Some light reading about light

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

As I mentioned before, I’m branching out a bit and writing some listicles for Symmetry Magazine this year. The first covered gravity, and the second covers… light!

Eight things you might not know about light

Light is all around us, but how much do you really know about the photons speeding past you?

For Symmetry Magazine:

1. Photons can produce shock waves in water or air, similar to sonic booms.

Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. However, light slows down in air, water, glass and other materials as photons interact with atoms, which has some interesting consequences.

The highest-energy gamma rays from space hit Earth’s atmosphere moving faster than the speed of light in air. These photons produce shock waves in the air, much like a sonic boom, but the effect is to make more photons instead of sound. Observatories like VERITAS in Arizona look for those secondary photons, which are known as Cherenkov radiation. Nuclear reactors also exhibit Cherenkov light in the water surrounding the nuclear fuel. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine…]

A new detector in the hunt for particles and the origin of matter

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Belle II and the matter of antimatter

Go inside the new detector looking for why we’re here

For Symmetry Magazine:

We live in a world full of matter: stars made of matter, planets made of matter, pizza made of matter. But why is there pizza made of matter rather than pizza made of antimatter or, indeed, no pizza at all?

In the first split-second after the big bang, the universe made a smidgen more matter than antimatter. Instead of matter and antimatter annihilating one another and leaving an empty, cold universe, we ended up with a surplus of stuff. Now scientists need the most sensitive detectors and mountains of experimental data to understand where that imbalance comes from.

Belle II is one of those detectors that will look for differences between matter and antimatter to explain why we’re here at all. Currently under construction, the 7.5-meter-long detector will be installed in the newly recommissioned SuperKEKB particle accelerator located in Tsukuba, Japan. SuperKEKB runs beams of electrons and positrons (the antimatter version of electrons) into each other at close to the speed of light, and Belle II—once it is fully operational in 2018—will analyze the detritus of the collisions. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine…]

Why are neutrino masses so tiny?

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Neutrinos on a seesaw

A possible explanation for the lightness of neutrinos could help answer some big questions about the universe.

For Symmetry Magazine:

Mass is a fundamental property of matter, but there’s still a lot about it we don’t understand—especially when it comes to the strangely tiny masses of neutrinos.

An idea called the seesaw mechanism proposes a way to explain the masses of these curious particles. If shown to be correct, it could help us understand a great deal about the nature of fundamental forces and—maybe—why there’s more matter than antimatter in the universe today. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine….]

Meet the glueball, the missing Standard Model particle

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Glueballs are the missing frontier of the Standard Model

There should be particles made entirely of gluons, but we don’t know how to find them

For Ars Technica:

The discovery of the Higgs boson was rightfully heralded as a triumph of particle physics, one that brought completion to the Standard Model, the collection of theories that describes particles and their interactions. Lost in the excitement, however, was the fact that we’re still missing a piece from the Standard Model—another type of particle that doesn’t resemble any other we’ve yet seen.

The particle is a glueball, but its goofy name doesn’t express how interesting it is. Glueballs are unique in that they don’t contain any matter at all: they have no quarks or electrons or neutrinos. Instead, they are made entirely of gluons, which are the particles that bind quarks together inside protons, neutrons, and related objects.

Particle physicists are sure they exist, but everything else about them is complicated, to say the least. Like so many other exotic particles (including the Higgs), glueballs are very unstable, decaying quickly into other, less massive particles. We don’t have any ideas about their masses, however, which is obviously kind of important to know if you want to find them. We also don’t know exactly how they decay, making it hard to know exactly how we’ll identify them in experiments. [Read the rest at Ars Technica….]

Of GUTs, glory, and the death of a proton

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Do protons decay?

Is it possible that these fundamental building blocks of atoms have a finite lifetime?

For Symmetry Magazine:

The stuff of daily existence is made of atoms, and all those atoms are made of the same three things: electrons, protons and neutrons. Protons and neutrons are very similar particles in most respects. They’re made of the same quarks, which are even smaller particles, and they have almost exactly the same mass. Yet neutrons appear to be different from protons in an important way: They aren’t stable. A neutron outside of an atomic nucleus decays in a matter of minutes into other particles.

What about protons?

A free proton is a pretty common sight in the cosmos. Much of the ordinary matter (as opposed to dark matter) in galaxies and beyond comes in the form of hydrogen plasma, a hot gas made of unattached protons and electrons. If protons were as unstable as neutrons, that plasma would eventually vanish.

But that isn’t happening. Protons—whether inside atoms or drifting free in space—appear to be remarkably stable. We’ve never seen one decay.

However, nothing essential in physics forbids a proton from decaying. In fact, a stable proton would be exceptional in the world of particle physics, and several theories demand that protons decay.

If protons are not immortal, what happens to them when they die, and what does that mean for the stability of atoms? [Read the rest at Symmetry…]

Why are there three copies of each type of particle?

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

The mystery of particle generations

Why are there three almost identical copies of each particle of matter?

For Symmetry Magazine:

The Standard Model of particles and interactions is remarkably successful for a theory everyone knows is missing big pieces. It accounts for the everyday stuff we know like protons, neutrons, electrons and photons, and even exotic stuff like Higgs bosons and top quarks. But it isn’t complete; it doesn’t explain phenomena such as dark matter and dark energy.

The Standard Model is successful because it is a useful guide to the particles of matter we see. One convenient pattern that has proven valuable is generations. Each particle of matter seems to come in three different versions, differentiated only by mass.

Scientists wonder whether that pattern has a deeper explanation or if it’s just convenient for now, to be superseded by a deeper truth. [Read the rest at Symmetry]

Emmy Noether and her wonderful theorem

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Mathematician to know: Emmy Noether

Noether’s theorem is a thread woven into the fabric of the science

For Symmetry Magazine:

We are able to understand the world because it is predictable. If we drop a rubber ball, it falls down rather than flying up. But more specifically: if we drop the same ball from the same height over and over again, we know it will hit the ground with the same speed every time (within vagaries of air currents). That repeatability is a huge part of what makes physics effective.

The repeatability of the ball experiment is an example of what physicists call “the law of conservation of energy.” An equivalent way to put it is to say the force of gravity doesn’t change in strength from moment to moment.

The connection between those ways of thinking is a simple example of a deep principle called Noether’s theorem: Wherever a symmetry of nature exists, there is a conservation law attached to it, and vice versa. The theorem is named for arguably the greatest 20th century mathematician: Emmy Noether.

So who was the mathematician behind Noether’s theorem? [Read the rest at Symmetry…]