Saturday, September 20, 2008

Obama and McCain Contrast on Economic Crisis

I think it is fair to say that a large part of this mess on Wall Street is due to deregulation, mostly championed by Republicans (Senator McCain has been a strong proponent of deregulation).  I think it is also fair to say that the Bush administration, after years of not minding the current, took some bold steps this week to try to keep the economy from going down a waterfall.

Senator Obama has supported those efforts and called for bipartisanship.

Senator McCain has, on the other hand, staked out firm positions only to reverse himself the next day, and issued attacks on Senator Obama which, to be tactful, seem to be at odds with the facts.  And as the video montage above from the Jed Report shows, Senator McCain has certainly not always been the voice of calm, steady, bipartisanship this week.  

The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page, known for its rightward tilt, wrote:
"In a crisis, voters want steady, calm leadership, not easy, misleading answers that will do nothing to help. Mr. McCain is sounding like a candidate searching for a political foil rather than a genuine solution." 


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Science Debate Answers!

As I introduced in one of my first posts, there has been a grassroots effort to get the presidential candidates to have a debate centered on concerns of science and technology.  These concerns are intertwined with many foreign and domestic political issues.  It is vital that the next President be aware of these concerns when constructing policy.

Well, we didn't get the candidates to hold a live debate, but we did get them to answer 14 important questions.  Senator Obama responded on 30 August, and Senator McCain on 15 September (McCain thus had the advantage of seeing Obama's answers before committing to his own).  Here are their complete answers, side by side.  Below I offer a brief summary of their answer and my take on them.  [under construction]

Obama proposes doubling federal funding for basic research over the next decade.  McCain would provide tax incentives for research.  It is not clear whether he would increase funding for basic research, but he does say he will "Fund basic and applied research in new and emerging fields".
I am all for stimulating the market to engage in technological research, but basic research can take decades to pay off. Further, some basic research will end up enriching our culture but not providing direct economic benefit (e.g. the Hubble Space Telescope).  So we cannot rely on the market alone.

Climate Change
Obama: "I will implement a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050."
McCain: "I will institute a new cap-and-trade system that over time will change the dynamic of our energy economy.  By the year 2012, we will seek a return to 2005 levels of emissions, by 2020, a return to 1990 levels, and so on until we have achieved at least a reduction of sixty percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050."

It is encouraging to see both candidates state that climate change is real and to set specific goals.  McCain seems more likely, IMHO, to expand fossil fuel use in the short term (e.g. his position on offshore drilling) which is unlikely to move the market in the right direction.  But this is one area where he does seem to differ markedly from the Bush administration.  I do worry, however, about Gov. Palin, who seems to be skeptical that global warming is caused by humankind.  To meet the goals that Obama or McCain have laid out will require a determined push from the White House.  If Palin were to assume the presidency, I fear that she would return to the disastrous do-nothing policy of the Bush administration.

[more to come]


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Is the Large Hadron Collider safe?

The Large Hadron Collider, usually referred to by scientists as the LHC, had its first preliminary test today.  All went well.  But what does the LHC do, and is it safe?

What is the LHC?

The LHC is a "particle collider".  It has two main parts: beams and detectors.  Two beams of protons will be channeled at near the speed of light around a tunnel 27 km in circumference, one clockwise, one counterclockwise, by a pair of rings made of 9000 superconducting magnets.  The beams will cross in several places, allowing the particles within them to collide (hence the term "collider").  The by-products of those collisions will be observed by two enormous detectors (as well as two somewhat smaller ones).  It short, it collides beams of particles and detects what happens.

What is the LHC for?
Physicists have learned a lot about the fundamental constituents of matter by bashing particles together.  The higher the energy scale of the collisions, the deeper, in a sense, one can probe.  We now understand what particles make up all the matter we can see, and what particles are responsible for forces.  For example, as I said in a previous post, we understand about electrons and their siblings (yes, I know I haven't gotten around to doing the followup posts yet), and we understand that the electromagnetic force comes from the particle of light, the photon.  In fact, we have understood how these particles and forces behave in terms of some rather beautiful symmetries.  A symmetry is an invariance, as in "looks the same in a mirror", or "runs the same if you switch all the red and black cables for one another".   A key point is that a symmetry can be broken.  For example, you don't look the same in a mirror.  Even if you part your hair down the middle, there is always some freckle to give away that it is a mirror image.

Our theory of particle physics using symmetries works great, except for understanding why most of the particles have mass.  If the symmetries of the theory were not broken,  these particles would have to be massless.  We need to understand how the symmetries are broken—we have to find the freckles.   The main freckle is called the Higgs boson (please, can we stop using the awful term "God particle"!).  It has never been seen.  We think that is how the electron gets its mass, but we don't know for sure.  And we don't understand how the Higgs boson might fit into a more complete theory.

The LHC is designed to find the Higgs boson, and we hope it will point us to a more complete theory of matter and energy.  It may also shed light on the dark matter, but that is a post for another day.

Is the LHC Safe?
Sometimes the LHC is described as "recreating the Big Bang".  This sort of language is colorful, and conveys the grand nature of the endeavor, but it also makes it sound scary, and, more to the point, is completely inaccurate.  The LHC will probe a new frontier for humans, but the kinds of collisions that will take place in it happen in and around the Earth all the time.  Cosmic ray protons hit protons in the atmosphere and create sprays of particles just like in the LHC.  If you were to wait in one location, it would be quite rare that you would see a collision at the same energies as the LHC, but across the whole atmosphere they happen all the time.  If these collisions were dangerous, they would have done their damage long ago.  

One worry that has been stated in the press is that the LHC might produce mini black holes.  Well, that is a possibility if there are extra dimensions of space that become visible just at the LHC energy scale, but that is unlikely (not quite as crazy as it sounds though).  But such mini black holes would not be like the monsters you may have seen in Sci Fi.  They would be tiny (way smaller than protons) and would decay in a fraction of a second.

Could these mini black holes be stable?  First of all, even if they were, a mini black hole would take hundreds of millions of years to grow appreciably in size in the Earth, so it could not be the doomsday machine some have feared.  But everything we know about the theory says that such mini black holes must decay very rapidly due to quantum processes.   Mini black holes are essentially  just another kind of particle that decays. 

If all of that is not enough to convince you that the LHC is safe, here is a final comfort:  we have seen pulsars.  Comforting eh?  You see, pulsars are like canaries in the coal mine.  They are spinning neutron stars.  Neutron stars are dense cinders of dying stars that just barely avoided collapsing on themselves into black holes (the large kind).  They would feel the effects of a mini black hole much much faster than the Earth would.  They too are bombarded by cosmic rays all the time.  They recreate the LHC experiments each second.  If particle collisions created mini black holes that somehow were stable, all neutron stars would quickly be triggered into collapsing.  We see pulsars, so that can't have happened.

So the LHC is not a threat.  It is just a tool to look for freckles.

An engineer leans on a magnet in the 27km-long tunnel that houses the Large Hadron Collider (BBC News; Image: Cern/Maximilien Brice)