You Got Some Boson Yer Shirt There…


Physics wasn’t my best subject in high school, but I did pay more attention (and did do remarkably better) when I took physics courses in college. I was paying the bill, after all. I’ve been reading an article over at Salon about the recent possible discovery of the Higgs Boson particle and my understanding of such things as a layperson is revealed to be that of a toddler’s grasp on the operation of an automobile. I can see it’s all pretty darned cool and possibly even useful, but I have no idea how I might go about interacting with it. (Does the Large Hadron Collider even have a steering wheel?)

I’m especially intrigued by the process particle physicists go about finding stuff that can’t actually be seen. They perform the same experiment gazillions of times until a pattern emerges that at least suggests that they’re getting close. Then they do it some more until they’re nearly convinced they’ve got it right.

My head hurts.

They are being very conservative. One can in fact quantify the likelihood that the observations are mistaken and that the events are actually background noise mimicking a real signal. Each experiment quotes a likelihood of very close to “5 sigma,” meaning the likelihood that the events were produced by chance is less than one in 3.5 million. Yet in spite of this, the only claim that has been made so far is that the new particle is real and “Higgs-like.”

And now I’m bleeding from the ears.

Is it or is it not this really important particle without which our understanding of matter is completely broken? Seriously, there can’t be so much as a microbe or the show’s off! (KAHN!!) That’s the way true scientists roll, baby. …except for the ones that use protomatter, a substance condemned by every ethical scientist in the galaxy.

Oh, listen to me! I’m rambling on and on about something you probably thought was obvious. Congratulations to those kooky kids and their crazy colliders. You’ve done (probably) found yerselves a Higgs Boson. (Maybe.)


Absolutely Maybe. And We Mean it This Time!

The Senate has passed yet another bill delaying the adoption of broadcast DTV. This one would make the switch “voluntary and television stations could go ahead if they wished with digital transmission on February 17 as scheduled and drop analog transmission.” (source)

Yeah… if you could just go ahead and put the new cover sheets on your TPS DTV reports, that would be great. Thanks!

The delay is being urged because apparently millions of Americans are not ready or have not managed to get their hands on the $40 coupon for that craptacular DTV-to-analog TV converter. Never mind that this change has been announced, delayed, announced again, and delayed again. I predict that few of those same millions will be ready for the transition in June no matter how many times this thing is pushed out.

The analogy isn’t perfect but, given that our government is so keen to treat us like children in other respects, it’s hard not to compare this to a parent telling a child, “Your room had better be cleaned up by supper or I’m going to count to 10 and then to 20… if that’s okay with you. Here, let me just pick this up for you.”

I should think the best incentive for people to get their poop together would be missing an episode or two of “So You Think You Can Survive America’s Top Idol Deal or No Millionaire?” Tough love, I know.

Tiny Things

[Photo credit: Jeff Sextion]

[Photo Credit: Jeff Sexton]

My friend Jeff repairs and cleans Elgin pocket watches. Recently he posted some high-quality photos of an Elgin Grade 367 pocket watch at various stages of disassembly (and reassembly).

Tiny machines built to such close tolerances scare me. I’m afraid I’d break it just by looking at it.

Go check it out.

Apple Batteries: Bursting with Flavor

“Every Halloween, the trees are filled with underwear. Every spring, the toilets explode.” And every few days, Sony batteries cause laptops to burst forth with loud report.

Apple, following a similar move by Dell, is recalling some of its laptop batteries. If you own an iBook G4 or Powerbook G4 and your lap hasn’t already reached the temperature of the sun, you might want to go over to Apple’s Battery Replacement page to find out whether or not your battery is eligible for recall. According to Apple, my battery’s serial number falls outside the range of suspect units. Oddly, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission press release lists a slightly larger range of serial numbers. My battery does fall within that range. I guess if it blows up I can blame the government or something.

Meanwhile, I’ve prepared a lovely snack for cooking on an open lithium-ion flame. Mmmm… now that’s good eatin’!

Challenger 20 years on

There’s a meme making its way around the Internets: “Where were you when Challenger blew up?”

In 1986 I was a student in Mt. Hood Community College’s Electronic Tech program. It was early in the morning and I had sat down with several fellow students to enjoy some coffee in the cafeteria. An old television hanging from the ceiling in one corner was displaying this strange image of two diverging columns of smoke. I didn’t understand what I was seeing until word got to our table that Challenger had exploded shortly after takeoff.

“Wasn’t that the ship with the teacher?” asked someone behind me. I was stunned and becoming increasingly numb as the reality of it all began to set in. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Our ships weren’t supposed to blow up — that sort of thing only happened to the Russians. We had backup systems. We had backup systems on our backup systems!

For the rest of the day everything slowed down. I couldn’t think straight. People would walk along to class or out to the parking lot with glazed looks on their faces. I spied the occasional tear.

I will never forget that day. Ditto 9/11.


A stitch in time

I’ve known about this for quite a while: the earth doesn’t rotate in exactly 24 hours. The people who worry about “what time it is” occasionally add (or subtract) a second from the count in order to make our clocks agree with what we see in the sky. What I didn’t know was that the addition of a so-called “leap second” is controversial in some scientific communities — the kinds of communities where you dare not show up late for a meeting.

Another thing I did not know is that there exists something called the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERRSS). I’ll give you a second to catch your breath (and then you can give the second back later on.)

Anyway, the last minute of 2005 will be 61 seconds long. Make plans accordingly.

Your extra hour

Did you remember to set you clocks back an hour (assuming that your government recognizes the daylight savings scheme)? Twice a year TT and I are reminded of just how many clocks we own. Most of these clocks do not set themselves so we end up making a list of clocks to set and check them off one by one. There’s the microwave, the coffee maker, the kitchen wall clock, the clocks in the vehicles and — would you believe it? — the home theater remote control. Fortunately more and more appliances are either aware of DST or have some kind of net connection that periodically updates time: the ReplayTV (think TiVo), the computers and the cell phones. The phones have to be turned off and then on again to acquire the current time.

Autumn is perfect for this activity since we get an extra hour to set the clocks back. Springtime is a rip-off because we lose and hour and yet still have to mess with all of the clocks.

Does anyone really know what time it is? Does anyone really care … about time?