The Land Of The Tree

My plan worked… well enough.

Of course I couldn’t sleep on the bus in the end. But I had time to stretch in Dublin airport, drink a coffee to keep me awake until boarding and get my devices recharged. (The new terminal seems at first to be a building somehow designed without power points, but they do have them in the cafe upstairs in departures.)

I suppose I got about an hour’s sleep on the flight. Slightly befuddled then, I managed to get lost inside Helsinki airport. I think due to a shortage of gates they let us out into the departures lounge; I should have realised this when the woman serving me coffee wished me a good flight. There was a lack of signage to the exit – people usually depart Departures in planes of course. I ended up in the international transfers sector, which had a door that only opens to you from the outside, presumably an anti-immigrant feature. I was trapped! The only logical escape was to take the next plane leaving the EU.

Fortunately, I wasn’t quiet tired enough to be that logical. I waited. Some Chinese people entered, I snuck through and was free.

Not a lot to report after that. I met my friend, we played on the beach with her six-year-old daughter and her daughter’s friend. We came home and I managed to stay politely awake through dinner, collapsing into bed around ten in the evening even though the sun was still shining.

It was still shining when I awoke. Well OK, I presume I missed a brief episode of darkness. Helsinki is not above the Arctic Circle. But it was now even hotter. We went to another beach, warmer and more sheltered, where Finnish families from the neighbourhood go to build sandcastles and paddle. This may be a colder country on average, but they have real seasons here. The summer they’re complaining about is a hell of a lot better than the one we’re complaining about.

I went swimming! In the Baltic. The water is lovely. Being almost enclosed it’s a lot less salty than the ocean, so it was more like swimming in a lake. Except it was salty enough to allow me to float with no effort at all. Best of both worlds really.

And I arrived back to find that the world had changed. Though this was America’s day officially (Greetings to the Home Of The Brave, from the Land Of The Tree) it was all going on in Europe. The EU Parliament has thankfully rejected ACTA, yet another attempt by Big Entertainment to curtail the Internet. They wanted us to choose between freedom and their profitability. We did.

But then at CERN they found the first solid evidence to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson. It’s important? Well, it proves that the scientific theory we call the “Standard Model” doesn’t have a huge flaw, that humans do have some idea of how it all works. It’s a major step towards a complete understanding of how the universe works, and how it began.

Freedom, wisdom, and floating in a warm sea. Some days are OK.

No Higgs Is Good News

An example of simulated data modelled for the ...
Spot the Higgs boson

It’s fun to watch television news attempting to report on the Higgs boson. Never has there been such an important story that so entirely lacks, well, a story.

News is narrative, for we are narrative animals. While others can understand – or misconstrue – cause and effect to some extent, only we¹ can tell each other about it. “This thing happened because this other thing happened.” It’s what human culture – indeed, our very mental machinery – is built around. Everything we do is shaped into narrative. Look at mathematics. There is nothing innately narrative about mathematics, it concerns things that never change at all. Yet a mathematical proof is a sort of story.

And that is in some ways misleading, because though one can deduce from something being true that another thing must also be, that doesn’t mean the first thing caused the second. The narrative drive can be distorting. Whenever we find a correlation between two things, our first assumption is always that one caused the other – even though they may be coincidental, or might both be the result of a third thing. From fairy stories to Jane Austen, all we want to hear about is how one thing causes another, how actions have consequences. If it was just a succession of unconnected incidents it wouldn’t be a story. Except in fact it would, because our minds would fill in connections between the events.

A good narrative is both exciting and enlightening. Exciting, because the best stories concern the biggest disasters. The worse the effects, the more we want to hear about the cause – so that we can avoid it. This is why we seem to like bad news so much. It also explains why we are more interested in news about people who are like us; it’s not so much that we care more about them as feel their disasters are more applicable. What makes a narrative enlightening is when it satisfactorily explains the relationship between cause and effect. “X leads to Z – and here’s why.” The better we understand the relationship, the better we can avoid Z when we see X happening. Or better bring about Z, in those rare cases of good news.

Which is why the Higgs boson fails as a story. Though it seems like it ought to be a great one, about fundamentals of the universe and the greatest depths of human knowledge, it lacks any real excitement because the vast majority of people simply lack any strong response to it at all. It could help complete or overthrow our understanding of physics. Which one of those was the good one again? Nor is it enlightening, because though we are assured by experts that it is important, even they cannot readily explain why.²

So news reports gussy it up; by using the deeply annoying nickname of “God particle”, suggesting that the Higgs is somehow much more important than all others (it’s not, it’s just harder to detect), or by hanging some other more speculative narrative on it. BBC News was guilty of that yesterday, wondering aloud if there might be some connection between the “absence” of the Higgs particle and the strange result found recently at CERN where neutrinos seemed to travel faster than light. What connection? Well none that anyone has actually thought of yet. Just, you know, some connection. (Imagine if they reported politics like that.) If the BBC’s graphics were anything to go by though, it might bring down the edifice of theoretical physics – which they illustrated with CGI Jenga blocks.³ The narrative we’re forced to take from this is that failure to find the Higgs would be some sort of disaster. And that could hardly be further from the truth.

It seems likely that the Higgs particle will be found within the next year. Physicists will be pleased if the ideas they most agree about are shown to be right, and will be glad to have a precise mass for the particle as that will help decide which version of the theory is best. But if they don’t find it, they’ll like that even more. Because it would mean they had something wrong – and that’s really much more interesting than being right.

 

  1. And possibly bees.
  2. Why does mass even need a particle? We think of mass as something an object just innately has, like length. There’s no length particle.
  3. Such an ‘edifice” in itself is a wholly wrong narrative about how physics works, suggesting that each new stage is built on the foundation of the previous discovery being completely right. In fact, each new stage is built on the foundation of the previous discovery being a little wrong.

Faster Than Light

Tachyon visualization
What something travelling faster than light would look like, if you could see it

But it’s not only in a Galway coroner’s court that the laws of nature have been suspended. They’re just as dysfunctional at the world’s most advanced scientific establishment – CERN.

Europe’s premier physics lab has measured particles travelling faster than light. Fancy that. This is a little troubling to them though, because for a physicist, matter moving faster than light makes about as much sense as God knocking on the door, presenting you with an iguana wrapped in newspaper, saying “Call me Susan, I have no legs for hosepipe” and turning into a forest of lemon trees. It doesn’t happen, it can’t happen, it won’t happen.

So as they make their lemonade, the boys and girls at CERN have to try to figure out where things went awry. Those particles can’t really have gone faster than light, can they? They have mass – which is a technical way of saying they weigh something – and a thing with mass can’t travel even as fast as light, never mind faster. This is because…

Well, this is because the world is a lot freakin’ weirder than it looks. You may not have noticed this – actually you couldn’t possibly – but the faster you move, the heavier you get. It isn’t detectable at the speeds even spacecraft travel at, but the effect gets more pronounced as you approach the speed of light. So pronounced in fact that if you ever travelled at the speed of light, you’d weigh an infinite amount. Which can’t be pleasant.

To make it worse, as you go faster you shrink in the direction of travel. (So much for the symbolism of the sports car then.) At the speed of light, your length front-to-back would be zero. Something with no length at all but which weighs more than the whole universe isn’t really a possible thing, so matter never can go as fast as light. The only reason light itself can manage is that it has no mass and no length to change.

Another way to think of it: The speed of light is the infinity of speed. Saying “faster than light” is like saying “more than infinity”, it’s a meaningless statement. So if this experiment showed particles of matter going from A to B in less time than light could, you’re forced to conclude that, well, perhaps A isn’t as far from B as you thought. Or maybe the particles found some sort of short cut. Or… the universe just shrunk or… something.

Those are actually genuine suggestions. Most modern theories of the universe tend to have a few extra spatial dimensions lying around; not just the Up-Down, Forward-Back and Left-Right we know, but also Hoo-Hah, Abba-Dabba and Hosni-Mubarak. Say. Maybe those extra dimensions form hidden spaces that the particles (called neutrinos) can cut through.

Or maybe not. Frankly no one knows. Any theory that accounts for a deviation from such a fundamental law has to be so darn theoretical that it may as well just be a particularly pretty form of hand-waving. Most likely explanation? They’ve simply made a mistake. They are some of the most intelligent people on the planet, they have the best lab in the world, and they’ve spent the last six months re-checking their results, but still the best explanation is that they put a decimal point in the wrong place somewhere. Almost anything is more likely than that their results are actually right.

I have a theory of my own. Of course.

CERN is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. That’s good, we expect things to be done with precision there. But in order to measure such high speeds, the neutrinos have to be sent to a target that’s some distance away. Quite a distance actually. Further than Switzerland is big. In Italy in fact.

Italy. Of course they’re getting figures that don’t reflect reality. Berlusconi is probably pocketing some of those neutrinos himself.