Showing posts with label scientific research. Show all posts
Showing posts with label scientific research. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

No black holes yet

The world has learned that the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] was revved up to cruising speed yesterday.

My home in France is not far away from the Franco-Swiss border where the subterranean device of the European Organization for Nuclear Research [CERN] is located. If ever the physicists happened to start creating tiny black holes, it's not unthinkable that some of them might stream through the ground and finally burst out into the air through the limestone cliffs of Choranche. And, if they emerged here, these black holes would surely start to gobble up various elements of the landscape, with greater or lesser effects, depending on the volume of the disappearances. If a black hole from the suburbs of Geneva were to hit one of my donkeys, say, then it's likely that the disturbance would only be noticed by me, the remaining donkey and, of course, my dog Sophia... who would no doubt smell the nasty odor of an approaching black hole, and start barking. On the other hand, if a black hole were to take out the entire Cournouze mountain, then this modification of the landscape would surely be noticed by many observers (including me, the inhabitants of Choranche and Châtelus, and countless skiers from the Drôme, driving past on their way up to Villard-de-Lans.

There's a down-to-earth question that puzzles me constantly. What would it feel like if you stepped inadvertently, while out walking, on a microscopic black hole that had just fallen onto the ground after being catapulted here from the CERN? Would you suddenly see your foot disappear mysteriously into thin air? Would you have time to jump aside before losing an entire leg? Would this kind of amputation be painful? I imagine naively that this would be a particularly "clean" kind of surgery, since any excess blood or dangling flesh would no doubt disappear into the hole, leaving the patient/victim with a nice smooth germ-free wound, which would no doubt be heal rapidly.

Enough silly joking about black holes. Let me be serious. The BBC website has produced a few excellent pages that explain the basic principles of the LHC. The stuff concerning the computing aspect of this affair, based upon a gigantic system called the Grid, is amazing. Everything about the LHC is fabulous, and I'm tremendously proud that Europe can get involved in this kind of research.

Recently, I was just as enthusiastic about this whole field of scientific investigation as I am today about genetics. In particular, I've admired the two books of Brian Greene about strings.

It's fascinating to try to compare research work and challenges in two different domains such as genetics and physics ("compare" is an inadequate word). The fields in which Richard Dawkins writes so brilliantly are in fact relatively down-to-earth, almost commonsensical, compared with the LHC universe. Even though there are still countless fuckwits who do their silly best to declare that Dawkins is wrong about almost everything, the truth of the matter is that he's operating in a scientific domain whose concepts and laws are fairly well specified by now. That explains why Dawkins can now amuse himself (as I'm sure he does) by fighting verbal battles with adepts of religion, creationism and quackery in general. I'm not suggesting that he doesn't have any more serious scientific work to do. No, I'm trying to say that, since he's standing on such firm ground, he can afford to take time off from scientific challenges in order to tackle the social and human tasks that consist of educating his fellow human beings.

In the world of physics, on the other hand, the great researchers are not yet in a comfortable position enabling them to get involved in comprehensible discussions with the general public. When geneticists set out to unravel the human genome, they had a clear idea of what they were looking for, and what they would eventually find. But there is no such clarity in the case of the LHC. There's even a distinguished Israeli physicist named Eliyahu Comay who's convinced that the CERN researchers won't find anything at all by means of the LHC: neither the Higgs Boson nor strings. And why not? Simply because such entities, according to Comay, cannot possibly exist! Any dumb nincompoop can enunciate his fuzzy personal reasons for dating the start of the universe, or the age of dinosaurs, or for demonstrating the existence or nonexistence of God. But it's a different kettle of fish when you decide to talk about the Higgs Boson and strings. Even Pope Benedict XVI wouldn't normally be expected to state his profound opinion on such matters. We know beforehand that, no matter what the people at CERN find out about the universe through the LHC, the facts and their conclusions will remain totally incomprehensible for the vast majority of observers.

In fact, that's what's nice about scientific domains that are based upon extraordinary concepts and advanced mathematics. These obstacles filter out the fuckwits. Inversely, the problem at the level of Darwin, Dawkins and DNA (just to name these three pillars) is that everything's so beautifully simple, immediately obvious and totally proven... except to loud-mouthed peanut-brained fuckwits.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Happiness is infectious

An amusing cartoon in a men's magazine shows a doctor examining a poor guy whose face and genitals are covered in ugly red spots. The patient reminisces sadly: "The thing that attracted me most about that woman was her infectious laughter."

A recent study on the theme of happiness, published in the British Medical Journal, concludes that the best way to attain happiness is to be surrounded by happy people. To my mind, that earth-shaking conclusion is on a par with the affirmation that it's better to be happy, healthy and wealthy rather than sad, sick and penniless. One of the researchers, the Californian political scientist James Fowler, hit upon an elegant metaphor, suggesting that the contagion of happy emotions within a social network is a little like catching an STD (sexually transmitted disease). He explained: "Happiness not only spreads from person to person but also from person to person to person. [...] For example, in a network of sexual partners, if you have many partners and your partners have many partners, you are more susceptible to catching an STD."

An observer might wonder whether research of this kind is truly scientific, or whether we should be skeptical of such would-be studies. A critic said: "Friends select people to be their friends based on similar characteristics, and potentially happy people choose to be friends with other happy people." Fowler reacted: "The whole point of science is that you want to capture a great idea but then retain healthy skepticism." I agree. Happiness is a great idea. If science can indeed capture what it's all about, then so much the better for science and for all of us. Meanwhile, I'm immensely happy to remain a healthy skeptic.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Correlation between balls and brains

When I was a teenager in Australia, a good way of insulting a fellow was to call him a dickhead. I must admit, though, that I never really knew whether this was intended to mean that his head had the same shape as a penis, or an equivalent degree of intelligence, or a similar vocation in life, or some other more subtle resemblance.

Today, scientific research carried out in the UK has revealed that men of higher intelligence appear to have sperm of better quality. Results indicated that smart males who obtained higher notes in IQ tests tended to produce a greater quantity of sperm with greater mobility.

Now, if you're anything like me, I'll bet you were surprised to learn—in that last sentence—that mobility is an important factor in the clinical evaluation of sperm. We don't generally tend to imagine that these little critters need to travel to and from work every day, or that they like to go out driving in the countryside of a weekend. Well, the truth of the matter is that a lazy sperm who is not constantly up and about, in the style of an early bird catching worms, serves no useful purpose. The unique raison d'être of a self-respecting sperm is to track down an egg, crack it open and devour it in a single gulp, sunny side up. There's lots of tough competition from other sperms, who are totally lacking in brotherly love. In their search for an egg, they jostle and trample one another violently, like US shoppers stampeding into a Wal-Mart on sales day. Suffice it to say: May the best sperm win! We're talking of the most mobile young chap, in top physical form, with first-class sporting footware, at the wheel of the procreative equivalent of a red Ferrari. The brutal battle between competing sperms is a terribly vicious affair... like the Democratic primaries in the USA or the installation of a governing committee in the French Socialist party. Weak-hearted sperms, those that have let their regular gym work slip, those that drink, or those that have wasted their physical resources hanging around in bars with loose women, don't stand a chance. The quest for the egg, like the Graal, is even more terrifyingly Herculean than the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The "dickhead" epithet might therefore be a disguised compliment, designating a superior male with balls in his brain (or maybe rather brains in his balls), whose gushing intellect and spurts of wisdom have the same volume and mobility as his sperm. In any case, this correlation between superior intelligence and award-winning sperm has an interesting corollary. Normally, according to Darwinian evolution, top-quality sperm should have a greater survival value, and it should be giving rise to more and more offspring with superior intelligence. In other words, our planet should be subjected to a relentless phenomenon of ever-increasing intelligence. Spiraling brilliance, wisdom, creativity... you name it. Frankly, I don't know. From my personal viewpoint, I'm convinced that, in our marvelous modern world, there are indeed more and more... dickheads.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Guns or butter, maybe both?

As an adolescent at high school in Grafton, I studied economics for no more than a year. It turned out to be a disturbing but mind-opening educational experience in my existence. The context and facts are fuzzy. I remember writing an economics essay that I considered—with my usual egotism and pretentiousness—as brilliant. When the teacher, a certain Les O'Neill, didn't agree with my personal judgment, or didn't award me the credit I deserved (in my imagination), I behaved preposterously by complaining to the headmaster, John Orme, that my economics instructor was obviously incapable of recognizing my excellence. And the affair fizzled out when the teacher in question more or less admitted that he might not have understood correctly what I had tried to write, or accepted that it was non-plagiarized original thinking. I had won, in a way, but I was hardly inclined to think of myself as a winner, since I had appealed to non-scientific criteria. In fact, I had just offered myself the luxury of provoking an ideal lesson in the "science" of economics, whose principal actors are, not atoms and molecules, but human beings. I had become an economic entity.

Today, a 55-year-old guy named Paul Krugman from Princeton University has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics.

A specialist in trade theory, Professor Krugman has two extra qualities that demand my respect and endear me to him. First, he's a columnist for my favorite newspaper, the New York Times. Second, he seems to hate the guts of an intellectual moron named George W Bush.

"Bush has degraded our government and undermined the rule of law," wrote Krugman wrote in May 2007. "He has led us into strategic disaster and moral squalor."

Truly, my global faith in humanity is restored when I realize that Alfred Nobel, having made a fortune by inventing dynamite, went on to celebrate geniuses in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, economics and even peace! Wow, what blind but awesome vision!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Giant atom smasher

The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene is one of the most beautiful and exciting books I've ever read, on a par with the masterpieces of Richard Dawkins. Published in 2004, Greene's book evokes with eagerness the possibilities of the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] in Geneva, whose first beam will be produced next Wednesday. Results obtained from this giant atom smasher could have either a positive or a negative influence upon the willingness of physicists to accept the celebrated theory of strings.

A nice way of getting a feeling for the LHC is to watch the following CERN rap video:



The LHC is theoretically capable of generating microscopic black holes. Brian Greene writes: "These black holes would be so small and would last for such a short time that they wouldn't pose us the slightest threat (years ago, Stephen Hawking showed that all black holes disintegrate via quantum processes—big ones very slowly, tiny ones very quickly), but their production would provide confirmation of some of the most exotic ideas ever contemplated."

Various naive observers (including certain individuals who should know better) have been trying to create a state of consternation by proclaiming that our planet Earth might get sucked into one of these tiny black holes produced by the LHC. Click the logo to read the CERN press release on this theme.

To be perfectly frank, I quite like the idea of a little black hole in Switzerland that starts sucking up the surrounding territory: first the city of Geneva and its lovely lake, then the Swiss Alps, and so on. Ideally, stuff should slide into the "throat" of the black hole sufficiently slowly for onlookers to have time to appreciate the visual show, while knowing full well that they themselves will soon be victims of the gluttonous hole. Sooner or later, though, the fat little black hole would end up inevitably gorging itself, and it would then roll around sluggishly, maybe burping from time to time, incapable of downing an extra village or mountain. Literally, the hole has stuffed itself. A brave French gendarme could then simply creep up behind the groggy black hole and smash it to smithereens with a swift blow of a hammer... and humanity would be safe up until the next time.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Death in Sri Lanka of a visionary

The futuristic writer Arthur C Clarke died early this morning, at the age of 90, at Colombo in Sri Lanka, where he had been living for over half a century. In 1968, he and Stanley Kubrick created the screenplay 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the outcome was one of the most poetically breathtaking science-fiction movies of all time, which stunned me completely when I first saw it in Paris. The film's opening integrates splendidly the music of Strauss. Above all, the convincing presence of the anthropomorphic robot HAL (whose behavior was conceived apparently with wise advice from Marvin Minsky) helped to make this extraordinary work of art a cult movie.



My favorite quote from Arthur C Clarke is often applied to high-tech domains from space research and computing through to nuclear energy and genetic engineering: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Donkey's tail

Once upon a time, US presidents could be wise men. I'm delighted by this conversation between Abraham Lincoln and a colleague:

Abraham Lincoln: Sir, how many legs does this donkey have?

Colleague: Four, Mr Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: And how many tails does it have?

Colleague: One, Mr Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: Now, sir, let's suppose we were to call the tail a leg. How many legs would the donkey then have?

Colleague: Five, Mr Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: No sir, for you cannot make a tail into a leg by simply calling it one.

If you test this tale about the donkey's tail among friends, you're likely to find out that the situation is not as clearcut as Abraham Lincoln (and I) believe it to be. Many people consider sincerely that, in certain cases, once it is said that X is Y, then X is indeed Y. In our modern societies, we're often required to see things in that way. For example, once a law court has concluded that an individual did in fact commit a certain crime, then everybody sees that decision, henceforth, as a statement of truth. In a more superficial domain, that of sport, once an umpire or a referee [I've never known the difference between these two terms] has determined that a ball is out, the players and spectators are required to consider, henceforth, that the ball was in fact out. In totalitarian societies, too, when a dictator says that something is the case, citizens are expected to act as if that something were indeed the case.

In the same way that somebody might wish to call a donkey's tail a fifth leg, individuals such as George W Bush, gifted with imagination rather than wisdom, are prepared to call an embryonic cell a potential human being. In my recent article entitled Red can be wrong [display], I evoked the invention of so-called reprogrammed pluripotent human cells, which should normally be able, in the near future, to replace embryonic stem cells in medical research. Kind observers have suggested that Bush, through his stubborn outlook on embryonic stem cells, should be credited retrospectively for creating the research context in which this invention was made... by force, as it were. To my mind, that's like thanking the donkey for the non-existence of its fifth leg.

Forgive me, Moshé, for making that silly comparison. I don't need to reassure you, my dear donkey, that you're far wiser than the current US president.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Red can be wrong

Everybody recalls the simple reassuring words of the 23rd Psalm of David, which I prefer in the old-fashioned language of the King James version:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths
of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.


We have here a striking case of the celebrated ovine metaphor, which was later enhanced by the evangelist John.

The fundamentally awkward nature of the assimilation of Christians to lambs struck me dramatically when I settled down here in Gamone with a small flock of sheep, and started to participate regularly in the slaughter of lambs. Since then, whenever I run up against the Biblical shepherd metaphor, I'm reminded immediately of bloody and smelly sheep operations at Gamone. I think, for example, of the day I used my self-defense revolver to send a rubber marble through the skull of a young animal, which was an alternative to seeing it stunned mortally by the usual technique of a hammer blow delivered by the butcher. I think of all the plastic bags full of dirty fleeces, hoofs and guts that I've dragged down the slopes to burn. I think too of stacking dozens of packs of prime lamb in my freezer, followed by memories of countless excellent dinners at Gamone. Needless to say, these recollections have altered considerably, for me, the poetic charm of the ancient texts.

The words of the 23rd Psalm have even given rise to a popular song, which I heard hundreds of times on the radio during my childhood. Since then, I've often wondered why most people—at least in the English-speaking world—retain the number 23 associated with this poetic text. This number 23 reappeared later in my life, in Paris. For many years, I lived in a flat at 23 rue Rambuteau.

The surname of this 65-year-old ecclesiastic, André Vingt-Trois, means 23 in French. Apparently the identity of one of his paternal ancestors was unknown, so the authorities referred to him by a number, like a soldier or a prisoner. And that number became a surname. As a youth, André studied at the Henri IV lycée: the same school where I taught English for three years, back at the time I met up with Christine. In 1968, when Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his comrades were mounting the barricades in the Latin Quarter, André Vingt-Trois was studying for the priesthood at the seminary down in Issy-les-Moulineaux: the south-western suburb of Paris where I would be working, a few years later, as a scientific consultant for the research division of French Telecom. After his ordination in 1969, Vingt-Trois remained in Paris for three decades, before a stint as archbishop of the city of Tours, on the banks of the Loire. Today he's back in Paris as the archbishop of Paris. And last weekend, the pope made him a cardinal: that's to say, one of the major princes of the Roman Catholic church.

Unfortunately, this man has decided to intervene in a domain in which he knows no more, a priori, than the local grocer... if only there were still grocers in the parish of Notre-Dame de Paris: the use of human stem cells for medical research. Parading as a specialist in the fuzzy field referred to as bioethics, "Monsignor 23" has dared to denigrate France's great annual fund-raising event, coming up shortly: the Téléthon.

Now, if there's one thing I hate, it's narrow-minded religious fanatics who step outside their intellectual prison called Beliefs and Faith with the aim of attacking Reason and Science. The cardinal's obstruction of future medical research might well have been a tragedy. In fact, it's likely to be seen rather as a tragicomedy, for the silly man doesn't seem to have done his homework.

Two days before Vingt-Trois was awarded his red hat, international media announced that Dr Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University had taken less than a month to coax a banal cell from a woman's cheek into behaving as if it were an authentic embryonic stem cell. That's to say, this "doctored" cell was henceforth capable of developing into any of the 200 or so basic types of human cell. Consequently, medical researchers will be able to exploit such cells with no risk of being accused—by Vingt-Trois and his kind—of destroying human embryos. Cells of this kind [seen in the blue photo, above, from Kyoto] can be described as reprogrammed. To indicate that they can be made to evolve into any type of human cell, they are designated as pluripotent.

At practically the same moment that the Japanese researcher announced this extraordinary and exciting news, an American biologist named James Thomson, at the University of Wisconsin, revealed that his team had obtained similar results.

In the revolutionary fervor of May 1968, it's a pity that "Danny the Red" didn't think of trying to get the seminary at Issy-les-Moulineaux transformed into a scientific research institute...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Nobel pub talk

Does an outspoken Nobel Prize winner such as 79-year-old James Watson—US co-discoverer, in 1953, of the structure of DNA—have the right to make shallow remarks, in public, about sensitive racial issues? A week ago, in an article in Britain's Sunday Times Magazine, Watson said that he is "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours... whereas all the testing says not really". Concerning the notion that the intellectual capacities of all humans are equal, Watson descended to a pub-talk level in saying that "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true".

Following this interview, Watson's scheduled presentation at London's Science Museum was immediately canceled. Above all, his longtime employer—the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, 35 miles east of Manhattan—decided to suspend Watson's responsibilities as their chancellor.

Watson's book The Double Helix, presenting the hectic search for the structure of the DNA molecule, is one of the most thrilling and best-written scientific tales I've ever read. When the discovery was made, in collaboration with Englishman Francis Crick [1916-2004] and New Zealand-born Maurice Wilkins [1916-2004], James Watson was merely 25 years old.

Accounts of this amazing breakthrough in fundamental knowledge are marred solely by the fact that the essential collaboration of the brilliant English crystallographer Rosalind Franklin [1920-1958] has rarely been fully recognized.

Concerning Watson's much-publicized words last weekend, I look upon them as harmless provocative nonsense from a silly old bugger who's currently promoting a new book with a sensationalist title: Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science. While I find it erroneous for any scholar today to suggest that human intelligence can be measured, and that the respective intellectual capacities of different races can be compared, I'm not shocked by the fact that an outspoken old-timer could let such words slip out of his mouth, as if he had downed a pint too many in a London pub. If it were I who had discovered the structure of the basic molecule of life, I think I might have spent the rest of my days in a permanent state of intellectual intoxication, and I would have never stopped making crazy statements.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Scientific research in Grenoble

Every time I leave the nearby city of Grenoble, to return to Choranche, I drive alongside a vast scientific research zone, snuggled in the northern tip of the big triangle located between the two great waterways known as the Snake and the Dragon: that's to say, the Isère and the Drac. (The latter looks and behaves like a normal stream, but it's actually an Alpine torrent.)

This zone houses two extraordinary research tools, whose construction was financed by a consortium of nations:

— The ILL [Institut Laue-Langevin] is a nuclear reactor that produces neutrons. This research reactor produces the most intense neutron flux in the world. Its thermal power is over 58 megawatts. By comparison, Australia's recently-inaugurated Opal reactor, which is also designed to produce neutrons for research, has a power output of only 20 megawatts. Grenoble's ILL reactor is funded by France, Germany, the UK, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Italy, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium and Poland.

— The ESRF [European Synchronotron Radiation Facility] is a giant ring-shaped tunnel that accelerates X-rays. Grenoble's accelerator, which is one of the three biggest synchrotrons in the world (the others existing in the US and Japan), is funded by France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Israel, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

If I've listed all the nations whose scientists use these tools, it's to give you an idea of the kind of international atmosphere that reigns in the great provincial city of Grenoble, which has always been a major center of learning.

The two facilities lie side-by-side. In the above photo, you can see the circular dome of the ILL reactor just behind the big ring of the synchrotron. To a certain extent, they might be considered as complementary tools, since beams of neutrons and high-energy X-rays can both be used to analyze the physical nature of targets that are placed in their way. The differences between neutrons and X-rays are illustrated in the following radiographs:

I was reminded of Grenoble's extraordinary scientific research facilities a few days ago. In his book called Programming the Universe [click here to see my previous article on this theme], Seth Lloyd tells us that he had been thrown into a stupor when told that, "not only was an electron allowed to be in many places at the same time, it was in fact required to be there (and there, and there, and there)". He couldn't seize this weird conclusion in a totally intuitive fashion, so he remained in a state of intellectual trance. It was not until years later, when Seth Lloyd happened to be working at the ILL in Grenoble, that the American researcher finally saw the light, as described here: "I awoke from my trance. Neutrons, I saw, had to spin clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time. They had no choice: it was in their nature. The language that neutrons spoke was not the ordinary language of yes or no, it was yes and no at once. If I wanted to talk to neutrons and have them talk back, I had to listen when they said yes and no at the same time. If this sounds confusing, it is. But I had finally learned my first words in the quantum language of love."

In the context of Lloyd's fascinating book, I got a kick out of hearing him say that an arrow from a quantum Cupid [a Qupid?] had finally hit him while he was working in the capital of the French Alps. Over the last 14 years, I've visited Grenoble on countless occasions. But I still find that I'm overcome by a tingling sensation of excitement whenever I set foot there. I don't know whether it has anything to do with Lloyd's "quantum language of love". Often, I've imagined that some kind of tellurian energy is accumulated in the celebrated mountains which, as Stendhal once said, can be glimpsed at the end of every street in this fabulous city at the heart of the ancient Dauphiné province.