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Year End Special: Top Ten Science Stories of 2012

Science doesn’t stay still and 2012 was no exception. This gives bloggers, like myself, a happy problem of choosing a few from the plenty. Amidst the smoldering mental rubble created by the various disparate pieces of science news, ranging from the best to the worst, there lie those which just cry out for a mention. Yes, a top ten list can never be satisfactory for everyone; neither the included topics, not the order in which they are arranged can cater to all. The following list is thus a work of great mental labor with the expectations of being rebuffed for getting the list ‘wrong’ or not including something important. Thus, this is a personal list; a list of things which I, the author, thought was impactful and will be so in the near future. And like any human being, I can be horribly wrong – or wonderfully correct.

So here goes…

Choice 10: SpaceX goes to space

Last year we had NASA retiring the entire fleet of space shuttles, making the routine visits to space, and especially to the International Space Station, a thing of not such daily trivialities. NASA now has to depend on the Russians and their unpredictable space program in order to ferry man, machine and supplies to the ISS. However, NASA played what they believed was an ace up their sleeve – they let private companies enter space! SpaceX is being nurtured in the NASA equivalent of the marsupial pouch with both money and technology. And finally, SpaceX took the giant leap – sending their own capsule into space.

SpaceX falcon rocket launch

Yes, there were a few glitches and the delays drew critics! But not a thing should go wrong. The first launch was scheduled for the 19th of May. Technical glitches delayed it, but it was eventually accomplished. SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, who is also co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, dreams big! The Red Planet is his goal!

Choice 9: Venus goes in front of the Sun

It was a celestial event to be repeated again only after 105 years. Venus would make its journey across the face of the Sun, and we would watch the block dot moving across! What’s so fascinating about that you ask? Well, the transits of Venus are important for many older calendars. The cycles of Venus are deliciously intricate and who doesn’t like a miniature Solar Eclipse?

We gave you the all you need to know guide about the Venus Transit here. If the weather played spoilsport, like it did in many parts of India, NASA was always streaming it live and Youtube is always there for later reference.

Choice 8: The Large Hadron Collider: The Hot and the Anomalous

It’s hot and really really hot! The ALICE experiment at the LHC, specializing in the collision of heavy ions achieved the hottest temperature ever recorded when they created quark-gluon plasma at a whopping 4 trillion degrees! Yes, 4 trillion, which you write down by writing 12 zeros after the initial ‘4’. Impressive? You bet! Story here.

The ALICE detector

In another detector of the LHC, the LHCb, specializing in the physics of the heavy ‘bottom quark’, there was a surprise! It turns out that the rare decay of a rare particle, called the ‘Bs-meson’, to two muons is at the exact expected rate! What’s bad about that? Well, it rules out the possibility of any physics beyond which we already know. Specifically, it seems that supersymmetry – that old cherished theory – is in deep trouble. However, things, especially things in particle physics, are not as simple as that. Supersymmetry still lives, though it appears that it is living on borrowed time. Story here.

Choice 7: The American Bald Eagle lives on, and so does faith in humanity

Science is cold, science is just rational, science doesn’t have a heart! Right?
Well, it can give back a beak to a bird, after people without any heart shoot it off! Here is the heart-warming story of Beauty, an American Bald Eagle, who had a prosthetic beak surgery, allowing her to survive. She won’t be able to live in the wild, granted, but at least she can lead a life! Cold heartless rationality called science can produce heart-warming stories. My colleague Darrin Jenkins reports: Beauty and the Beast

Choice 6: Mirages, on a cosmic scale!

Einstein’s theory of gravity – the General Theory of Relativity – is strange! It makes you see double or sometimes more! Literally.

The “Einstein Ring”: a result of gravitational lensing

Taking advantage of the phenomenon of gravitational lensing, which is basically using matter as a lens for light coming from a long distance, scientists can definitively say that the universe is expanding at an accelerated rate. And make more specific observations, leading to answers about dark energy! Einstein’s theory easily accommodates an expanding universe mathematically, but what is dark energy really? We still don’t know and that’s why these kinds of measurements are so very important!

We’re at the half way mark. The top five stories coming up!

Choice 5: Infamy: Neutrinos break light barrier. Then do not!

In a stunning claim, the OPERA group announced that their experiments had revealed that neutrinos travel faster than light. This superluminal claim immediately created intense controversy as expected. Statements such as ‘I will eat my hat if this is true’ did the rounds. Credit to the experimentalists for doing a very thorough experiment and then NOT claiming that this violates special relativity.

The OPERA experiment came in for intense scrutiny. Icarus repeated the experiment and found nothing anomalous, weakening the OPERA results. OPERA repeated, getting the same anomaly. While everyone was waiting for MINOS or T2K to conduct the results to check for reproducibility, the OPERA group announced that a faulty cable connection had been the culprit. The structure of physics stood strong, OPERA gained infamy and the saga ended sadly with the sacking of the OPERA chief.

Choice 4: Curiosity soars and lands on Mars

Spirit and Opportunity had lived way past their age. They have done a lot more than what was expected of them. It was time for something new! Curiosity, the most sophisticated machinery ever to roam another planet, was launched. It landed safely on Mars, being completely blind when doing so.

The giant rover.

Curiosity is just too cool and here are 10 reasons why! And it sent back photos of the Martian surface, just those preliminary ones with the promise of better to come. Our curiosity shall be fulfilled.

Choice 3: The organism: completely modeled

In a major breakthrough in computational biology, scientists created a complete model of the Mycoplasmia genitalia. Yes, the whole deal, everything about the organism. The model has predictive power! If you tell it the genotype, it will tell you the phenotype! And more than 1900 parameters went into this model.

So there it is: the first computer simulation having all genetic and molecular components, able to predict an organism! Beat that.

Choice 2: Stem Cells, Nobel Prize and All the Promises

This one’s just too big for one year, but 2012 has clearly been a great year for results in stem cell research. It even got a Nobel prize!

A number of related pieces of news have come in this field. We told you about AIDS cure possibilities using Stem Cells, which has been tested successfully on mice. We also reported the wonderful story of a 10 year old girl’s life being saved due to stem cells. Stem cells helped her get a new vein – a vein taken from a dead man was stripped of all genetic information and grafted with stem cells grown from the girl’s bone marrow. This was replaced in place of the blocked vein near her liver!

More success came when a lymphoma patient was treated successfully using stem cells grown in her bone marrow. Stem cell research scored victories even outside the operation theatre or the lab, winning several court cases filed against research.

The icing on the cake? The Nobel Prize. My good friend and our new biology expert speaks on the Nobel Prize in medicine here.

And the top story of 2012 is…

Choice 1: The Discovery of the Higgs Boson

And this is probably the biggest news of the decade! A particle, predicted by physical theories in the 60’s, was finally announced to have been discovered by the Large Hadron Collider, putting the biggest feather yet in the already bulging cap of CERN. The media frenzy surrounding the Higgs Boson was huge, the excitement palpable and the interest heartening. Here is what it really means.

The CMS detector

A massive particle, decaying within a tiny fraction of a second, forming only very rarely tells us that there exists a Higgs field, which endows all massive particles in the universe with mass! What beauteous mystery Nature provides and how wonderful the answers!

There you have it. Some stories have been heart-warming, some informative, some exhilarating and some infamous. It is indeed heartening to see two of the top three stories going to medicine, a field destined to dominate scientific endeavours in this century.

Agree or disagree, send in your feedback in the comments; we’ll love to hear what your choices might have been. As the year dusks away, we look forward to a glorious new year, where science and technology will take man to heights justified by his intelligence.

From me and the entire Techie-Buzz team, we wish you a magnificent New Year.

Google Celebrates 125th Birthday of Math Genius Ramanujan With A Nice Doodle

He is the perfect example of the hero ideal you seek in the stories, someone who rises from the poorest of the poor families, fights against institutionalized rigours of society, is exceptionally gifted, but only in a specific field and then goes abroad, on the basis of just his merit, and astounds the world. In the end, he dies a death, which is sad, painful and alone. That in a nutshell is the real-life story of the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan!

Today is his birthday and Google celebrates it with nice little doodle.

The doodle depicts a young kid writing a whole lot of formulae on the playground, with a few other kids standing there, ready with their footballs, skipping ropes and even books. This prodigious kid is just amazing as he intuitively comes up with mathematical concepts that seem alien to everyone else in the world. The mathematical symbols in the doodle, spell out, as always, ‘Google’ and the story is really that of Ramanujan and how he held the entire mathematics community in thrall!

Ramanujan had this personal affinity with numbers and infinite series! As a college dropout from a very poor family, it would have taken a miracle for young Ramanujan to gain any sort of footing. That miracle came in the form of G.H. Hardy, who became his mentor and his collaborator. Ramanujan’s immense brilliance was offset by Hardy’s insistence of mathematical rigour and his solid mathematical training and the two formed a very productive collaboration for five years.

Ramanujan arrived at Cambridge, the shy village boy in the big big world! But then, there was Hardy, always his protector; Hardy described him as simply thus: “I have never met his equal, and can compare with only Euler and Jacobi”.

But England and its weather weren’t kind to him. He contracted a fever and even upon returning to India, he continued suffering. He died in 1920, with the world only waking up to the brilliance of this Indian genius.

Happy birthday sir!

21st December Doomsday: Two Days Till Apocalypse and Why It Is Utter Rubbish!

It’s not worth it to even say ‘No, it won’t happen’. Of course it won’t happen. 21st December, 2012 Apocalypse is a myth and it will be proven to be so in two days. Sorry to disappoint, but the world is not going to end. We are going to be looking at the different claims of the Apocalypse and see how silly they really are!! Then, we might just as well look at what’s going on in the world of the internet and view the most gullible (or supremely manipulative) people on the planet.

The cause

1. The Mayan Calendar

Most people know that the Apocalypse is because the Mayan Calendar is going to end on the 21st of December. Hence, they predicted the End of the World! Wrong!! Firstly, the Mayans were not good prophets – they didn’t even see their own doom coming and that came way before this 2012 End of World. Secondly, just like any calendar hanging onto any of your walls, which doesn’t expire on the 31st of December and ‘predicts’ the end of the world, so doesn’t the Mayan. The Mayan cycle of dates and time-keeping starts off for the next period right after that.

Laughing at us?

The Mayan Calendar consists of many complicated cycles, most notably the Long Count Cycle taken from the MesoAmerican Long Count Calendar. 21st December just represents the end of a cycle called the Baktun and the start of a new Baktun! That’s it!!

Meanwhile, the real Mayans are planning to have a grand carnival in Belize, informs my trusted Techie-buzz colleague Pallab De.

From Mayan prophecies to pinpoint alignments! The next theory takes into account a lot of alignments, which all lead to the Earth is tugged away from its orbit!

2. Alignments

Rumour 1:

All the planets are supposed to align in one straight line and their combined gravitational pull will force the Earth out of its orbit and lo, and behold, a Disaster!! Two things are wrong with this – one, the planets will not align and, two, even if they do, they’ll never be able to force Earth out of its stable orbit! The Earth’s orbit is way too stable for such things to happen. Please don’t lose sleep!

Rumour 2:

The Earth and the Sun will align with the supermassive black hole at the galactic center! Now this is actually true! The three bodies will align on the 21st! Like Every Year! And since you’ve survived your entire life with these three celestial bodies aligning, you should’ve no problem whatsoever!!

3. Planet Nibiru

Next comes in a planetary collision. Apparently on 21st December is the day when the planet Nibiru will crash into the Earth and our planet will be blown to smithereens! Except that this planet should’ve been seen by now and that too by the naked eye. Be rest assured that this is a hopeless internet hoax. Not only is Nibiru not coming for us, it doesn’t even exist! And neither does Planet X! There is another hoax about another planet called Eris, which people often confuse or club with Planet X. Eris actually exists, but it is a dwarf planet along with Pluto, much smaller than it and orbiting at roughly the same distance. It poses no danger whatsoever!

Note: This is a work of fiction.

Here’s a sample of the utter rubbish going around (Warning: Approach with caution):
1.http://www.december212012.com/articles/PlanetX_Nibiru/What_Is_the_Planet_Nibiru_and_Is_It_Approaching.htm

2.http://macedoniandimension.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/planet-xnibiru-is-real-announcement-by-the-united-states-will-happen-before-november-2012/

Here is Neil deGrasse Tyson debunking the alignment and the Nibiru myth:

4. Polar shifts

Whoever came up with the next hoax is a genius! It says that there is going to be a ‘polar shift’ and we’ll all perish. When this happens, the magnetic poles of the Earth are going to flip and there is going to be catastrophe! Of course, all of this blatantly ignores the fact that the Earth’s magnetic field reversal is not scheduled to happen for another few millennia! And even then, the reversal is not known to affect life on Earth. When is the last time you used the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field for anything anyway?

5. NASA said so!

The easiest way to attach credibility to these claims is to attach the name of some credible organization and the most darling organization known is NASA! Just claim that NASA has issued a report saying so and so will happen and this is enough to spread panic far and wide. In this case, NASA has apparently predicted a huge blackout on 21st or on the days following it! Versions vary – some say only on the 21st and some say on 22nd, 23rd and 24th! NASA officially refutes every version. No blackouts then! Well…

Onto the Internet chit-chat

A Viral Message

This one is my favorite – a viral message that has been posted on Facebook and in other places. I will not even try to decipher what it means, because it means nothing at all! It’s all pseudo-scientific gibberish non-sense. Here’s the message:

US scientists predict total darkness on planet earth for 3 days from Dec 22 2012. It is NOT the end of the world; it is just an alignment of the Universe, where the Sun and the earth will align for the first time. All planets are expected to align in a straight line as a result of which there could be some natural calamities on Earth. The earth will shift from the current third dimension to zero dimension, then shift to the 4th dimension. During this transition, the entire Universe will face a big change, and we will see an entire brand new world. The 3 days blackout is predicted to happen on Dec 22, 23, 24, 2012…. So do good be good live for the present enjoy life.

So this is not about the end of the world, but about a new awakening! Shifting from “current third dimension to zero dimension” has as much of sense as the possibility of seeing a Unicorn in front of the Eiffel Tower on a fine Sunday afternoon. The same can be said of the “shift of the 4th dimension” – make it a Unicorn drinking coffee in front of the Eiffel Tower.

There is a more religious version of this. And this is something I absolutely hate – using this kind of bad religious hoaxes to propagate faith!

The 3 days blackout is predicted to happen on Dec 23, 24, 25….during this time, staying calm is most important, hug each other, pray pray pray, sleep for 3 nights…and those who survive will face a brand new world….for those not prepared, many will die because of fear. Be happy, enjoy every moment now. Don’t worry, pray to God everyday. There is a lot of talk about what will happen in 2012, but many people don’t believe it, and don’t want to talk about it for fear of creating fear and panic.

We don’t know what will happen, but it is worth listening to USA’s NASA talk about preparation. Whether it’s true or not, better be prepared. No panic, stay calm, just prays. Remember to smile more, love more and forgive more…every day. Better avoid traveling during December.

No comments!

A NASA warning

There has also been a hoax being circulated that NASA has circulated a video preparing for the cataclysmic 21st December. However, that is only a generic preparatory video, meant for any sort of emergencies during natural disasters.

Final Words

Now a bit of seriousness before closing. All of this is nice and dandy and even a bit funny. But let us not lose sight of the extremely eschatological nature of these hoaxes and claims. There are people, mostly religious, cannot wait to have death cast upon them. They want to be judged! They want the taste of heaven and also want the infidels to perish. While this may not be a sentiment shared by most people, the preachers fervently preaching from the pulpits just cannot wait for the Judgement to occur.

My point is at least partially supported by the contents of this site: http://carm.org/world-end-dec-12-2012
They make some brilliant leaps of logic to say that the Bible hasn’t predicted this date and thus 21st December is not really the date for the Apocalypse. But the Apocalypse will happen. Hmphh…

And of course dishonest sites are always there to fleece the curious out of their money: http://www.december2012thefacts.com/mayancalendar.html
Do NOT fall for these cheap tricks.

The only significant event happening on the 21st of December is the Winter Solstice. Enjoy that natural event!

More (accurate) info here: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012.html

Fireworks in the Sky: New Meteor Shower to Add to the Geminids Spectacle?

With the splendor of the Geminids, there may be an additional bonus this time around! NASA news reports that along with the debris of the 3200 Phaethon, which causes the Geminids meteor shower, there may be another comet – Comet Wirtanen – which can make a significant contribution to the already divine cosmic spectacle.

See our Geminids coverage: http://techie-buzz.com/science/geminids-2012.html

Comet Wirtanen is a relatively recent discovery, discovered only in 1948. It orbits the sun in 5.4 years in a tight enough orbit. The Earth has just not run into the debris left in the wake of the comet passage. Yet!

NASA predicts that 2012 may be different. Remember, maybe! The Earth may be crossing the stream of debris any time between 10th to the 14th of December, coinciding brilliantly with the Geminids meteor shower.

If it happens…

The Wirtanen meteor shower will start early evening, right after sunset. So early evening, you can rendezvous with the Wirtanen, while the Geminids switch on later on! The radiant – or the point in the sky where the meteor shower is supposed to radiate from – will be in the Pisces constellation. That is if the Wirtanen shower happens at all!

If this happens – and this will happen only for the first time – the meteor shower may be christened ‘Piscids’, since it will originate from the Pisces constellation. The Pisces lie just south of the Pegasus constellation, which is easy enough to identify. The Pegasus comprises of four bright stars, arranged in a roughly squarish fashion. Though it may be easy to identify, the Pisces might be difficult to spot from a not-so-dark location, as the stars are pretty dim.

The to-be Piscids are expected to be moving slowly. We have no idea about the frequency as this will be the first time we’ll be seeing them. The same can be said about the brightness.

This weekend is a treat for all sky watching enthusiasts. Even if the Piscids prove to be a no-show, there will always be the Geminids to fall back on.

Once again, best of luck and happy sky watching.

The Ultimate Guide: Geminids Meteor Shower to Light Up Skies in Two Days!

The Geminids are all set to make up for the disappointment of the Leonids. The Geminids peak on the night of 13th December and are expected to come to their full glory at about 2 AM on the 14th of December. All of this should fire you up to consider a trip away from the city lights and into the wilderness for a night of pristine sky watching.

The Geminids also luckily coincide with the New Moon this time, meaning that the absence of the moon will render these streaks of light the brightest object in the night sky. The Geminids are known for slow, bright and graceful meteors and a pretty high frequency. This time the expected frequency is one of the all-time highs of 120 – 140 meteors per hour – that’s more than 2 per minute!

The Geminids

While the Leonids are known for fast bright streaks, the Geminids will be much more relaxed! They travel at about half the speed of the Leonids, but have a higher percentage of faint meteors. But fret not, the Geminids have a high shower rate so that shouldn’t be a problem.

The Geminids, as the name suggests, stream out from the Gemini constellation, the so-called ‘radiant’. The Geminids are nearby the distinct Orion constellation. So it shouldn’t be difficult to spot. The Royal Astronomical Society predicts that the peak will occur at about 8 PM EST on the 13th. That means that in India, you are going to have the peak at about 11:30 PM IST. That is great news as you might be able to catch the extravagantly high 120+ meteors per hour shower rate. If you miss out on this peak, don’t worry – slightly reduced rates of about 60 meteors per hour are going to continue for about 8 hours even after the peak!

Take precautions

If you’re indeed going to leave the comfort of the city and venture into dark wilderness to watch the spectacle, I suggest you do take proper precautions. Make sure you have warm clothes, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere. You’ll be surprised to find out how fast the temperature drops as you drive out of the pollution cover of the city. Remember, you cannot light any camp fires, since you won’t want to spoil your night vision.

Happy meteor watching.

Another Massive Earthquake Hits Japan; Tsunami Warning Sounded

Japan got hit by yet another earthquake early today morning at about 8:31 UTC. The magnitude of the quake is 7.4 on the Richter scale and a tsunami warning has been issued.

The USGS reported the magnitude of the quake as 7.4 on the Richter Scale band also reported an aftershock measuring a massive 6.2 following the quake. The depth of the epicenter is 33 km and the epicenter lies 333 km from Sendai.

Location of the epicenter (Courtesy: USGS)

Even Tokyo felt the tremors, but there has been no reports of any damage of death. The 1-m high tsunami warning is still on for the Miyagi prefecture, which was badly damaged in the 2011 tsunami. The devastated Fukushima nuclear power plant suffered no further damages. The quake wasn’t strong enough to create a pacific wide tsunami.

Japan lies near the fault of four massive plates – the Pacific plate, the North American plate, the Eurasian plate and the Phillipine Sea plate. This makes it particularly susceptible to the strike-slip earthquakes, in which the plates just slip against one another. Massive tectonic forces operating at these faults can cause huge earthquakes.

United States Geological Survey (USGS) has more:

http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/eventpage/usc000e5n9#summary

Possibly the Largest Black Hole Discovered

Astronomers led by Remco van den Bosch, from the Max-Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany have discovered a massive black hole at the center of a galaxy 250 million light-years away. The black hole has a mass equivalent to 17 billion of our sun. It is quite possibly the largest black hole ever discovered and is turning galaxy evolution models on their side.

ngc 1277
Image credit: NASA / ESA / Andrew C. Fabian / Remco C. E. van den Bosch (MPIA)

Picture above, you can see the disk shape galaxy NGC 1277 that was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. At the center of this galaxy is the black hole that scientists are saying accounts for 14% of the galaxy’s weight. To put the size of this black hole in perspective, our own milky way galaxy has a black hole equivalent to the mass of 4 million suns. NGC 1277 has the mass of 17 billion suns!

It has typically been thought that the mass of a galaxies black hole correlates to the mass of the stars in a galaxy. After this discovery however, it seems that theory may not be true. The ratio of this black hole to the mass of the stars in its galaxy are way off the typical charts. Small disk shaped galaxies typically have much smaller black holes that usually account for less than 1% of their mass. Finding one that accounts for 14% of its mass is truly rare. Black holes of this size are usually found elliptical galaxies.

It appears after further examination that this phenomenon isn’t as rare as once thought. Other black holes with similar characteristics have been found since NGC 1277 was discovered to contain a super massive black hole. According to a Space.com article, Remco van den Bosch is quoted as saying, “You always expect to find one sort [of a phenomenon], but now we have six of them,” van den Bosch said. “We didn’t expect them, because we do expect the black holes and the galaxies to influence each other.” It appears now scientists will have to determine if this phenomenon only exists in the early universe and how this information affects our theories of galaxy evolution.

For more information, visit the journal Nature.

The Deodorant You Eat???

You can file this away in your “I’ve Seen It All” file. It appears you can now have your candy and come out smelling like a rose all at the same time. No I am not kidding. The product is called “Deo” and it claims, ” Science and nature have come together to make a functional food that leaves your skin with a beautiful rose fragrance.”

Deo Edible Deodorant

So is it perfume candy, or is it a health and beauty product? To be honest, I am not sure where this product will wind up if it ever hits the aisles of a major box store. Beneo Group announced this new innovation on its website. Beneo seeks innovative solutions that “cater to the growing health awareness among their customers”. The ingredient manufacturer developed a relationship with a Bulgarian company, Alpi. Together they are marketing this “rose-scented boiled sweet” which they claim not only tastes sweet, but will “transmit an attractive rose fragrance through the skin”.

The active ingredient is a natural anti-oxidant called geraniol. Geraniol is a colorless liquid found in plants like roses, lavender and vanilla. They call this product a nutri-cosmetic because it leaves the body through the pores of the skin which in turn, leaves behind a sweet rose smell. According to their website, http://perfumecandy.com, four pieces of the candy are considered a serving. A serving size will be most effective for people up to 145 pounds. Wim Dries, Area Sales Manager for Beneo said, “Many people like garlic, and it’s especially popular in European diets, but the tell-tale smell lingers for some time after a meal. Deo is the perfect antidote.”

Deo has already sold out on Amazon.com and they are working to replenish their stock. To keep up with new developments, visit their website at http://perfumecandy.com or visit their Facebook page.

Hot from CERN: LHCb Result Deals Death Blow To Supersymmetry

It’s a pincer attack on new physics. The sister project to the CMS and ATLAS collaborations at the LHC CERN, LHCb has just released new data which spells a death knell for supersymmetry. Okay, that might be a hasty statement, but if the results are really what they are, it’s very unlikely that any ‘reasonable’ model of supersymmetry will be able to survive.

The LHCb detector

Why the LHCb?

The LHC collaborations CMS and ATLAS have been the mainstay of the group and recently enjoyed huge success in the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Less publicized and more specialist in their study is the LHCb detector and its collaboration. This detector is specialized for measuring certain exotic particles – those made up of at least one bottom quark. Since the bottom quark is very heavy, and heavy particles tend to decay very fast, all particles with the bottom quark are very short-lived making their study very difficult. And this is where LHCb specializes in.

Now the result

LHCb announced a new observation today and it knocks the wind out of supersymmetry. Let me tell you the observation and then tell you what it implies. They observed the decay of a certain particle called the Bs meson (B=Bottom and s=strange). The decay rate of this particle hadn’t been measured before with much accuracy, but today the LHCb collaboration announced that they have measured it and found that it decays into two muons about 3-4 times per billion decays. The ‘bingo’ moment for non-supersymmetric particle physics is that this is exactly what the Standard Model predicts. Right on the dot!

There is another storm brewing. It turns out that the Higgs Boson discovered earlier isn’t behaving as well as it should! Notably, it is not decaying into two tau leptons as often as it should. In fact, it seems that it is not decaying into tau leptons at all. There is a problem!

And the bad news

These two problems are pulling in opposite direction squeezing the super-symmetric space that lies between them. If the Bs decaying into two muons is exactly like what the Standard Model says, then supersymmetry, which predicts a higher decay rate, must obviously be constrained. And very heavily so!

So there it is! Supersymmetry is teetering on the edge of oblivion. But it may yet survive…

The public conference result: http://lhcb-public.web.cern.ch/lhcb-public/

Alligators and Crocodiles Have Acute Sense of Touch

When you hear the word alligator or crocodile, the last thing to come to your mind is sensitivity. However, a Vanderbilt University study shows that alligators and crocodiles’ sense of touch is vastly more sensitive than ours. Their study is published in the journal Journal of Experimental Biology.

Baby Gator
Baby alligator in an aquarium. (Michael Todd/Vanderbilt University)

It is easy to look at an alligator and think that their tough skin would be nearly impervious to touch. In fact, their skin is more like armor than anything. Amazingly, they possess these pigmented spots that look like tiny domes all over their skin. These spots are called integumentary sensor organs (ISO’s). For years, these spots were a mystery. Many believed that these spots produced some sort of oil to help protect the skin. Others believed that they were sensitive to electromagnetic pulses, or possibly were sensitive to changes in water’s salinity. A 2002 study at the University of Maryland however, showed that these spots were sensitive to ripples made by water drops. This intrigued Ken Catania, Stevenson Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt, enough that he began studying the function of these ISO’s even further. Below, you can see a Vanderbilt University video featuring Duncan Leitch, a graduate student serving under Catania.

[Video Link]

 

It appears that these ISO’s are linked to a nerve bundle that is very similar to the ones we humans have called trigeminal ganglia. They are so sensitive that they can detect the ripple that a drop of water produces on the surface. They can also detect pressures that even the human fingertip can’t detect. This only serves to make them even better predators. The largest concentrations of these sensors appear to be around the mouth near the teeth. The same sensors that enable their deadly accuracy also serve the mothers as they gently assist their eggs in hatching as well as, carrying their young in their mouth without crushing them to death. Never let it be said that these fearsome creatures don’t have a softer and more sensitive side.

For more information, visit Vanderbilt University’s website.