Wednesday, 21 May 2014

A particularly long distance.

I posted the guts of this on my Facebook feed a couple of weeks ago, then remembered that I did, in fact, have a Blog that was a better place for such shenanigens.


In the mid-1950's a bunch of specky-boffin type scientists who were probably still bored after all the excitement of World War 2, got together in Switzerland and had a bit of a chat, about stuff. They discussed all the normal science type things like, how there wasn't much for them to do nowadays, what the current fashion was for pocket protectors etc. Until someone happened to mention that all the science-fiction films that were popular at the time involved atomic nuclear things and radiation and giant ants and so forth. 

They decided that what the world needed was a bit of factual evidence about how wonderful nuclear power was and how we should all embrace it and buy a pair of nuclear-powered pants or an atomic toaster or something and smile more. A few more months of researching how to make things 'cuddly' so that normal people like you and me... Well... You at least... can relate to them, showed that they really needed to understand how they work, so they could sound all authoraritive about them when they got invited onto popular chat shows. They called themselves 'CERN' (think 'The Avengers', but with lab coats)

So, to this end they built massive underground guns that they used to fire tiny bits of stuff at other bits of stuff to see if they could create miniscule nuclear explosions.

"Seems perfectly reasonable to me!" I hear you all shout. And you'd be right, and so would they if they'd stopped there. But they didn't... Like every frizzy haired mad scientist in every black & white monster movie that they were trying to disprove. They found themselves drunk with power and wanted to smash smaller things together, faster and faster.

So they built a circular gun (But, as they were trying not to scare people, they called it a 'Proton Synchrotron') that they used to accelerate the tiny specks of stuff to velocities approaching the speed of light before crashing them into each other (But after they'd closed their eyes, put their fingers in their ears and held their breath)

They had a huge amount of fun with this and it led to the creation of many, many things that you probably won't have heard of and one quite big thing that you will have - The World-Wide Web came directly out of research done by CERN. Well, actually it came out of laziness, all these hotshot scientists really couldn't be bothered walking from one lab to another, so they invented a way of sending each other pictures of cats without leaving the comfort of their own computers.

Over time, these round guns got bigger, from the 25 meter diameter of the original Proton Synchrotron, they expanded to 2,000 meters and called that one the 'Super' Proton Synchrotron, hoping that no-one would notice. Then, in 1998, some thirty years or so after a chap in a bar in Geneva had said 'Wouldn't it be cool if...' The guys at CERN jumped the shark completely and made a circular gun that was 8,000 meters in diameter. And because the general public knew about what they were doing they didn't bother calling it anything 'user-friendly' like The Magic Bunny-hole or Santa's Secret Toy Chute.

They just went ahead and had signs made up that said: 'LARGE HADRON COLLIDER' Which was what George Lucas wanted to call the Death-Star superlaser, but he thought it might be too scarey for the general public. Here's a map, courtesy of Wikipedia, that shows where CERN is, and where the SPS and LHC are.

The smaller ring is the SPS, the scarily huge one is the LHC

So, what's inside one of these guns? - We'll use the LHC as an example.  Effectively it's two 27Km long by 6cm diameter pipes, surrounded by immensely strong magnets.  that accelerate a beam of teeny-tiny particles to frankly unthinkable speeds before smashing them into another teeny-tiny particle that hasn't done anything wrong and has no idea about what's about to happen to it.

OK, I might be simplifying it just a little bit.  Maybe we need to do a little bit of experimenting for ourselves so that we can appreciate the scale.  Obviously, we can't use real particles for our version of the experiment, you'll never find a pair of tweezers small enough to handle them in your first-aid kit. So, let's scale things up a bit... Let's swap our particle for something about the size of a teaspoon.  
Let's say... Erm... An actual teaspoon?


For this experiment you will need:

Two teaspons
A fairly long piece of string
A Lockheed SR-71 spyplane or similar, modified to fly somewhat faster than usual
A blindfold

  1. Take one of your teaspoons and tie it to the middle of the piece of string.
  2. Tie one end of the string to something fairly solid.
  3. Tie the other end of the string to something else, that is both fairly solid and 1,000 parsecs (or 17,000 TRILLION miles) away.
  4. Using the glue, affix the other spoon to the nose of the SR-71.
  5. Fly far enough away from the string so that you can't see the spoon.
  6. Turn around to face the string and put on your blindfold.
  7. Accelerate to 185,999.9999999 Miles Per Second.
  8. Try to bang the two spoons together.

If you hear a very quiet *ting* noise and then experience a catastrophic explosion, then well done, you have just achieved 'Particle Physics'

If however, you do not hear a quiet *ting*, keep trying until you do - You are allowed 600 million tries every second (That's how many goes the boys & girls at CERN give themselves... Can't see what all the fuss is about myself, seems like you couldn't miss with that many chances)

It's been argued that to completely re-create the experiment, the teaspoons should be rotating pretty rapidly, but I'm not so sure... Perhaps I should ask the guys at CERN?

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

I was a teenage Rockstar!

Thinking about it - That title might be a smidge misleading. The story actually takes place in, I think, 1991 - So I was about 23.

But I was (and still am, to a greater or lesser extent) tremendously immature.

Long-time readers will have no problem picturing the scene:  Myself and the illustrious Scots Mick were sat in the garden at my house, drinking beer, watching the grass move around as the dog tried, unsuccessfully, to find her way back to the house and sniggering at the next door neigbour as she mowed her lawn.  Why were we sniggering? That's a good question, which could be answered by any of the young ladies who had the pleasure of becoming intimately aquainted with me during the nineties, up to and including the current Mrs Dandy.

You see, I enjoyed the party lifestyle that came with having more money than I had responsibility.  Occasionally, due to my hedonistic, playboy lifestyle. Minor things often fell by the wayside, things like general house and garden maintenance, removal of non-working/incomplete vehicles from the driveway and hoovering.

Long-Story-Short, I happily lived like a pig.  In fact, Mrs Dandy still tells the story of her first trip to Dandy Towers, where you couldn't see my dining table, because it was, and I quote, "covered in a mountain of random crap, with a crash-helmet balanced on the top."

Here's a picture of me, at about that time, that goes some way to explain why I was still beating Mimsy off with a stick, despite living in my own filth... I was just so gorram pretty!

That's me in the leather jeans - The slightly furrier one is 'Veggie Saff''

Anywho, back to the sniggering... We'd had an 'altercation' with the next door neighbours some days previously.  The 'Husband' had asked us if there was any way we could just tidy up a bit as weeds from my garden we taking root in his, and the front looked a bit untidy, what with all the rust and oil and spray-paint overspray and everything... Which I thought was perfectly reasonable.  I'd just engaged the neck muscles that you normally use for nodding when his wife came out, barged past him, all hairnets and raised rolling pin and added, "It's like living next door to bloody Gypsies!"

"Well," I thought to myself, "That's a bit racist!"

So, after assuring him that I'd do my best, and smiling sweetly at her, I retired to the house, got a large sheet of cardboard and my best finger paints and made a sign that I then stuck in the front window which read:


I found it significantly funnier than she did (And her husband thought it was fairly funny too... I think.)

So, back to the story, garden, sun, beer, giggling like idiots.  SMick turns to me and says, "You know what we need?"
Now, I panicked, because I thought he was going to say we were out of beer.  A quick check revealed a still half full crate, so I replied, "No, what do we need?'
He scanned the garden majestically, like Simba, off of the Lion King and said, in that voice that people use for going into dream sequences, "We need... A swimming pool."

Now this struck me as the bestest idea that anyone had ever had, ever.

Luckily, we knew people who had access to diggers, people who could plumb, and people who could tile.  We researched pools and their innermost workings, heating, planning permission and all sorts of things. even got a leaflet from our local builders' warehouse called something like 'So, you're building a pool?'

It explained in detail what a completely ridiculous undertaking it was, there are surveys that need doing, all sorts of rules about how far away it has to be from someone else's land and special insurance and subsidence issues to concider and everything.  But, every time we hit a snag, we just thought about young ladies in bikinis plunging in and out of our rear entertainment area.

One of the things it did suggest that you do before you got too excited about the whole thing was to contact your local services companies (Gas, Water, Electricity, Phone, etc.) and make sure that there weren't any buried cables / pipes where you wanted to dig a big hole.

SMick grabbed the Yellow Pages and I got a notepad and the phone - One by one, he would find the 'Customer Enquiries' number and I would call it.  The calls were all pretty much of a muchness:
  • I'd explain that we were thinking of putting in a pool. 
  • The person on the end of the phone would say that they wished thay could afford a pool.
  • I'd say that they could come and have a go if we ever got it finished.
  • There'd be some half-hearted laughter.
  • I'd say that I needed to check that there wasn't anything of theirs that we might accidentally dig up.
  • Then they'd either put me through to someone who had the records, or say that they were going to send someone out to check.
  • Then SMick would call out the next number, he didn't bother saying who it was of course, but the person who picked up the phone usually said "Hello British Gas." or, "Good Morning, Severn-Trent Water."

So, imagine my confusion when a nice lady just answered the phone with "Hello?"
I looked at SMick, who had slammed the phone directory closed and just shrugged at me. I shook my head and launched into my spiel.
"Oh, Hi! Erm... I'm thinking of putting a swimming pool into my back garden and just thought I'd check that there's nothing of yours buried in my garden that I might accidentally dig up.  Would you be able to tell me over the phone, or would you have to send someone out?"
There was a pause from the other end of the phone, then she said, "You're asking me if there's anything of ours buried in your garden?"
"Yeah, wouldn't want to get a shock if I accidentally dug it up."
"No, I suppose not.  Who do you think you've called?'
"Erm..." I looked at SMick again, his face had gone a little red and he was trying not to laugh. He just shook his head and turned his back on me. I picked a name at random, assuming that he'd just given me the same number twice, 'British Telecom?'

"No, not exactly.  This is the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, is this a wrong number, or should I put you through to the mortuary just in case?'

I apologised and slammed the phone down, then picked it up again and threw it at SMick, which, on the whole would have been a lot more effective if it had been a cordless phone.

We never did dig that pool... And I can imagine that not many of you are in the least bit surprised.