Archive for July, 2010

My Top 10 Sci-Fi Movies: #9 – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

July 31, 2010 Leave a comment

#9 – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Which of all the ‘Star Trek’ movies is the best? Most people will tell you its The Wrath of Kahn or First Contact. Or now the new J.J. Abrams version.

Not me though. The Voyage Home just has so much going for it, and so much replay value that it makes it my favourite Star Trek movie.

Time travel is probably one of the most overdone ideas in movies (and in the Star Trek franchise), but this one puts such a good-natured, funny and easy to watch spin on the idea that the idea seems fresh.

And watching Spock try to blend in in modern day San Francisco is one of the funniest things you’ll ever see.

“Can you tell me where the nuclear wessels are?”

Full List:

#10 – The Terminator (1984)

#9 – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

#8 – The Fifth Element (1997)

#7 – Aliens (1986)

#6 – Blade Runner (1982)

#5 – E.T. (1982)

#4 – Jurassic Park (1993)

#3 – V for Vendetta (2005)

#2 – Star Wars Trilogy (1977 – 1983)

#1 – Back to the Future (1985)

My Top 10 Sci-Fi Movies: #10 – The Terminator

July 30, 2010 1 comment

I’m going on vacation for about 10 days, so there is no better time to do my first top 10 list! (Protip: You can find out what I’m up to on my vacation by following me on Twitter)  

So each day for the next 10 days I will reveal one of my top 10 favourite sci-fi movies.  

Now bear in  mind that these are my favourite movies; movies that I have watched over and over again and am always amazed at how good they are.  

Sure, you can probably come up with a movie thats better crafted, with a better script or better special effects (and please tell me by commenting!). But the movies listed here are the ones I hold close to my heart and I’m happy to share them with all of you.  

So lets start at the beginning:  

#10 – The Terminator (1984)



So most people are going to say that T2 is better than the original. And I’ll agree that it has better special effects and a bit more of an optimistic ending.  

But the first Terminator is so original that it tops T2 any day of the week for me (or any of the other sequels for that matter). And Schwarzenegger is such a bad-ass in this one, as opposed to the more sappy version of the Terminator in T2.  

And that moment at the end when the Terminator has had all its skin burned off from the gas truck explosion, and it rises up out of the ashes. I can’t think of a more awesome moment in old school sci fi history.  

All this makes the original ‘Terminator’ a perfect starting point for my top 10.  

“Nice night for a walk.”  


Full List: 

#10 – The Terminator (1984) 

#9 – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) 

#8 – The Fifth Element (1997) 

#7 – Aliens (1986) 

#6 – Blade Runner (1982) 

#5 – E.T. (1982) 

#4 – Jurassic Park (1993) 

#3 – V for Vendetta (2005) 

#2 – Star Wars Trilogy (1977 – 1983) 

#1 – Back to the Future (1985)

One Step Closer to Finding the God Particle

July 28, 2010 1 comment

The God Particle, or the Higgs Boson as its known in the Physics world, is coming closer and closer to being found. (I recently wrote an article  about the Higgs, you can check it out here for a bit of background info)

Experimenters at Fermilab, which is a particle accelerator laboratory in the United States, are competing with Europeans at the new-fangled Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland.

They are competing for the ultimate prize: finding the Higgs Boson, and experimenters at Fermilab just narrowed the search a bit.

I see this competition like a nerdy version of Rocky IV. Fermilab is Rocky, the hard-nosed American underdog (Fermilab is much less powerful than the LHC) and the LHC is the engineered Russian super-athlete.

Fermilab vs. LHC

One of the biggest problems with finding the Higgs is that no one knows exactly what its mass is (i.e. how heavy it is). But we do know that the mass should be between 114 and 185 GeV/c2

Oh, and  GeV/c2 is a unit of mass that particle physicists use. I’m not gonna go into a whole lot of detail, but for comparisons sake the proton is roughly 1 GeV/c2

So the Higgs boson is supposed be roughly between 114 and 185 times larger than the proton.

But Fermilab just released some results which showed that the Higgs is NOT between the masses of 158 and 175 GeV/c2

So this narrows the search parameters a little bit, and hopefully it results in finding the Higgs a bit sooner.

Of course, NOT finding the Higgs boson would just as huge a result. It would mean the Universe is a whole lot weirder than we already thought, and there are those who think we won’t find it.

So exciting times in physics world. But of course its ALWAYS exciting in the physics world! You can try and keep up with all the excitement by following me on Twitter

My Old Prof Found Buckyballs in Space!

July 27, 2010 Leave a comment

I went to the University of Western Ontario (UWO). Its a great school, I had lots of fun. I also studied physics occasionally while I was there.

Physics and Astronomy Building at UWO

And one of my old professors just made headlines!

Dr. Jan Cami, an astronomer at UWO, recently published a paper in Science reporting that they have found ‘buckyballs’, carbon molecules made up of 60 carbon atoms arranged in a sphere, in a planetary nebula known as Tc 1.

Buckyball, also known as Carbon-60

This is an important discovery because buckyballs have long been suspected of absorbing light from distant objects. They were able to find the buckyballs by studying the light from a white dwarf star within the nebula, and spotting the signature of Carbon-60 and Carbon-70.

The chemical signature from the dust of the planetary nebula matched exactly with the fullerenes C60 and C70. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/J. Cami, University of Western Ontario/SETI Institute)

So congrats to Dr. Cami! I recall he postponed a meeting with me once so that he could buy tickets to see The Police. And I respected him more for it.

You are a great prof and a great guy. You work hard and this is the payoff.

My Travels In The Canadian Rockies

July 26, 2010 Leave a comment

So I make every effort to have a post up almost every day. And those of you loyal to my blog will realize I’ve missed a few days.

Well I have a good reason. I’ve been studying tectonic plate activity from 80 – 55 million years ago (i.e. vacation).

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada

Perhaps one of the most beautiful sites in the world, Lake Louise in Alberta is where I spent this past weekend.

Hiking, horseback riding and canoeing comprised my thorough study of the geologic activity in the region.

Who is the gentleman in this photo?

So here is what I discovered from my travels, and a few web searches.

The North American Rocky Mountains were formed roughly 80-55 million years ago.

Location of the Rocky Mountains (Wikipedia)

The formation of the Rocky Mountain range was actually the result of tectonic plate collisions between the Pacific plate and the North American plate.

Tectonic Plates

As you may notice, these plates meet a large distance away from where the Rocky Mountain range is located. What is happening is that the oceanic plate (the Pacific Plate) will slide under, or ‘subduct‘, underneath the continental plate (the North American Plate). This interaction of the plates caused the ancestral rock in the region to ‘bunch up’ and rise into the air, forming the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

However they were formed, the Canadian Rockies are a great vacation destination. Great people, great outdoor activities, and great views.

Scientists Make ‘Invisibility Cloak’ Out of Glass

July 22, 2010 Leave a comment

One of Harry Potters most useful tools was the invisibility cloak, left to him by his dear deceased parents.

While a simple cloth that can make people invisible may be a quite a ways off yet, scientists are developing invisibility technology at Penn State University.

Basically, they use a special type of glass arranged in a cylindrical pattern. The orientation of the glass produces a magnetic resonance which bends electromagnetic waves around an object. This makes the object completely invisible at certain electromagnetic wavelengths.

Right now, they can only cloak objects a couple microns across at infra-red wavelengths, and some things a couple inches across at microwave wavelengths.

So the obvious extension of this work is to cloak stuff from visible light. The principle has been demonstrated, just have to put in the work now.

I think this is worthwhile research. Once we start travelling the stars, we already know the Romulans and Klingons have cloaking devices; we damn well better have our own!

The (Simple) Physics of the ‘God Particle’

July 21, 2010 1 comment

The ‘God Particle’.

Pretty catchy name. Its been in the news quite a bit lately. But what is it exactly? And why would they call it the ‘God Particle’? Especially since science and religion get along about as well as Frank and Estelle Costanza!

Well in this blog post, I’m going to give you a basic and (hopefully!) entertaining explanation of what the God Particle is, and why we should care. So let’s start at the beginning.

The ‘God Particle’ is also (and more accurately) known as the Higgs Boson. Described in a single sentence, it is believed to be the particle that gives mass to all other particles in the Universe.

Ok, that SOUNDS important, but its still a bit hard to understand, so here’s a bit more thorough explanation.

Everything in the universe is made up of particles. And there are several different kinds of particles.

All the matter in the universe is made up of atoms. Atoms are made of a nucleus, which is found at the center of the atom and has neutrons and protons in it. Surrounding the nucleus are electrons, which are much smaller and fly around the nucleus in a circle, or an ‘orbit’.

Groups of atoms can get together and form molecules, and big groups can get together to form rocks, trees, and Maria Sharapova.

So thats 3 particles we have already described (protons, neutrons, and electrons). These 3 particles have mass; this essentially means that they weigh something.

But there are other types of particles out there too. For example, there is the photon.

Photons are are basically light. They are tiny packages of energy that make up a beam of light. They also make up radio waves, x-rays, and gamma rays (the stuff that gave the Fantastic Four their powers).

But photons are different from, say, protons, because they don’t have any mass. They carry light energy from the sun, for example, to the Earth. Or they can carry radio messages from the radio station to your house. So photons are like messengers; as such, they are sometimes called “messenger particles”.

A “messenger particle” is also called a boson. Bosons are really cool because they actually DO something. What do I mean by that?

Well, if you remember high school physics or chemistry class, you know there are 4 forces in nature. Gravity is one of them, and it is the most familiar too us. Its what keeps us firmly planted to the ground. Electromagnetism is what makes electricity, light beams, radio waves, and magnets work.

You Can Visualize a Magnetic Field with Iron filings and a Bar Magnet

The other two forces are a little less familar. They are called the Strong nuclear force, and the Weak nuclear force. These two are basically what holds the nucleus of the atom together, and make it behave the way it does.

So what does this have to do with anything? Well remember bosons are messenger particles. The photon carries the electromagnetic force “message”. The other forces in nature have bosons as well that carry their “messages”. Gravity has the “graviton” (which hasn’t been observed yet but we think its out there). The strong nuclear force has the “Gluon” (because it ‘glues’ the nucleus together). And the weak nuclear force has the “W” boson (it doesn”t get a cool name because its not cool).

Ok, now we get to the Higgs boson. So, since it is a boson, it must be the “messenger” of something right? So what is it the messenger of?

Well, remember I said that protons, neutrons and electrons have mass? But the photon does not have any mass. Why is that? What is it that makes one particle have mass, and the other not have mass? Even a couple of the bosons have mass! Thats just freakin’ weird.

So particle physicists (one of the named Peter Higgs, oddly enough) came up with a theory. They think there is some kind of a field in the universe called the “Higgs Field”. Its kind of like a gravity field, or a magnetic field. Just like a magnetic field will interact with some iron to pull it in one direction, the Higgs Field will also interact with particles. But instead of pulling at them, the Higgs Field gives these particles mass! It makes them heavy!

The theory also says there should be something called the Higgs boson: an actual particle that carries the Higgs field “message”. And thats what we are trying to find. The Higgs boson is the messenger particle of the Higgs Field, which is (theoretically) what gives particles their mass. If we do find it, then we know our theories about how the universe is made are on the right track. It would be HUGE breakthrough for physics!

One problem: the Higgs boson is supposed to be heavy! Well, for a particle its pretty heavy.

In fact, the only way to actually “make” one is by slamming together stuff like protons at close to the speed of light in what we call a “particle collider”. And we need to slam them together at a really BIG energy, so we need a BIG collider. Thats why we have the Large Hadron Collider.

The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland

Ok, so thats the explanation of what the Higgs boson is and why we should care. So why is it called the ‘God Particle’.

Well, a guy named Leon Lederman wrote a book called “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?which was actually about the Higgs boson. Calling it the “God Particle” was a kind of grandiose name because it suggested we knew what it was that gave particles mass, what made they heavy or “real”. Very “god-like” I suppose”.

The term “God Particle” also showed up in Dan Brown’s novel “Angels and Demons”. In the book some claimed that the discovery of the particle would prove the existence of God.

Finding the Higgs would be great, but would hardly prove the existence of God. The use of these terms is largely to increase media interest.

Phew, well there you have it. If you want to hear more about Physics news as it happens you can follow me on Twitter! Or you can follow the Large Hadron Collider on Twitter!