April 6, 2010

Geek Out!: 'Lost,' time and quantum mechanics

Posted: 02:43 PM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

If you're watching "Lost," you're probably wondering how the writers are going to resolve all of the questions about time and parallel existences. Sean Carroll, physicist at California Institute of Technology and "Lost" fan, is wondering the same thing.

But as far-fetched as the show may seem, there are ways in which concepts from modern physics could explain what's happening in terms of time, says Carroll, author of "From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time."

To recap: In the last two seasons of "Lost," characters on the island found themselves jutting through time. Season 5 found the characters transported to different eras on the island again and again thanks to some uncomfortable - even deadly! - white flashes.

At the beginning of Season 6, after Juliet activated the hydrogen bomb at the Dharma Swan site, the characters appeared in a new timeline.

This timeline portrays what happens to the characters on Oceanic Flight 815 had the plane not crashed. But many aspects of their lives are different, suggesting that the detonation of the bomb in the 1970s (after some of them had gone back in time) changed their lives in 2004 in significant ways - Sun and Jin are not married, Benjamin Linus is a schoolteacher, etc. etc.

But we don't know if the bomb actually created this timeline, or if it had always been there.

In real life, physicists think about multiple worlds all the time when it comes to quantum mechanics - the study of matter on atomic and subatomic scales. That's because nature gets freaky when you try to describe the behavior of particles smaller than the eye can see.

In quantum mechanics there is a concept called the the "many-worlds interpretation," Carroll says. The theory goes that the universe splits into multiple "worlds" when we observe a quantum system in which the particles are in multiple places at once.

Let's say we observe a single particle at positions A and B simultaneously. Each place that the particle is in corresponds to a different world - so, there's a world with our particle at A, and a separate world with our particle at B.

"We might imagine that detonating the bomb acted as an especially dramatic quantum event, splitting the universe into two timelines. The show has hinted that there is some sort of connection between the two timelines, so we'll have to see how that plays out," Carroll says.

Also, if time travel were possible, it would have to operate according to a principle that "Lost" characters kept repeating in Season 5: "Whatever happened, happened." That means that if you could go back in time, you wouldn't be able to change anything.

So let's say you go back to 1990 and encounter yourself, saying "Hey, you - I mean, me." That would have always happened, and you would remember now having met yourself then (so it hasn't happened!).

Recall, for instance, that in "Lost," Eloise in present-day Los Angeles clearly remembered that she had met her own time-traveling son Daniel many years earlier, but Eloise on the island in the 1970s did not, because from her perspective it hadn't happened yet.

All this goes to say that the "Lost" creators do have some basis for the sometimes outrageous time travel elements in the show. Still, a lot of underlying ideas haven't been resolved yet. Tune in on Tuesday nights to see if we learn more!

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Filed under: Geek Out! • Physics

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November 23, 2009

Large Hadron Collider has first collisions

Posted: 04:55 PM ET

Alarmists take note: The planet is intact after particles began smashing into each other at the Large Hadron Collider today.

For the first time, the $10 billion machine circulated two proton beams simultaneously in its 17-mile tunnel underneath the border between France and Switzerland.

This is a major step toward finding the answers to fundamental physics questions about the nature of matter in the universe, and how the world as we know it began.

“The events so far mark the start of the second half of this incredible voyage of discovery of the secrets of nature,” said Tejinder Virdee, spokesperson for the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment, in a statement.

The particle collisions are finally happening despite discredited theories that the accelerator could produce a black hole that could swallow the universe, and that it is being sabotaged from the future. Read more about these theories

The project appears to have rebounded from a substantial setback in September 2008. Just nine days after it started up, one of the 25,000 joints that connect magnets in the LHC came loose, and the resulting current melted or burned some important components of the machine, said Steve Myers, director of accelerators at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

The collider has drawn thousands of physicists from around the world together in a collaborative search for never-before-seen particles and new properties of nature. These particles include the Higgs boson, which theoretically gives mass to matter.

Today's collisions are relatively low-energy; the next step is to get particles colliding at higher energies than ever before. The accelerator should reach an energy of 1.2 TeV (teraelectronvolts, or a million million electronvolts) per beam by Christmas if all goes well, CERN said.

Read more about the collider going back online.

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Filed under: Large Hadron Collider • Physics

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November 6, 2009

Baguette-toting bird stalls atom smasher

Posted: 05:31 PM ET

This is too weird: A bird reportedly has dropped a "bit of baguette" onto the world's largest atom smasher, causing the machine to short out for a period of time.

It's just the latest mishap for the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, which scientists plan to use to get insight into the universe's origins. The LHC, which has a 17-mile track to circulate protons and is located underground on the French-Swiss border outside Geneva, Switzerland, is the largest particle accelerator in the world and cost about $10 billion.

The LHC booted up in September 2008, but technical problems forced it to shut down shortly after its launch. When the mystery bird reportedly dropped a piece of bread onto the particle accelerator's outdoor machinery earlier this week, the device was not turned on, according to reports, and therefore did not suffer major damage.

Had the machine been activated, the baguette incident could have caused the LHC to go into shutdown mode, the UK's The Register reports. The Register quotes Dr. Mike Lamont, a worker at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (or CERN), as saying that "a bit of baguette" had been dropped on the LHC, possibly by a bird.

A call to CERN's press office was not immediately returned.

ZDNet writes that the baguette in question did not have a chocolate filling:

The [CERN] spokesperson said the bread, which was "naked and unfilled", had caused a short circuit when dropped on an electrical installation that supplies energy to the massive experiment. While the bird was unconfirmed as the definite culprit, it had been spotted beforehand near the substation carrying bread, said the spokesperson.

The avian accident has prompted a number of online parodies and jokes (this photo is my favorite). CNET UK, a CNN content partner, writes jokingly that it's clear the bird was French since it was carrying a baguette:

We're not ones for crude for national stereotyping, but the detail that the bird dropped a bit of baguette suggests this must have occurred on the French side of the LHC. It's unclear whether the bird was actually riding a bike, or indeed wearing onions and a beret.

A Discover blog exclaims: "Zut alors!"

And CrunchGear says the strange incident shows the LHC is "so abhorrent to nature that the universe is contriving to snuff it out."

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Filed under: Large Hadron Collider • science • Space • universe

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December 24, 2008

The Water Bullet

Posted: 01:55 PM ET

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Water Bullet!

iReporter Larren Unruh submitted video of a test drop of the MX-311 Water Bullet.

Larren Unruh sent a cool video of the test drop of a device called the MX-311 Water Bullet, a high-impact safety harness. Watch the video here.

Inventor Maximus WillHammer has spent the last five years working on it, motivated by what he considers a lack of understanding in the safety industry of the needs of today's tradesmen.

The aircraft was designed around the idea of finding a safer way to bring data or humans back from space. The video shows WillHammer's unmanned test drop earlier this month at the Arrowrock Reservoir outside Boise, Idaho. Check out Willhammer's Web site for more on how it works.

Tell us about a technology breakthrough, and your video could be featured on this blog.

- Stephen Walsh,

Filed under: Aviation • Physics • science

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September 23, 2008

After last week, $8 billion for a broken collider doesn't sound like so much.....

Posted: 11:19 AM ET

The Large Hadron Collider won't be unlocking some of the mysteries of the Universe for a while. It's broken. LHC's operators says they'll need at least two months to warm the collider up from its near-absolute-zero temperatures and fix a portion of it.  (Update:  CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, said late today (9/23) that the collider will not be ready to re-start until spring 2009).

A section of the Large Hadron Collider, which straddles the border between Switzerland and France.   (CERN Photo)

A section of the Large Hadron Collider, which straddles the border between Switzerland and France. (CERN Photo)

It's been called the biggest science project ever: $8 billion in funds and years in research, some of it from the US Department of Energy. The potential payoff? Unlocking some of the deepest-held secrets of physics, like how matter comes together.

After a week in which we committed, or considered committing, as much as a trillion dollars toward cleaning up the financial industry's mess (most of it from U.S. taxpayers), we're looking back at the wide range of opinions that this blog's readers rolled out about the project. There were four basic groups:

1) Folks who wanted to turn the collider into a religious (or anti-religious) statement. I'm not going there, and I regret that so many commentors took a science blog in that direction.

2) Those who feared that the collider would create a black hole, then suck us all into it. The depth of scientific due diligence on the project says that this is an impossibility.

3) Many who were genuinely stoked about the potential for discovery here. I'm with you.

and 4)  Those who thought that $8 billion is too much to spend on something like this.

It's this last group that I want to address:  sure, there are lots of things we could spend $8 billion on now - like feeding several billion of our fellow citizens and beginning to help them out of poverty. Or maybe one-tenth of the money the Feds dumped into bailing out AIG last week. But let's put the collider money into perspective. Here are a few other things we buy with that kind of money:

- A little over four years of domestic sales of Doritos.
- Approximately two-thirds of the annual gambling revenues in the state of Nevada.
- About three days of US oil imports.
- About a month's worth of US cigarette sales.
- About ten months' worth of US lung cancer treatment costs. (A worthy effort to be sure, but one that wouldn't be nearly as costly if it weren't for the cigarette numbers above.)

What's my point? The collider's broken. It may or may not come close to the goals and dreams its many scientists aspired to reach. But the only gamble here is with money, and this is one that's well worth taking.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech, and Weather

Filed under: economy • Large Hadron Collider • Physics

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September 12, 2008

A hopeful crush on the LHC

Posted: 12:15 PM ET

It’s not every week we power up a machine and wonder about the speculations, however unwarranted, that a black hole will swallow the planet. On Wednesday morning, everyone was either utterly fascinated or fearful as the Large Hadron Collider, a $10 billion machine more expensive and powerful than any of its predecessors, started up for the first time.

The hall for the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider.

No wonder many science enthusiasts have a crush on the LHC, which has become a world-famous celebrity. Obviously, as an object of desire and supreme popularity, the LHC offers the best of both worlds: extreme money and extreme power. It’s also situated in a romantic location between Lake Geneva and the Jura Mountains.

More importantly, it will teach us new things about ourselves and our world. It can look deep inside us and find secrets we never knew existed. And it has the potential to generate black holes, though most scientists agree any of those little cosmic vacuum-cleaners would disappear in less than a second without doing any harm. Yet the doomsday rumors somehow make the LHC seem even more attractive and awe-inspiring. We fear what we love, and we love what we fear.

Among the potential perks of staying on top of the LHC's every move: a better understanding of matter. For instance, scientists think that the matter we know may only be a small percentage of what makes up the universe. Previous cosmological studies have inferred that most of the universe consists of invisible stuff called “dark matter” and “dark energy.” The NASA satellite WMAP has found that atoms make up only about 5 percent of the universe, while dark matter accounts for 23 percent and dark energy 72 percent. So, 95 percent of the stuff of the universe is invisible and completely mysterious. But our hero the LHC may be able to shed some light on that darkness.

Of course, this celebrity icon hasn’t made a commitment to find anything. There is always the chance that, after billions and billions of particle collisions, nothing turns up.

So now that the big start-up is over, we are left wondering, what now? For sure, we have the first attempt at colliding two beams, and the operation of the collider at unbelievable energy levels, to expect in the coming year. But will the LHC come through for us, or will it leave us broken-hearted, lost in a world we barely understand?

With thousands of brilliant scientists from around the world working on this, there's hope that all of the heartache and waiting is worth it. What do you think?

–Elizabeth Landau, Writer/Producer,

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Filed under: Large Hadron Collider • Physics

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September 9, 2008

The world will not end this week

Posted: 03:21 PM ET
The Large Hadron Collider control room, near Geneva, Switzerland

The Large Hadron Collider control room, near Geneva, Switzerland

Scientists are about to fire up the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest particle accelerator. The 17-mile long circular tunnel runs through Switzerland, and a bit of France. The object of the game (the $8 billion game, by the way) is to smash protons into each other, replicating the conditions an instant after the Big Bang.

The practical applications for this? None.
The prize? Possibly answering a key question about everything. The search for the Higgs boson, a particle that's not yet discovered, but theorized. Physicists believe that the Higgs - sometimes called the "God Particle" - is what creates mass.

Sadly, there's been a mild media frenzy (including CNN, which published an AP story on the topic last June) focused not on the potential for discovery, but on concerns that there's a theoretical chance that smashing these two proton streams together at nearly the speed of light will create tiny black holes that will unite, swallow up the Large Hadron Collider, then swallow up Switzerland, France, Earth, and the rest of the solar system.

As I understand it, there's a universe of difference between the massive black holes of space that swallow up matter, and the tiny ones that would be generated in the LHC, each with a lifespan of a tiny fraction of a nanosecond.

That hasn't stopped a wave of online protests, and a lawsuit in US court to stop the project (the US Department of Energy is a participant in the collider experiment).

Okay, it should be clear by now that particle physics is not my strong suit. Botany isn't either, and Walter Wagner, the guy who filed the lawsuit, is a card-carrying botanist. He also filed a similar suit against the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, which has been operating at Brookhaven National Labs since 2000, with no apparent impact to Life As We Know It.

I'd love to hear your take on all this. If you share Mr. Wagner's concerns, please get your comments in by 3:30AM ET Wednesday. If not, take your time. I'm pretty sure the world will still be here tomorrow, when testing begins, or through the next month as the tests complete and they try out the Real Thing. If I'm wrong, I'll buy every one of you a nice lunch. But I'm pretty sure we'll go back to destroying the world the slow, methodical, hard way, and not in a flash while you're sleeping tonight.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech, and Weather

Filed under: Large Hadron Collider • Physics • science • Scientists

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June 4, 2008

SciTech summer reading list

Posted: 03:51 PM ET

Reading fantastic fiction in the summer can be fun, but sometimes even more exciting stories come from truths about nature itself. Here are some books that will make you think in new ways and inspire those essential "You're not going to believe this" moments at cocktail parties.

New for 2008

Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel
by Michio Kaku

The word on nerdy streets is that this book is highly accessible look at all kinds of things that sound impossible, like time travel and teleportation.

Bang! The Complete History of the Universe
by Brian May, Patrick Moore, and Chris Lintott

Brian May acquired his fame so far as the founding guitarist of the band Queen, but now he’s got a Ph.D. in astrophysics. In this book, he and co-authors rock with the origins of the universe.

My Stroke of Insight
by Jill Bolte Taylor

Taylor, a brain scientist, details her battle with her brain, and the insights she gleaned from recovery from a stroke.

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
by Michael Pollan

Calling all omnivores: You may think you’re heating healthily, but Pollan’s dissection of the American diet may surprise you.

Old favorites

Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid
by Douglas Hofstadter

This is one of those rare books that makes us think, “Wow, the world is so much more beautiful and complicated than I thought.” That is because Hofstadter interweaves concepts from mathematics, art, music, computer science, biology, and philosophy in amazing new ways. Though the book was published in 1979, the essential questions and insights he brings up about the nature of consciousness and the possibilities for artificial intelligence are still extremely relevant. Hofstadter has also written a follow-up book called I Am a Strange Loop.

The Hot Zone
by Richard Preston

There’s nothing like reading about the way ebola liquefies internal organs while you’re sipping lemonade on the beach. Preston isn’t afraid to get into the gory details of how a strain of this deadly virus came to the United States.

The Elegant Universe
by Brian Greene

Also the subject of a PBS special, this is a terrific introduction to the world of superstring theory. Basically, physicists in this camp speculate that miniscule vibrating loops called strings constitute the entire universe, and that they exist in 10 or more dimensions. Greene has since written Fabric of the Cosmos to touch on similar themes. These topics do get complicated, so be prepared to add terms like branes and Calabi-Yau manifolds to your vocabulary.

Chaos: Making a New Science
by James Gleick

The death of meteorologist Edward Lorenz in April makes this classic book on chaos theory especially timely. Lorenz constructed weather models that led him to a concept known as the butterfly effect. This relates to those pretty pictures called fractals. Soon you’ll be singing the Mandelbrot Set song.

–Elizabeth Landau, Associate Producer,

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Filed under: Physics • Scientists

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April 3, 2008

Solving a Sticky Problem

Posted: 12:14 PM ET

It seems there's virtually no dilemma plaguing humanity that hasn't been studied by some scientist, somewhere.

A torn poster in Serbia-Montenegro illustrates the "wallpaper problem." Source: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images

Case in point: You know how, when you try to tear down old wallpaper, or pull a label off something, it invariably peels on a diagonal line instead of coming off straight, so you end up with a point still stuck to the surface?

Well, apparently that really bothered a team of scientists from MIT, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, and the Universidad de Santiago, Chile.

"This shape is really robust, so there must be something fundamental going on that gives rise to these shapes," said Pedro Reis, a mathematics instructor at MIT.

Now, the researchers have explained the physics of what they call "the wallpaper problem," according to a press release from MIT.

The team analyzed how the stiffness and toughness of a material being pulled off a surface interacts with the strength of the adhesive holding it in place.

The scientists say energy builds up along the line where the strip of wallpaper (or whatever) is peeling from the wall, and one way for the energy to be released is for the strip to become narrower – so it does.

The team also came up with a way to predict the angle at which a given piece of wallpaper will tear.

The scientists say the same thing happens when you peel a tomato or a grape. It's not clear whether any of the researchers actually sat around peeling grapes.

The research could actually have practical applications in industries where the properties of sticky films are important.

The study was published in the journal "Nature Materials."

–Kate King, Writer,

Filed under: Materials • Physics

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