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On Tuesday and Wednesday, the first stable proton beams were injected into the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Here’s a nifty videomajigger that explains the basic functions of the various devices which make up the LHC:

A few ‘quick’ explanations from someone who should totally not be giving them (welcome to the internets):

The “hadron” in Large Hadron Collider refers to a type of subatomic particle which is made up of “smaller” particles called quarks. These quarks are bound together by something called the strong force, and are pretty damned tough to pry apart (that’s why we have to collide ’em). The hadrons used in the LHC are mostly single protons, which, if you remember your high school chemistry, are hydrogen ions.

The video mentions that the goal of the LHC is to recreate the conditions present very shortly after the Big Bang. Why do this? The idea goes like this. An infinitesimal time after the Big Bang, the universe (as it was) was so hot and so dense that everything was a big homogeneous mess. If you were able to pick out any two particles and look at them, they would be exactly the same. Within a very small time period, however, the universe expanded and cooled. This cooling “created” from that one homogeneous mess four fundamental forces which we recognize today: gravity, the strong force, the weak force, and electromagnetism.

Bluntly put, all of these fundamental forces were once the same thing. The goal, then, is to figure out how they were unified and what exact mechanism led to their separation in the first place. This mechanism is referred to as “spontaneous symmetry breaking”. The classic way to explain symmetry breaking is with the following example. Say you have a ball sitting precisely at the top of a hill jutting up from the ground. Any very small movement of the ball will cause it to plunge down one of the sides of the hill. Before this movement, the ball had no preferred side. It was indifferent towards falling in any one direction. Thus ‘direction’ was a symmetry of the system. Once the ball falls, however, it prefers the direction it happens to be falling in. In that case, symmetry is broken under the action of falling. It now prefers a direction. Similarly, at some time very shortly after the Big Bang, the four fundamental forces disambiguated and became their own unique selves. They chose a “direction”, and have had to stick to that direction ever since.

The current model of particle physics is called the Standard Model, and it describes how three of the fundamental forces–the weak force, the strong force, and the electromagnetic force–are mediated via fundamental particles. It’s actually better than that, because we’ve been able to unify two of these forces–electromagnetism and the weak force. This unified theory is called the electroweak theory.

One prediction of the Standard Model is a particle called the Higgs boson. This is a pesky little part of the standard equations (developed by a guy named Higgs, obviously) which we’ve not yet been able to experimentally verify. To understand why physicists think such a particle exists, you have to know a little bit about the Standard Model. This model is what’s called a quantum field theory. Quantum field theories postulate that the universe is composed of a sea of ‘virtual particles’ (quick aside, there is some evidence for these virtual particles). The actual particles that we observe–electrons and protons and so on–are simply eddies or bubbles in that sea. (Pick your analogy, because none of them are exactly apropos.) This means that given any quantum field, there should be an associated particle.

But why should the Higgs boson exist? Well, the Standard Model predicts something that is.. uh, very wrong. It predicts that most things in the universe do not have mass. Yeah, kind of a big deal. Well, a guy named Peter Higgs thought, “Hey, you know these quantum field theories have been really successful. I bet you anything that mass results from another one of these fields.” Direct quote, no lie. (Ok, lie.) So Higgs developed the framework for this, and a guy named Steven Weinberg integrated it into the model. Lo and behold, when you plug everything in things suddenly get mass again. And it doesn’t eff up any of the other parts of the model. Bonus. Well, if there’s a field, there’s an associated particle. Hence there should be a Higgs particle.

Well what about gravity? The Standard Model describes three of the four forces as exchanges of quantum particles. The electromagnetic force results from the exchange of photons. The strong force results from the exchange of particles called gluons. The weak force results from the exchange of two particles called the W and Z bosons. We know how these particles work (more or less), and we’ve verified their existence experimentally. Presumably there exists a particle which mediates the gravitational force, too (which is tentatively called the graviton). Unfortunately, when we try to write down a theory for such a particle, it doesn’t pan out. It turns out that it works when you’re talking about everyday distances, but not for quantum-sized distances. Which is a problem, because all of the other forces work perfectly fine at any distance.

All that flapdoodle you hear about string theory is exactly the attempt to solve the problem of quantum gravity. The LHC comes into this because there’s a non-zero chance that it will verify one or two of the predictions of string theory (if string theory is in fact true). There are other non-trivial things physicists will be looking for as well. Symmetry Magazine is a good place to start if you want to learn a whole lot more.

More Math on YouTube

So here’s more math fun on YouTube.

This one comes from a guy named Keith Bower. He’s a quality control engineer and statistician who talks about statistics and probability. There’s no board math, so you’ll have to do a little imagining or else get a text book to follow along.


I know the laws of the Blogoverse dictate that I’m supposed to feign unwillingness before kowtowing unabashedly to a popular controversy–citing, I dunno, journalistic integrity and civic duty? Sadly, I am no such hero. Because I just found this whole episode freakin’ funny. It provided many lulz, many in disbelief, most in hilarity.

Obligatory summary: Scienceblogger P.Z. Myers threatens a cracker. Turmoil ensues. Cracker gets poked with a nail. Epic anti-climax.

Survivors of the massacre

But this thing isn’t just crackers and circuses (see what I did there?). Yes, here’s where I pretentiously tell detractors of the kerfuffle that they don’t understand its subtleties. No, not really. But know that I’m thinking it. And feel scorned, won’t you please, in the process.

Seriously, though, (no not really) the only blameless people in this whole situation are those teasing P.Z. for claiming not to care about the cracker while devoting multiple posts to it. They haven’t yet figured out, poor souls, that web pages can be generated seamlessly via online user interfaces in mere minutes, and need not be coded painstakingly by hand in HTML anymore. And for that they deserve our collective pity. And a free Geocities account.

On a more important note, I get to leave work twenty minutes early today. Who’s jealous?

Making Censorship into LULz

(Edit: The video’s been taken down by YouTube. Whoops)

This video is pretty lulz, as the kiddies say.

I wonder what happens if you were to, say, make a censorable image using those censor bars. Would that, too, be censored?

Keeping the Bucket Full

Y’know, after an academic year, one feels, well… less than academic.

A housemate of mine in College Park has what might medically be termed ‘leaky bucket syndrome’. After even a full week’s absence from ‘Teh Learnin’, knowing full well that a whole summer’s worth of procrastination awaits him, everything just starts leaking out. He literally does not recognize the content of a topic he studied a mere week or two earlier. And he is, or aspires to be at least, an engineer of some sort (cringe). I’m sure I’m exaggerating a tad here, but still.

Aside from descrying the wellspring of my life’s sustenance (also known widely as a very emo way of describing the process of finding a job. And yes, I realize that emo jokes are no longer in style. And I’m sure you realize that I realize. How meta do you want to go here, huh?), I think that leaky bucket syndrome is my topmost worry.

I know, mid-swing into the semester, especially what might be my last semester of higher education ever, I don’t feel like picking up the dense manual of obscure cuneiform fuck-all that is a mathematics textbook ever again. But right now, at the end of the gauntlet, with no foreseeable intellectual challenges ahead, I can feel ‘teh smart’ draining out of me. I mean, just today it took me a whole fifteen minutes to solve a simple freaking 3 by 3 eigenvalue problem. Worrisome, innit? How the hell was I supposed to remember that symmetric matrices have orthogonal eigenvectors? (All you non-math people are probably saying to yourselves right now: “Yeah.. uh huh.. yeah I always forget that.. Yep.. *cough*”. Well think how I feel, bitches!)

So I have two general strategies going forward. One is to read lots of science and math blogs. But that’s too easy. I already do that. So, checkity-check. My other strategy, then, is to work my way through five or more pages of a math textbook every single day, preferably on a topic I’ve not explicitly encountered before. That oughta show ’em! Or something.

So yeah. Anybody have any other suggestions? How do I keep my math skills fresh? Or am I doomed, unless I teach or work in academia, to mathematical-Alzheimer’s-land?


Yesterday, the University of Maryland College Park officially churned out about fifty or so mathematics undergraduates, one of them being me.

The ungrateful bastard in me couldn’t help snicker at the priestly robes and gewgaw I had to wear (and could not, by university decree, rent or otherwise obtain without buying), sigh repressively at the cramped folding chair lattice I had to sit in for two hours, and squint in disbelief as a Catholic priest uttered the word “God” and the word “grateful” in my presence together within a seven second interval. But okay, yeah, it was pretty exciting.

I was not, as I imagined should happen in such a circumstance, struck in the eye by the corner of a graduation cap. In fact, no one threw their cap. Which has me questioning every movie with a graduation ceremony in it I’ve ever seen. Now that I think about it, nostalgic, coming-of-age pop music didn’t start playing as I descended the stairs of the ceremony building either. Not even a Pachelbel’s Canon. Such a let down.

It feels good though. What am I going to do with myself now? Hmm..

I need to start finding some of that green papery stuff, don’t I? Hrmph.