Particle Battleships

All the buzz in physics today is around results from CERN. Have they found a hint of a Higgs particle, have they found a hint of no Higgs particle? It is difficult to tell on a very broken-up webcast but, from what I can gather, there may be a hint of something with an energy of 126 GeV (with a level of confidence that doesn't let them claim a discovery yet).

Earlier, John Humphreys on the Today programme seemed to suggest that if nothing was found today the whole exercise (ATLAS/CMS) had been a waste of time. This view (he may have been playing devil's advocate) misunderstands how science works. The process of science is one of exploration. Things aren't always as you expected. Regardless of if you get the expected answer, the result tells you something about the universe that you didn't know (or were very unsure of) before. That's science.

Hunting for the Higgs particle is a bit like the game Battleships. You start off with a huge area of unexplored sea (or energy ranges) and you gradually place pegs in the board trying to locate the opponent's battleships (the Higgs particle). Your initial pegs are pretty unlikely to find your opponent's ships but you have to start searching somewhere. Searches that find nothing are still telling you something. As time goes on you start to really limit the places where the battleships can be. Gradually you start to spot battleship shaped holes in your search - some will be empty but some should contain what you're looking for*.

* Of course, your opponent might have cheated and not put down any battleships at all. As you rule out more and more sea you'll spot that too.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 13th Dec 2011 (14:02 GMT) | Permalink

Astronomy Pantomime

In the UK we have a tradition of pantomime. Although the origins may extend to the ancient Greeks, modern pantomime originates in the Victorian era and is a comedic performance of a children's story usually performed in December or early January. They are mostly aimed at children but with some jokes for their parents too. A curious part of pantomime is that the lead male character is usually played by a young woman and there is always an elderly mother-figure (called the Dame) who is always played by a man.

Back in 2006, the Jodcast (the UK's first regular astronomy podcast) decided to share this tradition by book-ending the normal podcast with first and second acts of a pantomime. The Jodcast presenters put on their acting hats and produced a story loosely based on The Wizard of Oz but with a Jodcast slant. The next year we felt we should do another and so we presented our take on A Christmas Carol with the ghosts of Astronomy Past, Astronomy Now Present and Astronomy Future. Future years have seen Nick and the Intro Factory, Jenaddin (performed in front of a studio audience for Jodcast Live), Neil White and the Seven Dwarf Planets (with a cameo by dwarf planet finder Mike Brown), and this year's Jendarella.

I've extracted the pantomimes for posterity and included them below:

  • 2006: The Wizard of Oz (2.3MB) starring Ian Morison as the Narrator, Nick Rattenbury as the Great and Powerful Pod, Megan Argo as Dorothy, Tim O'Brien as Tim Man, Stuart Lowe as Stuart-crow, David Ault as Cowardly Dave, Mark Bruzee as HAL and Seth Adam Sher as Dave;
  • 2007: A Christmas Carol (2 MB) starring Ian Morison as the Narrator, David Ault as The Ghost of Astronomy Past, Nick Rattenbury as Bob Rattenbury, Stuart Lowe as Stuart Scrooge, Tim O'Brien as The Ghost of Jodcast Present and Mark Bruzee as HAL;
  • 2008: Nick and the Intro Factory (2.9MB) starring Tom Muxlow as the Narrator, Nick Rattenbury as Nicky Bucket, Tim O'Brien as Grandpa Tim, David Ault as Dave Wonka, Stuart Lowe as Stuart PC, Megan Argoas Megan Newshound, Roy Smits as Roy, Mark Bruzee as HAL, and Fiona Waller as M&S lift & Servelan.
  • 2009: Jenaddin (4.6MB) starring Chris Lintott as the Narrator, David Ault as Doctor Twankey, Jen Gupta as Jenaddin, Stuart Lowe as Prof Abanaza, Megan Argoas Princess Parkes, Neil Young as the Emperor, Lisa Hartley as the Empress, Paul Miyagawa as theGuard, Nick Rattenbury as the Genie;
  • 2010: Neil White and the Seven Dwarf Planets (2.1MB) starring Adam Avison as the Narrator, Neil Young as Prince Neil, Megan Argo as Eris, Jen Gupta as Ceres, Catherine McGuire as Haumea, Mark Purver as the Mirror, David Aultas the King and MakeMake, Ian Morison as 15727 IanMorison, and Mike Brown as himself;
  • 2011: Jendarella (3MB) starring Libby Jones as the Narrator, Jen Gupta as Jenderella, Stuart Lowe as Baron Cardiff, Melanie Gendre as Stepmother, Adam Avison and Mark Purver as the Ugly Sisters, Megan Argoas Fairy Jodmother, David Ault as Prince Professional Respect, Leo Huckvale and Christina Smith as extras.

You can hear the latest pantomime on the December 2011 edition of the Jodcast. Credit goes to all the people who've been on the Jodcast over the years and particularly David Ault who wrote the scripts.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 03rd Dec 2011 (13:04 GMT) | Permalink

Spot the mistake

I discovered the OnOrbit website this afternoon. It seems to have been co-founded by the man behind NASA Watch and claims to be a social networking site for space. In reality it seems to be more of a blog than a social network like Facebook or Twitter. Anyway, the page I stumbled upon was a page from 2009 about the cooling systems on Planck. It has a fairly glaring mistake on it. Can you spot it?

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 02nd Dec 2011 (18:14 GMT) | Permalink
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