Posts Tagged ‘discovery’

Good God Particle, is that the Higgs boson?

// July 5th, 2012 // Comments Off on Good God Particle, is that the Higgs boson? // Recent Research

higgs boson

Simulated model of Higgs boson decaying into four muons (shown in yellow). Image by CERN.

The world of science is abuzz with the news! CERN have discovered a new particle, and it looks like the elusive Higgs boson. That large hadron collider has really come in handy!

It was announced today at CERN as a ‘curtain raiser’ for the International Conference of High Energy Physics – ICHEP2012 – currently on in Melbourne, Australia. And what a curtain raiser it is.

The Higgs boson is a subatomic particle that, theoretically, gives mass to everything. It interacts with the Higgs field which permeates the Universe, kicking up a drag as it moves. That drag, or attraction, gives protons and electrons their mass as they zoom through the Higgs field. In the model, the Higgs boson is absent in photons of light, which is why they have no mass.

It’s been a long, hard road to find it – taking 45 years. Why? Partly because, after the collisions, they decay very fast, and partly because the way in which they decay doesn’t stand out. It seems to vanish into very normal smoke, that is, quarks, antiquarks and muons the same as those made by run-of-the-mill activity from other LHC collisions. It’s like trying to spot stars in daylight, according to this neat article by Matt Strassler.

The physicists are being cautious with their discovery, describing it as a Higgs-like particle. There’s more data analysis and experiments to be done. But if it looks and smells like a Higgs boson…

Peter Higgs

Will Peter Higgs, theoretical physicist, be winning a Nobel Prize for this? Image by CERN and Claudia Marcelloni.

What it looks and smells like, to be precise, is a ‘bump’ in the data with a mass of 125.3 gigaelectronvolts, about as heavy as 125 protons.

Analysing the data, so far, has put it at a confidence level of 5 sigma. That means there’s less than a one-in-three million chance of receiving the same result completely by chance, without a Higgs boson. Put another way, that means they can feel over 99.999 percent sure this is it – a boson that acts like a Higgs.

“The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV we’re seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found,” said CMS experiment spokesperson Joe Incandela in the press release. “The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks.”

“It’s hard not to get excited by these results,” said CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci in the same release.

It is exciting! Even though it’s still a preliminary result – guys, it could be the God particle! How cool is that?

Have a nap and let your computer cure cancer

// October 18th, 2010 // 2 Comments » // Drugs, How Things Work, Recent Research, Science Communication

computer doing science

Image by John Watson

While waiting for inspiration to strike a solid introduction into my head, my computer screen went blank. Good ol’ MacBook conserving energy! But letting your computer go idle doesn’t mean you have to waste its processing power. Why not cure cancer with grid computing?

It’s a kind of parallel computing, which breaks up complex problems into smaller calculations and then solves them at the same time. Instead of one processor working on one calculation a time, a group of processors work on different calculations together. Dual-core computers is one way to do it. Grid computing is another.

Grid computing is like a massive virtual computer whose processors are computers linked by a central software.

World Community Grid is one group which utilises the personal computers of over half a million volunteers around the globe. Their software switches on when the computer is idle and runs virtual experiments, calculating and number crunching its way through chemical simulations. They provide this public grid to humanitarian research projects.

Childhood cancer
One of the projects they are running is helping to solve childhood cancer by finding potential new drugs for neuroblastoma, one of the most common solid tumors in children. In some people the tumors do not respond well to chemotherapy. This research is hoping to turn this around by targeting three proteins which are important to the cancer’s survival. Knock out those proteins and the cancer will in turn be knocked out by chemo.

Good plan, but how to knock out the proteins? That’s where the grid comes in.

There are three million potential drug candidates who MIGHT bind to one of the proteins and knock them out. Of course, that’s a lot of laboratory time right there. A computer would be better, but to run these nine million virtual experiments would take 8000 years. By working with the public grid they expect the project to be finished in just two years. Possibly less.

That’s a big saving on time and grant money. It’s rational based drug design (which I blogged about here) taken to a crowd sourcing extreme. They are trying a similar thing to discover dengue fever drugs.

Carbon Nanotubes

Image by Mstroeck

Clean Water
Drug design isn’t the only industry using the World Community Grid. Last month universities in Australia and China announced they are running simulations through the grid to find out how to filter water using nanotubes.

Nanotubes are small tubes that only water molecules can fit through. Not bacteria, not even viruses. It’s a great way to get rid of water dwelling nasties and desalinate sea water. But with such small pores you would expect the pressure and energy needed to force water through the filter to be incredible. And incredibly expensive. But in 2005 experiments showed that actually the water flowed pretty fast through the filters.

Why? Possibly the water molecules touching the nanotubes act more like ice and reduce friction. But who knows? To find out exactly what’s happening they’re running realistic simulations using the grid. The outcome could lead to huge improvements in water availability, potentially saving millions of lives a year in the developing world.

Like the idea of grid computing? Sign up to the World Community Grid here, and let your down time make a difference.

Frilled dinosaur Mojoceratops is groovy baby, yeah

// July 11th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // Recent Research, Sex and Reproduction


Mojo: The libido. The life force. The essence. The right stuff. What the French call a certain… I don’t know what.

Mojoceratops was discovered when Nicholas Longrich from Yale University was looking at existing fossils from American Museum of Natural History in New York. They had been classified as another species, Chasmosaurus, but Nicholas believed they were something else. Dinosaur, thy name is Mojo.

Mojoceratops was about the size of a hippo and roamed the Alberta and Saskatchewan provinces of Canada around 75 million years ago. It nommed on plants only, like its relative the Triceratops. Anyone else having a flashback to the Land Before Time? Ducky was my favourite. That movie was epic. Anyway…

Most striking is the frill. All the Ceratopsids had frills, but Mojo’s was the largest and the most heart shaped. Nicholas thinks it was used for sexual courtship. The right side of the frill is larger than the left side, which indicates it was a display or weapon under intense selection. The same kind of asymmetry is also seen in deer antlers. Sexual selection fail though, the species only lasted for a million years. Did they lose their mojo?

Mojo means a talisman for attracting members of the opposite sex. Of course, Nicholas first came up with the name after having a few drinks. “It was just a joke, but then everyone stopped and looked at each other and said, ‘Wait — that actually sounds cool’ ” he said. Yes, yes it does. I think I have a new favourite dinosaur.

ResearchBlogging.orgLongrich, Nicholas R. (2010). Mojoceratops perifania, A New Chasmosaurine Ceratopsid from the Late Campanian of Western Canada. Journal of Paleontology, 84 (4), 681-694

Leviathan, the ancient marine predator discovered

// July 6th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // Recent Research, The Realm of Bizzare

Deep in a desert in Peru palaeontologists were searching for a skull. Some years ago, teeth thought to belong to a new species of marine animal had been found, but they needed a head to identify it. Hunting in the richest area for ancient sea remains, luck eluded them until the very last day of their travel. Then they found…

Leviathan melvillei. Named after that most fearsome animal the white whale, likened to Leviathan in Herman Melville’s most excellent book Moby Dick. In the old Testament Leviathan was a sea demon, a guardian of the gates of hell. Other cultures thought a dragon or a crocodile, but in modern Hebrew the word means simply whale.

And what a whale is Leviathan.

With 30 cm long teeth it was a dangerous predator. It may have hunted medium-sized baleen whales, who have no teeth and live on plankton. It’s huge teeth would have inflicted deep bites, tearing the baleen whales into pieces. Leviathan lived some 12 million years ago, and looks similar to a modern day sperm whale.

One major difference between the fossil and modern sperm whales is Leviathan had teeth on both jaws. Modern sperm whales only have teeth on the lower jaw, and eat by sucking squid into their mouth. Killer whales are like the funsize version of Leviathan, with teeth on both jaws and violence towards seals. Watch the YouTube documentary to find out more.

They haven’t found the rest of the fossil, so they don’t know how large the whale was, but it was probably around the same size as the sperm whales of today. That’s really big! The largest animal that has ever lived is the blue whale that is still in the ocean now. There are theories that the blue whale is as big as things will ever get.

And so let us take a moment to think of mighty, mad Ahab. That crazy captain who lost his leg to a sperm whale. Wherever you are, Ahab, I be glad you never lived to see this day. The mighty Moby Dick who stole your sanity had but half the dental framework of legendary Leviathan.

Paper published in Nature. Hat tip to Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Update: The name Leviathan was already taken (whoops!) so it has now been renamed Livyatan melvillei, Livyatan being a Hebrew name for large marine monsters.






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