Higgs and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Recently, I watched the documentary Particle Fever at Cine, a local theater here in Athens, GA. (The film is streaming on Netflix also.) It was a great look into the hoard of people at CERN that got the Large Hadron Collider running. It also highlighted the discovery of the Higgs boson, the elementary particle in the Standard Model that gives everything mass. Before the discovery of the Higgs, there were two competing theories: the Standard Model and the Multiverse. The Standard Model expected the Higgs boson to have an energy of about 115 GeV, while the Multiverse theory expected the Higgs boson to have an energy around 140 GeV. The LHC detected a signal at around 125 GeV, right smack dab in the middle. For reasons I don’t understand, the Standard Model won the battle, though many prominent scientists (Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, NdGT, to name a few recognizable names) have supported the hypothesis and cashmoney prizes have been given to purveyors of the Multiverse theory (Alan Guth, Andrei Linde, and Alexei Starobinsky).


A simulated Higgs boson signal made by the collision of two proton beams.

Either way—whether you support the Standard Model or the Multiverse—everyone’s happy that the Higgs boson was found. That is, everyone except a team of researchers from the University of Southern Denmark. They’ve come to rain on the parade. In a new paper in Physics Review D, beautifully named “Technicolor Higgs boson in the light of LHC data”, they claim that the signal at 125 GeV could instead be the TC Higgs, the weird cousin of Higgs that was named after his uncle but everyone kind of forgets is there until Christmas when they’re reminded of his tie-dye shirts, sock-filled sandals, and suspiciously bloodshot eyes. The TC Higgs (TC = technicolor) belongs to a model one step past the Standard Model that is actually much less interesting (to us non particle physicists) then the name would lead one to believe. It has something to do with electroweak gauge symmetry breaking and how that makes mass.

“The current data is not precise enough to determine exactly what the particle is. It could be a number of other known particles,” Mads Toudal Frandsen, the PI of the work, said in a press release.

This new analysis doesn’t debunk the Higgs finding, it just politely states that maybe the evidence isn’t as strong as we might think. The 125 GeV signal fits other theories, so maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to jump on the Higgs train. Frandsen hopes more data from the LHC will help distinguish between the Higgs and TC Higgs. The LHC is set to resume research in early 2015, so we’ll have to be on the lookout for new happenings there. Whatever the LHC discovers, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert will be secure in the knowledge that their Nobel Prize comes with a no-takebacksies clause.

Tricked By Astrophysics

I think ScienceDaily has a new algorithm to sort their releases. Not only did the previous post‘s bicycle story show up in my chemistry feed. But now two firm space stories have shown up in my materials feed… both containing the vague word “matter” (i.e. not a good sort term). Both also deal with the fabric of reality, so to speak, so maybe someone out there is just confused what materials science is. But, guess what. I read them anyways. Maybe the mislabeling wasn’t so much a “mis” but more of a “trying to get people to read more topics” labeling.

Like everyone lately, I’ve been interested in astronomy. And Halloween’s gotten me in a spooky mood (my holiday mood has some lag time). So when I read “Universe may face a darker future: Is dark matter being swallowed up by dark energy?” I clicked and then I scrolled and then I read it really fast. Turns out our universe is slowly being consumed by dark energy. At least according to a new report based on observations from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. In the press release, the PI, David Wands, had something optimistic to note, “If the dark energy is growing and dark matter is evaporating we will end up with a big, empty, boring Universe with almost nothing in it.” Happy Halloween and Merry Christmas.

The next misplaced article is about theoretical research on parallel universes. Typically, it’s assumed that parallel universes don’t interact and that we can never, ever reach them. This puts parallel universes firmly in the theoretical realm (with some Negative Nancys calling it pseudoscience). Now, Howard Wiseman and Michael Hall (no relation) have developed a new idea where parallel universes interact. And not only that. This interaction is the reason for all of quantum mechanics. In addition to this fun bit of theory, Hall says in the release, “We also believe that, in providing a new mental picture of quantum effects, it will be useful in planning experiments to test and exploit quantum phenomena.” Take that, Nancy.

Now, I watched Fringe to the very end and I think it’s safe to say that things didn’t turn out well for the two interacting universes (spoilers!). Though it would be cool to meet my own Walternate, my Jenternent, no I don’t like that so far off to a bad start, Jennalternate, better closer warmer, Jalternate, that’s it.

I want to ride my bicycle. I want to ride it where I like.

This article titled “Do cycle lanes increase safety of cyclists from overtaking vehicles?” popped on up on chemistry news feed recently. I couldn’t understand where the chemistry came into that question (are new bike lanes being made from some novel material? does it have something to do with the material of tires? was this some kind of play on words that I didn’t understand?) so I opened the article only to find it wasn’t about chemistry at all. But it was interesting.

If you’re European or live in an American college town, you probably see a lot of bikes during your daily commute. If there are bike lanes, you probably get momentarily nervous when you see a cyclist. If there are no lanes and you’re anything like me, you’re probably simultaneously annoyed that you have to slow down and terribly worried that you’ll kill someone. Surprisingly, there’s debate on whether bike lanes are safe or risky. Some studies have found that drivers pass cyclists more closely, racing by at higher speeds, when bike lanes are present.

I don't think that counts as a bike lane.

I don’t think that counts as a bike lane.

So, of course, this needed study. By strapping cameras onto cyclists, researchers determined that whether or not there’s a bike lane isn’t the main factor in cyclist safety. The width of the road, opposing vehicle flow, and the absence or presence of street-side parking were more important in determining how fast a car passed a cyclist. This makes intuitive sense. If the road is wide, there’s more room to move away from the bike. If there’s a car coming in the opposite direction, you’re probably not going to move over as much. A nearby parked car will take up some of that precious road room and make for a tighter squeeze.

The overall conclusion seems to be that we should focus less on bike lanes and more on wider roads. That is, until Google Driver comes along and solves all our automotive problems.

Keep Magic Beans in Fairy Tales

In what can only be a stunning upset to the diet and nutrition world, Dr. Oz’s green coffee bean extract was found to maybe, possibly, perhaps not work so well. And by that, I mean the only bit of research supporting his beans is being withdrawn by two of the authors. What’s more is the study was paid for by the product manufacturer. Not only did Dr. Oz pay for research to support his results, but now those researchers have decided they can no longer live with the guilt.

Oz touted his beans as a magic weight-loss cure (let’s ignore that if you take the phrase “weight-loss cure” literally it implies that you’re stopping weight loss). The beans became famous after Dr. Oz claimed in 2012, “You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight-loss cure for every body type. It’s green coffee extract.” I guess his claim could be a bit shortened to “You may think magic is make believe, but it is.”

This will be the only time I link to this source here (and hopefully in my career), but Fox News did a piece (or should I say borrowed a piece from LiveScience) on the story, proving that literally everyone is against Dr. Oz (save for the mysterious people who actually buy his supplements).

If you don’t watch John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, you really should start. Here’s his piece on dietary supplements (including Dr. Oz).

Legislation Looks at Lavender Labeling

In the EU lavender oil, or any products containing lavender oil, may soon come with a warning label. (By soon I mean 2018.) Lavender oil is generally used as a fragrance, but can also be an antiseptic and an anti-inflammatory. According to WebMD people claim lavender is good for depression, insomnia, headache, toothache, colic—the list goes on—with apparently little to no scientific backing. The one “possibly effective” use of lavender oil is for regenerating hair loss caused by alopecia. The European Chemicals Agency, who is pushing for the labels, claims that lavender oil can oxidize and cause skin irritation.

Warning: Field May Cause Allergies, But If You Aren't Already Sneezing Then You're Probably Fine

Warning: Field May Trigger Allergies, But If You’re Not Already Sneezing Then You’re Probably Fine

The labels are quite controversial among lavender growers, not only because the labels may hurt sales but because lavender oil is not a synthetic product. The plants are grown in fields, many in southern France, and the flowers are steam distilled into oil. Even more, this isn’t even a remotely new process. People have been growing lavender and distilling it long before the European Chemicals Agency existed.

What’s more, a report released by Givaudan (a fragrance and flavoring company) claims the amount of linalool (the molecule under question in lavender oil) in fragrances is much, much lower than that in patch tests that show skin irritation. It takes about 400 μg/cm2 to cause irritation and there’s only about 0.3 μg/cm2 of the chemical in average fragrance samples.

French farmers are putting up signs in their fields that say “Help us: Save the lavender!” and “Lavender is not a chemical product” in protest. One grower told Chemical & Engineering News that she would rather close her business than add warning labels to her products. A French association (PPAM de France) that represents fragrance and medicinal farmers begun a campaign this summer to fight the labeling. Switzerland is taking things more diplomatically (who would have thought) and their International Fragrance Association released a statement saying that they’ll comply with any new legislation.

I’m not sure why they aren’t treating the oil like peanuts and simply putting “May Contain Lavender Oil” on products with lavender oil. But, as Nelson Muntz would say, I donno, gotta label somthin.

A Star is Born

Watch out Beowulf, David Leigh of the University of Manchester has made much finer chainmail (yes, that reference was solely from the cover of the book; I saw it as a kid and now chainmail is forever associated with Beowulf in my mind). A couple of hundred years after we stopped using chainmail (it was good at stopping swords; not so much bullets) we’ve finally started producing it again.

The molecule is made of two interconnected rings, with a whopping 114 atoms each. At each bend (there are six of them) is an iron atom surrounded by organic ligands (bipyridine derivatives, if you want to get fancy). In the middle sits a PF6 ion that apparently refuses to leave.


The star.

The star-tling molecule. Yuck, yuck.

Chemists have been trying to make this molecule, nicknamed the “Star of David catenane” because in chemistry even your nickname has to be scientifically meaningful, for half a decade. Leigh, in a press release from Manchester University, gave full credit to his graduate student, Alex Stephens, before giving the typical why-did-you-do-this answer: “It was a great day when Alex finally got it in the lab. In nature, biology already uses molecular chainmail to make the tough, light shells of certain viruses and now we are on the path towards being able to reproduce its remarkable properties.”

In my Google search for “molecular chainmail” (because I had never heard the term before), I came across a book called “Beauty in Chemistry: Artistry in the Creation of New Molecules” and because that title was too intriguing they added the subtitle of “(Topics in Current Chemistry)”. The book is from 2012 so maybe we’ll see some more interesting molecules coming out soon. This kind of work goes to show that one can find beauty even in the smallest things.

Breaking News: Fish Confused by Optical Illusions

Despite the sarcastic title, this work is pretty neat. In a recent Scientific Reports paper (open access, yay!), researchers from the University of Padua in Italy found that fish pretty much see the world as we do, as least when talking about motion illusions. If you’ve spent time as a child, you’re probably familiar with optical illusions (personally, I was obsessed with Magic Eye books; maybe I shouldn’t say was). Motion illusions are a type of optical illusion that make the brain perceive motion from a static image (see picture below).


Their version of the classic Rotating Snakes illusion, abbreviated RSI in the paper because all academic papers need more abbreviations.

Why fish? It turns out that fish don’t have a visual cortex like humans and other mammals. We know fish can see (they need to to hunt and escape predators) but we don’t know exactly what they see. We do know they see changes in light, but can they see texture and contrast and form? In mammals, this additional sight comes from our visual cortex. If fish do get additional visual information, then they must do so in a manner completely distinct from us. That’s why fish were chosen: to see if they perceive an illusion that arises in mammals from our visual cortex.

To find out this interesting piece of scientific information, they crammed a fish tank between two computer monitors. On one monitor was the RSI (the allure of abbreviations has not yet left me). The other monitor had a static version of the image, only subtly different, without the motion illusion. The fish were trained to spot motion to get a food reward (tasty, tasty brine shrimps).

After all was said and done, 18 out of 24 fish were confused (that’s 75%). They thought the illusion was real and tried to get their food reward (their… just desserts). This compares fairly well with the percentage of humans who can see the illusion (that’s 84%).

The experiment didn’t explain how fish, with their lack of visual cortex, saw the motion. If anything it threw more questions into the mix, which I think is a good thing. The object of a good scientific paper shouldn’t be to answer all the questions but to ask more… unless you’re trying for a Theory of Everything (the answer to it all, the mack daddy of theories, the big ToE).

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

Robert Platt from Northwestern has used a new technology created by Edward Adelson from MIT to make a robot that plugs in USBs. This is more difficult than it sounds (unless you’ve had experience with fourth-dimensional USBs, then it’s exactly as difficult as it sounds). If the robot is not pre-programmed, like these on-the-fly USB pluggers, their external sensors must be highly precise—a centimeter off and your drink will get cold without your USB drink warmer. Or worse. Your pet rock may not charge.


In the unspoken scientific agreement to make robots increasingly human, the sensor system relies on vision. One side of the robot’s rubber gripper is coated with metallic paint. The rest of the gripper is surrounded by a translucent box. Each side of the box emits a different-colored light. When the robot grips, the sides light up depending on how the gel inside of the box deformed. By using computer algorithms that monitor the color and intensity of the light, the three-dimensional structure of the gripped surface can be “seen”. This system worked well. The robot was able to find a dangling USB plug, grab it, and plug it into the port.

The more important discovery here is that the robot can insert the USB correctly on the first try. Technology has truly passed our human limitations.

I’m like a rat. I only fly away.

A decade ago, scientists at the University of Florida taught a Petri dish rat brain to fly a flight simulator. They grew a culture of 25,000 rat neurons and, using 60 electrodes, hooked it up to a common desktop computer. At first, the neurons were simply scattered in the dish, but they quickly started to form connections. “You see one extend a process, pull it back, extend it out – and it may do that a couple of times, just sampling who’s next to it, until over time the connectivity starts to establish itself,” Thomas DeMarse, the lead biomedical engineer of the work, described in a ScienceDaily release. When the neural network was joined to the computer, more connections formed as the “brain” learned to control the simulated F-22. Eventually, the “brain” could control the pitch and roll of the aircraft in a variety of conditions, including hurricane-force winds.


Would a Petri dish brain get motion sickness?

According to the release, “As living computers, they may someday be used to fly small unmanned airplanes or handle tasks that are dangerous for humans, such as search-and-rescue missions or bomb damage assessments.” A prescient statement for a time before drones (or at least before the public knew). Who knows, maybe the next generation of war will be fought by rat brains.

(For anyone who doesn’t understand the title of this post, I thought I’d bring back some early 2000s references. Remember this?)