Search for the ghost particle of the universe


Moving Day 2006 – Click to enlargeMichael Latz/AFP

❝ On the outskirts of Karlsruhe, in south-west Germany, engineers have buried a giant, stainless steel device, bigger than a blue whale, inside the town’s institute of technology. The machine looks for all the world like a grounded zeppelin or a buried blimp.

In fact, the apparatus is one of the world’s biggest vacuum chambers. Air pressure inside it is lower than that on the surface of the moon and it has been installed to help solve a single, intricate problem: finding the mass of the universe’s most insignificant entity, the neutrino.

❝ “We have pushed technology to the limit in building Katrin,” says the project’s leader, Guido Drexlin. “Apart from creating a near perfect vacuum inside its huge chamber, we also have to keep the temperature of the tritium, which is the machine’s source of neutrinos, inside the device to a constant 30C above absolute zero. We have also had to take incredible care about the magnetic fields inside the machines. Essentially, we have had to demagnetise the whole building…”

❝ It has taken more than a decade of planning and construction to put Katrin together. Its price tag, just over €60m, has been met by the German taxpayer via the country’s state-funded Helmholtz Association, with a further €6m chipped in by US, Russian, Czech and Spanish scientists who will have a minor involvement with the project.

Final trials are now being completed and full operations are set to begin in June, though it will take a further five years of gathering data before scientists can expect to have enough information to make an accurate assessment of the neutrino’s mass.

“Even then, we may have to go to a second phase of operations to get our answer,” says Drexlin. “We are moving into unknown territory here.”

OK. Anyone here who believes Trump’s bullshit about government, nature or society may as well leave, now.

Here’s the link, again, to the article – for folks who appreciate government sponsorship of basic scientific research that brings more knowledge to our species.

More physical activity improved school performance

The scientists…at the Centre for Brain Repair and Rehabilitation at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, have tested the hypothesis that increased physical activity stimulates learning and improves school performance.

In the study, published in the scientific periodical “Journal of School Health,” 408 twelve-year-olds in the Gothenburg region were given two hours of extra play and motion activities per week, in collaboration with a local sports club. This was approximately twice the normal amount of curricular physical activity.

The effect of the intervention was evaluated by comparing the achievement of national learning goals by the children four years before and five years after its implementation. The results were compared to control groups in three schools that did not receive extra physical activity.

The results are clear, according to the scientists: A larger proportion on students in the intervention school did achieve the national learning goals in all subjects examined — Swedish, English and mathematics compared to the control groups.

“You can express it that two hours of extra physical education each week doubled the odds that a pupil achieves the national learning goals. We did not see a corresponding improvement in the control schools, where the pupils did not receive extra physical activity — rather the contrary, a deterioration,” says scientist and neurologist Thomas Linden at the Sahlgrenska Academy.

“Our hope is that planners and policy-makers will take our results into consideration,” says Lina Bunketorp Käll the researcher and project leader of the study.

Guess what? In Sweden that might actually happen.

In a parallel effort, a planned 5-story elementary school was changed to a 4-story school as built. Instead the building was constructed around an atrium for exercise and dance with running tracks on the rooftop. In China.

The brave new world of three-parent IVF

In August 1996, at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., a 39-year-old mechanical engineer from Pittsburgh named Maureen Ott became pregnant. Ott had been trying for almost seven years to conceive a child through in vitro fertilization. Unwilling to give up, she submitted to an experimental procedure in which doctors extracted her eggs, slid a needle through their shiny coat and injected not only her husband’s sperm but also a small amount of cytoplasm from another woman’s egg. When the embryo was implanted in Ott’s womb, she became the first woman on record to be successfully impregnated using this procedure, which some say is the root of an exciting medical advance and others say is the beginning of the end of the human species.

The fresh cytoplasm that entered Ott’s eggs (researchers thought it might help promote proper fertilization and development) contained mitochondria: bean-shaped organelles that power our cells like batteries. But mitochondria also contain their own DNA, which meant that her child could possess the genetic material of three people. In fact, the 37 genes in mitochondrial DNA pass directly from a woman’s egg into every cell of her offspring, including his or her germ cells, the sperm or eggs that eventually produce the next generation — so if Ott had a girl and the donor mitochondria injected into Ott’s egg made it into the eggs of her daughter, they could be passed along to her children. This is known as crossing the germ line…In May 1997, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl…

Two months later, her doctors published her case in the journal Lancet; soon, at least seven other U.S. clinics were doing the injection. Because the amount of donor mitochondria added to Ott’s egg was small, it was unclear how much third-party DNA would be present in the cells of her daughter. Ott says her doctors ran tests and did not find any, but it has been found in two other children born from the procedure. Although IVF drugs and devices are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, IVF procedures (like all medical procedures) are generally not. But what media outlets came to call “three-parent babies” compelled the agency to take action. In 2001, the FDA informed IVF clinics that using a third person’s cytoplasm — and the mtDNA therein — would require an Investigational New Drug application…

Now, more than a decade later, two research groups in the United States and one in Britain each believes it has nearly enough data to begin clinical trials for a new technique based on the transfer of mitochondria — only in this case, researchers want to pair the nuclear DNA of one egg with all the mitochondria of another. Their aim is not to cure infertility. Rather, they hope to prevent a variety of devastating diseases caused by mutations in mtDNA. The new technique, which they call mitochondrial-replacement therapy, is far more advanced than the cytoplasm injection — and the researchers have studied the procedure’s impact on animals and human cells up to a pivotal point: They have created what appear to be viable three-parent embryos. They have yet to implant one in a woman, though…

Is our fear of crossing the germ line causing us to block a technology that could improve people’s lives, and if so, is the fear itself a thing we should also be afraid of?

RTFA. I’ve barely introduced the topic. You can presume my personal opinion would not be acceptable to any flavor of the FDA. Crass politics aside – unlikely in the USA – science moves ahead in tiny conservative steps. Bodies like the FDA are more conservative than that.

I think consenting adults have the right and freedom to participate in an unlimited range of experiments excepting those designed to destroy humans, individually and as a species. Our government and military already have that market cornered, anyway.

Like I said. RTFA. Think about what you think.

Neutrino experiment repeated at Cern finds speed of light exceeded — again


Antonio Ereditato
Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

The team which found that neutrinos may travel faster than light has carried out an improved version of their experiment – and confirmed the result. If confirmed by other experiments, the find could undermine one of the basic principles of modern physics.

Critics of the first report in September had said that the long bunches of neutrinos (tiny particles) used could introduce an error into the test. The new work used much shorter bunches.

It has been posted to the Arxiv repository and submitted to the Journal of High Energy Physics, but has not yet been reviewed by the scientific community.

The experiments have been carried out by the Opera collaboration – short for Oscillation Project with Emulsion (T)racking Apparatus…

The initial series of experiments, comprising 15,000 separate measurements spread out over three years, found that the neutrinos arrived 60 billionths of a second faster than light would have, travelling unimpeded over the same distance.

The idea that nothing can exceed the speed of light in a vacuum forms a cornerstone in physics – first laid out by James Clerk Maxwell and later incorporated into Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity…

When the Opera team ran the improved experiment 20 times, they found almost exactly the same result.

“This is reinforcing the previous finding and ruling out some possible systematic errors which could have in principle been affecting it,” said Antonio Ereditato of the Opera collaboration.

“We didn’t think they were, and now we have the proof,” he told BBC News. “This is reassuring that it’s not the end of the story…”

“So far no arguments have been put forward that rule out our effect,” Dr Ereditato said.

Several months – or longer – lie ahead of independent testing of the original and recent results. Exciting stuff for old geeks like me.

Wave-generated white hole boosts Hawking radiation theory

A team of UBC physicists and engineers have designed an experiment featuring a trough of flowing water to help bolster a 35-year-old theory proposed by eminent physicist Stephen Hawking.

In 1974, Hawking predicted that black holes–often thought of having gravitational pulls so strong that nothing escapes from them–emit a very weak level of radiation. According to the theory, pairs of photons are torn apart by a black hole’s gravitational field–one photon falls into the black hole, but the other escapes as a form of radiation.

In results outlined in the latest issue of Physical Review Letters, a team of UBC researchers led by international postdoctoral researcher Silke Weinfurtner put the test to Hawking’s theory by creating a ‘white hole’ in a six-metre-long flume of flowing water.

Placing an airplane wing-shaped obstacle in the path of the flowing water created a region of high-velocity flow which blocked surface waves, generated downstream, from traveling upstream. The obstruction simulated a white hole, the temporal reverse of a black hole.

The shallow surface waves divided into pairs of deep-water waves, analogous to the photon pairs featured in Hawking’s theory. Like in black holes, they showed that the analog would also emit a thermal spectrum of radiation.

While this creative simulation obviously doesn’t prove Hawking’s theory, it does show that his ideas apply broadly,” says UBC theoretical physicist William Unruh…

“In addition to their relevance to Hawking’s theory, the experiments have raised a number of unanswered fluid mechanics questions of engineering interest,” says Researcher in Environmental Fluid Mechanics Gregory Lawrence.

Like a lot of good science, more questions than answers may result. Devising rigorous and accurate analogues surely helps.

Study: Relying on superstition to help you win? Good luck!


“Yes, yes, I understand. Capablanca is evil. Good kitty.”

Superstitions are often regarded as irrational and inconsequential, but researchers in Germany have been taking them seriously, trying to identify the benefits of superstitions, if any, and their underlying psychological mechanisms.

Social psychologist Lysann Damisch, who is interested in sports, noticed that many players have lucky charms or engage in superstitious behavior before their events. She realized the players thought they were gaining some benefit from the superstition, but as a scientist, Damisch wondered what benefits were gained and how the superstitions worked.

Damisch teamed with colleagues Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler, also from the University of Cologne, to design four experiments to test the effectiveness of good-luck superstitions based on a common saying (such as saying “break a leg” to an actor before a performance), an action (such as crossing the fingers), or a lucky charm. The superstitions were tested to see whether or not they improved subsequent performance in motor dexterity, memory, solving anagrams, or playing golf…

The results of all four experiments showed the superstition did improve performance…

The research is the first time superstitions associated with good luck have been demonstrated to affect future performance beneficially. It also showed the superstition worked even if it was activated by someone else (as in the first and second experiments)…

In each case the superstition was essentially found to boost a participant’s confidence in their own abilities, and this resulted in enhanced performance. The increased confidence also encouraged them to work harder at the task and to persist until they succeeded.

Damisch and her colleagues plan to test negative, or bad-luck, superstitions next and see if they also affect performance.

Large Hadron Collider experiment back up and running

Physicists returned to their future on Friday. About 10 p.m. outside Geneva, scientists at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, succeeded in sending beams of protons clockwise around the 17-mile underground magnetic racetrack known as the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest and most expensive physics experiment.

For physicists, the event was a milestone on the way back from disaster and the resumption of a 15-year, $9 billion quest to investigate laws and forces that prevailed when the universe was less than a trillionth of a second old…

The first time protons circled the collider, on Sept. 10, 2008, the event was celebrated with Champagne and midnight pajama parties around the world. But the festivities were cut short a few days later when an electrical connection between a pair of the collider’s giant superconducting electromagnets vaporized…

Physicists and engineers have spent the past year testing and making repairs. While they have not replaced all the faulty connections, they have patched things up enough to allow the collider to run at less than full speed…

CERN’s director, Rolf Heuer, said in a statement, “It’s great to see beam circulating in the LHC again,” but he and others cautioned that there was a long way to go before the collider started producing the physics it was designed for…

If all goes well, CERN says, the protons will start colliding at comparatively low energies in about a week.

Bravo! Have a much safer journey, this time, folks.

Poisonally, I’d initiate a chargeback against whoever did the faulty wiring. 🙂

Cloud research rocket launch scares everyone – as usual!

A series of spooky lights above parts of the northeastern United States Saturday sparked a flurry of phone calls to authorities and television news stations…

CNN affiliate stations from New Jersey to Massachusetts heard from dozens of callers who reported that the lights appeared as a cone shape shining down from the sky.

However, the lights were the result of an experimental rocket launch by NASA from the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, a spokesman told CNN.

Keith Koehler said the Black Brant XII Suborbital Sounding Rocket was launched to study the Earth’s highest clouds. The light came from an artificial noctilucent cloud formed by the exhaust particles of the rocket’s fourth stage about 173 miles high…

Normally, noctilucent clouds are not visible to the naked eye and can only be seen when illuminated by sunlight below the horizon. The launch took place at 7:46 p.m. Saturday, just as the sun was setting for the day.

Observation stations on the ground and in satellites will track the artificial noctilucent clouds created by the rocket for months, NASA said.

And we will track the fear and trepidation of ill-educated superstitious people fearful of signs and portents in the heavens.

I think the researchers at the Wallops Facility must run a pool on how many panic-stricken calls come in from across the East Coast when they plan one of these experiments. They should time the next one to coincide with some auspicious Christian date and really scare the crap out of everyone.