Archive for Physics

And in case you didn’t get enough…

Posted in G 1, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on August 1, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

(Maximilien Brice, © CERN)

…have a look at these wonderful photographs from The Big Picture – (Hat tip to Phonkmeister.) Enjoy.

P.S.: And don’t worry. This is not really going to happen (in Italian).

Everything you always wanted to know about LHC…

Posted in G 0 with tags , , , , , on July 29, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

… but were afraid to ask.

Hat tip to Dorigo, for pointing out in his blog the video above, an LHC rap shoot on location at CERN. At least from a first view the text is way more accurate and to the point than most divulgative articles about the machine and experiments in recent newspapers (no sweat, you may say, but still…).

Information about the author here (from Dorigo’s post comments).

In case you’re still curious (and still don’t dare to ask), I’d like to mention this public information site about LHC, including an LHC blog (watch out for news) and webcams (you can even have a look at what’s going on in the Atlas control room).

You had better find God before He finds you

Posted in G 0 with tags , , , , , , on March 26, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero


I’ve found today in Peter Woit’s blog a link to an interview with Steven Weinberg from yesterday’s Newsweek, in principle about potential physics outcome at the LHC.

Disappointingly, prompted by the unfortunate nickname of the Higgs boson (the God particle), the interviewer drove immediately the discussion towards religion. Therefore I missed the opportunity of knowing what kind of scientific output a leading scientist like Weinberg is expecting from our last big toy. I could however learn that Weinberg shares something else than the 1979 Nobel prize in physics with Sheldon Glashow: A hefty sense of humor, as shown in the brief excerpt below.

At some point will it be possible to find proof that God or the Ultimate Designer does not exist?
I don’t think that we can ever prove that God does not exist. But if he does exist it might be possible to prove it.

It might be?
Well, if God did exist and suddenly made himself known by sending thunderbolts to all the people who don’t believe in him [
Laughs], that would be pretty strong evidence that he exists.

Do you think he would send you one?
He hasn’t so far.

I had also found very interesting the following passage:

…People who expect to find evidence of divine action in nature, in the origin of the universe or in the laws that govern matter, are probably going to be disappointed.

Are they also going to be disappointed about our position in nature, our purpose?
We don’t see any purpose dictated to human beings in nature. Human life does have a purpose, but it is a purpose that we invent for ourselves. It takes a certain act of courage to look at nature, not see any plan for human beings in there and yet go on and live good lives, love each other, create beautiful things, explore the universe. All these take more courage without having some divine plan that we discover, but one that we rather create for ourselves.

Well, I haven’t learned anything new about the LHC physics, but I don’t feel like I’ve completely wasted my time.


P.S.: Back to lighter matter, fresh from today xkcd, alternative uses of LHC:



Feersum Endjinn

Posted in G 0 with tags , , , on February 15, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero


All sort of rumors about the supposed dangers of LHC operation can be found on the web. A few years ago, the possibility of producing black holes, strangelets and whatnots during proton-proton collisions was put forward, and CERN itself had to commission a report and publish it on its own website, in order to reassure public opinion. However, as the start-up deadline approaches, these rumors are getting stronger and one can watch a good collection of millennialism addicts showing off on YouTube on the subject.

If you wish, you can find as well a few sites conducing a self-righteous campaign against LHC.

Don’t look at them too long if you are easily impressionable, though. I did yesterday and after I while I was feeling uneasy. This guy almost managed to scare me. True, at some point he stated that his credibility was supported by his discovery of a magnetic monopole in 1975. And I must admit I felt somewhat reassured by such a claim.

In any case, a new possibility had recently been added to the panoply of potential exotic scientific outcomes of LHC experiments. LHC could prove to be a time machine of a sort. Unfortunately, practical applications are excluded for the moment.

Shame. LHC could have been the first large particle accelerator to start its first experimental run well within the original schedule. Retroactively.

Physics is like sex

Posted in G 1 with tags , , , , on February 13, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

“Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”

Today I somehow came again upon this quote, which I vaguely remember to have seen before, printed as it was on the T-shirt of a well known physicist. It’s attributed to R. Feynman, physicist & Nobel prize winner, one of the icons of modern science. Behind the joke, the phrase captures in a few words several truths: not only physics (and science) makes perfect sense aside from the immediate material advantages it can confer, not only knowledge is a prize worth for itself, but its pursuit can also be a hell of a fun.

However, it’s somewhat difficult to explain why. I guess it’s a mixture of curiosity, intellectual pride, a taste for challenges and competion all rolled into one.

In any case I imagine all physicists have felt at least a few times the sense of elation that understanding something new or solving a particularly nasty problem can give. But only a few had the chance of getting a taste of “the real thing” (it’s not everybody’s fate to get married to Carla Bruni…). I’m going to clarify what I mean with this:

I remember that when I was younger, I had been intrigued by a story, most likely apocryphal, about Eddington. Eddington was perhaps the first person to realize that nuclear fusion is the process going on in the sun and other stars. The story goes like that:

“Eddington was sitting out one balmy evening together with his girl friend, just after having made his great discovery. At a certain point she said to him, – Look how bright the stars are shining, tonight.- And he replied, -Yes, and tonight I’m the only person on the earth who knows why.”

The image of a man standing under the sky studded with stars and knowing he is the first and, for a while, the only man to understand their nature, seemed then to me a powerful representation of scientific achievement at its best.

As I said, the story is likely to be untrue. Other versions put Bethe or Houtermans in place of Eddington. Curiously enough, there is a version around in which Feynman himself is narrating the story, and then concludes: “She merely laughed at him. She was not impressed with being out with the only man who, at that moment, knew why stars shine. Well, it is sad to be alone, but that is the way it is in this world.”

Which brings us back to physics and sex, or, rather, physicists and sex. Or, better still, physicists and the lack of it, as represented in the stereotypical image they still retain in the eyes of the laymen.

Yet, apart from jokes, sex has also a dark side, being often associated to sin and sometimes even to death. Eros and Thanatos both play their role in the following quote from a lifelong friend of Feynman, Freeman Dyson:

“The sin of the physicists at Los Alamos did not lie in their having built a lethal weapon. They did not just build the bomb. They enjoyed building it. They had the best time of their lives building it. That, I believe, is what Oppenheimer had in mind when he said that they had sinned.”

Like other things, sometimes physics can just be too much fun.

Very Little Gravitas Indeed

Posted in G 1 with tags , , , , , on February 8, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

Lack of gravitas, as it is meant in this blog, has a positive meaning. The ability to keep a detached view of reality, an ironic and skeptical attitude, playfulness rather than anger.

But, there are situations in which a bit of dignity would not be misplaced. Well, sometimes.


This gentleman is called Luciano Maiani , and had been CERN director from 1999 to 2003.

Before that he had been president of INFN (the italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics). In 1970 he predicted the existence of the charm quark in a paper with Glashow and Iliopoulos. The particle was later discovered at SLAC and Brookhaven in 1974 and led to a Nobel for the discoverers.

Recently, he was appointed director of CNR, the italian National Research Council. However his nomination, initially unchallenged, was disputed before being formalized by some right-wing politicians. The reason, explicitly voiced, was that he had signed a letter to the rector of Rome University criticizing his invitation of the Pope Benedict XVI to give a Lectio Magistralis at the University.

However, other reasons for disapproval were given. In particular, Gabriella Carlucci, a former TV starlet and now a member of the Parliament, maintained in a debate at the Chamber of Deputies that among other things Maiani had not published any scientific paper since 1994.

As a proof, she mentioned her personal research on Google Scholar.

Well, it is rather a pity for her, but Google Scholar tallies more than 50 papers under his name after 1994. The last one I’ve found is a preprint from January 2008. Co-authored by a Nobel prize.

Gabriella Carlucci belongs to Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s party. Yes, these are the same guys that have put in place the previous director of CNR, Pistella, apparently less than 10 papers published on international journals in his whole curriculum, all of them before 1980. And yes, these are the same guys who laid off Rubbia as director of ENEA following the indications of a fake engineer, former senator for the Lega Nord

And these are the sames that, in all likelihood, will be governing again Italy after the next elections in April.

Very little gravitas indeed. As usual in Italy, the situation is desperate but not serious.

Fortunately, I work in Switzerland and live in France.