Schrödinger’s parliament

In a massive victory for science, Australia is in the midst of its first quantum election in over 70 years. Just as Schrödinger’s cat was famously caught in a state of being neither alive nor dead but somehow both, the Australian government is now in a superposition of Labor and Liberal, with somehow no one in charge.

Some might say this is Tony Abbott’s fault. When he was repeatedly asked about his views on climate change ABC TV’s Q & A, he exasperatedly said “let the scientists argue about that”. Well Tony, the scientists have had a talk, and they’ve voted for quantum mechanics. But the real question is, what do we do now?

Well, if you believe in The Secret, or What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?, or any other twisted, moronic, New Agey misinterpretation of quantum physics, then all we have to do is wish really, really hard and we can make our preferred party win. But of course, you don’t actually believe that utter bull#$*! (their term, not mine).

Instead, maybe you prefer the many-worlds interpretation, which would mean that we now have two parallel Australias. Just like in the US, there are the irreconcilable worlds of the “red states”, run by a feisty ranga, and the “blue states”, run by a man in budgie smugglers going for an ocean swim in the middle of winter.

Or perhaps we just sit back and wait for the postal votes to sort things out. This is what Einstein would have called “spooky action at a distance”. Or more precisely, “spukhafte Fernwirkung”.

But no, I say we enjoy this historic moment. Physicists have been trying for decades to create macroscopic quantum entanglements this size, so let’s not ruin it now.

Just like the cat, if we keep all the politicians locked in a little box, then they can stay in their magic superposition forever. All we have to do is to agree to never look in on them again…

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Little things

Dear diary,

Sorry it’s taken me so long to write – my stars, you wouldn’t believe the things I’ve been doing.

Actually, I remember back in the days of snail mail (not that they called it that then, but you young kids wouldn’t know anything about it) that I used to start all my letters that way. Hmm, you would’ve thought I’d learned something over the years, but no. Electronic communication just makes you late sooner.

So, what have I been doing? Birthday, Christmas, New Year, Robbie Burns day (no, not really, no haggis for me this year), a record Melbourne heatwave (a good reason to forego the haggis, I guess)… Some sciency reading, including Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, which has got me all fired up about evidence-based medicine and the sorry state of science reporting. And got me into an argument with my osteopath – not really recommended when they’re in a mood to wrench your vertebrae around. I’ve got the bruises to prove it.

Also, Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible, a birthday present I’d been greatly looking forward to. There are a lot of books out these days about sci-fi science, like time travel, teleportation, robots, etc. But to me this one stood out because of Dr Kaku’s genuine physics credentials. OK, yes, it could have done with a bit more editing. And the chapters that aren’t so much physics, like the one on telepathy, which delves into neuroscience, aren’t quite as good. And he has a curious obsession with nanotechnology (UFOs are nanoships built in a nanobase on our moon! That’s why they’re so small!) But yes, there is some really good physics there and well worth the read.

However, it also makes you think about the big picture, like how far away from a Theory of Everything are we really? Let’s just go back to my last post comparing atomic and astronomic scales.

Imagine scaling up an atom to the size of the solar system. What comparative size can we measure with today’s technology.

Well, with quantum mechanics the smallest distance we can measure corresponds to the highest energy instrument we have, i.e. the embattled LHC. When fully operational it should be able to get up to 14 TeV in energy, which can “see” scales of about 8.86 x 10-20m. At our atom/solar system scale, that’s equivalent to a distance of 8,400 km.

For a Theory of Everything we need to get down to much smaller distances where quantum gravity starts to kick in. This is the famous Planck scale, about 10-33m. It’s about how big you’d expect a superstring to be.

On our solar system scale that would be roughly 9.53 x 10-11m. Or about the size of an actual atom.

So I’m thinking we’ve got a long way to go; that’s an awful lot of orders of magnitude for something to happen in. Which is good, because it’ll keep physicists in a job. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for the secrets of the universe, that’s all.

A matter of scale

So I recently checked out the Melbourne Solar System, a nifty scale model of our little corner of the galaxy. The sun is down near the St Kilda Marina (itself pretty cool, what with the whole boats on shelves thing) and Pluto is 5.9 km away in Port Melbourne. Overall, an excellently nerdy and highly recommended way to spend a day at a beach that, well, you probably wouldn’t want to swim at in any case.

Anyhow, it got me thinking about the scale of things. As Douglas Adams famously said, space is big. Really, really big. At the scale of the Melbourne Solar System, the nearest star would be roughly 32,000 km away. That’s already getting pretty hard to picture – to get it more manageable we’re going to have to shrink things even further…

Now, a lot of people have pointed out that the solar system looks a leetle bit like an atom – well, not a real atom of course, with quantum uncertainties and weirdly shaped electron shells, but a classicised version, with electrons orbiting the nucleus much like a tiny solar system…

So, randomly choosing a gold atom as a model (not so random really – I found some good relative figures about gold, but also the sun is vaguely gold-coloured and according to Wikipedia they’ve long been connected), the sun’s diameter at 1,390,000 km is 9.53 x 1022 times the size of a gold nucleus at 1.46 x 10-14 m. And that works pretty good, because the size of the entire gold atom at 1.26 x 10-10 m turns out to be proportionally the same size as the heliosphere, the extent of the solar wind and one measure of where the solar system ends.

At this new scale, the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is a mere 0.421 μm away (roughly the size of the tiniest bacteria, but still pretty large compared to an atom). Our entire galaxy then is about 1 cm across. And the nearest galaxy (the Andromeda galaxy) is only 25 cm away. Which makes the entire observable universe, 92 billion light years wide, about 9.1 km in diameter.

Imagine that: a sphere extending roughly between the aforementioned Port Melbourne and Clifton Hill, full of tiny galaxies, each smaller than a fingernail and about a foot apart. And in one of these little golden galaxies, round about Federation Square, there is a single atom with an electron that corresponds to Earth.

Puts it all into perspective, eh?

Climate voodoo

Thanks to Thinking is Dangerous, I recently learned of Bob Park’s 7 warning signs of bogus science. These are basically a set of features that most pseudoscience, flim-flam, gobbledy-gook, wibble-wobble, whatever, has in common:

  1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
  2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
  3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
  4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
  5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
  6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.
  7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

If you try them against such phenomena as, say, homeopathy, dowsing or bigfoot, you’ll find them remarkably accurate. But how about something more substantial like… climate change denial?

Continue reading “Climate voodoo”

The Higgs Boson: God particle or Tory rumour?

So, to continue my recent theme, what are Higgs Bosons anyway? The people want to know.

The best explanation I’ve ever heard (and thanks for the reminder, Alison) is that by Professor David J. Miller of University College, London. So best, in fact, that in 1993 it won him the grand prize of a bottle of champagne in a challenge by the then British Science Minister, William Waldegrave, Baron Waldegrave of North Hill.

The prize was for the best one-page explanation of what the Higgs Boson is. Now, I encourage you to read Professor Miller’s full explanation (with cartoons!), but if your’re a busy professional who needs a slightly shorter version that doesn’t talk about “a lattice of positively charged crystal atoms”, here’s how it was told to me:

Imagine a room filled wall-to-wall with members of the British Conservative Party. They represent the Higgs field, which fills the universe wall-to-wall in the same way.

Next, imagine Margaret Thatcher enters the room. She is soon surrounded by party members, all wanting to ask her questions. They impede her progress, slowing her considerably as she tries to move through the room. This is how the Higgs field adds mass to particles and slows them down as they move through the universe.

Now, what if instead someone starts a rumour that she’s about to enter the room? The rumour itself moves from person to person, visible as little knots of Conservative Party members talking excitedly. These are Higgs Bosons – they’re just excitations of the Higgs field.

So really, at the Large Hadron Collider they’re looking for nothing more than a rumour. About Margaret Thatcher. Your homework now is to discuss what would happen if she were to turn up herself…

End of the world postponed again

Those who have been following the Large Hadron Collider Countdown (yes I know, the link to the normally excellent www.lhcountdown.com site is currently broken – what are they trying to hide?) have probably noticed that the world failed to end on schedule last Thursday. Does that mean we’re all safe? That we’re not going to spontaneously collapse into a gravity well of strangelets?

Maybe not, because it’s just been delayed again. According to the official LHC commissioning page, the big switch-on won’t happen until September, then there’ll be another couple of months until the first collisions start. But it won’t be until next year, following the “winter shutdown”, that it finally gets up to full speed (for a more digestible version, see this article at The Register. Or Wikipedia, I don’t care.)

How long must we wait for the apocalypse? At least I still have my precautionary SPC sixpack of tinned tomatoes, which they released for the last big scare of Y2K. So I don’t know about you, but I’m prepared.

But, you ask, what if the world doesn’t end? Then how will we know the LHC is switched on? Will Higgs Bosons start popping up all over the place? How will we recognise them? What do they look like? *

Fortunately, the good folks at the Particle Zoo have prepared a sample that we can all study ahead of time to know what to expect:

Higgs Boson plush toy

The only inaccuracy I can find is that the real thing costs quite a bit more than $9.75… Although maybe the additional $6 billion is in the shipping cost.

(* These are actual questions I’ve been asked. The people want to know!)