Higgsmania

Without the Higgs Boson, we wouldn’t exist, and neither would our awful puns.

I was one of a lucky few at CERN this past Wednesday, when they announced the discovery of a shiny new particle that validates physicists’ best guess on the origin of mass. I won’t play it down: It was exhilarating, both to be present for a historical moment and to see years of hype reach a triumphant climax. I’m also a former political journalist and copy editor, now working as a science writer for a public information office. So I felt something peculiar: like I was watching science and storytelling collide from a neutral spot.

Unless you’ve been sleeping for two or three days, you’ve probably caught wind of the Higgs boson discovery news. But here’s a quick rundown just in case. The Higgs boson is a particle first proposed in the 1960s. Physicists have long had a hunch it’s there because the standard model of particle physics predicts it should be there, bestowing mass unto all the other particles. But it is impossible to see the Higgs directly, because it only exists for the fraction of a fraction of a blink of an eye.

The only way to pinpoint the Higgs is to look for what it decays into — for simplicity’s sake think of decaying as a transformation. But there are a lot of other particles that are unstable like the Higgs and decay really fast. These particles often decay into the same particles the Higgs decays into. So the wild world of decaying particles is full all sorts of ruckus and noise, making the Higgs really difficult to find. Physicists have to calculate the details of the noise so they can filter it out and find anything hiding inside — like you might use a sieve (hey!) to find gold nuggets in the dirt.

So the scientists sifted out all the Higgs-impersonators and found a bump in the remaining data from a particle that looks a hell of a lot like the Higgs ought to look. It walks like a Higgs. It quacks like a Higgs. It must be the Higgs! Right?

Probably. But it could be a variation on Higgs boson that isn’t exactly like the standard model predicts. They have yet to find out. But one thing is for certain, they’ve got a new particle and it fits the Higgs picture. And even if it doesn’t fit nice and snuggly into the standard model, it’s still something new, interesting and Higgslicious.

I was there for the announcement because I currently work at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, a research institute in Italy that helps scientists from developing countries. They also have some researchers working on the ATLAS project, one of the Large Hadron Collidor’s detectors. So they sent me to CERN for the big news event.

The heads of several CERN physicists gathered and watching the announcement that both detectors have found a new particle on a projection screen. Seats in the seminar room itself were in high demand.

From what the CERN physicists told me, the previous few hours had resembled the madness surrounding the opening of a blockbuster movie. Some scientists even camped out overnight outside the seminar room to get the best seats for the big announcement. Everyone who wasn’t willing to sacrifice their comfort to that extreme had to watch the seminar from elsewhere on the CERN site. That’s where I wound up. I joined a pack of about 150 young physicists gathered in one of several basement rooms to watch the seminar on a projector screen. When each detector project revealed the Higgsy-looking bump in their data, the room burst into hooting and applause. So did the official seminar room where the hardcore Higgs fans were watching. It was about as close to the Super Bowl as physics can get.

When the seminar was done I migrated to the press conference. Even if you’re not into physics in particular, but curious about the relationship between science and journalism, I recommend you watch it. For one thing, you’ll see an excellent cross-section of questions ranging from thoughtful to pretty weak. You’ll also see the somewhat-differing interests of science journalists and scientists at play. Up on stage were the folks who want the discovery to be known as precisely as possible. Out in the crowd were the folks who want to tell a good, important, enticing story to their audiences.

Media swarmed around Peter Higgs, the man the boson is named for, before the press conference began. As you can probably tell by now, I’m very good at taking pictures of the backs of people’s heads.

The strangest moment is when a reporter asks, “For the other laymen out there, about SIX BILLION OF THEM, what does this mean?” (I’m pretty sure he hit a mental caps lock key as he was speaking.) There was also the dreaded justify-your-funding question, a brief appearance by the graviton, some questions about what’s next, and a little (perfectly fair) pleading to Peter Higgs to say something, anything to quote.

The “God Particle” term also made its inevitable appearance as part of a general question asking for more metaphors. My favorite part of the whole press conference was CERN physicist Joe Incandela’s response: “I don’t know that I have metaphors exactly. But as I said before the interesting thing about this particle is it’s different from any other. It has a different place. It actually has a relationship to the state of the universe, and so it’s very profound.”

The funny thing is, watch the video, and you’ll see that several metaphors get lobbed out there before the question even came up.  As science writers it’s easy to love metaphors. They have a poetic quality, and they are a direct route to bridging the gap between the technical stuff and familiar things. But sometimes we love them too much. The wise thing to recognize here was that any more metaphors would have been gratuitous. Sometimes, to say something simply, all you really need to do is say it simply.

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May and June Have Come and Gone

A horseshoe crab, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

So we’ve been posting again at a pretty steady pace! If you missed it, here’s what we wrote about the last two months. Apparently, we’ve been in the mood for wildlife.

– Jay’s nature photos, let him show you them!

– What’s thinking outside of the box compared to thinking outside of your scale?

– Parrots like their food rancid and nasty. (Emily’s post incidentally caught a rather radical wave on Facebook!)

Everything awesome you ever needed to know about those alien-looking Horseshoe Crabs.

– A colorful fireworks show courtesy of fireflies.

– Why a sustainable economy isn’t automatically a sustainable ecology.

– What massive patience it takes to hunt for meteorites in the scalding sun.


Mixing Ecology Into Economics

In Bristol Bay, Alaska, fishermen catch and export about 70 percent of the wild salmon in the bay migrating inland to spawn. In recent years, the numbers of salmon that migrate into these Alaskan waters have remained stable. So, that must mean fishermen are harvesting this food resource sustainably, right?

Sockeye Salmon spawning (Wikimedia Commons)

Not necessarily, writes Joseph Burger, Jim Brown and others from the University of New Mexico in an essay published  today in PLoS Biology. The fishery still affects the greater ecosystem. For example, the authors point out, fewer salmon in Alaska’s waters means less food for natural predators such as grizzly bears and bald eagles.  Also, fewer salmon will die naturally in these waters, robbing the soil and waters of other nutrients the rest of the ecosystem depends on. So, while the commercial harvest of salmon may be sustainable from year to year, the fishery still has many indirect impacts on other resources.

It may seem obvious that ecologists have a vital role to play in building a sustainable globe. But as Burger and other scientists argue in several papers contained in the new PLoS Biology Sustainability Collection, ecology, especially the large-scale approach called “macroecology,” has played a smaller role than economics in building a vision of a viable “green economy.” They are calling for the inclusion of ecological principles in discussions on sustainability science both throughout the field and at this week’s Rio+20 sustainability conference.

Rio+20 is a global conference in Rio de Janeiro in which scientists and government representatives from throughout the world discuss how to create a world in which resources can continuously support future generations, while helping people in developing countries rise out of poverty. The first conference was held 20 years ago, and this week’s conference will be a discussion of both the progress made since and what steps come next.

The key, says Burger, is to get economists to think in terms of physics and ecology as well as economics. That means adding more natural sciences to the education economists receive as well as bringing more natural scientists, such as ecologists, into discussions on sustainability. “One could go through an entire bachelor’s or even Ph.D. program in economics and not have any exposure to basic principles like the physical laws of thermodynamics,” he says, “or the biological laws of population growth.”

John Matthews and Frederick Boltz of Conservation International say in their perspective piece that ignoring the dynamic nature of biology is dangerous and will hinder sustainability efforts. But they add that there is room for “cautious optimism.” Matthews and Boltz say scientists can draw from recent efforts to curb climate change for inspiration on how advancing technology can help create a more sustainable world.  “Many developing countries understand that Western models of development are inappropriate if not impossible to achieve. We believe that these and other positive trends are both accelerating and permeating local, national, and global economies quickly and permanently,” they write.

Sustainability must be viewed in the context of the environmental sciences, says population biologist Georgina Mace of Imperial College London. She says that the perspectives offered by Burger and colleagues and Matthews and Boltz represent two extremes of “ecological pessimism” and “technological optimism.” But these extremes are sometimes needed, especially regarding resources that may run out entirely.  “When resources are close to being depleted or exhausted, prices rise, pressures may increase, and complete collapse of the resource becomes more likely,” she writes. “In some other cases, such as the extinction of species or the loss of biomes and biodiversity, the loss is irreversible.”

These scientists argue that the current model for creating a sustainable Earth is too short-sighted, and overly focused on balancing specific sectors of economies while ignoring the intricate web of subtle effects that environmental scientists specialize in puzzling out.

Burger says the ultimate goal however is to get policymakers and environmental scientists working with a mutual framework, and he believes the best way to begin is by increasing education between fields. “We must get everyone on the same page,” says Burger.  “Policymakers and economists have much to benefit from understanding the ecology of our own species and we need them to make our science actionable by implementing policy that considers the core ecological principles that govern all life.”


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Like many kids in the ’80s, I spent way too many hours camped in front of the TV. My grandparents had a TV set that was practically a piece of furniture. It was heavy, cumbersome and encased in polished wood to match the bookcases and coffee table. It also had two gray dials — one that went no further than 13 and another that went higher but turned up nothing but static.

This old TV spewed electrons like crazy. When you turned it on, it crackled with electricity as an image inflated from a tiny square to its full size. I used to crawl up to the screen when my family wasn’t watching and touch the glass to feel the static electricity tingle around my fingers. It was like a fuzzy layer of air. Sometimes, to the dismay of the adults, I would even press my face up against it and watch the characters from Duck Tales break down into a crystalline pattern of red, green and blue rectangles.

Finding the three colors from which the images on TV emerged is the oldest memory I have of anything vaguely scientific popping into my head. I had no concept of what a cathode ray tube was, or how it was channeling photons and electrons. But I knew something whole was being made up of simpler bits, and you could only see those simpler bits if you were willing to get up close and personal.

Emergence is the idea that small things give rise to bigger things, often with different rules, and it’s prevalent throughout science. Everything is made up of tiny bits called particles. These particles stick together and make bigger particles, which stick together and make atoms. Atoms then stick together to make molecules, which stick together in fabulous chains to create DNA. The DNA guides other molecules into becoming cells. Enough cells stick together in the right pattern and you get creatures with brains, in which a pattern emerges into that we call a mind, from which arises language, knowledge and consciousness. It’s tempting to look at ourselves as the ends of this continual emergence, but the world is also full of non-living molecules too. Water and minerals emerge into oceans, glaciers, deserts, mountains, climates and weather patterns. It keeps going, and eventually we get the whole Universe out of it.

We’re stuck somewhere in the middle, peering in two directions at once, toward the tiny bits we are made of and the vast Universe we’re a piece of. Entire scientific fields often focus in on a level of emergence and study the rules that sliver of reality operates under. But most of us stick to the slim, everyday level of reality we’re best at — where buildings, work, pets, trees and other people exist.

The most fun part of science writing for me is also the toughest part: Applying our familiar, cozy mid-sized ideas to Realities Of Unusual Size and seeing how well those ideas stick. It’s a relief to think of the galaxies residing on an expanding balloon because, darn it, at least we have a reference point. On the tiny scale, when physicists found the force that sticks quarks together into becoming protons and neutrons, they found a new kind “charge,” only instead of coming in pairs, like negative and positive, this charge comes in threes. They needed a metaphor to help this relationship make sense, so instead of positive and negative, they called the quarks red, green and blue. The labels are perhaps fitting. Maybe scientists were also once kids who liked crawling into an unfamiliar space only to discover that Saturday morning cartoons are made of brightly-colored rectangles.


An End-Of-The-Semester Flurry

You may have noticed that posts on The Sieve have been a tad sparse lately. That’s mostly because we’ve been immersed in our thesis projects, which we finally wrapped up recently.

Students in the Johns Hopkins science writing program dedicate much of their second semester to this 40-page thesis. In journalism terms, it can be thought of as a very long feature or a series. We do a lot of research and interview tons of people and try to cobble together a long narrative.

The thesis has a sort of all-consuming quality. It’s a rare opportunity to deeply engage a scientific topic that fascinates us, and we live and breathe our projects for most of the spring semester. Our thesis topics this semester include: the hairy nature of hydrology in California, the relationship between chiropractors and mainstream medicine, the plebians of the rocket science field, bacteria that make a squid glow, and the cutting-edge science of regrowing body parts.

You’ll probably hear a little more about these projects in the coming weeks. For now, here’s a quick run-down of what we featured on the blog this past April:


The Story Told By Fingers That Don’t Wrinkle

A boy who researchers called F.S. had a severed nerve in his arm. They did not mention his age, and his case is buried deep in a study published in 1936. But that severed nerve exposed an unusual phenomenon that has been a curiosity for many scientists since.

The nerve, called the median, is connected to the thumb, index and middle fingers. So, for F.S., those three fingers were numb. Scientists Thomas Lewis and George Pickering watched F.S. closely, hoping to learn more about the nerve’s function, and they found something bizarre and unexpected. When immersed in water, the fingers with feeling wrinkled, but the three numb fingers remained smooth. In fact, Lewis and Pickering wrote, wrinkling in F.S.’s entire palm was “almost sharply separated by a line” from his wrist to the base of his middle finger. After a few months, the boy healed naturally and full feeling returned to his hand.

Wikimedia Commons. Photo credit: Flagstaffotos

The study, published in 1936 in the journal Clinical Science, brought a new mystery to the surface. Common perception is that wrinkling is a local effect on the skin, unconnected to rest of the body. But if that was the case, why would a nerve that stretches down the length of the arm be involved? Decades of research have since provided some answers, and some scientists believe these answers could help doctors diagnose diseases that disrupt the nervous system.

Einar Wilder-Smith, a neurologist at the National University of Singapore, has done research looking into the wrinkling effect over the past decade. His research suggests that finger wrinkling relies on nerve endings that entangle sweat glands and blood vessels in our fingers. “We always think of nerve fibers as motor function or sensory function,” says Wilder-Smith. “But there are many in the background that go unnoticed, and possibly only get noticed by wrinkling.” Many nerve fibers sit on key crossroads for blood, small arteries called arterioles which lead to tinier blood vessels. These nerves either tell blood vessels to constrict or allow them to relax depending on signals like temperature.

Palms are also riddled with sweat glands, especially in fingers. These sweat glands can act as a two-way street; not only does sweat come out, but water can go in. When water intrudes on a sweat gland, the water comes in contact with nerve fibers. The nerve fibers are collectively jostled from their sleep and begin to fire all at once, telling the arterioles to constrict. The arterioles constrict as a group and for a stretch of time, leaving an empty space between the blood vessels and the skin. The skin on the finger tips then slowly sinks inward, creating a set of folds like a collapsed tent. The end result is the prune-like fingertips that fascinate children and scientists alike.

So, unwrinkled fingers could mean that a major nerve has been entirely disabled, as was the case with F.S. “Cutting nerve is like cutting a power supply to your socket,” said Wilder-Smith. But it could also signify a less direct kind of nerve damage, such as the corrupting effect of a larger disease such as leprosy or diabetes. Because of this, some doctors are already using the wrinkle-effect as a diagnostic tool.

Andre van Rij, a surgeon with the University of Otago in New Zealand, sometimes uses the test took look for nerve damage from diabetes in patients’ legs and feet. Since sweating is also reliant on working nerves, he said, the classical way to look for general nerve damage is to see if feet sweat. The method is called the iodine and starch test; doctors swab iodine on the patient’s skin, let it dry, sprinkle on some white starch powder, then put the foot in a plastic bag. If the foot sweats, the iodine turns the starch dark blue, and doctors know there is nerve damage. But van Rij says it’s easier to look for wrinkling on feet. “It’s easy just putting someone’s foot in warm water, and you see if they don’t wrinkle,” he said.

Another study shows some correlation between finger wrinkling and the central nervous system — the brain and spinal cord. A 2001 study out of Tel Aviv University in Israel compared finger wrinkling in 18 Parkinson’s disease patients with nine healthy patients. The researchers counted the wrinkles on their research subjects’ fingers one at a time, and found that while those suffering from Parkinson’s still wrinkled, they wrinkled less than people without the disease. Wilder-Smith said the Parkinson’s study isn’t necessarily useful as a diagnostic tool.  “The differences are much more subtle,” he said. But the study does demonstrate the connectivity of nerves throughout the body, he said, because when part of the central nervous system breaks down, still-working networks of nerves are more likely to try to compensate for what was lost.

Wilder-Smith has been looking for ways to use wrinkling as a diagnostic tool while avoiding water altogether. Soaking a hand in warm water can be inconvenient, he said, because it takes about half an hour of soaking for skin to wrinkle, which is about as long as a conventional neurological exam. He’s taken to using an anesthetic cream that causes blood vessel constriction called EMLA. Wilder-Smith says the cream produces wrinkles faster than water does and can be applied directly to the fingertips. “We’re not sticking hands in buckets anymore because it’s much more practical to put EMLA on the skin,” he said.


March Wrap Up

This blog advises against giving psychiatric drugs to fish

The Sieve’s writers discussed a variety of topics in March, from log jams to fish to planets to GPS. Here are a few links if you missed them:

– Over a century go, there was an enormous log jam, over 100 miles long in the American South.

– When antidepressants get into the water, they can have screwy effects on fish.

– Three cheers for the coolness of outer space!

– We’re at a point where drivers take GPS tech for granted. So how does it figure out where you are exactly?

– Calvin and Hobbes had an undercurrent of science commentary and humor.

– Check out the secrets and subtleties of the National Cryptology Museum.