Archive for March, 2010

LHC Smashes Two Particles Making Physics History

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Photo of LHC via flickr by poluz

March 30, 2010:  Today, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider managed to make two proton beams collide at high energy, marking a “new territory” in physics, according to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

The $10 billion research tool has been accelerating the beams since November 2009 in the LHC’s 17-mile tunnel on the border of Switzerland and France.

The beams have routinely been circulating at 3.5 TeV, or teraelectron volts, the highest energy achieved at the LHC so far, according to CERN.

Experiments at the LHC may help answer fundamental questions such as why Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity—which describes the world on a large scale— doesn’t jibe with quantum mechanics, which deals with matter far too small to see.

The collider may help scientists discover new properties of nature, in search of the as-yet theoretical Higgs boson, also called “the God particle” in popular parlance, believed to give matter its mass.

In an emotional live webcast from CERN today, the physicists at CERN and Tokyo explained the importance of this event and the unknowns that will be answered:
1. Understand the start of our universe: will be able to study metric of very early universe, get a tiny piece of ‘primordial soup’ of when the universe first started right after the Big Bang.
2. Study dark matter, the composition of about 25% of our universe.
3. The Higgs boson particle, the origin of mass and what gives substance to our universe, including the surrounding components, the evidence of supersymmetry—the idea that every particle has a “super partner” with similar properties in a quantum dimension (according to some physics theories, there are hidden dimensions in the universe).

The overall sentiment during the live webcast was the hope to have a new theory of physics, to open a completely new world where we will be “mapping the unknown.” As for the next process, there are over 100 physicists worldwide who are currently analyzing the data from today. According to one physicist in Tokyo, “stay tuned.”

via CNN and LHC First Physics Webcast

In a 2002 Sputnik Observatory interview at the Geneva, Switzerland headquarters of CERN, Rolf Landua, a CERN physicist, explained the Higgs boson particle and its importance to the existence of our universe:

“The Higgs particle may be responsible for the fact that there is the existence of a material world. The Higgs is the particle which physicists believe is a responsible for giving mass first of all to particles themselves and finally to us. So that prevents us from being massless ghosts which float through the universe and cannot get into the state where the universe can think about itself, so that may be a reason why people call it the ‘God particle.’ The Higgs particle is first of all, a field, and particles and fields are somehow the same thing. A field which fills all our universe everywhere, in the same way, homogeneously. It’s like an ocean if you want. We are swimming in an ocean of Higgs particles but we don’t see it. But particles feel it. So now very often the analogy is made that certain particles which are massless, they swim in a way through this Higgs universe or this Higgs ocean which is basically without any friction, and they flow through it straight through. They swim against the current, they experience friction through this Higgs field and this friction is what we call inertia and inertia is what we call mass. And that is basically the underlying concept. Now we believe that we can excite this Higgs field in a way that Higgs particles are produced. That the field manifests itself through the quantum, this Higgs particle, and that could be done here at CERN and we could observe it here with our detectors. and that would be the direct proof that this particle exists. For the time being, it is a mathematical concept which allows in a consistent way to give mass to particles. Because if this particle didn’t exist and nothing of a similar kind, we would not know why there is mass at all or why there is inertia at all in the universe. So this particle is extremely important to find. We can’t see it of course, but our universe is full of all kinds of fields and all kinds of particles. Those which make up our material world and those which are called factor vacuum fluctuations and all these fields which exist, fill the universe with some kind of soup. And the Higgs particle is one of those. But it has as its most direct consequence, which we can observe, namely inertia and mass which keeps us on our seats.”

The Present Can Effect The Past. The Future Can Effect The Present.

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Photo via flickr by kwerfeldein

Retrocausality is the idea that the present can affect the past, and the future can affect the present. Strange as it sounds, retrocausality is perfectly permissible within the known laws of nature. It has been debated for decades, mostly in the realm of philosophy and quantum physics.

Researchers experiments may initially hold retrocausality’s feet to the fire. But, if retrocausality is confirmed —and that is a huge if—it would overturn our most cherished notions about the nature of cause and effect and how the universe works.

If retrocausality does exist, it says something profound about how the universe works. “It has the potential to solve what is one of the biggest problems in modern physics,” says Huw Price, head of Sydney’s Centre for Time. It goes back to quantum entanglement and “nonlocality”—one particle instantaneously affecting another, even from the other side of the galaxy.

If we measure one entangled particle that sends a wave backward through time to the moment at which the pair was created, the signal would not need to move faster than light; it could simply retrace the first particle’s path through space-time, arriving back at the spot where the two particles were emitted. There, the wave can interact with the second particle without violating relativity.

“I’m going with my gut here,” says Avshalom Elitzur, a physicist and philosopher at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, “but I believe that when we finally find the theory we’re all looking for, a theory that unifies quantum mechanics and relativity, it will involve retrocausality.”

via SFGate

Beetle Mania

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Photo via flickr by esagor

Researchers at Northern Arizona University (NAU) think they may have found an environmentally safe and readily available weapon against the tree-eating armies of bark beetles that have chewed through millions of acres of West’s pine forests, leaving behind dead tress and the risk of wildfires.

A research assistant suggested using sounds to aggravate the beetles. They tried Queen and Guns N’ Roses and played snippets of radio talker Rush Limbaugh backward. None produced the desired results. Then, the beetles were exposed to digitally altered recordings of their own calls, the sounds they make to attract or repel other beetles. The response was immediate.

The beetles stopped mating or burrowing. Some fled, helter-skelter. Some violently attacked each other. Most important, they stopped chewing away at the pine tree, suggesting that the scientists may have discovered a sort of sonic bullet that could help slow the beetles’ destructive march.

“Our interest is to use acoustic sounds that make beetles uncomfortable and not want to be in that environment,” said NAU forest entomologist Richard Hofstetter, who led the experiment nicknamed, without apology, “beetle mania.”

Bark beetles have killed nearly 80 million ponderosa, piñon and lodgepole pines in Arizona and New Mexico and tens of millions more across the West over the past decade. Years of punishing drought left the trees unable to protect themselves against the attacks, which carve ugly scars into forests, weaken the surrounding ecosystem and heighten wildfire danger.

The lab hopes to find more funding to continue its research into acoustic pest control. Scientists think it won’t be long before they can take the experiment into the field.

A Giant Leap for Humanoid Kind

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Photo by NASA/GM

NASA and GM are are working on an advanced humanoid robot that could soon hitch a ride into space. Called “Robonauts,” these next generation space explorers may perform similar scientific tasks to astronauts, but wouldn’t require any of the life support equipment or shelter. The first robonaut could travel to the space station to work side by side with astronauts in the next three years.

Unlike NASA’s Mars Rovers, the first of these humanoid robots, called Robonaut 2, is designed to closely mimic the shape, movement, and behavior of a human. This could make it ideally suited to working alongside humans, or for testing human spacecraft and living quarters, but it also presents some unique engineering challenges. GM hopes to use the robots in its manufacturing plants and to incorporate the resulting technology into some of its products, including vehicle safety systems.

The engineers behind Robonaut2 began working on the robot in 2007; its design originated from a version that NASA created more than 10 years ago.

Robonaut2 currently consists of just an upper torso. It weighs about 45 kilograms and is equipped with over 350 sensors. These include tactile sensors on the contact points of the robot’s fingers and its palms, and proximity sensors in its arms. Engineers have also built springs and elastic materials in the joints to give the robot better control and flexibility, and to allow it to move at faster, more humanlike speeds. The robot can carry payloads of about nine kilograms–four times more than other humanoid robots.

via Technology Review

Ocean Bacteria Act As ‘Superorganism’

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

Photo via flickr by komehachi888

Aarhus University scientists have found that sulphur-eating bacteria that live in muddy sediments beneath the sea floor may be connected by a network of microbial nanowires that could shuttle electrons back and forth, allowing communities of bacteria to act as one super-organism. The interconnected ecosystem of the bacteria are compared to the Na’vi people of Pandora in the movie Avatar, where they plug themselves into a network that links all elements of the biosphere, from phosphorescent plants to pterodactyl-like birds.

“The discovery has been almost magic,” says Lars Peter Nielsen of Aarhus University. “It goes against everything we have learned so far. Micro-organisms can live in electric symbiosis across great distances. Our understanding of what their life is like, what they can and can’t do—these are all things we have to think of in a different way now.”

Nielsen and his team took samples of bacteria-laced sediment from the sea floor close to Aarhus. In the lab, they first removed and then replaced the oxygen in the seawater above the samples. To their surprise, measurements of hydrogen sulphide revealed that bacteria several centimetres from the surface started breaking down the gas long before the reintroduced oxygen had diffused down to them.

Nielsen believes a network of conductive protein wires between the bacteria makes this possible, allowing the oxidation reaction to happen remotely from the oxygen that sustains it. The wires transport electrons from bacteria in deeper, oxygen-poor sediments to bacteria in oxygen-rich mud near the surface. There, they are offloaded onto the oxygen, completing the reaction. Nielsen calls the process “electrical symbiosis.”

via Kurzweil AI and New Scientist

Plant Rhythms Model for Computing

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Photo via flickr by Martin_Heigan

A newfound ability to model the complex feedback loops that control plant clocks could have important implications for computing.

One of the limitations of conventional thinking in computation is that computable functions proceed in a sequential manner, one independent step after another. In the biological world, things are more complex because steps in biological computations may not be independent—for example, the circadian rhythm in plants, the 24 hour cycle of biochemical processes that govern behavior. The cycle has various important features such as the ability to synchronize with an external periodic light source and to continue to oscillate even in the absence of variations in illumination.

Biochemists have long known that these cycles are the result of various biochemical feedback loops in which the transcription of genes is boosted and damped. Of course, plant clocks have been studied for hundreds of years and a huge amount is known about how they work, particularly about Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant that is the standard object of study for plant biologists. The trouble is that nobody has been able to accurately model the behavior of these rhythms from first principles. That’s because these processes do not involve independent sequential steps, so conventional computational methods are just not up to the job. Biochemists need some other way of thinking about their problem.

As luck would have it, just such a system has been waiting in the wings. Process algebra is a form of computation that can handle multiple simultaneous interdependent steps and this makes it perfect for modeling these tricky biochemical networks and the feedback loops that drive them. Ozgur Akman, Andrew Millar and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh used this approach to model the circadian rhythm of the green alga Ostreococcus tauri, which has the honor of possessing the simplest planet clock yet discovered.

They co-created a model of the various feedback loops in the Ostreococcus clock using a process algebra known as Bio-PEPA. This allowed them to explore how the clock responds to factors such as changes in illumination patterns and to genetic mutations, a factor that effects how the clock might change over evolutionary time scales.

While the outcome will help make predictions for plant biology, the real importance may be more subtle. An often overlooked property of process algebra is that it is not equivalent to a standard sequential Turing machine. Because process algebra encompasses concurrent processes and the communication between them, it is subtly different and potentially more powerful.

via The Physics arXiv Blog

Power Your Home on a Bottle of Water

Monday, March 15th, 2010

Photo via flickr by Muffet

With one bottle of drinking water and four hours of sunlight, MIT chemist Dan Nocera claims that he can produce 30 KWh of electricity, which is enough to power an entire household in the developing world. With about three gallons of river water, he could satisfy the daily energy needs of a large American home.

Using the electricity generated from a 30-square-meter photovoltaic array, Nocera’s cobalt-phosphate catalyst converts water and carbon dioxide into hydrogen and oxygen. The process is similar to organic photosynthesis, except that in nature, plants create energy in the form of sugars instead of hydrogen.

The hydrogen produced through artificial photosynthesis can be stored in a tank and later used to produce electricity by being recombined with oxygen in a fuel cell, even when the sun isn’t shining. Alternatively, the hydrogen can be converted into a liquid fuel.

With his start-up company, Sun Catalytix, which was awarded $4 million in government funding through the new ARPA-E agency, Nocera hopes to make the system affordable enough to allow individual homes to generate their own fuel and electricity on-site.

via Kurzweil AI

Life Beyond Our Universe

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

Photo via flickr by Pink Sherbet Photography

Whether life exists elsewhere in our universe is a longstanding mystery. But for some scientists, there’s another interesting question: could there be life in a universe significantly different from our own?

A definitive answer is impossible, since we have no way of directly studying other universes. But cosmologists speculate that a multitude of other universes exist, each with its own laws of physics. Recently physicists at MIT have shown that in theory, alternate universes could be quite congenial to life, even if their physical laws are very different from our own.

In work recently featured in a cover story in Scientific American, MIT physics professor Robert Jaffe, former MIT postdoc, Alejandro Jenkins, and recent MIT graduate Itamar Kimchi showed that universes quite different from ours still have elements similar to carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and could therefore evolve life forms quite similar to us. Even when the masses of the elementary particles are dramatically altered, life may find a way.

Modern cosmology theory holds that our universe may be just one in a vast collection of universes known as the multiverse. MIT physicist Alan Guth has suggested that new universes (known as “pocket universes”) are constantly being created, but they cannot be seen from our universe.

In this view, “nature gets a lot of tries — the universe is an experiment that’s repeated over and over again, each time with slightly different physical laws, or even vastly different physical laws,” says Jaffe.

Some physicists have theorized that only universes in which the laws of physics are “just so” could support life, and that if things were even a little bit different from our world, intelligent life would be impossible. In that case, our physical laws might be explained “anthropically,” meaning that they are as they are because if they were otherwise, no one would be around to notice them.

via MIT News

In a conversation with Sputnik Observatory, Astrobiologist David Grinspoon explores the notion that there might be other carbon-based life elsewhere:

There, I think, is a possibility of many kinds of life that might be radically different from what we’re looking for because we only know how to look for what occurs to us. And a large part of what occurs to us comes from what we see looking around the Earth. So we assume it’s carbon-based, we assume it’s water. Those might be good assumptions. I believe there is other carbon-based life elsewhere. I don’t know if it’s all that way. But when you come to the possibility of other chemical basis for life, if you think of life as just maybe some kind of self-propagating, evolving system that forms in certain conditions of complexity and flow and chemical interaction, then maybe it doesn’t have to be carbon-based – in which case I can imagine the possibility of life in much hotter, much colder places: on stars, in interstellar clouds, in comets, in the atmospheres of planets very different from our own. And then, if you want to get even farther out, maybe you can talk about life at very different scales. What about interactions amongst subatomic particles that somehow have some kind of complexity where civilizations rise and fall in a nanosecond that we never know about because they’re inside of our particles? Or on a huge scale, galaxies that are somehow living, orbiting, sandwiches of things forming complexity. You can get pretty far out there if you wanted.

Skin as Network

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Photo via Carnegie Mellon

According to two developments using the human skin as an interface, we are moving closer to the reality that we will no longer need devices as our bodies network in the ubiquitous information world imagined by Philip K. Dick. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Microsoft Research recently introduced a new skin-based interface called Skinput that allows for using hands and arms as touchscreens. Skinput works by detecting the various ultralow-frequency sounds produced when tapping different parts of the skin, allowing users to control audio devices, play games, make phone calls, and navigate hierarchical browsing systems.

Co-developed by Chris Harrison, Ph.D. student at Carnegie Melon and developer of the touchscreen tabletop and Microsoft researchers Dan Morris and Desney Tan, the software matches sound frequencies to specific skin locations, allowing the system to determine which “skin button” the user pressed. A keyboard, menu, or other graphics are beamed onto a user’s palm and forearm from a pico projector embedded in an armband. An acoustic detector in the armband then determines which part of the display is activated by the user’s touch. Variations in bone density, size, and mass, as well as filtering effects from soft tissues and joints, mean different skin locations are acoustically distinct.

RedTacton, from Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation in Japan, has developed a new ‘Human Area Networking’ technology that uses the surface of the human body as a safe, high speed network transmission path. RedTacton employs a proprietary electric field/photonics method, which the company claims surpasses the other methods in terms of communication distance, transfer speed, and interactivity. RedTacton works via receivers interacting with the minute electric field emitted from the body, making communication possible using any body surfaces, such as the hands, fingers, arms, feet, face, legs or torso. RedTacton claims to work through shoes and clothing as well.

via Kurzweil AI and RedTacton

Eye Movement May Unlock Memories

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

photo via flickr by Amy Loves Yah

Do you remember how your breakfast plate was arranged this morning? Even if you don’t, your hippocampus might—and growing evidence suggests that there is a way to retrieve this unconscious memory: through your eye movements.

In a study from the University of California, Davis, neuroscientist Deborah Hannula and her team showed participants photographs of faces superimposed on scenes. Later the volunteers saw the individual scenes again and had to pick the matching faces. By tracking their eye movements, Hannula and her co-workers saw that even when volunteers picked the wrong face, their eyes were drawn for a longer time to the correct one.

Previous studies yielded similar results, but the findings have been controversial because of difficulties replicating them, Hannula says. Her study also showed that the participants’ hippocampus was active during the process, indicating that, contrary to conventional thinking, the brain region is involved not only in conscious memory processing but in other memory tasks as well.

The findings suggest that eye movements can be a sensitive measure for both unconscious and conscious memories, Hannula says. This fact could open up new avenues for working with cognitively impaired patients, who may not be able to verbally or otherwise report what they remember.

The results also have implications for crime scene investigations, Hannula says. For example, eyewitnesses may unconsciously remember the face of a perpetrator. Even the eye movements of the person who committed the crime could betray important information.

via Scientific American Mind