Tuesday, 9 September 2008

If the universe is expanding and contracting in an infinite cycle, is there a time and place where I’m a particle physicist?

A friend once told me that at every stage of his science education his teachers revealed that what he thought he knew as solid scientific fact was in fact an oversimplified version and that the truth at each new level was more interesting and much more complex. Having given up physics at 14 and chemistry at 16 I’m now horribly aware that I mostly can’t remember what I used to know, and also that it’s probably not entirely accurate anyway. Take atoms for example. I thought I knew this: protons, neutrons and electrons right? Protons are +, electrons are – and whizz around the outside and neutrons have something to do with isotopes. I think. Or rather I thought. I did vaguely know there were quarks and other exotic bits of stuff but just found out there are in fact 16 particles in the standard model, including the excellently-named charm quark. I’ve been looking for a book/website/very patient person to explain all this to me for years and finally, there are all sorts of things out there. This is mostly thanks to the imminent switch-on of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which is the world’s biggest particle accelerator, built to recreate the conditions in the immediate aftermath of the big bang. This is all exciting stuff and may lead to the identification of the elusive Higgs boson (the “God Particle”), which is a particle that has been predicted, but never actually spotted and which is important for explaining why things have mass. I think.

Anyway, here is a list of websites that explain it better than I can, and for those of us who, in this dimension at least, are not particle physicists….

1. The Guardian’s interactive guide to what it’s all about
Which is excellent, with a snazzy interactive guide and some fantastic pictures.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research. There have been suggestions that smashing up subatomic particles to see what bits emerge isn’t a great idea, as it might cause black holes to be created which could suck the Earth in. This would not be a good thing. In the Guardian’s Big Bang Machine supplement, Chris Morris (of Brass Eye fame) says “There’s a website where some health and safety nut has calculated that Cern could be 18 times more lethal than death.” Still, CERN are pretty confident, a legal challenge against them in the European Court for Human Rights having been dismissed, and they explain why here. They're doing a live webcast from 8.30 on 10th.

3. Prof. Brian Cox explains things
My new favourite TV scientist. This is just great.

4. Large Hadron Rap
And if that’s a bit much, here’s the same thing explained in less than 5 mins in rap form…..

5. New Scientist lists
Lists - ha! New Scientist thinks the world won’t end on 10th September, and proposes the top 5 best and worst things that could actually happen.

6. The Big Bang, Oxford
The Big Bang is also a sausage and mash restaurant in Oxford, who are celebrating the CERN experiments with a special “Swiss-Franco inspired sausage ring served over a simple creamed mash” followed by “a Black Hole chocolate dessert doused in custard”.

1 comment:

bigdaddy said...

What about rain of the 'cats and dogs' variety?