Proving that Mrs Thatcher exists
January 13th, 2012
In 1993, the UK Science Minister, William Waldegrave, challenged physicists to produce a short answer to the question ‘What is the Higgs boson, and why do we want to find it?’ With the team at CERN hoping to make the breakthough this year, I came across one of the winning entries submitted by David Miller at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University College, London, UK
The Higgs Mechanism
Imagine a cocktail party of political party workers who are uniformly distributed across the floor, all talking to their nearest neighbours. The ex-Prime Minister enters and crosses the room. All of the workers in her neighbourhood are strongly attracted to her and cluster round her. As she moves she attracts the people she comes close to, while the ones she has left return to their even spacing. Because of the knot of people always clustered around her she acquires a greater mass than normal, that is she has more momentum for the same speed of movement across the room. Once moving she is hard to stop, and once stopped she is harder to get moving again because the clustering process has to be restarted.
In three dimensions, and with the complications of relativity, this is the Higgs mechanism. In order to give particles mass, a background field is invented which becomes locally distorted whenever a particle moves through it. The distortion – the clustering of the field around the particle – generates the particle’s mass. The idea comes directly from the physics of solids. Instead of a field spread throughout all space a solid contains a lattice of positively charged crystal atoms. When an electron moves through the lattice the atoms are attracted to it, causing the electron’s effective mass to be as much as 40 times bigger than the mass of a free electron.
The postulated Higgs field in the vacuum is a sort of hypothetical lattice which fills our Universe. We need it because otherwise we cannot explain why the Z and W particles which carry the weak interactions are so heavy while the photon which carries electromagnetic forces is massless.
The Higgs Boson
Now consider a rumour passing through our room full of uniformly spread political workers. Those near the door hear of it first and cluster together to get the details, then they turn and move closer to their next neighbours who want to know about it too. A wave of clustering passes through the room. It may spread to all the corners or it may form a compact bunch which carries the news along a line of workers from the door to some dignitary at the other side of the room. Since the information is carried by clusters of people, and since it was clustering that gave extra mass to the ex-Prime Minister, then the rumour-carrying clusters also have mass.
The Higgs boson is predicted to be just such a clustering in the Higgs field. We will find it much easier to believe that the field exists, and that the mechanism for giving other particles is true, if we actually see the Higgs particle itself. Again, there are analogies in the physics of solids. A crystal lattice can carry waves of clustering without needing an electron to move and attract the atoms. These waves can behave as if they are particles. They are called phonons and they too are bosons.
There could be a Higgs mechanism, and a Higgs field throughout our Universe, without there being a Higgs boson. The next generation of colliders will sort this out.
They might even find her handbag too.
Sunflower stalks, sweet factories and fonts
January 8th, 2012
When Apple held its public ‘Celebrating Steve’ memorial, the eulogy was delivered by Jonathan Ive. Promoted to Senior Vice President of Industrial Design in 1997 by Jobs, Ive oversaw the product design of Apple’s incredibly successful return to power. Trained at Northumbria University and now 44, he has become one of the most celebrated industrial designers in the world. What has always interested me about his work is the extraordinary level of research and detail he goes into long before the prototypes are built. He once spent months working solely on the stand for Apple’s desktop iMac; searching for the sort of organic perfection to be found in sunflower stalks. When Jobs asked him in the late 90s to create colourful, cheap cathode-ray-tube computers he spent hours in a sweet factory to draw inspiration for the first iMac shell colours. Job’s awareness of design began early in his life as a student:
‘I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example: Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.” (from his speech to Stanford University students in 2005).
Design is in Apple’s very DNA.
Finding The Plot (at last)
January 2nd, 2012
Joe Joseph is a shepherd, who has just been granted grazing rights for his flock of Wiltshire Horn sheep on Glastonbury Tor. On the eve of Winter Solstice we were sharing supper with Joe and our friends in his shepherd’s hut and the conversation got round the distinctive characteristics of the Somerset landscape and the spirit of place. Joe mentioned he had just finished Madeleine Bunting’s book on search for her father through the a small plot of the Yorkshire landscape he devoted much of his life to and offered to lend it to me.
A post Christmas cold meant that I took time out and found it hard to put the book down once I had started. Her extraordinary journey through the history, ecology and farming of the gritty Yorkshire landscape is woven with a heartfelt journey of coming to terms with her father’s genius as a sculptor and learning to love him just as he was. It made me look afresh at the watery landscape of the Somerset Levels that I have been living on for the last thirty years.
The nature writer Garry Snyder once said, sometimes the most radical thing you can do is stay home.
January 1st, 2012
It’s taken me several months to realise that my camera phone is almost as good a capture device as my Canon SLR (perhaps not if I want to publish poster sized images, but the detail is amazing for such a tiny f2.8 lens). And of course the best camera is the one you have on you when you want to take the picture. A recent short break in West Cornwall gave me the chance to use it and create a Christmas book for a textile artist I am fond of. This is also a plug for Bobbooks who offer a fantastic design and print service. In the wild landscape that nurtured the artistic talents of Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Bernard Leach you could almost feel their spirits along the shoreline.
In praise of pop-up Festivals
October 21st, 2011
A combination of Challenge Anneka and Location, Location, Location. We had two days to transform a disused warehouse into a 180 seat digital cinema complete with bar, cafe, sofas and illuminated cubes for sitting on. The first task we had to undertake was to sweep away the armies of dead flies that had accumulated over the summer and then all the lighting, sound, stage flats and projection equipment had to be carried up three flights of stairs.
With some amazing help (thanks Jenn, Zena, Rob, Cliff, Andy and all the other tireless volunteers) we made it happen. To see 120+ adults and children all busy making plasticine Gromits under the expert eye of Jim Parkyn on the Saturday (we almost broke the world record) was a sight to behold. Huge praise to the indefatigable Claire Sully for never ever letting go of the original vision and for attracting some world class talent. Sheptonians can be be really proud of such a fantastic Festival!
October 10th, 2011
I don’t think I have had as much fun since I was six. Why do we have to graduate from Plasticine at such an early age into the dreary non-tactile world of irregular French verbs, Pride and Prejudice and Quadratic Equations? To see an army of parents jump in and excitedly make Gromits says to me that we need much more plasticine in the world.
The real taste of Somerset
May 3rd, 2011
Twenty-two years ago we made a film for Sheppy’s Cider. Tucked quietly away in their Farm Museum it was viewed by six to seven thousand visitors a year. I had completely forgotten about it. Then the phone rang. Could we update it? Well, you can’t really update old video formats so we negotiated on producing a new short film. The farm had grown and new ciders were being developed by David and Louisa Sheppy. We had got to know David’s parents (Richard and Mary) well during the original filming and I was inspired to hear Richard talk about stewardship of the land and passing the care of it onto the next generation. Well, the next generation are making a great success of it and I am sure he would be very proud of what they are achieving.
The film was launched on the 1st April to forty members of staff (past and present). James Crowden said some lovely words in praise of local cider and we projected the film onto a ten foot screen. It was followed by one of those unforgettable farmhouse suppers – home cured ham, Somerset cheeses, pickled onions, chutneys, fresh granary bread, fruit and bottles and bottles of cider. It wouldn’t have disgraced the film set of Delicatessen.
I hope this new version will run for twenty years too, by which time I may have digested the supper! A magical Somerset evening.
Somerset’s Changing Coast
February 24th, 2011
With one of the highest tidal ranges in the world, the Somerset coastline is vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. This new film explores the environmental and ecological aspects of coastline management and the pressures placed on it by tourism and business development. A Maritime Historian offers a valuable historical perspective and a Fisherman from Porlock shares his experience of the changing seas. A Coastal Engineer, from the Environment Agency, explains what work is being done to protect the low lying land of Somerset and Tim McGrath for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust explains the bold habitat creation programme for the fragile Steart peninsula.
London FlashMob screening of We Love Libraries
February 15th, 2011
Library lovers from Glastonbury and Shepton Mallet speak out from the wall of the British Library on Euston Road, London.
Fahrenheit 452 – the temperature at which library lovers spontaneously combust into direct action
February 6th, 2011
Wednesday 2nd February 4.30pm. I am sitting in the window of a cafe on the Euston Road with Garfield and Ken watching the rush hour traffic gradually build whilst drinking mugs of coffee. We notice that there are a lot of police cars around, but thankfully they are all on the other side of the dual carriageway. Our rucksacks are full of video and stills cameras, a megaphone, gaffer tape, spare batteries, torches, warm clothing, and our precious ‘Save our Libraries’ banner.
I put a call through to John Bird of the Big Issue, but alas he is stuck in Cambridge. Garfield makes a final call to the media. We carefully go through the timetable again. 10 minutes before sunset we need to call the SFX team, who have parked round the corner and are ready to race in and set up their projection equipment. Ken is tweeting his growing following. At present no one knows where we are in Central London, except the press – the BBC and the Evening Standard.
Traffic builds. The pavements start to fill with commuters. Dusk settles. Still not quite dark enough. It’s now 4.50. We instruct the SFX guys to go for it. Things happen very quickly. Garfield and I wait for a gap in the traffic and then run across the dual carriageway to gaffer tape our banner onto the railings. The SFX guys race in with their scaffolding and trolleys.
Within fifteen minutes the equipment is set up and rapidly covered with a huge black cloth, so that it disappears as an anonymous piece of street furniture. Some of my Quaker friends arrive from Friends House and kindly help out with the photography. Thank you Karl and Ian!
The diesel generator is started (it can hardly be heard above the noise of the traffic) and the 20,000 Barco projector is switched on under the cloth. When it has fully powered up the cloth is removed and the astonishingly bright light bursts across the Euston Road and onto the wall of the British Library
The projector is focussed and aligned by Alex of SFX and he loads the laptop with our ‘We Love Libraries’ film. The holding slide goes up on the wall whilst we set up the DVD and test the powerful sound system.
How wonderful to see a sign saying ‘Please do not be quiet’ on the wall of the British Library!
Kate Mosse arrives to watch the screening and meets a couple of her readers who have been following our flash-mob tweets. She has been so supportive of our film and the whole library campaign in general.
Ken works the megaphone in a way only an American can and commuters stop to watch. We all keep a wary eye out for police cars, Heath and Safety Executives, Camden Council officials, Community Support Officers, Pavement Obstruction Managers, Conservative Politicians and any other potential killjoys. Ken instructs the SFX team to run the tape.
The voices of Glastonbury and Shepton Mallet residents ring out along the Euston Road. The wonderful music of Sly and Reggie of the Suburban Pirates adds to the party atmosphere.
How great to see our Lib Dem MP Tessa Munt speaking out over the roar of the traffic. We film and record the screening and repeat the film five times, before thinking we had better leave before our luck runs out.
We grab a quick picture with Jonny and Reggie, of the Surburban Pirates, pack our rucksacks and head back to the tube at Kings Cross. We drive back to Somerset exhausted but happy and get home at 1.30am. Garfield is due to start production work on a film in Italy, Ken has gone away on a retreat and the following day I am back filming on the banks of the River Parrett for an environmental film on coastal change. In the evening I send a slightly tongue-in-cheek thank you email and picture of our flash mob screening to the head of Press and PR team at the British Library.
A month earlier I joined fellow protesters outside Glastonbury Library in the snow and ice and thought how can I help this campaign? The website zocial.tv which tracks how films are shared across the web reports that within six days of being uploaded to YouTube, ‘We Love Libraries’ has become the ninth most shared non-profit film on the web. It is now playing on websites in Germany, Spain, Switzerland, New York, Baltimore, Argentina and Korea. The TUC has requested a high definition copy to screen at their outdoor rally ‘March for the Alternative’ in Hyde Park on the 26th March. I think the communities of Glastonbury and Shepton Mallet can be very proud of their impact on the libraries debate. Whilst Somerset County Council has taken our libraries off the closure list, there is still a lot to be done. If there is one thing I have learnt from working on the ‘We Love Libraries’ film it is this; I will never take my local library for granted again.