Archive | September, 2012

Higgs Boson Crash Course

2 Sep

It’s a discovery that’s been hard to ignore. Since early July, news websites and science blogs have been buzzing with the announcement that a Higgs boson-like particle has been observed in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. The scale of this discovery has been compared repeatedly to man landing on the moon, an analogy that is perhaps a bit difficult to swallow until you wade through the hype and understand the significance of the Higgs boson in our current model of physics.

Bosons are a type of fundamental particle, like electrons and the different varieties of quarks and neutrinos. A fundamental particle is one which cannot be broken down into smaller components; they are the indivisible building blocks of all matter and energy in our universe. Bosons are ‘force carriers’; a quantity of energy associated with a type of field. For example, photons are the force carriers of the electromagnetic field. They are essentially packets of energy that describe light. The already-identified W and Z bosons are the force carriers for the ‘weak nuclear force’ (one of the four fundamental forces of nature, the other three being gravity, electromagnetism, and strong nuclear force).

The Higgs boson is the force carrier for the Higgs field. Both field and particle were proposed in 1964 as a way of incorporating mass into the standard model of physics. As it stands, the mathematics of the standard model does not work if mass is used as ‘input’ into the mathematical machinery, but it also doesn’t give mass as an ‘output’, which has left a gaping hole in our understanding of the physical world. We know mass exists, and the Higgs field might be a method of describing it in terms of the other fundamental particles in the standard model.

The proposed Higgs field would create ‘drag’ on different particles. Some things would be affected a lot by the field and held tightly to it (high mass), while some things would be less affected and be free to move more easily across the field (low mass). The best way to verify this theory is to observe the force carrier associated with the Higgs field; the elusive Higgs boson.

If the particle observed at the LHC is the Higgs boson (it might be something else!), then the existence of the Higgs field could be verified, completing the standard model by incorporating mass into it.

It might not be as flashy as the space program, but this discovery could add the finishing touches to the standard model of physics and for that, it is worth the hype.


Printing painkillers

1 Sep

If it’s digital, it can be uploaded, downloaded, shared, edited and embellished. With advances in 3D printing technology, internet accessibility may soon apply to physical items too, including over-the-counter drugs.

3D printers have existed since 2003, and are already in mainstream use for the production of industrial and medical components. Similar to a regular inkjet machine, 3D printers follow digital instructions to produce a physical copy of an item. This is done by precise layering of materials such as plaster or plastic to build up a 3D structure. Demonstrations of the technology have seen 3D scans taken of various items (including an Academy Award statuette and some particularly tasteful gargoyle figurines), then replication of those items in various materials.

There’s more to 3D printing than just copying trinkets though. The potential to perform pre-programmed chemical reactions could turn home offices into small-scale laboratories.

Recent work at the University of Glasgow has demonstrated the capacity of relatively affordable 3D printers to act as tools for performing chemistry. Reaction vessels were ‘printed’ in layers of quick-setting bathroom sealant, and the chemicals required for the desired reaction were ‘printed’ into those vessels. By preparing a digital blueprint for, for example, the production of paracetamol tablets, a specialised chemistry set could be printed out, and a choreographed reaction performed with minimal human input required. The end product would be freshly produced painkillers, essentially downloaded from the internet.

The trials of this technology were carried out using a commercially available 3D printer that cost around US$2000. For that sum of money, and the additional cost of buying reaction ‘recipes’, any household could become capable of producing their own non-prescription medication.

Before this use of the technology becomes commercial, issues of user safety need to be addressed. A printed chemistry set would have to be impossible to adapt for illegal uses; it’s not hard to imagine digital recipes for preparing illicit drugs being shared online. The reactions that could be performed would be limited by the availability and safety of the chemical ingredients. Despite these hurdles, 3D printing and desk-top chemistry might be the next advancement in bringing goods and services into homes.