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Posts Tagged ‘particle physics’

Data recall at the LHC?

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

In a stunning turn of events, Large Hadron Collider (LHC) management announced a recall and review of thousands of results that came from its four main detectors, ATLAS, CMS, LHCb and ALICE, in the course of the past several years when it learned that the ignition switches used to start the LHC accelerator (see the enclosed image) might have been produced by GM. Image

GM’s CEO, A. Ibarra, who is better known in the scientific world for the famous Davidson-Ibarra bound in leptogenesis, will be testifying on the Capitol Hill today. This new revelation will definitely add new questions to the already long list of queries to be addressed by the embattled CEO. In particular, the infamous LHC disaster that happened almost six years ago on 10 September 2008 and cost taxpayers over 21Million dollars to fix, has long suspected been caused by a magnet quench. However, new data indicate that it might have been caused by too much paper accidentally placed on a switch by a graduate student, who was on duty that day.

“We want to know why it took LHC management more than five years to issue that recall”, an unidentified US Government official said in the interview, “We want to know what is being done to correct the problem. From our side, we do everything humanly possible to accommodate US high energy particle physics researchers and help them to avoid such problems in the future.  For example, we included a 6.6% cut in US HEP funding in the President’s 2015 budget request.” He added, “We suspected that something might be going on at the LHC after it was convincingly proven to us at our weekly seminar that the detected Higgs boson is ‘simply one Xenon atom of the 1 trillion 167 billion 20 million Xenon atoms which there are in the LHC!’”

This is not the first time accelerators cause physicists to rethink their results and designs. For example, last year Japanese scientists had to overcome the problem of unintended acceleration of positrons at their flagship facility KEK.

At this point, it is not clear how GM’s ignition switches problems would affect funding of operations at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, CA.



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.”


A version of this article appeared in symmetry on Nov. 5, 2013.

From new medicines to cancer treatment, the tools of particle physics play an important role in hospitals around the world. Image: Sandbox Studio

From new medicines to cancer treatment, the tools of particle physics play an important role in hospitals around the world. Image: Sandbox Studio

The same particle-physics technology used to understand the universe is also used to improve health and medicine. Accelerators and detectors play an important role in diagnosing disease, shrinking tumors and sterilizing medical equipment. Large-scale computing makes it possible to determine which potential new drugs are most likely to work before starting large-scale human trials. And particle-physics-trained scientists serve as medical physicists, making sure it all works as planned.

Sterilizing instruments and supplies

Particle physics technology can be used to disinfect syringes, bandages, scalpels, stethoscopes and other tools without damaging them. Medical equipment is sent through a series of small particle accelerators and bombarded with beams of electrons or X-rays. In a matter of seconds, the beams eradicate any surface microbes.

Distributed and grid computing

The World Wide Web is not the only computing advancement to come out of particle physics. In order to cope with the huge amount of data produced by experiments, particle physicists developed a network of grids allowing multiple users to share computing power and storage capacity. The grid concept has a number of uses in the medical field, including screening drug candidates to determine which ones are most likely to fight disease.


Practice makes perfect, and when it comes to our health, the closer to perfect, the better. So some doctors and medical physicists are designing treatment plans using modeling tools developed for particle physics to predetermine the electromagnetic and nuclear interactions of particles with tissue. In radiation therapy, this software can help doctors understand what will happen when a beam of particles passes through a patient’s body.


In the heart of particle physics detectors around the world, hundreds of detectors made with silicon semiconductors splay out around particle collision points, tracking charged particles to create pictures of their paths. Physicians make use of this semiconductor technology in many medical devices, including semiconductor lasers. These discrete beams of high-intensity light are perfect for delicate operations like eye surgery.

Particle-physics-trained staff

Many particle physicists can be found inside hospitals and clinics. Particle physicists who cross over into the medical field often come with extensive training in the operation and maintenance of accelerators. With their thorough understanding of particle beams, these scientists are highly valued as specialists who manage the medical imaging systems that detect tumors and who operate the accelerator beams that kill cancer cells.


PET scanners are common tools that let medical professionals examine organs and tissues inside the body. The PET scanner’s genealogy traces back to detector technologies developed in the 1980s to identify individual photons in particle physics experiments. It may sound strange, but PET scanners use antimatter produced inside the body. When a special tracer is injected into a patient, a type of radioactive decay occurs, emitting positrons—the antimatter counterparts to electrons. These positrons annihilate with nearby electrons, releasing bursts of photons. The photons are detected and compiled into three-dimensional images.


Magnetic resonance imaging, the basic principles of which emerged from early research in physics, is more discerning than traditional screening, which sometimes can’t make out tumors hidden within dense tissue. When a patient is subjected to the powerful magnetic field inside an MRI machine, atoms inside his body line up in the direction of the field. A radio frequency current is temporarily switched on, causing the protons inside those atoms to flip around until the radio frequency is removed. At that point, the protons pivot back into place—each at a different rate. The varying rates are measured, allowing scientists to determine what’s happening inside the living tissue.

Cancer treatment

One of the most effective techniques to fight cancer uses the same technology particle physicists employ to accelerate particle beams to nearly the speed of light. There are more than 17,000 particle accelerators worldwide used for the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Doctors exchange a scalpel for a beam of charged particles, which they aim at cancerous tissue, killing malignant cells by destroying DNA strands in the nuclei while sparing the surrounding healthy tissue.

Kelly Izlar


This article appeared in symmetry on Nov. 6, 2013.

Scientists planning the next decade in US particle physics consider what we can learn from fundamental particles called neutrinos.

Scientists planning the next decade in US particle physics consider what we can learn from fundamental particles called neutrinos.

We live in a galaxy permeated with tiny particles called neutrinos. Trillions of them stream through each of us each second. They are everywhere, but much remains a mystery about these particles, which could be key to understanding our universe.

During the first weekend of November, a couple of hundred scientists gathered at Fermilab to discuss ways to unravel the mystery of neutrinos.

The meeting was part of the process of planning the next decade of particle physics research for the United States. A group of 25 scientists on the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel, or P5, is studying an abundance of research opportunities in particle physics. In spring they will make recommendations about which of these opportunities should take priority in the United States.

In their first town-hall meeting, the group dedicated a full day to discussing neutrino research.

“Neutrinos have already revealed many properties of the universe, some of them unexpected,” says Antonio Masiero, the vice president of Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics, who provided an international perspective at the meeting. “They still keep secrets which could reveal aspects which are new and answer questions which are still open.”

Neutrinos might help scientists understand what caused the imbalance between matter and antimatter that allowed our universe to form. They could give insight into why particles seem naturally to be organized into three generations. They could help reveal undiscovered principles of nature.

“The neutrino is still a mysterious particle,” says Fermilab physicist Vaia Papadimitriou, pictured above giving a presentation at the meeting. “When I was a graduate student, we didn’t even know neutrinos had masses.”

The next generations of neutrino experiments could reveal other surprises. For example, says Northwestern physicist Andre de Gouvea, neutrinos could turn out to be identical to antineutrinos. They could give scientists clues to the existence of undiscovered types of neutrinos, such as massive ones theorists think might have had a great influence early in the formation of the universe. Neutrinos could turn out to be the only fundamental particles that gain their mass from a source other than the just-discovered Higgs field.

Scientists have proposed a number of experiments to learn more about the properties and behaviors of neutrinos. Those answers could lead to even deeper insights.

P5 will hold at least two more town-hall meetings to discuss additional opportunities in particle physics—including dark matter and dark energy, the Higgs boson, new hidden dimensions of space and time, and the imbalance between matter and antimatter.

Kathryn Jepsen


Unanswered questions

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

This article appeared in symmetry on Oct. 22, 2013.

Do you think scientists have the answers to all the questions? As these researchers admit, there’s still so much to discover. Particle physics is brimming with mysteries and unknowns. Photo: Sandbox Studio, Chicago

Do you think scientists have the answers to all the questions? As these researchers admit, there’s still so much to discover. Particle physics is brimming with mysteries and unknowns. Photo: Sandbox Studio, Chicago

Bring hundreds of smart physicists together and what do you get? Lots of questions!

This summer, more than 700 particle physicists from nearly 100 universities and laboratories across the United States came together on the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus for the Snowmass Community Summer Study meeting. There, they discussed the decades ahead in US particle physics, carefully considering the next steps in their studies of energy, matter, space and time.

During coffee breaks, symmetry asked attendees to share open questions in particle physics. Here’s a sample of what particle physicists think about and what they hope to discover in the coming decades.

View an image gallery of particle physicists asking their most pressing questions.


Snowmass Came and Passed. What have we learned from it?


Skyline of Minneapolis, home of the University of Minnesota and host city of the Community Summer Study 2013: Snowmass on the Mississippi.

Hi All,

Science is big. It is the systematic study of nature, so it has to be big. In another way, science is about asking questions, questions that expands our knowledge of nature just a bit more. Innocuous questions like, “Why do apples fall to the ground?”, “How do magnets work?”, or “How does an electron get its mass?” have lead to understanding much more about the universe than expected. Our jobs as scientists come down to three duties: inventing questions, proposing answers (called hypotheses), and testing these proposals.

As particle physicists, we ask “What is the universe made of?” and “What holds the universe together?”  Finding out that planets and stars only make up 5% of the universe really makes one pause and wonder, well, what about everything else?

From neutrino masses, to the Higgs boson, to the cosmic microwave background, we have learned  much about the origin of mass in the Universe as well as the origin of the Universe itself in the past 10 years. Building on recent discoveries, particle physicists from around the world have been working together for over a year to push our questions further. Progress in science is incremental, and after 10 days at the Community Summer Study 2013: Snowmass on the Mississippi Conference, hosted by the University of Minnesota, we have a collection of questions that will drive and define particle physic for the next 20 years. Each question is an incremental step, but each answer will allow us to expand our knowledge of nature.

I had a chance to speak with SLAC‘s Michael Peskin, a convener for the Snowmass Energy Frontier study group and author of the definitive textbook on Quantum Field Theory, on how he sees the high energy physics community proceeding after Snowmass. “The community did a lot of listening at Snowmass. High energy physics is pursuing a very broad array of questions.  I think that we now appreciate better how important all of these questions are, and that there are real strategies for answering them.”  An important theme of Snowmass, Peskin said, was “the need for long-term, global planning”.  He pointed to the continuing success of the Large Hadron Collider, which is the result of the efforts of thousands of scientists around the world.  This success would not have happened without such a large-scale, global  effort.  ”This is how high energy physics will have to be, in all of its subfields, to answer our big questions.”

Summary presentations of all the work done for Snowmass are linked below in pdf form and are divided into two categories: how to approach questions (Frontiers) and what will enable us to answer these questions. These two categories represent the mission of the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science. A summary of the summaries is at the bottom.

What is the absolute neutrino mass scale? What is the neutrino mass ordering? Is CP violated in the neutrino sector? What new knowledge will neutrinos from astrophysical sources bring?

What is dark matter? What is dark energy? Why more matter than anti-matter? What is the physics of the Universe at the highest energies?

Where are the new particles that modify the Higgs, t, W couplings? What particles comprise the dark matter? Why is the Higgs boson so light?

The growth in data drives need for continued R&D investment in data management, data access methods, networking. Challenging resource needs require efficient and flexible use of all resources HEP needs both Distributed High-Throughput computing (experiment program) and High-Performance computing (mostly theory/simulation/modeling)

Encourage and enable physicists to be involved in and support local, national and world-wide efforts that offer long–term professional development and training opportunities for educators (including pre-service educators), using best practice and approaches supported by physics education research. and Create learning opportunities for students of all ages, including classroom, out-of-school and online activities that allow students to explore particle physics

Our vision is for the US to have an instrumentation program for particle physics that enables the US to maintain a scientific leadership position in a broad, global, experimental program; and develops new detection capabilities that provides for cutting edge contributions to a world program

Is dark energy a cosmological constant? Is it a vacuum energy? From where do ultra high energy cosmic rays originate? From where do ultra high energy neutrinos originate?

How would one build a 100 TeV scale hadron collider? How would one build a lepton collider at >1 TeV? Can multi-MW targets survive? If so, for how long?

To provide a conduit for untenured (young) particle physicists to participate in the Community Summer Study. To facilitate and encourage young people to get involved.
Become a long term asset to the field and a place where young peoples voices can be heard

Several great posts from QD (Family, Young, Frontierland), Symmetry Magazine (Push, Q&A, IceSlam, Decade), and even real-time updates from QD’s Ken Bloom (@kenbloomunl) and myself (@bravelittlemuon) via #Snowmass are available. All presentations can be found at the Snowmass Indico page.

Until next time, happy colliding.

- Richard (@bravelittlemuon)

Community Summer Study: Snowmass 2013 Poster

Community Summer Study: Snowmass 2013 Poster


by N.S. Lockyer, edited by T.I. Meyer

On November 10th, 2012, the Director of TRIUMF, Nigel S. Lockyer gave a convocation address at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Durgapur India as the Guest of Honour. NIT is a national technical university that attracts students from all over India and from abroad. There is one such institute in each state in India, about 30 in total. The Durgapur NIT was named in 2003 as the NIT representing the state of West Bengal. Before this, it was the Regional Engineering College, one of eight such RECs created in India in 1954. The capital of West Bengal is Kolkata and the state is home to 91 million people, three quarters of whom live in rural areas. Durgapur, started by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, is the second planned city in India and is highly industrialized, known for producing steel. It has been nicknamed the Ruhr of India.

The convocation activities started with a police escort through town from a local hotel where the VIPs gathered for lunch. The VIPs included the Mayor of Durgapur, Shri Apurba Mukherjee. The VIPs and faculty marched into the auditorium which was beautifully decorated with flowers. A choir sang songs before the ceremony, and an official candle-lighting ritual started the event.

Professor Bikash Sinha, former Director of VECC and the Saha Institute for Nuclear Physics in Kolkata, is Chairman of the Board of Governors, NIT Durgapur. He introduced Nigel and the other guests of honour. Nigel’s address delivered a message encouraging students to develop a curiosity that would serve them well for their entire life. His remarks centered on the origin of water on our planet, a topic that he is curious about himself. This allowed the introduction of isotopes, their origins, and nuclear astrophysics as a topic of research of common interest to both TRIUMF and VECC in Kolkata. The origin of water is speculated to come from comets, meteorites, and early in the formation of the earth itself. He ended his speech by encouraging the students to thank their parents, thank their teachers, but most of all thank themselves by celebrating their graduation just like we do in Canada….by enjoying a beer, and in India that means a Kingfisher.

Other guests of honour included Dr. Rudiger Voss, Head of International Relations at CERN who spoke of global scientific collaboration and India’s role at CERN and the Large Hadron Collider. Dr. Voss showed slides of CERN and reminded the students that they should consider careers in research. Professor Sushanta Dattagupta, Vice Chancellor, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan was introduced as the Chief Guest, and gave a speech about Indian scientists such as Bose, Bhabha, as well as the great Bengali poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore and his interactions with Einstein amongst others.

The convocation formal ceremony adjourned with felicitations to the guests. Dr. Bikash Sinha presented the Guests of Honour with wool shawls and engraved plates. The TRIUMF contingent of Lia Merminga and Tim Meyer, in Kolkata for the SCRIBE conference traveled with Nigel to Durgapur for the occasion. Dr. Sinha dutifully acknowledged the TRIUMF guests in the audience and called both Lia Merminga and Tim Meyer onto the stage and presented them with gifts to acknowledge their presence before the audience of several hundred students and families.

It could be argued the most exciting aspect of the trip was the return drive along National Highway 34 which runs from Kolkata and allows connections to Delhi and onto to Mumbai. A major thoroughfare for truckers (India being infamous for its plentiful and colourful trucks), it was well known that in returning to the airport that evening for a late flight back to Canada the TRIUMF team could/would encounter a major traffic jam that could last for hours or days. The potential truck jam was discussed at lunch and before and after the ceremony. Serious faces considered the possibilities and instructions to the drivers were delivered in Hindi. Fortunately the Indian drivers, well trained in combative high speed driving, steered fearlessly into the chaotic oncoming traffic by driving down the divided highway in the wrong direction. As all Indians know, that is just a day on the road in India.

Beep beep! Hail to the graduates of NIT Durgapur.


I’m Going to Tell You…

Friday, October 19th, 2012

–by T.I. Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning and Communication

Public science lectures, events, cafés: They are everywhere!  This past weekend, the ATLAS group at TRIUMF went to Science World in downtown Vancouver and gave a science talk about the Higgs, hosted a virtual tour of the ATLAS control room, and answered thousands of questions. Nearly 10,000 people passed through the doors that day.  This past Tuesday night, Perimeter Institute director Neil Turok presented his third CBC Massey lecture, this one in Vancouver at UBC’s Chan Centre.  The sell-out crowd was nearly 1,000 people.  Last night near the waterfront station, TRIUMF science director Reiner Kruecken gave a talk about nuclear astrophysics at the public session of the APS Northwest Sectional meeting.  And on November 1, the director of the NIH Human Genome Research Institute Eric Green will be giving a public talk about genomics and its future influence on clinical practice at GenomeBC.

Why is all of this happening?  Can’t people just get enough of science and technology from YouTube, university classes, and specialized television programs?  Heck, why did *I* go to some of these events?  Is it the same reason I choose to attend certain music concerts or watch a play in person in the theatre?

I thought about this for awhile, and this is what I started to see.

Humans are social creatures.  Maybe I am showing my age, but I still prefer being in a group and learning about something rather than sitting at home in a darkened room and just clicking and scrolling on my computer.  I actually have different brain chemistry when in a group and listening to someone.  At the Massey lecture, there was even something fun about my seatmate whispering questions to me during the talk (for instance, If the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, does that mean the Solar System is actually getting bigger right now?).  It would have been weird to have Neil Turok come over to my house and record his lecture in my living room with just me as the audience, right?

There’s something curious and fascinating about leading scientists and thinkers in person. I saw the Premier of British Columbia in a coffee shop this morning; she was just getting a cup of coffee like I was, and yet it was still “cool.”  Listening to Neil Turok was special because he peppered his discussion of “What banged (in the Big Bang)?” with personal anecdotes, with humor, and with observations about history.  I can get that same feel when I listen to the broadcasts on CBC Radio of course. I got to hear it “first” and “in the raw.”

There’s something neat about hearing something live, in the moment.  And I got to hear what was happening “right now” rather than waiting for the lecture to be broadcast or waiting for someone to write a Wikipedia article about it.


    What do you think?  Why do people still throng to gather ‘round and listen to and talk about science and particle physics?  What can we do to provide even more of what is needed and wanted?


    Don Lincoln auditions for TED2013

    A month ago in Quantum Diaries, Fermilab scientist Don Lincoln wrote about his experience auditioning for TED, the venerable series of just-this-side-of-scholarly talks that teaches curious audiences about spotting a liar, Legos for grownups and ultrasound surgery.

    On a topic equally compelling, Lincoln discusses in his audition how particle physicists recreate the birth of the universe.

    The live audition phase of TED2013 is now finished, and the TED talent search folks recently posted videos of the auditions on the web, so now you too can view Lincoln’s audition.

    More importantly, you can rate it.

    With enough positive feedback for his talk, Lincoln could join the TED2013 slate of speakers, sharing with the world the fascinating workings of the subatomic realm. And wouldn’t it be fun to see an experimental particle physicist in front of the big screen, wearing the familiar TED headset, expounding on particle collisions?

    So rate it and enjoy!

    Leah Hesla


    Art and Science: Both or Neither

    Wednesday, June 13th, 2012


    I don’t get it. I guess we just have different brains than them.” – two young science students, regarding a piece of art.

    It’s a funny feeling, being an individual with a predominantly artistic mind working in a place dominated by science. I’m not saying I don’t have love for the sciences, but if we’re talking in terms of how my thought process lazily unfurls itself when faced with a problem, I’m definitely more of an artist than a scientist. The very fact that I have used the terms “scientist” and “artist” in a way that does nothing but reinforce the eternal dichotomy that exists between the two groups indicates that the problem is so widespread, indeed, that even the person trying to formulate an argument calling for a cessation of the “war” that exists between the two groups cannot avoid thinking of the two as incontrovertibly disparate.


    A page from Leonardo da Vinci's famous notebooks. He remains one of the finest examples of an individual expanding his mind to take in both science and art.


    The quote at the top is a real thing I heard. Aside from the disquieting use of “we” and “them,” the most troubling thing about the above assertion is the outright dismissal of the piece of art in question. The finality and hopelessness of the “Different Brain” argument does not seem ridiculous outright because it has been propagated by you (yes, you), me, and everyone else ever in the history of time when we don’t want to take the time to learn something new. Artists and scientists are two particular groups that use the Different Brain argument on one another all too often. In order to see the truly farcical nature that underlies the argument, picture two groups of early humans. One group has fire. The other group does not. One person from the fireless group is tasked with inventing fire for the group. The person in charge of making fire claps his hands; no fire is produced. He gives up, citing that he and his counterpart in the other group must have different brains. His group dies out because of their lack of fire.

    I hope you followed the cautionary tale of our dismissive early human closely, for he is the rock I will build this post on. The reason one group died and the other thrived is quite obvious. It is not because they simply lacked fire; it is that they lacked the ability to extend their minds beyond their current knowledge in order to solve a problem. Moreover, they not only lacked the ability, they lacked the drive—a troubling trend that is becoming more pronounced as the misguided “war” between artists and scientists rages on, insofar as an intellectual war can rage.

    If you were to ask a scientist what he or she would do when posed with a problem, the answer will invariably be something along the lines of, “I would wrestle it to the ground with my considerable intellect until it yields its secrets.” During my time at TRIUMF, I have noticed a deep, well-deserved pride in every scientist in their ability to solve problems. Therefore, it is truly a sad state of affairs when our scientists look at something that puzzles them and then look away. To me, that’s no scientist. That is someone who has grown too complacent, too comfortable, in the vastness of their knowledge that they begin to shy away from things that challenge them in a way they aren’t used to. What’s more is that no one (artists or scientists) sees this as a defeat. As soon as you’ve said, “Oh well, different brain,” you’ve lost.

    Any person familiar with rhetoric will tell you that in order to build a strong argument and persuade people, you have to be honest. Be sneaky and fail to address something potentially damning and your credibility is shot and the argument is void. Since it works so well in politics (snark), I figure I should give is a shot here. The problem of the Different Brain argument does not just lay with the scientists; if I’ve excoriated them, it’s out of fear that soon, a generation of scientists will stop growing and thinking. The artists are guilty of invoking the Different Brain argument as well whenever faced with math, science, or anything, really, that they didn’t want to do. The only difference between the two is that I heard a scientist use the different brain argument in a place of science, in a place where knowledge is the point.

    Different Brain is a spurious concept, which is obvious to anyone with more grey matter than pride, but it’s not just wrong because I say it is. It’s wrong because look around you.

    I was standing in the middle of Whistler Village with my fiancé, when we spied a poster for a band called Art vs. Science (you’re doing it wrong, guys!). She immediately said, “Science would win.” No question. No pondering. No soul-searching. Gut reaction, like flinching from a feigned punch. She’s a statistics major and biology minor, so she has a “science” brain and her response didn’t necessarily surprise me. I was a little sad, though, because she wasn’t seeing the world like I was seeing it. We debated the problem for a few minutes until I told her to look around.

    The shape of the buildings: Architecture

    The pleasant configuration of the shrubbery: Horticulture

    The signage on the buildings and lampposts: Design

    The food in the bag in my hand: Cooking

    The phone in her hand: Technology

    I asked her to picture a world where science had “won”. What’s architecture without art? A shape. What’s horticulture without art? A forest. Design? A grid. Cooking? Paste. Technology? Sufficient. It’s a tough world to imagine. Look at the next thing you see and try to separate the science and art of it and imagine what it would look like, whether it would function at all. It’s absolutely dystopian.

    It was then that my argument became clear: science and art are inextricable. There can be no dismissing, no deigning, no sighing in the face of it. There can only be and has only ever been unity between the two. The problem is that the two warring sides are too preoccupied with the connotations the words “art” and “science” seem to realize it’s not a question of either/or, but both/neither.

    I was worried about whether this war of the different brains would always rage between the two sides, but three things lent me hope and I hope they will lend you hope, too.

    1.)  These two quotes from Bertholt Brecht (20th century German playwright and poet, whose work I don’t much care for):

    “Art and science work in quite different ways: agreed. But, bad as it may sound, I have to admit that I cannot get along as an artist without the use of one or two sciences. … In my view, the great and complicated things that go on in the world cannot be adequately recognized by people who do not use every possible aid to understanding.”


    “Art and science coincide insofar as both aim to improve the lives of men and women.”

    2.) I was feeling discouraged about my argument for this post and had taken to turning it over in my mind even when I was otherwise occupied, but when I heard Rolf Heuer, the Director-General of CERN, say, only a handful of feet from my face, “Science and Art belong together,” I felt a renewed sense of vigor course through my brain, spurring me on. If one of the foremost scientific experts of our age can see it, I wonder why many of us turn away from it, when it is clearly there.

    3.) In case one thinks that I’ve gone too soft on the artists, imagine a world without science. Think of our society as a book of fiction or a painting. Unequivocal works of art. Yet, what holds the book together? How were the pages manufactured? How were the chemical composition of the paints devised? Science.

    Keeping these points in mind, I am calling for the abolition of the concepts underpinning the Different Brain argument. The war between art and science is one of mutually assured destruction and will turn us into a lopsided simulacrum of a culture if we are not careful.

    –Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)