Columbia University’s own theoretical physicist and “World Science U” founder Brian Greene was recently a guest on The Colbert Report, where he gave Stephen Colbert a crash course in Einstein’s relativity theory, and explained why anyone would even want to teach (or learn about) science on the Internet anyway. Enjoy the clip below, or check it out on Colbert Nation.
In what can only be described as an atypical installment of the World Leaders Forum, yesterday afternoon a panel of physicists and science writers gathered in Low Library to discuss “What If We Find the Higgs Particle? And What If We Don’t?” Amateur Higgs Hunter Brian Wagner was in attendance.
An uncomfortably warm—and surprisingly crowded—Low Rotunda waited eagerly for the speakers to arrive. The panel featured theoretical physicist, author, and Columbia Professor Brian Greene; Professor of Physics and U.S. Operations Program Manager of the ATLAS project at CERN Michael Tuts; Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American Mariette DiChristina; New York Times science reporter Dennis Overbye; and was moderated by Dean of Science and Professor of Physics Amber Miller.
PrezBo stepped up to the podium and introduced the panelists. Remarking on the unusual choice of topic for a WLF event, he provided the predictable justification that the answer to the titular query “could have a profound impact on the understanding of the world.” He made a joke about iPhones with his traditional dry delivery, gave Dennis Overbye the faux title of Cosmic Affairs Correspondent of the Times, and then talked about how, like NoCo, this subject involved “linking academic disciplines to face questions,” although there’s no way the coffee at CERN could be as expensive as Joe.
Amber Miller kicked things off by explaining that the audience would have a chance to “see how science works” by including a theoretical physicist (Greene) and an experimental physicist (Tuts). Essentially, the people on the theory end develop mathematical models to explain and predict natural phenomena, and then the experimenters use high-tech machinery like the Large Hadron Collider to test the models.
On the experimental side, Professor Tuts gave an explanation of the ATLAS project at CERN with the help of a fancy animated video that included models of the detector and particle collisions. Basically: groups of protons are accelerated to near the speed of light in an underground tube and smack into each other with enough force to break apart and new particles are formed. A live feed of such “scattering events” was left on the viewscreens for the remainder of the discussion—attendees were jokingly instructed to “let [the panelists] know if you spot a Higgs.”
In this weekly feature, Man about Science Zach Kagan takes a close look at some of the fascinating things Columbia scientists are brewing in the labs.
Last week Columbia’s own Brian Greene sermonized science across the nation in his latest PBS special “Fabric of the Cosmos“, where many a blue, shiny spinning thing appeared inside his hands. The first part of the special was screened in the Miller theater to an audience of eager physics fanboys and fangirls. Greene held an amusing Q&A session afterward, which is well worth a watch just to see how Greene handles awkward questions about UFOs.
- But while some physicists are hobnobbing with the public television elite, others are in the lab, building stuff out of lasers ‘n shit. Professor Szabolcs Márka shows us all how science really gets done by building a light barrier that repels mosquitos. Márka has received over a million dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to continue his research to fight malaria. What does he do with that money? Raise an army of mosquitos in the basement of Pupin, of course! Saving lives has never so close to mad science.
- A new Columbia study shows the power that a gateway drug can have on facilitating addiction, but not the one you think. Nicotine is the nogoodnik here: mice that were primed with nicotine saw a much greater reaction to cocaine then regular mice. Nicotine reprograms gene expression so that mice are much more likely to become dependent on addictive substances. Science is important, but it’s a shame that these mice went to Columbia University just to get hooked on coke.
- Here’s one for the com-sci majors! A team of Columbia engineers have developed a solution to the problem of ‘data races’ created in multithreaded programming. For the uninitiated, a data race is when a program’s success is dependent on what order things are completed by program. If the wrong thread finishes first the program could crash. The team’s new system fixes this by analyzing and planning the order that threads need to be executed. The breakthrough is important for the stability of multithread systems, whatever that means.
Last night, Miller Theater was transformed yet again into a realm of mystique and wonder, courtesy of PBS, and Bwog’s favorite physicist, Brian Greene. A sizable crowd assembled to watch the premiere of the new NOVA special, The Fabric of the Cosmos, based on Greene’s book of the same title. The real treat, however, was a live webcast (jointly hosted by the World Science Festival) with Brian Greene after the showing as he answered questions about physics, space, and nearly everything else. Brian Wagner, Bwog’s passionate spacetime enthusiast, was on hand.
Amber Miller, the Dean of Sciences, opened the evening on behalf of PrezBo, who was unable to attend due to his European vacation. After more remarks by folks from the World Science Festival and PBS’s obligatory five minutes of donor-thanking, the show actually began.
Episode 1 of the sciencey special is entitled “What is Space?” The show first asks you to consider all the “stuff” surrounding us in the world. Now what happens if you take away all the “stuff?” What are you left with? If you guessed nothing, you’re kind of right. But mostly wrong. You’re left with space. And though we don’t really know what space is, it’s definitely…something. It can bend and twist (but not shout). Taking a chronological tour (oh, by the way, time might not be real, but you’ll have to wait for Episode 2 for that one) through the history of scientific explanations of space, Fabric explains that space is not a passive “stage,” as Newton conceived of it. In the last century, Einstein discovered that space actually bends and stretches in order to keep the speed of light constant, and this is where gravity comes from. With the help of some fancy CGI Brian Greene explained that space is kind of like a pool table with a stretchy, elastic surface. When you put something heavy on it (i.e. a planet), it creates an indentation. Then when something smaller (like a moon) comes rolling by, it falls into the indentation and begins rolling along the edge of the curve, in effect rotating around the planet.
So space can bend. Got it. What’s actually bending then? At the subatomic level, space is a pretty crowded place, full of elementary particles whizzing around, with pairs appearing and then annihilating each other at an alarming rate. The interesting part is that these little guys have different masses, and we don’t really know why. Actually, we don’t really know what mass is. The current theory, proposed by Peter Higgs, is that space contains a “field,” which particles move through and pick up mass. Fabric invites you to picture it like a crowd of paparazzi. Lesser-known actors, in this case representing lighter particles, are able to move through the crowd without much effort. The George Clooneys of the particle zoo, however, attract rampant attention, and move slower and slower as they progress through the field, picking up more and more “mass.” But what makes some particles Alec Baldwins and others nameless part-time waiters is still unknown.