Saturday, November 21, 2009

Trials and Tribulations of a Large Hadron Collider

After a 14 month wait, the boys and girls beneath the Swiss-French border are finally smashing protons together again.

As you'll recall, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was started up by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) just over a year ago to much excitement and some trepidation.

Amidst scares of blackholes and massive explosions, the scientists circulated the first beam of protons all around the 27km-long machine on 10th September 2008.

However, just nine days after start-up, the grand experiment ground to a halt due to a serious fault in two of the massive magnets that bends the beam of protons around the circular collider.

In order to allow repairs to be completed, the temperature in part of the LHC needed to be increased to allow access from its operating temperature of -271 degrees Celsius. Thats colder than deep space!

From the outset of these problems, the scientists at the LHC were pragmatic to say the least.

"If you keep an eye on the big picture, we've been building the machine for 20 years. The switch-on was always going to be a long process," James Gillies, Cern's director of communications, told BBC News at the time.

"A year or two down the line, this moment will be a distant memory, and we'll be running smoothly."

Described as the largest machine in the world and the most powerful physics experiment ever built, the LHC is designed to recreate the unique conditions that existed in the universe a few moments after the infamous Big Bang.

As two beams of protons are accelerated in opposite directions around a circular loop, powerful magnets ensure that they come close to the speed of light and bend safely around the loop.

At a few points around the collider, the proton beams cross and smash into one another releasing massive amounts of energy. Mimicking the energy released at the Big Bang, the scientists hope to achieve new insights into the birth of the universe and the nature of all matter within it.

The repairs completed this week mean that CERN can safely pass low energy beams through the LHC without incident. It will be early 2010 before the energy of the beams have been increased to levels that will allow collisions to be restarted.

It was a close thing. As recently as this month, the restart was in some doubt when a wayward seagull dropped a piece of bread on to an external part of the accelerator causing significant overheating. Since the beam was not operational, no serious damage was done. If the beam had been travelling through the system, automatic failsafes would have kicked in to shut down the machine.

Careless birdlife wasn't the only thing that had the LHC in the news during its 14-month hiatus.

At the end of October, French and Swiss police began investigating a French physicist who worked at the site with suspected links to al-Qaida. The unidentified 32-year old was working at the LHC while teaching at the nearby Lausanne Institute of Technology.

Given that he is just one of more than 7,000 scientists working on the site and according to colleagues, hadn't been in work for most of the year, it's unclear as to what real treat he posed to the machinery.

As the terrorist storyline was being played out in Lausanne, scientists in Copenhagan and Kyoto were suggesting that a far more outlandish reasoning was behind the LHC's mishaps. Holger Bech Nielsen of the well-respected Niels Bohr Institute along with his Japanese colleague Masao Ninomiya proposed, in a series of papers, a theory that the illusive product of the LHC (the Higgs particle) was travelling back in time to prevent its own existence.

"You could explain it by saying that God rather hates Higgs particles and attempts to avoid them," Bohr says. It's certainly an interesting theory which harks back to that old chestnut: the Grandfather Paradox.

This theory says that if I went back in time and killed my grandfather before he met my grandmother, my father and of course myself would never be born. This would mean that I could not possibly travel back in time and kill my grandfather and therefore I would be born, in which case I could travel back in time and get the picture. It's a classic paradox.

In terms of the LHC, the theory goes that this illusive Higgs particle has travelled back in time to prevent itself from existing. Of course if it is travelling through time, this must imply that its efforts to destroy itself has already failed.

My head gets sore just thinking about it! Of course, the LHC spokespeople have rejected the theory entirely. Presumably they insisted that a time travelling seagull was not to blame for the baguette in the works!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Act of Man or Act of God?

I survived the Cork floods 2009!

After a valiant effort to get to work this morning, I had to turn back due to the unprecedented levels of water around the western suburbs of Cork City.Prolonged levels of rain in the last week or so, combined with the relaease of water from Innascarra dam and high tides in Cork harbour led to some of the worst flooding in years in the City.

The Mercy hospital was forced to implement its emergency plan in the early hours of Friday morning. This meant patients on lower floors were moved to higher floors in the complex which sits beside the River Lee. Nearby, University College Cork bore the brunt of the floods with their iconic Glucksman Gallery, the newly opened Western Gateway Building (pictured) and the research-active Tyndal Centre were all under water along with many of UCC's low-lying buildings and student accomodation.

With flooding in Galway, Fermoy, Bandon and Clonakilty, it begs the question why such flooding is becoming so prevalent. The immediate conclusion which seems to be jumped at is the involvment of 'climate change' or 'global warming' in these flooding events.

There's no doubt that the result of climate change will be wetter conditions in this country along with an increase in the rate and intensity of severe weather conditions such as we faced in the last few days.That being said, I don't believe for a moment that the current events are directly related to climate change.

Flooding events are relatively common in this country and they have been recorded for centuries. It is the extent and intensity of development which has now brought us closer to flood plains which, by their nature are prone to flooding.

For example, the Glucksman Gallery and Gateway Building in UCC, which are currently under water, were built on land which were well known to flood regularly. For that reason, flood defences were in-built to the buildings. Despite this, I hear that the flood defences in the Gateway building (open just a few short months) were entirely overwhelmed.

Just this week, engineers have warned that Cork and Dublin could be 'uninhabitable'in the next century. In their report- 'Ireland at Risk', the Irish Academy of Engineers (IAE) said that flooding events of a magnitude only experience currently every 100 years, could occur every 5 years.

IAE president, Michael Hayden points to Hurricane Katrina in the US "for an example of how climate change coupled with poor planning and zoning decisions can lead to social and economic disaster”. “If we move now, significant economic benefits will accrue”, according to Michael Hayden, “but it we do ‘too little too late’ we risk social and economic disaster”.

With reports like this coming think and fast and the area of climate change about to to come into sharp focus with the Copenhagan Conference in December, it's inevitable that such flooding events that we are seeing now will be blamed on climate change. In the future, I have no doubt that climate change will cause increases in these types of events, there is less evidence that these meterological events are currently global warming related.

Nonetheless, the importance of fighting climate change has become a relevant issue for many strands of society.

Former US president Al Gore has been at the forefront in publicising the need for action on climate change since his award winnin documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth' in 2006. In his latest book 'Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis' the climate campaigner says that laying out the facts is just not enough and he has begun to appeal to peoples moral and religiois duty to protect the planet.

Speaking in a recent Newsweek interview, Gore described his work with religious organisations who were eager to contribute to the fight against climate change: "I've done a Christian [-based] training program; I have a Muslim training program and a Jewish training program coming up, also a Hindu program coming up. I trained 200 Christian ministers and lay leaders here in Nashville in a version of the slide show that is filled with scriptural references. It's probably my favourite version, but I don't use it very often because it can come off as proselytising."

In Ireland, the Catholic Bishop's Conference have just issued a pastoral reflection on climate change which has been made available on their website and in catholic churches throughout the country.

'The Cry of the Earth' talks of climate change as being "one of the most critical issues of our time" and having consequences "for the future of every person and every form of life on the earth."

The publication also quotes Pope Benedict as saying that an shift in mentality "can lead to the adoption of new lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments."

In a time when science and religion often clash unnecesarily, it's good to see all strands of society pulling in the same direction. One thing's for sure, those effected by this most recent flood are surely cursing this particular 'act of god'.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I'll have two killer whales and a bottle of milk please...

The idea of adding a barcode to a product in a shop for making the life of a checkout operator easier is one of those inventions which we now hardly think about but has revolutionised the way we shop.

Retailers no longer need to price every individual item but need only place one large display price for the consumer to refer to. It makes things easier for the consumer too, knowing that we will almost certainly not be overcharged at the till due to a human error.

Barcodes were originally developed for labelling railroad cars but only took off when supermarkets saw their advantages and began to use them widely. It was two Americans, Bernard Silver and Joseph Woodland who patented the technology in 1949 and described both the linear type of barcode which we are still familiar with, as well as a 'bullseye' circular design.

However the two men were ahead of the technology available to them at the time, with IBM reporting that while the idea was very interesting, the technology to process the information wasn't yet available in the early 1950's. It wasn't until the early 1980's that the technology began to be rolled out in supermarkets across the US. Unfortunately, Bernard Silver never got to see the success of his invention as he died in a car crash in 1963.

Nowadays, barcoding has become almost universal. Sitting at my desk, I can see that my computer is barcoded by the manufacturer and contains a unique product number. Internally, most of the components from the disk drive to the memory is all barcoded for ease of tracking.

If I decide to take a break later, I can drive to the supermarket in a car which is barcoded and pick up a barcoded lunch. I can pay for my barcoded sandwich and barcoded chocolate bar at the self service checkout, where I get to scan my own barcoded product, as well as my unique supermarket loyalty card. This allows the supermarket to record what I like to purchase and target marketing at me specifically.
Going back to the office, I could pop into the library where my unique membership card will be scanned along with the books I want to borrow. In short, my whole life is a series of barcoded events. From airline tickets to identity cards, the conspiracy theorist could have a field-day.

Some of the uses to which barcodes are now put would surely surprise the original inventors. Scientists currently meeting in Mexico City at the 3rd International Barcode of Life Conference are putting the finishing touches to an agreement which aims to give every organism on Earth a unique barcode based upon its genetic fingerprint.
Organisers at the Barcode of Life Initiative (BOLI) say that the technology will aid researchers in a host of areas which rely on accurate identification of species of plants and animals, as well as other organisms. This includes identifying and protecting endangered species, sustaining natural resources including fish stocks, understanding marine biodiversity, carrying out basic research in taxonomy (identifying and labelling distinct species), controlling agricultural pests, stopping vectors of human disease such as mosquitoes and monitoring environmental quality.

While not exactly barcoding in the sense that Silver and Woodland imagined it, the initiative aims to use a relatively minute stretch of DNA (about 648 DNA "base-pairs" compared to the billions of such base pairs which make up many organisms) called a barcode sequence.

This barcode sequence will be tracked in a range of organisms. Subtle differences within this 648 letter code will give the researchers a unique label for every species. This particular barcode sequence, while excellent for use with most animal, butterfly, bird and fish groups isn't suitable for use with plants. The meeting in Mexico this week aims to propose a plant barcode sequence so that the work can continue.

With the information now available online, researchers are hoping that the job of identifying species has now become a whole lot easier.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Top invention has the X-factor

What would you say is the top scientific invention of all time? What has made our lives more safe, more healthy, more fun? There's lots to choose from. The mobile phone would certainly be up there for some people. For others, it'd be right at the bottom of the pile.

Would you go for something that has improved your life or the lives of many people?

I recall the controversy earlier in the year when, as people were celebrating International's Women's Day, the Vatican newspaper had the atrocious timing as to suggest that the humble washing machine had "liberated women". In an article entitled "The washing machine and the emancipation of women: put in the powder, close the lid and relax”, the vatican press managed to create a storm of controversy.

In a way, you can see where they were coming from, but to avoid a lynch-mob, I won't discuss it here!

The point is, one person's great scientific invention is another person's piece of junk.

Well, the Science Museum in London has now come up with the definitive list...kind of. The museum selected ten items from their massive collection and asked visitors to the museum (and their website) to vote on which of the ten was their favourite. So, despite being limited to a short-list of ten, the British public have now voted on their favourites.

And there was a clear winner. With 50,000 votes cast, 20 % of people named the X-ray machine as the best invention for having the greatest impact on the past, present and future.

The case for X-ray is clear. This particular type of radiation can penetrate solid objects and by far their most important use is to take images inside objects (including ourselves) and to produce an X-ray image.

In medical X-ray machines, electrons are accelerated in a vacuum tube and then released to collide with a metal target (usually tungsten) producing X-rays. These X-rays are used for diagnostic imaging of everything from broken bones to pneumonia and lung cancer and can also be used at much higher dosages for the treatment of some cancers through radiotherapy.

Most people will hopefully not encounter the X-ray in a medical setting too many times in their life. We are probably more familiar with the use of X-rays in airport security. Admit it: who hasn't had a sneaky look over the operator's shoulder to see what your hand luggage looks like under X-ray?

The Science Museum in London has on display one of the oldest X-ray machines in the world.

Built by a Russell Reynolds in 1986, he was inspired by Wilhelm Rontgen who discovered what he called "X" rays simply because he could think of no other name for them. In many languages, what we call X-rays, are known as Rontgen-rays.

Russell Reynolds was still in school when he built the machine within a year and he's a great example of what "amateur" scientists can do!

The full list (in order) of the top scientific inventions is printed below. Which would you vote for?

1st place - X-ray machines
2nd place - Penicillin
3rd place - DNA double helix
4th place - Apollo 10 capsule
5th place - V2 Rocket Engine
6th place - Stephenson's Rocket
7th place - Pilot ACE Computer
8th place - Steam Engine
9th place - Model T Ford
10th place - Electric Telegraph

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