BBC BLOGS - Today: Tom Feilden

Archives for March 2010

High energy physics at the LHC

Tom Feilden | 07:19 UK time, Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Large Hadron Collider

At Last. After 25 years, and more than £6bn, the Large Hadron Collider is finally ready to do some serious physics.

If all goes according to plan, at a little after 8 o'clock this morning, the gates will come down and two streams of protons travelling in opposite directions around the 27km LHC tunnel will collide head-on. A new era of particle physics will begin.

At 7 TeV, or tera-electron-volts, the collision energy of that impact will dwarf anything mankind had engineered before. To give you some idea what it means, imagine focussing all the pent-up energy of a battleship ploughing forwards at full speed into a stream thinner than a human hair, accelerating it to nearly the speed of light, and then smashing it straight into another one coming the other way.

At these colossal energies the normal, everyday, rules of atomic physics break down. The protons hurtling around the LHC will be smashed to pieces, revealing their constituent parts - and that's what the scientists are looking for.

Straddling the LHC at the key points where the beams cross sit four giant experimental detectors which will monitor the collisions for the tell-tale signs of the elusive Higgs Boson (the particle that conveys mass to all the others), extra dimensions in space-time, and the particles that make up dark matter.

Right now the banks of electronic screens that run around the Data Detection and Analysis Centre for the Compact Muon Solenoid, or CMS, experiment are recording only the passage of an occasional cosmic ray through the detector. But when the collisions start, Guido Tonelli, says thousands of tracks should spiral out from the centre.

"Very soon we'll see events originating in the centre of the detector, with tracks bursting out from the inter-action region. We expect to see hundreds, thousands, of tracks coming out from the collisions. It will be incredibly exciting".

One of the first questions the LHC could resolve concerns an idea the theoretical physicist John Ellis has spent the best part of 25 years developing. Super Symmetry is an elegant explanation for the fundamental structure of the universe that avoids the messy complexity of extra dimensions implicit in ideas like string theory.

It's a fantastically exciting moment. We theorists have been speculating for most of our careers about the fundamental structure of the universe. Finally we're going to start seeing what nature has in store for us.

In a sense it doesn't really matter what the the LHC uncovers - whether it's the Higgs Boson, or something completely new. Whatever the tracks emanating from the centre of the detectors reveal will offer a profound insight into the fundamental structure of matter, and take us closer to a unified theory of everything.

Are we experiencing a crisis in scientific authority?

Tom Feilden | 13:09 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Judging from recent headlines - about melting glaciers, the resurgence of the debate over Andrew Wakefield and MMR, GM food or the sacking of the Government's chief drugs adviser - you could be forgiven for thinking that public trust in science was in a state of crisis.

Well, not according to Lord Krebs, who argues that the recent hiatus in the press has more to do with a misunderstanding about what science can offer society than any underlying philosophical dysfunction.

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The former chairman of the Food Standards Agency is the keynote speaker at a two-day conference on "Handling Uncertainty in Science" being organised by the Royal Society.

"The ambiguities of science," he says, "sit uncomfortably with the demands of politics and the need for certainty in decision making".

The problem is that scientists are often called upon - as if they were authority figures with some special inside knowledge of ultimate truth - to pronounce on issues where there may be huge uncertainties about the risks involved. While science may be the best way to come to a better understanding of these difficult questions, it doesn't have all the answers.

In the real world, Lord Krebs argues, issues that involve uncertainty or questions of risk are rarely black and white. What might appear to one person like a sensible precaution in the face of climate change or an outbreak of an infectious disease, might to another seem like a gross over reaction.

What's needed, Lord Krebs says, is more maturity - both from scientists in terms of explaining the issues, and from politicians and the public when it comes to interpreting the evidence.

There's a role here for the media too. All too often the press focuses on the most controversial aspects of a problem, presenting issues in terms of the confrontation between opposing views.

In the case of MMR, Lord Krebs argues, the issues were presented as evenly divided between Andrew Wakefield on the one hand and the medical establishment on the other.

In fact he was "a solitary, rogue individual with a story that had no scientific basis whatsoever, and I think that was a very misleading representation".

So no crisis in the authority of science, but a call for more honesty and maturity when it comes to interpreting its results and making decisions based on uncertainty and risk.

The politics of mephedrone

Tom Feilden | 12:25 UK time, Wednesday, 17 March 2010


If everything had gone according to plan the Home Secretary would have an answer to the problem of "legal highs" readily to hand.

Sitting in his in-tray would be a report from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on a group of Cathinones - or legal highs - including Mephedrone, Methedrone, Methylone, MDPV and something called Fluromethcathinone.

That report was commissioned last year, and a sub-committee of the ACMD - the New Psychoactive Substances Working Group - duly began its research in October. But that process was abruptly interrupted when the chairman of the ACMD, Professor David Nutt, was sacked and several members of the Council followed him out of the door in protest last November.

One of those to resign was Professor Les King, the leading chemist on the ACMD, and the chairman of the sub-committee investigating legal highs.

In the intervening few months, Professor King says, it's hard to see what progress could have been made. It took a while for the newly constituted ACMD to get going (the appointment of a new chairman, professor Les Iversen, was only announced in January) and the composition of the sub-committee investigating legal highs has still not been settled.

With an election now looming Professor King believes it could be the autumn before the ammunition to justify adding Cathinones like Mephedrone to the list of banned substances lands on the Home secretary's desk.

Professor Nutt That assessment was confirmed today when the ACMD conceded that it could not present its full advice to ministers because a number of key posts on the Council - vacated by resignations over the Nutt affair - had not yet been filled. An interim report will be presented to Ministers by the end of the month.

The Home Office Minister Alan Campbell said the Government was determined to act swiftly. "We will receive the ACMD advice on 29 march and subject to this advice we will take immediate action".

Given the clamour in the papers following the deaths of two teenagers this week a lengthy delay would be politically disastrous. With parent, doctors, the police, and now opposition MP's all demanding action, the pressure for action to outlaw legal highs is ratcheting up.

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But that puts the Home secretary in a difficult position. Banning mephedrone now would ride roughshod over the fundamental principles underpinning the Misuse of Drugs Act - that decisions about the classification of drugs should be based on scientific evidence of harm, and that that evidence should come from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

The whole point of the Act was to avoid the pitfalls of bad legislation by keeping day-to-day politics at arms length from the decision making process. We all know the old adage: legislate in haste, repent at leisure.

Stark message on science funding

Tom Feilden | 09:44 UK time, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Invest in science or risk relegation from from the premier league of global economies.

That's the stark message from the Royal Society this morning, as it publishes a wide ranging report on the prospects for British science.

The Scientific Century: Securing Our Future Prosperity concludes that the UK will face decades of slow economic decline unless it invests heavily in research - one of the few areas where the country enjoys a genuine competetive advantage.

Royal Society statisticsThe timing of the report is no coincidence. With an election imminent, a cost cutting raid on the £3bn science budget has been signalled by both the Conservatives and Labour. University budgets have already been cut by £600 million, and last month the shadow spokesman on science Adam Afriyie described further cuts as inevitable.

That would be a disaster according to Sir Martin Taylor, the Professor of Mathematics at the University of Manchester and chairman of the inquiry. "History shows us that new technologies drive economic development - look at the industrial and digital revolutions."

And while we consider reigning-in spending, our competitors are looking to invest their way out of recession. The report highlights the $21 billion the US is ploughing into research to boost its recovery programme. France and Germany have recently announced big increases in funding to support their knowledge economies, and China's spending on science continues to increase at a staggering 20% a year.

"The UK is currently in the top two of the premier league when it comes science" Sir Martin says, "It would seem obvious that politicians would recognise the need to invest in this competitive advantage rather than cutting funds."

The cross-party message of the report was reinforced by the presence of Conservative and Labour peers on the Royal Society panel.

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Speaking on the programme this morning the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury Lord Waldegrave described science as one of the jewels in our crown.

"Times are tough at the moment, but that is exactly when you need to invest in the future and focus spending where you already have an advantage".

The former Science Minister Lord Sainsbury said, "We cannot compete with countries such as China and India on the basis of low wages. Science and innovation must underpin the strategy of growth which we need to have as we go into a tough period of fiscal consolidation".

Sealing the fate of the dinosaurs

Tom Feilden | 13:05 UK time, Thursday, 4 March 2010

Artist's impression of an asteroid strike

It's official: It really was an asteroid, and not massive volcanic activity, that wiped out the dinosaurs (and more than half the other species on earth) at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary some 65 million years ago.

That's the conclusion of a painstaking review of all the available evidence by a panel of 41 international experts and published today in the journal Science.

But you knew that already, right? So what's all the fuss about? And, more importantly, why do we need a panel of experts to spend so much time and money exhaustively reviewing the evidence and producing a ruling on an issue that has long since been laid to rest?

Well (with apologies to Donald Rumsfeld), the fact is that we suspected we knew, but we didn't know that we knew for sure.

The problem is that the asteroid extinction theory is such a powerful explanation, such a catchy story, that it passed into the common narrative of the dinosaurs' demise long before the evidence to substantiate it had been consolidated.

But the asteroid theory is not the only explanation for the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction.

A pair of animatronic DiplodocusBehind the scenes a dedicated band of geologists, geochemists and palaeontologists have argued that a series of massive volcanic eruptions across the Deccan Traps in India could well have been the real culprit.

These eruptions, spread over more than a million years, spewed billions of tonnes of lava - enough to fill the Black Sea twice over - across the earth's surface, blackening the sky with clouds of ash and triggering acid rain on a global scale.

It all comes down to a question of timing, and of interpretation of the geological record.

The supporters of the Deccan Traps theory argue that the asteroid impact at Chicxulub in Mexico, actually occurred some 300 000 years before the KT extinction boundary.

If that's true then the devastation it caused can only have been a contributory factor in the demise of the dinosaurs - just one of many smoking guns.

But the review team, lead by Peter Schulte at the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg in Germany, has discounted the idea that there was a significant gap between the Chicxulub impact and the rapid disappearance of fossils from the geological record, which they claim is based on a misinterpretation of the rock strata around the impact site.

The strongest evidence for the impact extinction theory has always been the layer of iridium deposits in geological samples dating from the KT boundary.

Iridium is very rare in the earth's crust, but a common component in asteroids. The latest research shows the decline in fossil abundance and species variety correlates very closely with the iridium layer, indicating that the extinction event followed immediately after the asteroid impact.

According to Dr Joanna Morgan from the Department of Earth Sciences at Imperial College London and a co-author on the review.
"We now have great confidence that an asteroid was the cause of the KT extinction," she says.

The impact would have triggered large-scale wildfires, massive earthquakes, and continental landslides which in turn created huge tsunamis, she argues, but the final nail in the dinosaurs coffin would have been the huge volume of material blasted into the atmosphere at high velocity.

"This shrouded the planet in darkness and caused a global winter, killing off many species that couldn't adapt to this hellish environment".

It does seem to be the end for one of science's great known unknowns.

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