Tag: A Brief History of Time

The Great On-Turning

Tomorrow is the Day of the Great On-Turning – not of Deep Thought, but the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). It’s the sort of thing Stephen Hawking – who I can only hope will be there – once lamented not having in A Brief History of Time; twenty years ago he never dreamed the money would ever be available to build a machine this big and powerful. But here it is!

No doubt you’ve heard of this device from many other sources, not least Andrew Denton’s interview with Brian Cox on last night’s Enough Rope. Like most discussions of the Collider, that interview featured heavily the claims that the LHC will destroy the world, mostly fuelled by the ridiculous law suit still pending in the District Court of Hawaii (filed by a group of “concerned citizens”, at least one of whom has previously tried to stop other large particle collider projects). Well, we’ll have none of that here; if you’re still concerned by the warnings of crackpots, let CERN reassure you with their latest press release on the matter.

Instead, here’s a primer for those of you who are still unsure what it’s all about. First, let’s break down the name:

  • Large – the Large Hadron Collider is a “large collider of hadrons”, not a “collider of large hadrons” (hadrons do come in different types – see below – but not significantly different sizes). Some sources claim it’s the largest machine ever built by humans, and it’s certainly the largest science experiment – it’s a 27 kilometre long loop, buried underground near CERN in Geneva, and it crossed the border between Switzerland and France. It took 10 years to build with another 10 years of design work before that.
  • Hadron – a hadron is a particle made up of quarks, one of the fundamental particles that make up all matter. The most famous hadrons are baryons, which consist of three quarks, one of each “colour” – red, green and blue – that are held together by the strong nuclear force. Baryons include neutrons and protons, which make up the nuclei of atoms. The difference in charge between positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons is down to basic maths – different “flavours” of quark have different charges (it’s a little more complex than that, but we’re only interested in the quarks that make up “normal” baryons). In a neutron, the positive charge of one up quark (+2/3) is exactly balanced by the negative charge of two down quarks (2 x -1/3); in a proton, there are two up quarks (2 x 2/3) and one down quark (-1/3), resulting in a total charge of +1.
  • Collider – the LHC is a particle accelerator – it accelerates particles to very high velocities, giving them enormous energies. It’s also an “atom-smasher” (though it’s only smashing bits of atoms, not whole ones) – its purpose is to accelerate particles in two directions, colliding them together. It was collisions like this that allowed us to observe the existence of quarks, since normally they can’t exist on their own; smash some hadrons together, though, and their component bits go flying all around the place like bits of plastic bumper in a car crash.

The specific purpose of the LHC is to accelerate hadrons to speeds which will give them enough energy to simulate the state of matter only a few billionths of a second after the Big Bang, when things were very different to how they are now. This is hugely exciting because so little is known about the origins and initial formation of matter, or as Brian Cox put it, “what makes stuff stuff”.

One big question is to do with photons and W and Z bosons. A great success in particle physics was a combined theory explaining both the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force; it basically says they are two different aspects of the same force, which at high energies – like in the Big Bang – would manifest as a single “electroweak” force. The particles that carry these forces – photons and W and Z bosons, respectively – are different forms or states of the same particle, and at suitably high energies the combined force is carried by the Higgs boson. One of the big mysteries is why photons have no mass, while the W and Z bosons are massive (meaning they have mass, not that they’re huge!); hopefully observing the Higgs boson will shed some light on this!

It’ll be more than a month before the first collision is made – tomorrow’s “Great On-Turning” will involve only a single beam, not colliding with anything. But it’s an exciting time to be a scientist, or even a scientician – some big questions are going to get some kind of answer very soon. Of course, once the “answer” is determined, the real fun begins: trying to interpret what it all means… Perhaps it’s not so far from Deep Thought, after all.

All Too Brief

Well, Science Week is officially over, and thanks to all of you who came along to see A Brief History of A Brief History of Time. It was a brief season, and there’s always a chance I’ll bring the show back in future.

While the week may be over (and it’s a decimal week – 10 days long!), though, there are still events to come! Tomorrow night Simon Pampena brings the Maths Olympics back home to Melbourne for the end of his triumphant national tour, 7:30 at Eurotrash Bar in the city. I’ll be there, and I’d advise you not to miss it either!

Oh, and I should also assure all my readers that I weathered Daffodil Day without incident.

Well…almost. I did have a bit of a freak out when I suddenly noticed this…


It’s (Big) Crunch Time

Yes, it’s that end of Science Week – the end when I’m out there spreading the word and explaining weird stuff.

Friday through Sunday is , an hour-long amble through the brain melting fields of Stephen Hawking’s twenty-year-old masterpiece. You should book if you want to come – details on the show’s page – but at the moment there are still tickets left for all three performances (1:30 matinee Friday, 8 PM Saturday and 7 PM Sunday).

Friday evening is Not the Nobel Prize, Melbourne Museum’s science comedy panel show in which four comedians – including myself – go head to head with four scientists. They’ll spin some stories, and we’ll try and decide if they’re true or false. Sadly Sam Simmons can no longer be with us, but joining myself, Courteney Hocking and Charlie Pickering will be the ever-delightful Justin Hamilton. Bound to be excellent! The show starts at 7 PM, and you should book for this one too; details can be found on the Melbourne Museum web site.

And if you need a break from all the exciting Science Week stuff, you can also catch my two improvised projects this week: Impro Sundae with The Crew is on this Sunday, 5 PM at the Bella Union, Trades Hall; and the preview season of Set List, the new improvised musical show from my theatre company Shaolin Punk, plays this Thursday to Sunday night at 9 PM  (8 PM on Sunday) at the Butterfly Club. Details can be found via those links, and I should point out that the only one of those in which I’ll be performing is Thursday night’s Set List.

T-0: Science Week launches tonight!

Yes, National Science Week 2008 officially launches tonight at the MCG right here in Melbourne, and of course your intrepid Planet Nerd science reporter and all-round science fan, Ben McKenzie, will be right there in the thick of it. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll have some photos and stories to share with you, and in the near future even some video of interviews with the stars of Australian science.

Of course I have a few events of my own during Science Week; here’s a quick reminder:

  • – my new comedy science lecture at the Royal Society of Victoria, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of that great unread classic of popular science literature: Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It’s on the last few days of Science Week – Friday, August 22 is a special matinee, free for schools, and there are two evening performances on the 23rd and 24th. The Historic Theatre is a beautiful venue, but not very big, so be sure to book! Details are .
  • Not the Nobel Prize – Melbourne Museum’s comedy panel show returns for a third year! See me and three other comedians – Courteney Hocking, Sam Simmons and Charlie Pickering – try and sort fact from fiction in the stories presented by four actual, qualified scientists! This usually sells out, so make sure you book your tickets! Details are here.

Also during Science Week, but not part of it, are a few other projects of mine:

  • The Anarchist Guild Social Committee meeting #3 – Melbourne’s newest comedy sensation, a live sketch comedy show at the Bella Union, Trades Hall, on the third Sunday of every month. It features yours truly as a writer and performer, and always fills to capacity. Details here.
  • Set List preview season – an all-new improvised music comedy show premiering at Fringe, but you can catch an early preview at The Butterfly Club from August 21 to 24. I’ll be performing in the first show on Thursday, August 21. Details here.
  • Impro Sundae – top-notch improvised comedy with The Crew, second and fourth Sunday every month, also at the Bella Union. Details here.