Halos in the sky

I just got back from this evening’s Cafe Scientifique — where were you guys? — and I got to see lots of pretty pictures of halos and sundogs and light pillars. One of the nice things about living in Morris is that we actually get a lot of that weird atmospheric phenomena here, because we have lots of the raw material for them here: ice crystals. Vast drifting clouds of hexagonal crystals, flat and columnar, of various proportions, floating in the sky at various orientations to both refract and reflect light into our eyes.

I won’t go into all the details, since you weren’t there. And since most of you live in a less blessed place than the cold crisp upper midwest in the wintertime, you won’t get to see them, because your wicked heat melts all those sharp edged crystals into sludgy droopy droplets. Sorry. But I wanted to pass along one tip.

There’s some free software called Halosim that lets you do simulations of ice crystal distributions in the atmosphere. You specify their sizes and proportions and shapes, and then it traces the paths of light rays and produces an idealized image of what you should be able to see.


It’s very cool. You can tinker and see that to make dramatic sundogs, for instance, you need lots of flat hexagonal platelets floating in a mostly horizontal orientation, and presto, you’ll get a pair of virtual suns 22° to either side of the real one.

Well, maybe you can do that. It’s PC only, so I can’t run any of the simulations on my home computers myself. I’ll have to settle for looking at the real thing, darn it.

Have they got a Higgs boson?

Sean Carroll live-blogged a seminar discussing the latest results, which meant he wrote down a heck of a lot of cryptic jargon I couldn’t understand at all. But here’s the bottom line:

Personal editorializing by me: we’ve found the Higgs, or at least a Higgs. Still can’t be sure that it’s just the vanilla Standard Model Higgs. The discrepancies aren’t quite strong enough to be sure that they really represent beyond-Standard-Model physics… but it’s a strong possibility.

Cool. The broad strokes of the Standard Model look OK, but there might be enough unexpected variance that some new physics will emerge from it all. It sounds like the best of all possible results from a physicist’s point of view.

But really, the best part of the article was this:

I have a plan for faster-than-light travel now

Both Phil Plait and Sean Carroll and Mano Singham are tentatively reporting that they may have an explanation for the recent anomalous report of neutrinos traveling faster than light: it may have been a case of a faulty connection in a timing circuit. If that bears out, it may be a bit embarrassing.

But it does suggest an important possibility. When we get around to building the first starship, don’t have those fussy, punctilious physicists wire it up. Gather a gang of sloppy slapdash biologists to stick it together with spit and chewing gum. We’ll have it going a heck of a lot faster than light than those experts can even imagine.

(Also on Sb)

Alister McGrath fails to make the next obvious statement

I will never forgive Leon Lederman for calling the Higgs boson the “god particle”. It’s fueled decades of unjustified patronizing nonsense from theologians, and the latest is Alister McGrath, who babbles obliviously about it.

Science often proposes the existence of invisible (and often undetectable) entities – such as dark matter – to explain what can be seen. The reason why the Higgs boson is taken so seriously in science is not because its existence has been proved, but because it makes so much sense of observations that its existence seems assured. In other words, its power to explain is seen as an indicator of its truth.

There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God. While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic. Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world. God is like a lens, which brings things into clearer focus. As the Harvard psychologist William James pointed out years ago, religious faith is about inferring “the existence of an unseen order” in which the “riddles of the natural order” can be explained.

The parallel breaks down hard, though. Yes, the Higgs boson is a satisfying theoretical construct with much power to explain. But notice that mathematical beauty was not enough: the physicists of the world, from over 100 countries, gathered and spent over $9 billion to build the largest scientific instrument in the world to test the hypothesis. Faith was not enough.

In contrast, you couldn’t convince a Baptist and a Mormon to get together and chip in $1.98 to test their god. Because they don’t have the slightest idea how to do it, and wouldn’t be interested if they did.

That’s the real lesson to be learned from the science: you have to do the test.

Grace under pressure

The BBC is running an interview with Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, and it’s very good. Bell-Burnell is the woman who discovered pulsars, and until I heard this interview, I hadn’t realized how it was done.

Yeah, there weren’t computers available so the reams of data came out on strip chart – paper chart – and the configuration produced a hundred foot a day and I ran it for six months, which gave me about three miles of paper, which I had to analyse by hand. I would go through the charts and I would log where I saw what I thought were quasars and I also saw that there were chunks of manmade interference – artificial interference. But just occasionally, one time out of five or one time out of 10, when we looked at a particular bit of sky there was this additional signal that didn’t look exactly like a quasar, didn’t look exactly like low level interference, occupied about a quarter inch of the chart.

So…spotting periodic quarter inch blips scattered on 3 miles of paper. I don’t want to hear any of you students complaining about your daily grind any more!

Unfortunately, she was robbed: she discovered pulsars, it was her persistence that got her advisor to take the observations seriously, after initially dismissing the whole idea — and guess who won the Nobel in 1974 for the discovery? Her advisor, and not Jocelyn Bell-Burnell. She does not complain, however; those were the facts of life.

I think at that time science was perceived as being done by men, senior men, maybe with a whole fleet of minions under him who did his bidding and weren’t expected to think. I believe the Nobel Prize committee didn’t even know I existed.

And then the newspapers covered pulsars, and called her the “girl”…

Oh yes and worse than that what were my vital statistics and how tall was I and you know – chest, waist and hip measurements please and all that kind of thing. They did not know what to do with a young female scientist, you were a young female, you were page three, you weren’t a scientist.

Apparently, it was also the custom when she was a student in Glasgow for the men to stamp their feet and wolf-whistle whenever a woman walked into a lecture hall, and she of course was the only woman in the entire physics program at the time.

None of this could possibly have influenced the career decisions of an entire generation of women, I’m sure.

(Also on Sb)

Live-Blogging Curiosity

I just learned that Sean M. Carroll is live-Blogging Curiosity, the new television program that asks whether gods exist. Hawking comes out strongly with a confident “NO”. But now they have this horrible, awful post-show panel where they bring in weasely theologians to sow confusion. Carroll is also on the panel, and seems to be the sole rational, godless voice.

If you aren’t watching it on TV, you’re in luck — you’ve escaped the blithering nonsense pouring out of John Haught’s mouth. Read Cosmic Variance instead.

Live by the science, die by the science

This is a wonderful video debunking the Kalam Cosmological Argument. What I really like about it is that it takes the tortured rationales of theologians like William Lane Craig, who love to babble mangled pseudoscience in their arguments, and shows with direct quotes from the physicists referenced that the Christian and Muslim apologists are full of shit.

(via Skepchick.)

(Also on Sb)

Anti-matter! In space!

Science fiction dreams may come true: a small, thin band of stable anti-matter has been discovered near Earth. It was predicted theoretically, but now emissions from the annihilation of these particles has been observed.

The existence of a significant flux of antiprotons confined to Earth’s magnetosphere has been considered in several theoretical works. These antiparticles are produced in nuclear interactions of energetic cosmic rays with the terrestrial atmosphere and accumulate in the geomagnetic field at altitudes of several hundred kilometers. A contribution from the decay of albedo antineutrons has been hypothesized in analogy to proton production by neutron decay, which constitutes the main source of trapped protons at energies above some tens of MeV. This Letter reports the discovery of an antiproton radiation belt around the Earth. The trapped antiproton energy spectrum in the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA) region has been measured by the PAMELA experiment for the kinetic energy range 60-750 MeV. A measurement of the atmospheric sub-cutoff antiproton spectrum outside the radiation belts is also reported. PAMELA data show that the magnetospheric antiproton flux in the SAA exceeds the cosmic-ray antiproton flux by three orders of magnitude at the present solar minimum, and exceeds the sub-cutoff antiproton flux outside radiation belts by four orders of magnitude, constituting the most abundant source of antiprotons near the Earth.

I had to laugh my cynical, evil laugh at the BBC report on this discovery, though.

The team says a small number of antiprotons lie between the Van Allen belts of trapped “normal” matter.

The researchers say there may be enough to implement a scheme using antimatter to fuel future spacecraft.

Bwahahahahaha! Space travel? Foolish, optimistic journalists. You know the first use of these things, once the means to harvest and maintain them is found, will be anti-matter bombs.

(Also on Sb)