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!)