Looming holy grail of particle physics

It’s been about over a month since I visited Cern in Switzerland. Cern is every particle physicists dream workplace given their unmatchable physics gadgets. It’s one of very few places in the world where particle physics is no longer just pen, paper and imagination rather experimental. Yesterday, they made an announcement that the Higgs boson – a particle that has been theorized for decades – is closer to being found now more than ever before.

The Higgs Boson particle is thought to be what gives particles their mass. Its prediction was brought about by the Standard model of particle physics. So far it is the only fundamental particle that has not been observed in experiments. The particle is popularly known in the media as the God Particle after the reference in Leon Lederman’s book The God Particle. Its discovery is expected to help answer a lot of questions in Particle Physics and Theory Physics in general. And given its very elusive nature and the fact that finding it would give the Standard model of the universe weight(ha-ha), yesterday’s finding aroused a lot buzz and excitement around the world.

The LHC(Large Hadron Collider) at Cern houses two detectors ATLAS and CMS which have been said to detect a Higgs signal at 125GeV at a 2.5-3.5 sigma certainty level. This in physics means that the result is still inconclusive. However, a 5 sigma certainty level is considered the threshold for a formal discovery. For this though we might have to wait another year according to Cern scientists.

There’s probably nothing more exciting than formulating a theory that makes a prediction about a nature of the universe that hasn’t been observed and then looking for the said nature and finding it. Einstein’s general relativity predicted with accuracy the correct value for gravitational light bending of the stars caused by the sun as was observed during a solar eclipse in 1919 by Arthur Eddington. The Big Bang Theory predicted a remnant of the big bang as a background radiation all over the universe as was discovered years later by Bell Laboratory scientists. And now the Standard model predicts the Higgs boson and it would be amazing to see to it manifest even though some physicists think that not finding it would be just as interesting.

Beba beba – Kenya’s matatu life

Beba  beba, come on in, hurry hurry,
There’s a seat for you, for all of you, it’s a direct bus, it’s  only 30/-,
We leave in a minute, the seats are all taken, just squeeze there, but it’s only 50/- ,
We leave in a minute, just one more guy, and we are off.
We leave in a minute, after you pay your money, no refund, no matter what.
Off we go, no seat belts, hold on to something, it’s for your own good.

Yes, we’ll slow down in a minute, after we overtake that guy,
One more minute, two more, darn there’s a lot of them,
Sit tight, it’s a bumpy road, he said he’d fix, if we voted him in again,
We already did, that was four years ago, and he wants our votes again.

Oh look, it’s traffic police, is that a new guy? No, it’s Odhiambo and Macharia,
We’ll give them a hundred, they’ll split, they’ll let us through.
Jambo Odhiambo, Jambo Macharia, it’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?
Here’s a hundred, have a good one.

This is our stop, it’s okay , we’ll transfer you to a direct bus,
We’ll pay them your money, you’ll get a seat we promise,
Beba beba, your fare is paid, grab a seat, we leave in a minute,
Hold on, the road gets worse.
Where’s your money, who paid, when,
I don’t have your money, give me your money, or hit the road.

Oh look, passengers by the road, we have to stop for them, and the others further down,
Move move, a Kenyan needs your help, don’t be greedy, this space can fit more,
Hurry hurry, beba beba, come on in,
There’s a seat for you, it’s a direct bus, it’s only 30/-.

Canada anti-Kyoto Protocol move bad for the world

Canada confirmed Monday at the beginning of the climate talks in Durban, South Africa the speculation about its intended withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol signed 14 years ago. The Kyoto Protocol was created to curb global greenhouse emissions –the cause of global warming- to 5.2C below the 1990 levels between 1998 and 2012.

Canada has criticized it claiming that it gives emerging economies most notably China, Brazil and India an unfair advantage over developed nations because of targets imposed on the developed nations. It is also concerned that taking stronger actions on emissions than its main trading partner the US will hinder its economic development. The US withdrew support for the Kyoto Protocol shortly after former President George W. Bush took office in 2001. He proposed an alternative solution to reduce emissions which actually ended up with a 30% increase in emissions for the US. And now that Canada wants out, countries like China and other giant economies have begun developing cold feet on regulating emissions by Kyoto Protocol standards. On the same note, the US declined to commit to a legally binding agreement to cut emissions by 2015 stating they won’t agree until major developing nations like China do. A position that is feared by many will derail the summit.

The world heats up as the rich countries continue to play victim.  According to reports by the World Meteorological Organization, this is the warmest year ever recorded. The study also shows that the level of greenhouse gases is approaching a point that will cause irreversible changes to the Earth. Part of the world especially the developing economy is already feeling the heat, literally. Average annual temperatures in Kenya and Ethiopia for example have increased by over 1C between 1960 and present day.  There are more hot days, rainfall trends are chaotic and rainfall has decreased from 1980 during the “long-rains” (March to June). And given the current droughts and famine at the Horn of Africa I would attribute at least part of the cause to global warming.

The major economies should stop gambling with the planet and the lives of billions around the world in the name of saving their strength with against their trading partners. For what is point of making money and products when the planet may no longer be here let alone the people to enjoy them?

Free Will: The grand illusion

A guy walks into a bar. He heads over to the counter to order a drink. The waiter asks him what he will have. He takes half a dozen seconds to think about. He chooses to have a Bond 7 whiskey from 16 other options. He sees a woman sitting alone at the end of the counter, and a couple of his drinking buddies at a table at the corner. He chooses to head over to the girl to say hi and probably offer her a drink hoping to get lucky. But he is not sure how to approach the girl, whether to play vulnerable and humble or cocky and rich unaware of the girl’s taste in men. He goes with the former. Our guy is called Sam. Sam gets lucky tonight. Sam lives in a world where things can take any direction depending on the choices one makes. At least that is what he is taught to believe.

Free will is defined as the ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints. Sam appears to have made the choice to have a Bond 7 Whiskey from the 17 drinks that were available. He chose to make a move on the girl instead of going to talk football and drinking with his friends. He also chose to go with the approach he thought would give him the highest chances of getting lucky with the girl. And it all worked out. Question is, did Sam actually make these choices of his own free will? Isn’t it possible that every choice he made were determined by chemical reactions in his body, his genetic makeup, his environment; factors which are beyond his control?

Can it still be said to be one’s choice when there are determinants at play, beyond the subject’s control? Consider this: scientists have found that about 1 in every 2 people have a gene – DRD4 or the thrill-seeking gene – which makes them more likely to cheat on their partners or be involved in gambling and alcohol addictions. There have been a number of other genes associated with other behaviors that have long been thought to be people’s own choices, like a gene that gives people a religious predisposition, the alleged gay gene etc. Although scientists are still divided on some of them what is becoming clear is that at least some of our choices are made at the genetic level. We practically made them as soon as we were conceived.

And it’s not just the genes that determine our choices, it is the environment we grow up in, level of intelligence, the moral code implanted by the parents and guardians, every one of them beyond our control. That’s why a kid brought up in the middle of Saudi Arabia will naturally become a Muslim even unto old age when he thinks it’s his own choice, a way of living that gives him a completely different moral code from what he would get if he was born in a mostly Christian nation like the USA or a secular nation like Sweden. So naturally we would ask if we can hold people responsible for their moral positions. Is it possible that we have no control of who we are? Is it possible that everything can be determined from equations?

Since Einstein, scientists have been in search of a theory that describes everything – literally called the Theory of Everything. This theory would be able to give us a picture of everything from the tiniest building block of matter to the universe itself. The possibility of such a theory existing might shove us back to the drawing board on the very meaning of life. Given that humans are just biochemical entities, the ability to reduce everything to an equation makes everything deterministic.

There’s some sort of security that accompanies the feeling that we are the makers of our own destiny, that our choices have direct consequences on the paths our lives take, that we are completely in charge of our lives. So it becomes very unsettling when it appears that human behavior, his actions and inactions can be sought from equations. The idea that all it takes is a good calculation to figure someone out and tell what they will do next or even chart the course of their lives with good precision puts an asterisk on life itself. What is the point, if it is all figured out? And yet my mind is made up on this. I know, it probably doesn’t matter what I decide , because I may not be actually making a decision in the strictest philosophical sense of the word. From the way my human mind works, and it’s limitation to process time one second per second I think of a past, a present and a future and think that I have a hand in how the future manifests. Perhaps that is a greater illusion than that of free will.

Of death and beyond

In under a week two of my greatest heroes succumbed to cancer, a dreadful disease whose toll ironically increases with our advancement in science and technology. Steve Jobs and Wangari Maathai are more than your ordinary people. They both lived their lives to the fullest extent and their efforts had effects on people all over the globe. They are icons that will be remembered for years to come and they set paths of development that will influence generations to come. They were visionaries who struggled day and night to pursue their dreams to change the way we do things. And now we have to live with the reality that they are gone, forever. Just like that. Which got me really thinking about death.

Just over a week ago, my friend Melissa and I talked in length about life and death and life after death. She has a strong belief on reincarnation and despite my philosophical diversion from all that is beyond natural she managed to convince a part of me that there is probably more to death than just decomposition.

I think of myself as an atheist. But definition can become tricky. People have varying definitions of the term and their perceived philosophical implications. In my case, it is the accepting of things that can be shown to be true and rejecting those that aren’t or those that can’t be proved otherwise. Theories must have concrete evidence and should remain valid until conflicting evidence is found. That’s my philosophy. But then again religious people (and the designers at Facebook) expect it be defined as your religion. Problem is, it’s not. I have no religious inclination.

Now as an atheist, whatever that means, am only accommodating to science. Science provides neither information on what happens after death nor a means of measuring it. We as humans have assumed there is more to death than decomposition probably since the time evolution enabled us to make assumptions. The fact that there is no science to back it up however does not mean it is incorrect. But then again why should we hang on to the idea? Is it the notion that we are too complex and too important to be just bundled up matter with a finite lifespan? What if that’s all we are, and the notion is just part of how our brains work, perhaps the only way our brains can work for this kind of advancement to happen? Otherwise what would be the point of living and making the world a better place when life goes for less than 120 years out of the 13,000,000,000 years of the universe, on a teeny tiny rock whose very existence can be completely ignored at no loss by another civilization within the 15 billion light years expanse of the universe? It is possible that the only way a mortal intelligent species can advance and not self-destruct is if it believes it is special, and somewhat immortal.

And that is working very well so far. We don’t know what we are, why we are here, where we are headed and the point of it all but we can celebrate our fallen heroes because they make life worth the hype and they give us the courage to play our part in advancing our kind. And maybe when we finally figure it out we will see the point and be grateful that we came thus far without much to go with.

e-ntaraction with a lame scammer

I recently wanted to get rid of some electronic  I wasn’t using anymore and thought that Google Trader would be a good place to advertise it. The first response I got was from some individual called Feona Vadim feonavadim@gmail.com.  She said she was very interested in buying the item and would send me money as soon as I responded to the email. Now I have a tendency of doing background checks on people online. And in a transaction like this, a background check is of utmost importance. Her name didn’t show up anywhere on the search engine result but her email address led me to an online dating website profile. The profile said she is Russian, even though she told me she is in Canada. Well, it is possible that she might have travelled but that started to make me suspicious.

The email was also very suspicious because she mentioned she wanted to donate the item to a Christian Mission. Online scammers always use religion so that potential victims can think they are honest people. Ok, first of all am an atheist so I don’t give a shit, second of all this is one of the oldest tricks in the scamming industry so joke’s on her.  What’s more suspicious is that the shipping address is in Nigeria. Nigeria? Comeon!

Shipping address:

Name – Mr Julious Mathew .O
Address No 21 Faith Lord Highway Ministry
city- Ogbomosho
state- Oyo state
country Nigeria
Postal code-210001

At this point I was just having fun with her(or him I don’t know). So she requested I send her my banking details to make the payment. I thought that would be too risky instead I asked her to use Western Union. She said that would be impossible and opted for Paypal. I gave her my paypal email address and about an hour later I got a “payment confirmation” from “paypal”.

It’s almost like this guy didn’t invest any thought into pulling off this scam.

Below are some of the things that make it easy to tell it’s a scam:

1. The email subject .  Upper case letters and a million asterisks. Lame. Looks like most of the emails in my spam folder.

2. Email address. This is very important. It is possible to send an email and make it look like it is coming from a certain address. But Gmail is likely to know that and may alert you that it’s a fake sender. However the email address used here could never be from paypal. The domain officeemail.net doesn’t even load. A quick lookup on WHOIS doesn’t reveal anything.

3. The sender of the money is called Yuliya Mark (yuliyamark@hotmail.com). ??

4. Grammar. Grammatical mistakes are one of the easiest ways to identify scammers. Most scam emails originate from countries like Nigeria where English is not the native language. They are bound to make mistakes and that’s how you catch them.  I have circled in the image some of the mistakes I identified.

5. The lamest part of this attempted scam is that I need to send the shipment tracking number for my paypal account to be credited even though the payment has already been made?! Paypal doesn’t work like that. If a payment is made to your account it reflects automatically.