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Friday, July 22, 2011

Here Comes the Higgs?!?!

A recently published article, summarizing new data presented at a high energy physics conference in Europe, show an excess of particles in the mass spectrum that may end up being the Higgs boson, as some like Nobel winner Leon Lederman have called the 'God particle.' This is a particle that has been predicted for some 45 years, from a theory known as the Standard Model. This is the theory that covers the known forces and particles in Nature, minus gravity. It has been wildly successful when compared with experimental data, and one of the key pieces is the Higgs boson and Higgs field. This particle and field are responsible for nothing less than the matter we are all made from. It is the theoretical mechanism that allows energy to transform into matter, which is summed up by Einstein's E = mc^2.

Physicists on the experiments producing these data do caution the world NOT to jump to any conclusions. In science, rumors are left just as that, rumors. There are strict statistical results that are needed before one can claim discovery. There are double and triple checks of analysis algorithms, calibrations of the detectors, fine-tuning theoretical programs called Monte Carlos to re-check the backgrounds for these types of particle decays, and many other checks before anyone would even think of calling a few excess events a discovery, especially something as vital as the Higgs. We will see over the next few months what the final conclusions are, but this provides a sense of excitement for the world of physics.

For a simple explanation of what the 'Higgs field' is, check out this video, produced at Fermilab.

Algorithms in Our World - Good News for Computer Scientists

In the Age of the Internet and fast electronics and computers, computer programming is the life-blood of it all. None of the modern electronic landscape exists without computer software, giving the commands to the electronics so the electronics know what to do in the first place.

This is true for many, if not most, aspects of modern life. Software, meaning the computer programs computer scientists and engineers write in a variety of languages (Java and C++ are probably the most familiar to high school students), is now used for keeping people alive, controlling the power grid, taking humans in and out of space, telecommunications of all kinds, everything financial, entertainment of all kinds, finding information, and so on. Here is something that is also a factor in modern life - algorithms that run behind the scenes and drive the stock market. So if you are into computers, good for you! If you are simply interested in something in science or engineering or math, then at least learn to program so you know at least the principles behind the algorithms that control more and more of your life.

Now a short commentary...this also means that it is equally important to put huge resources into the notion of computer and cyber security. With life being controlled by computer algorithms, that opens the door to hacking and cyber-terrorism. If you want to see mass panic, what happens if a computer virus enters the power grid computer network, and shuts down the power on a national scale? Or steals all of your, and everyone's, personal financial information, and therefore turns the national economy upside-down? This is something we do not hear much about, but we need an large number of bright programmers working on this aspect of life in the computer age.

Evidence Shows Musicians Have Better Memory, Smarts as They Age

Many of you are musicians, and that is looking like a good thing. There is evidence that there is a long-term payoff, as it keeps the brain sharp as you age. A quick summary article can be found here. I need to break out the trumpet again!

Mathematical Minds

From one of my favorite blogs, which has a focus on looking at brain functioning to understand all sorts of issues in education, learning, and life, there is a wonderful post about mathematical minds.

Gifted math minds really do 'light up' differently than average math minds when looking at math-related problems. And because of the way the brain is organized and behaves for different mental tasks, gifted math students can be difficult to identify from commonly used assessments and classroom behaviors. For instance, many truly advanced math students are not strong verbally, which can make them difficult to pick out of a crowd, and many like to 'do their own thing' when it comes to math and not at all be interested in the rote math memorization so often done in school. And likely the single most common trait is the love of solving problems of any type. This shows up not just in the 'numbers people,' but also tinkerers. Can you relate to any of these traits?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How to do Air Friction on a Sky Diver

Here is a case where air friction acts on a falling object, such as a sky diver. This is one of the trickier math problems we will do in physics, as it involves calculus (anything with air friction will, since it is a non-constant force: f = -kv). We specifically want to solve for the velocity as a function of time for the sky diver. Check this out to get a feel for how Newton's 2nd law sets up the equation, and then we do almost all algebra with a step of calculus to solve for velocity. Note that terminal velocity is the speed you reach when air friction matches the strength of gravity, and the person falls with a constant speed at that point. Also note that we do a very simplified model of air friction. Other factors we do not worry about here include the shape of the object, air density that varies with altitude, wind, air temperature that varies, the material of the object, the gaseous composition, and so on (for us, all this information is contained in the constant, k).

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Reason Why Astronomers Think There Should be some Dark Matter

Dark Matter is one of those terms we hear a lot about in the news. It is the mysterious, hypothetical 'matter' that helps hold galaxies together. Originally, it was proposed to exist to help explain how galaxies rotate, when the observable amount of 'normal' matter is not sufficient to cause the observed rotation. This video explains a similar idea with another method, which looks at the bullet cluster.