Monthly Archives: February 2013

View of the LHCb cavern

X-citing news from CERN

Dr. Harry Cliff, a Physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science, writes about a new discovery at CERN for our blog. A new Science Museum exhibition about the Large Hadron Collider will open in November 2013, showcasing particle detectors and the stories of scientific discoveries.

In 2003 physicists at the Belle experiment in Japan reported they had discovered a brand new particle.

Adding a new entry to the big book of particle physics is certainly satisfying, but not usually cause for much excitement. The discovery of the Higgs-like boson last year was an exception. After all, hundreds of particles have shown up in experiments over the last century. So many in fact, that they were often referred to, rather derisively, as a “zoo”.

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Image Credit: CERN

But the particle found at Belle was different.

It didn’t fit neatly into the picture painted by theory and there was no clear explanation for its origin. It was a bit of an enigma, and earned a suitably enigmatic name: the X particle.

Professor Val Gibson from the University of Cambridge told me that she and her colleagues “have been mesmerized” about the identify this mysterious particle for the last ten years.

The Particle Zoo

The vast majority of the particles that make up the particle zoo are not fundamental; in other words they are made up of smaller things and these things are fundamental particles called quarks. Six different types of quark have been discovered and they can form a large number of different combinations, explaining the particle zoo.

However, quarks only bind together in very specific ways. Two ways in fact. One option is a ménage à trois known as a baryon. Baryons include the proton and the neutron, the building blocks of the atomic nucleus. The other option is where a quark and an antiquark couple up to form a meson.

The X didn’t fit easily into either of these pictures. This generated a lot of excitement and there was speculation as to whether it could be an ordinary meson, or some new exotic combination involving four quarks, a tetraquark, or a “molecule” of two mesons stuck together.

If this were true it would be the first time such an exotic state had been definitively seen in nature.

The only way to tell would be to measure the quantum numbers of the X, three properties that give a clue to its internal structure. This hadn’t been possible, until now.

Exciting, Exotic X

Amid the hundreds of trillions of collisions generated by the Large Hadron Collider over the past three years physicists at the LHCb experiment (the experiment I work on) managed to pick out about 300 X particles.

View of the LHCb cavern

View of the LHCb cavern. Image credit: CERN

This week, they presented the first full measurement of the quantum numbers of the X, at a conference at La Thuile in Italy. The result was emphatic – the X is not a meson, it is something altogether more exotic.

LHCb physicist Dr Matt Needham told me that “this measurement is a great step forward in understanding this mysterious X” and a “very exciting result”. However, there is still work to be done.

“The real nature (of the X) is still unclear”. Whether it’s a tetraquark, meson molecule or something else entirely must now be determined.

His colleagues at LHCb will now search for signs of the X decaying in new ways to try to separate out the various different options. Although the Large Hadron Collider has now shut down for two years physicists at LHCb will have no shortage of data to work with. An unprecedented sample was collected during 2012, corresponding to 180 trillion collisions, each one producing hundreds of particles.

The true nature of this enigmatic particle may soon be known. Whatever the result, we have now had our first glimpse of an altogether new state of matter. Finding out exactly what the X is will bring us deeper understanding of nature’s fundamental building blocks and the forces that bind them together.

Visitors to the Science Museum will have a chance to get up close and personal with the LHC at a new exhibition opening in November 2013. The exhibition will showcase real pieces of the LHC, including an intricate particle detector from the heart of the LHCb experiment.

Google Chrome Web Lab in the Science Museum

Web Lab: See the magic of the web brought to life

Hello there! John and Saam here. We’re two of the crack team of facilitators at the Google Chrome Web Lab, here in the Science Museum.

What’s Web Lab, we hear you ask? It’s a new, interactive exhibition based at the Science Museum about the Internet and the World Wide Web. However, visitors from across the world can also – rather amazingly – visit the exhibition and take part in all of our experiments online at chromeweblab.com

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One of the special things about Web Lab is that it explores the connection between virtual users (on the website) and physical users (in the gallery) – forming a global community. We do that through a series of five unique, web-based experiments.

Google Chrome Web Lab in the Science Museum

There’s the Data Tracer image search, the Universal Orchestra, the Teleporter live stream, the Lab Tag explorer, and arguably the favourite for many visitors, the Sketchbot, that can draw your face in sand!

The experiments are all FUN but they also help you understand how things work on the web. For example, the sketchbots show how the web uses computer languages and protocols to tell machines what to do. The Orchestra, on the other hand, demonstrates the use of ‘web sockets’ to enable two-way communication and real-time interaction over the web, and the Teleporter teaches you about how web technologies use compression to send large amounts of data quickly over vast distances.

Data Tracker, one of 5 Google Chrome experiments in Web Lab

We’ll tell you more about all the experiments in future blogs, but if you’re eager to find out more information right now, visit Web Lab or pop into the Museum, and we’ll be happy to run through the experiments with you in person!

Fun fact to impress your friends: what’s the difference between the internet and the World Wide Web? The Internet is the global network of computers all talking to each other. The Web, on the other hand, is the system of hypertext documents, such as this web page that sits on the Internet, which you can explore with your browser.

De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) by Copernicus, 1543. Image credit: Science and Society Picture Library

There’s something about February

It is remarkable to think that some of the greatest scientific thinkers who have ever lived, the likes of Darwin, Galileo, Copernicus and Boltzmann, were all born in early February.

Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, born on 20 February 1844, is remembered for his work in the development of statistical mechanics, used to predict how the properties of atoms can determine the behaviour of matter. Boltzmann’s pioneering scientific contributions to kinetic theory – which described the speed of atoms in a gas – came at a time when many scientists disbelieved an atom’s very existence.

Over half a millennia ago (540 years ago yesterday in fact), Nicolaus Copernicus was born in a small medieval town in Poland. Copernicus would go on to fundamentally challenge our sense of place in the cosmos, publishing his ideas of the heliocentric universe just two months before his death in May 1543. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, along with many other objects from the history of astronomy, are on display in our Cosmos and Culture exhibition.

De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) by Copernicus, 1543. Image credit: Science and Society Picture Library

Copernicus’s ideas were supported by Italian astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei, born 15 February 1564. After failing to complete his studies in medicine at Pisa, Galileo turned his attention to mathematics. Experiments in 1604 with rolling balls down an inclined plane, led Galileo to deduce the law of falling bodies and show that the speed with which bodies fall is independent of their weight.

Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger) by Galileo. Image credit: Science and Society Picture Library

In 1609, Galileo reinvented the refracting telescope leading to numerous astronomical findings, including the discovery of four moons of Jupiter, which he published in Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger) – on display in our Cosmos and Culture exhibition. Galileo’s support for Copernicus’s view of a sun-centred solar system brought him into direct opposition with the church and led in 1633 to his imprisonment under house arrest.

Also born in early February were two Naturalists, Charles Darwin (born 12 Feb 1809) and Sir Joseph Banks (13 Feb 1742), who travelled the world – with Banks joining Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific on board HMS Endeavour and Darwin sailing on HMS Beagle – identifying new species (1300 in in the case of Joseph Banks) and exploring geological features and plant and animal life across the globe.

Sir Joseph Banks, British explorer and naturalist. Image credit: Science and Society Picture Library

Outside of his travels to far-off lands, including Newfoundland, Tahiti and New Zealand, Banks was known for his promotion of science. On his return to Britain, Banks wrote detailed descriptions of the people and places he had encountered, and later become honorary director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and a Trustee of the British Museum, before being elected President of the Royal Society in 1778.

Charles Darwin joined a five-year scientific expedition on HMS Beagle, studying a vast array of plants, animals and geological wonders. On his return in 1836, he began to think in earnest about the mechanisms that had generated such variety in nature.

Charles Darwin, English naturalist, c 1870s. Image Credit: Science & Society Picture Library

Influenced by the thinking of Thomas Malthus, Darwin developed his theory of evolution through natural selection over the next two decades, only publishing his work after learning that another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had developed similar ideas. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection went on to transform the way the natural world was understood across the world.

Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton drama character

The next time you visit the Museum, not only can you witness the great exhibits and events we have on offer, you can also meet famous scientists and other characters throughout history! (Well, kind of…).  Unfortunately, we haven’t invented a time machine but you can meet Sir Isaac Newton, the world’s first pregnant man and even some giant cockroaches, which are just a few characters brought to life everyday by actors inside the Museum.

Isaac Newton Drama Character

Today I met Sir Isaac Newton (not the real one obviously, the actor’s name is Guy) who invented the cat-flap, named the colours of the rainbow and of course thought a lot about gravity:

Chi: Sir Isaac Newton?

Newton: Oh, call me Isaac please! What a fascinating emporium this place is. Marvellous!

Chi: Yes, thank you, um, Isaac. So, these toys you have here… ?

Newton: Toys? These, Sir, are my scientific apparatus!

Chi: Really?

Newton: Well, do you like to experiment?

Chi: Yeah!

Newton: May I recommend “The Early Learning Centre” then, marvellous place!  Take this pink ball, for example. Smell it.

Chi: Huh?

Newton: Experiment, Sir. You seem rather hard to convince. Rather like the Royal Society, I might add. Go on, smell it.

Chi: It sort of smells like strawberries…?

Newton: Yes, very peculiar, isn’t it? So if I roll it along the ground like so – excuse me, Sir, you’re somewhat in the way. Thank you – why does it come to a standstill?  Don’t you go to bed at night and worry about strawberry smelling objects coming to a standstill?

Chi: Errr…no.

Newton: Oh, is it just me then? Well, does it stop because it smells of strawberries?

Chi: Well, no…

Newton: Ha! You see. You already have a theory on why it stops. Clearly you are a natural philosopher. Marvellous! Everyone is. Also, take a look at my cheeseboard over here…

Chi: Erm, it’s a skateboard.

Newton: Really? I thought it was a cheeseboard. After all, it’s yellow. And has wheels on it so you can push it along the table. Marvellous!

Explainer Fact: Fancy meeting Sir Isaac Newton and other drama characters?  Check the Science Museum website for further details.  School groups can book their own drama character session.

Many thanks to Guy for his enormous contribution.

A page from Babbage’s scribbling book with notes on his automaton for playing noughts and crosses or ‘tit tat to’, from a collection of over 20 notebooks held at the Science Museum Library & Archives in Wroughton.

The ingenious inventions of Mr Babbage!

By Cate Watson – Content Developer on the Babbage display

Although Charles Babbage is best known for his calculating engines, plans of which are now on display in the Computing gallery, he was a life long inventor with a passion for improvement.

As a 16 year old Babbage nearly drowned when he trialed his newly invented shoes for walking on water. This setback failed to discourage him and Babbage’s inventions ranged from designs for a locomotive ‘cow catcher’, an automaton for playing noughts and crosses, a ‘black box’ recorder for monitoring railway tracks and ‘speaking-tubes’ linking London and Liverpool among many other ideas.

Cartoon based on Babbage’s design for a ‘cow-catcher’.

Cartoon based on Babbage’s design for a ‘cow-catcher’. Image credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Babbage fervently believed that new inventions should be freely available to all – when he constructed the first known opthalmoscope in 1847 for internal eye examinations he refused to patent it. The credit went to Herman von Helmhotz 4 years later instead.

You can see another of Babbage’s inventions in the Museum – an occulting light mechanism to help with ship navigation. Ship captains used lights on shore to steer by but the increasing number of lights on the coast led to confusion. Babbage designed a light with mechanical shutters to create a unique flashing signal for ships.

A page from Babbage’s scribbling book with notes on his automaton for playing noughts and crosses or ‘tit tat to’, from a collection of over 20 notebooks held at the Science Museum Library & Archives in Wroughton.

Frustratingly for Babbage, this invention, like many of his ideas, found no favour at home. It did however sufficiently impress the Russians, who used the principle of his signalling lights against the British in the Crimean war.

Babbage’s foresight wasn’t limited to his inventions. He predicted the end of the coal mines and recommended tidal power instead, commenting that if posterity failed to find a substitute source of power it deserved to be ‘frostbitten’!

See more of Babbage’s inventive drawings in a new display in the Science Museum’s Computing gallery.