Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Two Musicians

Watch this video of two musicians playing a two-violin arrangement of Mozart's sonata in C major K 296. They reach for their instruments, grab their arches. One look and they're off --the voices of the instruments mingle, each answering the other. One suggests a new direction, the other takes the challenge and ups the ante, and down the new path they go, frolicking in the cascades of sound. Together they weave a web of pure, exhilarating structure. The mathematics of Mozart!

One of these players is a professional violinist, the other a particle physicist. Can you tell which is which? How can you tell?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Venus, a "Pulquería", and an Observatory

People strolling around downtown Mexico City in 1875 might have come across countless “pulquerías” with odd names (pulque is a beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant, Wikipedia dixit). But for weirdness of denomination none beat the latest addition to the long list of hangouts for the brothers in pulque: ”El tránsito de Venus.” The name was no allusion to Roman mythology, but the pulque fraternity´s way of celebrating a major scientific event that took place in 1874.

That was the year a Mexican expedition traveled to Japan to observe the transit of the planet Venus across the sun´s disk. Venus transits occur in pairs, the second transit in a pair coming eight years after the first. Consecutive pairs of transits happen at intervals of more than one hundred years. The transit of 1874 was the first in a pair, the previous one having taken place on June 3, 1769.

Venus transits are interesting because they allow scientists to measure “solar parallax” --a quantity from which the earth-sun distance can be accurately computed. The Mexican team was part of an international effort to determine solar parallax. Enthusiastic about the project, President Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada chose Francisco Díaz Covarrubias, a geographer from the Colegio de Minería, as head of the expedition. There were, at the time, no secure roads between Mexico City and the Pacific, so Díaz Covarrubias and his team took a train to Veracruz, stopping in Orizaba for several days after learning that an epidemic of black vomit was ravaging the port. From Veracruz they traveled to Havana and Philadelphia, then on to New York, where they inquired about ships leaving San Francisco for Japan. (No, I don´t know why they took such a roundabout route.) They then crossed the United States, arrived in San Francisco, and on October 19, sailed aboard the steamer Vasco de Gama. The Mexican expedition made landfall in Yokohama on November 9, 1874, precisely one month before the transit.

Díaz Covarrubias intended to build two observation stations on Japanese soil, but he needed permits. Unfortunately, they had reached Japan at the time of a national holiday, and Díaz Covarrubias had to wait for several days before he got an answer from the Japanese government. During this time he hired a Chinese carpenter who understood some English to assemble the stations. When the government finally responded, it did so handsomely. They even provided a special telegraph line for the Mexicans to communicate with their American and French counterparts, in Kobe and Nagasaki. The transit was duly observed on December 8-9, 1874.

Díaz Covarrubias and his men sailed home via the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Suez canal, the Mediterranean, and Paris, where they published their results. They then crossed the Atlantic to Veracruz. On November 19, 1875, the train carrying the Mexican expedition rolled into the Buenavista station. The men were given a hero’s welcome, recounted the following day in the daily El siglo diecinueve .

I wonder if the event stirred the patrons of “El tránsito de Venus.” Did they discuss it? Did the pulquería take pride in making the news that day? Did a chorus of pulque-besotted voices toast the men who had sailed around the world to witness the event celebrated in their saloon´s strange name?

Whatever the reaction of the pulquería´s clients, the following year Porfirio Díaz, the new president (and future dictator), signed a decree whereby Mexico was officially given a National Observatory.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Message from the Future

I'm strolling leisurely along the darkest corridors of the web in search of nuggets of information for my radio program tomorrow. Newscaster Pedro Ferriz asked me to talk about the Large Hadron Collider, the largest particle accelerator in the world, which has made headlines now for 14 months, since it's opening -and subsequent failure- in September, 2008.

I come across a blog in portuguese (from Portugal? from Brazil? I'm guessing Brazil...). A post in that blog reports that a few days ago a strange young man was arrested by Swiss police after he tried to sabotage the LHC. Sabotaging the LHC is not easy. The thing lies hundreds of meters underground, and the facilities are protected by heavy security, but the blogger does not go into details. The would-be saboteur may have tried to tamper with the power grid in the region (though I don't know how he might manage even that...). When questioned, the strange-looking young man -who was decked in even stranger-looking clothes- claimed he was a visitor from the future. His mission was to stop the LHC from creating the Higgs boson, a particle expected to appear after protons and antiprotons collide at great speed, sometime between today and 2012. Apparently, if the chronotraveler is not wrong, the Higgs boson will bring forth great destruction ("and gnashing of teeth," one is tempted to add, like in the Bible).

It would be great if we could believe this young man from the future. Indeed, if he is right, that means that the Higgs boson really does exist! The LHC was built to answer that question. Now we can all relax and maybe even break out the champagne.

Or maybe not. Scientists don't plan multibillion-dollar experiments just to be proven right. They will be happy if nature presents them with the Higgs, which was predicted theoretically more than 40 years ago, but what would really give them a champagne-worthy thrill is to be proven wrong. Nothing makes for more exciting times in science than the discovery that everything we thought we knew is not so. If, after 20 years of work on the collider, not to mention the billions of dollars it cost, the thing only tells the scientists they were right, and nothing more, it will actually be a catastrophe. A confirmed prediction is a sort of dead end. No new roads to take, no different outlooks to pursue. No new scientific work to do. Scientists like surprises. And they thrive on challenge. If the Higgs turns out not to exist, the discovery will immediately suggest new paths and it will open wide vistas of possibility. That means a lot of work for a lot of people, young and old. Even Peter Higgs -who is pushing 81- might join in on the action (though he would probably miss his shot at the Nobel Prize).

So, even if the saboteur from the future is correct, we should not stash the LHC in the closet. Let's go looking for new lands. Let's risk being awfully wrong after 40 years. That's what science is about.