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Posts Tagged ‘particles’

Costumes to make zombie Einstein proud

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

This article appeared in symmetry on Oct. 21, 2014.

These physics-themed Halloween costume ideas are sure to entertain—and maybe even educate. Terrifying, we know. Image: Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

These physics-themed Halloween costume ideas are sure to entertain—and maybe even educate. Terrifying, we know. Image: Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha


So you haven’t picked a Halloween costume, and the big night is fast approaching. If you’re looking for something a little funny, a little nerdy and sure to impress fellow physics fans, look no further. We’ve got you covered.

1. Dark energy

This is an active costume, perfect for the party-goer who plans to consume a large quantity of sugar. Suit up in all black or camouflage, then spend your evening squeezing between people and pushing them apart.

Congratulations! You’re dark energy: a mysterious force causing the accelerating expansion of the universe, intriguing in the lab and perplexing on the dance floor.

2. Cosmic inflation

Theory says that a fraction of a second after the big bang, the universe grew exponentially, expanding so that tiny fluctuations were stretched into the seeds of entire galaxies.

But good luck getting that costume through the door.

Instead, take a simple yellow life vest and draw the cosmos on it: stars, planets, asteroids, whatever you fancy. When friends pull on the emergency tab, the universe will grow.

3. Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

Here’s a great excuse to repurpose your topical Breaking Bad costume from last year.

Walter White—aka “Heisenberg”—may have been a chemistry teacher, but the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is straight out of physics. Named after Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist credited with the creation of quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that the more accurately you know the position of a particle, the less information you know about its momentum.

Put on Walter White’s signature hat and shades (or his yellow suit and respirator), but then add some uncertainty by pasting Riddler-esque question marks to your outfit.

4. Bad neutrino

A warning upfront: Only the ambitious and downright extroverted should attempt this costume.

Neutrinos are ghostly particles that pass through most matter undetected. In fact, trillions of neutrinos pass through your body every second without your knowledge.

But you aren’t going to go as any old neutrino. Oh no. You’re a bad neutrino—possibly the worst one in the universe—so you run into everything: lampposts, trees, haunted houses and yes, people. Don a simple white sheet and spend the evening interacting with everyone and everything.

5. Your favorite physics experiment

You physics junkies know that there are a lot of experiments with odd acronyms and names that are ripe for Halloween costumes. You can go as ATLAS (experiment at the Large Hadron Collider / character from Greek mythology), DarkSide (dark matter experiment at Gran Sasso National Laboratory / good reason to repurpose your Darth Vader costume), PICASSO (dark matter experiment at SNOLAB / creator of Cubism), MINERvA (Fermilab neutrino experiment / Roman goddess of wisdom), or the Dark Energy Survey (dark energy camera located at the Blanco Telescope in Chile / good opportunity for a pun).

Physics-loving parents can go as explorer Daniel Boone, while the kids go as neutrino experiments MicroBooNE and MiniBooNE. The kids can wear mini fur hats of their own or dress as detector tanks to be filled with candy.

6. Feynman diagram

You might know that a Feynman diagram is a drawing that uses lines and squiggles to represent a particle interaction. But have you ever noticed that they sometimes look like people? Try out this new take on the black outfit/white paint skeleton costume. Bonus points for going as a penguin diagram.

7. Antimatter

Break out the bell-bottoms and poster board. In bold letters, scrawl the words of your choosing: “I hate things!,” “Stuff is awful!,” and “Down with quarks!” will all do nicely. Protest from house to house and declare with pride that you are antimatter. It’s a fair critique: Physicists still aren’t sure why matter dominates the universe when equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created in the big bang.

Fortunately, you don’t have to solve this particular puzzle on your quest for candy. Just don’t high five anyone; you might annihilate.

8. Entangled particles

Einstein described quantum entanglement as “spooky action at a distance”—the perfect costume for Halloween. Entangled particles are extremely strange. Measuring one automatically determines the state of the other, instantaneously.

Find someone you are extremely in tune with and dress in opposite colors, like black and white. When no one is observing you, you can relax. But when interacting with people, be sure to coordinate movements. They spin to the left, you spin to the right. They wave with the right hand? You wave with the left. You get the drill.

You can also just wrap yourselves together in a net. No one said quantum entanglement has to be hard.

9. Holographic you(niverse)

The universe may be like a hologram, according to a theory currently being tested at Fermilab’s Holometer experiment. If so, information about spacetime is chunked into 2-D bits that only appear three-dimensional from our perspective.

Help others imagine this bizarre concept by printing out a photo of yourself and taping it to your front. You’ll still technically be 3-D, but that two-dimensional picture of your face will still start some interesting discussions. Perhaps best not to wear this if you have a busy schedule or no desire to discuss the nature of time and space while eating a Snickers.

10. Your favorite particle

There are many ways to dress up as a fundamental particle. Bring a lamp along to trick-or-treat to go as the photon, carrier of light. Hand out cookies to go as the Higgs boson, giver of mass. Spend the evening attaching things to people to go as a gluon.

To branch out beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, go as a supersymmetric particle, or sparticle: Wear a gladiator costume and shout, “I am Sparticle!” whenever someone asks about your costume.

Or grab a partner to become a meson, a particle made of a quark and antiquark. Mesons are typically unstable, so whenever you unlink arms, be sure to decay in a shower of electrons and neutrinos—or candy corn.

Lauren Biron


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

I was at a seminar recently, and they posed the following question: Suppose you are 2 metres away from a solid wooden fence with a small hole cut out in it. As you watch the hole, you see the head of a dog go by, and then you see the tail of a dog go by. You see this happen, say, three times in a row. What do you conclude?

The conclusions are less interesting, I think, than, the space of all possible conclusions. Intuitively, as human beings, we would think there is a RELATIONSHIP between the head and the tail of a dog. What are the possible types of relationships?

  • Causation. We might think that the head of a dog CAUSES the tail of a dog. This is perhaps the most powerful and most natural pattern of our human brain. We are always looking for cause and effect. But, depending on how much quantum mechanics you shoot into your veins, is causation really real or is it just a human construct? Consider how sure you are, as an individual, about all the causes and effects in your life and your surroundings. Are you sure about cause and effect?
  • Coincidence. It could be that the two events (sighting of dog head and sighting of dog tail) simply were because of random chance. If we watched longer, we might see something else. How often do we mistake coincidence with cause and effect?
  • Correlation. It could be that the head of a dog is correlated with the tail of a dog, in the sense that they “arise together” on a common but not causal basis. Correlation is a powerful concept in statistics, where it suggests that two events happen often together but not because one necessarily causes the other.
  • Parts of a Whole. This is the “true” answer for the dog sighting; a dog head and a dog tail are parts of a whole that we see through the fence. Thus, there is no real cause and no correlation and no coincidence; we are simply observing two instances of some common underlying connection – that a living dog’s body has both a head and a tail.

In physics, we rely on this set of approaches. We worry about whether we have established causality, correlation, coincidence, or parts of a whole. When we measure a frequently occurring set of “particle debris” after a collision of two particles, we wonder if the collision “caused” the debris or if the debris actually reflects “part of a whole.” We apply rigorous statistical cross-checks and tests to assure ourselves that we have “watched long enough” to be confident (in a quantitative fashion) about our interpretation.

It is in this same realm that we often run into the confusion of pseudo-science that tries to pin everything on cause and effect or something else entirely. Pseudo-science almost always boils down to someone claiming cause and effect, where what they might be really be observing is simply an unexamined or unexplained relationship between two events or two occurrences. Part of the job of science is to provide a systematic methodology to tease out what these relationships are. In fact, science is aimed at mastering these observed relationships so that we can make “predictions.”

But why do humans love cause and effect so much? It certainly seems “easy to understand.”

I propose a somewhat silly response, perhaps based on Dawkins or Gould or Pinker. Cause & effect is the most precautionary approach for human beings wandering in the wild trying to survive predators, hunger, and other hazards. For instance, if you see the paw prints of a roaming tiger, the best survival strategy is to assume that a tiger caused those prints and you should get going in the other direction. A scientist might want to stop and consider whether the prints were fresh, whether they fit the characteristics of the tiger you saw yesterday, and so forth. But a human brain focused on survival is optimized for making quick calculations using the cause & effect principle to save its own skin.

So, take a look around you and your world. In how many ways and in how many places do you see that we rely on cause & effect as an explanation because it is convenient?

Moreover, what other categories of relationship do you see? And what experiments would you conduct to help separate out these types of relationships?


Update: I accidentally miscalculated the decay rate of K40 in a banana. There are 12 decays, per second, per banana, not 18.

Wimps, they are everywhere! They pervade the Universe to its furthest reaches; they help make this little galaxy of ours spin right round like a record (we think); and they can even be found with all the fruit in your local grocery store.

Figure 1: ( L) Two colliding galaxies galaxy clusters (Image: NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory). (R) Bananas, what else? (Image: Google)

WIMPs: Weakly-Interactive Massive Particles, is an all-encompassing term used to describe any particle that has (1) mass, and (2) is unlikely to interactive with other particles. This term is amazing; it describes particles we know exist and is a generic, blanket-term that adequately describes many hypothetical particles.

Neutrinos: The Prototypical WIMP

Back in 1930, there was a bit of a crisis in the freshly established field of particle physics. The primary mechanism that mediates most nuclear reactions, known as β-decay (beta-decay), violated (at the time) one of the great pillars of experimental physics: The Law of Conservation of Energy. This law says that energy can NEVER be created or destroyed, ever. Period. Sure, energy can be converted from one type, like vibrational energy, to another type, like heat, but it can never just magically (dis)appear.

Figure 2: In β-decay, before 1930, neutrons were (erroneously) believed to decay into a high speed electron (β) and a proton (p+).

Before 1930, physicists thought that when an atom’s nucleus decayed via β-decay a very energetic electron (at the time called a β particle) would be emitted from the nucleus. From the Conservation of Energy, the energy of an electron is exactly predicted. The experimental result was pretty much as far off from the prediction as possible and implied the terrifying notion that perhaps energy was not conserved for Quantum Mechanics. Then, in 1930, the Nobel Prize-Winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli noticed that the experimental measurements of β-decay looked a bit like what one would expect if instead of one particle being emitted by a radioactive nucleus, two particles were emitted.

Prof. Pauli thought the idea of a radioactive nucleus emitting two particles, one visible (the electron) and one invisible, was horrible, silly, and unprofessional. Consequentially, he decided to pen a letter to the physics community suggesting there existed such a particle. 🙂 Using this idea and what could only be described as a level of intuition beyond that of genius, Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi suggested that perhaps nuclear decay was actually the manifestation of a new, weak force and aptly named it the Weak Nuclear Force (note the capitalization).

To recap: 1 hypothetical particle mediated by 1 hypothetical force.

Figure 3: Prof. Pauli proposed that β-decay actually included an electrically neutral particle with little mass (χ0), in addition to the final-state electron (β) & proton (p+). This once-hypothetical particle is now known as the anti-neutrino (ν).

30 years later, in 1962, Prof. Pauli’s invisible particles (by then called neutrinos) were discovered; 20 years after that, the Weak Force was definitively confirmed; and after another 20 years, neutrinos were found to have mass.

Since 1930, hundreds of theories have invoked the existence of new particles that (1) have mass, and (2) interact weakly (note lack of capitalization) with other particles, which may/may not involve the Weak Nuclear Force (note capitalization, again). At some point in the 1980s, it was finally decided to coin a generic term that described these particles from other large classes of particles that are, say, massless or readily interact with other particles, e.g., with photons or gluons.

Dark Matter: The Elephant in the Galaxy

Kepler’s Laws of Motion & General Relativity are phenomenal at predicting the orbits of planets and solar systems around immense sources of gravity, like stars & black holes. However, there are two known astronomical observations where our predictions do not readily match the experimental results.

The first has to do with how our galaxy spins like a top. Theoretically, the more distant you are from a galaxy’s center, the slower you orbit around the center; vice versa, the closer you are to the center of the galaxy’s center, the faster you orbit around it. Experimentally, astronomers have found that after a certain distance from the galaxy’s center an object’s speed becomes roughly constant. In other words, if Earth were half as close to the galactic center as it is now, its speed will not have appreciably changed. See figure 4 (below) for nice little graph that compares what is observed (solid line) and what is predicted (dotted line). Furthermore, this is not just our galaxy; this is common to all galaxies. Weird, right?

Figure 4: (A) The theoretical prediction of how fast an object travels (velocity) around the galactic center, as a function of (radial) distance from the center. (B) The experimental observation. (Image: Penn State)

The second disagreement between theory and experiment comes from watching galaxies collide with one another. Yes, I literally mean watching galaxies collide into one another (and you thought the LHC was wicked). This is how it looks:

Figure 5: Chandra X-Ray Image of two galaxies galaxy clusters colliding. The pink regions represent the visible portions of the galaxies; the blue regions represent the invisible (dark matter) portions, as calculated from gravitational lensing. (Image: NASA)

Astronomers & astrophysicists can usually determine how massive galaxies & stars are by how bright they are; however, the mass can also be determined by a phenomenon called gravitational lensing (a triumph of General Relativity). When NASA’s Chandra X-Ray telescope took this little snapshot of two galaxies (pink) passing right through each other it was discovered, rather surprisingly, that the mass deduced from the brightness of the galaxies was only a fraction of the mass deduced from gravitational lensings (blue). You can think of this as physically feeling more matter than what can visibly be seen.

What is fascinating is that these problems (of cosmic proportion) wonderfully disappear if there exists in the universe a very stable (read: does not decay), massive, weakly-interacting particle. Sounds familiar? It better because this type of WIMP is commonly known as Dark Matter! Normally, if a theory does not work, then it is just thrown out. What makes General Relativity different is that we know it works; it has made a whole slew of correct predictions that are pretty unique. Predicting the precession of the perihelion of the planet Mercury is not as easy as it sounds. I am probably a bit biased but personally I think it is a very simple solution to two “non-trivial” problems.

Bananas: A Daily Source of K-40

Since I bought a bunch of bananas this morning, I thought I would add a WIMP-related fact about bananas. Like I mentioned earlier, β-decay occurs when a proton neutron decays into a neutron proton by emitting an electron and an anti-neutrino. From a particle physics perspective, this occurs when a down-type quark emits a W boson (via the Weak Force) and becomes an up-type quark. The W boson, which by our definition is a WIMP itself, then decays into an electron (e) and an anti-neutrino (ν – a WIMP). This is how a neutron, which has two down-type & one up-type quark, becomes a proton, which has one-down type & two up-type quarks.

Figure 6: The fully understood mechanism of β-decay in which a neutron (n0) can decay into a proton (p+) when a d-type quark (d) in a neutron emits a W boson (W) and becomes an u-type quark (u). The W boson consequentially decays into an electron (e) and an anti-neutrino (νe).

This type of nuclear transmutation often occurs when a light atom, like potassium (K), has too many neutrons. Potassium-40, which has 19 protons & 21 neutrons, makes up about 0.01% of all naturally forming potassium. Bananas are an exceptionally great source of this vital element, about 450 mg worth, and consequentially have about 45 μg (or ~6.8·1017 atoms) of the radioactive K-40 isotope. This translates to roughly 18 12 nuclear decays (or 18 12 neutrinos), per second, per banana. Considering humans and bananas have coexisted for quite a while in peaceful harmony, minus the whole humans-eat-banans thing, it is my professional opinion that bananas are perfectly safe. 🙂

Dark Matter Detection: CRESST

Okay, I have to be honest: I have a secret agenda in writing about WIMPs. The Cryogenic Rare Event Search with Superconducting Thermometers (CRESST) Experiment Collaboration will be announcing some, uh… interesting results at a press conference tomorrow, as a part of the Topics in Astroparticle & Underground Physics Conference (TAUP 2011). I have no idea what will be said or shown aside from this press release that states the “latest results from the CRESST Experiment provide an indication of dark matter.”


With that, I bid you adieu & Happy Colliding.

– richard (@bravelittlemuon)