Explaining the Higgs Boson
The Standard Model of particle physics proposes a set of elementary particles needed to make up the universe, but doesn’t explain how certain particles have mass. In the 1960s, British physicist Peter Higgs proposed the critical missing piece—the Higgs boson, a particle which makes up the “Higgs field” and gives particles mass. Created when protons are smashed together in a subatomic mess, the Higgs only exists for a trillionth of a second before decaying into a spray of lighter particles, and has existed only in theory—until now. After studying the particle spray patterns of roughly a quadrillion proton collisions, CERN physicists announced today that they’ve found a particle consistent with the properties of the Higgs boson. With a high level of statistical certainty, they reported a particle weighing 125.3 gigaelectronvolts (GeV), which is 133 times heavier than a proton. By combining two data sets, they attained a confidence level at 5-sigma, which signifies 99.9999% accuracy and is the particle physics standard for official discovery. This is definitely a new boson, and the heaviest one ever found—now, we have to determined whether it behaves like the version of the Higgs proposed by the Standard Model, or whether it holds any unexpected twists. It’s hard not to get excited, because this could be one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the century—it could be a huge leap forwards for high-energy physics, helping to explain dark matter, dark energy, and subsequently 96% of the universe. Particle physics party, anyone?
The Ebola Virus
The Ebola haemorrhagic fever is one of the most dangerous diseases known to man, with a mortality rate of 70–90%. It is named for the Ebola River, which flows through the epicentre of the first outbreak in Sudan in 1976, and there have been 13 human outbreaks since, infecting 1850 people and causing 1300 deaths. It is diagnosed using specialised laboratory tests on blood specimens, but these tests present an extreme biohazard, as the virus is contracted through blood and bodily fluids. The three most dangerous ways to contract it are through sharing a needle with a victim, sex and kissing, but the disease is also believed to be zoonotic, meaning it can be transmitted to human via direct contact with infected animals—in each case of human outbreak, nearby ape populations have dramatically declined. Ebola takes 2–21 days to take effect, and the virus actually liquefies your body—if you’re infected, you’re most likely vomiting up your own organs. Death soon follows. There are no treatments or vaccines available yet, though experimental studies of hyper-immune sera are being conducted. The virus is able to spread at the speed of transportation, so it could spread around the globe in just a couple of days—and an epidemic only stops when there are no more hosts to feed on.
A Toxic Explosion
For more than 4 billion years, evolution didn’t produce more than soft-bodied aquatic life such as bacteria, plankton and algae, but in the Cambrian era 570–500 million years ago, the fossil record paints a newly diverse picture. Life bloomed, creating the lineages of almost all animals alive today, most notably organisms with hard shells and skeletons. This event is called the Cambrian Explosion, and the question is—what spurred on these immense and sudden changes? The geological record of the era is confusing and discontinuous, but it gives us clues to the answer. Millions of years worth of rocks from directly before the Cambrian era seem to have disappeared, as the sedimentary rocks of the Cambrian era lie directly above a far more ancient layer (check out the stark difference in the photo). Researchers have proposed that these disappearing rocks were actually dissolved into the ocean. The exposure then released minerals like calcium, iron, potassium, changing the ocean’s chemistry to become more alkaline—and the result was toxic. This could have acted as a catalyst for the massive evolutionary burst: in order to survive the mineral imbalance, organisms began to use them to form biominerals like calcium phosphate and calcium carbonate, forming bones and shells respectively.
Strangely Charming Particles
For a long time, scientists thought that the building block of all things was the atom—the Greek atomos means indivisible—but in fact, atoms are made up of smaller particles: protons, neutrons and electrons. It’s not surprising that these in turn are made up of even smaller particles, which are believed to be among the fundamental constituents of matter. In 1963, physicist Murray Gell-Man dubbed these smaller units “quarks” from the line “three quarks for Muster Mark” in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. This is perhaps fitting, because both the book and the particle don’t go to much effort to make themselves understandable. In the current model, quarks come in six different ‘flavours’ that are usually divided into pairs: up/down, strange/charm, top/bottom. For example, a proton consists of two up quarks and one down quark. Different combinations of quarks often create unstable particles, and it’s likely that very early universe was a dense soup of quarks and antiquarks. The flavours differ in their mass and charge characteristics—and interestingly, quarks even carry a “colour charge”. It’s unrelated to our RGB perceptions of colour, instead referring to the force that holds quarks together, which dictates that they can’t exist on their own. For such tiny particles, quarks are extremely complex, but as Hank Green puts it in his song Strange Charm, “the fact that we’ve identified that they exist at all is so goddamn remarkable that I just sit in awe”.
Deserts are traditionally imagined as unbearably hot places, like the Sahara, but they’re not actually defined by their heat—a desert is a region that receives less than 254 mm of precipitation per year. Under this definition, the Sahara isn’t the largest desert in the world—at just over 9 million square kilometres, it’s easily trumped by the desolate 14.2 million square kilometres of—surprise—Antarctica. A place of deadly snowstorms and impassable ice sheets, Antarctica is the coldest and windiest place on Earth, but also the driest, receiving less than 50 mm of rain per year. 98 percent of the continent is covered in ice and snow, so sunlight is reflected rather than absorbed. The average temperature is -50 degrees Celsius and it is often too cold for any kind of precipitation—cold air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air. However, moisture in the atmosphere is what interferes with the light of stars and planets, causing them to twinkle, so in the dry, high-altitude Antarctic air, the sky is crystal clear—perfect for astronomy.
Nanotechnology battling cancer
Cancer causes cells to undergo uncontrolled division and invade the surrounding healthy tissue, so it’s vital to detect cancerous cells in their early stages before they spread. They must be specifically targeted so normal cells aren’t killed, but this is tricky. One proposed treatment is the use of carbon nanotubes, which are rolled-up biocompatible sheets of carbon atoms only a few nanometres across. Thousands could fit into a cell, and they’re highly porous—over 99% air. The new treatment injects microscopic multi-walled nanotubes into tumours, where they bind to tumour specific receptors on the surface of cancer cells. They’re then exposed to 30 seconds of laser-generated near-infrared radiation. The tubes absorb the radiation and convert it into heat, and in response the tumor cells shrink and die without harming the healthy cells. Tests of this treatment were able to effectively kill 80 percent of kidney tumours in mice, and according to lead investigator, Suzy Torti, Ph.D, these mice not only survived but also “maintained their weight, didn’t have any noticeable behavioral abnormalities and experienced no obvious problems with internal tissues.” Since it’s a heat therapy rather than a biological therapy, the treatment can work on all tumour types, and researchers are confident that it can eventually be applied to humans.
The Door to Hell
260 km north of the capital of Turkmenistan is a little-known gas crater 100 m wide that has been on fire for 41 years. The Middle Eastern country was part of the Soviet Union until 1991, and in 1971, an oil drilling rig working in the Karakum Desert accidentally punched into an enormous underground cavern of natural gas. The ground crumbled and collapsed in on itself, dragging the drilling rig down with it. Poisonous fumes began to leak out, but although an environmental disaster loomed, no one dared venture down into the crater. Instead, the Soviets decided to burn the gas off. They set the hole alight, hoping the fuel would be used up within days, but a vein of natural gas through the area has kept the crater aflame until today—and will likely keep it alight for a long time yet. The non-stop burning produces nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide and wastes natural resources, but the sight of it is brilliant. The crater can be seen glowing for kilometres, and the locals have dubbed it “The Door to Hell”. The Soviet drilling rig is still, presumably, in Hell.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves
For a thousand years, the Pole Star has remained perfectly still while the rest of the celestial sphere appears to circle around it. Its name comes from the Latin Stella Polaris, meaning ‘Pole Star’, but it’s had many different names in the past: ‘The Pathway’, ‘Navel of the World’, and ‘Hub of the Cosmos’. Polaris is the 50th brightest star and can be found easily even in a suburban sky—it marks the end of the handle of the Ursa Minor constellation, also known as the Little Dipper. It points due north, so it is an excellent fixed point from which to draw measurements for navigation. It has guided travellers and sailors for centuries, but Polaris hasn’t always been the North Star and it won’t be forever. The “Pole Star” is simply a title, because as the earth wobbles on its axis, our relative view will slowly change. Thuban in the constellation of Draco was the last Pole star, from 3942–1793 BC, and the next will likely be Gamma Cephei in 3000 AD.
This is interesting