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Posts Tagged ‘Medicine’

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on July 21, 2014.

Members of the prototype proton CT scanner collaboration move the detector into the CDH Proton Center in Warrenville. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Members of the prototype proton CT scanner collaboration move the detector into the CDH Proton Center in Warrenville. Photo: Reidar Hahn

A prototype proton CT scanner developed by Fermilab and Northern Illinois University could someday reduce the amount of radiation delivered to healthy tissue in a patient undergoing cancer treatment.

The proton CT scanner would better target radiation doses to the cancerous tumors during proton therapy treatment. Physicists recently started testing with beam at the CDH Proton Center in Warrenville.

To create a custom treatment plan for each proton therapy patient, radiation oncologists currently use X-ray CT scanners to develop 3-D images of patient anatomy, including the tumor, to determine the size, shape and density of all organs and tissues in the body. To make sure all the tumor cells are irradiated to the prescribed dose, doctors often set the targeting volume to include a minimal amount of healthy tissue just outside the tumor.

Collaborators believe that the prototype proton CT, which is essentially a particle detector, will provide a more precise 3-D map of the patient anatomy. This allows doctors to more precisely target beam delivery, reducing the amount of radiation to healthy tissue during the CT process and treatment.

“The dose to the patient with this method would be lower than using X-ray CTs while getting better precision on the imaging,” said Fermilab’s Peter Wilson, PPD associate head for engineering and support.

Fermilab became involved in the project in 2011 at the request of NIU’s high-energy physics team because of the laboratory’s detector building expertise.

The project’s goal was a tall order, Wilson explained. The group wanted to build a prototype device, imaging software and computing system that could collect data from 1 billion protons in less than 10 minutes and then produce a 3-D reconstructed image of a human head, also in less than 10 minutes. To do that, they needed to create a device that could read data very quickly, since every second data from 2 million protons would be sent from the device — which detects only one proton at a time — to a computer.

NIU physicist Victor Rykalin recommended building a scintillating fiber tracker detector with silicon photomultipliers. A similar detector was used in the DZero experiment.

“The new prototype CT is a good example of the technical expertise of our staff in detector technology. Their expertise goes back 35 to 45 years and is really what makes it possible for us to do this,” Wilson said.

In the prototype CT, protons pass through two tracking stations, which track the particles’ trajectories in three dimensions. (See figure.) The protons then pass through the patient and finally through two more tracking stations before stopping in the energy detector, which is used to calculate the total energy loss through the patient. Devices called silicon photomultipliers pick up signals from the light resulting from these interactions and subsequently transmit electronic signals to a data acquisition system.

In the prototype proton CT scanner, protons enter from the left, passing through planes of fibers and the patient's head. Data from the protons' trajectories, including the energy deposited in the patient, is collected in a data acquisition system (right), which is then used to map the patient's tissue. Image courtesy of George Coutrakon, NIU

In the prototype proton CT scanner, protons enter from the left, passing through planes of fibers and the patient’s head. Data from the protons’ trajectories, including the energy deposited in the patient, is collected in a data acquisition system (right), which is then used to map the patient’s tissue. Image courtesy of George Coutrakon, NIU

Scientists use specialized software and a high-performance computer at NIU to accurately map the proton stopping powers in each cubic millimeter of the patient. From this map, visually displayed as conventional CT slices, the physician can outline the margins, dimensions and location of the tumor.

Elements of the prototype were developed at both NIU and Fermilab and then put together at Fermilab. NIU developed the software and computing systems. The teams at Fermilab worked on the design and construction of the tracker and the electronics to read the tracker and energy measurement. The scintillator plates, fibers and trackers were also prepared at Fermilab. A group of about eight NIU students, led by NIU’s Vishnu Zutshi, helped build the detector at Fermilab.

“A project like this requires collaboration across multiple areas of expertise,” said George Coutrakon, medical physicist and co-investigator for the project at NIU. “We’ve built on others’ previous work, and in that sense, the collaboration extends beyond NIU and Fermilab.”

Rhianna Wisniewski

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A second chance at sight

Monday, February 17th, 2014

This article appeared in symmetry on February 4, 2014.

Silicon microstrip detectors, a staple in particle physics experiments, provide information that may be critical to restoring vision to some who lost it.

Silicon microstrip detectors, a staple in particle physics experiments, provide information that may be critical to restoring vision to some who lost it.

In 1995, physicist Alan Litke co-wrote a particularly prescient article for Scientific American about potential uses for an emerging technology called the silicon microstrip detector. With its unprecedented precision, this technology was already helping scientists search for the top quark and, Litke wrote, it could help discover the elusive Higgs boson. He further speculated that it could perhaps also begin to uncover some of the many mysteries of the brain.

As the article went to press, physicists at Fermilab announced the discovery of the top quark, using those very same silicon detectors. In 2012, the world celebrated the discovery of the Higgs boson, aided by silicon microstrip detectors at CERN. Now Litke’s third premonition is also coming true: His work with silicon microstrip detectors and slices of retinal tissue is leading to developments in neurobiology that are starting to help people with certain kinds of damage to their vision to see.

“The starting point and the motivation was fundamental physics,” says Litke, who splits his time between University of California, Santa Cruz, and CERN. “But once you have this wonderful technology, you can think about applying it to many other fields.”

Silicon microstrip detectors use a thin slab of silicon, implanted with an array of diode strips, to detect charged particles. As a particle passes through the silicon, a localized current is generated. This current can be detected on the nearby strips and measured with high spatial resolution and accuracy.

Litke and collaborators with expertise in, and inspiration from, the development of silicon microstrip detectors, fabricated two-dimensional arrays of microscopic electrodes to study the complex circuitry of the retina. In the experiments, a slice of retinal tissue is placed on top of one of the arrays. Then a movie—a variety of visual stimuli including flashing checkerboards and moving bars—is focused on the input neurons of the retina, and the electrical signals generated by hundreds of the retina’s output neurons are simultaneously recorded. This electrical activity is what would normally be sent as signals to the brain and translated into visual perceptions.

This process allowed Litke and his collaborators to help decipher the retina’s coded messages to the brain and to create a functional connectivity map of the retina, showing the strengths of connections between the input and output neurons. That in itself was important to neurobiology, but Litke wanted to take this research further, to not just record neural activity but also to stimulate it. Litke and his team designed a system in which they stimulate retinal and brain tissue with precise electrical signals and study the kinds of signals the tissue produces in response.

Such observations have led to an outpouring of new neurobiology and biomedical applications, including studies for the design of a retinal prosthesis, a device that can restore sight. In a disease like retinitis pigmentosa or age-related macular degeneration, the eye’s output system to the brain is fine, but the input system has degraded.

In one version of a retinal prosthesis, a patient could wear a small video camera—something similar to Google Glass. A small computer would process the collected images and generate a pattern of electrical signals that would, in turn, stimulate the retina’s output neurons. In this way, the pattern of electrical signals that a naturally functioning eye would create could be replicated. The studies with the stimulation/recording system are being carried out in collaboration with neurobiologist E. J. Chichilnisky (Salk Institute and Stanford University) and physicist Pawel Hottowy (AGH University of Science and Technology, Krakow). The interdisciplinary and international character of the research highlights its origins in high energy physics.

In another approach, the degraded input neurons—the neurons that convert light into electrical signals—are functionally replaced by a two-dimensional array of silicon photodiodes. Daniel Palanker, an associate professor at Stanford University, has been using Litke’s arrays, in collaboration with Alexander Sher, an assistant professor at UCSC, who completed his postdoctoral work with Litke, to study how a prosthesis of this type would interact with a retina. Palanker and Sher are also researching retinal plasticity and have discovered that, in patients whose eyes have been treated with lasers, which can cause scar tissue, healthy cells sometimes migrate into an area where cells have died.

“I’m not sure we would be able to get this kind of information without these arrays,” Palanker says. “We use them all the time. It’s absolutely brilliant technology.”

Litke’s physics-inspired technology is continuing to play a role in the development of neurobiology. In 2013, President Obama announced the BRAIN—Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies—Initiative, with the aim of mapping the entire neural circuitry of the human brain. A Nature Methods paper laying out the initiative’s scientific priorities noted that “advances in the last decade have made it possible to measure neural activities in large ensembles of neurons,” citing Litke’s arrays.

“The technology has enabled initial studies that now have contributed to this BRAIN Initiative,” Litke says. “That comes from the Higgs boson. That’s an amazing chain.”

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This article appeared in symmetry on Jan. 7, 2014.

Accelerator technology could be key to developing an effective treatment for a type of brain tumor currently considered incurable.

Accelerator technology could be key to developing an effective treatment for a type of brain tumor currently considered incurable.

One of the most common and aggressive types of malignant tumor originating in the human brain is called a glioblastoma multiforme. Patients diagnosed with this kind of tumor are told they have, on average, a little more than a year to live.

Because standard treatments, including surgery and radiation therapy, cannot completely eradicate glioblastomas without fatally damaging the surrounding healthy tissue, these tumors are considered incurable. But Narayan Hosmane, a boron chemist from Northern Illinois University, is working with a team of scientists from Fermilab to try to rid them of that classification.

The group is exploring the capabilities of an experimental treatment called Boron Neutron Capture Therapy. The key to making BNCT work, they think, could lie in particle accelerator technology.

Daniel Silbergeld, a University of Washington neurosurgery and neuropathology professor based at UW Medical Center and Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, operates on more than 200 tumors in a year, at least half of which are glioblastomas.

“Our goal is to help that person live as long as possible and as well as possible,” Silbergeld says. “We never know how well an individual is going to do.”

Silbergeld, who is an affiliate of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, says patients who undergo aggressive therapy tend to be the ones who live longer.

Here’s an overview of how BNCT works: A medical professional injects into the patient’s bloodstream a tumor-seeking compound containing non-radioactive boron. Normally, blood does not come in contact with the brain, thanks to a bodily structure called the blood-brain barrier. But due to the relatively low molecular weight of the compound, and the fact that tumors often compromise the blood-brain barrier anyway, the drug can bypass this membrane and enter the glioblastoma, which is filled with blood vessels. The drug accumulates there and in some of the surrounding tissue.

Next, scientists send a beam of neutrons through the patient’s brain. Compared to other elements, boron (specifically, boron-10) is one of the best at capturing neutrons; because of the structure of its nucleus, it acts like a specialized, larger-than-average baseball mitt. When a neutron is caught, the boron atom fissions into two particles called an alpha particle and a lithium ion. These particles, due to their relative heaviness, deposit a lot of energy locally—in this case, in the cancer cells. The deposited energy is equivalent to a hefty dose of radiation to the tumor, meant to eradicate it.

So far, the most successful BNCT trials have yielded results that are about the same as standard therapies. The technique has been attempted around the world for decades and has even reached clinical trials in Japan.

But, until now, researchers have generated their beams of neutrons using nuclear reactors. Patients at research facilities, such as MIT’s Fission Converter Beam, or hospitals, such as the Helsinki University Central Hospital, would lay with their heads positioned directly against a nuclear reactor that generates neutrons by a fission chain reaction. Hosmane and the group from Fermilab have another idea.

They think they can improve results by creating epithermal neutrons using higher energy beams from a linear particle accelerator instead, says Tom Kroc, head of neutron therapy at Fermilab. In the past, Fermilab’s fast neutron therapy facility used beams of 66 million electronvolts. While BNCT trials would not require nearly that much energy, the capabilities are much higher than the 2 million electronvolts or less that reactors provide.

Low-energy neutrons have more of a propensity for causing boron atoms to fission; however, they cannot penetrate tumors located deep within the brain, Kroc says.

“With the neutrons from the reactors, they can only treat tumors that are about 2 centimeters deep,” Kroc says. “Our hope is that since we have a higher energy beam we will be able to treat tumors that are deeper.”

He says they must “try to find some sweet spot,” slowing down their beam just enough to penetrate deeply while also giving the boron atoms a fighting chance at fission.

An added benefit of using a particle accelerator instead of a nuclear reactor could be the reduced amount of security required at treatment facilities, Kroc says. And, while treatments using a reactor took a number of hours to complete in the past, the use of an accelerator could speed up a patient’s visit to about 10 to 20 minutes.

In addition to changing the way the neutron beam is generated, the NIU-Fermilab team is working to improve the way the boron is administered.

“The biggest challenge is to get that boron into the tumor,” says Jim Welsh, chief medical coordinator for the development of BNCT at Fermilab.

Hosmane is in the process of getting approval for a different compound that he hopes would work in a similar way, but more effectively. For example, Welsh says, to get to the tumor, some of the compounds would emulate the function of amino acids, which are able to bypass the blood-brain barrier using special carrier proteins. But for now, the team’s efforts are still mostly ground-level.

“It’s beyond the early stage, but I’d say it’s still in the experimental and exploratory stage,” Welsh says.

Silbergeld’s colleague, Radiation Oncologist Jason Rockhill, is well versed in BNCT research. He says that, beyond getting enough boron to the target cell, an added challenge is to then inflict enough cellular damage to destroy the cancer.

“BNCT is a really cool idea, but it’s complex,” Rockhill says.

He estimates that, between drug development and gaining access to the proper type of accelerator, getting to the point of clinical trials is likely to take much time and effort—plus upwards of multiple millions of dollars.

If Welsh’s team pulls together proper funding, receives access to Fermilab’s linear-accelerator-derived neutron beam facility and purchases the necessary computer software, they could start pursuing clinical trials in a few years, Welsh says.

Fermilab is the only place in the United States considering using linear accelerator-based neutrons for BNCT and would be the only lab using the new drugs being developed at NIU.

“There is so much potential,” Kroc says. “The questions are still unanswered as to whether we can make it work, and I want to see it through to its conclusion.”

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This is a follow-up from our last post where Paul Schaffer, Head of the Nuclear Medicine Division at TRIUMF, was talking about his experience of being in the media spotlight. In this post, Paul talks more in-depth about the science of medical isotopes.

It all started 19 months ago. A grant that would forever change my perspective of science geared specifically toward innovating a solution for a critical unmet need—in this situation, it was the global isotope crisis. In 2010, not too long out of the private sector, I was already working on an effort funded by NSERC and CIHR through the BC Cancer Agency to establish the feasibility of producing Tc-99m—the world’s most common medical isotope—on a common medical cyclotron. The idea: produce this isotope where it’s needed, on demand, every day, if and when needed. Sounds good, right? The problem is that the world had come to accept what would have seemed impossible just 50 years ago.

The current Tc-99m production cycle, which uses nuclear reactors. Image courtesy of Nordion.

We are currently using a centralized production model for this isotope with just a six hour half-life. This model involves just a handful of dedicated, government-funded research reactors, producing molybdenum-99 from highly enriched uranium (which is another issue for another time). Moly, as we’ve come to affectionately call it, decays via beta emission to technetium, and when packaged into alumina columns, is sterilized, and encased in a hundred pounds of lead. It is then shipped by the thousands to hospitals around the world. The result: the world has come to accept Tc-99m, which is used in 85% of the 20 to 40 million patient scans every year as an isotope available from a small, 100 pound cylinder that was replaced every week or so, without question, without worry. Moly and her daughter were always there…but in 2007 and again in 2009, suddenly they weren’t. The world had come to realize that something must be done.

In the middle of our NSERC/CIHR effort, we were presented with an opportunity to write a proof-of-concept grant based on the proof-of-feasibility we were actively pursuing. Luckily, the team had come far enough to believe we were on the right track. We believed that large scale curie-level production of Tc-99m using existing cyclotron technology was indeed possible. The ensuing effort was—in contrast to the current way of doing things—ridiculous.

With extensive, continuous input from several top scientists from around the country, I stitched together a document 200 pages long. It was a grant that was supposed to redefine how the most important isotope in nuclear medicine was produced. 200 pages, well 199 to be exact, describing a process—THE process—we were hopefully going to be working on for the next 18 months. We waited…success! And we began.

The effort started the same way as the document – with nothing more than a blank piece of paper. Blank in the sense that we knew what we had to do, we just had not defined exactly how we were going to achieve our goal. But what happened next was a truly remarkable thing; with that blank sheet, I witnessed first-hand a team of people imagine a solution, roll up their sleeves and turn those notions into reality.

If you would like to read the PET report, click here

 

 

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Paul Schaffer is the head of the Nuclear Medicine Division at TRIUMF. For the past 18 months, he and his team have been devising a method for Canada and the world to have an alternative way to produce medical isotopes. Currently, these isotopes are created on aging nuclear reactors, which are beginning to show signs of wear by needing emergency repairs. These repairs stop the flow of isotopes, affecting hundreds of thousands of people around the world. This is an inside perspective of what it means to work on the front line, and be in the media spotlight.

I’m going to start this post with the day I had the privilege of standing in front of a group of reporters along with a few of my esteemed colleagues to announce that we had, in fact, delivered on a promise we had made just over a year ago; the promise of making medical isotopes with existing hospital cyclotrons. We had set out to prove that it was possible to produce Tc-99m on a small medical cyclotron and at quantities sufficient to supply a large urban centre. The solution to Tc-99m shortages is to decentralize production. It was an example of Canadian innovation at its best – by taking a group of existing machines in existing facilities already tasked at making various other medical isotopes and extending the functionality of those facilities to produce another isotope.

Paul presenting his team's findings

The response from the press was remarkable to witness. The interest was swift, broad, and far reaching. The 24-hour news cycle had begun and with it came a deluge of requests for radio, TV, and print interviews. In the ensuing days I read a number of wonderful reports from capable reporters, often writing about a topic well outside of their background or familiarity. For that, I admire the work that they collectively pulled together in the short amount of time involved.

Something else happened, though; something I didn’t anticipate – the ensuing media blitz ended up becoming a very personal social experiment, an intense self-examination. On the way to my first-ever national television interview, I can distinctly remember reality sinking in—for most of my life, I’ve dealt with significant hearing loss. In my ever-quiet world, acutely and perpetually punctuated by tinnitus, verbal communication can be a consuming task.

It is a fact that I comprehend only 33% of the words spoken to me and that my brain fills the gaps using whatever facts it can absorb from my surroundings—expressions, moving lips, and other non-verbal cues. In that car on the way to the interview, I couldn’t help but to continuously wonder about how I would handle verbal questions on camera? What do you say on live TV when you can’t for the life of you figure out what your conversational counterpart is saying? My wingman kept reassuring me, giving background from experience and many, many reassuring comments; but deep down I had to wonder, was this the moment when the whole situation would finally come undone? My charade of being able to hear the world around me would finally end. Worse still, had the moment come to sell the team’s amazing accomplishments on national TV, with a significant number of people literally watching; and all I kept wondering was: will it fall apart simply over an unheard or misinterpreted question? Good thing most communication is non-verbal.

The interview ended up being remote, with the reporters in Ontario and a conspicuous 5 second ‘safety’ delay between what I thought I heard and what showed up on the TV monitor facing me. Five seconds was long enough for them to cut out a fleeting wardrobe malfunction, should I become a bit too passionate during my scientific descriptions, but not nearly long enough to spare a poor soul a repeat question. So, seated in a large, empty, and thankfully quiet studio it began with a single chair, bright lights, and an audio test – ‘please count to 5’ came in over the ear piece…this out of context and no non-verbal queue jolted my fear into reality. I couldn’t understand the question. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my wingman turn a shade lighter. Worry was setting in. The in-studio producer was almost dumbstruck – this ‘expert’ couldn’t count to five.  45 seconds to ‘go’ and he repeated the question. I got it, counted to five….30 seconds….15, an ambulance was coming, getting louder, I couldn’t hear the commercial any longer…..10, the ambulance was on the street directly below. I had to look away from the TV screen, as the delay was overwhelmingly distracting. 5 seconds. The sirens were starting to recede and before you knew it, I was live.

Paul on CTV News

At first I didn’t want to watch the interview, but family, friends and colleagues from across Canada starting chiming in and eventually convinced me to watch. I felt satisfied with the results, relieved that I had heard every question, answered everything without wandering or forgetting what the question was, covering the topics I wanted to cover. However, I was definitely watching an objective projection of somebody I wasn’t familiar with. I won’t get into the details of what I saw – it’d be different for everyone, but the experience has been life altering, as has this project. That said, I’m proud of the team that has worked so well and so hard together for the past 18 months. It’s been a remarkable project on all fronts. Whether our results continue to keep their momentum and become a permanent solution to the isotope issues that plagued us for two years remains to be seen. I do know success when I see it, and this team of Canadian scientists, engineers, and medical professionals should all be immensely proud of what they have done. They are Canadian innovation at its best.

The team of TRIUMF scientists Paul collaborated with on the groundbreaking project

 

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Update I: Included Medicine Award (Oct 03)

Update II: Included Physics Award (Oct 04)

… it’s Nobel Week! October means three things: Halloween (duh), Fall, and Nobel Week, the week during which the famed prizes are awarded to those who have “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” [1]. Okay, before I get comments about the subjectivity of those who award the prizes, I gladly admit that the history of the prize is not without controversy relating to those who have & have not won, in both the science and non-science categories.

I am just going to ignore all of that and talk about why everyone should be excited about this week. Though before I talk about this week’s Nobels, I feel I should probably give the SparkNotes version of the prizes’ history.

Figure 1: The 2008 Chemistry Prize was awarded for the discovery and development of green fluorescent protein (GFP), which when inserted into a soon-to-be parent is passed onto an offspring who can then glow green. Glowing cat!
(Image: The Nobel Foundation)

[1] http://www.nobelprize.org/alfred_nobel/will/will-full.html

A Brief History of Alfred Nobel

Figure 2: Alfred Nobel. (Image: The Nobel Foundation)

The year is 1866, the Second Industrial Revolution is raging, innovation is surging, and the US Civil War over.

Insert Alfred Nobel: A son of a successful engineer who developed controlled explosives for the demolition and mining industries. The younger Nobel, unsurprisingly, decided be a chemist after playing with nitroglycerin in a French laboratory. As a public service announcement, I should probably mention that nitroglycerin is very dangerous and is a principle ingredient in dynamite. In fact, Nobel was so convinced that nitroglycerine had useful application in construction that he decided to invent dynamite. Needless to say, dynamite made Nobel a very, very, very rich man. At the end of his life, he decided to endow, with the bulk of his fortune, a set of prizes to recognize those who have contributed greatest in the Fields of Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, and Peace. Economics, though not stipulated in the original will, was added later and is funded separately.

Figure 2: The chemical structure of nitroglycerin. This stuff is wicked; the physical chemistry behind its structure worth a gander. Consider this an advertisement to go earn a chemistry degree. (Image: Wikipedia)

What Makes a Prize

The Nobels has come a long way since they were first instituted. Most notably, they no longer are awarded for the greatest discovery or invention from the past year; the prizes now award those results with the most lasting influence and impact. Take last year for example. The 2011 award for Physiology or Medicine went solely to Sir Robert Edwards for having developed in vitro fertilization. You would think something that is, in every sense of the word, responsible for the existence of millions of people would have been awarded long, long ago. I mean, that is what went through my mind last October. Therein lies the novelty of the Nobel Prizes: These days, the awards are given to what seem like common knowledge, because in some sense they are. What one has to realize though is that prior a laureate’s discovery or invention, these ideas and concepts just did not exist. Imagine a world in which no one knew of insulin (Nobel 1923). Weird, no?

This brings me to why Nobel Week is so much fun. Sometimes you know quite a bit about the award-winning discovery and so you get to spend the day reading news articles and science blogs learning all about the topic’s history. Werner Forssmann’s invention of the cardiac catheter (Nobel 1953) has a hysterical history that is well worth a read. At other times, you have no idea what the award citation even means, but you just know it is worth spending a few minutes or even a few hours learning. I mean, why else would a Nobel be awarded? Take, as another example, 2008′s Physics prize. The award citation reads:

“… for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics,” [2]

and

“for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry
which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature
.” [2]

Yup, it is a mouthful and probably seems a bit obtuse. That is, until you start looking up Wikipedia or news articles (or Quantum Diaries!), and realize how amazingly awesome these discoveries are. I mean, sure discovering spontaneous symmetry breaking (SSB) sounds nice and fancy but did you know that is why the bosons in the Standard Model of Physics have the masses they do?!? SSB, when applied specifically to the Electroweak bosons (photon, W, & Z) is the Higgs Mechanism, and when applied to fermions, is what generates the higgs boson. SSB is an established scientific fact and is also the driving force behind superconductivity (Nobel 1972) Whether or not the higgs boson exists, however, is completely different story.

Figure 3: The quark sector of the Standard Model of Particle Physics and their discovery dates. (Image: Nobel Foundation)

So back in 1977 a Fermilab team, led by Leon Lederman, discovered the bottom quark (Nobel 1988), and in 1995, the CDF & DZero Tevatron experiments discovered the top quark. Ever wonder how we knew to look for them in the first place? It was because of something called the CKM matrix. It was introduced as a way of organizing the the different ways particles in the Standard Model could interact and decay. However, as gorgeous as this new organization was, in order to work the CKM matrix required the existence of two new quarks. Well guess what, Fermilab found those two quarks and set the Standard Model in stone.

The 2009 Nobel Prizes are equally impressive. Half the prize was awarded for the development of fiber optics, which is the foundation of modern telecommunications, and something called Charged-Coupled Devices (CCD). What took me a few hours to learn is that if you take this sensor, attach a flashbulb, a battery, and maybe a memory card, you get a digital camera. In other words, half the 2009 prize was awarded for inventing the digital camera. The prize winners were simply trying to develop a better way of storing data and inadvertently created an entire industry. A fun fact: the first transistor (Nobel 1967) was made of paperclips. If you are curious about what makes transistors so important, take apart your computer and take a peek. (Please, make sure the computer is unplugged before opening it.)

[2] http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/2008/

Does Every Major Discovery/Invention Get a Prize?

No. First off, Nobel Prizes are no longer awarded posthumously. Secondly, from my discussions about this issue, there seems to be a consensus there may be a limit to what is & is not awarded when it comes to the sciences. Now the Swedish Academies always reserve the right to set a new precedent, however, it is unlikely that any organizations will be awarded a Nobel in science categories anytime soon. (This is the complete opposite for the Peace Prize, of course.) What does this all mean? Well, the top quark was a pretty heavy discovery and is well worth its weight in gold, at least in my opinion. However, to whom would you award the prize? No single person at the CDF experiment can justly say she or he discovered the quark; it was a team effort and all CDF personnel can proudly state she or he helped discover the quark.

“Which of the Gang of Six, if the higgs boson is discovered, should get the Nobel, if at all?” is an honest, open question and is well above my pay grade. A similar statement could be made about Supersymmetry.

Turning Nobel Week into Fun-bel Week

Now for the fun part. So during this week, pick your favorite subject, which of course is physics, and go figure out what the whole big hubbub is. Depending on your timezone, this may either be with your morning coffee or afternoon tea. In any case, it is an excuse to learn something new! :)

Alternatively, you can check back here Tuesday afternoon (Madison/Chicago time) because I am sure many of us will be commenting on the latest news.

This Week’s Schedule

Live Video Player here.

Physiology or Medicine – Awarded for the discovery of the innate and adaptive immune systems! Okay, really this is great. The human body has evolved to be inherently immune to certain pathogens. The human body, in its resourcefulness, can also adapt and become immune to pathogens. The end result is that when the two are combined and wait a few hundred thousand years,  you get us!

Physics – Awarded for discovering that expansion rate of the universe, is itself increasing. The universe expands, Edwin Hubble discovered that decades ago. Today’s award winners discovered that the universe expands at an accelerating rate! Bravo!

Chemistry – The prize will be announced on Wednesday 5 October, 11:45 a.m. CET [5:45 am  CDT/Chicago].

Peace – The prize will be announced on Friday 7 October, 11:00 a.m. CET [5:00 am  CDT/Chicago].

Economics – The prize will be announced on Monday 10 October, 1:00 p.m. CET [7:00 am  CDT/Chicago].

Literature – To Be Announced

 

 

 

 

Regardless of the outcome, I would love to read everyone’s thoughts and speculations before and after the awards!

Happy Colliding

- richard (@bravelittlemuon)

 

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