Higgs, or Why I’m Probably Not Going to Get Any Work Done Tomorrow

Tomorrow, at 8 AM Eastern Time (5 AM Pacific) CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) will hold a seminar updating all and sundry on the latest data from two major experiments that have been going on for some time: the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiment and ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus). The latter involves over 3000 physicists from around the world, including a good many Canadians. Both are looking for evidence of the Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle” that, if it exists, explains why certain particles in the Standard Model have the property we refer to as mass.

Over the last few weeks, there’s been a veritable deluge of virtual ink spilled on this matter (I personally like this article, and also this one) despite the fact that the press office has clearly stated:

These results will be based on the analysis of considerably more data than those presented at the summer conferences, sufficient to make significant progress in the search for the Higgs boson, but not enough to make any conclusive statement on the existence or non-existence of the Higgs.

So what’s everyone so excited about? Well, the fact is that even if the data is not strong enough to support a conclusive statement (the statistical term is five-sigma) it’s still the first glimpse the general public will get at the data that, given enough time and replication, will eventually allow a yes-or-no statement to be made. As Churchill is supposed to have said “It’s not the end, it’s not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning.”

Given that so much has been written about the Higgs boson already, as well as the fact that high-energy physics isn’t really my bailiwick, I’m not going to try and tackle the subject in any great depth here. Instead, I’d like to point you to a few places where you can get real physicists to explain things to you, in person or virtually.

Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics will be running a live webcast with the brilliant title of “What the Higgs is going on?” at 12:30 Eastern Time. It’s being pitched at the high-school level, so it should be pretty accessible and informative.

Torontoians can trundle on down to the McLennan Physical Laboratories on the U of T campus (60 St. George Street) at 12 PM to hear a presentation from physicists involved in the ATLAS project on the significance of the mornings findings. That will also be webcast here.

And finally, if you’re in Vancouver, noted nuclear physics facility TRIUMF will be hosting a public seminar in their main auditorium (4004 Wesbrook Mall) at 2:30 PM PT.

Have fun!

The Burgess Shale: A Secret Worth Sharing

A specimen of Anomalocaris canadensis from the Burgess shale, part of the ROM collection. (Photo by me).

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about the Burgess Shale, a national treasure of science that has somehow remained a secret to many Canadians. Discovered over 100 years ago, these sedimentary deposits – situated on top of a mountain in British Columbia’s Yoho National Park – remain unsurpassed as the richest source of well-preserved fossils from the Cambrian period, which stretched from about 540 to about 490 million years ago. Hundreds of thousands of Burgess fossils have been recovered, and the story they tell constitutes a rare and vital peek into the beginnings of complex life on earth. Despite this, most Burgess fossils are only accessible to a handful of experts, and there are few places you can go to learn about them first-hand. All that changed on Thursday, when I was fortunate enough to be present at the launch of a new website dedicated making the Burgess Shale fossils accessible to all Canadians, and indeed the entire world. As Parks Canada CEO Alan Latourelle aptly put it, the Burgess fossils are “a secret worth sharing.”

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The Science of Dance, the Dancing of Science

Interpreting science for the general public is important, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sometimes, no matter how many killer diagrams and visually stunning charts you have, or how refined and elegant your language, there is only one way to truly get your message across: interpretive dance!

The Dance Your PhD contest is the brainchild of John Bohannon, who writes the occasional “Gonzo Science” column in Science Magazine. The rules are simple: the participant must be (or at one time have been) a PhD candidate, and must appear in a video in which they use interpretive dance to explain their research. Beyond that, anything goes. Most videos include a number of collaborators, from lab mates to professional coreographers and special effects artists. This year, the fourth since the international contest started, saw a record 55 entries, which were then whittled down to a field of 16 semi-finalists. The field included two Canadians, one of whom won her category, and both of whom I had the pleasure of speaking with this week.

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Canada shines at 2011 Ig Nobels

Some people gather at a friend’s house to watch the hockey game. Others host Oscar parties. But the group of friends that gathered in my apartment last night were there to share a group viewing experience of an altogether more original kind: to cheer on Canada at the 21st Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremonies. We were not disappointed: among the ten winners were two Canadian scientists investigating, respectively, how temporarily blinding someone can impair their driving ability, and how a certain species of Australian beetle seems to prefer mating with beer bottles.

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Scrabble makes you . . . good at Scrabble

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Scrabble doesn't make you smarter, but it can re-wire your brain. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This week, we got another great example of how science stories are often misinterpreted by the media. Articles in the Calgary Herald, Global News, and MSNBC all touted a new Canadian study which they say shows that ‘Scrabble makes you smarter.’ If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. (To their credit, the folks at CBC appear to have done their homework.) However, the study’s real conclusion is no less interesting: it provides further evidence that the human brain can re-wire itself even into late adulthood.

The first step in getting past media hype is to look at the peer-reviewed article itself. (Happily, the good folks at Memory and Cognition have been kind enough to make this particular work open access, thanks guys!) From the abstract:

The results of a series of cognitive assessments showed that the Scrabble players and control participants differed only in Scrabble-specific skills.

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The Fanged Frogs of Sulawesi

Fanged Frog
A researcher shows the fang - technically bony odontoid processes - of one of the 13 species of fanged frog from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Credit: McMaster Daily News/Rafe M. Brown

Despite a name that sounds like it came from a bizarre horror film, the fanged frogs of Sulawesi are not particularly dangerous. In fact, the exact function of the fangs – technically bony odontoid processes – isn’t really known. “They could be used for defence, although it’s not clear that that’s true,” says Ben Evans of McMaster University “They certainly don’t bite you when you catch one in your hand.” What Evans does know is that these unusual critters are a perfect example of the evolutionary process of adaptive radiation.

Evans is an evolutionary biologist who has spent years studying the biogeography of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. “Sulawesi is interesting because it’s near some large islands, but it’s biogeographically very distinct,” he says. “A remarkable and precipitous faunal divide occurs between Sulawesi and Borneo, which is famous in biogeography. It’s called Wallace’s line.” Alfred Russell Wallace, a well-known biologist and contemporary of Charles Darwin, worked extensively in the Indonesian archipelago, using it as a model system to understand the processes that affect biodiversity worldwide.

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Canadian Science: By The Numbers

Regular readers will note that I’m fond of touting the high quality of Canadian science despite our many perceived handicaps as a nation (smallish population, widely separated institutions, latent inferiority complex, etc.) But how, I hear you virtually ask, can I possibly know this is true? Is there any data to back up this claim? Well, smarty pants, it turns out there is.

Sciencewatch.com is an arm of Thomson Reuters that keeps tabs on trends in published science papers and their impact on the scientific community, as measured by the number of citations. Periodically, they do a retrospective of papers from a certain country, comparing their quantity and impact to the world average. As it happens, this week they featured the True North Strong and Free.

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Earth’s Newest Companion

Earth's Trojan asteroid companion, 2010 TK7
The purple lines show the path of Earth's most recently discovered companion, asteroid 2010 TK7. Credit: University of Western Ontario

It just doesn’t get any bigger than this: today a discovery by Canadian researchers is gracing the cover of Nature magazine. It is not an understatement to say that this is the science equivalent of getting your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone, and I do sincerely hope Martin Connors, Paul Wiegert and their French colleague Chistian Veillet are enjoying their moment in the international spotlight.

So, what’s precipitated this moment of mass adulation and fame? An asteroid. Its name is a bit of a mouthful, 2010 TK7, which according to my limited understanding of the vagaries of the provisional naming system, means it was first discovered in early October of 2010, and that it was the 185th new object to be discovered in that two-week period. But what’s made it so famous is that it seems to be the first example of a Trojan companion for the Earth.
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Is the Internet Damaging Our Memories?

Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan in 1967. Credit: Yousuf Karsh, Library and Archives Canada, www.collectionscanada.gc.ca

Were he still alive, today would have been the 100th birthday of Marshall McLuhan. While most Canadians have heard of him, and might even be able to rattle off his famous, cryptic aphorism, “the medium is the message,” a complete understanding of his theories is beyond most, including some who think they know. Still, his general point – that the electronic media have fundamentally altered our consciousness – seems intuitive enough. On my smart phone, I have instant access to access to all human knowledge via the Internet. It’s an amazing ability, but like many people, I sometimes worry that having this super power has made me less likely to retain information myself. Is my own memory in danger of being made obsolete by Google?

I was thinking about this while reading through a study published in Science last week by Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University.Continue reading

Misunderstood Mosasaur: New Genus Discovered

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Mosasaur skeleton at Maastricht Natural History Museum, The Netherlands. Credit: Wilson44691 via Wikimedia Commons

As you may have noticed, I’m a big fan of stories about extinct animals, and the University of Alberta can usually be relied on to crank them out at regular intervals. Last week, a paper in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology proposed a major re-organization of the mosasaurs, sometimes called the “T-rex of the sea.”

Mosasaurs essentially looked like giant, sea-going crocodiles, with flippers for limbs and a big fluked whale-like tail. They were not dinosaurs; rather they were the biggest members ever of the order Squamata, which today includes all snakes and lizards. And I mean big; mosasaurs routinely reached sizes of 15 metres or longer. Continue reading