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10/28/2012

Sandy's Coming

CHAPTER 27 - Disturbing Items
 

I'm starting to write this column on the Saturday before Halloween, with Hurricane Sandy threatening to hit New Jersey head on in a day or so. Hopefully, I'll finish in time to post the column before our power goes out. Of course, we hope a power outage will not happen but, after last year's pre-Halloween snowstorm that left most of our town without power for some 8 days, I'm not optimistic. Already, I stopped this morning to get gas and the station was closed - no gas! And D-size batteries were sold out at our local A&P, which did get a shipment of bottled water in just as I arrived this morning - the huge pile of water was gone like a flash! And I shudder to think of what will happen if our power goes out and our battery-backed up sump pumps stop working with 6 - 12 inches of rain a possibility. 

Aside from these potential personal problems, there are other distressing items to consider. For example, I've mentioned a couple of times the trial in Italy of a number of people who were on trial for not predicting the earthquake that killed over 300 people in the town of L'Aquila. The four scientists, two engineers and one public official have just been found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. Their crime was expressing the opinion that mild tremors preceding the earthquake were not likely an indication of a major earthquake. Scientists around the world protested the trial as being unfounded, earthquake prediction being far from an exact science.   Minor tremors occur frequently without substantial quakes following them.  

The verdict in Italy must send a shudder down the spines of scientists in other fields. For example, could meteorologists be convicted for giving erroneous forecasts of weather events such as Sandy or could researchers working on new drugs be put on trial when a promising drug turns out to have unforeseen bad side effects after approval for widespread use.  

I found other disturbing things in the November issue of Scientific American. There was an article by John Carey titled "Global Warming: Faster Than Expected?", one of a number of articles I've seen recently dealing with the same theme. I've already mentioned previously my disgust with the action of the North Carolina legislature passing a bill in connection with coastal development restricting calculations of future sea levels to a linear model based on "history". The bill in effect legislates the effects of climate change. The Scientific American article ends quoting James Hansen saying "It would be immoral to leave these young people with a climate system spinning out of control."  

The following article in the magazine is "The Strangest Bird" by R. Ewan Fordyce and Daniel T. Ksepka. The article traces the evolution of penguins and how they've evolved over millions of years to live under frigid conditions. The authors note that the emperor penguin not only is a bird that never flies but it also never sets foot on dry land. Its life is spent either in the water or on ice-covered land.  The emperors also always return to the same place for breeding. What happens if the ice melts? Could it mean the extinction of the emperor? As with the previous article, this one ends on a depressing note - "What a tragedy it would be if these extraordinary creatures perished on our watch." 

As if these articles weren't depressing enough, the same issue of scientific American contained another disturbing article of a completely different nature. This article is by Don Lincoln, a researcher who splits his time between Fermilab and CERN working on esoteric physics. The article is titled "The Inner Life of Quarks". Why do I find it disturbing? Let me go back to the 1940s when I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. There I took a course on nuclear physics taught by Professor David Halliday. It was one of the easiest courses for me in that at the time the number of nuclear particles was limited to electrons, protons and neutrons. With just these three particles you had the ingredients for all the matter in the universe. I can't remember but perhaps we might have learned about neutrinos. 

I left Pitt happy with the feeling that things were relatively simple and I had some grasp of physics. But those pesky physicists weren't satisfied. They decided that those protons and neutrons weren't fundamental particles after all. They postulated that actually protons and neutrons were made up of "quarks". Sure enough, they actually found quarks of two types, which they called "up" and "down" quarks. Without going into detail, protons and neutrons are composed of different combinations of three of these two types of quarks. OK, I decided, this isn't too hard to comprehend. All the "stuff" of the universe, the ordinary matter, is simply composed of a couple of quarks and old-fashioned electrons. But wait, what holds the quarks together in the protons and neutrons? What's the glue, so to speak? The physicists came up with "gluons" to fill the bill. Like photons, these gluons don't have any mass but carry the "strong" force holding the quarks together.  

While I totally don't understand all these complicated particles and interactions, at least I was comfortable that those high powered physicists seemed to know what was going on and, with the recent finding of the Higgs boson, their so-called Standard Model seemed complete. So, why does Lincoln's article disturb me? It seems Lincoln and some of his buddies in the physics world aren't content to let things be. They are proposing that there are indications that maybe even quarks aren't fundamental particles but are themselves made up of even smaller particles. They've even given these undiscovered particles a name - "preons".  

Soon to be 85 years old, I have reconciled myself to the probability that I will never know the identity of dark energy or dark matter, which make up most of our universe. Frankly, I'm hoping that preons turn out to be a flash in the pan and don't get discovered. My feeble brain has been sorely tested as it is. However, if preons really do exist, Lincoln hopes that they may be found with the Large Hadron Collider when it fires up to bang particles together at even higher energies than it took to find the Higgs boson. 

Well, it's time to turn my attention back to Sandy. I'll post this column today, Sunday afternoon, possibly my earliest posting. Nothing like a hurricane to speed things along. Next column, hopefully, will be posted on or about December 1. 

Allen F. Bortrum



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Dr. Bortrum

10/28/2012

Sandy's Coming

CHAPTER 27 - Disturbing Items
 

I'm starting to write this column on the Saturday before Halloween, with Hurricane Sandy threatening to hit New Jersey head on in a day or so. Hopefully, I'll finish in time to post the column before our power goes out. Of course, we hope a power outage will not happen but, after last year's pre-Halloween snowstorm that left most of our town without power for some 8 days, I'm not optimistic. Already, I stopped this morning to get gas and the station was closed - no gas! And D-size batteries were sold out at our local A&P, which did get a shipment of bottled water in just as I arrived this morning - the huge pile of water was gone like a flash! And I shudder to think of what will happen if our power goes out and our battery-backed up sump pumps stop working with 6 - 12 inches of rain a possibility. 

Aside from these potential personal problems, there are other distressing items to consider. For example, I've mentioned a couple of times the trial in Italy of a number of people who were on trial for not predicting the earthquake that killed over 300 people in the town of L'Aquila. The four scientists, two engineers and one public official have just been found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. Their crime was expressing the opinion that mild tremors preceding the earthquake were not likely an indication of a major earthquake. Scientists around the world protested the trial as being unfounded, earthquake prediction being far from an exact science.   Minor tremors occur frequently without substantial quakes following them.  

The verdict in Italy must send a shudder down the spines of scientists in other fields. For example, could meteorologists be convicted for giving erroneous forecasts of weather events such as Sandy or could researchers working on new drugs be put on trial when a promising drug turns out to have unforeseen bad side effects after approval for widespread use.  

I found other disturbing things in the November issue of Scientific American. There was an article by John Carey titled "Global Warming: Faster Than Expected?", one of a number of articles I've seen recently dealing with the same theme. I've already mentioned previously my disgust with the action of the North Carolina legislature passing a bill in connection with coastal development restricting calculations of future sea levels to a linear model based on "history". The bill in effect legislates the effects of climate change. The Scientific American article ends quoting James Hansen saying "It would be immoral to leave these young people with a climate system spinning out of control."  

The following article in the magazine is "The Strangest Bird" by R. Ewan Fordyce and Daniel T. Ksepka. The article traces the evolution of penguins and how they've evolved over millions of years to live under frigid conditions. The authors note that the emperor penguin not only is a bird that never flies but it also never sets foot on dry land. Its life is spent either in the water or on ice-covered land.  The emperors also always return to the same place for breeding. What happens if the ice melts? Could it mean the extinction of the emperor? As with the previous article, this one ends on a depressing note - "What a tragedy it would be if these extraordinary creatures perished on our watch." 

As if these articles weren't depressing enough, the same issue of scientific American contained another disturbing article of a completely different nature. This article is by Don Lincoln, a researcher who splits his time between Fermilab and CERN working on esoteric physics. The article is titled "The Inner Life of Quarks". Why do I find it disturbing? Let me go back to the 1940s when I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. There I took a course on nuclear physics taught by Professor David Halliday. It was one of the easiest courses for me in that at the time the number of nuclear particles was limited to electrons, protons and neutrons. With just these three particles you had the ingredients for all the matter in the universe. I can't remember but perhaps we might have learned about neutrinos. 

I left Pitt happy with the feeling that things were relatively simple and I had some grasp of physics. But those pesky physicists weren't satisfied. They decided that those protons and neutrons weren't fundamental particles after all. They postulated that actually protons and neutrons were made up of "quarks". Sure enough, they actually found quarks of two types, which they called "up" and "down" quarks. Without going into detail, protons and neutrons are composed of different combinations of three of these two types of quarks. OK, I decided, this isn't too hard to comprehend. All the "stuff" of the universe, the ordinary matter, is simply composed of a couple of quarks and old-fashioned electrons. But wait, what holds the quarks together in the protons and neutrons? What's the glue, so to speak? The physicists came up with "gluons" to fill the bill. Like photons, these gluons don't have any mass but carry the "strong" force holding the quarks together.  

While I totally don't understand all these complicated particles and interactions, at least I was comfortable that those high powered physicists seemed to know what was going on and, with the recent finding of the Higgs boson, their so-called Standard Model seemed complete. So, why does Lincoln's article disturb me? It seems Lincoln and some of his buddies in the physics world aren't content to let things be. They are proposing that there are indications that maybe even quarks aren't fundamental particles but are themselves made up of even smaller particles. They've even given these undiscovered particles a name - "preons".  

Soon to be 85 years old, I have reconciled myself to the probability that I will never know the identity of dark energy or dark matter, which make up most of our universe. Frankly, I'm hoping that preons turn out to be a flash in the pan and don't get discovered. My feeble brain has been sorely tested as it is. However, if preons really do exist, Lincoln hopes that they may be found with the Large Hadron Collider when it fires up to bang particles together at even higher energies than it took to find the Higgs boson. 

Well, it's time to turn my attention back to Sandy. I'll post this column today, Sunday afternoon, possibly my earliest posting. Nothing like a hurricane to speed things along. Next column, hopefully, will be posted on or about December 1. 

Allen F. Bortrum