Posts Tagged ‘recent’

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?

Solar flare stops satellites in China

// February 17th, 2011 // 1 Comment » // Science at Home

Solar Flare

Recent Solar Flare. Image by NASA

A solar flare the size of Jupiter erupted a few days ago and is now causing radio and satellite signals to drop out in China.

On Valentine’s Day, the sun had a coronal mass ejection associated with a flare, a burst of solar wind that speeds through space.

The ejected material is usually plasma and electrons, though sometimes helium and oxygen are also expelled. It was an X-class, the highest of all classes.

Let’s just enjoy for a moment the phrases Valentine’s Day, coronal mass ejection and X-class.

Anyway, the flare headed to Earth at 900 km per second, and the shockwave of it hitting us has caused a geomagnetic storm that messes with magnets.

It can also cause stunning auroral colours, like the Northern Lights, which have already been seen further south than usual. NASA is warning the flares will keep coming for a couple of days.

Long-lasting solar storms can cause electricity grids to stop working, causing black outs. Much of our technology is dependent on magnets – phones, credit cards, even hard discs when in use. One of my pet apocalypse theories is that a solar flare, or other strong magnetic space event, will wipe out computers and take with them electricity, water and money.

But clearly if your reading this, that hasn’t happened. So just continue to enjoy the phrase coronal mass ejection. Lolz.

What is the synthetic cell?

// May 22nd, 2010 // 1 Comment » // How Things Work, Recent Research

Two days ago scientists at J. Craig Venter announced the creation of the first self-replicating synthetic cell, a bacteria with DNA made in a lab. How did they do it, and what does it mean for us in the future?

First up, the scientists didn’t make life out of nothing, and they didn’t make a new species. They recreated a bacteria that already existed, and developed the techniques to do it.

The bacteria is Mycoplasma mycoides. It’s a parasite which lives in cows, and some subspecies cause cow lung disease. It has a circular chromosome made of just under 600,000 base pairs, making it a small genome.

The scientists had the genome sequence of M. mycoides and split it into bite-size portions and then synthesised. Synthesising DNA is nothing new, scientists have been able to write DNA code for quite a while, and can write whatever code they want to.

These little chunks were put into yeast, which can be forced to absorb little bits of DNA. Inside the yeast, the chunks can be sewn together. It’s called recombination. The resulting medium chunks were taken out and put into more yeast to be sewn together making large chunks. There were 11 large chunks were put into more yeast, and sewn together into one complete genome.

Along the way and at the end they checked the code was right by doing PCR tests, genetic fingerprinting made famous by CSI.

Result: A synthetic genome, written by a computer and put together in yeast sweatshops.

Now they had to get it into a bacterial cell. At first they tried to put the DNA into bacterial cells of a similar species, M. capricolum. They ran into trouble at first, because the DNA they had was unmethylated (lacking methyl groups) and the bacteria destroys DNA which is unmethylated. It’s a clever defense mechanism, and they got around it by methylating the DNA before putting it in.

Finally success. The synthetic genome was put into an M. capricolum bacteria where it replaced the normal genome. The bacteria were controlled by the new, synthetic chromosome and were able to replicate billions of times.

What does it mean for us in the future? The technology these guys have developed could be used to alter the DNA of bacteria and make them do new things. From medicine to clean water, the benefits could be huge. We already have this ability to some extent, but it opens up some new doors.

Some organisations have raised concerns about the work. Could a new bacteria be unleashed and take over the world? Probably not. It’s hard to predict how new genes will work in cells, and everything is linked together in a way we don’t understand now. Too much tinkering to the genome will probably not be tolerated by the cell. And if it did get outside, it would probably be extinct pretty quickly because it doesn’t have thousands of years of evolution to prepare it for the world.

If it did get out, we could track it back to the company in charge. These guys watermarked their genome by adding some quotes into the DNA/protein code. Now that’s just epically geeky!

ResearchBlogging.orgGibson, D., & et al (2010). Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1190719

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