Mad Scientists and Spoof Nobel Prize: Beetle Mating, Yawning Turtles And End-Of-World Claim Get Ig Nobel, 2011

The best and funniest of science will be awarded this month. As should be the rule, humour must precede seriousness and following that we have the Ig Nobel being given out before the Nobel Prizes. The Ig Nobel prize, a spoof of the Nobel Prize and given out yearly by Harvard University, honors the craziest of science ideas, which were taken a little too seriously by people. Though the world of physics was never revolutionized by the contribution of the Ig Nobel Prize winners (that is, if you don’t consider getting vanilla from cow dung revolutionary), there’re always some great laughs. This year’s Ig Nobel prizes went to ideas as diverse as Beetle Sex with a beer bottle and Yawning Turtles.

Not Quite Nobel...

Procedure and Protocols – or some semblance thereof

The aim of the Ig Nobel is to make people laugh and then make them think. The prize is handed over by real Nobel Prize Winners! The recipient is given exactly 60 seconds to make his/her acceptance speech. If that limit is exceeded, a little girl gets up and says that she’s bored. Try continuing after that! Yes, this is all in good humor.

The Winners! (Or Losers!)

The categories are the same as the Nobel Prize physics, chemistry, medicine and peace. The winner of this year’s Biology prize, Daryll Gwynne, researched how beetles would try to mate with a beer bottle confusing it for a large female. As Gwynne says:

It’s a great example of an evolutionary trap. They seek the biggest, browniest female they could find, but then these beetles wouldn’t leave the bottles and would eventually drop to one side and be preyed upon by ants.

He changed the shape of the bottle, but the beetles did the same thing. Yes, at Harvard, even fun is taken seriously.

The Medicine Ig Nobel was given for demonstrating that people can better control their emotions when they have a strong urge to urinate! Yes, I know what you’re thinking why did you never think of that?

The prize for Physiology went to a whole pan-continental team! A British-Dutch-Hungarian-Austrian team established that there is no contagious yawning behavior in red-footed turtles! That does provide a nice point to add to the list: How humans and tortoises are different, right?

The Chemistry prize went to a team of Japanese scientists for creating a fire alarm that gives off the pungent smell of Wasabi, a Japanese culinary mix renowned for its nose-clearing properties. The aim is to alert people who are blind or deaf, of if they are sleeping with earplugs on.

Japanese scientists are all smiles as their pungent creation gets the Ig Nobel

The Physics Ig Nobel went to a group for explaining why discus throwers get dizzy, while hammer throwers don’t!

The best laugh comes from the Math Ig Nobel! Six people were awarded the prize for predicting that the world will end for a number of years and still living to receive the prize. Their prize citation bore out their priceless contribution – for teaching the world to be careful while making mathematical assumptions. Yes, and they’ll receive the award, in full blood!

The Ig Nobel Prize Giving Ceremony is here:


Just For Laughs

The Ig Nobels should be more popular than the Nobels themselves. After all, how can you ignore the prize honoring people for magnetically levitating a frog (Andre Geim, 2001) and for finding the optimal way to dunk a biscuit (Len Fisher, 1999). This just goes to show that in addition to being accurate and awe-inspiring, science can be rip-roaringly funny!

Wishing CERN A Very Happy Birthday!

It’s the Big Boy’s 57th birthday and this is as good a time as it has ever had! CERN, the premier high energy research institute, the home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), has got its hands full at the moment. With the Higgs search nearing a climactic ending and the recent neutrino results from OPERA, CERN has no need or time to look back. The future is bright and beautiful, not to mention potentially revolutionary. But look back, we must, for the last 57 years have been glorious ones too!

Happy Birthday, CERN

CERN: Needs no description

CERN, an acronym for European Organization for Nuclear Research (the proper acronym is in French Centre Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire ), is located in the pristine suburbs of Franco-Swiss border. While today it is known mostly for the LHC and its awesome power, CERN has had huge achievements in the past. It has yielded at least 2 Nobel Prizes in experimental physics, verified the Standard Model beyond doubt and has, along with the Tevatron, been the experimental hub of the particle physics world.

Inventing the WWW

The fact that you’re reading this very article is also thanks to CERN, since it invented the World Wide Web. It established hypertext protocols. It is now leading in ushering in the next generation of computing concepts like GRID computing. It has also revolutionized the art of making strong magnets a necessity in high-energy colliders and a mainstay of the medical diagnostic industry. While the Tevatron had pioneered in this field, the research carried on by CERN has far outrun Tevatron’s. Today, CERN’s coding wing is one of the best in the world, once again showing that, even in the fringe fields, CERN’s contributions have been revolutionary.

The Real Deal

Of course, these are mere morsels compared to the achievements by CERN in its main field of interest high energy physics. It has confirmed or demolished one idea after the other in the last six decades and is on the verge of another such feat right now. It has discovered neutral currents’ (1973), a vital component in the theory of weak interaction. It established weak interaction theory with the discovery of the W and Z bosons a decade later (1983). Tevatron was just being established at Fermilab at this time. It would then, in one fell swoop, usher in American dominance in the particle physics world and leave the European counterpart far behind. However, it was only at CERN’s historic Large Electron-Positron Collider (LEP) that the neutrino families were discovered (1989). LEP’s results now form the stepping stone for anyone entering the phenomenological field of high-energy physics.

The ATLAS building

The world-famous CP-violation effect was also directly noted at CERN in 1999, eliminating any shred of doubt that anyone might have had.


Of course, now it is breaking all barriers in Collider Physics with the LHC running at full blast and expected to go a couple of notches higher. Whether Higgs is found or not, LHC will have discovered major physics.

Here’s wishing CERN a very happy birthday. In the world of blazing fast results from higher and higher energy domains, CERN remains indomitable and will remain so for many years to come.

Best wishes and may you have a really long life.

A Million Monkeys Recreate Shakespeare; Weasels Do A Better Job, Says Dawkins

Monkeys to Man is passé, it’s Simians to Shakespeare now! Given enough time, a huge number of monkeys typing at a keyboard in a completely random fashion, will reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. At least philosophically. Now, an eccentric computer programmer wants to test this out using virtual monkeys. Jesse Anderson, the evolved ape in question, is at this problem. Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to recreate Shakespeare, not to praise him, writes one of his monkeys on his blog. Keep Calm and Carry On, says he!

Mon'Key'ing around

If you wait long enough, it’ll happen

So here’s the lowdown on the concept. If you keep on typing out gibberish for a very long time, typing away randomly, then there will be phrases or even an entire work of Shakespeare typed out in between that gibberish. This demonstrates a powerful concept in a simple manner: An event of extremely low probability will definitely occur, given enough time and enough chances for the event to occur. For a long time, this has been a topic just for philosophers. Dawkins brought it into science in his famous The Blind Watchmaker’, by explaining that no matter how improbable an evolutionary process might be, it will occur, since there is a huge period of time during which it could occur. Yes, this is akin to the typing monkeys. But it gets better than that, and we shall come back to that in a moment.

Gibberish to Genius

Anderson, on his blog. updates the progress he, or rather his monkeys, have made. The monkeys are computer programs that just type out alphanumerics, in completely random order, each keystroke completely unbiased and independent of previous strokes. He claims that he got his inspiration from the Simpsons and just wants to have fun! Amidst the gibberish, lie hidden other masterpieces of literature. A monkey Dickens came up with It was the best of times, it was blurst of times maybe proof-reading will take care of that!

As for the hardware, Anderson uses the Amazon EC2 with a modest Core 2 Duo 2.66 GHz processor with a 4GB RAM running Ubuntu 10.10 64 bit version.

Dawkins and his Weasels

So what about Dawkins and his weasels? Well, he had his weasels, which did an even better job. Using the phrase Methinks it is like a weasel’ as a target phrase’, Dawkins had written a virtual monkey program in 1998. It couldn’t produce any text even resembling the target phrase the first few minutes of running. So he added a cyber equivalent of Natural Selection. Every time a letter would match one of the target phrase letters at the proper place, it would be retained. This produced the target phrase in just a few cycles.

(Go To 5:32 if you’re in a hurry.)

So, Dawkins said, this is how evolution works. It isn’t a process of mere blind chance it requires a selection factor, the second stage of the Darwinian process. Natural Selection will produce complexity and requires significantly less time to do that. Given 4 billion years for life to evolve, it shouldn’t be surprising that creatures as complex as us evolved!

He He! My weasels beat your monkeys!

So there you have it at typing, weasels beat monkeys hands and feet down! Oh yes, no monkey or weasel was harmed during the running of these programs.

The End Of An Era: Fermilab’s Tevatron Shuts Down – A Tribute

It’s the end of an era, as the Tevatron at Fermilab retires. It has done everything that was expected of it and much much more. It has probably even saved your life, or the life of someone you know. It was the big thing, eclipsed by the next big thing. The Tevatron is really that Wise Old Man, who has done some wonderful things during his lifetime, hung around and supported everyone around him when there was no one else and is now being neglected in his old age, because someone else has stolen the limelight. The Tevatron was the mainstay of the physics community for nearly 25 years until the super-powerful Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN came along. Even then, Tevatron’s edge had only slightly withered and it could still give the LHC a run for its money, while breathing its last.

The Final Hurrah – Webcast Link :

The Tevatron. The accelerating column in below the ground.

The Old Warhorse

The Tevatron was the old world’s greatest accelerator till the LHC came along. Stationed at Fermilab, it could easily produce energies in excess of 512 GeV (512 Billion Electron Volts). Constructed in 1983, it was fondly called the Energy Doubler’ owing to the successive increases of energy as upgrades came in. Its aim was simple verify the Standard Model.

The Standard Model is a mainstay of particle physics. It is the theoretical framework, which describes all the interactions in the Universe, with the sole exception of gravity, which is well-described by the classical General Theory of Relativity. It is the fruit of over six decades of intense work by the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, starting from the 1920’s and ending in the late 1980’s. What the theoretical framework needed was the experimental verification of the heavy particles that it predicted. Could the beautiful theory, constructed by considering the most wonderful aspects of symmetries in Nature, stand up to the test of reality? Tevatron was the only way to know.

The Standard Model Scheme (Courtesy: Fermilab. Appropriate, isn't it?)

The First Big Break – A Top Achievement

The first big break came in 1995 with the discovery of the top quark. The top quark is one of the six types of quarks predicted and belonged to the third generation of the quarks (Graphic above).This means that it is one of the heaviest particles known and is extremely difficult to produce and even harder to detect. According to Einstein’s famous relation E=mc2, we need a minimum energy mc2 to create a particle of mass m’. The problem is that a particle cannot be created in isolation; it comes in with an antiparticle, which has the same mass ‘m’. Thus, you can’t produce just a top, but a top-antitop pair, which means that you need at least 2mc2 to produce the top quark. As a rule of thumb, the energy of the beams colliding within the accelerator has to be about twice the needed energy. For the top quark (rest mass energy of nearly 175 GeV), this amounts to 700 GeV minimum. It had to be the Tevatron.

The Top Quark Production and Decay. Note that a single top quark cannot be produced.

However, energy scale is not the only thing that the Tevatron redefined. It redefined the sensitivity of the detectors. Its detectors – the CDF and the D0 (D-Zero) – were the most sensitive in the world before the ones at LHC came along. The massive top quark immediately decays into lighter quarks, mainly the bottom quark. The decay happens so very fast that without great detectors, the top quark would’ve remained elusive. It could only have been the Tevatron.

Now, running at nearly 2 TeV, the Tevatron regularly produces the top quark. The exact mass of the top was also provided by Tevatron in 2007 to an accuracy of 1%.

More Success

What about the Bottom-Strange particles, you ask? Well, it had to be the Tevatron with the answer. Regular matter particles, called baryons, are made up of quarks. Certain particles, called mesons, are made up of just two quarks, in contrast to protons or neutrons, which are made up of 3 quarks. Each meson contains one quark and one anti-quark. The Standard Model predicts that such particles will undergo baryonic oscillation’ before decaying. Simply put, in a bound state of Bottom and Anti-strange quarks (remember, a quark-anti-quark combination), the bottom will go to anti-bottom and anti-strange will go to strange. They will zip in between these two states, before ultimately decaying into lighter particles. This is a firm prediction of the Standard Model. In 2006, Tevatron’s CDF made measurements of this process. As I said before, it could only have been the Tevatron.

Slice of History: Digitized Dead Sea Scrolls Now Available Online, Thanks to Google

The most significant archeological discovery of the 20th century is now online, thanks to Google. Five of the most important Scrolls have been put up on the internet, after being digitized. As Google hopes, this will elevate the interested from being passive admirers of the scrolls to being active readers. The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls are destined to be a big hit!

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Greatest  Archaeological  Find

The Dead Sea Scrolls are believed to have been penned by a Jewish sect, who fled Jerusalem when the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed and migrated through the desert. The scrolls consist of 972 documents and were discovered on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, in the Khirbet Qumran caves, presently known as West Bank.

One of the Qumran caves, where the Scrolls were found

The scrolls comprise mostly texts from the Hebrew Bible, but there are other texts, which talk about sects other than the Judaic one or one greater than it. There are also texts for the so-called Apocryphal literature, including extremely ancient Jewish works like The Book of Enoch or the Book of the Jubilees (the Lesser Genesis’). These did not find a place in the Bible as we know it now and very little is known about these apart from these scrolls. The scrolls are thus a more complete picture as to how Christianity spread and how its influence grew over Italy, Germany and the rest of Europe.

Find Scrolls here:

The five scrolls digitized and put up are the Great Isiah Scroll, the War Scroll, the Commentary on the Habakkuk Scroll, the Temple Scroll and the Community Rule Scroll. The Great Isiah Scroll is regarded by historian as the most important and extensive of all the Scrolls.

More Scrolls are due online, as the Israel Antiquities Authority, the owner of the most complete set of scrolls, are planning to digitize more scrolls from their collection and put them online, with Google’s help, of course. It says that nearly all the scrolls will be online by 2016.

NASA Spacecraft Catches A Huge Solar Flare; Increased Sunspot Activity Leads to Awesome Auroras

The Sun’s roaring again and it’s usually bad news when that happens. An active sunspot, Sunspot 1302, has suddenly grown vigorous and is releasing vast amounts of highly energetic charged particles hurtling out of the Sun. It released a huge solar flare on the 24th of September and its hyperactivity continues unabated over the last few days. The activity was caught by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory or SDO.

Coronal Mass Ejection and a brilliant lightshow

NASA warned that a huge Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) or a Solar Flare is in progress. The CME occurred at about 8:15 AM EST, today i.e. on the 26th of September. Upon reaching Earth this will cause a huge geomagnetic storm, interfering with radio communications everywhere. This will also produce scintillating auroras near the poles of the Earth. If you stay in the higher altitudes, remember to look up in the sky the light show is due to the Sun.

This is Big!

Scientists use a Kp-index to indicate the enormity of the Solar flare. It is a scale from 0 to 9, 0 indicating no activity and 9 indicating hyperactivity. It tells us whether there will be a significant geomagnetic storm caused due to Solar activity, with any reading above Kp=4 denoting a geomagnetic storm. The 26th September solar flare was marked Kp=8! The solar flare was so huge that it could be heard on all radios across the world. Here’s a video from NASA.

The solar flare was marked as a X1.9 category flare, indicating that it had some X-ray components to it. However, this is much lower than the X6.9 solar flare on 9th August or even the X2.2 flare on 15th February this year.

The increased activity of the Sun is related to the peak in the Solar Cycle. The Peak is expected in Early or mid-2013 and this is all leading up to that.

A thing of awe is a source of beauty forever.

Fermilab To Check Own Data To Verify OPERA’s Faster-Than-Light Neutrino Claim

After the astonishing result from the OPERA collaboration of detecting neutrinos travelling faster than speed of light, Fermilab wants to double-check the claim. This is an inevitable step in the direction of validating the apparent finding. If Fermilab’s MINOS data doesn’t find anything that replicates the OPERA observations with high enough confidence, then the OPERA result, despite its hype, will become null and void.

The MINOS experiment at Fermilab


Here’s the reason why, despite the care and beauty of the OPERA experiment, it needs independent corroboration: every scientific result must be reproducible. Fermilab has an advantage over other neutrino research labs in the world since it already has the data sets from the famous MINOS experiment.

Neutrino Oscillations

MINOS was Fermilab’s version of the Super Kamiokande experiment,. Neutrinos come in three flavours or types electron, muon and tau. The curious thing is that neutrinos can oscillate’ or change between these types. An electron neutrino can become a muon neutrino. A theoretical mechanism, known as the see-saw mechanism, explains this, using certain unknown parameters, which need to be supplied experimentally. Super Kamiokande performed experiments in 1998 and confirmed the phenomenon of oscillation and measured the mixing angle’ too. Fermilab repeated this experiment and found consistent results. This was the MINOS experiment, MINOS standing for Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search.


Well known to scientists in the neutrino field, but virtually unthinkable to the outside world, is that fact that MINOS had actually detected neutrinos moving faster than light. However, these couldn’t survive analysis and presented only a 1.6 to 2 sigma confidence level, below the 3 sigma needed for validation and way below the 5 sigma needed for labeling it as a discovery. MINOS now plans to sift through their data and put it through rigorous analysis. MINOS should take less than 6 months, since the data is already available to them.

It won’t matter if the OPERA experiment isn’t proved wrong. If Fermilab and T2K don’t reproduce the data, OPERA will be up for grabs. Einstein, thou be still… at least for 6 months.

Unknown “Ball of Fire from Sky” Causes Explosion In Buenos Aires, Argentina

Something big is up in Buenos Aires, Argentina and it’s unknown. There appears to have been some sort of fireball crashing into the earth, but this is unconfirmed. The casualties include one  dead and at least nine injured. The cause is still unknown, some suspecting a meteorite crash, other sticking to a burning plane or a gas line explosion. Eyewitnesses claim that a mysterious “ball of fire from the sky” was the cause of the explosion.

Strange fire in Buenos Aires. This was the supposed 'fire ball'.

The event took place very early in the morning – at 2:00 AM local time and thus most people were asleep. The explosion destroyed two houses, one store and a few parked vehicles. According to Bad Astronomy, the fireball was red in colour, but other news  reports say that it was blue.

Just to allay fears, we hasten to add that it was not NASA’s falling satelite, UARS, since that had hit the ocean a couple of days back. We had already told you why you shouldn’t get worked up about the falling satellite. There is no way some junk could’ve been hanging around in the atmosphere for two days. That is simply impossible.

Some people suspect that it was a a burning airplane that crashed, but there has been no wreckage found. Officials have also ruled out any gas leak related explosion.

Frankly, at this point we don’t know. Let us not bring aliens and a crashed UFO into the picture. Let the extra-terrestrials be as they are, please.

We will update as soon as we have some more news. As cliched as it may sound, we would ask you to stay tuned.

Challenging Einstein: Faster-Than-Light Neutrino Result From CERN And Explaining What It Really Means

So CERN has stunned us with a result and this one doesn’t even come from the LHC. The premier European high energy research institute has detected neutrinos that seem to move at a speed greater than that of light, violating one of the most sacred pillars of physics Einstein’s Special Relativity. You must have read about it we posted it here. So what about these faster-than-light neutrinos? Why are so many people all excited about them?

Faster Than Light Neutrinos, Claims CERN:
Yes? You Called? Say What!

In this article, I will try and explain that, touching upon four crucial points. First we need to understand why people are not ready to believe the result in the first place. Next, we’ll understand whether this is believable or not. Is CERN just tricking us or have they put real hard work behind this before publishing it? Next, we shall talk about the implications of this result, if it is proved right. Lastly, we discuss how there can still be flaws and where some glitches might be found in the coming days.

Unlike the popular media, scientists are treading softly on this result. They are not yet ready to say that Einstein was wrong, although that is what it would imply. They are merely reporting facts at this moment, stating the results as got in the experiment. The result is very possibly wrong, but let’s take a closer look.

What on earth are Neutrinos?

The real heroes of this story, Neutrinos are the slipperiest of all known particles. They carry no charge, almost no mass and interact extremely feebly with other matter and that too via the weak interaction. They’re nearly impossible to detect. They leave no tracks in bubble chambers (no charge), don’t interact with each other to form clumps (no strong interactions, like those of protons and neutrons) or speak with normal matter particles. Scientists were forced to assume its existence to solve a puzzle (the beta decay problem), and, even though neutrinos have been detected after that by several detectors, their properties remain largely mysterious. They are giving a headache once more.

Why are people not ready to believe it?

Simply put, it’s Einstein. People are not expecting anything new and now they find this! This is just too unexpected. Why take a result so flagrantly conflicting with all known physical results at face value? Well…

Is this result Believable?

As an answer the first of our questions, I would go with a Yes‘. The result is totally believable in the sense that the experiment and analysis seem water-tight at this moment. Scientists of the OPERA collaboration have been looking at the data for three years! They have done everything scientifically possible to discredit their own finding, but have only managed to strengthen it.

Remember, we told you in the particle physics articles, what confidence level means? A confidence level, quoted as some n-sigma, n’ being an integer, refers to the amount of confidence the experimenter has on his/her own results. A 3-sigma result is one which is significant enough to be considered a potential for detection’. This means that the doubts are less than 0.3%. We’re just getting warmed up! For a discovery’ we need a minimum of 5-sigma, which is a confidence level of 99.9999%.

The current results are a 6-sigma, at 99.999999% confidence level, high and above the threshold required to get a discovered’ tag!! This still doesn’t mean that it is true. It just means that the possibility that this is merely a statistical fluctuation is extremely small. They two are very close, but not the same.

Schematic layout of the OPERA experiment.

The real motivation for believing in what CERN has found is the methodology they’ve applied in finding out the results. They had found this result 3 years back, but never jumped the gun in publishing it. They checked and re-checked everything, found crucial error bars and found that this result survives. They added more parameters contributing smaller errors, hoping that they’ll somehow add up and then give the necessary’ error bars. They didn’t.

We’ll just talk about the use of GPS and cesium atomic clocks to measure time and how accurately the distance was measured.  Since velocity is simply distance divided by time, we need both parameters accurately.

NASA’s Falling Satellite Crashes: Did You Use Android’s Tracking App and Insurance To Protect Yourself? [UPDATED]

If you’re dead scared of the falling NASA satellite, you can now use your Android phone to keep track of the rogue beast. A free Android app lets you track the falling UARS satellite.

We’ve already told you about the defunct satellite crashing to the Earth (here). We’ve assured you that it won’t hit you (here)! You can safely go about your routine job without worrying about anything. Still Android provides further assurance.

UPDATE: UARS Satellite is DOWN! The Debris Fell Between 2323 EST on 23rd September to 0109 EST on 24th September. This is official from NASA. Location is not yet known

The Falling Satellite

It’s Coming Crashing Down! Tonight!

NASA’s defunct UARS satellite is crashing tonight, 23rd of September. The location and exact time are not yet known. It will definitely miss North America and Europe and will, thus, plunge into the sea. The debris will be spread over a large range of latitude and longitude, so some may yet fall on land. However, we’ve already assured you, relying on NASA, that you’re safe.

NASA App (And Insurance!!)

Android App

You probably know of the Android app Satellite AR. They have added a temporary button allowing you to track the UARS spacecraft as it makes its fiery descent towards Earth.

You can read more about it and download it here.

The app allows you to track all satellites directly above you. For today, it allows you to track the falling satellite in its final moments.


There’s more! There’s insurance against being hit by falling satellite debris. The insurance companies must be smiling ear to ear as they dole out one-time pay insurances for many people insuring their and their family’s lives as well as their cars or houses. Health insurance will cover injuries and life insurance will cover… well, you need not bother thinking about that.

There has been only one incident of someone being hit by falling space junk! And she never got hurt. But that doesn’t mean that you should drop your guard in front of a falling bus-sized satellite, right?