Back From the Future

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

A crazy theory about the Higgs-Boson sparks debate in the physics community, and the perils of cloud computing becomes all too real.

Illustration: Mike Pick

The Large Hadron Collider is under attack! Space-time itself is conspiring against the formation of the Higgs-Boson! At least according to two physicists, as reported in a Monday New York Times column by Dennis Overbye.

Essentially, the theory is that the Higgs is so destructive that no possible future universe of ours contains one. Thus, any effort to find the Higgs in the present is doomed to failure. Some might recognize this as a variant of Faraday’s theory of time travel (not the famous one, the one from Lost). But it’s really the product of two respected physicists, Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya, who published a paper on their theory on the ArXiv last year.

Sean Carroll explains Nielsen and Ninomiya’s theory in more detail, which I was able to follow somewhat only because I read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. But beyond explaining the nuances of “imaginary non-local action,” Carroll highlights the crucial distinction between “crackpot” and merely “crazy.” And as someone who regularly receives in his inbox “exclusive” papers that the “mainstream journals are too scared to publish,” I can tell you that if you really want to take a trip to crackpot town, theoretical physics is the place to start. Did you know that our solar system is a giant Beryllium atom and Jupiter is, in fact, an electron?
That isn’t to say there is a shortage of crazy in the biomedical world: Witness Bill Maher shred his own credibility as a pro-science guy in this conversation about vaccines with Bill Frist. (When you make a doctor who is famous for diagnosing a woman’s brain activity via teleconference look like a paragon of evidence-based medicine, we have a problem.)

ScienceBlogs’ own mad physicist, Chad Orzel, is a touch more skeptical than Carroll on the value of “crazy” theories. Though it was a fun way to get a bit more LHC coverage into a mainstream news source at a time when science stories are waning, truly out-there theories could undermine public trust in how “normal” science is done. If the experts are going on about a particle from the future being able to stack a deck of cards, why not believe Bill Maher over public health officials who are scared of tiny invisible animals that can make you sick? 

Of course, if Nielsen and Ninomiya’s theory is true, Orzel may have created a similar doomsday machine in his laser lab. The setbacks he’s experienced may just be the product of northern New York weather—but just look at the thing and tell me its many wires and protuberances don’t portend an apocalyptic future worthy of time-travelling shenanigans. 

And if Orzel wants to check out the state of science coverage in the New York Times, he could flip from Overbye’s column to the one by David Brooks. Observers of Brooks know that he occasionally takes a break from being vaguely, non-committedly wrong on politics to being vaguely, non-committedly wrong on science. So, after attending a conference of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society, Brooks provided us with “The Young and the Neuro.”

Poking fun at his column may be an exercise in protecting my turf as a purveyor of mildly interesting scientific happenings of the week prior, but I’d like to think I provide a little more than a summary of conference abstracts. Brooks does try to tie a bow on his excursion, however, with his penultimate paragraph:

Since I’m not an academic, I’m free to speculate that this work will someday give us new categories, which will replace misleading categories like “emotion” and “reason.” I suspect that the work will take us beyond the obsession with I.Q. and other conscious capacities and give us a firmer understanding of motivation, equilibrium, sensitivity and other unconscious capacities.

I know we have some neuroscientists of our own in the audience here; any guesses as to what brain affliction might explain the presence of those two head-scratching sentences in a newspaper of record? 

Cloud Fail

Of course, you have to take with the good with the bad, even at the New York Times. The day before Brooks’ brain fart, the Times ran a prescient piece by Ashlee Vance on the challenges of managing big datasets. Assuming the LHC isn’t destroyed by its own future, it will produce petabytes of data. It will be an unprecedented challenge to maintain it all without losing or corrupting any of the data.

Forget science, this is a challenge for the computer companies whose entire industry relies on keeping extremely large “clouds” of data intact as they squirt from centralized servers to people’s home computers and phones.

Microsoft and T-Mobile have more than a little egg on their face after Sidekick mobile phone users found that all of their contact information had been vaporized earlier this week. Similar cloud-fails also happened at Apple and Facebook, though they were less catastrophic. 

Jamais Cascio has sounded the alarm on cloud computing before, but the urgency for developing failsafes is rising as the data in question evolves from party photos to genome sequences and particle traces.

Though the ability to infinitely copy information makes us think it immortal, in some ways our digital data legacy may be more precarious than a stack of leather-bound books. Besides being vulnerable to the vagaries of the electromagnetic spectrum, data can be lost or corrupted every time it needs to be transferred to the latest medium.

That’s not even taking into account the least secure aspect of any information system: people. While theories that the Sidekick disaster might have been sabotage remain speculative, it’s clear that with a few clicks an inept or maliciously motivated person could wipe out enough data to make the Library of Alexandria’s destruction look like a campfire.

We’re going to need some seriously robust backups. Might I suggest some carbon nanotubes that can fit a terabyte of data per square inch

With Google Wave finally in public beta (and being touted as the ultimate communication tool for scientists and journalists) more crucial data is entering the cloud everyday. And with Finland (always known for its Finnovation) decreeing that broadband access a legal right for its citizens, you can tell which way the digital wind is blowing. 

Let’s just hope these cloud fails aren’t another message of doom from the future; that the expansion of the internet and our intercommunication capabilities are putting the very universe at risk. Actually, judging by some of the creative and intellectual output currently filling the internet, it might not be such a crazy theory after all.

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published October 16, 2009

Tags lhc risk technology time truth

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