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CERN Physicists Announce Evidence Pointing To Existence Of Higgs Boson

As expected, scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider made an announcement of significant confirmation of the existence of the elusive Higgs Boson, albeit not final confirmation of the existence of what has become popularly, and somewhat incorrectly, known as “the God Particle”:

ASPEN, Colo. — Physicists working at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider said Wednesday that they had discovered a new subatomic particle that looks for all the world like the Higgs boson, a potential key to understanding why elementary particles have mass and indeed to the existence of diversity and life in the universe.

“I think we have it,” said Rolf Heuer, the director general of CERN, in an interview from his office outside of Geneva, calling the discovery “a historic milestone.” His words signaled what is probably the beginning of the end for one of the longest, most expensive searches in the history of science. If scientists are lucky, the discovery could lead to a new understanding of how the universe began.

Dr. Heuer and others said that it was too soon to know for sure whether the new particle, which weighs in at 125 billion electron volts, one of the heaviest subatomic particles yet, fits the simplest description given by the Standard Model, the theory that has ruled physics for the last half century, or whether it is an imposter, a single particle or even the first of many particles yet to be discovered . The latter possibilities are particularly exciting to physicists since they could point the way to new deeper ideas, beyond the Standard Model, about the nature of reality. For now, some physicists are calling it a “Higgs-like” particle.

“It’s great to discover a new particle but you have find out what its properties are,” said John Ellis, a theorist at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Joe Incandela, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and spokesperson for one of two groups reporting data on Wednesday called the discovery, “very, very significant. It’s something that may, in the end, be one of the biggest observations of any new phenomena in our field in the last 30 or 40 years, going way back to the discovery of quarks, for example.”

Here at the Aspen Center for Physics, a retreat for scientists that will celebrate its 50th birthday on Saturday, the sounds of cheers and popping corks reverberated early Wednesday morning against the Sawatch Range through the Roaring Fork valley of the Rockies, as bleary-eyed physicists watched their colleagues read off the results in a Webcast from CERN. It was a scene duplicated in Melbourne, Australia, where physicists had gathered for a major conference, as well as in Los Angeles, Chicago, Princeton, New York, London, and beyond — everywhere that members of a curious species have dedicated their lives and fortunes to the search for their origins in a dark universe.

At CERN itself, 1,000 people stood in line all night to get into the auditorium, according to Guido Tonelli, a CERN physicist who said the atmosphere was like a rock concert. Peter Higgs, the University of Edinburgh theorist for whom the boson is named, entered the meeting to a standing ovation.

Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it. And it reaffirms a grand view of a universe ruled by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws, but in which everything interesting in it, such as ourselves, is due to flaws or breaks in that symmetry.

According to the Standard Model, which has ruled physics for 40 years now, the Higgs boson is the only visible and particular manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles that would otherwise be massless with mass. Particles wading through it would gain heft.

Without this Higgs field, as it is known, or something like it, physicists say all the elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight. There would be neither atoms nor life.

Physicists said that they would probably be studying the new Higgs particle for years. Any deviations from the simplest version of the boson — and there are hints of some already — could open a gateway to new phenomena and deeper theories that answer questions left hanging by the Standard Model: What, for example, is the dark matter that provides the gravitational scaffolding of galaxies? And why is the universe made of matter instead of antimatter?

“If the boson really is not acting standard, then that will imply that there is more to the story — more particles, maybe more forces around the corner,” Neal Weiner, a theorist at New York University, wrote in an email, “What that would be is anyone’s guess at the moment.”

The CERN press release is, of course, cautious in describing what it is the scientists believe they have discovered:

Geneva, 4 July 2012. At a seminar held at CERN1 today as a curtain raiser to the year’s major particle physics conference, ICHEP2012 in Melbourne, the ATLAS and CMS experiments presented their latest preliminary results in the search for the long sought Higgs particle. Both experiments observe a new particle in the mass region around 125-126 GeV.

“We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigma, in the mass region around 126 GeV. The outstanding performance of the LHC and ATLAS and the huge efforts of many people have brought us to this exciting stage,” said ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti, ”but a little more time is needed to prepare these results for publication.”

“The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV we’re seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found,” said CMS experiment spokesperson Joe Incandela. ”The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks.”

“It’s hard not to get excited by these results,” said CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci. ” We stated last year that in 2012 we would either find a new Higgs-like particle or exclude the existence of the Standard Model Higgs. With all the necessary caution, it looks to me that we are at a branching point: the observation of this new particle indicates the path for the future towards a more detailed understanding of what we’re seeing in the data.”

Five Sigma certainty is the gold standard in particle physics and essentially means that the scientists are as certain that they can be that the measurements they recorded are not the result of an anomaly or random chance. As the BBC reports, Professor Peter Higgs himself, who was part of the team of scientists whose work led tot the creation of the theories surrounding the Higgs Boson and, of course the still-theoretical particle that bears his name, was present for the announcement at CERN:

Prof Peter Higgs, after whom the particle is named, wiped a tear from his eye as the teams finished their presentations in the Cern auditorium.

“I would like to add my congratulations to everyone involved in this achievement,” he added later.

“It’s really an incredible thing that it’s happened in my lifetime.”

It’s not often that you get particle physicists emotional, or popping champagne corks early in the morning as one group gathered in Aspen, Colorado did this morning, so that’s a pretty good indication of just how big a deal this discovery is, and Tom Chivers tries to explain what it all means in layman’s terms:

First, as was hinted yesterday, the CMS detector – one of the two major experiments at the Large Hadron Collider – has definitely foundsomething. Prof James Incandela, the spokesman for the experiment, said they have seen something “very strong, very solid” at the 125GeV (gigaelectronvolt) mass, where they had thought they’d seen something in December. The first slide showed a curve of results, with a single bump up at 125GeV. “It’s hard to leave that [slide]. Sorry, I was lost for a moment”, Prof Incandela said, wonderingly. The Atlas experiment has found a result in a similar (125Gev to 126GeV) range, Prof Fabiola Giannotti has told the audience.

Second, there’s still some confusion over whether it is the Standard Model Higgs, or something different. The results of the various collisions showed some variation: some “channels” showed something very Higgs-like, while others showed something different. It’s not clear yet whether the difference between the two is statistical noise or whether there is something more. Sean Carroll, a physicist who is liveblogging the result for Discover magazine, asks: “Are we seeing a standard Higgs with a couple of statistical fluctuations, or are differences in different channels the sign of something new?”

Third, whether it’s the predicted Higgs or something subtly (or wildly) different, a new particle has almost certainly been spotted. With all the the CMS data combined, the result is a 4.9 standard deviation result. The arbitrary mark for a “discovery” is five standard deviations. Cern isn’t announcing an official discovery – that is expected in the next few months – but it is around 99.9999 per cent likely that this isn’t a statistical fluke.

Actually, it would probably be much more interesting if it turned out that this new particle didn’t comply with the Standard Model, because that would mean we’d be entering a whole new world of physics and that our understanding of the universe today is somewhat akin to the blind man trying to describe an elephant.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    With Professor Higgs still alive does this mean he can patent the particle, gain control of all matter and become a living god? Because I assume that’s what he was after.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  2. anjin-san says:

    Meanwhile, the US has turned its back on this sort of research. But we do have 6000 year old dinosaurs and tricorn hats…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

  3. Someone on twitter reminds us that CERN invented the web (link). What’s more impressive is that they did it in their spare time, not as their focus.

    But I’m afraid that is also an indictment of high-expense, high-energy, physics.

    Maybe someone should free those guys to do more small, spare time, projects.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. C. Clavin says:

    It confounds me that some people believe that there is a God that created and maintains the system in which bosons and quarks and leptons and gluons (which exist at about 10 to the -25 kg) give rise to the world around us…and where that world revolves around the Sun which is just one of hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way which is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the Universe which is most likely just a small part of a vast Multiverse………..and in her spare time she wants to make damn sure that my gay friends don’t get married.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3

  5. gVOR08 says:

    @michael reynolds: Do you have some reason to believe he’s a Republican?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  6. Ben Wolf says:

    @anjin-san: The discovery should have been made in the U.S., but we couldn’t spare $20 billion for a supercollider. Instead we spent trillions on better ways to kill, which of course is money well spent.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  7. @Ben Wolf:

    Why on earth do we need to make this kind of discovery? Why isn’t it better and cheaper to let the Europeans count angels on pins?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. (There are many things I’d do creatively with money spent badly on wars, but high energy physics is not one of them. Big science is about ego and not ROI.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  9. A good jumping-off point for what we should be doing is here.

    Doug probably would not disagree with much of that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Clanton says:

    I will get excited when they make a breakthrough on time travel, which they will probably keep secret. This is the reason that thing was built to start with.

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  11. anjin-san says:

    Big science is about ego and not ROI.

    Really? Do some reading on the Apollo Guidance Computer…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  12. C. Clavin says:

    @ Ben…
    Actually…we spent the money on tax cuts for the rich.

    I can imagine the discussion in trying to get a CERN-like project here today. Seriously…Republicans don’t even believe evolution…try explaining the HIggs Boson to Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  13. george says:

    @john personna:

    Yup, the world would have been a better place if Newton, Pasteur, Planck, Einstein, Watson and Crick and the others who did the big science of their day had just taken up cards as a hobby – to paraphrase Monty Python, “What has (big science) ever done for us? Nothing!”

    If you can’t research it in a high school lab, its just not worth knowing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  14. george says:

    BTW, those who point out how wasteful basic physics research is have some pretty impressive examples they can draw on – Google the basic reaction to Faraday’s research on electricity, it was generally considered to be a waste of time and resources.

    Our knowledge of chemistry, biochemistry, solid state electronics, and a number of things people take for granted came out of basic physics research that probed what “matter” was actually composed of. And its been called a waste of resources almost every step of the way … usually with the caveate “yes, what we’ve learned so far is useful, but there’s nothing more of use to be learned, so stop wasting resources looking into it”.

    Its oddly enough something that a significant minority Democrats and Republicans agree on: basic research is a waste of public funds.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  15. G.A. says:

    The discovery should have been made in the U.S., but we couldn’t spare $20 billion for a supercollider. Instead we spent trillions on better ways to kill, which of course is money well spent.

    With EBT cards and abortion? Oh you meant the military and its scientists, the ones who have allowed you to cry and talk crap about them in english and with a head…

    Why on earth do we need to make this kind of discovery? Why isn’t it better and cheaper to let the Europeans count angels on pins?

    Or how many dinosaurs it takes to make a barrel of oil?

    I will get excited when they make a breakthrough on time travel, which they will probably keep secret. This is the reason that thing was built to start with.

    Do you think they will go back and try to kill Jesus in the womb or his mom?

    Actually…we spent the money on tax cuts for the rich.

    I can imagine the discussion in trying to get a CERN-like project here today. Seriously…Republicans don’t even believe evolution…try explaining the HIggs Boson to Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann.

    Truly…why don’t you explain evolution to me. I am feeling kind of down on this independence remembrance day and need a good laugh to cheer me up.

    and for today every time someone says “tax cuts for the rich ” DRINK!!!!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 7

  16. G.A. says:

    Man you would think if liberals could figure out this with with some chump change they could figure how to….with….. hahahahahahahaha……

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  17. JohnMcC says:

    @john personna: Humm… I find I almost always appreciate your posts here, Mr Personna. And if you are making the point that finite funding for science would be better spent raising the mean scientific literacy of the American population than doing “Big Science”, well, you have a point. I think there is not such a clear division between the two. If as a nation we declared a priority on science (I’m old enough to remember when that happened as a result of the Soviets launching Sputnik) it would seem obvious that we should do both simultaneously.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. JohnMcC says:

    @G.A.: That is without a doubt the most amazingly stupid post I have ever seen. Do you actually believe that dinosaurs got turned into petroleum?! (Just to pick a random ignorance.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  19. G.A. says:

    That is without a doubt the most amazingly stupid post I have ever seen.

    :)

    Do you actually believe that dinosaurs got turned into petroleum?!

    Nope, but so many do…Do you know why?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  20. @anjin-san:

    Can you show that the Apollo Guidance Computer was anything other than an instance of then state of the art?

    Video games did far, far, more to fund and advance computer science. When Atari started buying 6502s, they bought more computers than had existed in history before.

    @george:

    OMG, do you think those are examples of “big science,” the kinds of national hubris projects which attract billions?

    Faraday did NOT receive a budget prominent enough to earn a line-item on his nations budget.

    What part of “big science” don’t you understand?

    @JohnMcC:

    That is pretty much my point, yes. Maybe the average citizen doesn’t get the choice, and the zero-sum of it. Funding must go somewhere, and if it goes to superconductive it does not go to breadboard kits for high schools. Or, to community science professors with a neat idea they can kick off for ten or twenty grand.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. Big Science is not also a congruent set with Basic Research.

    Geez.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. Defeated again by the spell checker … superconductive should be supercolliders.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. Ben Wolf says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Seriously…Republicans don’t even believe evolution…try explaining the HIggs Boson to Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann.

    We already know their opinions, I think:

    Ethical challenges have been raised as well, with many considering the search for the so-called “God particle” to be a sign of human hubris. An analogy can be made to the Biblical tower of Babel.

    http://www.conservapedia.com/Large_Hadron_Collider

    @john personna

    Your opinions regarding anyone who does anything other than engineering are well known. I’m afraid I don’t agree.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  24. george says:

    @john personna:

    Actually “Big Science” has always meant the same thing – science aiming at the fundamentals of a discipline.

    It was true of what Newton and the Royal Society was doing (and the politics there were quite involved), in what Faraday was doing, in what Watson and Crick were doing (and the race with Linus Pauling even had nationalistic overtones), and what is going on now.

    I’m an electrical engineer now, with graduate degrees in physics and engineering. If I ask a colleage for an example of big science, I suspect the first example I’d hear would be Maxwell’s equations (electrical engineers just think of that first) – and then after a pause probably Newton’s laws, quantum mechanics, and relativity.

    You seem to be talking about “expensive science” rather than “big science”. There is some overlap – probing fundamental forces has always been expensive, and will probably become increasingly more so with time. But the rewards tend to be huge as well. Would you really want to have medicine based on an understanding of physics that doesn’t include the atom, electrons etc – ie no chemistry (all based on orbitals etc), biochem, molecular biology? There was no reason to search for those particles, other than the drive to understand what matter was made of. It would have made as much sense to stop researching fundamental physics in 1800 as it does today – no one was saying “we’re going to come up with electricity, solidstate physics, biochem and all these things in a century or two if we research matter.”

    The physical universe is a very wierd place, and surprises us at every step. So far, a lot of the surprises have been useful (ie I’d argue the benefits of computers, plastics, material science, medicine from drugs to MRI’s) has paid back the investment. I think people take for granted our current theories – they were never obvious, every step took a lot of work and resources.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  25. @george:

    Make up your own semantics then.

    For me, and most people, Big Science is the stuff that kings and congresses fund. They are unified by their cost, not by their domain or their focus.

    A tremendous amount of good science was not Big Science in those terms. What did Watson and Crick’s investigation into the structure of DNA cost? What was it’s later import?

    Think about it. And don’t hand-wave that pursuit of the boson must be important, because it’s expensive, or because it’s physics.

    Here is some separate news from basic science and physics today that is (a) much cheaper, and (b) probably more likely to impact our lives and our economies.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  26. And I quote:

    Big Science is a term used by scientists and historians of science to describe a series of changes in science which occurred in industrial nations during and after World War II, as scientific progress increasingly came to rely on large-scale projects usually funded by national governments or groups of governments.[1] Individual or small group efforts, or Small Science, is still relevant today as theoretical results by individual authors may have a significant impact, but very often the empirical verification requires experiments using constructions, such as the Large Hadron Collider costing between $5 and $10 billion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  27. @Ben Wolf:

    Your opinions regarding anyone who does anything other than engineering are well known. I’m afraid I don’t agree.

    I’ve endorsed any number of scientific projects that are smaller, less expensive, and answer more pressing questions.

    I think using new low cost probes and ocean drones to investigate the deep is tremendously interesting. I like Snoopy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  28. george says:

    @john personna:

    .[1] Individual or small group efforts, or Small Science, is still relevant today as theoretical results by individual authors may have a significant impact, but very often the empirical verification requires experiments using constructions, such as the Large Hadron Collider costing between $5 and $10 billion.

    Not even Faraday’s or Newton’s work was just done by individuals, or even small groups. Read up on the collaboration (and competition) at the time. By the time of Pasteur, let alone Watson and Crick, there were many groups around the world working on the base problems (Watson and Crick for instance relied on huge advances in X-ray diffraction, which they didn’t develope themselves – others did, and that had been paid for mainly by gov’ts around the world). All that’s changed in the definition is that in the case of CERN the research is done in one location, instead of spread out over many countries.

    The romantic notion of a small group of scientists sitting in a room cut off from everyone else coming up with new science is nice, but has almost always been fictional. The only thing that changes with CERN is that its a single location, instead of distributed.

    And no, there’s no predicting if any good will come out finding the Higg’s particle. Just as there wasn’t for the electron, for the hydrogen spectrum, from DNA …

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  29. @george:

    I just gave you a definition of the term that begins:

    “Big Science is a term used by scientists and historians of science to describe a series of changes in science which occurred in industrial nations during and after World War II, as scientific progress increasingly came to rely on large-scale projects usually funded by national governments or groups of governments.[1]”

    Why make something else up?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  30. BTW, Anjin talked way up top about space flight.

    The Big Science aspect of that, the “manned” part, has arguably slowed funding in the most fruitful areas. Unmanned. We are getting very good at crawling, walking, swimming, and flying drones, but we don’t send them to space. Why not?

    This is the kind of question that will frustrate the conventional thinker. Because NASA in the 60′s rocked so hard, it must rock now, right?

    To borrow a phrase, “what have you done for me lately?”

    Can anyone name an advance that came directly out of the “manned” part of space, even in the last 20 years?

    (The conventional thinker might also worry that if “manned” is not the best investment in this decade, that closes the door on the next. No, actually. Good drone-craft can open the door for easier manned missions in the future. See also bootstrapping and automated mining and fabrication.)

    (PS. Amateurs are sending drones to near-space, as a father-son activity.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  31. C. Clavin says:

    “… but we don’t send them to space. Why not?”
    Juno? Odessey? The Mars Rovers?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. An Interested Party says:

    …try explaining the HIggs Boson to Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann.

    Perhaps they would think that was a character from The Dukes of Hazzard

    Truly…why don’t you explain evolution to me.

    Whoever decided to do that would probably need the same amount of time it took for our ancestors to evolve into Homo sapiens sapiens…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  33. Davebo says:

    For me, and most people, Big Science is the stuff that kings and congresses fund. They are unified by their cost, not by their domain or their focus.

    What cost more? Shutting down the final construction the Waxahachie project or completing it?

    If only we’d had a reasonable engineer to slap us in the face for that one eh? Penny wise or pound tea party.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  34. anjin-san says:

    @ john personna

    As I said, you should do some reading on the AGC. This is a good place to start:

    http://ed-thelen.org/comp-hist/vs-mit-apollo-guidance.html

    BTW, I am pretty much in agreement with you about the superiority of unmanned space missions at this point.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  35. Ron Beasley says:

    @anjin-san: I don’t think that’s true. There was plenty of money from the US that went into the CERN supercollider. I think it’s a good thing that the world has one but we really don’t need more than one. Most innovation has been the result of pure science. Much of it used to be done by the likes of Bell Labs and smaller companies like the one I worked for Tektronix but as Wall Street took over and quarterly profits became more important than future profits. That’s what killed innovation in the United States.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  36. sam says:

    @JohnMcC:

    @G.A.: That is without a doubt the most amazingly stupid post I have ever seen.

    Well, GA’s the most amazingly fvcking stupid poster at OTB (even Bithead comes across as smarter, if you can believe that).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. george says:

    @john personna:

    Oddly enough, despite graduate degrees in engineering and physics, and working as a researcher and engineer for decades, I’d never heard of the term “Big Science” used that exclusively before – it does show up sometimes that way in trade literature (IEEE proceedings, Nature, Science etc), but it also shows up as often in the same literature in terms of teaching efforts at elementary or high schools (seriously, just put “big science” into google, you’ll see both hits matching the the Wiki definintion, and as many hits on educational programs that have nothing to do with large projects).

    I guess out of habit I was thinking more of the general “big science” term than the narrow wiki definition “Big Science” element, and I’d guess you’ve missed the educational element. My apologies for that on my part, in the context I should have guessed you meant the narrow definition, and gone with that.

    Having said that, my argument stands – its been centuries since small groups of scientists made independent progress without relying on the work of others. Einstein built his work not just on his thought experiments, but on everything from Micheleson-Morely to Tullio Levi-Civita and Gregorio Ricci-Curbastro (and possibly Poincare, though that’s in debate), not to mention the work Maxwell did etc, or Planck and so on. Any discovery in the last century made by an individual or small group is dependent upon the work of hundreds or thousands of others, most of which is paid for by governments via universities or research bodies, and the only difference in something like CERN is that its in one institution rather than spread out throughout the world.

    And even at CERN, not everyone is working on the same problem (though the Higgs particle certainly gets the press); its like a shared laboratory paid for by a number of gov’ts, rather than one monolithic research project.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  38. @C. Clavin:

    OK fine ;-), they are there but not with the emphasis I’d like. They, and satellites of various sorts, are the best of what we do.

    @anjin-san:

    As I understand it, early space flight computers were actually conservative designs, concerned with resistance to radiation more than anything else. From your link:

    The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) was built by Raytheon and used approximately 4000 discrete integrated circuits from Fairchild Semiconductor.

    Do you understand what that means? Build from discrete components?

    @george:

    You can say “your point stands” but if you aren’t directly addressing the ROI of Big Science projects (by the modern definition), you aren’t really answering mine.

    I think the public, even the educated public, has fallen into a pattern. They think that an arbitrary mega-project has a payoff because unrelated mega-projects did in the past. That might be improper generalization.

    Particle physics has pushed far, far, from the real world. Interesting Small Science is meanwhile happening on lab benches. Graphene?

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  39. Overall, my frustration yesterday was that so many people pushed back at me, that I was wrong, without understanding what I was saying.

    If anyone wants to defend Big Science in the conventional meaning, go ahead, but you aren’t “correcting me” if you talk about something else entirely.

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  40. anjin-san says:

    @ john personna

    ROI

    Do you understand what that is?

    Big science is about ego and not ROI

    .

    Can you show that the Apollo Guidance Computer was anything other than an instance of then state of the art?

    It’s a frequently cited truth that the space program resulted in the accelerated development of integrated circuitry. It was the AGC more than any other single part of this program that drove IC development, an observation Eldon Hall makes in his book Journey to the Moon. In fact, in the early stages, a significant proportion of all ICs manufactured in the world were going to the AGC. Computationally, the AGC was behind contemporary technology by the time of Apollo 11, but this is a common feature of space programs that have multi-year timetables and systems of extreme complexity. In October of 1969, the computer industry journal, Datamation, noted that DEC’s PDP-11 was much more powerful than the AGC, but this is beside the point. Simpler systems are inherently easier to program, maintain, and fail less often. As Gordon Bell, father of the minicomputer at DEC has often noted: “The most reliable components are the ones you leave out.” The Apollo Guidance Computer program was a landmark both in terms of hardware design and software management and laid the foundation for SpaceLab and Shuttle computer systems development. The speed, power, and size requirements for the AGC drove an entire industry that was just taking its first steps along the breathtaking curve of Moore’s Law.

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  41. @anjin-san:

    The key to what you just told us was:

    “Datamation, noted that DEC’s PDP-11 was much more powerful than the AGC”

    It is actually amusing that this is followed with:

    “but this is beside the point”

    You cannot at once argue that the AGC advance computing hardware, and then that it’s simplicity is what advanced … something?

    No, what you’ve quoted is handwaving. The AGC was a very good design, and I’m sure an advancement in radiation-resistant computing, but that is a side branch rather than main trunk of the computing tree.

    The PDP-11, now THAT was main trunk. IIRC, the oil industry was a heavy early buyer, and helped advance state of the art.

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  42. BTW, I think the “what have you done for me lately” question is important.

    It ties to the “improper generalization” critique.

    The strength or weakness of a 50 year old computer does NOT argue the value of current Big Science projects. If there was one good Big Science project, and you keep returning to it, that might prove my point. That is, that good projects are rare, not recent, and a distraction from the good Small Science going on.

    You saw the graphene reference, right?

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  43. (Nano-scale science in general is burbling right now. It is all Small Science.)

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  44. anjin-san says:

    The strength or weakness of a 50 year old computer does NOT argue the value of current Big Science projects.

    I will let Stephen Hawking do that. Maybe you want to chat with him and tell him he is full of it. Be sure to mention Atari.

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  45. @anjin-san:

    What an ugly capitulation. Wear it, though.

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  46. anjin-san says:

    What an ugly capitulation

    You are not very good at self-declarations of victory. Maybe you should ask bithead and Jenos for some pointers.

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  47. george says:

    @john personna:

    Actually I’m trying to address your point about big science projects. My argument is that whether the amount of money and effort is distributed in a thousand labs across universities around the world (paid for by gov’ts), or a few big labs centered in a few countries, the expenditure and effort is the same – and in fact, it may well be cost effective to have a large series of experiments in one facility like CERN, instead of a lot of smaller ones spread out throughout the world. Of course, there is the problem with systematic errors in having one big facility, and if that’s your concern I concede the point.

    Particle physics has pushed far, far, from the real world. Interesting Small Science is meanwhile happening on lab benches. Graphene?

    Well, as one of my physics profs once said, “show me an atom”. Physics has been a long way from the “real world” (assuming you mean everyday experience and not some alternative reality) since relativity and quantum mechanics. In fact, the going quote among physicists with regard to quantum mechanics is still “if you think you understand it, you’re either delusional or haven’t really looked at it”. As you’re well aware, what’s going on in the semi-conductor material running your computer is nonsense in terms of “real world”.

    As for “what have you done for me lately”, that could have been asked every step of the way – and probably with more justification back in Faraday’s and Newton’s day, since there wasn’t a pattern of advances in fundamental science leading to technical benefits. Faraday’s response to “what use is electricity” was “what use is a new baby”. Do you really wish that because he couldn’t come up with an immediate use, that research into it had been put aside as too expensive?

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  48. anjin-san says:

    “what have you done for me lately?”

    The Human Genome project comes to mind…

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  49. @george:

    There is a higher risk of opportunity cost in Big Science projects. It’s like putting everything on 17, rather than more bets. The more concentrated the spending, the fewer other things done.

    Speaking of other science I love, I love DARPA, especially in the glory days. DARPA was about small bets strategically placed.

    @anjin-san:

    The Human Genome project has an interesting history. It was ultimately a race between publicly funded and privately funded researchers. A horse race, down to the wire.

    I’m certainly glad the public teams won, but that one becomes a different argument. Private parties were more than “willing” do do the research. They were doing it. Of course, they desired patents and etc as their reward.

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  50. @anjin-san:

    BTW, on that. If you think that Hawking argued that super-colliders were the best possible use of scientific funding in the 2010′s, and that there were no opportunity costs, maybe you should link to that, rather than your 6th grade “go ask him”

    I’m sure Hawking loves physics, but asking him the best field for funding is different than “isn’t that neat.”

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  51. Tillman says:

    What is it with commenters here and not being able to read?

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  52. george says:

    @John Personna:

    There is a higher risk of opportunity cost in Big Science projects. It’s like putting everything on 17, rather than more bets. The more concentrated the spending, the fewer other things done.

    That’s true. And as I said, systematic errors can be much more critical in single lab projects (like CERN) – its certainly not a slam dunk that its the way to go. But it seems to be the only way we currently have to test some theories (and the importance of the standard model is huge). It’d be especially nice to come up with some way to test String theory, though that’s going to resist brute force (ie high energy impact) methods for a very long time.

    And maybe some genius will come up with a different (and cheaper) way of testing the predictions of the standard model besides smashing things together – that would be the ideal solution. But so far no one seems to have come up with something.

    I suppose it comes down to how important is it to test our fundamental theories – if you don’t feel its particularly important, then you’re right, things like CERN are a waste of money. If you think it is, then they’re a bargain (ie there’s a lot of non-fundamental research going on which taken as a whole costs more, with all the research grants, university positions and building space etc). I tend to belong to the mindset that feels you have to get the fundamentals down right (and I’d argue the history of physics backs this – for instance the change from classical to quantum mechanics eventually unleashed a lot of technology that no amount of classical physics would have even hinted at). Against that, some say that practical, day to day research is all that’s really needed (ie you don’t need to understand orbitals to mix chemicals and come up with new substances, though it makes it easier).

    I’m guessing you take a middle ground (ie some practical and some fundamental research); the problem is that probing the fundamentals is taking more concentrated effort all the time, and the middle ground is likely to end up either just doing it theoretically (ie Super String theory – is it applied math or cutting edge physics?), or not at all.

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  53. anjin-san says:

    @ John Personna

    One of the things I learned in 6th grade is that the fly by wire systems we use now came, in part from the Apollo program, and it was perfected by a joint NASA/MIT program with a lot of early support from Neil Armstrong. Fly by wire is a important technology, in use in nearly every large aircraft in the world, and it is now moving into the consumer realm in the form of computer assisted driving technology.

    Ah, what am I talking about? The whole thing was just a big ego trip. No ROI on that stuff, it was just a bunch of radiation shielding…

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  54. john personna says:

    @george:

    I suppose it comes down to how important is it to test our fundamental theories – if you don’t feel its particularly important, then you’re right, things like CERN are a waste of money. If you think it is, then they’re a bargain (ie there’s a lot of non-fundamental research going on which taken as a whole costs more, with all the research grants, university positions and building space etc).

    It’s certainly a bargain when it’s other people’s money spent. I think we made the right (final) decision not to build the Texas Supercollider, though we wasted a lot of money first.

    Here’s the thing about any allocation though, be it subatomic particles or manned space … the decision is not a “yes or no.” It’s a “now or later.”

    I think “now” should go to currently low-hanging fruit, and that will change over time. I don’t think bosons are low-hanging, or fruit (in the sense of ROI).

    @anjin-san:

    Did you just dodge away with another 60′s might-have-been?

    Don’t forget Hedy Lamar and guided torpedoes.

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  55. anjin-san says:

    Did you just dodge away with another 60′s might-have-been?

    Since my car has an electronic throttle, another outgrowth of NASA/DFBW technology, I am pretty sure the answer is no…

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  56. @anjin-san:

    That’s just stupid. Your car’s controls have thousands of antecedents.

    They do not prove that supercolliders are the best science investment, that Big Science, is the best investment in the 2010s.

    If you actually want to make the case, do it. Argue that there is no opportunity cost, and this is the best scientific investment available.

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  57. anjin-san says:

    That’s just stupid. Your car’s controls have thousands of antecedents.

    Well, the antecedent of the electronic throttle was the NASA/DFBW fly by wire program. Its actually pretty specific. And that technology will play a huge role in the driverless cars that are being developed. Yep, no ROI there. So your argument about “might have been” technology is actually… kind of stupid. And of course you can argue that the fact that this technology is critical to almost every large aircraft in the world today is not significant because “lots of stuff goes into planes”.

    But if you just tell people they are stupid 6th graders, without producing much in the way of an argument, I guess that makes you king of the thread. Good work Drew. I mean John Persona.

    Argue that there is no opportunity cost, and this is the best scientific investment available.

    Your original argument was that big science was all about ego, not ROI. Get back to me after you’ve moved the goalposts again.

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  58. john personna says:

    @anjin-san:

    You’ve taken refuge in the weeds. It is complete bullshit that your car is derived in any significant fraction of its technology from the Apollo program.

    I cited torpedoes as a 20 year earlier example of fly by wire.

    Wikipedia has a fly-by-wire page. Maybe you should have checked the history tab:

    Electronic signalling of the control surfaces was first tested in the 1930s, on the Soviet Tupolev ANT-20.[3] This replaced long runs of mechanical and hydraulic connections with electrical ones.

    What a stubborn ass.

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  59. BTW, I did learn that I should have explained Big Science in the beginning, to people who didn’t understand the term. Then perhaps you wouldn’t have taken a position based on misunderstanding, and then stubbornly argued that from there on out.

    My first comment was about Big Science, Small Science, and opportunity costs. I should have explained that more patiently.

    That said, your 60′s examples, incorrectly told, have not proven the general case for Big Science over Small Science in 2012.

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  60. anjin-san says:

    @john personna

    You might want to look up what the “D” in NASA/DFBW stands for.

    http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/improvingflight/fly_by_wire.html

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  61. anjin-san says:

    It is complete bullshit that your car is derived in any significant fraction of its technology from the Apollo program.

    The benefits of digital computer vehicle control systems as demonstrated by the DFBW program are not limited to the skies, however. The electronic cruise control features found in many automobiles are enabled by drive-by-wire technology, as are antilock braking and electronic stability control systems, both of which significantly enhance safety. Auto and motorcycle manufacturers have also incorporated electronic throttles into their vehicles—the first being the BMW 7 series in 1988—eliminating moving mechanical systems between the accelerator and the engine.

    http://spinoff.nasa.gov/Spinoff2011/t_5.html

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  62. @anjin-san:

    So your method was to go to a NASA site, to see what they claimed for themselves, and then took that as Gospel, right? First the AGC and then the DFBW. Did you find the DFBW in the Wikipedia history as important to fly by wire? Of course not.

    And still, we’re stuck in the 60s.

    Speed control with a centrifugal governor was used in automobiles as early as the 1910s, notably by Peerless. Peerless advertised that their system would “maintain speed whether up hill or down”. The technology was invented by James Watt and Matthew Boulton in 1788 to control steam engines. The governor adjusts the throttle position as the speed of the engine changes with different loads.

    Modern cruise control (also known as a speedostat) was invented in 1945 by the inventor and mechanical engineer Ralph Teetor. His idea was born out of the frustration of riding in a car driven by his lawyer, who kept speeding up and slowing down as he talked. The first car with Teetor’s system was the 1958 Imperial (called “Auto-pilot”)[1]. This system calculated ground speed based on driveshaft rotations and used a solenoid to vary throttle position as needed.

    A 1955 U.S. Patent for a “Constant Speed Regulator” was filed in 1950 by M-Sgt Frank J. Riley.[2] He installed his invention, which he conceived while driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, on his own car in 1948.[3] Despite this patent, the inventor, Riley, and the subsequent patent holders were not able to collect royalties for any of the inventions using cruise control.

    I don’t think you really understand how NASA fits into wider US innovation. They are a player in the network, for sure. They are inventors, for sure.

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  63. @anjin-san:

    You are just lost.

    You don’t seem to argue with what was my main point from the beginning, that Big Science has become a bad investment.

    Listing yet more things that weren’t really invented in the 60′s won’t change that. Hell, listing some actual 1960 NASA inventions won’t change that. The 60′s were 50 years ago.

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  64. More:

    In 1962 Williams Controls introduced its first pneumatic throttle control system that was designed to replace long, complex mechanical linkages. Williams pneumatic-controlled throttle assemblies then became standard in the domestic bus market. Williams Controls expanded this product line, developing a hydraulic throttle control system for heavy off-highway equipment.

    In the 1970′s Norm Williams sold his interest in the company and it was taken public in 1989. The company trades under the symbol WMCO.

    In the mid-’80s, Detroit Diesel introduced the first electronically controlled diesel engine with increased efficiency and lower emissions. Williams, working closely with both engine and vehicle manufacturers, designed the electronic throttle control in 1987. The company quickly became the world leader in the design and manufacture of electronic throttle controls for trucks and buses.

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  65. george says:

    @john personna:

    It’s certainly a bargain when it’s other people’s money spent. I think we made the right (final) decision not to build the Texas Supercollider, though we wasted a lot of money first.

    Here’s the thing about any allocation though, be it subatomic particles or manned space … the decision is not a “yes or no.” It’s a “now or later.”

    I think “now” should go to currently low-hanging fruit, and that will change over time. I don’t think bosons are low-hanging, or fruit (in the sense of ROI).

    Whether the research is spread out among one hundred university or gov’t research labs throughout the world, or in one big center such as CERN, its always someone else’s money – very little fundamental research is done by private companies anymore (not that much ever was).

    And the low lying fruit always excluded fundamentals, such as those that introduced quantum mechanics. For instance, world wide, the number of (gov’t paid university) researchers who hammered together quantum mechanics from Planck to its first really consistent forms in the 1930′s, consisted of a greater effort than what’s gone into the search for the Higg’s particle – it was not “low lying” fruit at the time, and in fact seemed insane to many involved, and they worked through great difficulties to put it together (such as it is – researchers in the field admit its still a hodgepodge).

    Low lying fruit would have ignoring black-body radiation and the lack of Michelson-Morely drift, and continuing on with Maxwell’s equations and classical mechanics.

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  66. anjin-san says:

    Wikipedia history

    And we all know that Wikipedia can be taken as gospel :)

    things that weren’t really invented in the 60′s

    Cool, just show me the computerized fly by wire system from the 50s & we are done. Or you could concede that the AGC and subsequent downstream technology has significance beyond radiation shielding and actually produced a pretty decent ROI.

    Or you could just keep proclaiming how smart you are. Whatever gets you through the day. As for your original point, you are not the hall monitor here, people are free to take the discussion in any direction they wish. You seem to have your ego very invested in this.

    the 60′s were 50 years ago

    And the technology I am talking about is now part of our day to day lives, and it generates significant user benefits and economic activity – thats kind of my point.

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  67. matt says:

    @george: Indeed some of the leading minds at the time said that quantum mechanics was impossible and a farce. Einstein himself participated in the crusade against quantum mechanics. “God doesn’t play dice with the world”.

    Now thanks to quantum mechanics we have this handy thing called a transistor. Even the laser in your cd/dvd/blu ray came out of quantum mechanics research..

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  68. melvin Goldstein says:

    Numbers are the Supreme Court of science. However Godel proved that we may not prove everything using numbers. Physics needs numbers. There must be Physics Foibles. Always more to prove.

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