Science

King Water vs the Nazis

Francis-H.-C.-Crick-Nobel-Prize-Medal-1Gold is a Noble metal. What this means is that it’s particularly tough, that it doesn’t corrode very easily. Which is one of the reasons we humans have been using it as a precious metal for a long time – your gold ring will stay nice and shiny and attractive for a very long time. So when they were deciding what to make Nobel prizes out of, well, it’s the obvious choice. We like the nice things in our lives to have permanence, and gold delivers while being shiny at the same time.

But what if your shiny gold medal was about to get you killed. What then?

This is the problem renowned scientist Niels Bohr had.

How to fall and miss the ground

One day Isaac Newton sat under a tree and watched an apple fall (or probably he didn’t, but let’s not dwell on that just now). He thought to himself “I wonder if an apple at the bottom of the tree feels a stronger pull towards the earth than an apple at the top of the tree?” – so perhaps the force something feels due to Earth’s gravity changes depending on how far away it is from the Earth. “Now I come to think of it,” he continued, “I’m hungry for apple pie,” and he went on his way, for all we know.

A very closely described mess

Pick an animal. Any animal. Somewhere in the world is a very special, carefully stored, individual of that species. Meticulously described, it is as well preserved as we can possibly make it. We’re trying to keep this one individual, above all others of it’s species, perfect.

It is what’s called the “Type Specimen”, and it is the chosen representative of its entire species. And we need one of these, for every single living thing, because if the world is going to be so very untidy, we at least need to be able to keep straight what it is we’re talking about.

Uneven Numbers in 16th Century Italy

From pulpcovers.com

It’s the 10th of October, 1582. Except that it can’t be. Not just because time travel isn’t possible, but because the 10th of October 1582 never happened. Neither did the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 11th, 12th, 13th, or 14th of October in that particular year. And just to be clear, the rest of the year was present and correct, but those dates were skipped. If you had a birthday in that period, well, you were just fresh out of luck.

And the reason why it was skipped speaks to humankind’s desire to assert order on the universe, and how the universe really couldn’t care less about what we desire.

Turn off the lights and I'll glow

The sun isn’t a tidy sphere. If you go a little closer, you’ll see it looks a bit… fuzzy. Its plasma doesn’t sit as a smooth surface; it’s a roiling sea, throwing itself high above the sun, responding to magnetic fields that would tower many times over our entire planet in a way that would make any sane person feel very tiny indeed. So best not to think about the scale of it too much. We get enough existential panic from the possibility of a Michael Bay remake of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Some of this plasma gets enough of a kick to leave the pull of the Sun altogether, and it heads out into the universe. It’s barely there – just some electrons and protons held together by the merest hint of a magnetic field. But it’s there. After about 18 hours, if it’s lucky, it’ll hit the Earth. Now, it might have whizzed passed Mercury and Venus, but the Earth is slightly different – we have a magnetosphere.

Our place in the Universe

So any time there’s a transit of Venus, everybody gets excited. Astronomers go on special trips, physicists prepare sensitive equipment…okay, not *everybody* gets excited, but a lot of scientists do.

But what is so exciting about it?

Well, for a start, it was how we first worked out where we are.

How much does a kilogram weigh?

IPK

The International Prototype Kilogram is under all of those bell jars

This is a picture of the international prototype kilogram, or IPK. It is exactly, and always, a kilogram. It’s a big lump of metal which the world has agreed is how much a kilogram weighs. It was made in 1879, and it is still beautifully, perfectly, and exactly the same as it was then.

Er, more or less. And that is the problem.

The...science? of time travel

Time travel. Time travel. Science blog, time travel. Okay. Right. Let’s do this thing.

We can’t do time travel. Time is a strange thing which is hard to get a handle on, and the best definition I have come across of it is John Wheeler’s, who said “Time is what prevents everything from happening at once”. And it only points one way.

So that’s that.

Hmm?

You want more than that?

Oh alright then, let’s talk about a weird idea. It’s not time travel like we here at AST depict, but it’s…well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Computer Magic

Image via CERN

Computer Magic at the LHC (Image via CERN)

At the Large Hadron Collider, two protons are accelerated to a fantastic speed and then smashed into each other. This piece of sub-atomic vandalism is not just for kicks. Scientists there are looking for the Higgs Boson, a particle that, if found, could help explain why some things are heavier than others. It looks like they might have found one last July, too.

Now these collisions are watched by all sorts of detectors. And each collision creates about 1Mb of data (if you had the first minute of a classic song stored as an mp3, that would be about 1Mb, to give you an idea). Which doesn’t sound like much! Except, and here’s where things get tricky, there are millions of collisions a second. Even if you’re reading this blog post on a high-end computer, your hard-drive would fill up within 30 seconds. And the LHC operates throughout the year, and will for years to come. Too much data is generated for anyone to possibly store, never mind sift through.

So when they designed the LHC they had a huge problem to solve – just how do you store and process that much information?

Epigengle all the way...

Santa on a horse

It’s Santa on a… I’m going to guess horse?

Most people these days are familiar with the idea of DNA – our genetic code. The big list inside us that enumerates – to a greater or lesser extent – everything about us. Eye colour. Height. Diseases or conditions we might fall foul of. How many limbs we have. Where our organs go. Naughty or nice. It’s what separates us from bananas, or monkeys, or trees. We pass this DNA down the generations, and this list is not something we can do anything about. The slow march of evolution takes hundreds of generations to make a change. I am stuck with my DNA, and so are you.

Except, what if we could just… ignore parts of this list? Just turn off this bit of DNA, or that bit? And then pass it on to our kids, a change in one generation…

Well, turns out that we can.