Category Archives: Science

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Update: Hurricane Irene Now A Major Storm, To Make Landfall In 24 Hours in N.Carolina

Hurricane Irene is the newest threat from Mother Nature. This is the biggest storm in the Atlantic region, and indeed globally, this year. It is currently classified as a Category 3 storm with wind speeds exceeding 115 mph. It is currently moving through the Bahamas.

(Update as of 1430 EST, 27th August: Hurricane Irene rams into the East Coast. For some latest pictures from space, click here)

We had an article earlier showing infrared photos of Irene snapped up from space.)

Hurricane Irene is a category 2 storm right at this moment (6 a.m. EST, 26th August) with wind speeds of 110 mph. It is located just east of the Florida peninsula presently. It is expected to gain in speed and regain its Category 3 status in another 20 hours or so.

Eye of Hurricane Irene

It will continue northwards, making landfall in North Carolina in another 24 hours and then plough northwards through the land surface. The hurricane will lose steam and wind speed will decrease to about 100 mph. However, the ground wind speed is expected to rise sharply. By the time it reaches Washington D.C., it will probably drop down to the category of a tropical storm, with wind speed of about 60-70 mph.

The threat level of the hurricane has been updated to EXTREME’, in the hope that the American public will be ready to take immediate evacuation measures. The greatest threat will include extensive damages to major cities like Washington DC, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Norfolk.

Irene will cause extensive flooding and even flash floods in certain areas. Storm surges are expected and thus small ships and trawlers have been warned against venturing out.

You can obtain up-to-the-minute tracking information of the storm here.

An Update here.

Hurricane Irene batters the east coast! Here’s a series of images!

Stay safe.

Discovered: Unique Planet Completely Made Up of Diamond!

Diamonds are turning out to be more ubiquitous than thought. After we reported that candles burn up diamonds a few days back, we hear of a discovery of a planet, which is completely made up of real diamond. This diamond planet is important in astrophysics, though for a very different reason!

An illustration of what the planet might look like. The yellow circle represents the size of out Sun, for comparison. The entire star-planet system could fit into the sun.

The discovery is too recent for any deep scientific investigation. Astrophysicists think that the planet is actually the core of a star, which died and became a white dwarf. The difference with other white dwarfs in the Universe is that this was orbiting a neutron star.

Lifetime and Death of a Star

A star burns hydrogen, converting it into helium, during its lifetime, known as the main sequence of the star. Once, it runs out of hydrogen it begins to contract, until enough heat builds up to trigger a newer set of reactions, which involves fusing helium to form heavier elements. Once the helium is also snuffed out, the star contracts again. Now, depending on the mass of the star, there might be many such contraction-fusion phases, making higher and higher elements. A mass the size of the Sun will stop somewhere at oxygen and then just settle down, cooling off and becoming a white dwarf. A star with a mass of 1.4 times that of the Sun becomes a neutron star, basically an extremely compact object made up of neutrons. Above 3 solar masses, you get a black hole.

The giant gem!

This new planet is five times the size of Earth with a super-high surface pressure. The extremely high surface pressure leads scientists to suspect that the entire planet has been crystallized into diamond. The planet orbits a rapidly pulsating neutron star that radiates a pulsar. Named PSR J1719-1438, the pulsar has a rotation rate of 10000 rotations per minute! It is located at a distance of 4000 light years from Earth!

All that sparkles… also pulsates

This system is not only interesting for being the biggest piece of diamond known! This is only the second time such a system, i.e. one which involves white dwarf orbiting a pulsar, has been discovered. The planet is also larger than the star’, as generally white dwarfs are bigger than neutron stars in size.

So there is another piece of diamond that you’ll never get your hands on! Thank your pulsars that no one else is getting it either!

New Physics Should Be Around The Corner, Says Rolf Heuer, Director of CERN; Charts Future After LHC

It was just yesterday, yet we have come so far! The first proton beams at a respectable 7 TeV energy was started only on 30th March, 2010. It has been hardly a year and a half and so much has already been achieved. This was the basic message sent out by CERN speakers Frederick Bordry and Rolf Heuer, also the Director of CERN at the Lepton Photon Conference, 2011, being held at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, India.

Projects! Projects!

There are a lot of projects on the horizon, both short time and long time. Obviously, the long term projects are ambitious and a bit ambiguous as of now. However, as Heuer said, they are practical. We should not be afraid that it is not easy, he said.

Rolf Heuer, Director General of CERN, speaking at the Lepton Photon Conference, 2011, at TIFR, Mumbai

Among the many new developments happening or proposed at LHC is the development of magnets that can generate extremely high magnetic fields, called high-field magnets. These will be required to increase the energy of a beam, without lengthening the collider tunnel. Prof. Michael Peskin of SLAC, who was in the audience, asked if this is a dream or a programamidst chuckles, to which Bordry replied that it was certainly a realistic program.

The CMS detector at LHC

The LHC is expected to have a long shutdown period from 2013 to mid 2014 for repairs and maintenance work.

New physics and monster accelerators

A number of new projects are upcoming, even though they haven’t been officially sanctioned. Yesterday’ it was the synergy of the Tevatron, HERA and SLAC that led to the discovery of the Standard Model, said Heuer, adding that the LHC results will guide the way at the energy frontier.

About the Higgs search, Heuer said that while finding the Higgs will be a discovery, not finding the Higgs and ruling it out will also be a major discovery. People should not say that these scientists are searching for nothing, he quipped. Not finding the Higgs will be a major result, since it will completely destroy the Standard Model, allowing other models of physics to come into the limelight.

Among a plethora of futuristic plans announced, the most spectacular was the announcement of a hadron-lepton collider the LHeC. The LHC is a hadron-hadron collider. It can collide protons together or lead/silver nuclei etc. A hadron-lepton collider will be able to collide a proton, and say an electron. The energy per beam of the LHeC will be 16.5 TeV, combining to give a massive 33 TeV in total. The LHeC design is on my desk right now, but I shouldn’t be mentioning that here, he remarked drawing loud laughter from the global audience. As far as LHC physics is concerned, he said that 2012 will be a decisive year. The TeV results will either lead to the discovery of new particles and some new physics will be known or it will be a reformulation of the physics we already know. Both will be progressive steps for particle physics.

Heuer spoke at length on the building of the linear accelerators International Linear Collider (ILC) and the Compact LInear Collider (CLIC). Today, we need to keep our choices openwas Heuer’s advice.

International Collaboration

On the question of collaboration, Heuer said that CERN was throwing its doors open to non-European countries. The E’ in CERN is going from European’ to Everybody’. We’re not changing our name, however, said Heuer.

Exciting times in particle physics beckon us! As usual this sentiment was put emphatically in Heuer’s own words -We are just beginning to explore 95% of the universe.

I’ll let the scientist in Heuer have the final word on this report. When asked if he’ll be bothered if the next big accelerator is located in the US, instead of at CERN, Heuer put it beautifully, I don’t care where the collider is! I only care about the science coming out of it.

The scientific enterprise is a greater binding factor than anything else. It’s a silent messenger of world peace, uniting the world in the pursuit of truth and never advertising that facet.

Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity Send Back Awesome Photos from Mars

Staying true to its name, Spirit, the Mars Exploration Rover, reached its destination on 10th August, 2011. NASA released a number of images that Spirit and its sister rover, Opportunity, snapped during their stay on the Red Planet. Among these images are landscape shots of the Endeavour crater, the climax of the three year journey.

We bring you a few of the photos that NASA released in this article.

The Endeavour Crater as seen from space by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The fine yellow line shows the path Spirit took to reach the Spirit point.
Opportunity snapped up this photo of the rim of the Endeavour crater.
Spirit captured the vast expanse of the Endeavour crater

Endeavour is a 22 kilometer crater, about 25 times wider than the Victoria crater, which was the crater visited by Opportunity earlier. The rocks from Endeavour crater are expected to be much older than the rocks encountered so far on Mars. The examination of these could give vital clues to a much wetter and warmer Martian past.

Rocks and Minerals found on Mars

Photos reveal apparently clay-like soil composition and this has got Mars experts excited. Clay can only form in wet conditions, signifying occurrence of habitable environment in the distant past.

Spirit has been hobbling, or rather dragging, for a couple of years. Its left wheel isn’t working and it drags it along, creating distinctive tracks.

The Mars Rover. Notice the distinctive tracks.

The right wheel leaves the familiar tyre tracks on the dusty ground, while the left wheel digs up the surface, revealing fresh soil from just below the surface.

Of course, Spirit can also photograph its own arm!

The arm of the rover Spirit

Spirit and Opportunity has yielded a great host of scientific data on Mars, especially for determining soil composition. It has also found meteorites.

A Mars meteorite - the Sheltor Rock - as photographed by Spirit.

NASA already has a successor of Spirit and Opportunity ready. Curiosity, the new rover, to be launched in a few months, will be parachuted on the Gale Crater. In its scientific arsenal will be sensitive instruments mainly to measure chemical composition and do spectroscopic studies on samples.

It’s a proper transition. In any scientific endeavour, it is the spirit and opportunities that lead to discoveries. These discoveries fire curiosity enough to ensure that the flagship of science stays at full steam.

Image Credits for all images:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU/

Satellite Snaps Infrared Photo of Eye of Hurricane Irene, the Biggest Atlantic Storm in 2011

The eye of Hurricane Irene was spotted by infrared cameras from space and it is scary. Hurricane Irene breezed past the Bahamas, with winds clocking up speeds of 115 mph.

Though, the hurricane had gone through a dip in power on the 23rd of August, it regained more than what it lost the day after. It is the first major hurricane of the 2011 Atlantic season. Hurricane Irene is now a Category 3 storm, a term used for storms having winds in the range of 110 to 130 mph (175 to 210 kmph).

(Update: Irene now a major storm)

The following picture was taken by infrared instruments on board the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite or GOES-East. It is managed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Hurricane Irene eye seen from space. It was taken by infrared detectors aboard GOES East satellite. Photo courtesy: NOAA

The redder areas are hotter than the cooler blue areas. (Infrared photos detect heat patterns and not actual visible features).

A hurricane is basically winds of high speed moving towards a central eye’ or region of low pressure. The central region is a hot’ region, with a markedly higher temperature than the surrounding areas. As a rule of thumb, hotter regions mean lower pressure. As air move from higher to lower pressure, high speed winds spiral towards the center.

The Bahamas is expected to receive 15 to 20 cm of rainfall due to Irene, with some regions expected rainfall as high as 40 cm. Storm surges are also expected. Irene is also predicted to move northward to the banks of Outer Carolina, where it will make landfall. However, by this time, it will have weakened due to cooler waters there, NOAA reported. Heavy rains are still forecast.

Irene is slightly early. Although August to October are peak months in the Atlantic hurricane season, big storms generally come in September.

(Update:  Irene now a major storm)

High Energy for Dummies: A Brief Glossary of Technical Jargon Used in Particle Physics

If a high energy collision means fast billiard balls colliding or a train wreck, this article is tailor made for you. As the world, or at least the 0.042% of it who are interested in particle physics, gets their opinions ready about the yet unsuccessful Higgs search at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), CERN, we thought it might be a good idea to explain what physicists mean by what they say. However, we don’t want to explain why they speak that way.

Tunnel of the LHC

Here we will list out a few things you’ve heard and are likely to hear in the coming days, along with what they might possibly mean.

Units and Particles:

Energy units

In particle physics, people prefer to use units of energy, instead of that of mass to measure mass. The idea is a good one, since we can use Einstein’s relation E=mc2 directly. The unit of energy is an electron volt or eV. If you force an electron to go through one volt, then it has the energy of 1 eV. It’s too small to use, so people use 1Mega eV (MeV) 1 million eV, or 1Giga eV (GeV) 1 billion eV. If that is not large enough, the LHC demands that we use 1 Tera eV (TeV) or 1 million million eV. The LHC is currently operating at 7 TeV.

The more important point to note about energy is what is considered big! How much really is 1 TeV of energy in human scales? It’s much less than the kinetic energy of a house-fly! So why is it called high-energy physics? It’s because this energy is carried by particles that are really really small! If a proton having 3 TeV of energy is scaled up to our scales, then we would each have energy exceeding that of a Supersonic jet plane. There’s a large amount of energy packed into a small volume.

Particles types

About particles, there are just two types Fermions and Bosons. Know that fermions don’t like hanging out together, while bosons have no such ego issues. You can stuff a lot of bosons at one place, while that is impossible in case of fermions. Leptons are one kind of fermions, which are electron-like. Photons are bosons. (As to why this happens, it’s related to the Pauli Exclusion Principle, a fundamental result from quantum mechanics, responsible for single-handedly creating all of chemistry! Fermions follow Pauli Principle, bosons do not).

Hullabaloo about Higgs:

This is the biggest name in particle physics you’ve ever heard. The electron is passé, it’s time for the Higgs. Named after Peter Higgs, this particle is supposed to endow all other particles in the Universe with mass. It is a so-called boson, unlike the electron. It is itself massive (meaning that it has mass), theoretically predicted to be about 140 GeV. Through a mechanism, known as the Higgs mechanism, an example of spontaneous symmetry breaking (explanation below) of a field theory, mass is generated.

Spontaneous Symmetry breaking:

This is probably the most important phenomenon in this story, so pay attention. This is the deal. Every modern physical theory has some symmetry associated with it. For example, if you made all the positive charges in the Universe negative and the negative charges positive, the Universe will still look exactly like it does. Here’s the crucial part with every (continuous) symmetry, is associated a quantity that is conserved, or doesn’t change value. Example: Take time translation. If time were to flow backwards, at the microscopic scale, we would notice nothing. This symmetry leads to conservation of energy. Symmetry breaking refers to the fact that under certain circumstances, a physical theory loses the symmetry it started out with. We can then distinguish between different states. We can choose.

A Useful Analogy

The best analogy I’ve heard asks you to picture a round table with 10 people sitting equally spaced from each other. There is one glass of water kept identically placed between each two adjacent persons, making it 10 glasses in total. Assuming that the glasses are all identical, one can go and reach out for either one there is no preferred choice as yet. (Situation 1 in the graphic below.) But, say someone does pick up a glass say the glass placed to his/her right.(Situation 2 in the graphic below.) Then, everybody will HAVE to pick the glass to his/her right (assuming that no one wants chaos!). Now, you can differentiate between this system and another such system in which someone went for the glass on the left. Symmetry breaking has allowed us to identify a parameter, which had earlier left the system invariant. The word spontaneous’ is clear from this context. The perturbation has to come from within the system and everyone will choose a glass. The symmetry has been spontaneously broken!

In physics too, there arises situations in which the ground state (or state of lowest energy) of a theory is invariant under certain symmetries. This symmetry can, however, be broken and spontaneously, too if the system interacts with a field. It can be shown that this leads to two distinguishable states one having mass. Physicist believe that this is how mass is generated. The interaction field is named Higgs field’ and the force carrying boson associated with the field (as with any force field) is the Higgs Boson.

Final Word

We could like to conclude this brief glossary of explanations here. Know that these explanations are highly simplified and the whole picture is much richer in beauty and technical details than this. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to communicate that beauty to a person, not having enough background in physics (being a major in physics is a must) and maths. If you already have a background, you’ve probably already seen a bit of the beauty. Go in search of more.

The world is not only queerer than we suppose, remember; it is much queerer than we can possibly suppose. In the words of the immortal Richard Feynman, I think Nature’s imagination is so much greater than Man’s, She’s never going to let us relax.

Links to related articles:

The Higgs search being unsuccessful so far, ATLAS and CMS collaborations of CERN jointly announce. Initial report here.

The figures and numbers (statistics) from the CERN announcement here.

Latest Results of Higgs Search Presented Jointly By ATLAS and CMS, LHC, CERN at Lepton Photon ’11, Mumbai

The latest results on the Higgs search are out. Results were presented separately by ATLAS and CMS detectors of LHC, CERN today(i.e. 22st August, 2011) at the Lepton-Photon Conference, 2011. In this semi-technical article, we present the most important results in a systematic form. The verdict is, however, out the Higgs hasn’t been found as yet.

Check out our first (non-technical) post on this discovery here. A countdown to the Lepton Photon Conference itself is here.

Higgs Production and Decay channels

There are a few things that should be kept in mind right throughout the article. The Higgs boson is primarily produced by interaction of two gluons. (A gluon is what keeps protons and neutrons in an atomic nucleus together.) This is called gluon-gluon production of the Higgs boson.

Next, the Higgs, being highly massive (i.e. having a high mass) decays into lighter particles. This is what massive particles always do they decay into lighter particles. The only thing is that different particles decay at different rates. Heavier particles will decay much faster than comparatively lighter particles.

Higgs event

The Higgs can decay into a number of lighter products. Each of these products leaves a distinctive signature on the detectors and the different modes of decay are called different decay channels’. The Higgs primarily has a gamma-gamma (Higgs decaying into two gamma ray photons.) channel, a WW and a ZZ channel. These are the main channels of interest. The gamma-gamma channel will be the preferred channel if the Higgs is a comparatively light particle about 100 GeV in mass. If the Higgs decays by producing two Z-bosons (the ZZ channel) or two W-bosons (WW channel) then its mass is above 130 GeV.   In other words, the gamma-gamma channel fixes the upper limit of the Higgs mass at 130 GeV, while the WW and ZZ channels fix the lower energy bound at 130 GeV.

Now, here is the interesting part. The WW or ZZ bosons are themselves quite heavy and decay into a number of products. These decay channels produce characteristic detection patterns in the detectors. Comparing the observed rate of decay into these channels with that of the expected value, the data is reconstructed to see if this indeed was a Higgs event.

Now for more technical details

ATLAS Results

The ATLAS detector found no significant excess in the gamma-gamma channel. The bottom-bottombar (b-bbar) channel (this is what the WW bosons break down into bottom and anti-bottom quarks) gave big excess of Higgs event above the theoretically expected Standard Model(SM) production rates. Even though the excess was nearly 10 times the SM predictions, the sensitivity needs to be improved. Furthermore, Tevatron has a much greater say in the b-bbar channel than the LHC, given that it has recorded much higher number of events and has a higher luminosity at that energy range. The tau-tau (tau is a lepton, an electron like particle) channel gave a 4 to 5 times excess.

The ATLAS detector at LHC, CERN

Overall, there was no significant excess in any of the channels to warrant a discovery. There was no significant excess number of events noticed for the Higgs in the mass range of 110 GeV to 160 GeV. This mass range is tentatively excluded with 95% confidence level. However, at 99% confidence level, there is a window about 142 GeV, which can be a possible detection window. Further experiments will probe this window more thoroughly.

CMS results

CMS detected no excess in the gamma-gamma channel. A slight excess was noticed in the tau-tau channel and this is expected to be an important channel for further investigation, owing to the fact that data reconstruction from this channel points to a Higgs mass of about 140 GeV.

Excess of events in the WW going to lepton-lepton channel suggests a mass range of 130 GeV to 200 GeV. Three pairs of events have been notices at three mass ranges 122, 142 and 165 GeV for the ZZ channel. Only the 142 GeV event is consistent with Standard Model predictions. Happily, this is the very window that wasn’t excluded earlier with 99% confidence level.

Out of theoretically expected mass range exclusion of 145 to 440 GeV, three ranges have been excluded 145 to 216 GeV, 226 to 288 GeV and 310 to 400 GeV. Anything above 400 GeV is unlikely and the crucial 130 to 145 GeV window is still open. These mass ranges have been excluded with 98% confidence level.

Higgs search continues with full force. LHC will provide a lot more data samples in the coming months and this might ultimately lead us to achieve the Holy Grail of Particle Physics.

Higgs Boson Still Not Found: Huge Official Announcement from LHC, CERN


This is the joint announcement made by the ATLAS and CMS teams, LHC, CERN at the Lepton-Photon Conference, 2011 being held at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, India. This is likely to be a disappointment for many around the world, both within and without the particle physics community. The search is however on!

A warmup countdown post to this Lepton Photon Conference, 2011 is here. Semi-technical post showing all relevant results and figures can be found here.

The Higgs Boson

The Higgs Boson, predicted from considerations of symmetry in Quantum Field Theory by Peter Higgs, is the particle theoretically responsible for endowing every other massive particle with mass. It’s a boson with spin zero, with positive parity and charge.

Weak Signals

There were a number of weak signals noticed that preceded the event. These Higgs signatures’ included the W-W or the Z-Z decay channel for the Higgs as the primary decay channel. This means that the Higgs once produced will decay into two W or Z-bosons, which will in turn break up into electron-positron pairs or muon-antimuon pairs. Unfortunately, none of these events could stand up to the rigors of analysis and survive till the 5 sigma confidence level was reached in both ATLAS and CMS detectors, as yet.

No such significant excess has been observed in the lower mass gamma-gamma channel. Also, more exotic branches like the tau-tau and b-bbar (bottom-bottombar quarks) have not offered anything promising.

The results of Tevatron, Fermilab are similarly blank, with no significant excess noticed in any channel.

The Future

This is also an exciting opportunity it opens up new possible physical theories. Spontaneous symmetry breaking, at least what we know of it now, may not be the whole story. There are many rival’ theories of the Standard Model, many requiring no Higgs boson to achieve mass. These Higgless models may become the focus of mainstream research and the LHC may be next used to test the predictions of such theories.

However, it is too early to make such claims. The Higgs search is going on at full blast.

And a Promise

We will bring more articles soon, explaining what this means for the Standard Model and particle physics in general. We will also run an article elucidating the jargon of particle physics. Hold on for that it’ll come sooner that you think.


Actual results from the ATLAS and CMS joint announcement on the Higgs Boson search can be found here. All relevant facts and figures present.

Countdown to Lepton-Photon Conference, 2011: ATLAS To Make Major Announcement on Higgs Search

Some big news is just around the corner. The ATLAS collaboration at LHC, CERN is all set to announce the status of the Higgs Boson search at the giant collider in the upcoming week at the Lepton-Photon Conference 2011, being held in Mumbai from 22-27 August, 2011. The announcement is one of particular importance since it is rumored to be the definitive one in the quest for the Higgs Boson. Whether the Standard Model of Physics, one of the most beautiful and successful edifices of physics ever constructed, will stand or need revision will hinge crucially on this one announcement.

The Lepton Photon 2011 Logo

The Lepton-Photon Conference, 2011

The Conference The XXV International Symposium on Lepton-Photon Interactions at High Energy will take place in Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, India and will attract prominent personalities from the world of high-energy physics. The coming week is expected to be a hectic one for both students and physicists at the Institute, with the who’s who of particle physics presenting and discussing current progress, while also charting the road ahead. Preparations are on at full swing within the Institute premises.

We at Techie-Buzz will be covering the huge scientific event from Ground Zero and presenting all the major announcements in real time from it.  You might want to bookmark the website and visit it frequently or subscribe to our newsletter, if you aren’t already on the subscription list.

Some exciting developments precede the event

The watch-word is Higgs’ for everyone and with certain encouraging signs noticed in the last few months, everyone is excited. Particularly stunning are the two results graphed below. Explanations follow the graphs.

The CMS (above) and ATLAS (below) Results for Higgs event, July, 2011

Look at the two graphs (don’t get scared!). The thick black line in each graph represents the Higgs signals. The dashed line represents the predicted Higgs production rate by Standard Model Calculations. A proper signature is said to be found when the observed signal overtakes the predicted signal. Look at the region marked, just between 130 to 150 MeV, where the production rate far exceeds the predicted rate. This coincides with the predicted mass range for the Higgs. This in itself proves nothing, as this might be due to something completely different. What is exciting is the fact that this weaksignal is being noticed in both the LHC detectors, ALICE and CMS. Concurrent results have a better chance of surviving thorough data analysis.

For clarity let me reiterate the two important takeaway points: First, both detectors, ATLAS and CMS, agree on the Higgs signature. Second, the signals have been noticed in the theoretically expected mass range (about 130-150 GeV).

The results are now quoted at a 95% confidence level (or 2 sigma) and do not warrant the label of a discovery’. For that, you’ll require 99.997% confidence (or 5 sigma) from both detectors. We might be onto that.

At the risk of being repetitive, let me again emphasize that the announcement at the Conference in the coming week will nearly finalise the fate of the search for the Higgs Boson. If not found, it may be the beginning of new physics.

Hope to see you here through next week.

Update: The CERN Announcement on the ATLAS and CMS results on the Higgs Search is here. Check it out, its big news.

IBM Designs Chip That Replicates Human Brain

The human brain might soon be replicated in a chip. IBM hopes to replicate the product of at least 7 million years of evolution and create a chip that is based on the model of the brain and functions like one. This is a new direction in chip making, going for diverse functionalities and simulation of logic centers than mere parallel processing and speed.

A Big Announcement

IBM announced today that, along with four universities and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), it has created the experimental computer chip that mimics human brain processes. The main goal for the collaboration is to create a chip which will be able to perceive the environment, prioritize goals, interact with the surroundings and produce a proper response. It will also be able to increase the efficacy of the response process by basing later responses on the outcome of the previous responses and their consequence a sort of artificial intelligence, but at the level of a human brain. The DARPA project is called Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics or SyNAPSE.

The Chips

The speed of the chips is really slow too slow in comparison to the modern chips made by IBM itself. The processing speed is a paltry 10 Hertz, but this is one chip not looking for speed. The human brain is a wonderful device for parallel processing on an unthinkable scale. Moreover, it is able to create banks or sites, which can act as logic or memory locations. These junctions between neurons synapses have also been modeled on the chips.

The brain model

The current devices our known laptops or desktops are all von Neumann devices, which means that they can process information at a speed determined by how fast data can be carried by a bus. Higher capacity and speed of the bus means that the data is processed at higher rates. The speed of the computer is thus limited by the capacity of the bus, a phenomenon called von Neumann Bottleneck’.

According to Dharmendra Modha, the head of the DARPA project and associated with IBM, Almaden, the chips have deviated from von Neumann behaviour:

 We are now doing a new architecture. It departs from von Neumann in variety of ways.

These chips are built for parallel processing on an unprecedented scale. The memory center has been achieved by a small conventional memory chip, an incorrect description of how memory works in the human brain. This is mainly due to the fact that we know very little as to know synaptic nodes can act as centers of correlated memory.

Dharmendra Modha. He was the principal researcher behind the DARPA project. He's associated with IBM Almaden.


The crucial test for these chips will come when they will be called upon to do tasks that require genuine inspiration or any other quality that we associate uniquely with the human brain. Can these chips make mistakes? Or forget things? Or remember something related but not the exact fact? Can it discover? Can it feel inspired? These will be future questions as this is only the beginning. Jeopardy champion, Watson will have to pale in comparison!

Maybe, in some time, you’ll find the current author of this article replaced by a chip, a few cm across on either side, writing about its own history.

What is a Candle Flame Made Up Of? Millions of Real Diamonds, Of Course!

This is why ignorance is often regarded as a great source of bliss. Scientists have discovered the presence of real diamonds in a candle flame. Here’s the part which will hurt a lot you’ll not be able to procure any for sale. After centuries of wondering what candle flames are made up of, it seems that they are richer than imagined by anyone literally.

Diamonds Galore!!

Gem of a find

It’s indeed poetic justice that a Chinese chemistry professor, Prof. Wuzong Zhou, from the University of St. Andrews would uncover this sparkling secret. After all, candles were invented in China more than 2000 years ago.

Prof. Zhou developed a new sampling technique along with his student, Mr. Zixue Su, which can sample particles from the center of a candle flame. This has never been attempted before. Spectroscopic studies revealed the composition of the samples and it was found that all four allotropic forms of carbon diamond, graphite, soot and fullerenic forms of carbon – were present.

Prof. Zhou innocently reveals his motivation for looking inside a candle flame:

A colleague at another university said to me: Of course no-one knows what a candle flame is actually made of.  I told him I believed science could explain everything eventually, so I decided to find out.

Burning Diamonds

Diamond particles are created as an intermediate between hydrocarbon molecules at the base of the flame and the carbon-dioxide and water at the top of the flame. Diamond gets burned in the center. The production rate is also impressive Prof. Zhou counted more than 1.5 million diamond nanoparticles per second in a flame. So, a candle burns by burning up lots of diamonds!

Michael Faraday’s comment in his lectures The Chemical History of a Candlein 1860 seems prophetic now:

You have the glittering beauty of gold and silver, and the still higher lustre of jewels, like the ruby and diamond; but none of these rival the brilliancy and beauty of flame. What diamond can shine like flame?

This is a glittering find. Feel rich just by thinking of the fact that you can afford to light a candle you’re literally burning up millions of diamonds!


SETI’s Telescope Array Kept Alive By Donations From Many, Including Actor Jodie Foster

The desire for extra-terrestrial contact is too much to resist. The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, California, suffered a big blow a few months ago, when its main array of radio-telescope the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) was put out of operation due to budget cuts both from the Centre and the State. However, a week ago it was revived and it’s doing what it does best look out for radio signals from outer space.

SETI’s ATA: Fresh hopes

SETI’s ATA was handed a new lease of life by numerous donors, who shelled out large amounts and helped SETI reach its campaign goal of $200,000. It ended up with a collection of $223,000 thanks to 2557 donors. One of the star donors was Jodie Foster, actor in the female lead in the film Contact’. Her donation amount however, is not known.

The Movie

In the movie, Foster played a very passionate and extremely gifted scientist, who goes from pillar-to-post searching for funds when the initial funds for her Radio Telescope expedition suddenly dry up. When she receives periodic signals from an unmistakably alien intelligence source, she suddenly gets the attention of the science community. Contact! Who can possibly forget the frenetic passion enthused by Foster when she hears the first Contact – a periodic metallic ring buzzing on her laptop? Watch it here.

Deciphering the coded message, the science community builds a device, which is tested by Foster. It turns out to be a device, which creates a wormhole. When she relates this experience, no one believes her and even the scientist in her doubts it! Based on the book by the same name written by Carl Sagan, Contact is scientifically accurate both in fact and spirit. (I would personally recommend it!)


Foster, like her character in the movie, says that the ATA is too good to go. The telescopes:

could turn science fiction into science fact, but only if it is actively searching the skies. I support the effort to bring the array out of hibernation.

The ATA was founded based on a grand fund donated by Paul Allen. SETI realises the need to find new and long-term sources of funding.

One momentous discovery can turn it around for SETI. Everyone hopes that the movie-like beep-beep-beep’ can pull it out of the forced slumber.

Google Celebrates Fermat’s Birthday With An Awesome Doodle

In keeping up with its tradition, Google has come up with an awesome doodle today to honour the birthday of the great Pierre de Fermat (kindly pronounce as “Ferma” . The ending ‘t’ is silent.) Hailed as a genius in the world of mathematics and physics, while being virtually unknown to the world outside, Fermat’s fame rests on two basic pieces of mathematical wizardry he presented to the world Fermat’s principle and Fermat’s Last Theorem.

The doodle

The doodle looks like a board in the room of a mathematical genius. Maybe, if Fermat had a board on his wall, it would’ve looked something like this. Strangely though, out of the mathematical mess of seemingly random squiggles, emerge the letters G-O-O-G-L-Ein that order, while also maintaining complete mathematical harmony by spelling out the statement of Fermat’s Last Theorem. This is a masterstroke from the Google artist, unnamed as yet. Try a mouse-over and see the comment. Have patience – the explanation of the mouse-over comment is delicious.

The mathematician behind it

The life of Fermat is, however, way more awesome than the doodle. Starting off as a lawyer, he learned arithmetic, largely by himself. After shedding off the tag of being an amateur mathematician by discovering a method to calculate slopes of curved lines (which we regard as differential at a point), without having any knowledge of differential calculus (which came later), he moved onto things far greater. Newton would come half a century later and would develop calculus into a branch of mathematics.

A copy of Arithmetica containing Fermat's comment. (No, I don't read Latin either!)

Fermat’s great insight led him to discover the Fermat’s principle. This, in the garb of the language of modern optics, said that light always takes the path that lets it take the least time when it propagates from one point to another. Huygens, nearly two century later, would boldly propose the wave theory of light using Fermat’s principle to derive observed phenomenon of reflection and refraction. Now every branch of physics Classical mechanics, Relativity or even Quantum Mechanics uses this principle, in one form or the other.

Lasting legacy

But this was for technicians in the field. Fermat left behind a delicious puzzle for future generations. He conjectured (and never proved) that three positive integers, x, y and z, cannot possibly satisfy the equation xn + yn = zn, for any n>2 (For n=2, you’d recognise it as the Pythagoras theorem). Fermat supplied a proof for it for n=4, for not a general proof. In his copy of Arithmetica, a book written by the Greek Diophantus, he scribbled on the margin something which said that he had a proof but it was too big to fit in the margin.

Mouse over the doodle, and you’ll see that it says that the discovered proof is too big to fit in the doodle.

The general proof of Fermat’s last theorem is a stuff of legends now, with Andrew Wiles’ proof and his struggles to get to it having been made into TV shows, documentaries and books.

Fermat, pot-bellied and round-nosed, left behind a legacy too big to fit into this one article.

Japan’s Nuclear Problem Update: How Radiation From Fukushima Affects America’s West Coast

The reach of atmospheric winds is long. The latest demonstration of this comes from the ruined Japanese power plant Fukushima. Sea water around Fukushima, rich in neutrons from the nuclear matter, was causing a spike in the amount of atmospheric sulfur over the Californian coast. Sulfur is a toxic element in itself and forms oxides which are just as toxic. It is also a major contributor of acid rain.

Fukushima after the disaster

What happened?

This is what was happening at Fukushima. On 13th March, 2011, two days after the deadly tsunami wrecked Fukushima, engineers began pumping seawater into the power plant, so as to keep the nuclear core cool, since the cooling system was not functioning due to loss of power. Lightly radioactive seawater was drained out of the power plant. Neutrons streamed out of the water, knocking against chlorine atoms, converting them into a radioactive isotope of sulfur. The sulfur combined with oxygen in seawater, especially since the warm water provided enough thermal energy for the chemical reaction. A part of this sulfur dioxide bubbled through the water and entered the atmosphere as a gas and another part dissolved in the sea water. Further, when the water hit the hot core, it instantly vaporized, again releasing large amounts of hot elemental sulfur into the atmosphere. Both air currents and ocean currents carried the sulfur rich air or water to the western shores of America.

The observed data and extrapolation

The sulphur peak in the atmosphere was noticed on March 28, 2011, 15 days after the pumping started. According to a study conducted by chemists at the University of California, San Diego, – the first quantitative study of the disaster – about 400 billion neutrons were released per square meter of the cooling pools of liquid in the power plant. This rate stayed constant from 13th March to 20th March. The mechanism of producing radioactive sulphur is well understood from cosmic ray studies, but this is the first time such a process is being noticed near the surface. The study measured 1501 atoms of radioactive sulfur in sulfate particles per cubic meter of air, much much higher than normal levels.

For the levels of sulphur noticed at California to be correctly correlated with sulphur levels over Fukushima, the team calculated that the levels of sulfur ought to be 365 times that over California.

As always, even disasters provide opportunity for science to study different processes. Thiemens, the Dean of the Division of Physical Sciences at UC San Diego, says

We’ve really used the injection of a radioactive element to an environment to be a tracer of a very important process in nature for which there are some big gaps in understanding.

Maybe in this case, it’s just too inhumane to say that every cloud has a silver lining.

News via UCSanDiego

LHC At Home: Now, You Can Help CERN Find The Higgs Boson Sitting At Home

The greatest science project ever designed by man is now calling out to you, dear average Joe or hotshot scientist, for helping it find the elusive Higgs Boson. CERN has launched an extended version of its LHC@home campaign, naming it unimaginatively as LHC@home 2.0, in which CERN wants you to share a part of your computer’s processing power to do science.

The Colossal Collider Comes Computer Hunting

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has been actively looking for the Higgs Boson particle, constantly eliminating mass ranges and probing higher and higher energies. Tantalizing signs have been seen, only to be later refuted by CERN itself. The Higgs particle, dubbed The God Particle’ by the popular media, is so far living up to the given divine billing. The Higgs is the ultimate piece of the puzzle of the Standard Model, with all the other particles discovered. No one said that finding the final piece would be easy.

The ALICE Detector at LHC

LHC@home 2.0 is a volunteer computing platform. It aims to use a part of the computing power of your computer, so that CERN can simulate more data. This is the best implementation of the notion of GRID computing, in which computers around the world, linked to a network, can donate a part of the processor’s facilities, which would have otherwise remained unused anyway. The result is a massive increase in processing speed for the central computing facility.

Simulations: Why So Serious?

The most important aspect of a collider experiment, other than building the machine itself, is the collision simulation. Simulations are a vital part because solving multi-particle dynamics is a stressful, often impossible, job. Several particles interacting with several other particles through different interactions at relativistic energies can give physicists nightmares. The way out is to prepare plausible models for the collision and then use computers to simulate the result, should such a collision take place. Important results are noted from the simulation data, like tell-tale signs of new particles, decay channels and sensitive hidden parameters. After documenting the actual collision, data is compared, especially the most conspicuous simulation results.

Simulated Decay of the Higgs

Reconstruction helps refine the model and unexpected bumps occasionally produce excitement. These bumps can be due to a number of causes, but careful analysis helps scientists rule out experimental causes or error. If the bump survives, it’s a new discovery. So far, no Higgs bump has survived.

… And You Can Join In!

CERN gives a detailed instruction manual to anyone interested to join here. Currently, the LHC@home 2.0 is in its test phase and is testing a program Test4Theory@Home.

Learn more about the CERN projects and how you can help here.

Here’s your dream come true: Have a virtual atom smasher at your home, revealing the greatest mysteries of the Universe.