Fundamental Particles & Forces: What do we know?

Do you remember all the hoopla last year when the Higgs Boson was confirmed by physicists at the Large Hadron Collider? That’s the one called the ‘God particle’, because it was touted as helping to resolve the forces of nature into one elegant theory. Well—Not so fast, bucko!…

First, some credit where credit is due: The LHC is a 27-kilometer ring of superconductor magnets interspersed by accelerators that boost the energy of the particles as they whip around and smash into each other. For physicists—and anyone who seeks a deeper understanding of what goes into everything—it certainly inspires awe.

Existence of the Higgs Boson (aka, The God Particle) was predicted. Physicists were fairly certain that it would be observed. But its discovery is a ‘worst case’ scenario for the Standard Model of particle physics. It points to shortcomings in our ability to model and predict things. Chemists have long had a master blueprint of atoms in the Periodic Table. It charts all the elements in their basic states. But, physicists are a long way from building something analogous. That’s because we know a lot more about atomic elements than the fundamental building blocks of matter and energy.   [continue below image]

So, what do we know about fundamental particles the forces that bind them? HINT: There are 61 that we know of or have predicted and at least two about which we don’t yet have any clue: The pull of Gravity and dark matter / dark energy.

This video produced by the BBC Earth project is an actors’ portrayal of a news interviewer and a particle physicist. If we were to simply watch these two guys talk in front of a camera, it would be pretty boring (unless, of course, the physicist has charm and panache of the late Richard Feynman or my own Cornell professor, Carl Sagan). So, to spice it up a bit, BBC has added a corny animation of two guys talking with an anthropomorphic illustration of cartoon particles. Corny? Yes! But it helps to keep a viewer captivated. And, for any armchair physicist, the story is really exciting!

See the video here. It takes a moment to load—but for me, the wait is worthwhile.

Solar System Map: Surprisingly deceptive

What’s wrong with this illustration of the planets in our solar system?            »

For one thing, it suggests that the planets line up for photos on the same solar ray, just like baby ducks in a row. That’s a pretty rare occurrence—perhaps once in several billion years. In fact, Pluto doesn’t even orbit on the same plane as the planets. Its orbit is tilted 17 degrees. So, forget it lining up with anything, except on rare occasions, when it crosses the equatorial plane. On that day, you might get it to line up with one or two planets.

But what about scale? Space is so vast. Perhaps our solar system looks like this ↓

No such luck! Stars and planets do not fill a significant volume of the void. They are lonely specs in the great enveloping cosmic dark.* Space is mostly filled with—well—space! Lots and lots of it. In fact, if Pluto and our own moon were represented by just a single pixel on your computer screen, you wouldn’t see anything around it. Even if you daisy chain a few hundred computer screens, you will not discern the outer planets. They are just too far away.

Josh Worth has created an interactive map of our solar system. For convenience, it also assumes that planets are lined up like ducks. But the relative sizes and distance between planets are accurate. Prepare to change your view of the cosmos…

1/7 the way to Pluto. I enlarged Jupiter’s moons. On a full-screen view, they are barely visible.

Just swipe your finger from the right edge of the screen to move away from the sun. Despite a fascinating experience (and many cute, provocative Easter eggs hidden between the planets), few readers swipe all the way out to Pluto and the author credits. On my high-resolution monitor, it requires more than a thousand swipes. Imagine if the Moon had been more than 1 pixel…It would take a long, long time! I would rather go out to dinner and a movie. But I urge you to travel at least to Jupiter. At 1/7 of the trip to Pluto, it should take less than 5 minutes.

On this scale, you won’t see the 1½ or 2 million asteroids between Mars and Jupiter. They aren’t large enough to merit a pixel. As Josh states, “Most space charts leave out the most significant part – all the space.” (an Easter egg at 1.12 billion km on the map).


* I borrowed this phrase from my former Cornell professor, Carl Sagan. He uses it in Pale Blue Dot [timestamp 2:14.]. This video tribute became a touchstone in my life; even more than having Sagan as a professor and mentor.

If you view it, be sure to also view Consider Again, Sagan’s follow-up in the video below. It is a thought-provoking observation of human-chauvinism throughout history—even among ancient Greeks. Carl isn’t the first atheist, of course. But he is eloquent in describing mankind’s ego trip: The delusion of a privileged place in the universe, or the religious depiction of God and his relationship with our species.

Related:

Credit:  ▪ Josh Worth and Sachin Gadhave who offers an illustrative answer at Quora.com


Ellery Davies co-chairs Crypsa & Bitcoin Event, columnist & board member at Lifeboat, editor
at WildDuck and will deliver the keynote address at Digital Currency Summit in Johannesburg.

US withdrawal from Paris accord; Universal disappointment

Yesterday, I had a fantasy. One that I passionately hoped would become reality. Minutes before Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, I began to daydream…

  • I dreamt that Trump might listen to his top science advisors and his daughter
  • I dreamt that he might not gamble our existence on his minority opinion that humans cannot help rescue the environment.
  • I dreamt that he would recognize that clean energy jobs trump legacy coal mining
  • I dreamt that he would avoid export tariffs for failing to respect international norms
  • I dreamt that he would stop pandering to Yahoos and stand for something worthy and undeniable

No such luck! The USA has lost its Mojo—at least while it is led by a man with no grasp of science, history, morals or a global perspective. As Trump begun to speak, I was sucked into a cruel nightmare. But this nightmare is reality. It’s the reality of a buffoon representing you and me in our nation’s highest office.

Question: Time for a thought experiment. Can you guess the answer?…

What do Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elon Musk, The Pope, Richard Branson and French president, Emmanuel Macron, have in common?

Answer: They are all saddened that the US is surrendering its inspiration, leadership and common sense. Clean energy creates jobs, saves our planet, and aids the political and military stability of nations. Trump doesn’t sense any of this. He is validated by his base and his Yes men. He is a climate denier, and he doesn’t even read. He only watches what others say about him on television.                     [continue below video]

I cannot add perspective nor amplify President Macron’s urgent message to Americans. The clip is trending on Facebook with the caption: “French president destroys Trump in 5 words”. This suggest that he is taking a jab at Trump; mocking his poor grasp on science and the environment. But, politics plays no role in this message. It is about global impact and opportunity…

The French president hasn’t made a fool of Trump. Trump has brought shame onto his office and made a fool of our system of government, all on his own. His defiance of science and complete lack of understanding history risks irreparable harm to our planet. Trump feels that American jobs come before environmental policy. Yet, he is turning his back on the biggest jobs market since the steam engine.                 [Continue below video]

Perhaps more critically, his withdrawal from the global accord will bring about tariffs against US cars, steel, airplanes, timber and electronics. After all, by pulling out of the Paris accords, we ducking environmental safeties in an effort to make America great — or more accurately, in our effort to bury our heads in the sands and let the rest of the world take the lead on clean energy, efficiency, reducing pollution and averting global warming.

Response to US withdrawal…


Ellery Davies co-chairs Crypsa & Bitcoin Event, columnist & board member at Lifeboat, editor
at WildDuck and will deliver the keynote address at Digital Currency Summit in Johannesburg.

What has changed since “Pale Blue Dot”?

I am not an astronomer or astrophysicist. I have never worked for NASA or JPL. But, during my graduate year at Cornell University, I was short on cross-discipline credits, and so I signed up for Carl Sagan’s popular introductory course, Astronomy 101. I was also an amateur photographer, occasionally freelancing for local media—and so the photos shown here, are my own.

Sagan-1

Carl Sagan is aware of my camera as he talks to a student in the front row of Uris Hall

By the end of the 70’s, Sagan’s star was high and continuing to rise. He was a staple on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, producer and host of the PBS TV series, Cosmos, and he had just written Dragons of Eden, which won him a Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote Contact, which became a blockbuster movie, starring Jodie Foster.

Sagan died in 1996, after three bone marrow transplants to compensate for an inability to produce blood cells. Two years earlier, Sagan wrote a book and narrated a film based on a photo taken from space.PaleBlueDot-1

Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of Earth taken in February 1990, by Voyager 1 from a distance of 3.7 billion miles (40½ times the distance between earth and the sun). At Sagan’s request (and with some risk to the ongoing scientific mission), the space probe was turned around to take this last photo of Earth. In the photo, Earth is less than a pixel in size. Just a tiny dot against the vastness of space, it appears to be suspended in bands of sunlight scattered by the camera lens.

Four years later, Sagan wrote a book, Pale Blue Dot, based on the landmark 1990 photograph. More recently, numerous fans have dubbed a 3½ minute excerpt of the audio book version into viral video tributes. (The most popular of these videos appears below this paragraph). In this very popular clip, Sagan makes a compelling plea for reconciliation between humans and a commitment to care for our shared environment. He unites humanity, appealing to everyone with a conscience.     [Full text]

—Which brings us to a question: How are we doing? Are we getting along now? Are we treating the planet as a shared life-support system, rather than a dumping ground?

Sagan points out that hate and misunderstanding plays into so many human interactions. He points to a deteriorating environment and that we cannot escape war and pollution by resettling to another place. Most importantly, he forces us to face the the fragility of our habitat and the need to protect it. He drives home this point—not only explaining it, but framing it as an urgent choice between life and death.

It has been 22 years since Sagan wrote and produced Pale Blue Dot. What has changed? Change is all around us, and yet not much has changed. To sort it all out, let’s break it down into technology, our survivable timeline and sociology.

Technology & Cosmology

  • Since Carl Sagan’s death, we have witnessed the first direct evidence of exoplanets. Several hundred have been observed and we will likely find many hundreds more each year. Some of these are in the habitable zone of their star.
  • Sagan died about 25 years after the last Apollo Moon mission. It is now 45 years since those missions, and humans are still locked into low earth orbits. We have sent a few probes to the distant planets and beyond, but the political will and resources to conduct planetary exploration—or even return to the moon—is weak.
  • A few private companies are launching humans, satellites or cargo into Space (Space-X, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin). Dozens of other private ventures have not yet achieved manned flight or an orbital rendezvous, but it seems likey that some projects will succeed. Lift off is becoming commonplace—but almost all of these launches are focused on TV, communications, monitoring our environment or monitoring our enemies. The space program no longer produces the regular breakthroughs and commercial spin-offs that it did throughout the 70s and 80s.
                                                                                                                                        continue below photo…
Sagan explains the Drake Equation. (Click for 2 photos with solution)

Sagan explains the Drake Equation. (Click for 2 photos with solution)

Survivable Timeline

  • Like most scientists, Carl Sagan was deeply concerned about pollution, nuclear proliferation, loss of bio-diversity, war and global warming. In fact, the debate over global warming was just beginning to heat up in Sagan’s last years. Today, there is no debate over global warming. All credible scientists understand that the earth is choking, and that our activities are contributing to our own demise.
  • In most regions, air pollution is slightly less of a concern than it was in the 1970s, but ground, water pollution, and radiation contamination are all more evident.
  • Most alarmingly, we humans are even more pitched in posturing and in killing our neighbors than ever before. We fight over land, religion, water, oil, and human rights. We especially fight in the name of our Gods, in the name of national exceptionalism and in the name of protecting our right to consume disposable luxury gadgets, transient thrills and family vacations—as if we were a prisoner consuming his last meal.

We have an insatiable appetite for raw materials, open spaces, cars and luxury. Yet no one seems to be doing the math. As the vast populations of China and India finally come to the dinner table (2 billion humans), it is clear that they have the wealth to match our gluttony. From where will the land, water, and materials come? And what happens to the environment then? In Beijing, the sky is never blue. Every TV screen is covered in a thick film of dust. On many days, commuters wear filter masks. There is no grass in the parks and no birds in the sky. Something is very wrong. With apologies for a mixed metaphor, the canary is already dead while the jester continues to dance.

Carl Sagan's wife designed the plaque bolted to the outside of the first man made object to leave our solar system

This plaque is bolted onto the first man-made object to leave our solar system

Sociology: Man’s Inhumanity to Man

  • Sagan observed that our leaders are passionate about conquering each other, spilling blood over frequent misunderstandings, giving in to imagined self-importance. None of this has changed.
  • Regarding our ability to get off of this planet, Sagan said “Visit? Perhaps…Settle? Not yet”. We still do not possess the technology or resources to settle even a single astronaut away from our fragile home planet. We won’t have both the technology and the will to do so for at least 75 years—and then, only a tiny community of scientists or explorers. It falls centuries shy of resettling a population.
  • Hate, zealotry, intolerance and religious fervor are more toxic than ever before
  • Today, the earth has a bigger population. Hate and misunderstanding has spread like cancer. Weapons of mass destruction have escaped the restraint of governments, oversight and safety mechanisms. They are now in the hands of intolerant and radical organizations that believe in martyrdom and that lack any desire to coexist within a global community.

Sagan-quote

  • Nations, organizations and some individuals possess the technology to kill a million people or more. Without even targeting civilians, a dozen nations can lay waste to the global environment in weeks.

Is it time to revisit Pale Blue Dot? Is it still relevant? The urgency of teaching and heeding Carl Sagan’s words has never been more urgent than now.


Postscript:

Carl Sagan probably didn’t like me. When I was his student, I was a jerk.

Sagan was already a TV personality and author when I took Astronomy 101 in 1977. Occasionally, he discussed material from the pages of his just-released Dragons of Eden, or slipped a photo of himself with Johnny Carson into a slide presentation. He clearly was a star attraction during parent’s weekend before classes started.

Indeed, he often used the phrase “Billions and Billions” even before it led as his trademark. Although he seemed mildly mused that people noticed his annunciation and emphasis, he explained that he thought it was a less distracting alternate to the phrase “That’s billions with a ‘B’ ” when generating appreciation for the vast scope of creation.

At this time that Sagan was my professor, he appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine. Like a lunkhead, I wrote to Newsweek, claiming that his adulation as a scientist was misplaced and that he was nothing more than an PR huckster for NASA and JPL in the vein of Isaac Asimov. I acknowledged his a gift for popularizing science, but argued that he didn’t have the brains to contribute in any tangible way.

I was wrong, of course. Even in the role of education champion, I failed to appreciate the very powerful and important role that he played in influencing an entire generation of scientists, including, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Although Newsweek did not publish my letter to the editor, someone on staff sent it to Professor Sagan! When the teaching assistant, a close friend of Sagan, showed me my letter, I was mortified.

Incidentally, I always sat in the front row of the big Uris lecture hall. As a student photographer, I took many photos, which show up on various university web sites from time to time. In the top photo, Professor Sagan is crouching down and clasping hands as he addresses the student seated next to me.

Is San Bernardino iPhone fully Encrypted?

Here is a question that keeps me up at night…

Is the San Bernardino iPhone just locked or is it properly encrypted?

Isn’t full encryption beyond the reach of forensic investigators? So we come to the real question: If critical data on the San Bernardino iPhone is properly encrypted, and if the Islamic terrorist who shot innocent Americans used a good password, then what is it that the FBI thinks that Apple can do to help crack this phone? Doesn’t good encryption thwart forensic analysis, even by the FBI and the maker of the phone?

iphone-01In the case of Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone, the FBI doesn’t know if the shooter used a long and sufficiently unobvious password. They plan to try a rapid-fire dictionary attack and other predictive algorithms to deduce the password. But the content of the iPhone is protected by a closely coupled hardware feature that will disable the phone and even erase memory, if it detects multiple attempts with the wrong password. The FBI wants Apple to help them defeat this hardware sentry, so that they can launch a brute force hack—trying thousands of passwords each second. Without Apple’s help, the crack detection hardware could automatically erase incriminating evidence, leaving investigators in the dark.

Mitch Vogel is an Apple expert. As both a former police officer and one who has worked with Apple he succinctly explains the current standoff between FBI investigators and Apple.


The iPhone that the FBI has is locked with a passcode and encrypted. It can only be decrypted with the unique code. Not even Apple has that code or can decrypt it. Unlike what you see in the movies, it’s not possible for a really skilled hacker to say “It’s impossible“” and then break through it with enough motivation. Encryption really is that secure and it’s really impossible to break without the passcode.

What the FBI wants to do is brute force the passcode by trying every possible combination until they guess the right one. However, to prevent malicious people from using this exact technique, there is a security feature that erases the iPhone after 10 attempts or locks it for incrementally increasing time periods with each attempt. There is no way for the FBI (or Apple) to know if the feature that erases the iPhone after 10 tries is enabled or not, so they don’t even want to try and risk it.

oceans_of_data-sSo the FBI wants Apple to remove that restriction. That is reasonable. They should, if it is possible to do so without undue burden. The FBI should hand over the iPhone to Apple and Apple should help them to crack it.

However, this isn’t what the court order is asking Apple to do. The FBI wants Apple to create software that disables this security feature on any iPhone and give it to them. Even if it’s possible for this software to exist, it’s not right for the FBI to have it in their possession. They should have to file a court order every single time they use it. The FBI is definitely using this situation as an opportunity to create a precedent and give it carte blanche to get into any iPhone without due process.

So the answer to your question is that yes it is that secure and yes, it’s a ploy by the FBI. Whether it’s actually possible for Apple to help or not is one question and whether they should is another. Either way, the FBI should not have that software.

Quantum Theory: ‘Spooky Action at a Distance’ seems real

This is an update to a June 2014 article posted here at A Wild Duck
and reprinted in June 2015 by Lifeboat Foundation.

In one of my first articles reprinted by Lifeboat, I provide an experimental methodology for demonstrating (or proving) the instantaneous ‘communication’ between quantum entangled particles. Even though changes to one particle can be provably demonstrated at its far away twin, the very strange experimental results suggested by quantum theory also demonstrate that you cannot use the simultaneity for any purpose. That is, you can provably pass information instantly, but you cannot study the ‘message’ (a change in state at the recipient), until such time as it could have been transmit by a classical radio wave.

Now, Dutch scientists have conducted an experiment that proves objects can instantaneously affect each other, regardless of the distance between them.
[continue below photo]…

delft quantum entanglement apparatus

[From The New York Times—Oct 21, 2015]:

Sorry Einstein.
Quantum Study Suggests ‘Spooky Action’ is Real

In a landmark study, scientists at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands reported that they had conducted an experiment that they say proved one of the most fundamental claims of quantum theory — that objects separated by great distance can instantaneously affect each other’s behavior.

 

The finding is another blow to one of the bedrock principles of standard physics known as “locality,” which states that an object is directly influenced only by its immediate surroundings. The Delft study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, lends further credence to an idea that Einstein famously rejected. He said quantum theory necessitated “spooky action at a distance,” and he refused to accept the notion that the universe could behave in such a strange and apparently random fashion.

[Read John Markoff’s full article in The New York Times]

* The 2015 Lifeboat article—in which I describe an experimental apparatus in lay terms—was reprinted from this original 2015 article Wild Duck. here at Wild Duck.

Stephen Hawking speaks with virtually no muscular movement

Next January Stephen Hawking will be 74 years old. He has lived much longer than most individuals with his debilitating condition. In addition to being an unquestionably gifted cosmologist, he has invited controversy by supporting the pro-Palestinian, Israel-BDS boycott and warning about the dangers of alien invaders who tap into our interstellar greetings

Antisemitism, notwithstanding, this man is a mental giant. He is Leonardo. He is Einstein. Like them, his discoveries and theories will echo for generations beyond his life on earth. He is that genius.


Forty years ago, when Stephen Hawking still had mobility, he delivered a paper on a mystery regarding information-loss for entities that cross the event boundary of a black hole.

In the mid 1970s, Astronomers were just discovering black holes and tossing about various theories about the event horizon and its effect on the surrounding space-time. Many individuals still considered black holes to be theoretical. Hawking’s analysis of the information paradox seemed extremely esoteric. Yet, last month (Aug 2015) , at Sweeden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Hawking presented a possible solution to the paradox that he sparked.

I can barely understand the issue and cannot articulately rephrase the problem. But my interest in the black hole event horizon takes a back seat to my interest in the amazing tool created to compensate for the famous cosmologist’s handicap. Watch closely as Stephen Hawking offers a new theory that provides a possible explanation for the paradox.

Near the end of the video (beginning at 7:22), the camera begins a steady zoom up to Hawking’s face. Unlike a year ago, when he could still smile at a joke or move his eyes, he now appears completely motionless. Throughout his speech, there is no sense of animation—not even a twitch—with or without purpose. His eyebrow doesn’t move, his fingers are not restless, he doesn’t blink anymore.

Hawking-smile-sSo, how, then, does Hawking speak with normal cadence and just a short delay between sentences? (If we assume that his computer adds emphasis without additional effort, I estimate that his ASCII communications rate is roughly equivalent to a 1200-baud modem, circa 1980). Yet, clearly, there must be a muscular conduit between thought and speech. How is it that his thoughts are converted to speech at almost the same rate as someone who is not paralyzed?

That magic is enabled by a tiny camera that monitors a slowly deteriorating cheek muscle. It is Hawking’s last connection to the outside world. What began as index cards with words and then an Apple II computer, has evolved into a sophisticated upgrade process involving cutting edge analysis of the professor’s slightest tick combined with sophisticated computing algorithms. The camera and software that interprets this microscopic Morse code is tied to a process that optimizes options for successive words and phrases. He is actually communicating at far less than 1200 baud, because—like a court stenographer—he employs shorthand and Huffman encoding to compress words and phrases into his twitch pipeline. Drawing on a powerful processor and connected to the Web, his gear is constantly upgraded by a specialized Intel design team. StenographerThey are engaged in a race to offer Hawking the potential for communication up until he has no capacity for interaction at all.

In a recent documentary by Hawking himself,* he laments the likely day when he will no longer have any capacity for output at all. No ability to discuss physics and cosmology; no way to say “I need help” or “I love you”; no way to show any sign of cognition. At that time, he reflects, the outside world will no longer be certain that there is anything going on behind his blank stare. They will never really know when or if he wants them to pull the plug. Even more mind boggling, humanity will never know what secrets his brilliant mind has unlocked to mysteries of the cosmos.

* Referring to his 2013 autobiographical film and not the 2014 feature film about his life, Theory of Everything.