One of the greatest ironies of physics is that to see the smallest things in the Universe we need huge machines. The Compact Muon Solenoid detector (or just CMS for short) is one of two extremely complex – and very, very large – pieces of equipment used by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva to sift through the bits of shrapnel created when packets of protons smash into each at very nearly the speed of light.
Just how big is the CMS? BABloggee Thomas Radke sent me this picture of it.
Click it to see the original 6000 pixel picture hosted at CERN. Then pick your jaw up from the floor. This monstrosity is 15 meters high – nearly 50 feet! To give you a sense of the scale here, look to the bottom of the green scaffolding on the sides, and you’ll see handrails where people can stand.
I visited the LHC a few years back, thanks to Brian Cox who brought me there for a tour and interview. This was shortly before the gigantic machine was switched on, so we went down 100 meters below the Earth’s surface to take a look. I stood off to one side of the CMS, and the scale of it was hard to grasp. It’s over 20 meters long, and weighs over 12,000 tons – 24 million pounds! A lot of that weight is from the huge slabs of iron you can see painted red.
I made a video during my LHC visit, and the CMS part is about five minutes into it.
Yeah. That’s the kind of stuff we do when we want to pry open the seams of the Universe and peek inside.
Image credit: CERN
Professor Brian Cox is a physicist in England, very well-known there as a popularizer of science. The reasons for this are many-fold, including his ubiquity across media (including podcasts, Twitter, and of course TV)… but also because he has an infectious enthusiasm for science coupled with a boyish charm.
This was all on display recently when he hosted a great segment on the BBC’s show A Night With The Stars, where he simply and effectively demonstrates why atoms are mostly empty space:
Pretty cool, isn’t it? It helps if you can enlist Simon Pegg to help, too!
I like this demo a lot. On a very tiny scale, objects act like both particles and waves. On a big scale, like our solar system, we can think of planets as discrete particles, interacting through gravity only, and it works pretty well. Our semi-evolved brains want to think of electrons that way as well: little spheres whizzing around atomic nuclei. But that’s not the way the Universe works on the quantum scale; electrons act like waves, and that means they can interfere with each other. When a crest meets a trough they cancel, when a crest meets a crest they add together. If you have a wave bouncing around inside a box the result can be chaos.
I like to use the example of sitting in a tub, and rhythmically pushing your body along its length with your toes. It’s hard to do unless the rhythm is just right; otherwise the waves smack into each other chaotically and it’s a mess. But get the pattern timed just right and you’re in sync. That timing is just a simple multiple (like 1 or 1/2) of the time it takes a wave to move from one end of the tub to the other. You can actually feel it as you push; the correct timing just feels natural.
Electrons around an atomic nucleus work the same way. It’s more complicated than your bathtub, but the principle is the same. The electrons can only exist where the wave crests and troughs add up correctly. They literally cannot exist anywhere else. They’re like standing waves, as Brian shows.
We teach kids that atoms are like little solar systems, but that model is really bad! In principle, planets can orbit the Sun at any distance — give a planet more orbital energy and it’ll move away from the Sun and continue orbiting, happy as you please. But electrons can’t do that. They can only be at energy levels where they don’t interfere with themselves (and each other). It’s more like a staircase; they can only move up or down by discrete amounts. Once you figure this out, a ton of stuff becomes possible: lasers, semiconductors, fluorescent bulbs, atomic bombs… it’s quantum mechanics, and it’s a huge, huge field of science.
And it’s all because, as Brian demonstrates, a rope held at both ends won’t vibrate at any old frequency. Amazing, isn’t it?
Post script: can you imagine a show like this running on American TV? No, I can’t either, unless they had a toll number you could call to vote for atoms being a hoax perpetrated by
Big Little Science.
A new Symphony of Science has come out today, in honor of Carl Sagan’s birthday. And I’m pleased to see it features three people I call friends: Neil Tyson, Brian Cox, and Carolyn Porco:
Isn’t that wonderful? Symphony of Science is the work of musician John Boswell, who takes the words of scientists and creates these lovely videos. You should watch them all.
I mention that Neil, Brian, and Carolyn are all friends for two reasons; one is that sharing a love of science is not a zero-sum game, a conserved quantity. The more we share it, the more people who are heard and seen doing it, the more desire there is for it. Each of us broadens the audience for all. There is no fixed capacity for learning and wonder.
But also, it’s more than that. It’s a reason I think Sagan would’ve agreed with as well: we’re all in this together. Paupers and kings, famous and infamous, men, women, black, white, all flavors of humanity. We are all riding this planet, and where we go is largely up to us. We can make the most of it, or we can squander it.
I am personally inspired by pieces like this. Like most people, I sometimes lose sight of my own goals, I sometimes get mired in the day-to-day business of life. But when I see Neil and Brian and Carolyn and, yes, Carl Sagan, letting their passion show, mine returns as well.
Keeping the passion is what drives the personal thirst for learning. Showing that passion is what instills it in others.
Show a little passion now and again. Who knows who you’ll inspire?
A new Symphony of Science has just been released: "The Quantum World!"
This one is more upbeat than the others, and features my pal Brian Cox, as well as a few other familiar faces… including a delightful end quote by Richard Feynman which I think can be rephrased to say why scientists love doing what they do: science answers the questions posed by the imagination.
You should watch all the Symphony of Science videos. They’re delightful.
Tip o’ the boson to Gia.
In the midst of a lot of bad science news (though to be fair there’s some good news, too) comes some great news: in the UK, students taking A-level math and science has gone way up. There’s been a 40% jump in math, and 20% each in physics and chemistry over the past 5 years.
Why? No doubt it’s at least partly because employers need people highly-trained in sciences — our new technology won’t invent itself, folks (the T-1000 notwithstanding).
Brian is a scientist, a speaker, a science popularizer, and has hosted several TV shows, including the wildly popular "Wonders of the Solar System" and "Wonders of the Universe". Brian used to be in a rock band, and has the sort of Beatles-esque look, charm, and talent that makes his work very compelling.
Full disclosure: Brian and his wife, Gia, are friends of mine. I’ve done a few things with Brian in the past (a podcast taped at the Large Hadron Collider, for example — that picture here is the two of us deep inside the LHC — and a fun bit on NASA’s Deep Impact mission for a BBC show). But that’s not why I’m supporting him here; in fact, it’s the reverse: I like him because he’s a good guy doing good work.
It’s not hard to see why The Guardian — and the people interviewed in that article — might say Brian is behind this recent jump in sciencophilia. His impact on the culture of science in the UK is both wide and deep. It’s probably not possible to know the exact influence he’s had, but when you look at how many people were drawn into science by Carl Sagan 30 years ago, it’s not out of the question that Brian really has taken up that mantle. As have many others, as I’m sure my
Hive Overmind Discover Magazine co-blogger and science writer Carl Zimmer would agree, too.
There are times I despair for my own country because of the copious and pernicious attacks on science, but if what The Guardian says is true, it means science popularization may be stemming that tide, or at least holding it back a bit. Making science understandable, comprehensible, even fun, is having a more profound and very real impact on individuals. It may even be inspiring an interest in math and science, and causing people to study these fields further.
And that, my friends, is exactly the whole point.
I have long said that science fiction on television, even when it’s bad, can serve as inspiration for a budding scientist. Heck, I watched some pretty phenomenally bad scifi TV and movies and a kid, and it fueled the fire of interest and love I had for science. Do I wish the quality of science in the entertainment media were better? Sure! But that doesn’t mean it’s not serving a purpose.
Science in other media, like the news, is another matter. There, it’s critical that it be accurately represented. And it gets worse when someone makes a documentary that’s actually a polemic – a persuasive piece meant to change or guide opinions.
That’s why I really like this talk by scientist Brian Cox, who makes science documentaries for the BBC and is becoming a science celebrity in the UK. It was the Royal Television Society Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture which he gave earlier this month on BBC2. he has a lot to say about the difference between documentaries and polemicals, and it’s worth your time to watch.
I love social networking on the internet. All the usual reasons apply here, but I also get an added bonus: I find a lot of interesting stories I can write about when I surf places like Fark, reddit, and so on.
I also read the site BuzzFeed to get my daily nerd-meme info. At the bottom of the page they have a list of five interesting stories becoming popular. Today, I was a bit surprised to see this one:
[Click to emprimatenate.]
For those who don’t know, that’s Professor Brian Cox, an English physicist and TV science documentary host… and also a friend of mine. Over the years I’ve seen Brian in a varied number of states, and while he does look all too human, I can’t think of any time I’ve been with him that would qualify him as a "naked chimp". I’ve heard he shares 98% of his DNA with chimpanzees, though. Oh, and there’s a rumor he got so agitated after giving a TED talk he had to be shot with a tranquilizer dart. That one does have the ring of truth to it.
Anyway, when you click the link, it takes you to an article that actually is about a naked chimpanzee (it has alopecia). The primate in question is shown on the right. Hmmm. Quadraped, bilateral symmetry, nerve and sensory center located up high in a protected bony structure… yup. It’s Brian.
For those of you wondering what’s going on, the explanation is actually pretty simple. A lot of these social network sites allow you to enter a link and a comment for others to see, and the software automatically searches that link for an appropriate photo to add. So, for example, when someone posts one of my blog entries to reddit, the link will include a little thumbnail image of, maybe, the comet nucleus picture I was describing. It saves the submitter time and effort, and is pretty nifty.
This must have happened at BuzzFeed. The software examined the naked chimp story page, and on the sidebar was a link to a video interview with Brian about the Large Hadron Collider. It grabbed the picture, and there you go. Here’s the actual sidebar bit:
Of course, shortly after this picture was taken Brian sat down and started picking insects out of the photographer’s hair. I think that’s in the video. They’ll probably have edited it out by the time you look at it, though.
Libel is a serious issue in the UK: the laws are seemingly right out of the Dark Ages, making it easy for antiscience cranks to sue journalists when unflattering pieces are written about their crankery. That’s why the Libel Reform campaign was started, and that’s why they’re trying to raise money. And what better way to popularize this serious issue than to make a decidedly unserious geek calendar?
I love that picture; it’s of my friends Gia Milinovich and her husband Brian Cox. If you’re from the UK he needs no introduction, but if you’re American, he’s a scientist and TV presenter and becoming quite the media darling — not the least reason for which is that he speaks his mind when it comes to nonsense.
Brian and Gia are just one page of the Geek Calendar, which you get purchase online. Lots of other photogenic geeks are pictures as well, including
The Hive Overmind’s Discover Magazine’s own Ed Yong.
And while I do like that picture of Brian and Gia, I think I may still like the one I took of them better when I was visiting them in London. I can’t prove it, and they wouldn’t admit it at the time, but I’m pretty sure when I snapped this shot they were texting each other.
Oh– I also totally believe he would jam a screwdriver into a toaster to try to fix it. And I know it would be up to Gia to actually get it working again.
Graphing variables is a critical skill in science. If something depends on something else — like the speed of sounds depends on air density, or the surface gravity of an object depends on its size — then if you plot the two things on a graph, you should see a pattern. The result is a line, or a curve. If the two things don’t depend on each other, you get a random collection of dots: a scatter plot.
About a hundred years ago, two astronomers plotted the brightness of stars against their color (from blue to red) and what they found was amazing: a clear connection between the two! In fact, stars fell into several groups, and over the years we’ve learned about why that happens. Most stars are stable, like the Sun, and fall into the Main Sequence of the plot. Some are old, some young, some dying, some dead. And they all have their place in what we now call the Hertzsprung-Russel diagram, or H-R diagram for short. It’s one of the most useful tools astronomers have ever created.
And now my friend Stuart who runs Astronomy Blog has done it one better: he’s created an H-R diagram of media stars. It’s awesome:
That’s really funny, and I wish I had thought of it. The vertical axis is fame, as denoted by Google results, and the horizontal axis is peer-reviewed papers. I’m actually only first author on I think two papers, but I was listed as author on a lot due to my work on Hubble. So I do OK on this diagram. I note that Brian Cox is more luminous than me, but then, he’s an actual rock star. If there were a branch for white main sequence stars, he and I would be in a dead heat.
Next up, I hope: a space-time diagram showing warping due to massive astronomers.