Wobbly muons and new forces of nature

Muons are from the same family of particles as electrons, which is a family of particles called leptons. The difference is that muons are about 200 times heaver than electrons and they don't live very long.

Subatomic particles grouped into their families. Muons have a properly called a magnetic moment, which is a measure of the magnetic field it generates, and the stronger a particle's magnetic moment the faster it will spin around its own axis.

A basic calculation using the standard model of quantum physics predicts a value of 2 for this magnetic moment. The trouble is, nature abhors a vacuum and so-called virtual particles are always popping in and out of existence. Virtual particles have a lot of the properties of real particles but they're extremely short-lived. These virtual particles can cause deviations in the muon's magnetic field and induce a sort of wobble with its spin.

Physicists can usually account for these virtual particles. If you know what real particles you've got, you know you need to account for their virtual versions. You can cancel out all the maths and go home for the day and put your feet up.

The thing is, things don't add up when it comes to the muon. This suggests there are virtual particles they can't account for; particles as yet unknown to physics.

Physicists have been measuring these muon 'wobbles' to try and pin down the discrepancy. This is called the 'g - 2 experiment'. The experiment first ran between 1997 and 2001 and the results were announced in 2006. They found that the muon's wobble was slightly larger than the predictions made by the standard model. Back then it was an exciting discovery but it wasn't pinned down accurately enough. Theoretical models have uncertainties and, coupled with experimental results that were not precise enough, it remained interesting rather than revolutionary.

Since then, theoretical models have tightened up and experimental apparatus has been improved, so more accurate measurements of the muon's deviation are available.

On April 6th, 2021 they announced they had tied this value down to an accuracy of 4.1 sigma. 'Sigma' is a measure of how likely the observed discrepancies are just due to a statistical fluke, and 4.1 sigma gives it a 1 in 40,000 chance of that. In order to claim something as a discovery, it needs to be 5 sigma (1 in 3.5 million chance). The experimental team is continuing to analyse the data in the hope of improving that 4.1 sigma value.

But it already points quite strongly to the existence of a new particle.

You may have read that this might mean they've discovered a new force of nature. Particles are divided into two major families: fermions and bosons. Fermions are what make up matter, and bosons are the particles that mediate the various forces between fermion particles. There are currently four forces: electromagnetism, which is mediated by photons (light), the strong nuclear force, which is mediated by gluons, the weak nuclear force, which is mediated by the W and Z particles, and gravity, which is mediated by the (so far undiscovered) graviton. There is also another boson particle — the famous Higgs particle. It arises in a different way and is less an actual force than a particle the mediates the so-called Higgs field that permeates space.

If the muon's wobble is due to an unknown boson particle then it could indeed be a new force of nature. All very exciting if you like this sort of thing.

Is coding a language function or a mathematical function?

The titular question is important to answer because it may affect how we teach coding. Neuroscientists at MIT attempted to answer the question.

Since coding can be learned as an adult, they figured it must rely on some pre-existing cognitive system in our brains. Two brain systems seemed like likely candidates: either the brain’s language system, or the system that tackles complex cognitive tasks such as solving math[s] problems or a crossword. The latter is known as the "multiple demand network."

They hooked people up to an fMRI machine and watched their brains as they attempted to solve coding problems.

Their results showed that the language part of the brain responded weakly when reading code (the paper’s authors think this might be because there was no speaking/listening involved). Instead, these tasks were mostly handled by the multiple demand network.

But apparently only parts of the multiple demand network are activated and, notably, not the parts that process maths or logic problems. Coding therefore appears to be its own distinct process.

The thing is, a similar Japanese study found:

… that activity in brain regions associated with natural language processing, episodic memory retrieval, and attention control also strengthened with the skill level of the programmer.

This suggests to me that coding skills are distributed quite widely across the brain.

I wonder where the guesswork part of the brain is because I'm sure that was the part activated in my brain for most of my coding career.

Wonder Woman 1984 review - no, no, no, no, no

I had been debating whether or not to watch Wonder Woman 1984 for a while. I watched it last night and my biggest regret is that I can't now unwatch it.

Read this post in full.

Harry, Meghan and the BBC

What on Earth is the BBC doing? I'm talking about their coverage of this Harry and Meghan nonsense. I managed to take a screenshot where the drivel was consuming three of their top articles, and I swear it was taking up four of them at one point.

BBC screenshot of Harry and Meghan news.
To be fair there are a couple of front page slots the BBC didn't fill with Harry and Meghan.

I'm not particularly anti-royalist, although I sometimes wonder why we have such a stuffy institution in today's world, but I struggle to see how it's newsworthy enough to warrant three or four headline articles. At least combine it and put it all in one article.

Maybe I'm unusual here, but I'm simply not interested. I bear Harry and Meghan — or the Queen, for that matter — no ill will, but I just cannot fathom how anyone cares about this stuff. I must be wrong, though. Lots of people must be interested or it wouldn't consume so much of the BBC's output.

I suppose the one saving grace is that it saves the UK from having to sit through the torture of the Oprah interview itself — everyone knows everything they've said already.

Jack Dorsey and non-fungible tokens

Jack Dorsey is selling his first tweet for $2.5m+ and I have to wonder if the world has gone completely mad. Again.

The tweet will remain publicly available once it has been sold to the successful bidder, and this has me wondering why anyone would pay such a sum for it.

But all is well because the successful bidder will also get a Non-Fungible Token (NFT) to prove they 'own' this publicly available tweet.

The buyer will receive a certificate, digitally signed and verified by Mr Dorsey, as well as the metadata of the original tweet. The data will include information such as the time the tweet was posted and its text contents.

Most of this information, however, is already publicly available.

I'm sure non-fungible tokens are extremely useful in an emergency, which explains why some idiot prospector is keen to fork out millions for it.

I wonder how much money one has to have before a non-fungible token costing millions becomes a desirable purchase.

Titans review, and a bit of DC vs Marvel comparison

A short review of the Titans superhero series from DC, currently available via Netflix.

Read this post in full.

Wallowing in routine

I'm going to try doing this Daily Blogging Challenge thing for March. I'm terrible at writing to order, but I'll give it a go and see how far I get. Expect a lot of rambling.

Read this post in full.

Cats, dogs and human social cues

Some researchers in Japan tried to find out if cats can pick up on human social cues. Dogs showed a preference for people who help their owner, preferring to take food from the helpers rather than the non-helpers, but cats were indifferent.

When this method was used to test dogs, they showed a clear negativity bias. The dogs preferred not to take food from a stranger who refused help to their owner. In contrast, the cats in the new study were completely indifferent. They showed no preference for the helpful person and no avoidance of the unhelpful person. Apparently, as far as cats are concerned, food is food.

This fits in with what I've always thought about cats being smarter than dogs.

There are reasons to be cautious of this kind of study, though:

It's an example of anthropomorphic bias. It involves interpreting cats' behaviour as though they were furry little humans, rather than creatures with their own distinctive ways of thinking.

To really understand cats, we have to get out of this human-centred mindset and think of them as cats. When we do, what seems most likely isn't that the cats in this study were selfish, but they weren't able to pick up on the social interactions between the humans. They weren't aware that some of the strangers were being unhelpful.

I think it's also possible they can pick up on human interactions quite fine, but they simply don't care.

Despite their popularity, we still know relatively little about how cats think.

Well, you might say that, but having been a slave to cats for may years I can tell you their primary goal is to be in charge. They set about training owners to attend to their every whim and, experience tells me, they're very successful at that. They understand humans well enough to know precisely how to manipulate them.

The problem with comparing cats and dogs is that dogs are pack animals and interpret their status as followers of the human. Cats, by contrast, are loners and interpret their status as superior to everything else that breathes, including Japanese scientists.

Facebook and I finally agree

At last, Facebook has done something I approve of. They've banned Australians from seeing the news on their site.

I sympathise with the Aussies who visited Facebook today only to find they could no longer see any news feeds, but this is a good thing in the long run.

Zuckerberg has dragged many innocents into the "Facebook = The Internet" paradigm, touting his closed-shop, misinformation-peddling, privacy-invading platform as the only way to interact online. Australians are now free to get their news from the World Wide Web as they please, rather than from a feed Facebook decides is the news it wants to give to them.

Aussies, if you want a 'feed' delivered to your desktop, just get an RSS reader and add a few news sites to it.

I have been invited to "enjoy" 0.50% interest

I was astonished to receive an email from my bank inviting me to "enjoy" 0.50% interest via one of their savings accounts. Apparently I could save up to £200 a month for 12 months and then at the end of it I'd be able to "enjoy" a massive £6.50.

It's not that my bank is telling me about this that amuses me, it's that they chose to use the verb "enjoy" as part of their marketing. I feel "accept" or "suffer" would have been better words, perhaps with the addition of "only" or "paltry" in appropriate places.

£6.50 is about a pint and a third at my local pub. You might argue that I'd enjoy that, but I wouldn't. I'd be constantly thinking about how this is all I've gained from sticking away £200 a month for a year.

Spacetime is smooth as far as experiment can tell

One of the big differences between General Relativity (GR) and Quantum Mechanics (QM) is how they each view spacetime. GR sees spacetime as a smooth continuum, like a ramp, and QM sees spacetime as discrete quantities, like a staircase.

Scientists have long been trying to unify GR and QM into one theory, and most have started under the assumption that it's GR that must give. That means trying to find a quantum theory of gravity. If spacetime itself is split into tiny, discrete units that could not be subdivided further, it would be an indication that scientists are on the right track.

Boffins at Fermilab set up an experiment called the Holometer to try and detect spacetime fluctuations at the so-called Planck length, which is thought to be the smallest possible unit about which our current physical laws can make meaningful statements. If they could detect these fluctuations it would point to space being quantised.

The Planck length is astonishingly small. The width of a human hair (about 0.1mm) is roughly halfway between the size of the observable universe and the Planck length.

A few years ago they tried looking for back and forth fluctuations and found none. They have recently tried looking for rotational fluctuations and still found none. Spacetime, as far as experiment can currently detect, is not quantum; it's a smooth continuum.

This does not mean the end of the search for a quantum theory of spacetime, though. Perhaps there's something at a smaller scale than the Planck length, or perhaps the scientists are missing something crucial but as yet unknown. "Unknown unknowns," as Donald Rumsfeld might say.

Antidepressants are bad for fish

When we take an antidepressant only part of it is absorbed by our bodies. We excrete the rest and some of the drug ends up, via water treatment plants, in the ocean. As a result of this it ends up being consumed by fish, none of which have a valid prescription for the drug.

Scientists ran a two-year experiment to look at the effects of one particular antidepressant — fluoxetine, often branded as Prozac — on guppy fish.

The results were stark: the fish on antidepressants seemed to lose their capability for individuality as a result of their exposure, with variations in behaviour between separate animals diminishing as the dose got stronger.

This is a problem because:

More active and risk-prone individuals are likely to secure more resources and enjoy greater reproductive success, in turn bolstering species' fitness, genetic diversity, and overall resilience, the researchers say.

If every animal starts acting the same way, though — living their similar, dosed-up lives adrift in a sea of antidepressants and who knows what else — well, the writing could be on the wall.

The fish are probably fairly chilled about things, thanks to being dosed-up on Prozac, but what staggers me is the subtle ways in which humanity affects nature. I never would have guessed this actually happened, let alone thought about running some experiments on unsuspecting guppy fish to see how it affects them.

How to stop cats hunting wildlife

Scientists appear to have found a way to stop cats hunting, which essentially boils down to feeding them real meat and playing with them.

My cat gets real meat, but I think the main reason she doesn't hunt anything is because she can't be bothered. Previous cats I've had have policed the place for spiders and flies, but not this one.

She won't play either, at least not in any dedicated way. I've tried her with all manner of cat toys but she looks at me with the sort of astonishment I'd only expect if a water buffalo had suddenly wandered into the living room, sat on the settee and started strumming a banjo. She likes cardboard boxes of course, but they're just about the only thing that tickles her fancy.

I have had hunter-killer felines before. I was always curious as to why much of the prey they presented for my approval was decapitated. Do they eat the heads and just bring me the body? Perhaps I'm anthropomorphising but the head is the bit I'd rather not dine on.

ABI tries to explain why it helps fund crime

In a few of my previous articles I've railed against the idea of paying off ransomware criminals. As far as I can see, it rewards them for their criminal exploits and funds further ransomware attacks. I still struggle to believe it's legal.

But not only is it legal, you can also get insurance against ransomware attacks and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) has recently been defending such policies.

The ABI said that firms could face financial ruin without such insurance. That may be true, but it stinks of hypocrisy when so many insurance companies refused to pay firms who had insurance against Covid. Those firms faced financial ruin too.

It does not look as if governments are going to legislate against paying off ransomware attackers. I do however think it will eventually become less common because the insurance policies will eventually end.

Insurance companies offer such policies now because it is profitable for them do so, but the insurance companies are helping perpetuate the crimes and there will therefore be more of them occurring. This will result in more claims until we get the point where it's no longer profitable for insurance companies to offer such policies.

I expect they'll suddenly discover they have a different moral stance on the issue when that happens.

As if one universe wasn't enough

Here’s the thing, for a while now there have been theories suggesting there’s more than one universe. A multiverse, they call it, as if one universe wasn’t already enough trouble to figure out.

As ever, it’s quantum at heart and has something to do with what they call a false vacuum, which has nothing to do with products from Hoover or Dyson.

Let’s say I put a cup of tea on my desk. It’s stable there for the most part, but it’s the equivalent of a false vacuum because a clumsy oaf like me could knock it onto the floor. The floor in this case would be the true vacuum; a lower energy state.

Space can exist in a false vacuum for ages but if one tiny part of it drops to a true vacuum, it will balloon outwards at a rapid rate, using up all the energy the bits of space with the false vacuum had.

It’s one theory about how our universe started. The multiverse exists in a false vacuum and then occasionally a bit of it drops to a true vacuum and a bubble inflates and gives us a new universe. This might have been happening eternally and might continue to do so forever. Universes just continually bubbling up.

Some scientists think this is codswallop and, even if it isn’t, it’s untestable so there’s little point speculating about it.

But what if it was testable? What if these bubble universes occasionally collide? Would a collision with another bubble universe leave some sort of imprint on ours?

A couple of scientists from Durham have been trying to model things and find out what sort of imprint we might be able to find.

“It’s a long shot,” said a cosmologist from Toronto without a hint of sarcasm.

Anyway, if you think multiverses are sexy you might find the article I link to interesting.

Researchers study how to survive the zombie apocalypse

Researchers have been studying how to survive the zombie apocalypse. No, really, they have. Shopping malls and pubs aren't a good idea, which means both Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead are misleading documentaries.

A team of statisticians from Cornell University in the US said:

If there is a zombie outbreak, it is usually assumed to affect all areas at the same time, and some months after the outbreak you're left with small pockets of survivors.

But in our attempt to model zombies somewhat realistically, it doesn't seem like this is how it would actually go down.

Given the dynamics of the disease, once the zombies invade more sparsely populated areas, the whole outbreak slows down — there are fewer humans to bite, so you start creating zombies at a slower rate.

The authors suggest heading for the hills; the Northern Rockies, perhaps.

Clearly they've aimed their research at saving Americans and I demand the UK government gathers equivalent research for us. They can't leave us at the mercy of zombies.

The authors of the paper go on to say:

Given the time, we could attempt to add more complicated social dynamics to the simulation, such as allowing people to make a run for it, include plane flights, or have an awareness of the zombie outbreak, etc.

I can't wait.

Whilst I'm suggesting survival techniques, I found this video interesting (and rather more useful that surviving zombies). It's how to survive falling through ice. Props to the presenter for actually demonstrating the techniques twice.