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Posts Tagged ‘LHC’

– The 48th Humanist Symposium is now up, and I’m in it again, with my rant about Leo McKinstry of the Daily Mail being a twat. Though I am now feeling ashamed that I blathered so much without ever using the phrase “impermissive deontological Othering” to describe what McKinstry was doing.

– Someone I’ve never heard of is apparently a bit mental. We all know how we feel about people who think the LHC will destroy the world – just ask Brian Cox if you’ve forgotten – but I’ve not heard military action being mooted as a counter-measure before. That’s some impressive twattery right there.

– Tim Minchin’s beat poem Storm, the perennial skeptics’ favourite, is being fully animated by a bunch of totally awesome people. You can follow their progress, and see all kinds of concept art and such, on the official production blog. I mentioned in my review of TAM London that Tim’s performance had been a highlight, and the Storm animated trailer we saw there has now been released online.

Here it is then.

So cool. And as Crispian Jago mentioned on Twitter earlier, it’s going to be interesting seeing what visuals they come up with to accompany the “bollocks for ammunition” line.

Badminton tomorrow night. Might have things to say again on Thursday.

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So I’m in the middle of reading Bruce Hood’s Supersense, and so far it’s looking like a really worthwhile read. I’m going to wait till I’ve followed his reasoning through to the end before deciding exactly what I think of it, but it’s prompted me to think (and subsequently rant) about something that’s bugged me sporadically for some time.

The book’s about the natural human tendency to believe in supernatural ideas, seek supernatural explanations for phenomena we don’t immediately understand, and so forth. A big part of his thesis is that everybody, however rational they try to be, has some irrational or supernatural elements to their belief system. The main example he uses is the revulsion most people feel on being asked to don an item of clothing previously worn by a notorious serial killer. There’s no real, physical, material connection to anything negative whatsoever, it’s a completely innocuous item entirely unaltered by some irrelevant piece of information about its past… and yet most people would still feel icky about putting on Fred West’s sweater.

Our emotions – obviously a significant part of what it means to be human, and a part famously not over-burdened by rationality – are what he’s starting to talk about at the point of the book I’ve reached. As I say, I’m going to let him finish before passing judgement, but there’s an annoyingly prevalent assumption elsewhere in a lot of our culture that deserves a tirade.

Emotional != Irrational.

(That’s a makeshift “does not equal” sign, for anyone who was wondering.)

Films and TV like this one a lot. Whenever anyone in any kind of dramatisation does anything out of love, for instance, they’re generally seen as acting against logic. It’s a totally irrational act, they’re told, to have given up the chance for so many material pleasures just so they could get the girl – and this irrationality is held up as triumphantly praiseworthy. Screw reason, you’re doing something better.

Now, I acknowledge the obvious irrational aspects to something like love. Emotions are things that happen without recourse to reason, and I know there’s a significant difference between empirically assessing somebody’s attributes and calculating them to be laudable, and loving someone for being a wonderful person. I accept all that.

But that doesn’t make it an irrational thing to act on one’s emotions in any way, once they’re there.

Concrete example: I finished watching the complete series of Due South not long ago, and toward the end, Fraser gets an offer of some big fancy job of some sort elsewhere, with more money, more prestige, more whatever. It’s a promotion, a step up for him professionally in every way, and it’s his for the taking. But he doesn’t. He turns it down, and chooses to stay in his current position, a lower-paying job with a crappy apartment and few perks. And why? Because he wants to keep working with his partner, Ray, along with all the other people with whom he’s built up a relationship where he currently is.

Now, Ray’s the first to tell Fraser that this makes no sense, it’s an illogical choice. But it makes perfect sense. Fraser’s looking at his choices and deciding what would make him happiest, and it isn’t the pay rise and the fancy apartment in some other part of the country, it’s doing a job he loves with people he cares about. Staying where he is is entirely the correct and sensible decision, because of the emotions he’s feeling.

No doubt letting overwhelming emotions drown out any other factors at all can lead people to irrational decisions, where they fail to act in their best overall interests due to what feels right more immediately. But it’s annoying how everyone always seems to get described as “irrational” whenever they admit that emotions matter. Give rationalism a little more credit.

For that matter, don’t get me started on the phrase “I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this”. “Reasonable” does not mean being in denial about the fact that there are very obviously vampires trying to eat you. For instance.

People saying that line (or one very like it) are so often mere moments away from getting shown up and humiliated/disembowelled for their oh-so-foolish-in-retrospect skepticism. Look, being skeptical when some crazy guy starts ranting about the zombie apocalypse is a good thing. Otherwise you’ll believe any old shit crazy people tell you. But once you’ve seen the hordes of dead rising from their graves, or looked into the dead eyes of your best friend as he gnaws on the leg of your brother’s corpse, or been provided with whatever extraordinary evidence the extraordinary claims in question need, then the “rational explanation” becomes holy shit you guys there’s fucking zombies.

Seriously, you’re allowed to be rational and still change your mind when new facts come in. If you’re Buffy, the most reasonable explanation for a lot of things is vampires, duh, but otherwise you really shouldn’t be chastised for not leaping straight to wacky assumptions about undead armies as soon as something odd crops up which needs explaining.

Okay, hold on… this has nothing to do with anything, but did anyone else see that the Large Hadron Collider was scuppered when a bird dropped some bread in it? It’s not clear from this one article quite how big a problem it’s caused – did they just notice that something was up, have a look, take the bread out, and get on with things? Should I take @ProfBrianCox’s silence on the matter as a sign that nothing too drastic has gone awry this time? Anyone know any more about this?

That’s derailed whatever minimal train of thought I might have had, now.

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I’ve had some disordered thoughts about politics and humour floating around for a while, which I’m going to try and flesh out a bit here.

I’m a big fan of comedy, both as a consumer and as an aspiring creative phenomenon and global sensation. And, lately, I’ve also been engaging in the occasional foray into the scary and confusing political arena. And although the latter is still pretty uncertain territory for me, there’s a lot of room for fun where the two cross over. In particular, without Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, I think the US would be in a pretty depressing state right now that it’d be hard to feel optimistic about (at least from over here across the pond, where those two between them are giving me the majority of my international news).

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are both enjoyed primarily by a liberal and/or politically left-wing audience. The people watching them tend to share certain values in common, so when Jon makes a joke about, say, gay marriage and the general Republican stance thereon, most people watching will agree with the fundamental principles the joke is based on, at least enough to find it amusing. If you’re a Republican against gay marriage, though, it’s not likely to go down so well; even if you perfectly understand the construction of the joke, you’d get bogged down in the fact that it makes light of your concerns against gay marriage, and seems to consider your position comical.

What made me think of this in particular now was reading this article, and seeing this trailer for a film called An American Carol. It’s a political satire with more right-wing leanings than most, and the fact that Bill O’Reilly features heavily as himself probably tells you a lot.

But there’s one scene in this montage, starting at 0:33, where the character Rosie O’Connell (see what they did there?) claims that “Radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam”. We then cut to a shot of a panicking crowd on a bus, and a woman in sorta Christ-y attire apparently blowing herself up with the cry “Seventy-two virgins here I come!”

Now, there’s a few reasons not to be rofling your socks off at this. For a start, couldn’t they have thought of anything more Christian-themed for her to shout, rather than just lifting the seventy-two virgins thing directly? Seventy-two virgins have no role in Christian doctrine, that I’m aware of, so it would have been funnier if she’d been shouting something about… I dunno, whatever the hell a Christian might consider a noble cause to die for. The implicit message is that a Christian is unlikely to blow up a bus because they believe they’ll be rewarded with seventy-two virgins in the afterlife – if the message was that a Christian is unlikely to blow up a bus because they think St. Peter will let them into the gates of Heaven, then they’d be making more of an actual comparison between the two religions, and I think the satire would work better. This cartoon wouldn’t make any sense if the atheists depicted were really behaving like Christians, to the point that they were doing all these things for the sake of God.

But that’s a technicality. Actually, the joke in the movie is constructed entirely competently according to the rules of comedy, and reasonably well executed. It’s almost even funny, and very similar conceits (such as “Hey, what would a Buddhist suicide bomber look like?”) have been used in a number of sketches and comic routines before, often to good effect. The only thing stopping it working for me here is my personal political stumbling block, much like a Republican who might not “get” Jon Stewart’s jokes about Republicans.

It’s not that anything dear to me is being mocked or offended in an unacceptable way. I’m not a fan of either Rosie O’Donnell or Michael Moore, the two high-profile liberal celebrities being most obviously lampooned in the clips from the film I’ve seen. But the gag is founded on the concept that the very notion of fundamentalist Christians being dangerous is a laughable one. It takes the idea of “radical Christianity as a threat”, affects to imagine what that would look like, and decries the result as ludicrous and inherently comical. And although this is a fine formula for effective comedy, which has made me laugh in very similar forms before, it doesn’t work for me here, and when a part of me automatically chirps up with a “But, but…” of complaint in place of the intended guffaw, another part of me knows exactly how certain Republicans feel when they see Jon Stewart not understanding their family values and being fundamentally wrong about this whole gay thing.

Because come on, radical Christianity as a dangerous force is not a comical or ridiculous concept. Even without going into the history of the Dark Ages, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the general principles of ostracising, persecuting, attacking and slaughtering dissenters even among the religion itself, modern Christians do some pretty messed-up shit which unquestionably falls under the heading of terrorism. There are plenty of them willing to attack abortionists and abortion clinics, or murder whoever obstructs what they see as their righteous quest, or blow shit up to make a point about the “homosexual agenda”… I could go on, but it seems so painfully obvious that this 2-billion strong religion does have a dangerously fanatical wing to it that there’s hardly any point. And now it’s supposed to be funny, watching a Christian murdering people because of irrational levels of devotion to her religion, much like the way that’s actually happened dozens of times before?

Okay, this really wasn’t meant to be a screed advocating any particular political viewpoint. I just thought it was an interesting thing to notice about comedy, that it may depend heavily on whether the viewer agrees with certain philosophical principles behind a joke, even if that’s the only thing that changes. I guess this relates to how easily the laughs came at the recent Republican convention when the words “community organiser” were mentioned, without any actual clever satirical commentary needing to be provided. Or the way sometimes Jon Stewart almost doesn’t need to say anything funny about a Fox News clip for it to be hilarious. How much of what we find funny only tickles us because it’s reinforces a worldview?

Eh. I dunno. I’m pretty sure Fox’s 1/2 Hour News Hour doesn’t seem funny to me because it’s retarded, not just because it doesn’t line up with my politics. Who the fuck is Rush Limbaugh, and what does he want?

Oh, and in other news, the Large Hadron Collider’s broken. Fuck. Looks like a faulty electrical connection, which would probably be easy enough to fix aside from the fact that a lot of things in the LHC, like electrical connections, are kept unbelievably cold. So, because the people who can fix it are being bloody inconvenient, and insisting that they won’t work in conditions 1.7 degrees above absolute zero, it’s going to take a while to sort it out. Upwards of two months, it looks like. So it goes.

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Today the woman at the next desk told me a fascinating story about jam, and I typed up the file of a client who was currently of “NO FIXED BOAT”.

And it’s been another long and tiring day so I’m giving myself another break. Sorry. I promise I might possibly maybe get back to writing actual blog entries tomorrow. In the meantime, today’s uber-adequate substitute for myself is sci-fi author, bacon connoisseur, and blogtathlete extraordinaire John Scalzi. If you haven’t read the account of his visit to the Creation Museum yet, then you are unacceptably far behind in your internet culture learnings. It is a thing of beauty.

I quite like this thing of subjugating my opinions to more interesting and intelligent people in other parts of the internet. Maybe I should make it a regular thing to take a week off now and then and just steer anyone looking for news from me over toward someone else instead… Wait, I got how many hits yesterday? Thirty-three? Hmm. Maybe I should keep focusing on actually being interesting myself.

My stats have plummeted since the LHC excitement all died down. Better do something controversial quickly to pick things back up. Umm… hey, show of hands, who reckons I should pose naked for a calendar? Now now, don’t all bounce up and down and squeal like fangirls at once… (Is it obvious that I want to think I have fangirls?)

All this not-blogging is rendering me quite verbose. That’ll do.

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…a pleasing if rather glib simile that might have been more opportune a couple of days ago:

Claiming that the LHC is putting the world in danger of being sucked into a black hole is rather like trying to shut down somebody’s organisation which shelters lost kittens and injured puppies on the grounds that they might end up cloning dinosaurs and unleashing an unstoppable rampage of velociraptors upon us.

Maybe not that much, though. This is better:

The theory of childhood, also known as child origin, is a damnable, loathsome and indefensible lie. How can any thinking person suppose all humans used to be babies once? There is no development path from babies to adults, no transitional forms between these two species. Show me even one baby with the head of a grown man on his body. Can you? No? Not even a bearded toddler? No adults with unfused skullbones, outside unfortunate disorders? Not even a tiny little newborn girl suddenly sprouting a respectable bosom? You can’t find them, because they don’t exist. There isn’t a single transitional form between children and adults, and you will never find one because the theory simply is an unscientific lie.

Etcetera. Excellent. Thanks PZ.

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Tomorrow, September 10th 2008, the Large Hadron Collider will be switched on.

More precisely, tomorrow a beam of particles will (we hope) be circulated throughout the entire collider for the first time. The first particle beams were initiated about a month ago, to calibrate the whole mechanism to an accuracy of under a billionth of a second. It’ll be another month or so before the first “high-energy” collisions take place, when individual protons (of which your body contains around ten billion billion billion) will be accelerated to over 99.9999% of the speed of light, and then smashed into each other.

To do this requires over 1,600 magnets, and about 96 tonnes of liquid helium to keep them less than two degrees above absolute zero. Once the protons are at top speed, they can traverse the 17-mile circumference of the collider over ten thousand times in a second. They also weigh 7,000 times more (or, rather, have a mass 7,000 times greater) and perceive time itself 7,000 times slower (inasmuch as a proton can “perceive” anything) than if they were just sitting still, due to some freaky Einsteinian shit.

When these two particles, each about one millionth of one millionth of a millimetre across, smash into each other, some unfathomably clever people will peer closely at what happens, and use the information they gather to work out things like what makes stuff have gravity, how many dimensions of space there really are, and what the universe was like 13.7 billion years ago or so, around a trillionth of a second after every piece of matter in existence was concentrated in an infinitely dense point.

Fucking hell.

I was planning the bulk of this entry to be a rant about people who think the world’s about to end, but I can’t be bothered. Every day for the last couple of weeks, a dozen or so people have been finding my entry Nostradamus Potter and the Deathly Hadron Collider. The search terms “nostradamus all should leave geneva”, “10 september 2008 black hole nostradamus”, “swiss collider nostradamos”, “nostradamus prediction on lhc”, and several others, all very similar, have led people there just today. But I’m much more interested and mind-boggled by the facts about what this machine is, and what it can do. And there’s no conceivable threat based on any actual scientific ideas. I think the people who’ve built this damn thing actually understand how it works, and what it’s going to do, a little more clearly than the people whose protests amount to “Science is scary!” and “Did someone say black holes? Oh noes!” and “But what if they’re wrong?!?”

It seems like a threat because the unknown is scary, and apparently very very small things are scary too. Talk about nanotechnology, and it’s hard to go long without making the mental leap to the idea of tiny robots getting out of control, turning everything into tiny copies of themselves, or some such. It’s an effective horror trope, but worrying about the whole planet being destroyed because you’ve heard someone mention something about black holes (which is as complex as most people’s worries get) is about as useful as using disposable surgical gloves to take your laptop to be disinfected with bleach because it has a virus. Smarter people than me have explained this. Also, Brian Cox thinks you’re a twat. This cartoon is about as likely. You can all stop threatening to kill the scientists who are orders of magnitude cleverer than you and trying to figure out how the Universe works now.

To infer the existence of the Higgs boson would be an awfully big adventure.

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Quick informal poll: whose your favourite French sixteenth century apothecary ever? For me, there’s only one candidate even in the running, and that’s Michel de Nostredame.

My friend Sara linked me to this story earlier, in which one of the aforementioned judicial astrologer’s quatrains is quoted. The writer (and I use the term loosely) of the article asks us to consider whether this prophecy might warn that the Large Hadron Collider – the massively exciting particle accelerator soon to begin operating at CERN in Switzerland – is going to destroy the world and kill us all.

The prophecy reads as follows:

All should leave Geneva.
Saturn turns from gold to iron,
The contrary positive ray (RAYPOZ) will exterminate everything,
There will be signs in the sky before this.

My first thought on glancing at it was that this wasn’t even a real Nostradamus quatrain. After 9/11, certain entirely fake quatrains were attributed to him, as if he’d predicted the attacks on the World Trade Centre with much greater accuracy and specificity than was actually contained in anything he’d said. It seemed plausible that someone might have essentially fictionalised something similar in this case, to add to all the doomsaying surrounding the LHC.

But no, I was wrong. What’s quoted above is actually the 44th quatrain of the ninth “century” (sets of one hundred prophecies into which they were grouped) written by Nostradamus. Well… sort of.

It’s not simply been made up, anyway, but it is a very loose translation. This makes it very easy for the article to ponder how all this might relate to the LHC. I mean, it’s in Geneva, and a “contrary positive ray” sounds like something a particle accelerator might have, right? And turning gold to iron, that’s… well, that’s chemistry, in a sort of reverse-alchemy type sense, which still sounds like science, right? Which means we’re all doomed! Oh noes!

It doesn’t actually say any of that as such, of course. It just asks “what-if” type questions and tells us that “there are those would theorise [sic]”, in the kind of way that suggests that it’s just something fun to think about and not to be taken too seriously, but it’d be closed-minded and arrogant of you to call it out as being total bollocks.

Well, you don’t scare me. This is utter bollocks.

What Michel actually wrote was this:

Migrés, migrés de Geneue trestous,
Saturne d’or en fer se changera:
Le contre Raypoz exterminera tous,
Auant l’aduent le ciel signes fera.

My French is a little rusty, but this place seems to have a pretty thorough dissection, so let’s take it line by line.

As far as getting the hell out of Geneva is concerned, there’s not much ambiguity.

In the next line, Saturne could apparently also be translated as: “The sky”. I’m not entirely clear why this should be (though in ancient mythology Saturn was the son of Ouranos, the sky-god), but it’s thought that the sky changing colour is a reference to chemical war – suitably apocalyptic, perhaps, but bugger all to do with a black hole being created and swallowing up the planet. Saturne is simply translated as “Saturn” here and here, but this doesn’t do much to make the line any more relevant to the LHC.

More interesting than this is something that must have shorted out my bullshit detector the first time I skimmed the article. I’ve only just noticed the conclusion they’ve drawn from this: “‘Saturn turns from gold to iron’ surely refers to a transmutation of elements, or maybe even a black hole created that will fly off into space and land on the planet Saturn, turning Saturn into a black hole.”

Something this retarded deserves a moment of silent contemplation.

A black hole “that will fly off into space and land on the planet Saturn” (emphasis mine). I’m no Bad Astronomer (more of a plain old bad astronomer, if I’m honest), but even I can see that this is painfully, comically stupid, and I hope the hack who came up with this piece has a shard of glass from his computer monitor fly off into space and land on an artery in his hand the next time he sits down to type up something this moronic. (Not really. It’s a joke used for humourous effect.) They’re already having to stretch Nostradamus’s words to breaking point and still they can’t say anything to predict danger more sensibly than this.

And as we see on the third line, they really are stretching it. As far as I can tell, the translation “contrary positive ray” is entirely fanciful, based solely on some English words that sound a bit like the word (Raypoz) that the French guy wrote in the middle of a load of French words. It’s only terminologically accurate in referring to anything about the LHC in the faintest sense, and it seems unlikely this would have any bearing on anything Nostradamus is likely to have meant.

The best suggestion that I could be bothered to find about Raypoz itself is that it’s a corruption of Ray (as in light) and Pax or Paz (as in peace), and in fact refers to Christ (the “light and peace”). So, “Le contre Raypoz” refers to the anti-Christ. This makes some sense, inasmuch as it’s not out of character for Nostradamus to be making predictions about the anti-Christ. Granted, the guy who suggested this in the article I’m reading on the site Nostradamia could be less of a learned academician, and more of a nut who actually takes all this crap seriously, but he’s the guy with what seems like the most coherent explanation so far.

And then, signs in the sky, yadda yadda. This could be anything. Literally anything remotely unusual, anywhere in the sky – from aircraft activity to the behaviour of stars billions of light years away – could be interpreted as being a “sign”, if that’s what you want to prove. There’s nothing useful about telling us something this vague. Actual scientists – you know, people whose predictions aren’t generally laughable – tend to be a bit more specific, and say things that are actually testable. If they didn’t go any further than “If stuff falls down, then we’re definitely right about this gravity thing” then they probably wouldn’t have got so far with inventing things like enormous particle accelerators.

There’s a poll attached to this article asking whether we should be worried about the world ending this weekend, when the first bits of the LHC are switched on. After several thousand votes, “No” is currently winning by 55% to 45%.

Well, now I’m depressed.


Question time:

– Do you think Nostradamus had any predictive powers worth paying attention to? Why, or why not?

– Without using the phrase “for fuck’s sake”, why is a black hole unlikely to fly off into space and land on the planet Saturn, turning Saturn into a black hole?

– Why on earth did I make the title of this post into a Harry Potter pun? I mean, what’s the boy wizard got to do with any of this?


Update 10/09/08: Wow, this has become a hugely well-viewed post over the last few weeks, at least by this blog’s usual standards. There’s some more stuff I’ve written in my most recent entry here, if you’re interested in learning some more about the Large Hadron Collider itself, and the blog is updated daily with news and thoughts about stuff, sometimes a bit less vague than that, so feel free to stick around or check back later, or leave comments on anything of interest.

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