Wednesday, October 14, 2009

LHC Whacked by Artifacts from the Future? ... or God? ...or... Something?

Two points of disclosure here before we continue:

1) I am not religious. Not even a tiny bit. I respect other people's right to be religious, as long as they respect my right to not be religious. I have Omnipotence Avoidance Issues. New term. You like it?

2) I like soup. Often for lunch, I go and grab a soup. It's healthy. It's nutritious. It's relatively low-fat. Well, except for the cream based soups, but that's another story.

Here's how those two life principles of mine come into play: Sometimes after I grab my lunch-soup, I come back to the office to eat and wipe my brain clean by reading websites that have nothing to do with my line of work - a guy eating soup needs a break, you know? So, there I was today, slurping my soup (minestrone, quite good actually) and reading IO9, a pop-culture science fiction website, and this little diddy popped up:

Is the Large Hadron Collider Being Sabotaged from the Future?

I, uh, choked on my soup a bit.

Ok, IO9 is a Gawker property, which is all about the snarky, so I put my tongue in my cheek as I read the article...which linked to a more serious New York Times article on the topic...and, that led me to research this a wee bit more.

For those that have missed the story up 'til this point, the Large Hadron Collider is one of the largest, and, as of today, still unrealized physics experiments in human history. It is a particle accelerator - a 17-mile long loop of a giant circus ride used to slam high energy particles together, so that we can look at the wreckage to see from what the original particles were made. Particle accelerators are nothing new in physics, but the LHC is another beast entirely. At 3 billion all in, 10,000 collaborators strong, and 100 countries supporting the effort, the LHC has a lot of eyes on it, and a lot of tasks on its plate once it gets lit up. The most important of which (and this fits into our little story here) is the tracking down of the Higgs-Boson particle. Or, as the kids like to call it these days: The God Particle. (Fox News didn't even give it this name, physicist Leon Lederman did.)

To understand why the Higgs-Boson particle is called The God Particle, requires just a cursory understanding of the current theory of what is the base level construct of matter. This theory, referred to as the Standard Theory, posits (oh lord, I used the word "posits" in my own blog. Kill. Me.) that there are four basic interactions (from weakest to strongest, first the two you've heard of: gravity, electromagnetism, and then the two with unsexy, unimaginative names: the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force) between all matter in the Universe. Those interactions are conveyed through physical particles operating at quantum level scales: massless photons, W bosons, Z bosons, bleh bleh bleh. Physicists have observed all of the particles in this soup that are vector particles - i.e. elementary particles that have a vector or tensor component. Theoretically, there are scalar particles (single, unitary particles that impart no vector component to whatever system they belong to)...well, ok, really just one scalar particle.

Guess which one?

If the Higgs-Boson particle exists, and it can be observed by the LHC, it is the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle to understand how everything is constructed. All mass. All matter. Everywhere. It's a big deal. It is the Thing That Binds Us All, and that is not an understatement. Physicists with more poetic bent like to say that observing the Higgs-Boson particle would be like looking into the face of God...

...but, hell. Poetic physicists say a lot of crap like that for dramatic effect, so that their spouses know that all those nights "working" down "at the lab" is really worth it...and...they're real sorry you can't relate to what they're doing. Sure, it's not making a new marketing slogan for beer...or...writing a new iPhone application that burps when you shake it...or...anything tangible, really....but...it's like looking at the face of God, dammit...doesn't that mean anything, Wanda? Wanda? No...don't leave...where are you taking the kids...? Hey!! Get back here!

...oh, sorry. Uh, where was I...?

Right... Standard Models...right right... ok...

So, finding the Higgs-Boson particle is the missing link, and has been a holy grail of particle physics since it's existence was first hypothesized in 1964. Attempts have been made before, most notably at Fermilab, and the results have been tantalizing, inferring that the particle does exist. Inference, however, is not enough to convince rabid physics wonks. Without a direct observation of the God Particle, the science community cannot accept its existence. (Which, honestly, is fair. I mean, the financial community accepted the existence of the viability of giving $1M home loans to people making $30,000 a year without direct proof they can pay it back, and look where that got us.)

Enter the Large Hadron Collider. First proposed in the 90's, costs on the LHC were kept down (hahah, I love saying that) by reusing a tunnel at CERN that was used to house the LHC's smaller cousin, the Large Electron–Positron Collider.

As the LHC startup date of Sept 2008 approached, the blogosphere and mainstream media alike were filled with crackpot theories about the LHC bringing about the end of the world because it could spontaneously call into existence a black hole, causing the earth to fall in upon itself in huge Michael Bay-esque sorta deal.

The world waited, and on the morning of September 10th, 2008 the fuse was lit (just kidding) and two tiny particles were whipped through the 17 mile long circular tunnel, 3 kilometers at a time. Successful first test! Yay science, yay! No black hole, no Michael Bay, no Bruce Willis, just two subatomic particles goin' for a ride.

The official inauguration of the LHC was to take place on October 21, 2008 with continuous operation after that date. However, on September 19th, 2008, 6 tons of liquid helium was found venting through several of the bends in the magnets. This was the high-energy physics equivalent of the Challenger disaster, and the LHC was shut down until the problem was sussed out, and the system shaken down...

...waiting time is over, as the LHC is scheduled to go into operation in a few weeks, sometime in mid-November, 2009.

Alright, back to my choking-on-my-soup story...

In early October, 2009, two of the 10,000 physicists connected to the LHC, Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, Japan, published a series of papers on the Cornell University physics website arXiv.org with titles like "Test of Effect From Future in Large Hadron Collider: a Proposal” and “Search for Future Influence From LHC." Yup, the wacky duo of Nielsen&Ninomiya are saying that some measurable, physical force from the future is preventing the LHC from starting up and showing humans the God Particle.

That isn't too preposterous -well, ok, it really is, but stick with me here for sake of argument. The main thrust of the theory is that exposing the Higgs-Boson particle propagates events backwards through time preventing the LHC from functioning correctly. There's precedent for this in physics already - it is not possible, for instance, to observe the actual physicality in spacetime that we like to call a singularity, an infinite gravity well which is caused by the existence of an infinite mass. A singularity can never be directly observed because it comes with a cosmic bathrobe called an event horizon, beneath which no observational evidence can escape. The outer boundary of the event horizon is observed as the object we call a black hole. (In other words, a black hole is not a thing in and of itself, but an effect caused by the thing at its center: the singularity. A singularity not enshrouded by an event horizon is called a naked singularity, and is considered to be impossible.

The effect of the theory put forward by the comedy stylings of Nielsen&Ninomiya is the temporal equivalent. In essence, they propose that the exposure of the Higgs-Boson particle causes a ripple effect in spacetime that propagates backwards (rather than forwards) and extinguishes the cause of the Higgs-Boson exposure in the first place. In this case, I assume, by causing the venting of the aforementioned liquid hydrogen.

I guess I would have been fine with a theory which was expressed along pure physical cause-and-effect (or in this case: effect-and-cause) terms, but....there's more to this story. In an unpublished essay referenced by the New York Times, Nielsen supposedly made the statement “Well, one could even almost say that we have a model for God...that He rather hates Higgs particles, and attempts to avoid them.” Yeah. God. That God. I'm hoping he's being glib, as when Einstein expressed his distaste for quantum mechanics with the now famous phrase "God doesn't play dice with the Universe." (Einstein was not literally saying "God would never do this," he was simply expressing a rabid distaste of any physical principle in which the outcome could not be mathematically predicted.) I'm hoping that's the sorta meaning that Nielsen had in mind, but...uh...I kinda doubt it.

In the early 90's, looking for the Higgs-Boson particle was attempted before - this time as a sole effort by the United States. The Superconducting Supercollider was another BASC (Big Ass Supercollider) in a tunnel underneath Texas. $3B in, the US Congress canceled the project in 1993. An attempt by congress to control spending? Maybe. A panic move by reluctant Texas Governor Ann Richards? Possibly. A Bill Clinton "fuck you" to a project championed by Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush in Bush's home state of Texas? Sure, why not?

Calling the cancellation of the project an "anti-miracle," Nielsen has a different explanation: the future called, and they want their Higgs-Boson back. The cancellation of the project, he is suggesting, was caused by the effect of reverse propagation through time with the cause being the actual observation of the Higgs-Boson particle. Can a pure physical effect like a temporal shroud cause the US Congress to cancel funding? Or is Nielsen suggesting that God did it? Is he suggesting that people from the future did it? I'm not sure that he's sure.

For all my love of making fun of them (and I do so enjoy it), Nielsen&Ninomiya are not idiots. Nielsen was one of the co-founders of string theory, and Ninomiya won the Partical Physics Medal from the Japanese CiNii. These are smart guys, who sometimes take a road less traveled a bit too far, perhaps. Fortunately, they realize how their theories could be viewed - and they proposed an experiment:

CERN, it is argued, should engage in a game of chance - sort of a physics roulette. The activation of the LHC to look for the Higgs-Bose particle, should be triggered by an unpredictable event. A random number generation method, of some sort, could be connected to the big, giant "GO" button on the device. They even wrote a paper on it: Card Game Restriction on LHC. If the experiment occurs as planned, there is no effect from the future, if it doesn't occur, then there is some sort of physical response propagating backwards through time to prevent the LHC from conduction the particle observation.

What Would Einstein Do?

UPDATE: November 7th, 2009: Yeah. A bagel bit. Dropped by a bird. I'm just sayin'...

UPDATE: Dec 10th, 2009: So far, no Hand of God or Future Mettling: LHC One Step Closer to Unlocking the Secrets of the Universe


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Relaxing with a Book in the Age of Digital

When I was a kid, I was (pretty) convinced that everything I was going to do for entertainment would be available to me in my pocket - or at least through some sort of magic panels in the walls of my home. This was back in the late 60's early 70's, so most people just assumed I was nuts. (Of course I also thought I'd be living on the moon, so they were sorta right.)

I blame Star Trek for these thoughts. People walked around the cardboard sets of the Enterprise with little "memory cards" (ok, painted pieces of wood) that they would place into ubiquitous slots in walls or desks and entertainment, information, communication, etc would appear on the nearest wall panel. When walking around the surface of a planet (or, more appropriately, the redressed backlots of Desilu studios), they would put their little wooden memory cards in their tricorders to get the same information. (Incidentally, when you are 10, a binoculars case makes an excellent tricorder.)

Now, of course, that scenario is pretty much my Life In Information. (Actually, I'm willing to bet it's pretty much the Lives of Information of all you folks that read blogs like this.) My home is wired for gigabit ethernet, which is wired to the outside world at whatever speed Comcast decides to give me for the day. My body is bathed in wifi signals capable of 300Mb/s transmission, and the little memory cards in my phone, laptop, camera and camcorders contain portable files that I just haven't moved to my house network yet. Whenever I wish I can call up information, communication or entertainment on panels throughout the walls of my house, or on portable devices when I'm not at home.

Gone are my CDs, DVDs, albums, photographic prints, and other paraphernalia of the era of physical media, which - for the record - lasted from 3100 BC until, oh, a maybe few years ago. 5000 years, give or take a few decades, is a good run for any technology trend, dontcha think?

One of the last pillars of the era of physical media to fall is the printed word. There's a myriad of conversations going on right now, of course, about the fall of newspapers and magazines - and as much as I love my beloved weekend New York Times, I easily made the transition to nytimes.com.

However, the one form of printed word that seems to be taking forever to make the transition from atoms to bits is the book. Ironically, this was the first physical-to-digital medium that came under attack back when the internet was young. It made sense that it should have been the first to go, since even Moby Dick can be compressed down to about 200K when converted to a text file. 200K was the perfect size for dialup modem transfer rates of the day. So, what happened? After music, television and now high-definition film has made the move, why has it taken about 15 years before anyone was considering digitally consuming literature seriously?

Back in the day, electronic books (eBooks, or digital books, or whatever you want to call it) were displayed first on computer screens, and later on PDAs. While there were adherents to this, they were mostly the bleeding edge crowd - people who didn't mind ruining their vision by staring at small, glowing screens of maybe a few sentences. It was a horrible experience, and a terrible way to read. (Society has a short memory, and it seems to have forgotten about this period of eReading - as is evidenced by the Kindle Reader for the iPhone. The type of folks that would use this little glowing perversion of a book are the modern day equivalents of those of us in the early 90's that would stare at books on our Palm Pilots. Good luck with that.)

The Kindle, Sony eReader, Plastic Logic and others have improved upon the experience by making use of a display screen from eInk, which manipulates physical particles to display text on a screen. I've written about this experience before, but in short eInk technology duplicates the reflective properties of paper almost exactly. The effect is astonishing, and reading Moby Dick becomes a pleasure again.

So, why are Amazon, Sony and others hiding their sales figures? Obviously because the success of these devices is moderate, not groundbreaking as it was with the iPod's conquering of digital music. The reasons for lackluster sales are many: licensing deals with publishers are still strange (the publishers still think it's reasonable to charge 80% the cost of a physical book), the eReaders themselves are still too expensive (think printer ink, Sony and Amazon), and the DRM issues are still too restrictive (why the hell can't I read something I bought on the Sony Reader store on my Kindle?). Marketing around these devices has also been terrible - there's still confusion in the market as to why someone would want a single purpose device that doesn't display color images when they have their laptops, macbooks and iPhones. The explanation is simple (i.e. my rant on reading long form content on glowing screens), but I rarely hear any of these companies come out and talk about it.

Nonetheless, all of these reasons are really just business problems which will get sorted out...but even when those problems are solved, there is still more to the story on the slow adoption rate, and it may be emotional and very hard to duplicate digitally. It's really complicated. Ready? Here is it is...

People like books.

Books are big, bulky, a bitch to move from home to home, they get lost at the beach or when you lend it to a friend, and they smell mildewy if left out in the backyard overnight. None of that matters.

People like books.

People like books more than they like DVDs, CDs, record albums, liner notes, or anything else that the digital revolution has supplanted. They line our walls, they tell people who you are and what you are about when they walk into your house, they have author's signatures, they just feel good when you pick them up and hold them. It's entrenched in us. In our culture. In all cultures. The oldest thing that you can call a book (no, it's not the Bible, chill the eff out) is probably the Epic of Gilgamesh, at around 2150BC. Books have been used for trade, for securing power, as seats of knowledge for kings, and have been the source of global memory since long before the internet. (Award for the Greatest Information Crash Without Backing Up has to go to the sacking of the Ancient Library of Alexandria.)

So, there is an emotional tie here that is going to be hard to move past - and I include myself in this mix. I have whole-heartedly embraced the eBook: you'd have a hard time prying my Sony eReader from my hands - its more convenient, takes up almost no space, makes my business travel load a hell of a lot lighter, and my book consumption has gone WAY up in the last few years since owning it. But....I like books. They still cover my walls. I still schlepped them from Minnesota to Wisconsin to Pasadena to Boston to LA to San Francisco, and all the intercity moves in between, over the years. It was expensive. It was a pain in the ass. Yet, I still did it. We all do it.

What kind of marketing does it take to move past thousands of years of emotional attachment to a bulky, inefficient, easy to destroy form of media? Honestly, I don't have one of my glib, well-you-just-do-this, technology-will-solve-it answers. I just pose the question.

Update:

So I put the Star Trek reference in as sort of a joking referral to what a proto-geek I was growing up, but it turns out - Star Trek was precognizant about the durability of books in the human condition as well. Check out the clip below from the episode "Court Martial," starting at about 3:30 as Kirk's lawyer explains why he doesn't use computers.