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ZERO POINT COMEDY is up, ready, and the result of over thirteen billion years of thermodynamic processes! (Okay, a result, but it’s pretty important to me right now).

Commenters keep asking for more science comedy so I’ve decided to call their bluff. ZERO POINT COMEDY would let me write more science, more often, with more research and more ridiculously wonderful hyperactive joy at just how awesome our species can be if we stop being dicks for like one second.

Come and see!

Enjoy the Ultimate Energizing Diet Fad!

Some people say you shouldn’t add anything you can’t spell to your body. I’m not sure exactly how they said that while constantly reminding themselves of pyruvate dehydrogenase, adenosine triphosphate, and the presumably hypnotically-induced mantra of “adenine-guanine-cytosine-adenine-thymine” they must constantly incant to make sure they don’t forget a bit, causing their cells to disappear or die because of their anti-magical* thinking. But they still said it, which is why I offer to help with my incredible 100% Chemical-Free Raw Natural Diet.

*anti-magical: deliberately NOT using complicated words they don’t understand, in order to reduce their own abilities BELOW standard.


Stock Photo Scientists

"Of COURSE we have to wear lab coats, do you have ANY IDEA how toxic this chalk is?"

“Of COURSE we have to wear lab coats, do you have ANY IDEA how toxic this chalk is?”

The team celebrate proving the Non-Caucasian Exclusion Principle that only one type of each non-Caucasian can be present in any group shot.

The team celebrate proving the Non-Caucasian Exclusion Principle preventing more than one type of each non-Caucasian appearing in any group shot.

"How's the budget spectroscopy going Steve?" "BLUE!"

“How’s the budget spectroscopy going Steve?”

"Get a biology degree" they said.  "You probably won't spend your life working with open vials of piss." they said.

“Get a medical biology degree” they said. “You probably won’t spend your life working with open vials of piss.” they said.

"No safety glasses for me, huh? I only get to keep 77% of my eyesight, is that it?"

“No safety glasses for me, huh? I only get to keep 77% of my eyesight, is that it?”

"Who keeps leaving this child's model of DNA in our genetics lab?"

“Who keeps leaving this child’s model of DNA in our genetics lab?”

"I've explained this before. I've got the best sciencebeard so I get the only chair. No, I DON'T care, Sharon."

“I’ve explained this before. I’ve got the best sciencebeard so I get the only chair. No, I DON’T care, Sharon.”

"I'm just glad that all science can be done with Calc 101."

“I’m just glad that all science can be done with Calc 101.” 

"Look, it's not hard, because science is clearly colour-coded."

“Look, it’s not hard, because science is clearly colour-coded.”

"Of course I leave my hair like this while leaning over open vials of chemicals. Bonus: my split-ends now spit acid!"

“Of course I leave my hair like this while leaning over open vials of chemicals. Bonus: my split-ends now spit acid!”

"Do you think there are scientists in the world who AREN'T chemists?" "Stop being silly and help me mix these primary colors."

“Do you think there are scientists in the world who AREN’T chemists?”
“Stop being silly and help me mix these primary colors.”

all images property of iStock.

Solar Voodoo: Burnt Offerings to the Sun

In 2017 the Solar Orbiter will be sent to stare directly at the sun, proving that nothing is dumb if you’re smart enough. We’re throwing an outer space gris-gris of space age titanium and burnt bone at the source of all life. We’re rocket shamans.

The shaman cyborg material is in the heat shield: titanium with its surface oxide layer blasted off to be replaced with black calcium phosphate. Aka bone char. The burnt bones of animals. You might think the heat shield should be shiny but in space the big problem isn’t staying warm, it’s keeping cool. There’s no material around you to conduct or convect heat, only space (hence the nam). Insulate yourself and you’ll bake long before you eventually freeze. Which will only happen because you’ve stopped generating heat, caring about temperature, and breathing. Since the Solar Orbiter’s systems generate their own heat it’s more important that they be able to radiate than reflect.

The surface coating isn’t paint: the black calcium phosphate takes the oxide’s place in chemical bonds, creating an armor of dead metal material to stand up against the source of all life. The burnt bone skin is made by Irish company Enbio and is rather brilliantly (and exactly oppositely to brilliantly) called “SolarBlack“.

We’re reducing the sun’s bounty to burnt ash and offering it back to learn more about existence. It’s a scientific sacrament. And will work a lot better than burning good animals for greek gods. Who are good model here, because we’re tackling Apollo like ancient heroes: pitting everything we’ve ever learned (from cave paint to aviation metallurgy) against an awesome power in the heavens.

We’re studying the Alpha and Omega, the source of all life, the shining light in the sky which gathered up our land and sea, which stirred the soup until it started moving around by itself, and even now bathes it with warmth and every way of surviving. Every movement you’ve ever made, every thought you’ve ever had, the creator is there. Because the adenosine triphosphate bonds you’re breaking to exist were all made with solar energy. Which is also the inevitable end of our world. When it swells up red-faced, like a middle-aged Zeus, it will burn our Earth bare of anything even approximating life.

Art often envisages a god as shafts of sunlight, or a blazing ball in the sky, and it turns out the metaphor wasn’t wrong, it was revesed. The sun doesn’t describe a creator. The creator is a description of the Sun.

I love the combination of space-age and cave-age technology. Because they’re both still technology. And they both still work. Sticks still work, and no matter how advanced your iPhone it won’t help when you need to prod something. There are doubtless other ways to make black calcium phosphate, but it’s still best to let something else do most of the work. Biological organisms are still the masters of nanofabrication. Just think of it as an extreme form of smelting.

And I love the idea that the mission to our big star will sit on the outer-space menu with another little star beside it.

Solar Orbiter(*) 1 billion

*This item is not vegetarian.

Space is the Place with

The Anti-Alchemy of Particle Accelerators

One of the most popular pseudosciences in history was converting lead into gold, because pseudoscience is always about making money from the dull by not understanding how things really work. As with many ancient sillinesses technology has now double-enabled us to both do it, and to realize it’s not worth the effort.

The idea that elements are all made of the same parts and can be transmuted from one to the other turned out to be true. The problem is that smashing lead down to gold consumes far too much person-time and energy, both of which are far more useful than gold. In fact the original lead is considerably useful than gold (by a factor of four thousand in terms of annual global production). Especially when you discount imaginary applications like “this shiny stuff is more valuable than other shiny stuffs”.

Which is why I love the wonderful coincidence of superscience with antiquated bullshit: the RHIC and ALICE particle accelerators use gold and lead ions. High-energy alchemical colliders, converting both the most noble and base metals into understanding of the universe.

The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider uses gold not just because they’re heavy ions, which is kind of its thing, but because gold only has one stable isotope. (An isotope is another version of the same element with more or fewer neutrons – chemically identical, but it changes all the nuclear math). Which makes it relatively easy to know that all your gold nuclei are exactly the same. Because when you’re colliding hundreds of particles at 99.995% the speed of light, you don’t want the answers to be wrong because an ion added an extra one at the start.

At the Large Hadron Collider, A Large Ion Collider Experiment uses lead ions because they’re bigger, and bigger is better even at the subatomic level. The lead ion is the biggest stable ion there is, and it’s a double-magic number: both the protons and neutrons are arranged in perfectly filled spherical shells, making it a double-magic nucleus and as spherical as possible to simplify the collision calculations.

Leading to my two favorite things about this:

  1. Science enabling the word “magic” to actually mean something real and important, something which permeates everything, but something that most people still can’t see even though it’s all around and through us.
  2. The most sophisticated machine in the universe as we know it treats things as spheres to make the math easier.

The result is the exact inverse of alchemy: instead of failing to convert material due to lack of understanding, we convert material into understanding directly.

Superscience continues with

Scientists Discover Answer To All Scaremongering Headline Questions: “No.”

Will water give you cancer? Could peeing in buckets end all our energy troubles? Will the Large Hadron Collider destroy the Earth? Scientists have found a grand unified answer to all these problems and more, and the conclusion is “No.”

Corollary: “Duh.”

“Question marks are how you print bullshit lies without getting in trouble,” explains Doctor Sherlock Obvious of the Negative Excrement Institute. “If there was the least scrap of truth they’d report it as fact and it would be the story of the century. Deep in the scarred sewage trench that used to be a heart they know it’s bullshit, but they’ve reached the point where absolute toxic falsehood is an inconvenience instead of a reason not to print it. They’re scheduled to squat out something in the next twenty minutes, so they stick a question mark on the end to peddle noxious fearmongering bullshit.”

“It’s actually quite simple, like the click-bait headline writers. We’re hoping someone will make a browser plug-in which detects headline question marks and appends NO IT ISN’T.”

The question headline works by willfully misinterpreting the basics of the scientific method to achieve the exact opposite effect: a belief in things without evidence. The scientist can’t rule anything out entirely, so the scaremonger seizes the openness to new data to scream the absolute absence of any with “SO THERE’S STILL A CHANCE!”, whipping everyone up into a lather of bullshit. If you asked a taxonomist if there was such a thing as a unicorn, they’ll say that Equus Unus has never been observed.

“But can you definitely say there have never been any unicorns anywhere in the universe?”

“Of course not, though, haha, it’s extraordinarily unlikely…” but the bullshitter is already demanding that audiences be fitted with mandatory magical swords at all equestrian events to protect themselves from being headbutt-stabbed.

It’s the easiest way to not technically lie, and the easiest way to plant an idea while pretending to do the exact opposite. For example:

“Could io9’s stupidity damage the entire progress of the human race?”

No. Thank Thoth. But the idea has been planted with stuff like this.

(Source: morons at io9)

(Source: io9, who aren’t always so idiotic)

The story is another couple of lawyers manufacturing themselves a job by opposing the very idea of progress. Again. But instead of reporting “Unqualified lawyers manufacture bullshit case out of thin air”, io9 decided “Hey, those lying attention-thieves are on to a good thing! We’re on their side!” This time the lawyers are taking on an upgrade to the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. It’s an exemplar of the legal system as molasses poured into machinery of progress so that all kinds of insects can crawl in and get fat before being eventually crushed by the gears of progress their own parasitic existence has slowed.

It’s based on the appalling idea that democracy means unqualified assholes and experts have equal weight. They don’t. If you’re a lawyer: fine, you get to deal with law. Particle physicists don’t come into your courtroom and bombard you with antiprotons. But if you keep this bullshit up, maybe they should. Because the laywers apply their form of only-literally legitimate pedantry to fields where it has no function.

They write “The original [RHIC] report assumed the RHIC would only run for a planned 10 years. But thanks to program extensions, the RHIC is now entering its 15th year”. We know laywers change their minds about what you’re allowed to get away with every time a judge farts, but the laws of physics haven’t changed in the last five years.

“The machine has also been continuously upgraded since the report… The suitability of models and assumptions used in the original analysis might be profitably reappraised.”

It’s nice to see them reveal their real motivation with “profitably reappraised”.

The next trick is usually destroying probability by taking a 0.0000000001% chance of anything, then multiplying it by six billion people no the planet, then by thousands of collisions, and then you might as well multiply them by the 718 Pokemon to the power of twelve zodiac signs because you’ve already destroyed the concept of probability math. Simple multiplication of odds is to probability what throwing stones is to architecture: you can cause pain and fear, but you’re not making anything worthwhile.

The idea of particle acceleration destroying the planet is disproved by cosmic rays. The Earth has been bombarded by far higher energy particles than anything we can generate for its entire existence. If the entire universe can’t wipe out the Earth with stranglets, micro black holes, and other words these writers heard somewhere once but never really understood, then the scientists (who actually created those terms) thank you for the compliment. But their hardware isn’t quite as powerful as everything else ever put together.

We need to stop listening these bullshit headlines. We need to stop people from using the legal system like a media mafia. “Sure is a nice plan to upgrade you got there after finally extracting some funding from politicians who hate and fear what they don’t understand. Sure would be a pity if anything happened to it, like baseless scaremongering.”

A question mark at the end of a headline means “THIS IS LIES, CLOSE THE WINDOW.”

Continue your anti-anti-education with

The Really Rather Large Hadron Collider

There are already plans for a sequel to the vast underground proton cannon which punched through the bottom of our understanding of reality. Because that is exactly why humanity is in charge of the planet instead of searching for a nice cave to sleep in. The Large Hadron Collider is the wonder of the scientific world, an embodiment of our highest technologies so vast it’s international not just in funding but in actual physical size. And what is this are we calling the intellectual immensity which could overshadow the Large Hadron Collider?

The Very Large Hadron Collider. And that is awesome.

It’s such a gloriously scientific naming strategy. Science is all about words with specific meanings, and this name is exactly that. It’ll be an order of magnitude greater than the Large one, so it’s Very Large. Not Mega or Giga, because it’s not bigger enough. Just bigger. Anyone who doesn’t think the name is sufficiently exciting clearly doesn’t understand it. The Large Hadron collider is a twenty-seven kilometer long superconducting crowbar designed to lever the cover off the clockwork of the universe. We bent it into a circle to open a window to understanding of everything, one ring forged by science instead of sorcery and capable of surrounding Mount Doom while it demolishes the unknown with near-light-speed collisions.

The objections I’ve heard so far are laughable. Someone said that we haven’t finished with the LHC yet. And they’re right. The same way that we didn’t buy cars until the horses went extinct. Another voice complained that the Higgs and such subatomic problems are too abstract. They are the exact opposite. The mechanism behind mass is the least abstract thing in existence. Compared to that, humanity is the reflection of a shadow of a dream of emergent behavior in the historical patterns of protons.

But in this world of soundbites, maybe we can come up with some cooler names anyway:

  • The Reality Cannon (good way to triple government funding)
  • One Ring To Rule Them All (particle physics decay tracks more entertaining to read than Tolkien poetry)
  • Large Hadron Collider 2 Turbo
  • Large Hadron Collider X-Treme
  • Half-Life 2: Episode 3: Not Really, But This Will Probably Be Finished First
  • The Supercalifragilisticlargehadroncollider

For more Large Hadron Colliding Coolness, learn from 7 Ridiculous Things People Believe About The God Particle.

Spoiler Warnings In The Standard Model

Honestly, last year’s announcement of the discovery of a Higgs-like particle at CERN should have come with a spoiler warning. But it spoiled nothing. That was the world’s happiest PowerPoint presentation – probably the only genuinely joyful slideshow in history – with everyone basking in the most advanced form of “Woohooo we did it!” possible, which is “We are SO getting the Nobel Prize for this.”

It significantly simplified the normally challenging task of selecting the Nobel Prize in physics. Where once you’d have advanced expert reports and high-level comparisons at the various expanded boundaries of human understanding of existence, this year we must have had some extremely intelligent people sitting around finding ways to say “Well, obviously.” It must have been the only Nobel selection meeting with less discussion than the average office coffee run.

I can just see them all trying to fill time to make the meeting look official. Catching up on their mail. Discussing the weather in terms of chaos theory. Advanced particle physics taking out their phone to finally try “Angry Birds”.

It’s was also nice to see a better reason for waiting until everyone involved is almost dead before awarding the prize. Peter Higgs is 85 and Francois Englert is 80, but the necessary data didn’t arrive until last year, so they really did catch the next Nobel prize like it was the next bus. Many other physicists have changed the world and still had to struggle through it for decades before the Academy decided “Oh, here you go, a pass to all the access and funding you really could have used half a century ago. Good luck, hope your brain’s still working.”

The key point is that the Nobel Prize in Physics is only awarded to people after they’ve actually done something. It’s not like the Peace Prize, which can apparently be awarded on credit in the hopes that its magic Swedish gold will influence the recipient. If they’d done that with the Physics prize, maybe Higgs and Englert would have got them years ago, and they could have used the newly hollowed-out LHC tunnel to hold people without charge or trial for decades instead.

The only acrimony in physics is a rather arbitrary rule that the prize cannot be divided among more than three people. Which is unfortunate, since six people put together the theory at around the same time, and tens of thousands have worked on it since. But Higgs and Englert were the first, and the next paper had three authors, so that is apparently that. Guralnik, Kibble, and Hagen were simply too numerous to share the prize – and they were only that close to running because Englert’s collaborator Brout was already disqualified by death.

Higgs himself hasn’t been hankering after fame, saying that the particle should be called the “scalar boson”. But with the entire world calling it the Higgs boson that’s unlikely. And if your main problem is that the entire world is discussing the latest breakthrough in particle physics, but prefers a different name, you realize that we really are advancing as a species.

Of course the particle has an even worse name. Read all about it with 7 Ridiculous Things People Believe About The ‘God Particle’

A Perfect Pulsar In The Cosmic Clockwork

Bonus material for my latest Cracked article on awesome stars, because it makes my day when the science articles do so well. The sweetest things in science are the problems. The best problem when talking about the universe is that there will always be more than you can cover. I could write a book and have to leave things out. I could write all the books and have to leave things out. Here’s one of them:

#3B The Perfect Pulsar In The Cosmic Clockwork

This was the binary system stirring spacetime like a giant spoon made of neutronium, sending out waves of gravitational radiation. What I didn’t have time to explain was why PSR J0348+0432 was so perfect.

A neutron star is as dense as matter can get without sinking out of all sight behind an event horizon. Even if light can escape, most matter can’t, and the neutron star grows as it consumes everything around it. If it’s spinning this creates jets along the axis, high energy particles squirted out at the poles. If the whole thing is rotating around another axis (imagine a wobbling spinning top – the top is spinning around its axis, but that axis is rotating around and around as well) these polar jets sweep out a circle around the universe. If you’re in the path of this beam, you’ll see a regular pulse as it sweeps past. That’s why it’s called a pulsar.

Source: ESO

Source: ESO

The most compressed mass engine possible thus powers a combination of a cosmic lighthouse and the speaking clock. These pulsars are the most accurate timekeepers possible: when you have for octillion tonnes spinning twenty five times a second, there’s very little you can do to stop it. That’s something twice the mass of the sun twisting at 1500 rpm. At least ten rotations in less time than it takes you to blink. And the whole thing made of solid neutronium: that’s a grindstone which could cut Mjolnir to powder and not even notice. It’ll run down eventually, as all things will, but you’d need to sacrifice a star to alter its timing in any way we’d be around to notice.

So you’ve got the most unstoppable clock in the universe, slap-bang in the middle of the spacetime distortion system we want to measure. It’s the most perfect experiment possible. If astrophysicists had access to God’s sandbox menus, that’s the experiment they’d build with their cosmic Gmod.

Theory predicts that the loss of energy in sending out gravitational waves will cause the pulsar and white dwarf to spiral closer together, shortening their orbit. The measurements matched this theory. The measurements were also 8.6 plus or minus 1.4 millionths of a second, per year, measured from over six thousand light-years away. That’s a measurement of one part in three thousand billion. That’s precision. That’s science. And that’s what people should remember the next time they see someone with shiny teeth and a chat show wibbling about “alternative” theories.

For more spectacular sciencery, I enjoy the echoes of creation known as Baryonic Acoustic Oscillations, and the pure plasmapunk that is the Z Machine.

Three Words of Wonder: Baryonic Acoustic Oscillations

The military is full of TLAs, Three Letter Acronyms, contractions of common phrases which seem intended only to convert even everyday things into an official code that outsiders can’t understand. Conversely, science is stuffed with three word phrases which people treat as technobabble, despite defining exactly what they do, representing extraordinary things with incredible compresion. For example: baryonic acoustic oscillations.

Baryons build most of everything you’ve ever experienced. Every atom consists of a technically massive nucleus made of baryons (protons and neutrons), lots of empty space, and a quantum dusting of leptons (electrons).

Acoustic Oscillations are mechanical waves, like sound, where air shakes back and forth when it’s set in motion by a drum beat or vocal cords. This air shakes the next bit of air, which shakes the next bit, which gets into your ears and shakes bits of your skull so that you can hear it and rock out to Daft Punk.

Put them together and you’ve got Baryonic Acoustic Oscillations, mechanical waves shaking the matter of almost everything. Which is exactly what happened. There are waves across the entire universe, sounds which shook all of existence back when it was small, and we can still see them. Waves half a billion light years across have been measured in the clustering of everything in the universe.

Our existence is a tiny blip in a cosmic sound. All of existence is still shaken, echoes of a universal harmony. That’s how amazing this science is: even trying to describe it causes involuntary poetry.

Every scientific phrase is like this: words which specify exactly what’s going on. That’s what words are for! They aren’t technobabble, they’re teaching, encoding cosmic understanding in a few syllables. Words are how we interpret everything. Not just communication but comprehension. Our brains are built out of protein and fat but the stuff inside – you know, the us – thinks in words. Our vocabulary is the LEGO we build our own minds from. We all start with the same boring set of two-by-four bricks. Adding extra words is how we get the cool space and dinosaur sets. Every word we don’t understand is a chance to permanently upgrade ourselves. And to better understand the awe of matter itself doing a Mexican wave across creation.