Archive for November, 2008

Congratulations!

By Sean Carroll | November 28, 2008 11:43 am

Slightly belated congratulations go out to our very own John Conway, for being chosen as a Fellow of the American Physical Society. The citation reads as follows:

Conway, John S.
University of California, Davis
Citation: For outstanding contributions in the search for the Higgs boson and physics beyond the Standard Model at high energy particle accelerators.
Nominated by: Particles and Fields (DPF)

And even more belated congratulations to our very own JoAnne Hewett, for being chosen last year, which I totally missed!

Hewett, Joanne
Stanford University
Citation: For her contributions to our understanding of constraints on and searches for physics beyond the Standard Model, and service to the particle physics community leading studies of future experiments.
Nominated by: Particles and Fields (DPF)

This is a great honor, which indicates that the newly-minted Fellow has advanced past a stage of callow youth and cheerful enthusiasm, to a status of grey eminence and profound wisdom. Those of us remaining in the youthful stage will endeavor to show proper respect.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cosmic Variance

Thanksgiving

By Sean Carroll | November 27, 2008 10:55 am

This year we give thanks for the spin-statistics theorem. (Previously we gave thanks for the Lagrangian of the Standard Model of particle physics, and for Hubble’s Law.)

You will sometimes hear physicists explain that elementary particles come in two types: bosons, which have a spin of 0, 1, 2, or some other integer, and fermions, which have a spin of 1/2, 3/2, 5/2, or some other half-integer. That’s true, but it’s hiding what’s important and emphasizing what’s auxiliary.

When it comes to classifying elementary particles, it’s not really the spin that’s important, it’s the statistics. And really, the word “statistics” in this context makes something deep and wonderful sound dry and technical. A boson is a particle that obeys Bose statistics: when you take two identical bosons and switch them with each other, the state you end up with is indistinguishable from the state you started with. Which only makes sense, really; if you exchange two identical particles, what else could you get? The answer is, Fermi statistics: when you take two identical fermions and switch them with each other, you get minus the state you started with. Remember that the real world is based on quantum mechanics, in which the state of a system is described by a wave function that tells you what the probability of obtaining various results for certain observations would be; when we say “minus the state you started with,” we mean that the wave function is multiplied by -1.

This difference in “statistics” seems a bit esoteric and removed from one’s everyday life, but in fact it is arguably the most important thing in the universe. This simple difference in what happens to the state of two particles when you interchange them underlies the most blatant features of how particles behave in the macroscopic world. Think of two identical particles that are in the same quantum state: sitting in the same place, doing the same thing, right on top of each other. If those two particles are bosons, that’s cool; we can switch them and get the same state, which just makes sense. But if they’re fermions, we have a problem; the two particles are purportedly in the same state, but if we switch them (which doesn’t really do anything, as they are in the same place) the state becomes minus what it used to be — seemingly a contradiction.

This seeming puzzle has a simple solution: in the real world, two identical fermions can never occupy the same quantum state! That’s the Pauli exclusion principle, and it has a simple translation into everyday English: fermions take up space. Electrons, which are fermions, can’t just be piled on top of each other as densely as we like; some of them would have to be in the same state, and that can’t happen. That’s why atoms take up a certain amount of space, which in turn is why ordinary material objects don’t simply collapse into themselves. Fermions — electrons, quarks, neutrinos, etc. — are matter particles, constituting the “stuff” of which the objects of our world are comprised.

Bosons, on the other hand, have no problem being in the same quantum state. So they will happily pile on top of each other. This is also important to our everyday lives. Bosons — photons, gravitons, gluons, etc. — are force particles, which pile on top of each other to form the classical force fields that hold fermions together. When you see light — a classical electromagnetic wave made of photons — or are held to the ground by gravity — a classical field made of gravitons — it’s only possible because of Bose statistics.

So the important distinction between bosons and fermions is not the “integer spin”/”half-integer spin” distinction, it’s the “pile on top of each other”/”take up space” distinction. The fact that these sets of features come hand-in-hand is the content of the spin-statistics theorem: particles that pile on have integer spins, particles that take up space have half-integer spins. Which is a deep and beautiful result that relies on the fact that nature is fundamentally quantum rather than classical, and on the topology of the group of rotations in three (or more) spatial dimensions, and on the features of relativistic field theory. None of which I’m going to explain right here, but John Baez has a fun “proof” of the theorem using ribbons which is worth checking out.

Rather, I will just reiterate that if the fermions comprising a turkey didn’t take up space, it would hardly constitute a filling meal; and if the gravitons from the Earth didn’t pile up to form a classical field, the traditional football game really wouldn’t work at all. So for the spin-statistics theorem, we should all be thankful.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science

Something's in the air

By Daniel Holz | November 25, 2008 2:21 am

And it might even be dark matter.

There’s been a rash of slightly odd and suggestive results as of late. There was the observation last month by the PAMELA satellite of an anomalous positron excess at ~50 GeV. This week the balloon-borne ATIC experiment reports seeing a bump in electrons and positrons (they can’t tell the difference) at 500 GeV. MILAGRO has recently seen some weird gamma ray hotspots at 10 TeV. As if all this isn’t enough, Doug Finkbeiner has been warning us that there is an unexplained CMB “haze”.

The reason we care about all of these observations is that they may be pointing to dark matter! Yes, dark matter is dark, so it’s awfully hard to see directly. But some of the favored dark matter particle candidates happen to annihilate when they smack into each other (which happens at sufficiently high density), producing “conventional” stuff (such as electron-positron pairs and gamma rays). And that stuff you can see! So if there are little clumps of dark matter floating around in the Milky Way (which are indeed expected from galaxy formation models, in some cases down to fractions of an Earth mass), then it is conceivable that the dark matter at the center of these clumps annihilates, and produces a visible signal. Needless to say, this would be insanely exciting; hence all the fuss about these recent anomalous results. Yesterday an article on the current dark matter zeitgeist even made it to the top of the front “page” of the New York Times website, right up there with the latest bailout (Citigroup) and some football results. So you know it must be important.

Nobody is claiming a smoking-gun detection of dark matter annihilation as of yet. It may be around the corner. Or not. All we can do is keep looking.

GLAST/Fermi rocket launch

PAMELA and ATIC will refine their results. GLAST (now called Fermi) is airborne, and actively collecting data, and will make a gorgeous map of the gamma-ray sky. And data from the Large Hadron Collider will soon be pouring in. There’s a chance that it will directly detect the dark matter, but regardless, we can’t wait to find out what it does (or doesn’t) see.

There’s a general excitement in the air. In the coming year or two we may discover the dark matter. Then again, it is entirely conceivable that throughout the entire course of human existence the dark matter is never identified. It is precisely this uncertainty which keeps science interesting.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science
MORE ABOUT: dark matter, LHC

The Atom Smashers on PBS Nov. 25

By John Conway | November 24, 2008 6:02 pm

Faithful readers of Cosmic Variance will remember that the documentary The Atom Smashers will be on the PBS show Independent Lens on Tuesday Nov. 25. On the west coast it’s at 10:30 pm; it could be other times in other places. I am in the film, at least the latter half of it, quite a bit, including one of the final long quotes, which I really like.

I’ve seen the film three times now, once the night before the world premiere at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, then at the premiere, and then at Fermilab a month later. At both showings we sat on panels and took questions afterward from the audience – lots of good questions, too, I have to say.

Every time I see it I like it better and appreciate what Clayton and Monica have achieved. Apparently the judges at the Paris Film Festival thought so too, awarding it their Audacity Award. And Ben makes particle physics look as cool as we particle physicists know it is…

Alan Boyle has a very nice article on the film over at his blog, Cosmic Log, at MSNBC. He captured the spirit of the film well, and to my delight got my most cryptic quote to him correct, word for word!

Here is another very insightful take on the film by Anthony Kaufman at SEED Magazine. And though I linked to it before, here is Julia Keller’s piece from the Chicago Tribune, one of the first to appear.

The version appearing on TV is a 53 minute version, rather short compared with the 68 minute version that we’ve seen so far. It will be interesting to see what Clayton and Monica managed to find to remove; I liked it all!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and the Media

What if Time Really Exists?

By Sean Carroll | November 24, 2008 12:01 pm

The Foundational Questions Institute is sponsoring an essay competition on “The Nature of Time.” Needless to say, I’m in. It’s as if they said: “Here, you keep talking about this stuff you are always talking about anyway, except that we will hold out the possibility of substantial cash prizes for doing so.” Hard to resist.

The deadline for submitting an entry is December 1, so there’s still plenty of time (if you will), for anyone out there who is interested and looking for something to do over Thanksgiving. They are asking for essays under 5000 words, on any of various aspects of the nature of time, pitched “between the level of Scientific American and a review article in Science or Nature.” That last part turns out to be the difficult one — you’re allowed to invoke some technical concepts, and in fact the essay might seem a little thin if you kept it strictly popular, but hopefully it should be accessible to a large range of non-experts. Most entries seem to include a few judicious equations while doing their best to tell a story in words.

All of the entries are put online here, and each comes with its own discussion forum where readers can leave comments. A departure from the usual protocols of scientific communication, but that’s a good thing. (Inevitably there is a great deal of chaff along with the wheat among the submitted essays, but that’s the price you pay.) What is more, in addition to a judging by a jury of experts, there is also a community vote, which comes with its own prizes. So feel free to drop by and vote for mine if you like — or vote for someone else’s if you think it’s better. There’s some good stuff there.

time-flies-clock-10-11-2006.gifMy essay is called “What if Time Really Exists?” A lot of people who think about time tend to emerge from their contemplations and declare that time is just an illusion, or (in modern guise) some sort of semi-classical approximation. And that might very well be true. But it also might not be true; from our experiences with duality in string theory, we have explicit examples of models of quantum gravity which are equivalent to conventional quantum-mechanical systems obeying the time-dependent Schrödinger equation with the time parameter right there where Schrödinger put it.

And from that humble beginning — maybe ordinary quantum mechanics is right, and there exists a formulation of the theory of everything that takes the form of a time-independent Hamiltonian acting on a time-dependent quantum state defined in some Hilbert space — you can actually reach some sweeping conclusions. The fulcrum, of course, is the observed arrow of time in our local universe. When thinking about the low-entropy conditions near the Big Bang, we tend to get caught up in the fact that the Bang is a singularity, forming a boundary to spacetime in classical general relativity. But classical general relativity is not right, and it’s perfectly plausible (although far from inevitable) that there was something before the Bang. If the universe really did come into existence out of nothing 14 billion years ago, we can at least imagine that there was something special about that event, and there is some deep reason for the entropy to have been so low. But if the ordinary rules of quantum mechanics are obeyed, there is no such thing as the “beginning of time”; the Big Bang would just be a transitional stage, for which our current theories don’t provide an adequate spacetime interpretation. In that case, the observed arrow of time in our local universe has to arise dynamically according to the laws of physics governing the evolution of a wave function for all eternity.

Interestingly, that has important implications. If the quantum state evolves in a finite-dimensional Hilbert space, it evolves ergodically through a torus of phases, and will exhibit all of the usual problems of Boltzmann brains and the like (as Dyson, Kleban, and Susskind have emphasized). So, at the very least, the Hilbert space (under these assumptions) must be infinite-dimensional. In fact you can go a bit farther than that, and argue that the spectrum of energy eigenvalues must be arbitrarily closely spaced — there must be at least one accumulation point.

Sexy, I know. The remarkable thing is that you can say anything at all about the Hilbert space of the universe just by making a few simple assumptions and observing that eggs always turn into omelets, never the other way around. Turning it into a respectable cosmological model with an explicit spacetime interpretation is, admittedly, more work, and all we have at the moment are some very speculative ideas. But in the course of the essay I got to name-check Parmenides, Heraclitus, Lucretius, Augustine, and Nietzsche, so overall it was well worth the effort.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Time

Putting the Heat in the Hot Big Bang

By Mark Trodden | November 24, 2008 6:37 am

Attend enough talks about the future evolution of the universe, and you’re sure to hear a speaker quote the Robert Frost poem, Fire and Ice, uttering the words

Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.

This is typically a reference to the question of whether the universe will recollapse, forcing all its contents into smaller and smaller volumes, increasing the pressure and the temperature, or whether it will expand forever, gradually cooling to ever lower extremes of temperature. What is less often discussed however, is a related question concerning the very early cosmos – was the universe born in fire or in ice?

If you’re reading Cosmic Variance, chances are you’re aware of and comfortable with the idea of the big bang. Physicists arrive at this concept by first making observations of the universe today and understanding how these are described by well-established theories of gravity and particle physics. We then extrapolate back in time to infer what the early universe must have been like, and then test the theory by working out what new predictions result and checking whether they agree with observations. This methodology works remarkably well and has provided us with an extremely well tested, self-consistent and coherent understanding of the universe.

The central result that arises from this work is that the universe is expanding – all distant galaxies are moving away from us and the further away they are, the faster they are moving. Of course, this means that in the past all galaxies were closer together. When you get far enough back in time, what inevitably results is that one has a very high density of matter and, as your intuition from compressing everyday gases will tell you, one expects that in this early phase the universe should have been extremely hot – a birth in fire, in Frost’s language. In fact, this heat is what we see, diluted and reddened by cosmic expansion, as the cosmic microwave background radiation today.

The prediction and observation of this leftover radiation constitutes compelling evidence for big bang cosmology. However, it doesn’t answer the question of how all that hot matter came into being in the first place. Now, we do know that if we extrapolate far enough back in time one is eventually no longer able to use gravity (describing the physics of space and time and understood by Einstein’s General Relativity) and quantum mechanics (describing the physics of the very small) separately, but is forced to take into account their mutual effects. Thus, it is entirely possible that the origin of matter can only have its explanation in a theoretical framework that allows us to answer questions about gravity and particle physics working together in this way, such as string theory. However, we think we have an explanation that may be well-described within the theory of inflation, seemingly needed to solve the problems of homogeneity and flatness in the early universe, and thought to be responsible for the fluctuations in matter and spacetime that ultimately lead to large scale structure in the universe. Indeed, if inflation is correct, then its diluting power means that any preexisting mechanism for producing regular matter is rendered moot, and a new, post-inflationary mechanism is mandated. In Frost’s language, the universe may have been born in ice, and inflation may explain why, and how fire was breathed into this barren spacetime.

Inflation requires a large vacuum energy, due to the potential energy of a slowly-rolling scalar field, in order to cause the early universe to expand exponentially quickly. While this addresses the problems mentioned above, this accelerated expansion is also extremely efficient at diluting the universe of all other matter, leaving only the vacuum energy behind. Thus, within inflation, the question of the origin of the hot big bang becomes the question of how our huge universe, bereft of matter save for the potential energy of the inflaton and fleeting quantum fluctuations, is ultimately populated with the hot plasma of quantum fields that eventually cools to make galaxies, stars, planets, and you.

To get a handle on how this large vacuum energy can be converted into regular matter fields when inflation ends, it is useful to look at a caricature of an inflaton potential.

inflatonpot.jpg

As one can see, this consists of a remarkably flat portion, along which the inflaton slowly rolls, leading to inflation, followed by a piece where the field can pick up speed and cease to behave as a cosmological constant. It is this piece in which we will be interested. As the inflaton starts to oscillate rapidly around its minimum, there are two possible damping terms through which it can dissipate energy. One is natural redshifting due to the expansion of the universe. But the second is through decays to other particles. This can be quite an efficient process, and the energy density in the inflaton can be smoothly converted into that of a thermal bath of particles to which it couples. This process is known as reheating, and provides one possible way in which inflation can answer our question.

There is, however, a subtlety that can arise in this picture. The way I described it above, one pictures the decay of the inflaton as rather like a pendulum swinging in air, gradually transferring its energy to the air molecules through friction, and gradually coming to a halt. Indeed, this is a possibility, but it is not the only one. In fact, now that we’ve mentioned swinging, you might be able to imagine what else can happen. Anyone who has sat on a swing knows that if you are given a big push, and just sit on the swing, you will swing back and forth, and gradually come to a halt, as I described for the pendulum. However, one doesn’t have to be so passive, and every child knows that by kicking ones feet at just the right times, one can actually get the amplitude of the swing to grow larger and larger. This is a phenomenon that physicists call resonance.

How might this apply to the inflaton? Obviously, the inflaton doesn’t get to kick its feet – it has a natural frequency governed by the curvature of the potential, and roughly speaking that’s all there is to it. However, if one thinks in Fourier space, one can see that the equation governing how the inflaton decays into other matter fields depends on the wavelength (and therefore frequency) of those fields, or modes (it is, for you experts, a Mathieu equation). For a given inflaton potential, the natural frequency of the inflaton’s oscillations has no particular relationship to the frequency of a randomly chosen mode. However, there are certain ranges of mode frequencies for which the oscillations of the inflaton are just right to excite those modes resonantly, pumping lots of energy into them, just like the child on the swing. This is called parametric resonance, and for the case of the inflaton’s decay into matter, the whole process is referred to as preheating.

Although preheating is an out of equilibrium phenomenon, eventually almost all the energy produced equilibrates, and produces a plasma at a given equilibrium temperature. One might therefore wonder how there could be any observational consequences of this hypothesized early cosmic phase (and hence whether such considerations are scientific at all). But it turns out that some of the energy may never equilibrate, and that there are therefore a number of possible fascinating consequences of preheating. Some of these tightly constrain particle physics and inflationary models, others provide novel ways of approaching some unresolved cosmological conundrums. Next time I’ll tell you about them.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science

Sufficient Reason

By Sean Carroll | November 23, 2008 12:28 pm

Dana McCourt at The Edge of the American West has a short series of posts on Leibniz and Spinoza, based partly on The Courtier and the Heretic by Matthew Stewart. This is great stuff, the kind of thing blogs do better than anything — bite-sized interesting pieces that stand by themselves, just because. (And the cheap chronological hook that November 18 was the day in 1676 when the two met in the Hague.)

All noble things are as difficult as they are rare.

The best of all possible worlds.

Why should we be loyal to reason if it pushes us into the abyss?

Scientists think of Leibniz as Newton’s rival in inventing calculus, and barely think of Spinoza at all. But they were both among the most influential philosophers of all time.

Leibniz published books and treatises, but much of what we know of his philosophy comes in the form of letters. I’ve joked that he invented the calculus on the back of a cocktail napkin in the corporate lounge while his flight from Paris to Hanover was delayed, and that of course was an exaggeration for comic effect.

It wasn’t the calculus, but a dialogue on theology, and it was on a yacht from London to Rotterdam that was held fast in port by headwinds.

The two men came started from different launching points, but ended up arriving at very similar philosophies.

Spinoza’s naturalism lead him to atheism, but Leibniz came to Spinoza via his theism. That is, Leibniz found himself desperately trying to come up with an argument that showed that his own philosophy was not threatened by the spectre of Spinozism, but his philosophical commitments, especially those concerning the nature of God, meant his options were limited.

Foremost among those commitments was the Principle of Sufficient Reason: the idea that nothing is “just because,” there is always an intelligible reason for everything feature of the world. It sounds innocent enough, but takes you to dangerous places if you buy into it with all your heart.

As far as I can tell, the PSR is not especially popular in respectable philosophical circles these days, but it is still hanging in there. It’s basically the foundation for Paul Davies’s claim that any respectable laws of physics must have a good reason for being the way they are. I don’t agree, myself; it might be true, but I’m very open to the possibility that the final product of our investigation into the ultimate workings of nature will be a set of rules that could easily have been different, but they simply are they way they are. At the very least, I would strongly defend the proposition that we should be open to this possibility; whether or not there is a small set of brute facts about the universe that lack any underlying justification, there is certainly no good reason to deny that scenario on the basis of pure thought, before we know what the ultimate rules actually are.

At a more casual level, the PSR shows up in the common belief that everything happens for a reason. That’s where the pernicious side of this purportedly sunny philosophy rears its head: if everything has a purpose, even the most terrible random events require an explanation, and from there it’s a short road to the urge to put the blame on someone. Or, on the flip side, to kill ’em all and let God sort them out. One day, when human beings have universally adopted an enlightened materialist view of the cosmos and have developed a corresponding system of ethics and morality, an important piece of the puzzle will be an acceptance of randomness and contingency. All is not for the best, in the best of all possible worlds, and that leaves it up to us to try to make things better.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy

Copernicus: Still Dead

By Julianne Dalcanton | November 21, 2008 5:26 pm

It seems that archeologists have definitively identified the remains of Copernicus, using a combination of forensic reconstruction and DNA matching. Historians were pretty sure that he was buried in a particular church, but weren’t quite sure where within it the grave actually was. They found a likely set of bones a few years back, and a reconstruction of the face from the skull sure looked an awful lot like Copernicus. (It also happened to look an awful lot like James Cromwell, the actor who played Farmer Hoggett in Babe, but he’s still alive).

copernicus

While exercises like this are of historical interest, to me they’ve always raised the question as to when a set of remains becomes fair game for mucking about. If you were to dig up poor great aunt Edna, extract her skull, and sent it off to a lab in Sweden, you might be looked upon as being disrespectful or worse. But, digging about to find the remains of Copernicus is apparently completely OK, and was actually ordered by the local Catholic bishop. So when does this happen? Is there something like the copyright system where the right to be outraged by disturbance of a grave expires after a certain number of years? Is it more like radioactivity of the soul, where the connection to something sacred fades with an e-folding time?

It’s certainly a culturally loaded question as well. Locally, a set of 9000 year old remains found in the Pacific Northwest were the subject of dispute. Local tribes claimed Kennewick Man as one of their ancestors, and requested that the remains be given back to the Umatilla tribe for reburial. Scientists, on the other hand, wanted to continue to study the remains, and argued that testing showed that the skeleton was unlikely to have actually been a member of one of the tribes. There are on-going law suits to repatriate native american skeletons to their tribes. So obviously different cultures have different standards for when it’s acceptable to study their dead, and Copernicus lost out.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Science and Society

The Man Who Observes the Universe Smokes Viceroys

By Sean Carroll | November 20, 2008 6:07 pm

Speaking of classic astronomical images, I did a tiny double-take at this great 1959 ad for Viceroy cigarettes — one of an impressive collection of examples where science was appropriated in the cause of attracting more smokers, over at bioephemera.

viceroythinks.jpg

Anyone who reads a lot of books on astronomy recognizes that guy in the background, or at least the image from which he is derived — that’s Edwin Hubble at the 48″ Schmidt telescope at Mt. Palomar.

hubble2.jpg

Admittedly, some artistic license was taken. The guy in the ad is a bit younger, less rumpled, wearing a tie — perhaps a bit thinner. Most importantly, the inevitable pipe that accompanies pictures of early-20th-century astronomers has disappeared. One wouldn’t want the impression that the man who thinks for himself actually prefers pipe tobacco to Viceroys.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society

Elevator Pitch Contest

By Sean Carroll | November 20, 2008 11:49 am

Yesterday’s launch event for the Science and Entertainment Exchange was a smashing success. The enthusiasm of everyone in the room was palpable, especially on the Hollywood side — these folks would love to be interacting more closely with scientists on a regular basis. (Let me pause to give a plug for Eleventh Hour, a show which I haven’t actually seen yet, but whose writers were complaining that they sometimes take grief for being too scientifically accurate.) I came away from the symposium with lots of new ideas, and also a deep-seated fear of our coming robot masters.

So, in honor of the new program, we hereby announce the Cosmic Variance Elevator Pitch Contest. I don’t know about you, but many folks I know with an interest in science take great pleasure in complaining about the embarrassing lack of realism and respect for the laws of nature apparent in so many movies and TV shows. Here’s your (fictional) chance to do something about it.

Opening scene: you step into an elevator at the headquarters of CBS/Paramount Television in Hollywood. (Unclear why you are there — perhaps to have lunch with your more-successful friend from high school, who works for their legal team.) There is only one other person in the elevator with you for the journey to the top floor — and it’s Les Moonves, President and CEO of CBS! (Again, unclear why he is taking the same elevator as you — we’ll fix that in post-production.)

Here is the perfect opportunity for your elevator pitch.

You have thirty seconds — which, as this blog is still a text-based medium, we’ll approximate as strictly 100 words or less — to pitch your idea for a new TV show that is based on science. It can be an hour drama, a half-hour sitcom, a reality show, game show, documentary, science fiction, whatever you like. For example:

I have an idea for a show called Cosmic Variance. It’s about seven scientists who blog during the day, but at night they fight crime! And to do it, they used advanced notions from modern physics and astrophysics, from adaptive optics to quantum decoherence. They’re young, they’re sexy, and they break hearts as they bust heads. But their university colleagues are already suspicious of their blogging, so they have to keep the crime-fighting activities completely secret. They have a deep underground lab where they carry out cutting-edge experiments, and there’s a canine sidekick named Sparky.

Okay, that’s a fairly silly example. I’m not eligible to win the contest. But you, the reader, are! So here are some of the ideas you want to keep in mind while polishing your pitch:

Most importantly: Les Moonves’s goal in life is not to make science look good. It’s to make money. So don’t pitch that this show would make the world a better place, or make science seem interesting; convince him that it’s exciting to everyone and will attract millions of eyeballs.

Use the science. For our purposes, we’re less interested in a show idea that tacks on some science to make things sound cool, as we are in a concept that couldn’t happen without the science.

Story is paramount. As much as we love accuracy and realism, there has to be a compelling narrative. You need to convince Moonves that people will be emotionally connected to the characters and their situation.

It’s easy to mock the efforts of others, but here’s a chance to see whether you could really put together a compelling show idea. Leave your entry in the comments. They will be judged by our crack team of scientists/bloggers/crime-fighters, and the winner will get a Cosmic Variance T-shirt. (We have plans to upgrade the quality of our current swag options.) Please note that there is not some hidden plan to actually make any TV shows out of this — we have no clout along those lines, so if you are a professional scriptwriter, don’t dump your plans out in public here on our blog. But if you’re a pro you already knew that.

And then: memorize your pitch! You never know when you might find yourself trapped in an elevator with the right person, and you have to be ready.

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