not bertillonage (also called anthropometry), the system of identification by measuring twelve characteristics of the body. That system was originated by Alphonse Bertillon in Paris. The two methods competed for forensic ascendancy for many years. The astute Conan Doyle picked the eventual winner.

TYPEWRITTEN DOCUMENTS

As the author of a monograph entitled “The Typewriter and its Relation to Crime,” Holmes was of course an innovator in the analysis of typewritten documents. In the one case involving a typewriter, A Case of Identity (1891), only Holmes realized the importance of the fact that all the letters received by Mary Sutherland from Hosmer Angel were typewritten — even his name is typed and no signature is applied. This observation leads Holmes to the culprit. By obtaining a typewritten note from his suspect, Holmes brilliantly analyses the idiosyncrasies of the man’s typewriter. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) started a Document Section soon after its crime lab opened in 1932. Holmes’s work preceded this by forty years.

HANDWRITING

Conan Doyle, a true believer in handwriting analysis, exaggerates Holmes’s abilities to interpret documents. Holmes is able to tell gender, make deductions about the character of the writer, and even compare two samples of writing and deduce whether the persons are related. This is another area where Holmes has written a monograph (on the dating of documents). Handwritten documents figure in nine stories. In The Reigate Squires, Holmes observes that two related people wrote the incriminating note jointly. This allows him to quickly deduce that the Cunninghams, father and son, are the guilty parties. In The Norwood Builder, Holmes can tell that Jonas Oldacre has written his will while riding on a train. Reasoning that no one would write such an important document on a train, Holmes is persuaded that the will is fraudulent. So immediately at the beginning of the case he is hot on the trail of the culprit.

FOOTPRINTS

Holmes also uses footprint analysis to identify culprits throughout his fictional career, from the very first story to the 57th story (The Lion’s Mane published in 1926). Fully 29 of the 60 stories include footprint evidence. The Boscombe Valley Mystery is solved almost entirely by footprint analysis. Holmes analyses footprints on quite a variety of surfaces: clay soil, snow, carpet, dust, mud, blood, ashes, and even a curtain. Yet another one of Sherlock Holmes’s monographs is on the topic (“The tracing of footsteps, with some remarks upon the uses of Plaster of Paris as a preserver of impresses”).

Dancing_men

CIPHERS

Sherlock Holmes solves a variety of ciphers. In The “Gloria Scott” he deduces that in the message that frightens Old Trevor every third word is to be read. A similar system was used in the American Civil War. It was also how young listeners of the Captain Midnight radio show in the 1940s used their decoder rings to get information about upcoming programs. In The Valley of Fear Holmes has a man planted inside Professor Moriarty’s organization. When he receives an encoded message Holmes must first realize that the cipher uses a book. After deducing which book he is able to retrieve the message. This is exactly how Benedict Arnold sent information to the British about General George Washington’s troop movements. Holmes’s most successful use of cryptology occurs in The Dancing Men. His analysis of the stick figure men left as messages is done by frequency analysis, starting with “e” as the most common letter. Conan Doyle is again following Poe who earlier used the same idea in The Gold Bug (1843). Holmes’s monograph on cryptology analyses 160 separate ciphers.

DOGS

Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter." Illustration by Sidney Paget. Strand Magazine, 1904. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Conan Doyle provides us with an interesting array of dog stories and analyses. The most famous line in all the sixty stories, spoken by Inspector Gregory in Silver Blaze, is “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” When Holmes directs Gregory’s attention to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time,” Gregory is puzzled by this enigmatic clue. Only Holmes seems to realize that the dog should have done something. Why did the dog make no noise when the horse, Silver Blaze, was led out of the stable in the dead of night? Inspector Gregory may be slow to catch on, but Sherlock Holmes is immediately suspicious of the horse’s trainer, John Straker. In Shoscombe Old Place we find exactly the opposite behavior by a dog. Lady Beatrice Falder’s dog snarled when he should not have. This time the dog doing something was the key to the solution. When Holmes took the dog near his mistress’s carriage, the dog knew that someone was impersonating his mistress. In two other cases Holmes employs dogs to follow the movements of people. In The Sign of Four, Toby initially fails to follow the odor of creosote to find Tonga, the pygmy from the Andaman Islands. In The Missing Three Quarter the dog Pompey successfully tracks Godfrey Staunton by the smell of aniseed. And of course, Holmes mentions yet another monograph on the use of dogs in detective work.

James O’Brien is the author of The Scientific Sherlock Holmes. He will be signing books at the OUP booth 524 at the American Chemical Society conference in Indiana on 9 September 2013 at 2:00 p.m. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Missouri State University. A lifelong fan of Holmes, O’Brien presented his paper “What Kind of Chemist Was Sherlock Holmes” at the 1992 national American Chemical Society meeting, which resulted in an invitation to write a chapter on Holmes the chemist in the book Chemistry and Science Fiction. He has since given over 120 lectures on Holmes and science. Read his previous blog post “Sherlock Holmes knew chemistry.”

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Image credit: (1) From “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” Sherlock Holmes story. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter.” Illustration by Sidney Paget. Strand Magazine, 1904. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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5. A record-breaking lunar impact

By Jose M. Madiedo


On 11 September 2013, an unusually long and bright impact flash was observed on the Moon. Its peak luminosity was equivalent to a stellar magnitude of around 2.9.

What happened? A meteorite with a mass of around 400 kg hit the lunar surface at a speed of over 61,000 kilometres per hour.

Rocks often collide with the lunar surface at high speed (tens of thousands of kilometres per hour) and are instantaneously vaporised at the impact site. This gives rise to a thermal glow that can be detected by telescopes from Earth as short duration flashes. These flashes, in general, last just a fraction of a second.

The extraordinary flash in September was recorded from Spain by two telescopes operating in the framework of the Moon Impacts Detection and Analysis System (MIDAS). These devices were aimed to the same area in the night side of the Moon. With a duration of over eight seconds, this is the brightest and longest confirmed impact flash ever recorded on the Moon.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Our calculations show that the impact, which took place at 20:07 GMT, created a new crater with a diameter of around 40 meters in Mare Nubium. This rock had a size raging between 0.6 and 1.4 metres. The impact energy was equivalent to over 15 tons of TNT under the assumption of a luminous efficiency of 0.002 (the fraction of kinetic energy converted into visible radiation as a consequence of the hypervelocity impact).

The detection of impact flashes is one of the techniques suitable to analyze the flux of incoming bodies to the Earth. One of the characteristics of the lunar impacts monitoring technique is that it is not possible to unambiguously associate an impact flash with a given meteoroid stream. Nevertheless, our analysis shows that the most likely scenario is that the impactor had a sporadic origin (i.e., was not associated to any known meteoroid stream). From the analysis of this event we have learnt that that one metre-sized objects may strike our planet about ten times as often as previously thought.

Dr. Jose Maria Madiedo is a professor at Universidad de Huelva. He is the author of “A large lunar impact blast on 2013 September 11” in the most recent issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society is one of the world’s leading primary research journals in astronomy and astrophysics, as well as one of the longest established. It publishes the results of original research in astronomy and astrophysics, both observational and theoretical.

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6. 8 марта 1979: Women’s Day in the Soviet Union

By Marjorie Senechal


“March 8 is Women’s Day, a legal holiday,” I wrote to my mother from Moscow. “This is one of the many cute cards that is on sale now, all with flowers somewhere on them. We hope March 8 finds you well and happy, and enjoying an early spring! Alas, here it is -30° C again.”

Soviet Women's Day card

Soviet-era Women’s Day card. Public Domain via Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty.

I spent the 1978-79 academic year working in Moscow in the Soviet Academy of Science’s Institute of Crystallography. I’d been corresponding with a scientist there for several years and when I heard about the exchange program between our nations’ respective Academies, I applied for it. Friends were horrified. The Cold War was raging, and Afghanistan rumbled in the background. But scientists understand each other, just like generals do. I flew to Moscow, family in tow, early in October. The first snow had fallen the night before; women in wool headscarves were sweeping the airport runways with birch brooms.

None of us spoke Russian well when we arrived; this was immersion. We lived on the fourteenth floor of an Academy-owned apartment building with no laundry facilities and an unreliable elevator. It was a cold winter even by Russian standards, plunging to -40° on the C and F scales (they cross there). On weekdays, my daughters and I trudged through the snow to the broad Leninsky Prospect. The five-story brick Institute sat on the near side, and the girls went to Soviet public schools on the far side, behind a large department store. The underpass was a thriving illegal free-market where pensioners sold hard-to-find items like phone books, mushrooms, and used toys. Nearing the schools, we ran the ever-watchful Grandmother Gauntlet. In this country of working mothers, bundled bescarved grandmothers shopped, cooked, herded their charges, and bossed everyone in sight: Put on your hat! Button up your children!

At the Institute, I was supposed to be escorted to my office every day, but after a few months the guards waved me on. I couldn’t stray in any case: the doors along the corridors were always closed. Was I politically untouchable?

But the office was a friendly place. I shared it with three crystallographers: Valentina, Marina, and the professor I’d come to work with. We exchanged language lessons and took tea breaks together. Colleagues stopped by, some to talk shop, some for a haircut (Marina ran a business on the side). Scientists understand each other. My work took new directions.

I also tried to work with a professor from Moscow State University. He was admired in the west and I had listed him as a contact on my application. But this was one scientist I never understood. He arrived late for our appointments at the Institute without excuses or apologies. I was, I soon surmised, to write papers for him, not with him. I held my tongue, as I thought befits a guest, until the February afternoon he showed up two weeks late. Suddenly the spirit of the grandmothers possessed me. “How dare you!” I yelled in Russian. “Get out of here and don’t come back!” “Take some Valium” Valentina whispered; wherever had she found it? But she was as proud as she was worried. The next morning I was untouchable no more: doors opened wide and people greeted me cheerily, “Hi! How’s it going?”

International Women’s Day, with roots in suffrage, labor, and the Russian Revolution, became a national holiday in Russia in 1918, and is still one today. In 1979, the cute postcards and flowers looked more like Mother’s Day cards, but men still gave gifts to the women they worked with. On 7 March I was fêted, along with the Institute’s female scientists, lab technicians, librarians, office staff, and custodians. I still have the large copper medal, unprofessionally engraved in the Institute lab. “8 марта” — 8 March — it says on one side, the lab initials and the year on the other. The once-pink ribbon loops through a hole at the top. Maybe they gave medals to all of us, or maybe I earned it for throwing the professor out of the Institute.

Women's Day medal, courtesy of the author.

Women’s Day medal, courtesy of  Marjorie Senechal.

I’ve returned to Russia many times; I’ve witnessed the changes. Science is changing too; my host, the Academy of Sciences founded by Peter the Great in 1724, may not reach its 300th birthday. But my friends are coping somehow, and I still feel at home there. A few years ago I flew to Moscow in the dead of winter for Russia’s gala nanotechnology kickoff. A young woman met me at the now-ultra-modern airport. She wore smart boots, jeans, and a parka to die for. “Put your hat on!” she barked in English as she led me to the van. “Zip up your jacket!

Marjorie Senechal is the Louise Wolff Kahn Professor Emerita in Mathematics and History of Science and Technology, Smith College, and Co-Editor of The Mathematical Intelligencer. She is author of I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science.

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7. Is the particle recently discovered at CERN’s LHC the Higgs boson?

We’re celebrating the release of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ with a series of posts by science writer Jim Baggott over the week to explain some of the mysteries of the Higgs boson. Read the previous posts: “What is the Higgs boson?” and “Why is the Higgs boson called the ‘god particle’?”

By Jim Baggott


Experimental physicists are by nature very cautious people, often reluctant to speculate beyond the boundaries defined by the evidence at hand.

Although the Higgs mechanism is responsible for the acquisition of mass, the theory does not give a precise prediction for the mass of the Higgs boson itself. The search for the Higgs boson, both at Fermilab’s Tevatron collider and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), has therefore involved elaborate calculations of all the different ways a Higgs boson might be created in high-energy particle collisions, and all the different ways it may decay into other elementary particles.

At CERN, the attentions of physicists working in the two main detector collaborations, ATLAS and CMS, have been drawn to Higgs decay pathways involving the production of two photons (which we write as H → γγ), a pathway leading to two Z bosons and thence four leptons (particles such as electrons and positrons, written H → ZZ → ι+ι-ι+ι-) and a pathway leading to two W particles and thence to two leptons and two neutrinos (H → W+W- → ι+υ ι-υ).

Finding the Higgs boson is then a matter of looking for its decay products — in this case the photons and leptons that result — at all the different masses that the Higgs may in theory possess. Just to make life more difficult, at the particle collision energies available at the LHC, there are lots of other processes that can produce photons and leptons, and this background must be calculated and subtracted from the observed decay events. Any events above background that produce two photons, four leptons or two leptons (and ‘missing’ energy, as neutrinos cannot be detected) then contribute to the evidence for the Higgs boson.

What the CERN scientists announced on 4 July was a statistically significant excess of decay events consistent with a Higgs boson with a mass between 125-126 billion electron volts, about 134 times the mass of a proton. This is definitely a new boson, one that decays very much like a Higgs boson is expected to decay. But, until the scientists can gather more data on its physical properties, they can’t say for sure precisely what kind of boson it is.

It’s also important to note that although the Higgs boson is predicted by the standard model of particle physics, there are theories that also predict the existence of a Higgs boson (actually, they predict many Higgs bosons). Until the scientists gather more data, they can’t be sure the new particle is precisely the particle predicted by the standard model.

We just need to be patient and stay tuned.

Jim Baggott is author of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ and a freelance science writer. He was a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Reading but left to pursue a business career, where he first worked with Shell International Petroleum Company and then as an independent business consultant and trainer. His many books include Atomic: The First War of Physics (Icon, 2009), Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy and the Meaning of Quantum Theory (OUP, 2003), A Beginner’s Guide to Reality (Penguin, 2005), and A Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments (OUP, 2010). Read his previous blog posts.

On 4 July 2012, scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) facility in Geneva announced the discovery of a new elementary particle they believe is consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson, or ‘god particle’. Our understanding of the fundamental nature of matter — everything in our visible universe and everything we are — is about to take a giant leap forward. So, what is the Higgs boson and why is it so important? What role does it play in the structure of material substance? We’re celebrating the release of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ with a series of posts by science writer Jim Baggott over the week to explain some of the mysteries of the Higgs. Read the previous posts: “What is the Higgs boson?” and “Why is the Higgs boson called the ‘god particle’?”

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8. How does the Higgs mechanism create mass?

We’re celebrating the release of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ with a series of posts by science writer Jim Baggott over the week to explain some of the mysteries of the Higgs boson. Read the previous posts: “What is the Higgs boson?”, “Why is the Higgs boson called the ‘god particle’?”, and “Is the particle recently discovered at CERN’s LHC the Higgs boson?”

By Jim Baggott


Through thousands of years of speculative philosophy and hundreds of years of hard empirical science, we have tended to think of mass as an innate property (a ‘primary quality’) of material substance. We figured that, whatever they might be, the basic building blocks of matter would surely consist of microscopic lumps of some kind of ‘stuff’.

But this is not quite how it has worked out. There was a clue in the title of one of Albert Einstein’s most famous research papers, published in 1905: ‘Does the inertia of a body depend on its energy content?’ This was the paper in which Einstein suggested that there was a deep connection between mass and energy, through what would subsequently become the world’s most famous equation, E = mc2.

We experience the mass of an object as inertia (the object’s resistance to acceleration) and Einstein was suggesting that the latter is determined not by mass as a primary quality, but rather by the energy that the object contains.

So, when an otherwise massless particle travelling at the speed of light interacts with the Higgs field, it is slowed down. The field ‘drags’ on it, as though the particle were moving through molasses. In other words, the energy of the interaction is manifested as a resistance to acceleration. The particle acquires inertia, and we think of this inertia in terms of the particle’s ‘mass’.

In the Higgs mechanism, mass loses its status as a primary quality. It becomes secondary — the result of massless particles interacting with the Higgs field.

So, does the Higgs mechanism explain all mass? Including the mass of me, you, and all the objects in the visible universe? No, it doesn’t. To see why, let’s just take a quick look at the origin of the mass of the heavy paperweight that sits on my desk in front of me.

The paperweight is made of glass. It has a complex molecular structure consisting primarily of a network of silicon and oxygen atoms bonded together. Obviously, we can trace its mass to the protons and neutrons which account for 99% of the mass of every silicon and oxygen atom in this structure.

According to the standard model, protons and neutrons are made of quarks. So, we might be tempted to conclude that the mass of the paperweight resides in the masses of the quarks from which the protons and neutrons are composed. But we’d be wrong again. Although it’s quite difficult to determine precisely the masses of the quarks, they are substantially smaller and lighter than the protons and neutrons that they comprise. We would estimate that the masses of the quarks, derived through their interaction with the Higgs field, account for only about 1% of the mass of a proton, for example.

But if 99% of the mass of a proton is not to be found in its constituent quarks, then where is it? The answer is that the rest of the proton’s mass resides in the energy of the massless gluons — the carriers of the strong nuclear force — that pass between the quarks and bind them together inside the proton.

What the standard model of particle physics tells us is quite bizarre. There appear to be ultimate building blocks which do have characteristic physical properties, but mass isn’t really one of them. Instead of mass we have interactions between elementary particles that would otherwise be massless and the Higgs field. These interactions slow the particles down, giving rise to inertia which we interpret as mass. As these elementary particles combine, the energy of the massless force particles passing between them builds, adding greatly to the impression of solidity and substance.

Jim Baggott is author of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ and a freelance science writer. He was a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Reading but left to pursue a business career, where he first worked with Shell International Petroleum Company and then as an independent business consultant and trainer. His many books include Atomic: The First War of Physics (Icon, 2009), Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy and the Meaning of Quantum Theory (OUP, 2003), A Beginner’s Guide to Reality (Penguin, 2005), and A Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments (OUP, 2010). Read his previous blog posts.

On 4 July 2012, scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) facility in Geneva announced the discovery of a new elementary particle they believe is consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson, or ‘god particle’. Our understanding of the fundamental nature of matter — everything in our visible universe and everything we are — is about to take a giant leap forward. So, what is the Higgs boson and why is it so important? What role does it play in the structure of material substance? We’re celebrating the release of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ with a series of posts by science writer Jim Baggott over the week to explain some of the mysteries of the Higgs. Read the previous posts: “What is the Higgs boson?”, “Why is the Higgs boson called the ‘god particle’?”, and “Is the particle recently discovered at CERN’s LHC the Higgs boson?”

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9. The literary and scientific Galileo

By John L. Heilbron

Galileo Galilei by Domenico Tintoretto, 1605-1607.

Galileo is not a fresh subject for a biography. Why then another? The character of the man, his discovery of new worlds, his fight with the Roman Catholic Church, and his scientific legacy have inspired many good books, thousands of articles, plays, pictures, exhibits, statues, a colossal tomb, and an entire museum. In all this, however, there was a chink.

Galileo cultivated an interest in Italian literature. He commented on the poetry of Petrarch and Dante and imitated the burlesques of Berni and Ruzzante. His special favorite was Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which he prized for its balance of form, wit, and nonsense. His special dislike was Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (The Liberation of Jerusalem), which violated his notions of heroic behavior and ordinary prosody. Galileo tried his hand at sonnets, sketched plots in the style of the Commedia dell’Arte, and delivered much of his science in dialogues.

The literary side of Galileo is not a discovery; a large specialist literature is devoted to it. But there is a gap in scholarship between the literary Galileo and the rest of him. How were his choices in science and literature complementary and reinforcing? What might be learned from his pronounced literary preferences about the unusual and creative features of his physics? How does Galileo’s praise of Ariosto and criticism of Tasso, on the one hand, parallel his embrace of Archimedes and rejection of Aristotle on the other?

Usually Galileo enters his biography already possessed of most of the convictions and concerns that prompted his discoveries and precipitated his troubles. One reason for endowing him with such precocity is that the documentation for his life before the age of 35 is relatively sparse. In contrast, a quantity of reliable information exists for his later life, after he had transformed a popular toy into an astronomical telescope and himself from a Venetian professor into a Florentine courtier (that happened in 1609/10 when he was 45). By paying attention to his early literary pursuits and associates, however, it is possible to tease out enough about his circumstances as a young man to give him a character different from the cantankerous star-gazer, abstract reasoner, and scientific martyr he became.

A quarrelsome philosopher, half-professor and half-courtier, whose discoveries refashioned the heavens and whose provocative use of them brought him into hopeless conflict with authority, is an attractive subject for portraiture. Add Galileo’s life-long engagement with imaginative writing and the would-be portraitist has his or her hands full. But the resultant picture, even if well-executed, would be a caricature. Galileo initially made his living and gained his reputation as a mathematician. Leave out his mathematics and you may have a compelling character, but not Galileo.

The mathematician and the littérateur have different ways of arguing. To fit together, one sometimes must give way. Galileo’s great polemical work, Dialogue on the two chief world systems, which misleadingly resembles a work of science, frequently privileges rhetoric over mathematics. When the scientific arguments are weakest, the two protagonists in the Dialogue who represent Galileo (his dead buddies Salviati and Sagredo) outdo one another in praising his contrivances and in twitting the third party to the discussions, the bumbling good-natured school philosopher Simplicio, for ignorance of geometry.

The mathematical inventions of the Dialogue that Galileo’s creatures noisily rate as unsurpassed marvels are precisely those that have given commentators the greatest difficulty. These inventions are extremely clever but evidently flawed if taken to be true of the world in which we live. Commentators tend either to interpret the cleverness as shrewd anticipations of later science or to condemn the shortfalls as just plain errors. From my point of view, these marvels should be interpreted as literary devices, conundrums, extravaganzas, inventions too good not to be true in some world if not in ours. They are hints at the form, not the completed ingredients, of a mathematical physics. Galileo’s old Dialogue and today’s Physical Review belong to different genres. Unfortunately, just as the Dialogue was not intended to meet the requirements of accuracy and verisimilitude of modern science journals, so the journals don’t reward the sort of wit and style with which Galileo brought together his literary aspirations, polemical agenda, and scientific insights.

John Heilbron is Professor of History and Vice Chancellor Emeritus of the University of California at Berkeley. One of the most distinguished historians of science, his books include Galileo, The Sun in the Church (a New York Times Notable Book) and The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science.

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10. What happens next in the search for the Higgs boson?

We’re celebrating the release of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ with a series of posts by science writer Jim Baggott over the week to explain some of the mysteries of the Higgs boson. Read the previous posts: “What is the Higgs boson?”“Why is the Higgs boson called the ‘god particle’?”, “Is the particle recently discovered at CERN’s LHC the Higgs boson?”, and “How does the Higgs mechanism create mass?”

By Jim Baggott


The 4 July discovery announcement makes it clear that the new particle is consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson. The next step is therefore reasonably obvious. Physicists involved in the ATLAS and CMS detector collaborations at the LHC will be keen to push ahead and fully characterize the new particle. They will want to know if this is indeed the Higgs boson.

How can they tell?

I mentioned in the third post in this series that the physicists at Fermilab’s Tevatron and CERN’s LHC have been searching for the Higgs boson by looking for the tell-tale products of its different predicted decay pathways. The current standard model of particle physics is used to predict the rates of production of the Higgs boson in high-energy particle collisions and the rates of its various decay modes. After subtracting the ‘background’ that arises from all the other ways in which the decay products can be produced, the physicists are left with an excess of events that can be ascribed to Higgs boson decays.

Now that we know the new particle has a mass of between 125-126 billion electron-volts (equivalent to the mass of about 134 protons), both the calculations and the experiments can be focused tightly on this specific mass value.

So far, excess events have been observed for three important decay pathways. These involve the decay of the Higgs boson to two photons ( H → γγ), two Z bosons (H → ZZ → ι+ι-ι+ι-) and two W particles (H → W+W- → ι+υ ι-υ). You will notice that these pathways all involve the production of bosons. This should come as no real surprise, as the Higgs field is responsible for breaking the symmetry between the weak and electromagnetic forces, giving mass to the W and Z particles and leaving the photon massless.

The decay rates to these three pathways are broadly as predicted by the standard model. There is an observed enhancement in the rate of decay to two photons compared to predictions, but this may be the result of statistical fluctuations. Further data on this pathway will determine whether or not there’s a problem (or maybe a clue to some new physics) in this channel.

But the Higgs field is also involved in giving mass to fermions (matter particles, such as electrons and quarks). The Higgs boson is therefore also predicted to decay into fermions, specifically very large massive fermions such as bottom and anti-bottom quarks, and tau and anti-tau leptons. Bottom quarks and tau leptons (heavy versions of the electron) are third-generation matter particles with masses respectively of about 4.2 billion electron volts (about 4 and a half proton masses) and 1.8 billion electron volts (about 1.9 proton masses).

These decay pathways are a little more problematic. The backgrounds from other processes are more significant and considerably more data are required to discriminate the background from genuine Higgs decay events. The decay to bottom and anti-bottom quarks was studied at the Tevatron before it was shut down earlier this year. But the collider had insufficient collision energy and luminosity (a measure of the number of collisions that the particle beams can produce) to enable independent discovery of the Higgs boson.

ATLAS physicist Jon Butterworth, who writes a blog for the British newspaper The Guardian, recently gave his assessment:

If and when we see the Higgs decaying in these two [fermion] channels at roughly the predicted rates, I will probably start calling this new boson the Higgs rather than a Higgs. It won’t prove it is exactly the Standard Model Higgs boson of course, and looking for subtle differences will be very interesting. But it will be close enough to justify [calling it] the definite article.

When will this happen? This is hard to judge, but perhaps we will have an answer by the end of this year.

Jim Baggott is author of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ and a freelance science writer. He was a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Reading but left to pursue a business career, where he first worked with Shell International Petroleum Company and then as an independent business consultant and trainer. His many books include Atomic: The First War of Physics (Icon, 2009), Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy and the Meaning of Quantum Theory (OUP, 2003), A Beginner’s Guide to Reality (Penguin, 2005), and A Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments (OUP, 2010). Read his previous blog posts.

On 4 July 2012, scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) facility in Geneva announced the discovery of a new elementary particle they believe is consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson, or ‘god particle’. Our understanding of the fundamental nature of matter — everything in our visible universe and everything we are — is about to take a giant leap forward. So, what is the Higgs boson and why is it so important? What role does it play in the structure of material substance? We’re celebrating the release of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ with a series of posts by science writer Jim Baggott over the week to explain some of the mysteries of the Higgs. Read the previous posts: “What is the Higgs boson?”,“Why is the Higgs boson called the ‘god particle’?”, “Is the particle recently discovered at CERN’s LHC the Higgs boson?”, and “How does the Higgs mechanism create mass?”

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11. What sort of science do we want?

By Robyn Arianrhod


29 November 2012 is the 140th anniversary of the death of mathematician Mary Somerville, the nineteenth century’s “Queen of Science”. Several years after her death, Oxford University’s Somerville College was named in her honor — a poignant tribute because Mary Somerville had been completely self-taught. In 1868, when she was 87, she had signed J. S. Mill’s (unsuccessful) petition for female suffrage, but I think she’d be astonished that we’re still debating “the woman question” in science. Physics, in particular — a subject she loved, especially mathematical physics — is still a very male-dominated discipline, and men as well as women are concerned about it.

Of course, science today is far more complex than it was in Somerville’s time, and for the past forty years feminist critics have been wondering if it’s the kind of science that women actually want; physics, in particular, has improved the lives of millions of people over the past 300 years, but it’s also created technologies and weapons that have caused massive human, social and environmental destruction. So I’d like to revisit an old debate: are science’s obstacles for women simply a matter of managing its applications in a more “female-friendly” way, or is there something about its exclusively male origins that has made science itself sexist?

To manage science in a more female-friendly way, it would be interesting to know if there’s any substance behind gender stereotypes such as that women prefer to solve immediate human problems, and are less interested than men in detached, increasingly expensive fundamental research, and in military and technological applications. Either way, though, it’s self-evident that women should have more say in how science is applied and funded, which means it’s important to have more women in decision-making positions — something we’re still far from achieving.

But could the scientific paradigm itself be alienating to women? Mary Somerville didn’t think so, but it’s often argued (most recently by some eco-feminist and post-colonial critics) that the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution, which formed the template for modern science, was constructed by European men, and that consequently, the scientific method reflects a white, male way of thinking that inherently preferences white men’s interests and abilities over those of women and non-Westerners. It’s a problematic argument, but justification for it has included an important critique of reductionism — namely, that Western male experimental scientists have traditionally studied physical systems, plants, and even human bodies by dissecting them, studying their components separately and losing sight of the whole system or organism.

The limits of the reductionist philosophy were famously highlighted in biologist Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, which showed that the post-War boom in chemical pest control didn’t take account of the whole food chain, of which insects are merely a part. Other dramatic illustrations are climate change, and medical disasters like the thalidomide tragedy: clearly, it’s no longer enough to focus selectively on specific problems such as the action of a drug on a particular symptom, or the local effectiveness of specific technologies; instead, scientists must consider the effect of a drug or medical procedure on the whole person, whilst new technological inventions shouldn’t be separated from their wider social and environmental ramifications.

In its proper place, however, reductionism in basic scientific research is important. (The recent infamous comment by American Republican Senate nominee Todd Akin — that women can “shut down” their bodies during a “legitimate rape”, in order not to become pregnant — illustrates the need for a basic understanding of how the various parts of the human body work.) I’m not sure if this kind of reductionism is a particularly male or particularly Western way of thinking, but either way there’s much more to the scientific method than this; it’s about developing testable hypotheses from observations (reductionist or holistic), and then testing those hypotheses in as objective a way as possible. The key thing in observing the world is curiosity, and this is a human trait, discernible in all children, regardless of race or gender. Of course, girls have traditionally faced more cultural restraints than boys, so perhaps we still need to encourage girls to be actively curious about the world around them. (For instance, it’s often suggested that women prefer biology to physics because they want to help people — and yet, many of the recent successes in medical and biological science would have been impossible without the technology provided by fundamental, curiosity-driven physics.)

Like Mary Somerville, I think the scientific method has universal appeal, but I also think feminist and other critics are right to question its patriarchal and capitalist origins. Although science at its best is value-free, it’s part of the broader community, whose values are absorbed by individual scientists. So much so that Yale researchers Moss-Racusin et al recently uncovered evidence that many scientists themselves, male and female, have an unconscious sexist bias. In their widely reported study, participants judged the same job application (for a lab manager position) to be less competent if it had a (randomly assigned) female name than if it had a male name.

In Mary Somerville’s day, such bias was overt, and it had the authority of science itself: women’s smaller brain size was considered sufficient to “prove” female intellectual inferiority. It was bad science, and it shows how patriarchal perceptions can skew the interpretation not just of women’s competence, but also of scientific data itself. (Without proper vigilance, this kind of subjectivity can slip through the safeguards of the scientific method because of other prejudices, too, such as racism, or even the agendas of funding bodies.) Of course, acknowledging the existence of patriarchal values in society isn’t about hating men or assuming men hate women. Mary Somerville met with “the utmost kindness” from individual scientific men, but that didn’t stop many of them from seeing her as the exception that proved the male-created rule of female inferiority. After all, it takes analysis and courage to step outside a long-accepted norm. And so, the “woman question” is still with us — but in trying to resolve it, we might not only find ways to remove existing gender biases, but also broaden the conversation about what sort of science we all want in the twenty-first century.

Robyn Arianrhod is an Honorary Research Associate in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Monash University. She is the author of Seduced by Logic: Émilie Du Châtelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution and Einstein’s Heroes.

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Image credit: Mary Somerville. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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12. In memoriam: Patrick Moore

By David Rothery


There’s a Patrick Moore-sized hole in the world of astronomy and planetary science that is unlikely ever to be exactly filled. He presented “The Sky at Night,” a monthly BBC TV astronomy programme, from 1957 until his death. This brought him celebrity, and the books that he wrote for the amateur enthusiast were bought or borrowed in vast numbers from public libraries for half a century — including by myself as a schoolboy. Patrick was the mainstay of the BBC’s Apollo Moon-landing coverage that those of us of a certain age will never forget, and there can be few amateur or professional astronomers who grew up in the UK without having been influenced by him. Tributes posted on the Internet show that he was known and admired beyond these shores too. They also attest to Patrick’s extraordinary generosity, exemplified by numerous accounts of how he replied to letters from strangers (of whom in the early 1970s I was one) or took time to chat after his lectures.

Patrick served with distinction and under age as a navigator with Bomber Command during the war. I believe (on the basis of dark hints made during late night conversations) that he also spent time on special operations in occupied Poland, where his youth and assumed Irish identity afforded him a plausible (but surely high-risk) cover story. An encounter with what he referred to as ‘a working concentration camp’ led to his lifelong professed dislike of Germans (“apart from Werner von Braun, the only good German I ever met”).

After the war, Patrick became a school teacher and also very active in the British Astronomical Association notably in its lunar section on account of his painstaking and careful observations of the Moon, some of which were to prove useful for both the American and Soviet lunar missions. He became a friend of the science fiction visionary Arthur C. Clarke, with whom he shared the authorship of Asteroid (2005) sold in aid of Sri Lankan tsunami relief.

I first met Patrick when we were speakers at a meeting to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the discovery of Neptune, so that must have been 1996. He spoke about Neptune itself, and I about its main satellite Triton. Afterwards he was kind enough to remark that he had read my book (Satellites of the Outer Planets). Our first joint TV appearance was “Live from Mars,” an Open University TV programme on a Saturday morning in 1997 when NASA’s Mars Pathfinder landed, allowing us to broadcast the first new pictures from the surface of Mars for nearly 20 years. I became an occasional guest on “The Sky at Night” more recently, which led to a friendship, as with so many of his guests. The programme was usually recorded at Patrick’s home in Selsey, and Patrick delighted to put his guests up overnight, rather than send them to a nearby hotel. That was a cue for an impressively-laden supper table, copious quantities of lubricant, and entertaining — if sometimes outrageous — conversation. Patrick had a wry sense of humour, and would self-parody his supposed extreme views. However, I think he was being serious when, or several occasions, he styled a certain recent US President as “a dangerous lunatic”.

I witnessed Patrick’s mobility decline from walking sticks, to zimmer frame, to wheelchair. His once famously rapid speech became slurry, but his mind and monocle-assisted eyesight stayed sharp. Co-presenters assumed larger and large roles on “The Sky at Night,” but Patrick was always there as the pivotal host. I last saw him less than three weeks before his death, when I guested on what was to prove his last “Sky at Night.” He was drowsy at first, but his intellect soon kicked in. He steered our discussion as ably as of old, and we were treated to a vintage Patrick moment of scepticism “When someone gives me a cupful of lunar water, then I’ll admit I was wrong.”

I lingered afterwards for a chat — inevitably partly about cats. Noticing the time, Patrick ordered a gin and tonic for each of us, and was soon involved in good-natured banter with his carer about why she would not let him have a second. He encouraged me to write a book about Mercury, and kindly agreed to write the foreword if I did. That’s an offer that I shall no longer be able to take him up on, but wherever you are, Patrick, I hope someone’s brought you that cupful of lunar water by now.

Sir Patrick Moore
4 March 1923 – 9 December 2012

Patrick Moore with David Rothery earlier this year.

David Rothery is a Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences at the Open University UK, where he chairs a course on planetary science and the search for life. He is the author of Planets: A Very Short Introduction.

Image credit: Image is the personal property of David Rothery. Used with permission. Do not reproduce without explicit permission of David Rothery.

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13. How Nazi Germany lost the nuclear plot

By Gordon Fraser


When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, neither the Atomic Bomb nor the Holocaust were on anybody’s agenda. Instead, the Nazi’s top aim was to rid German culture of perceived pollution. A priority was science, where paradoxically Germany already led the world. To safeguard this position, loud Nazi voices, such as Nobel laureate Philipp Lenard,  complained about a ‘massive infiltration of the Jews into universities’.

The first enactments of a new regime are highly symbolic. The cynically-named Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service, published in April 1933, targeted those who had non-Aryan, ‘particularly Jewish’, parents or grandparents. Having a single Jewish grandparent was enough to lose one’s job. Thousands of Jewish university teachers, together with doctors, lawyers, and other professionals were sacked. Some found more modest jobs, some retired, some left the country. Germany was throwing away its hard-won scientific supremacy. When warned of this, Hitler retorted ‘If the dismissal of [Jews] means the end of German science, then we will do without science for a few years’.

Why did the Jewish people have such a significant influence on German science? They had a long tradition of religious study, but assimilated Jews had begun to look instead to a radiant new role-model. Albert Einstein was the most famous scientist the world had ever known. As well as an icon for ambitious young students, he was also a prominent political target. Aware of this, he left Germany for the USA in 1932, before the Nazis came to power.

How to win friends and influence nuclear people
The talented nuclear scientist Leo Szilard appeared to be able to foresee the future. He exploited this by carefully cultivating people with influence. In Berlin, he sought out Einstein.

Like Einstein, Szilard anticipated the Civil Service Law. He also saw the need for a scheme to assist the refugee German academics who did not. First in Vienna, then in London, he found influential people who could help.

Just as the Nazis moved into power, nuclear physics was revolutionized by the discovery of a new nuclear component, the neutron. One of the main centres of neutron research was Berlin, where scientists saw a mysterious effect when uranium was irradiated. They asked their former Jewish colleagues, now in exile, for an explanation.

The answer was ‘nuclear fission’. As the Jewish scientists who had fled Germany settled into new jobs, they realized how fission was the key to a new source of energy. It could also be a weapon of unimaginable power, the Atomic Bomb. It was not a great intellectual leap, so the exiled scientists were convinced that their former colleagues in Germany had come to the same conclusion. So, when war looked imminent, they wanted to get to the Atomic Bomb first. One wrote of ‘the fear of the Nazis beating us to it’.

Szilard, by now in the US, saw it was time to act again. He knew that President Roosevelt would not listen to him, but would listen to Einstein, and wrote to Roosevelt over Einstein’s signature.

When a delegation finally managed to see him on 11 October 1939, Roosevelt said “what you’re after is to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up”. But nobody knew exactly what to do. The letter had mentioned bombs ‘too heavy for transportation by air’. Such a vague threat did not appear urgent.

But in 1940, German Jewish exiles in Britain realized that if the small amount of the isotope 235 in natural uranium could be separated, it could produce an explosion equivalent to several thousand tons of dynamite. Only a few kilograms would be needed, and could be carried by air. The logistics of nuclear weapons suddenly changed. Via Einstein, Szilard wrote another Presidential letter. On 19 January 1942, Roosevelt ordered a rapid programme for the development of the Atomic Bomb, the ‘Manhattan Project’.

Across the Atlantic, the Germans indeed had seen the implications of nuclear fission. But its scientific message had been muffled. Key scientists had gone. Germany had no one left with the prescience of Szilard, nor the political clout of Einstein. The Nazis also had another priority. On 20 January, one day after Roosevelt had given the go-ahead for the Atomic Bomb, a top-level meeting in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee outlined a “final solution of the Jewish Problem”. Nazi Germany had its own crash programme.

US crash programme – on 16 July 1945, just over three years after the huge project had been launched, the Atomic Bomb was tested in the New Mexico desert.

Nazi crash programme – what came to be known as the Holocaust rapidly got under way. Here a doomed woman and her children arrive at the specially-built Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination centre.

As such, two huge projects, unknown to each other, emerged simultaneously on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The dreadful schemes forged ahead, and each in turn became reality. On two counts, what had been unimaginable no longer was.

Gordon Fraser was for many years the in-house editor at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva. His books on popular science and scientists include Cosmic Anger, a biography of Abdus Salam, the first Muslim Nobel scientist, Antimatter: The Ultimate Mirror, and The Quantum Exodus. He is also the editor of The New Physics for the 21st Century and The Particle Century.

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Image credits: Atomic Bomb tested in the New Mexico desert. Photograph courtesy of  Los Alamos National Laboratory; Auschwitz-Birkenau, alte Frau und Kinder, Bundesarchiv Bild, Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

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14. Celebrating Newton, 325 years after Principia

By Robyn Arianrhod


This year, 2012, marks the 325th anniversary of the first publication of the legendary Principia (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), the 500-page book in which Sir Isaac Newton presented the world with his theory of gravity. It was the first comprehensive scientific theory in history, and it’s withstood the test of time over the past three centuries.

Unfortunately, this superb legacy is often overshadowed, not just by Einstein’s achievement but also by Newton’s own secret obsession with Biblical prophecies and alchemy. Given these preoccupations, it’s reasonable to wonder if he was quite the modern scientific guru his legend suggests, but personally I’m all for celebrating him as one of the greatest geniuses ever. Although his private obsessions were excessive even for the seventeenth century, he was well aware that in eschewing metaphysical, alchemical, and mystical speculation in his Principia, he was creating a new way of thinking about the fundamental principles underlying the natural world. To paraphrase Newton himself, he changed the emphasis from metaphysics and mechanism to experiment and mathematical analogy. His method has proved astonishingly fruitful, but initially it was quite controversial.

He had developed his theory of gravity to explain the cause of the mysterious motion of the planets through the sky: in a nutshell, he derived a formula for the force needed to keep a planet moving in its observed elliptical orbit, and he connected this force with everyday gravity through the experimentally derived mathematics of falling motion. Ironically (in hindsight), some of his greatest peers, like Leibniz and Huygens, dismissed the theory of gravity as “mystical” because it was “too mathematical.” As far as they were concerned, the law of gravity may have been brilliant, but it didn’t explain how an invisible gravitational force could reach all the way from the sun to the earth without any apparent material mechanism. Consequently, they favoured the mainstream Cartesian “theory”, which held that the universe was filled with an invisible substance called ether, whose material nature was completely unknown, but which somehow formed into great swirling whirlpools that physically dragged the planets in their orbits.

The only evidence for this vortex “theory” was the physical fact of planetary motion, but this fact alone could lead to any number of causal hypotheses. By contrast, Newton explained the mystery of planetary motion in terms of a known physical phenomenon, gravity; he didn’t need to postulate the existence of fanciful ethereal whirlpools. As for the question of how gravity itself worked, Newton recognized this was beyond his scope — a challenge for posterity — but he knew that for the task at hand (explaining why the planets move) “it is enough that gravity really exists and acts according to the laws that we have set forth and is sufficient to explain all the motions of the heavenly bodies…”

What’s more, he found a way of testing his theory by using his formula for gravitational force to make quantitative predictions. For instance, he realized that comets were not random, unpredictable phenomena (which the superstitious had feared as fiery warnings from God), but small celestial bodies following well-defined orbits like the planets. His friend Halley famously used the theory of gravity to predict the date of return of the comet now named after him. As it turned out, Halley’s prediction was fairly good, although Clairaut — working half a century later but just before the predicted return of Halley’s comet — used more sophisticated mathematics to apply Newton’s laws to make an even more accurate prediction.

Clairaut’s calculations illustrate the fact that despite the phenomenal depth and breadth of Principia, it took a further century of effort by scores of mathematicians and physicists to build on Newton’s work and to create modern “Newtonian” physics in the form we know it today. But Newton had created the blueprint for this science, and its novelty can be seen from the fact that some of his most capable peers missed the point. After all, he had begun the radical process of transforming “natural philosophy” into theoretical physics — a transformation from traditional qualitative philosophical speculation about possible causes of physical phenomena, to a quantitative study of experimentally observed physical effects. (From this experimental study, mathematical propositions are deduced and then made general by induction, as he explained in Principia.)

Even the secular nature of Newton’s work was controversial (and under apparent pressure from critics, he did add a brief mention of God in an appendix to later editions of Principia). Although Leibniz was a brilliant philosopher (and he was also the co-inventor, with Newton, of calculus), one of his stated reasons for believing in the ether rather than the Newtonian vacuum was that God would show his omnipotence by creating something, like the ether, rather than leaving vast amounts of nothing. (At the quantum level, perhaps his conclusion, if not his reasoning, was right.) He also invoked God to reject Newton’s inspired (and correct) argument that gravitational interactions between the various planets themselves would eventually cause noticeable distortions in their orbits around the sun; Leibniz claimed God would have had the foresight to give the planets perfect, unchanging perpetual motion. But he was on much firmer ground when he questioned Newton’s (reluctant) assumption of absolute rather than relative motion, although it would take Einstein to come up with a relativistic theory of gravity.

Einstein’s theory is even more accurate than Newton’s, especially on a cosmic scale, but within its own terms — that is, describing the workings of our solar system (including, nowadays, the motion of our own satellites) — Newton’s law of gravity is accurate to within one part in ten million. As for his method of making scientific theories, it was so profound that it underlies all the theoretical physics that has followed over the past three centuries. It’s amazing: one of the most religious, most mystical men of his age put his personal beliefs aside and created the quintessential blueprint for our modern way of doing science in the most objective, detached way possible. Einstein agreed; he wrote a moving tribute in the London Times in 1919, shortly after astronomers had provided the first experimental confirmation of his theory of general relativity:

“Let no-one suppose, however, that the mighty work of Newton can really be superseded by [relativity] or any other theory. His great and lucid ideas will retain their unique significance for all time as the foundation of our modern conceptual structure in the sphere of [theoretical physics].”

Robyn Arianrhod is an Honorary Research Associate in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Monash University. She is the author of Seduced by Logic: Émilie Du Châtelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution and Einstein’s Heroes. Read her previous blog posts.

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15. Neutrinos: faster than the speed of light?

By Frank Close To readers of Neutrino, rest assured: there is no need yet for a rewrite based on news that neutrinos might travel faster than light. I have already advertised my caution in The Observer, and a month later nothing has changed. If anything, concerns about the result have increased.

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16. The periodic table: matter matters

By Eric Scerri


As far back as I can remember I have always liked sorting and classifying things. As a boy I was an avid stamp collector. I would sort my stamps into countries, particular sets, then arrange them in order of increasing monetary value shown on the face of the stamp. I would go to great lengths to select the best possible copy of any stamp that I had several versions of. It’s not altogether surprising that I have therefore ended up doing research and writing books on what is perhaps the finest example of a scientific system of classification – the periodic table of the elements. Following degrees in chemistry I wrote a PhD thesis in the history and philosophy of science and specialised in the question of whether chemistry has been explained by quantum mechanics. A large part of this work dealt with the periodic table, the explanation of which is considered as one of the major triumphs of quantum theory, and the notion of atomic orbitals.

As I often mention in public lectures, it is curious that the great 20th century physicist, Ernest Rutherford, looked down on chemistry and compared it to stamp collecting. But we chemists had the last laugh since Rutherford was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry and not for his beloved field of physics.

In 2007 I published a book called The Periodic Table, Its Story and Its Significance, which people tell me has become the definitive book on the subject. More recently I was asked to write a Very Short Introduction to the subject, which I have now completed. Although I first thought this would be a relatively easy matter it turned out not to be. I had to rethink almost everything contained in the earlier book, respond to comments from reviewers and had to deal with some new areas which I had not developed fully enough in the earlier book. One of these areas is the exploration of elements beyond uranium or element number 92, all of which are of a synthetic nature.

At the same time there has been a veritable explosion of interest in the elements and the periodic table especially in the popular imagination. There have been i-Pad applications, YouTube videos, two highly successful popular books, people singing Tom Leher’s element song in various settings as well as artists and advertisers helping themselves to the elegance and beauty of the periodic table. On the scientific side, elements continue to be discovered or more precisely synthesised and there are official deliberations concerning how the recently discovered elements should be named.

On November 4th The International Union for Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) officially announced that elements 110, 111 and 112 are to be known officially as darmstadtium (Ds), roentgenium (Rg) and copernicium (Cn). The names come from the German city of Darmstadt where several new elements have been artificially created; Wilhelm Konrad Roentgenm, the discoverer of X-rays; and the astronomer Nicholas Copernicus who was one of the first to propose the heliocentric model of the solar system. Of the three names it is the last one that has caused the most controversy. Apart from honouring a great scientist it was chosen because the structure of the atom broadly speaking resembles that of a miniature solar system in which the nucleus plays the role of the sun and the electrons behave as the planets do, an idea that originated with the work of Rutherford incidentally. Except

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17. SciWhys: Why do we eat food?

Every month OUP editor and author Jonathan Crowe answers your science questions in the monthly SciWhys column. Got a burning question about science that you’d like answered? Just email it to us, and Jonathan will answer what he can. Today: Why do we eat food?

By Jonathan Crowe


You may well be thinking that the question posed in the title of this blog has an all-too-obvious answer. We all know that we eat food to keep ourselves alive. But why do we find ourselves slaves to our appetites and rumbling stomachs? What is actually happening inside each of us that couldn’t happen without another slice of toast, or piece of fruit, or that most vaunted of mid-afternoon pick-me-ups, the sneakily-consumed bar of chocolate?

We’re all familiar with the concept of something needing fuel to keep it going. Just as a power station requires gas or coal to power its turbines and generate energy, so we need fuel – in the form of food – to power our continued existence.

The foods we eat provide us with a range of nutrients: vitamins, minerals, water, fat, carbohydrates, fibre, and protein. These nutrients are put to different uses — as building materials to construct the tissues and organs from which our bodies are made; as the components of the molecular machinery that keeps our cells running as they should. All of these uses are unified by a common theme: a requirement for energy to make them happen. And this is where one particular type of nutrient comes into its own. Step forward the carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates are better known to us as sugars, but in fact the sweet crystals we know as sugar are only part of this group. Carbohydrates come in very different shapes and sizes. One of the smallest is glucose, which acts as a chemical building block — multiple copies of glucose can join together to form a range of much larger molecules. For example, starch – found in potatoes and flour – is a carbohydrate formed from many individual molecules of glucose joined together in long chains. (Based on taste alone, you wouldn’t think that starch was made of glucose. Even though individual molecules of glucose taste sweet to us, once they are linked together to form starch the sweetness is lost.)

To understand how the sugar in our food can power the processes occurring in our cells every minute of every day, let’s follow some starch on its journey through the body. Many of the foods we consume aren’t in a form with which our bodies can do anything useful. Instead, they need to be digested. And so it is with carbohydrates such as starch. This process of digestion starts as soon as the food enters our mouth; our saliva contains special substances (called enzymes) that start attacking the long chains of starch, breaking it into smaller fragments.

Digestion continues as our food is swallowed and slides down into our stomach, where an arsenal of other chemical weapons set to work on the mouthful we’ve just consumed. Before long, what were initially mouth-watering morsels are reduced to something rather less appetising and leave the stomach to enter the long, snaking tunnel of our intestines. By now, the long chains of starch have been broken down into glucose, which is small enough to pass through the lining of our intestine and into our bloodstream. Our bloodstream acts as a short- and long-distance transport network, carrying the newly-arrived sugar molecules to cells all over the body.

When glucose arrives at its destination and first enters the cell, it u

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18. What mushrooms have taught me about the meaning of life

By Nicholas P. Money


A grown-up neighbor in the English village of my childhood told stories about angels that sat upon our shoulders and fairies that lived in her snapdragons. Like the other kids, I searched her flowers for a glimpse of the sprites, but agnosticism imbibed from my parents quickly overruled this innocent play. Yet there was magic in my neighbor’s garden and I had seen real angels on her lawn: little stalked bells that poked from the dew-drenched grass on autumn mornings; evanescent beauties whose delicately balanced caps quivered to the touch. By afternoon they were gone, shriveled into the greenery. Does any living thing seem more supernatural to a child than a mushroom? Their prevalence in fairy tale illustrations and fantasy movies suggests not. Like no other species, the strangeness of fungi survives the loss of innocence about the limits of nature. They trump the supernatural, their magic intensifying as we learn more about them.

Once upon a time, I spent 30 years studying mushrooms and other fungi. Now, as my scientific interests broaden with my waistline, I would like to share three things that I have learned about the meaning of life from thinking about these extraordinary sex organs and the microbes that produce them. This mycological inquiry has revealed the following: (i) life on land would collapse without the activities of mushrooms; (ii) we owe our existence to mushrooms; and (iii) there is (probably) no God. The logic is spotless.

Mushrooms are masterpieces of natural engineering. The overnight appearance of the fruit body is a pneumatic process, with the inflation of millions of preformed cells extending the stem, pushing earth aside, and unfolding the cap. Once exposed, the gills of a meadow mushroom shed an astonishing 30,000 spores per second, delivering billions of allergenic particles into the air every day. A minority of spores alights and germinates on fertile ground and some species are capable of spawning the largest and longest-lived organisms on the planet. Mushroom colonies burrow through soil and rotting wood. Some hook into the roots of forest trees and engage in mutually supportive symbioses; others are pathogens that decorate their food sources with hardened hooves and fleshy shelves. Mushrooms work with insects too, fed by and feeding leaf-cutter ants in the New World and termites in the Old World. Among the staggering diversity of mushroom-forming fungi we also find strange apparitions including gigantic puffballs, phallic eruptions with revolting aromas, and tiny “bird’s nests” whose spore-filled eggs are splashed out by raindrops.

Mushrooms have been around for tens of millions of years and their activities are indispensable for the operation of the biosphere. Through their relationships with plants and animals, mushrooms are essential for forest and grassland ecology, climate control and atmospheric chemistry, water purification, and the maintenance of biodiversity. This first point, about the ecological significance of mushrooms, is obvious, yet the 16,000 described species of mushroom-forming fungi are members of the most poorly understood kingdom of life. The second point requires a dash of lateral thinking. Because humans evolved in ecosystems dependent upon mushrooms there would be no us without mushrooms. And no matter how superior we feel, humans remain dependent upon the continual activity of these fungi. The relationship isn’t reciprocal: without us there would definitely be mushrooms. Judged against the rest of life (and, so often, we do place ourselves against the rest of nature) humans can be considered as a recent and damag

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19. Galileo arrives in Rome for trial before Inquisition

This Day in World History

February 13, 1633

Galileo arrives in Rome for trial before Inquisition

Source: Library of Congress.

Sixty-nine years old, wracked by sciatica, weary of controversy, Galileo Galilei entered Rome on February 13, 1633. He had been summoned by Pope Urban VIII to an Inquisition investigating his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. The charge was heresy. The cause was Galileo’s support of the Copernican theory that the planets, including Earth, revolved around the sun.

Nicolas Copernicus had published his heliocentric theory in 1543. His ideas were condemned by religious leaders — not only Catholic ones but also Protestants Martin Luther and John Calvin — because they contradicted the Bible. Slowly, though, astronomers began to accept the sun-centered universe.

Galileo’s own acceptance, forged in the 1590s, grew stronger in 1609, when he used a new invention, the telescope, to study the planets. Discovering that the Moon had craters, Jupiter was orbited by moons, and Venus had phases like the Moon, he rejected the accepted belief that the heavens were fixed, perfect, and revolving around Earth.

Church authorities, however, objected to a 1613 letter he wrote supporting the Copernican theory. At a hearing, he was told not to actively promote Copernican ideas. A document placed in the records of the proceeding went further, saying he was ordered never to discuss the theory in any way, but evidence suggests that Galileo’s understanding the document was planted after the meeting by enemies.

By the late 1620s, Galileo believed that Pope Urban would be more open to his ideas than earlier popes. He wrote the Dialogue as a conversation between a Copernican and an adherent of the Church’s geocentric theory, hoping to escape condemnation by presenting both views. The ploy failed, and he was summoned. The panel of cardinals decided to ban his book, force him to abjure Copernican ideas, and sentence him to imprisonment. A few months later, the old man was released to his home, where he lived until 1642.

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20. SciWhys: a cure for Carys?

Over the past year, the SciWhys column has explored a number of different topics, from our immune system to plants, from viruses to DNA. But why is an understanding of topics such as these so important? In short, using science to understand our world can help to improve our lives. In this post and the next, I want to illustrate this point with an example of how progress in science is providing hope for the future for one family, and many others like them.

By Jonathan Crowe


Carys is an angelic-looking two-year old, with a truly winning smile. At first sight, then, she seems no different from any other child her age. Yet Carys’ smile belies a heart-rending reality: Carys has Rett syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system that is as widespread in the population as cystic fibrosis, yet is recognised to only a fraction of the same extent. (I, for one, had never heard of it until just a few months ago.)

Rett syndrome is a delayed onset disorder — something whose effects only become apparent with time. When Carys was born, she appeared perfectly healthy, and developed in much the same way as any other healthy infant. Just as she began to master her first few words, however, she lost the power of speech, and soon lost the use of her hands too. The effects of Rett syndrome were beginning to be felt.

Over time, Rett syndrome robs young girls of their motor control: they lose the ability to walk, to hold or carry objects, and to speak. But there be other complications too: there may be digestive problems; difficulties eating, chewing, and swallowing; and seizures and tremors. It is a truly debilitating disorder.

So what causes Rett syndrome? What’s happened inside the body of young girls like Carys? We know that the syndrome is caused by as little as a single error (a mutation) in a single gene. (As I mention in a previous post, it’s quite unsettling to realise that just one error in the tens of millions of letters that spell out the sequence of our genomes is sufficient to cause certain diseases. Sometimes there’s very little room for error.) The normal, healthy gene (called MECP2) contains the instructions for the cell to manufacture a particular protein; the mutated gene produces a broken form of this protein, which no longer functions as it should.

But how can a single protein affect so many processes – from speech to the movement of limbs? The answer lies in the way the protein interacts with other genes, particularly in brain cells. Essentially, the protein acts like a cellular librarian by helping the cells in the brain to make use of the information stored in their genomes (their libraries of genes). If the protein is broken, the cells can no longer make use of all of the genetic information needed for them to work properly (a bit like trying to use an instruction manual with some of the pages blacked out), so normal processes begin to break down. The broken protein doesn’t just affect the ability of the brain cells to use one or two other genes, but a whole range of them – and that’s why the effects of Rett syndrome are so wide-ranging.

But the story of Rett syndrome runs deeper than this. The mutation that causes Rett syndrome occurs in sperm; it happens after the sp

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21. SciWhys: a cure for Carys? Part Two

Over the past year, the SciWhys column has explored a number of different topics, from our immune system to plants, from viruses to DNA. But why is an understanding of topics such as these so important? In short, using science to understand our world can help to improve our lives. In my last post and in this one, I want to illustrate this point with an example of how progress in science is providing hope for the future for one family, and many others like them.

By Jonathan Crowe


In my last post, I introduced you to Carys, a young girl living with the effects of Rett syndrome. Thanks to scientific research, we now understand quite a lot about why Rett syndrome occurs – what is happening among the molecules within our cells to mean that some cells don’t behave as they should. Simply knowing about something is one thing, though; making constructive use of this knowledge is another thing entirely. During this post I hope to show you how our understanding of what causes Rett syndrome is being translated into the potential for its treatment – a cure for Carys, and the other young girls like her.

In my previous post I mentioned how Rett syndrome is caused by a faulty gene called MECP2 that affects the proper function of brain cells. However, the syndrome doesn’t actually kill the cells (unlike neurodegenerative diseases that do cause cells to die). Instead, the cells affected by Rett syndrome just function improperly. This leads us to an intriguing question: if the faulty gene that causes the syndrome could be ‘fixed’ somehow, would the cells start to behave properly? In other words, could the debilitating symptoms associated with Rett syndrome be relieved?

Obviously, researchers can’t simply play around with humans and their genes to answer questions such as these. Instead, researchers have studied Rett syndrome by using “mouse models.” But what does this mean? In short, mice and humans have biological similarities that allow the mouse to act as a proxy – a model – for a human. How can this be? Well, even though the huge variety of creatures that populate the earth look very different to a casual observer, they’re not all that different when considered at the level of their genomes. In fact, around 85% of the human and mouse genomes are the same.

Now, if the biological information – the information stored in these genomes – is similar, the outcome of using this information will also be similar. If we start out with two similar recipes, the foods we prepare from them will also be very similar. Likewise, if two creatures have similar genes, their bodies will work in broadly similar ways, using similar proteins and other molecules. (It is the bits of the mouse and human genomes that aren’t the same that make mice and humans different.)

In essence, the mouse Mecp2 gene is to all intents and purposes the same as the human MECP2 gene, and has the same function in both mice and humans. Equally, if this gene malfunctions, the consequences are the same in both mouse and human: a mouse with a mutation in its Mecp2 gene exhibits symptoms that are very like a human with a mutation in the same gene – that is, someone with Rett syndrome. In short, mice with a Mecp2 gene mutation are a model for humans with the same mutation.

With all this in mind, if we can learn how to overcome the effects of the Mecp2 mutation in the mouse, we might gain valuable insights into how we can overcome the equivalent effects in humans.

And this is wh

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22. Mendeleev’s Periodic Table presented in public

This Day in World History

March 6, 1869

Mendeleev’s Periodic Table presented in public

Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. Source: NYPL.

On March 6, 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev’s breakthrough discovery was presented to the Russian Chemical Society. The chemist had determined that the known elements — 70 at the time — could be arranged by their atomic weights into a table that revealed that their physical properties followed regular patterns. He had invented the periodic table of elements.

In his early twenties, Mendeleev had intuited that the elements followed some kind of order, and he spent thirteen years trying to discover it. In developing his system, he drew on the data and ideas of scientists around the world. Two — Lothar Meyer and British chemist John Alexander Reina Newlands — had published ideas about the periodicity of elements. But Mendeleev’s addressed every known element, which theirs had not.

His system also surpassed the others because he accounted for gaps in the sequence of elements. Mendeleev said that an element would be discovered to fill each gap and even predicted the properties of those elements. The discovery of the one of these missing elements — gallium, in 1875 — helped spur wide acceptance of Mendeleev’s system.

Later work showed that Mendeleev’s reliance on atomic weight to determine periodicity is not completely correct. While atomic weight tends to increase as one moves from element to element, there are exceptions. Mendeleev also did not have the theoretical understanding to explain why the elements exhibited these periodic characteristics. Nevertheless, his achievement marked an important milestone in the understanding of the physical world.

Mendeleev did not personally present his breakthrough to the Chemical Society. Ill on the day of the meeting, he asked a colleague to deliver the report.

Interestingly, the date celebrated for this event reflects Russia’s use of the “Old Style” Julian calendar. According to the “New Style” Gregorian calendar — not adopted in Russia until after 1918 — Mendeleev’s periodic table was presented twelve days later, on March 18.

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23. Scientists propose Big Bang Theory

This Day in World History

April 1, 1948

Scientists Propose Big Bang Theory


Poet T.S. Eliot might still be right — the world might end with a whimper. But on April 1, 1948, physicists George Gamow and Ralph Alpher first proposed the now prevailing idea of how the universe began — with a big bang.

Gamow worked closely in the 1930s and 1940s with Edward Teller to understand beta decay — a kind of nuclear decay that results in the loss of electrons — and to understand the makeup of red giant stars.

From this work, Gamow and Alpher — one of his students — developed the idea that the universe was highly compressed until a vast thermonuclear explosion occurred. The explosion released neutrons, protons, and electrons. As the universe cooled, it became possible for neutrons to combine with other neutrons or with protons to form chemical elements.

Time Line of the Universe. Source: NASA/WMAP Science Team.

Gamow and Alpher published their findings in the journal Physical Review on April 1, 1948. The title of the paper — “The Origin of Chemical Elements” — suggests the link between cosmology and particle physics that the big-bang theory represents.

The paper’s authorship showed a bit of Gamow’s whimsy. Thinking it wrong to have a paper on particle physics written by one author whose name began with A (as in positively charged alpha particles) and G (as in gamma rays) without having a B (as in negatively charged beta particles), Gamow asked friend Hans Bethe to add his name to the byline. Bethe agreed, and thereby became part of history.

Just five years later, Gamow made a brilliant addition to a wholly different field. After learning of James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the double helical structure of DNA, Gamow wrote Crick suggesting that the genetic code was made up of three-part segments. Gamow’s suggestion set Watson, Crick, and other researchers to investigate the possibility, which turned out — in essence (though not in the details Gamow had suggested) — to be true.

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24. What is the Higgs boson?

On 4 July 2012, scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) facility in Geneva announced the discovery of a new elementary particle they believe is consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson, or ‘god particle’. Our understanding of the fundamental nature of matter — everything in our visible universe and everything we are — is about to take a giant leap forward. So, what is the Higgs boson and why is it so important? What role does it play in the structure of material substance? We’re celebrating the release of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ with a series of posts by science writer Jim Baggott over the next week to explain some of the mysteries of the Higgs.

By Jim Baggott


We know that the physical universe is constructed from elementary matter particles (such as electrons and quarks) and the particles that transmit forces between them (such as photons). Matter particles have physical characteristics that we classify as fermions. Force particles are bosons.

In quantum field theory, these particles are represented in terms of invisible energy ‘fields’ that extend through space. Think of your childhood experiences playing with magnets. As you push the north poles of two bar magnets together, you feel the resistance between them grow in strength. This is the result of the interaction of two invisible, but nevertheless very real, magnetic fields. The force of resistance you experience as you push the magnets together is carried by invisible (or ‘virtual’) photons passing between them.

Matter and force particles are then interpreted as fundamental disturbances of these different kinds of fields. We say that these disturbances are the ‘quanta’ of the fields. The electron is the quantum of the electron field. The photon is the quantum of the electromagnetic field, and so on.

In the mid-1960s, quantum field theories were relatively unpopular among theorists. These theories seemed to suggest that force carriers should all be massless particles. This made little sense. Such a conclusion is fine for the photon, which carries the force of electromagnetism and is indeed massless. But it was believed that the carriers of the weak nuclear force, responsible for certain kinds of radioactivity, had to be large, massive particles. Where then did the mass of these particles come from?

In 1964, four research papers appeared proposing a solution. What if, these papers suggested, the universe is pervaded by a different kind of energy field, one that points (it imposes a direction in space) but doesn’t push or pull? Certain kinds of force particle might then interact with this field, thereby gaining mass. Photons would zip through the field, unaffected.

One of these papers, by English theorist Peter Higgs, included a footnote suggesting that such a field could also be expected to have a fundamental disturbance — a quantum of the field. In 1967 Steven Weinberg (and subsequently Abdus Salam) used this mechanism to devise a theory which combined the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces. Weinberg was able to predict the masses of the carriers of the weak nuclear force: the W and Z bosons. These particles were found at CERN about 16 years later, with masses very close to Weinberg’s original predictions.

By about 1972, the new field was being referred to by most physicists as the Higgs field, and its field quantum was called the Higgs boson. The ‘Higgs mechanism’ became a key ingredient in what was to become known as the standard model of particle physics.

Jim Baggott is author of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ and a freelance science writer. He was a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Reading but left to pursue a business career, where he first worked with Shell International Petroleum Company and then as an independent business consultant and trainer. His many books include Atomic: The First War of Physics (Icon, 2009), Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy and the Meaning of Quantum Theory (OUP, 2003), A Beginner’s Guide to Reality (Penguin, 2005), and A Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments (OUP, 2010). Read his previous blog post “Putting the Higgs particle in perspective.”

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25. Why is the Higgs boson called the ‘god particle’?

We’re celebrating the release of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ with a series of posts by science writer Jim Baggott over the next week to explain some of the mysteries of the Higgs boson. Read the previous post: “What is the Higgs boson?”

By Jim Baggott


The Higgs field was invented to explain how otherwise massless force particles could acquire mass, and was used by Weinberg and Salam to develop a theory of the combined ‘electro-weak’ force and predict the masses of the W and Z bosons. However, it soon became apparent that something very similar is responsible for the masses of the matter particles, too.

The way the Higgs field interacts with otherwise massless boson fields and the way it interacts with massless fermion fields is not the same (the latter is called a Yukawa interaction, named for Japanese physicist Hideki Yukawa). Nevertheless, the Higgs field clearly has a fundamentally important role to play. Without it, both matter and force particles would have no mass. Mass could not be constructed and nothing in our visible universe could be.

In his popular book The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?, first published in 1993, American physicist Leon Lederman (writing with Dick Teresi) explained why he’d chosen this title:

This boson is so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive, that I have given it a nickname: the God Particle. Why God Particle? Two reasons. One, the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing. And two, there is a connection, of sorts, to another book, a much older one…

Lederman went on to quote a passage from the Book of Genesis.

This is a nickname that has stuck. Most physicists seem to dislike it, as they believe it exaggerates the importance of the Higgs boson. Higgs himself doesn’t seem to mind.

Jim Baggott is author of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ and a freelance science writer. He was a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Reading but left to pursue a business career, where he first worked with Shell International Petroleum Company and then as an independent business consultant and trainer. His many books include Atomic: The First War of Physics (Icon, 2009), Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy and the Meaning of Quantum Theory (OUP, 2003), A Beginner’s Guide to Reality (Penguin, 2005), and A Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments (OUP, 2010). Read his previous blog post “Putting the Higgs particle in perspective.”

On 4 July 2012, scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) facility in Geneva announced the discovery of a new elementary particle they believe is consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson, or ‘god particle’. Our understanding of the fundamental nature of matter — everything in our visible universe and everything we are — is about to take a giant leap forward. So, what is the Higgs boson and why is it so important? What role does it play in the structure of material substance? We’re celebrating the release of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ with a series of posts by science writer Jim Baggott over the next week to explain some of the mysteries of the Higgs. Read the previous post: “What is the Higgs boson?”

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