Showing posts with label research. Show all posts
Showing posts with label research. Show all posts

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Why Wasn't The Higgs Boson Discovered By America?

A serious/humorous take on the issue by New York Times columnist Gail Collins in today's on-line issue here. Worth reading.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Big Science And National Security

Remember the scenes early in "2001: Space Odyssey" when the fictional troubleshooter sent to the moon encounters Russians along the way? Any contemporary update to that movie would have to encounter Chinese in space.

Why are they there and what does it mean for us? Here is a good article in today's New York Times with one answer. It need not be the only answer.

Big science is expensive. Nations will have differing priorities for their scientific endeavors, but be assured of one thing: their first priority will not be to compete in markets. It will be to gain a security advantage.

There are different ways to accomplish this. When the Space Station project became too expensive for an increasingly parsimonious America, we turned it into the International Space Station. Today, without Russian participation, we wouldn't be able to get astronauts to the station.

In the early 1990's as the Superconducting Super Collider was running into problems with Congressional appropriations, an effort was made to internationalize the project. The effort proved too little and too late.

It might be better to think "international" at the outset. Now, at the Large Hadron Collider, we are the tail instead of the dog.

Higgs Boson

The recent cautious announcement that scientists at Europe's Large Hadron Collider may have found the elusive Higgs boson reminds me that this important step in high energy physics could have occurred in the United States except for partisan and regional politics.

More than twenty years ago, at a project in southern Dallas County and Ellis County, Texas, the United States had dug an enormous circular tunnel deep underground near Waxahatchie, Texas, for what was known as the Superconducting Super Collider. This was to be the showcase of US high energy physics, and was a project of the Department of Energy.

I was briefly involved as a contractor working for SSC's project management office.

When completed, the SSC would have been three times as powerful as Europe's Large Hadron Collider, and would have been in operation more than a decade ago. The Higgs Boson would have been old hat by now, and Waxahatchie, Texas rather than Geneva, Switzerland, would be the research center drawing physicists from all over the world.

But by 1990, US research budgets became tighter, other massive projects such as the International Space Station and other scientific communities competed strongly for the dollars. Each of those projects also had supporters in Congress. Just at that time, the Texas Congressional delegation became particularly vocal about balancing the budget. As a result of all of that, coupled with resentment by other members of Congress, support for SSC evaporated.

The project was cancelled in 1993.

An enormous hole in the ground remains under Ellis County, Texas.

No one knows what discoveries the SSC would have achieved by now. Almost certainly the Higgs boson would have been among them.

Since I posted this observation July 5, NYTimes  columnist Gail Collins on July 6 posted a set of more humorous observations about the Higgs, Waxahatchie and American Politics. Worth reading here for a chuckle, but a serious thought as well.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Scientific Method

"First you guess. Don't laugh, this is the most important step. Then you compute the consequences. Compare the consequences to experience. If it disagrees with experience, the guess is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn't matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experience, it's wrong. That's all there is to it."
-- Richard Feynman, on how to discover a new law of physics

I would call it a "conjecture" rather than a guess, but Feynman is right that it is the most important step in discovery. Some inaccurately call the conjecture a "theory." For a theory, there needs to be some data. I think that's what Feynman means by "experience."

Friday, November 18, 2011

But Officer, I wasn't Much Over The Speed Limit

Two months ago, scientists reported that a packet of neutrinos (don't ask) traveled 450 miles from the high energy physics laboratory (CERN) near Geneva to the Italian laboratory at Gran Sasso, faster than the speed of light.

The experiment has been somewhat improved and tried again, with the same results. The packet of neutrinos traveled the 450 miles and arrived 62 nanoseconds before a beam of light would have arrived. How fast is that?

Admiral Grace Hopper, a pioneer computer scientist, used a visual aid in her lectures to show students how long a nanosecond is - that is, how far would a pulse of light travel in a nanosecond. She would hold up a length of copper wire 11.8 inches long. That's a nanosecond.

So the neutrinos exceeded the speed limit by about 62 feet.

Not much, but enough to shake up the world of high energy physics.

CERN is using their new Large Hadron Collider, completed in 2008 - 2009, for high energy experiments. The LHC is about a third of the energy level of the United States' Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) near Waxahatchie, Texas, which was cancelled by Congress in 1993 as it neared completion. Had SSC been completed, it seems likely that the new discovery might have occurred a decade earlier in the United States rather than in Switzerland.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Oh, That's Just a Theory!

It's often the case that people unfamiliar with or resistant to scientific undertakings dismiss peer-reviewed research by saying: "that's just a theory." As if it were an unsupported guess.

I have even said something like that myself: "I have a theory" about something. What I mean to say is, "I have a hypothesis."

A hypothesis is more than a guess. It is a supposition based on familiarity with the subject, experience, or deep thought. A proper hypothesis must be testable.

The point of testing a hypothesis is to disprove it. No hypothesis can be proven. It can only be disproven. If a proper test fails to disprove a hypothesis, the next step is to try another test. Collect more data. Give the problem more thought. Examine whether we have a case of coincidence or one of cause and effect.

Then take all the data collected, observations made, and develop a theory. The theory must be compatible with all the observed data. The theory should also be testable. If the tests fail to disprove the theory, then it may be adopted as the best explanation available, but no theory can ever be proven. It is the job of scientists to reexamine accepted theory in light of new knowledge, new methods of measurement and observation.

Theory is the best you get. There is never final certainty.