Ain’t no such thing: the Higgs Boson particle

higgs bison You know, I love advanced physics. It’s given us satellite navigation, GPS, and fancy medical imaging, and that’s just the theory of relativity, which when Einstein cooked it up seemed like the height of quasi-fictional abstraction. Physicists study the most basic level of reality, the stuff that’s a whole conceptual level below chemistry, so they’re the closest to understanding what the hell reality actually is. Great for them, great for us.

But I’m not sure about where they’ve been going for the last couple of decades. If you talk to a theoretical physicist today, almost any one of them will tell you with almost absolute certainty that existence has exactly eleven dimensions. And the thing is, most of us will never understand why they think it’s so, however many NOVA specials we watch, because when physicists talk to one another they talk almost completely in math. 99% of the physics information is controlled by 1%, etc.

So, they just awarded the Nobel Prize to some physicists who discovered—over a decade ago—that the universe’s expansion is accelerating. They were sure that the expansion was slowing, and were trying to measure the rate, when they discovered the opposite. They measure the rate, by the way, by looking for redshift — a little bit of a red haze that’s caused by light traveling over millions of light years through space. The amount of redshift indicates how fast something is moving away from us. When you look at the redshift for everything we can measure, you get that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. So, that’s pretty indirect, but I’m willing to go along with it.

The problem is that they’ve got no way to explain why the universe is expanding. It doesn’t make sense according to the currently otherwise perfectly functioning laws of physics. The best explanation that physicists have come up with (and again, they did this by plugging the results into mathematical equations, not by sitting around philosopher-like thinking about it) is dark matter: STUFF that exists but cannot be measured by any device or process known to science. And here’s my favorite part: this dark matter makes up roughly 70% of all the matter in the universe. That’s right: you, me, our planet, it’s sun, our galaxy, and all the other galaxies … it all accounts for only 30% or so of everything that exists.

At this point you’ve got to ask: IS IT POSSIBLE THERE’S A MISTAKE IN THE MATH GUYS?????? Well, you’ll not get a good answer. Well, a few years ago they built the Large Hadron Collider, an $8 billion device(!) that was supposed to prove the existence of the Higgs bison particle, which is the stuff this dark matter is made up of. Now, the Large Hadron Collider is near and dear to my heart, because it was built around the time I started this blog, and some of the first posts here, back around 2008, were about it. Cool thing! But here’s the problem: they haven’t found shit. They haven’t found the Higgs Bison! Oh sure, there are tantalizing signs that it’s there, but so far — over three years later — no proof. Ouch, man. Ouch.

We should be freaked out about the speed of light being broken

I’m not sure why we should be freaked out about the speed of light being broken. Yes, it “invalidates” Einstein’s theory of relativity. But it does so in the same sense that relativity “invalidated” Newtonian physics: that is, for a tiny sliver of edge cases that mostly apply just to theoretical physics. Just as bridges didn’t start to collapse after Einstein, nuclear reactors are not going to begin exploding if it turns out to be true that neutrinos travel slightly faster than the speed of light. EVERYBODY CALM DOWN!

The flavor industry, Fast Food Nation

Open your refrigerator, your freezer, your kitchen cupboards, and look at the labels on your food. You’ll find “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor” in just about every list of ingredients. The similarities between these two broad categories are far more significant than the differences. Both are man-made additives that give most processed food most of its taste. People usually buy a food item the first time because of its packaging or appearance. Taste usually determines whether they buy it again. About 90 percent of the money that Americans now spend on food goes to buy processed food. The canning, freezing, and dehydrating techniques used in processing destroy most of food’s flavor — and so a vast industry has arisen in the United States to make processed food palatable. Without this flavor industry today’s fast food would not exist. The names of the leading American fast-food chains and their best-selling menu items have become embedded in our popular culture and famous worldwide. But few people can name the companies that manufacture fast food’s taste.

My favorite chapter from Fast Food Nation, about the flavoring industry, is online in its entirety. Eric Schlosser visits the labs, and the account is startling. You’ve gotta read this.