Tuesday, December 11, 2012

More new physics prizes

The news today in physics, reported by the New York Times and Peter Woit, is that Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire physics enthusiast, has announced a new set of prizes for fundamental physics. I wrote a little about the previous award of prizes here. These prizes are somewhat less generous than those announced over the summer (which were worth \$3 million each); this time only Stephen Hawking receives that amount, and the others get a smaller share. Woit typically notes that almost all the non-experimental recipients have some connection to string theory.

But the other interesting thing about the new prizes is that in this round, some experimentalists have actually been included. Of course all of them are involved with the LHC at CERN: no surprise there, given Milner's personal interests in physics.

What I do find rather noteworthy, however, is the way in which the prizes have been divided. $1 million is to be divided between the current and former ATLAS spokespersons Fabiola Gianotti and Peter Jenni, and another million between CMS current and ex-spokepersons Joe Incandela, Michel Della Negra and Tejinder Virdee. Now I'm not very knowledgeable about the organisational structure or the division of labour in these experiments, but each experiment has roughly 3000 scientists working on it and everything I had read about them in relation to speculation about a possible Nobel award suggested that there was no real way to single out the contribution of any individuals out of these thousands as being especially more worthy than any other.

It does appear that Milner has found a way to do this though: pick the spokesperson elected by the experiment. Now I wonder what the reaction to this is at ATLAS and CMS. Is this regarded as fair? Do the spokespersons really make a bigger contribution to the discovery of the Higgs? I really don't know but I'd be interested to learn what people think. I know some of the readers of this blog are part of the ATLAS and CMS collaborations — if any of you have an opinion, please do share it through the comment box!

Update: Via Shaun in the comments, there is interesting news about what the current spokespersons intend to do with their money. Also, Tommaso Dorigo gives his opinion on the matter here; I have to say my views are rather more in line with those expressed in the comment by Bernhard on that blog.

Less serious update: An anonymous friend in the ATLAS group says "I can't believe Fabiola has had her choice of font vindicated in this way."

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Things to Read, 2nd December

Time for another collection of worthwhile links from elsewhere on the internet.

Science links:
  • Jester at Résonaances has been producing a series of very good informative posts from the frontlines of particle physics: particularly worth reading are this summary of the state of play with the "detection" of dark matter by the Fermi telescope, this explanation on what is and isn't contained in the new Higgs analyses from the LHC, including intriguing information on why some data hasn't yet been updated, and this take on the relevance of the LHCb measurements of Bs meson decay for supersymmetry (which has been the subject of a lot of hype in the popular press).
  • Speaking of the popular press, Time magazine has seen fit to nominate the Higgs boson as one of the candidates for "person of the year" (you can vote for it if you like). As if that weren't ridiculous enough, the accompanying description must surely qualify as one of the worst pieces of science journalism ever: literally every single sentence is wrong. Worth a look — even if you're not a physicist, you might be able to spot the mistakes.
  • I've recently discovered a series of super-slow-motion videos of lightning strikes knocking around on the internet. These are shot at several thousand frames per second, and really show the details of how the charge leaders meander towards the ground before the main secondary stroke follows. Even more interesting are some videos showing lightning travelling upwards, from ground to cloud. Here's a video:

    and here's a popular-level description of the phenomenon.
  • Another particularly cool video I saw some time ago was this one, showing the synchronisation of 32 metronomes placed on a flexible platform:

Other links:
  • This one is part science, part history and part politics. Have you ever wondered what the connection is between prehistoric plankton from the Cretaceous era, and the distribution of votes for Obama? Of course you haven't, but now you can find out anyway. 
  • On a more serious note: one of the striking things about the US election was how completely wrong Republicans and the right-wing were in their predictions of the outcome. Especially so since there were so many people who were able, by simple analysis of the available facts, to arrive at predictions that were much better (Nate Silver, for one). There is lots to be said about this, I suppose. One striking observation, which maybe hasn't been made enough of, is the hope that people realise that if the right-wing media can spout such rubbish (not to say lies) about the polls, perhaps the rest of what they say is rubbish too
  • And following on from that, an interesting article from someone on the right of American politics: The Revenge of the Reality-Based Community.
  • It's not just in the US that facts have a well-known anti-right-wing bias of course. And it's not just US right-wing politicians who dislike them. When economist Jonathan Portes of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research appeared before the UK parliament and explained some fairly elementary economics that happens to contradict the ideology of the Conservative Party, he received thinly veiled threats from MP Jesse Norman (watch; transcript). This drives other economists to express their equally thinly veiled contempt. Norman responds, and Wren-Lewis dismisses him again.
  • And finally, something more cheery: some time ago I posted the story about the dog who climbed a mountain with me in the Himalayas. I thought that dog was pretty awesome, but then I saw this dog, who seems to have done an even harder climb!

    (She does seem to have a protective harness though, which probably gives her an unfair advantage ...)