Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

We found the Higgs! Now what?

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

After a bit of a hiatus, Perimeter lectures are back. This month’s presenter was Melissa Franklin, Department Chair of Physics at Harvard. Franklin is a) an experimental physicist, and b) hilarious. Excellent combination for a public lecture.

Her talk was “Discovery of the Higgs Boson: Sweet Dream or Nightmare”, by which she meant Sweet Dream for experimentalists and possible Nightmare for theorists, though, as she quipped, they can come up with new theories in 4 or 5 days.

Although long enough in the States now to be relieved by the outcome of the most recent election (so say we all), she got in touch with her Canadian roots with a poppy and a hockey stick instead of a laser pointer. At one point she was gesturing with the hockey stick and carrying a wine glass, which, if you think about it, pretty much sums up Canadian physicists.

To the talk. Franklin said she didn’t really feel the Higgs field until she was walking home shortly after the big announcement in July that scientists were pretty sure they had it confirmed at the LHC. She suddenly was aware of it, and it’s been with her since. She has, by the way, been working on experimental science to find Higgs one way or another for 20-something years.

She was very good at bringing all of the science down to very pragmatic terms and analogies so that everyone could understand how they were able to find Higgs indirectly. In the end, it comes down to the fact that Higgs can couple with all kinds of particles and sub-particles. And, if it is not forbidden, it is compulsory (Feynmann). Meaning that every coupling that can happen, will happen. In the LHC, that means getting a big whack of protons creating enough data to break the Internet or run out of CDs. And because they can trace back the particles they see, they can find the Higgs (with slightly more math than that).

At the speeds they are travelling, it’s like the protons aren’t really protons when they crash, though, more like a stream of gluons, quarks and anti-quarks. What the scientists look for is a tiny bump at a certain wavelength. Let’s turn to the wineglass – if you make the wineglass “sing” by rubbing the rim, you are demonstrating a similar graph to what they look for in particles. In the case of the particles, it’s a bump that indicates mass and lifetime.

Two groups – one the French one (the “dark side”) and one Franklin’s team (ATLAS), saw the same bump in the same place and this is the Higgs mass they believe they have identified at around 125GeV.

Franklin got in several good jabs at the theorists in the house, though she did concede that both camps do a lot of drinking when they aren’t physics-ing.

As for what’s next, more experiments and working through what Higgs means to the Standard Model, supersymmetry and all those other small questions. LHC is shutting down for some tweaking and refurb soon which will allow them to throw things faster in their experiments.

Higgs may offer us insight into dark matter, and THAT would be a talk I’d like to see.

Interesting exchange during the question period, where a youngish woman asked Franklin what it was like to be the first tenured professor in Physics at Harvard. “Are you in Physics?” Franklin asked the questioner. “I’m at Perimeter,” she said. Franklin: “Then you know. The wonderful thing about people at Harvard is that they are all so sure of their own greatness that you’re not a threat. Each day, you just have to reset yourself”. Sad comment on the status of women in science today.

One final note: Greg Dick from Perimeter gave us an update on their recent survey about the public lectures. Apparently lots of people complained that if you aren’t available to get tickets between 9:00 and 9:03 on the Monday morning, you can’t get in. True, but what they’ve decided to do about it is run the “registration” for each lecture for 24 hours and then you are in a LOTTERY to get tickets. This is a classic example of listening to your customers (good) and then assuming you know what the solution is without asking them or exploring further. ALL LECTURES AREN’T EQUAL, GREG. What if there’s only 1 I really want to see, and now it’s up to your lottery as to whether or not I can go?

I thought the audience was going to storm the stage in outrage at this. We’ll see how long it lasts. We all have his personal email.

Gables, canals, bikes, art and books

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

Or, Sherry and Melle do another trip.

This time we went to the Netherlands, staying in Amsterdam, and Belgium, staying in Antwerp.

Starting in Amsterdam

The palace on The Dam

Palace on The Dam

Flight in was pretty uneventful and we managed to keep going until check-in at 2pm, which left us with no sleep for 24 hours or so. Hotel location was excellent, just off the Dam Square and walkable to the train station. The other good thing about our hotel? It was the repository for the Big Book of Amsterdam. I managed to read it from cover to cover and it was like the Delphic Oracle of all things Amsterdam – much to Melle’s chagrin, I’m sure.

On first glance, Amsterdam is a bit like Temple Bar in Dublin and not fair for the comparison–dirty, lots of garbage, and always looking like there was a crazy party the night before. Mostly this is the case around the Red Light District and they clean it up pretty quickly.

Walked past Anne Frank’s house but about the only thing you can see is big line-ups. We also saw the Old (Oude) Kerk and the New Kerk. Old Kerk had some beautiful paintings on wood that are sadly disappearing.

The church in the attic

Another interesting museum was the Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Dear Lord in the Attic) – it’s a house that has a full Catholic church in the attic that was hidden when Catholics were no longer allowed to worship in public. The sheer logistics are boggling, and it has some nice furniture and tiles.

As one would expect, there are enough cobbles to make high heels a hazard. Wisely, most Amsterdamians (Amsterdammers?) wear sensible shoes, which also makes it easier to ride their sturdy bikes. Bikes are EVERYWHERE. We contemplated how many would be left if they had a bike clean-up day, since it’s pretty obvious that more than a few have weather a few seasons or twelve in the place they’ve come to rest.

After a 2-hour nap, we set off on the longest search evar for a restaurant to eat at, and ended up back at the first one we saw and liked. I had a great lentil soup and a decent duck, with mediocre wine (the norm, as I soon discovered – beer choice is awesome, but not so much the wine).

Then came Museum Day, or should I say part one of Museum Day, since we ended up hitting many museums during our trip. We started off in the Flower Market, which is a lovely spot of colour in the morning, then we made our way to the main museum (Rijksmuseum) – some amazing Vermeers, furniture and so on.

Dollhouses were for the Housewives of Amsterdam back in the day

Then in a park we noticed a ticket kiosk for the Van Gogh exhibit, since the Van Gogh museum was closed for repairs. So we bought some.

Turned out to be the smartest thing in vacation planning history – by the time we got to the Hermitage where the exhibit was, there was a line about 3 blocks long to get in. And like the rock stars we are, we went straight to the front and straight into the museum just by waving our little tickets around. We found out that, not only was this the first day the exhibit was open at the Hermitage, but they had a special touring exhibit of the Impressionists at the same time. Double-score.

Snarfy attendant wouldn’t let us take in our cameras, and they we got in there and everyone else seemed to have their cameras and iPads fully operational. I was not impressed.

Speaking of iPads, this is the first trip where the tablet has made an impression. I must say that people still look kind of weird walking around the streets or exhibits holding up their tablet to various things and taking pictures. Still haven’t figured out what the advantage would be, and it sure is a lot more to carry and position (besides being a nice beacon to people with less-than-welcoming intentions).

At this point we were starving for lunch, but could not get service for love or money. First place had no server, second place had stopped serving lunch… Finally found a cafe for sandwiches and beer. Thanks to the big walk among the museums, we had now seen most of the cultural areas in Amsterdam.

Had an amazing Indonesian meal that night, finished with the best decaf espresso I’ve ever tasted (I’m sure the mango-papaya sorbet didn’t hurt either). Thanks, Yelp.

Only downside to our hotel was that the back street was a thoroughfare from one bar area to another, so we were treated to intermittent catcalls and singing through the night. I swear I heard Paul Anka about 2am. I had no idea he was popular with hen parties.

 

Great picture of the many types of gable in the city.

Then there is morning in Amsterdam. We started to feel like we weren’t off to a good start until we had our “breakfast weed” (aroma only).  Usually it was just a wiff as we went past a coffeeshop, but sometimes it was a dude (always a dude) walking down the street. Also, they don’t like to eat early. Nowhere to eat before 9am except for one or two intrepid cafes and our hotel restaurant which had a buffet for the price of a nice pair of shoes.

We took the train up to Utrecht on a Monday, and discovered the second rule of Netherlands – which is the Netherlands is closed on Mondays. And the third rule, which is that Utrecht doesn’t open until noon, unless it opens at 1pm. Nevertheless, we did manage to get to see the cathedral there, and it is a pretty little university town.

Very interesting story with it – there’s a tower and the cathedral, and a kind of square in between. Turns out there was more cathedral there, …until a tornado whipped through there in 1674. Though the history of this church is more complicated than that – it was fought over, half-completed, Catholic, Protestant. In fact, many of the statues and religious decorations are defaced – thanks to some hooligans in the Reformation who wanted to take vengeance on idolatry.

The cloister at the cathedral in Utrecht

Seeing as everything else was closed, we settled in for some tea on the canal, literally. There was a cafe built on a bridge. I had my usual – “fresh mint tea”. This is something I found in Amsterdam, but it’s all over the Netherlands. Basically, you pick some mint from the garden, shove a fistful in a glass, then pour hot water over it. It’s usually served with honey and a biscuit. I keep meaning to see if mint in large quantities turns into something other than “medicinal”. We were also offered mayo only with our fries whenever they were ordered – when I asked for ketchup the one time, they thought I was nuts.

During our late tea back at the Dam, Melle discovered that the pigeons of Amsterdam don’t have all their toes. Them are some mean streets. After a nap, we went off to a neat restaurant on a canal that is built into the cellar and had lots of meat and a few vegetables. we were into the swing of things by then – not finishing dinner until close to 10pm.

Tour to the islands

The next day we went on a tour to Marken, Volendam and a UNESCO heritage site that has some of the original traditional windmills (there aren’t that many left compared to the heyday).

We had brief demos of cheese-making and clog-making at Marken. The village has a lot of traditional houses – many of which were originally built on stilts back when it used to flood all of the time until the Dutch built a dam (as they are wont to do). So now the lower areas are all closed in – no doubt for the rec room and mod cons.

Traditional windmills on a rainy day

From there, we hopped on a ferry to the island of Volendam. Mostly a tourist kind of place, but we had amazing fish & chips for lunch – like, fish right off the boat fish, and since it was a bit blustery and rainy, it was hot and perfect. By the time we got to the windmills, it was pouring, but it was quite neat to see the saltbox houses and windmills along the small canals. Felt very Vermeer. Thankfully, we didn’t have any complete douchebags on this tour, though we did have one lady who talked on her phone through most of it.

Big pet peeve of the modern age – a tour guide is NOT TELEVISION. Why pay money to take a tour if you aren’t going to listen to it??

Off to Antwerp

I was very thankful to have the tablet along for the trip – while planning the train trip to Antwerp the night before, I stumbled on the fact that the train union in Belgium was staging a one-day strike on the day we wanted to travel. I was able to book bus tickets instead, but seriously – random train strikes are not cool.

View of the cathedral at Antwerp

Again, we lucked out with hotel location, though we couldn’t find it for the one-way streets on the way in. It was a short walk to the Grot Markt and not far from the tain station for the ride home – and blissfully quiet.

If The Netherlands doesn’t open until noon, Belgium closes at 7pm. Also, lots of pizza places.

Cathedral was impressive as cathedrals go. Bonus art exhibit while were there – not that we needed more art, but it became the them of the trip. We also walked out to the harbour front and saw a plaque for Canadian soldiers who liberated it in WWII. Back at the square I had an excellent beef stew, and the night’s entertainment was watching a young Japanese business man trying to keep his senior happy – they ended up ordering most of the dishes on the menu and half the beers and hardly touched any of it.Also noted: Belgians really like pop music, especially from the 80s.

Brugge

It’s everything you heard. Definitely a must-see. We were there for a full day. Square was cool. Tons of great architecture and museums. Took a boat ride on the canals. Saw still more art. I still pick Carcasonne for pure “holy shit, history!”, but it was a great day. The beautifully preserved medieval town hall would do nicely as a library, if a bit ostentatious. Had a great mussel soup for lunch and the first real salad of the trip.

Main square in Bruges (Brugge)

That night’s meal back in Antwerp was our favourite–at Het Elfte Gebod–a bar/restaurant across from the cathedral that is famous for its collection of religious statues. Great meal – duck confit with orange jus and veg, followed by lemon tart and an Oban. When I specified “no ice”, the server said “but of course”. He was a good man. Melle had a huge St Bernardus beer (10% alcohol) and was a little tipsy by the time we got home.

Hardware for the 1600s.

For our final day in Antwerp, we picked out a few more museums. Went to Rubenshuis first. He was a very wealthy man in his time, that’s for sure, but if you have a royal patronage, that’s the way it goes. Unbelievable how much they have preserved, and painted leather wallpaper was the decorator’s tip for the day. Also saw way more Jesii (Jesuses?) than strictly necessary for one day. After a bit of shopping and a coffee in the main square, we went to the Plantin-Moretus Museum. Plantin was a well-known and successful printer and publisher in the early 1600s and his son-in-law Moretus took over the business after him. The place is like it was 440 years ago – with working presses (2 from 1604), print machinery, stamps and an impressive collection of early books, including a Gutenberg.  Melle was well pleased she got me out of there, and without my trying to stuff anything in my bra.

After another pizza lunch, we hit our last museum.  A modest one where there used to be an “orphanage” – where women used to drop off their girl babies to be raised by nuns. The twist is that they would often leave a half a playing card with the baby, in case they wanted to have a reunion sometime later in life (one assumes poverty or lack of a husband drove them to do this). The building once had a purpose-built “shelf” on the outside where people could deposit their babies. There was one for boys as well.

And that was pretty much it – one final nice meal and then a looong and interesting day of travel home.

Going home

Ended up taking a taxi to the train station instead of walking because it was pouring rain, and as if to mark our departure, the cabbie had 80s pop blasting – we were entertained by a particularly campy, talk-singing earnest song about “Geanie”, made all the more delightful when Melle figured out it is by Falco and has a video almost equal to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.

Anyway, we printed out our boarding passes only to find out that we were on standby, and could not know if we actually had seats on the plane until about 45 minutes before final boarding. After lunch we made our way to the gate, got through a full bodyscan at security, only to be told that we were, in fact, in line for a flight to Mexico City. Hoofed it to another gate, waited. Then heard the announcement that our flight was delayed 2 hours. Waiting at the front of the line. Lovely man at the counter could not find tickets with our names on it, but after some exchange in Dutch with his supervisor, we had tickets! Upgraded to comfort class! From there, the flight was A-Okay, if late.

Very tired when we got home, though, since it was about 4am as far as our body clocks were concerned.

Pictures!

 

 

Friday thoughts: August 31, 2012

Friday, August 31st, 2012
  • The only thing uniting all of the candidates running for by-election in my riding is their sustained ability to annoy me with phone calls, and useless pamphlets in my mailbox.
  • There’s a series of commercials for some tooth-whitening product, where a woman with Hollywood whites “goes on a sudden road trip” with her girl pals, and gets invited last minute to a movie opening, and THE FIRST THING SHE DOES, as she is still on the phone accepting the invitations, is CHECK HER TEETH. Presumably she agrees only because, in each case, she has two hours to whiten the hell out of her teeth some more. Really?
  • How long do you think it took for the person who booked Clint Eastwood for the Republican convention last night to get fired?
  • The appropriate forms of address are Mr Johnny Cash and Nikola Fucking Tesla.
  • The Sedum are turning pink. This is unacceptable.

Pictures I did not take

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

1. A girl about 10 years old, wearing a Spring dress, running like hell after a soccer ball in the school field.

2. A beautiful brown and white duck (Wood duck?) hopping up the neighbour’s stairs and pecking at the door. No one answered.

3. An elderly woman in a pant suit at the library earnestly reading Slash’s biography.

It’s not just the quiet

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

Reading - passtime of a lot of introvertsJust finished reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. As an introvert reading a book about introverts, it’s a bit like the cats watching cats meme.

I found myself nodding at many parts. Others not so much – like the idea that introverts need a lot of time to make a decision, cuz no. Cain does a good job of blending research in neuroscience, psychology and field trips to find out more about how introverts have been perceived and welcomed (or not) in history, and makes sure to offer us up some “famous introverts” to soothe our need to be recognized (Bill Gates, Woz, Al Gore, Rosa Parks, Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt…).

Parks’ story is one she comes back to several times, as a woman of “quiet courage” – turns out she had a run-in with the same bus driver she dealt with on the famous day, and she backed off that time. However, she had been a long-standing worker in civil rights in her own way–she wasn’t a leader, but she was strong in her beliefs. On the day when she said “no”, she was tired and believed she should keep her seat. All the stuff that came afterward was primarily the work of the extroverts–like King.

I liked also that Cain twigged to the fact that in this cult of personality we call modern Americas, where we all “think different”, conformity is higher than ever – everything is about groupthink, groupwork and being “outgoing”, against study after study that shows working and thinking on one’s own actually results in more creativity, and more productive results.

In the business world, Cain cites several studies that put the idea that “brainstorming” works, and that open plan offices are conducive to better ideas and more productivity on their ass. Want to help people to be more productive, at least give them a mix of hidey-holes and places to interact. Open-plan workers have higher stress levels, higher turnover and lower productivity. Of course, the people who think all this stuff is good for business have come through what is now generations of kids who have been forced into group work for most of their school career, and who were ostracized and called out by teachers for being too quiet, or anti-social.

This was, in fact, what my entire “enrichment” education was in the 70′s and 80′s – if we weren’t brainstorming, we were assigned to teams to do some project. Never mind that I’m pretty sure the better part of the kids in enrichment were introverts, and looked on our time to do independent study as a “relief” from all of that forced interaction.

There’s some evidence that shows that introverts are physically more sensitive to stimulation – which makes sense. That baby who cries when there’s a loud noise or a fast-moving object? More likely to be introverted and not the excitable extrovert you might expect. The extrovert needs more stimulation to have the right levels of chemicals going in their brains.

There is such a thing as what I would call “situational extrovertism”–where introverts can be social, or direct, or charming even. But when we are done, we need to decompress. I have no problem speaking in front of large crowds, for example, but I need to do mental rehearsing beforehand, and I need several days afterward with no social engagements to “top up” my reserves.

Another good strategy for me is working at home – where I can control the amount of stimulation, and work through different projects as I choose to without interaction. Since a third to a half of the population is introverted, it’s yet another way that telecommuting can actually result in more productivity–except that it’s much more likely that the extroverts are running the show.

Cain offers up some ideas for how introverts and extroverts can get along, and why it’s a great combination when they work together–which I totally agree with. For me, having extroverts on my team and as my immediate boss is a way for me to exert influence without having to do all of the small talk myself, and I really hate small talk.

A good read if you aren’t aware of why Sally or Joe don’t want to go out every night like you do, or if you are Sally or Joe and you want to read about your tribe.

 

SKA isn’t just music anymore

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Made it to another PI lecture last week. This one was Lisa Harvey-Smith from CSIRO (Commenwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization) who was here, presumably, celebrating Canada’s recent entry into the supporter’s ring for the Square Kilometer Array.

The whole project is a pretty interesting world cup of who’s gonna get the array. It’s a series of several types of radio receivers that comprise what will be the most sensitive radio telescope we’ve ever created. The idea is that they will be able to look “back” at the early universe and get a much better understanding of how things came to be, and maybe get a handle on just what the hell black energy and black matter really is. Essentially looking at the smooth universe from much earlier after the big bang and before it got all clumpy (if, indeed, that is how it happened).

Harvey-Smith was an engaging speaker who made liberal use of video and humour (to better effect, I thought, when she wasn’t discussing her primary research and the array – almost as if it’s too hard to be irreverent with the thing you most care about).

What’s more interesting is that every aspect of this project is pretty much open market competition, including the ultimate site for the array (thanks to @Melle for the link). It may be a defining moment for Africa if they get the bid. There’s some pretty mind-boggling innovation required, including how to cool facilities in a desert in a way that is environmentally sound, and get enough computing power together to process the equivalent of the Internet every day. But they’ve got the guy who has a copyright on wifi working on the project, so they may have a shot at it.

I came out of there with one essential question though: if the actual space needed is thousands of kilometers, why the hell is it the Square Kilometer Array?

Love ya

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Sometimes Twitter is an amazingly fun place to be. If you are looking for some Canadian character and a good laugh, check out #TellVicEverything.

You want to know why? http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2012/02/16/pol-twitter-tell-vic-everything.html

The best part is that we somehow succeeded in getting the Harper gov’t to *gasp* “consider amendments”.

Shopping on the Interwebs

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

There are some things that one buys online and expects to buy online; some are surprises.

This is a fabric comb

This is a fabric comb

The first thing is a sweater comb. I started looking for sweater combs about 6 weeks ago. You would think this would be an easy thing to find. By the yarn or in the laundry aisle or something. But no. Nothing at fabric stores, department stores. Hell, even CT let me down and they have everything!

And no, I do not want the “electric” version of the thing – why buy something that needs batteries when there’s a perfectly good tool that does not?

Great gift, btw. Pulls off pills from pants and sweaters and stuff. An excellent little invention.

And then it was sweatshirts. I like sweatshirts. The normal kind. No hoods. No zippers. No pockets. Just a gorram sweatshirt. But everyone else likes hoodies with zippers and pockets, so that’s what the stores stock.

Online shopping to the rescue on both counts. I shall have my comb and sweatshirts delivered to my door. Bless the Internet.

This is a picture I did not take

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

at the library. Of a homeless man rearranging the DVDs in a schema known only to him.

Sherlox

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

I’ve seen Ritchie’s Sherlock (Game of Shadows) and Moffat’s latest Sherlock (A Scandal in Belgravia) in the past couple of weeks. Of course, Ritchie’s Sherlock isn’t really Sherlock; it’s an action movie with cool slow-mo that happens to have the same character names as Sherlock.

Of the two, I much prefer Moffat’s. But I do like the chemistry between Downie and Law and the steampunk bits and bobs in Ritchie’s. Also, Stephen Fry as Mycroft is awesome and he and Downie are totally believable batshit brilliant brothers and Jarred Harris is a better Moriarity. The Irene Adlers are very different. McAdams is more vulnerable and more sweet, but then again she’s not a full-on dominatrix, so I guess I give the edge to Lara Pulver. Both have some awesome comic moments.

Moffat’s high tech contemporary Sherlock really works for me, and the music totally reminds of Firefly which can only mean good things. Though Michael Price is not Greg Edmonson, he’s known for a few other little things (think hobbits).

One wonders what the hell Conan Doyle would be thinking about all this re-imagining.