The Higgs Boson in my Kitchen

This week, we had the enormous privilege of recording the last episode of our SciComm radio programme “Mission Impossible” at the BBC’s Broadcasting House. In Studio 80a, as it happens, which for those of you in the know is apparently the bridal suite of recording studios. There’s room for a grand piano in the space, on which Clive Anderson is apparently wont to pose provocatively.

Here’s a piece I wrote for the show: on the story that the Higgs Boson had been discovered by teams at the CMS and ATLAS detectors at CERN.

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Audio file available here: 

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I’m sure you’ve all heard the big story of the month. The scientific community in this country has been talking of little else, and the newspaper coverage has been exceptionally thorough. In fact, I’m not even sure if it merits repeating. But let us for goodness’ sake err on the side of caution.

I am speaking of course of the discovery made earlier this week that my apartment might have mice. Well, that’s something of an exaggeration. It would be fairer to say that my apartment might have mouse.

My flatmate and I arrived at this conclusion last Saturday afternoon when upon entering the kitchen I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a small brown shadow scurrying across the countertop. The word scurrying, while conventional in the description of mouse pedestrianism, does not quite do justice to the rapidity of the movement. It would be more accurate to compare the experience to having seen a murky puddle being sucked down a U-bend – and in the circumstances, just as unpleasant.

My flatmate, at the time only reachable by phone, was sceptical. The evidence of one brief visual observation was in no way conclusive enough to convince him of the existence of this rogue particle interacting with our kitchen tupperware.

A man of science himself, he knew all too well the errors which can attend any scientific observation. For a discovery to be as hermetically sealed as the aforementioned tupperware, the uncertainty would have to be reduced to at most three parts in ten million: what those in the mouse-detection trade refer to as a peak of 5-sigma.

It stood to reason that we would have to erect some sort of detector, some sophisticated piece of machinery to establish the veracity of my wayward theorising. No appeal to mere simplicity or elegance would assuage my flatmate’s native skepticism – cold, hard, evidence would have to be provided. Ideally in the form of a cold, hard, mouse cadaver. The spirit of the Great White Hunter woken in my breast, I donned my canvas safari jacket and my pithiest of helmets, and crossed the road to the local hardware store.

After an amusing initial misunderstanding over the number of mousepads I wished to purchase for my computer, I was eventually supplied with the latest in mousetrap technology. Returning home, I followed the assembly instructions to the letter, and erected a high-performance Conventional Mousetrap Set-up. Known, to those among the pest-control and particle-detector cognoscenti, by its acronym CMS. My flatmate, currently inaccessible even by telephone, proferred A Total Lack Of Any Suggestions. Or, to use the technical term, ATLAS. Any mouse sent whizzing around the confines of our kitchen skirting board was now bound to be detected.

Tiptoeing slowly out of the room, I extinguished the light and gently closed the door. Mice, much like elementary quantum particles, take objection to being stared at too intently. There then began the agonising process of waiting.

There are few moments in modern civilised life which allow a man to connect with the primitive bestial urges of his forefathers. The time which passes after the setting of mousetraps in the anticipation of their inevitable, ominous snapping is one such moment. This is where one discovers whether one is, if you’ll pardon the expression, a man or a mouse. If exultant, salivating anticipation is the correct genetic response for homo sapiens then my crouching behind the sofa with fingers wedged deep into my ears regretfully sees me lumped in with mus musculus.

After what seemed like hours, a single snap came. I do not think I need to dwell on this painful scene for any longer than to recount that my flatmate, participating in this moment of discovery via celebratory video conference, was satisfied. I had predicted a mouse, and yea, a mouse had been found.

But the happiness was short-lived. The party hat soon began to feel heavy on my head and the champagne turned to acid in my mouth. What if there was more? What if the dusty, hidden corners of our kitchen concealed more than just the one, dearly departed mouse? The two mousetraps I had painstakingly set up, by providing me with absolutely no new information, had given me the worst of all possible solutions. My CMS and my flatmate’s ATLAS might have revealed two mice – or no mice – or even, for that matter, a rat. Any of those outcomes would have shown me that my theory needed work. That the simple prediction of a single mouse was groundbreaking but inadequate. I had learned nothing new about what other mysteries the kitchen might have to offer me – I could only wait in fearful expectation.

This anticlimax put me in mind of a remarkably similar situation which occurred last week, in somewhat less spectacular circumstances, at a place called CERN on the Franco-Swiss border. Their news, which attracted a certain amount of attention in the niche press, concerned a subatomic particle known as the Higgs Boson, which it seems might well have been discovered. This news came after physicists at CERN had spent decades constructing vast multi-purpose particle detectors – also, coincidentally, called ATLAS and CMS – which would give scientists their first glimpses of the conditions prevailing shortly after the Big Bang.

These modern marvels of engineering were designed to do much more than merely isolate the Higgs Boson – a particle often referred to as the last building block required for our current understanding of particle physics to be complete. They could also, much more excitingly, have discovered nothing – or, for that matter, too much – they could have served up hosts of previously invisible particles which, to paraphrase the American physicist Isidor Rabi, nobody had ordered. Either outcome would have sent physicists scurrying back to their drawing boards with carte Blanche to make new theoretical predictions of their own. Instead – at least for the moment – it seems as though they will all have to make do with the Higgs.

Thus the most exciting discovery in modern physics could also, ironically, be the most disappointing. When experimental results exactly match the theoretical predictions, Nobel prizes are awarded to the elite but the footsoldiers of physics are given no traction on the next big challenges that await them.

The one small scrap of comfort I can draw from all this is that our kitchen almost certainly no longer has mice.

Penguins – Beneath the Tuxedo

As part of Imperial’s Science Communication Masters, from whose shadowy clutches I am only just beginning to emerge, those of us on the radio module created a short-lived radio programme called “Mission Impossible”. It was broadcast live every Wednesday afternoon on the university’s IC Radio, and featured short dispatches from a variety of contributors.

Here’s the third of three that I wrote: on the story that penguins might have more interesting private lives than we give them credit for.

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Audio file available here:

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In the squeaky clean pantheon of children’s television characters, it seems to me that few creations can rival, for sheer, childlike innocence, the persona of Pingu, the small, claymation penguin. Not for he the wild, garish, technicolour extravaganza of the androgynous Teletubbies – nor the curiously brazen cultural stereotyping engaged in by Rastamouse and his ilk. Instead, Pingu has delighted children around the world for the best part of thirty years with such placid, minimalist adventures as “Pingu and the Cross Country Skiier”, “Pingu and the Broken Vase” and of course the classic “Pingu and the Big Fish”.

Now it is always somewhat disconcerting to make the discovery that one’s childhood idols have feet of clay. Even if one has grown accustomed to the idea that they may have feet of plasticine.

And so it pains me to say that Pingu’s sweet, childlike manner is nothing more than a facade – part of a carefully executed propaganda operation that has already fooled countless millions. A devastatingly successful PR campaign whose secrets were known to few above 66 33 44 degrees South. And this week, for the first time in over a century, the silence has dared to be broken.

Papers have come to light this week chronicling wildlife observations made by George Murray Levick, the medical officer on Captain Scott’s ill-fated 1910 expedition to the South Pole. Hidden in Levick’s notebooks, somewhere between the unobjectionable references to Antarctic weather patterns and lengthy descriptions of shades of the colour ‘white’, were a number of passages discreetly written in Greek.

When these sections of Levick’s notes were translated, they were revealed to contain references to penguin behaviour so shocking, so unthinkable, so unacceptable to a decent Edwardian naturalist, that the magnitude of their depravity could only be restrained by the terse prudishness of the Greek alphabet.

Before you scoff at George Murray Levick, however, picture this. You have just come out of the cinema – from watching one of the seventy-three recently released Happy Feet movies, say – in which penguins are portrayed as hyperactive beaked humans perpetually ensconced in skin-tight tuxedos. And after all, there is nothing humans find more adorable as animals wearing human clothes. I present, as exhibit A in this argument, the Internet.

You emerge from the cinema, as I have said, and come upon a group of Adelie penguins variously engaged in the sexual abuse of chicks, gang rape, forced penetration and necrophilia. Often, I might add, at the same time. Even without the developmental limitations of a Victorian upbringing I think that this might come as something of a shock.

For one thing, it would certainly put a different perspective on the 1986 episode “Pingu and his friends play too noisily”. And let us not even begin to discuss “Pingu and the many packages” or the unfortuately-named “Pingu finishes the job”.

In retrospect, our little thought experiment puts George Levick’s consternation into perspective. In the words of Douglas Russell, curator of eggs and nests at the Natural History Museum, “Levick, to a certain extent, falls into the same trap as an awful lot of people in seeing penguins as bipedal birds and seeing them as little people. They’re not. They are birds and should be interpreted as such.”

For after all, the behaviour that Levick observed among Adelie penguins in 1910 is not so very remarkable. What makes this story so particularly delicious is not the acts of avian turpitude he observed but the way in which Edwardian gentlemen of science behaved when the world around them refused to play by the Marquess of Queensbury rules. Levick, as all humans are instinctively wont to do, was guilty of anthropomorphising the animals he was observing, and therefore believed that the behaviour he was seeing must shed an upsetting light on human interactions.

There is an important lesson in this for all would-be scientists, in all fields of research. You get answers to the questions you ask. And sometimes, if the answers are too much for you to handle, you should think about rephrasing the question. Or, of course, you could just drown it all out and settle down to watch some teletubbies. I don’t suppose you’ve got the stomach for Pingu anymore.

Cheer Up – It Maya Not be the End of the World.

As part of Imperial’s Science Communication Masters, from whose shadowy clutches I am only just beginning to emerge, those of us on the radio module created a short-lived radio programme called “Mission Impossible”. It was broadcast live every Wednesday afternoon on the university’s IC Radio, and featured short dispatches from a variety of contributors.

Here’s the second of three that I wrote: on the story that 2012 might not be the great cosmic bookend some have in the past believed it to be.

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Audio file available here: 

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Do you want the Good News or the Bad News? If you’re anything like me, then you probably want the Bad News first. That way the Good News, when it eventually comes, will have the appearance of Excellent News in relation to the Bad News which has just preceded it. Unless, of course, the Bad News throws such a colossally wet blanket over the mood that the brief candle of hope the Good News seems to offer flickers out in the great soggy expanse.

Well, let’s try our luck anyway.

The Bad News, seeing as you seem so determined to have that first, is that the world is definitively, inevitably and unstoppably going to end. All human life is doomed to extinction, the beauty of our natural surroundings will slowly decay into the meaningless nothing of the great cosmic void, and our fragile planet is doomed to be annihilated along with it.

So, you might well ask, what’s the Good News?

Well, it turns out that the already long odds of Armageddon popping up on your Facebook events page by the end of /this/ calendar year may have just gotten even longer. And no, this is not based on any exclusive insight into Iran’s Nuclear Programme, nor on Boris Johnson’s recent victory in the London Mayoral election, nor even on the trials and tribulations besetting the Presidential campaign of the ineluctably unelectable Mitt Romney.

So what is the source of this information that should have us jumping for joy in the streets, or at the very least wildly embracing passing sailors in Times Square? Whence comes this intelligence that if we are not to have Apocalypse Now, then, at the very least, we will have the privilege of enjoying Apocalypse Later?

The answer lies in ancient carvings found this week on the wall of a primitive hut in Northern Guatemala, which seem to have been made by Mayan astronomers working nearly 1200 years ago. Now, these Mayan astronomers have a lot to answer for. Those of you who are familiar with your Mesoamerican history will doubtless have heard of the persistent legends surrounding Mayan calendars which seem to mysteriously run out in the year of our Lord, but more importantly their Lord, 2012.

Experts have been saying for years that such claims are, if you’ll pardon my French, horseradish, but the great Mayan Doomsday Prophecy Myths simply refuse to die, much like the great Mayan deities Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Instead of listening to respected experts in the field of Mayan history, we instead prefer to take the word of movie director Roland Emmerich as gospel, and most of us now casually accept people saying “Oh yes, 2012 is the year the world is going to end” with the same sort of equanimity we have come to apply to people saying “Oh yes, 861 thousand residents of London have chosen to devolve the administrative and ceremonial functions of their capital city, for the second time running, to a man who looks like Rupert the Bear.”

Not only are such Doomsday Myths harmful, superstitious nonsense, but the people who propagate these insane demi-truths seem to feel that they are in some way /respecting/ the ancient Central American civilisations whose iconography they are mindlessly plundering. Don’t they understand that they are taking an advanced, indigenous culture – thought to be the only pre-telescopic civilisation to have noticed the fuzzy outline of the Orion Nebula, for instance – that they are taking this culture that they are taking it and reducing it to a three-syllable tagline they can embroider on shirt fronts and print on movie posters and attach to Olympic Game merchandising?

Twen-Ty-Twelve.

It’s not a mystical incantation, not a charm, a hex or a mantra, but a number. A simple number which happens to mark the end of one 400-year period in Mayan chronology known as a ‘baktun’ and the start of another. The year 2012 is the first page of a new chapter in history. It marks a line in the sand. The breath an opera singer might take between musical passages. It just so happens that Mayan astronomers working in the year 800 saw no point in extrapolating any further ahead than 2012. After all, they reasoned, we’ve got plenty of time to continue counting once we nip down to the beach and say hello to these nice Spaniards with their guns and their alcohol and their quaint European diseases. Once we’ve offed them some avocado and made them a nice hot chocolate, we’ll be able to come back to our workshop and carry on where we left off.

Now, this form of procrastination, misguided though it may have been, seems entirely reasonable to me. After all, if you visited your parents’ house in May and noticed that all the calendars in all the rooms went no further than December, would that lead you to deduce that the world was going to end the week following Christmas, or, for that matter, that your parents were idiots for not having ready-bought calendars on hand to span the next two thousand years?

This week’s discoveries in Guatemala prove just that point, according to Anthony Aveni, an academic at New York’s Colgate University and an expert in the field of ‘archaeoastronomy’. He has referred to the newly-discovered wall carvings as the work of Mayan ‘geeks’, who were so keen to test out the accuracy of their new chronological system that they started extrapolating the numbers needlessly further forward in an attempt to check that their calculations would still hold out in 3, 4 and even 6000 years time. In that sense, it’s like a small child counting as high as she can go to make sure that 10,000 is followed by 10,001 just like 9,000 was followed by 9001, and that no tricky business is happening somewhere above her head where she can’t see it.

So, unless you know something I don’t know about, or happen to be giving that little red button in President Ahmadinejad’s situation room a final polish, the world is almost certainly not going to end in 2012.

But if it does, I hope it happens before the Olympics. The District Line is going to be a nightmare.

The real Oliver Cromwell – beautiful healthy skin cells and all

As part of Imperial’s Science Communication Masters, from whose shadowy clutches I am only just beginning to emerge, those of us on the radio module created a short-lived radio programme called “Mission Impossible”. It was broadcast live every Wednesday afternoon on the university’s IC Radio, and featured short dispatches from a variety of contributors.

Here’s the first of three that I wrote: on the story that Oliver Cromwell may have been less cavalier about his image than we may have been led to believe.

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Audio file available here: 

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The cosmetics industry prides itself on maintaining a scrupulously clean image. Celebrities who front international campaigns frequently have morality clauses inserted into their contracts in an attempt to ensure that their insides are as smooth, clean, radiant, perfumed and hairless as their outsides are meant to be.

So one can only imagine the outrage that would have rippled through the upper echelons of the 17th Century cosmetics industry when one of their most famous faces was found to have ordered the death of a king. Hardly the sort of publicity that sells skin cream.

This was where my thoughts ran off to this week when Scientists at the University of Exeter announced that Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England from 1653 till 1658, was quite the dandy. Chemical analyses on the contents of a number of small glass pots which belonged to Cromwell revealed that the Roundhead took great care of his Softface.

Preserved for over 300 years in a small wooden chest, some of the 55 pots were found to contain soft soap, made from the comparatively expensive olive oil as opposed to the animal fats which were more usual at the time. In the words of Sally Pointer, one of the experts involved in the analysis, “This is real top-of-the-range stuff – like going into Harrods and shopping from the most expensive make-up counter.”

Cromwell, the man who put the Model in New Model Army, is of course best known for his enormous, bright red wart, which shone on his lower lip like a beacon of puritanical righteousness.

Doubtless the extracts of “jasmine”, “orange tree flowers”, “bitter oranges” and the cinnamon-like spice “cassia” would have helped give his skin that fresh, school girlish hue that all regicidal tyrants so crave.

The chest, which has been described as “a thing of great beauty; of fine Florentine mosiac enriched with fruit and flowers in pietra dura, containing numerous vases of opal-colored Venetian glass filled with soaps, powders, and oils”, has been in the possession of the Oliver Cromwell museum in Huntingdon since 1962, though this is the first time the contents have been subjected to chemical analysis. The museum’s curator, John Goldsmith, said: “There is no evidence that the contents were medicinal, so if they are not medicinal, they can only be cosmetic.” He went on to point out that despite being associated with a rough-and-ready lifestyle, “Cromwell wasn’t necessarily walking around all the time with mud on his face”. Clearly some beauty treatments were too far fetched even for the 17th Century.