Wednesday, 14 December 2011

What on Earth is the Higgs Boson?

There's a lot of talk in the news about the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) getting close to identifying the "Higgs Boson" particle. I am pretty interested in Physics, though really dont understand half the things they end up talking about, so took it upon myself to read around and condense it all into something that I can understand.

The Large Hadron Collider has six experiment running simultaneously and two of them are focused on the search for the Higgs Boson Particle. This particle is a theoretical particle that will explain why matter (the stuff that makes up everything we can touch/feel/exert force on in the universe) has mass.

The experiment itself is quite simple. It involves protons (positively charged particles that are found in atoms) being sped up to nearly the speed of light, and smashing them together. Because of this HUGE amount of energy, these causes the colliding protons to create matter. A lot of this matter is very unstable and decays almost instantly but some does not. Once all the results have been analysed the most stable matter remaining would generally be the proton and this would give a reading around the 1GeV (Gigaelectronvolt) and this holds true.

Now theoretical physics postulates that if the Higss Boson exists then it would have an energy signature around the 126GeV range. This is exactly what the LHC is currently showing! Now at the moment the two experiments being run, one by ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) and one by CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) both show this reading. ATLAS can currently confirm the presence of this "bump" in the results to a 98% accuracy and the CMS to 94%.

Physicists have a method of showing how certain they are about a concept called the Sigma system. At its most simplest Sigma 5 is a certain event (as much as can be certain!). 98% equates to a sigma level of just over 2 and 94% just under 2. They will continue to run the experiments to try to obtain a Sigma 5 level of certainty, which is about 99.9999% certain.

This is no doubt an extremely simplified version of an incredibly complex subject, and if anyone reads this and wishes to correct any problems or misconceptions then please let me know. I just hope this serves as a very simple summary to those who are interested.

This Graph is from the ATLAS experiment - taken from Discovery blog.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Teaching Misconceptions

Teaching new things to young people is quite a difficult task. You need to somehow engage them, while introducing them to concepts they may have had no idea about before hand or even care about now!

During my limited years as a teacher (5+) I have noticed that many teachers often have just as many misplaced conceptions as the people they are trying to teach! Before I continue I will quite honestly say I have also done it. The most recent one for me was telling children about pressure and ice skating.

I was teaching my class about pressure and how an ice skater exerts a very large pressure on the ice due to the very small area of his/her blade. This part is all correct (I hope!) but I then went on to say that the reason an ice skater is able to glide across the ice is due to this very high pressure, melting the surface of the ice and reducing the friction!

This makes perfect sense to me, and scientifically seemed quite sound. Unfortunately I have recently learnt this is almost certainly not true as the pressure exerted by an ice skater is probably somewhere in the region of 12 atmospheres and that is not high enough to melt the ice more than a few tenths of a degree.

Now this seems such a simple mistake but something like this will then travel with that pupil throughout their lives (well if they were listening in the first place), and may never be corrected. Does it matter? Well to be honest probably not in this case, but this is only one isolated example.

I have seen some really shocking statements since I started teaching, the worse probably being from a head of science at my first training school. When discussing the heart and how it pumps blood around the body she drew a very nice diagram (figure of 8) showing how de-oxygenated blood is pumped to the lungs to pick up oxygen, and how oxygenated blood was pumped around the body. Though simple, this is a very effective diagram and I have used it in my lessons as well. The oxygenated blood is coloured in red to show it has oxygen and the de-oxygenated blood is shown as blue to show the lack of oxygen. She then proceeded to tell the children how if you look at your wrists, you will notice how it is blue, this is because it is a vein and it carries de-oxygenated blood!

I was shocked that someone who has been teaching for such a long time, and was head of department could carry such an incredible misconception. At best de-oxygenated blood is a dull red or maroon colour, it is never, and will never be blue. The blue colour of the vein is due to absorption of light by the skin and blood, and how blue does not really absorb very well in skin, so a deep vessel will appear red, where as shallow vessels will appear red (I have kept this explanation vague so as not to detract from the point of the article!)

Fortunately the teacher in question was more than happy to be corrected on the matter, and I assume she no longer teaches this (I hope). The real question is how costly could that mistake be to someone. Perhaps a bright student takes that piece of information all the way through to a medical interview where they happen to mention it!? I know it's unlikely but it is a possibility, and a scary one at that.

I don't think there is any answers to the problem, and we will all make mistakes, especially when teaching subjects that are not our specialism, but perhaps more care should be taken to check the "facts"? More planning time for teachers would be a good start!

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Indian Summer

As most of you (in the UK at least) have noticed, it’s pretty warm outside with temperatures hitting 30°C (86F). This unseasonable weather is quite often referred to as an Indian Summer, which got me to thinking, what the Hell is an Indian Summer? So I did a little bit of internet detective work.

It seems the Indian that we are referring to are American Indians, though the phrase is actually quite complicated. It seems the first usage of the word was by a French/American John Hector St. John who said "Then a severe frost succeeds which prepares it to receive the voluminous coat of snow which is soon to follow; though it is often preceded by a short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian Summer."

In Britain, an Indian Summer used to be referred to as Saint Martin's Summer, which is attributed with Saint Martin of Tours, whose corpse sailed down the river Loire towards Tours, and legend has it that the river banks flowered as his corpse passed by.

In the Southern states, an Indian Summer is more commonly known as Dog days, which is a direct reference to the star Sirius (also known as the Dog Star) and how it was believed that when it passed close to the sun, in the sky it would cause hot weather.

Either way, whether you’re interested in Etymology or not, it is really warm outside at the moment, so enjoy it while you can!

Thanks to Wikipedia and BBC for the above information.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Reading Skills

During my five years as a teacher I have taught many different classes, of varying ability. Teaching a class of lower ability pupils is always challenging as you need to not only engage the pupils, but overcome some of their weaknesses before you even start the subject matter.

Some of these challenges can be overcome, poor behaviour and attention span for example, but one that I have struggled with, and still do to this day, is poor reading skills. I have a fleeting knowledge of the learning styles, visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic, but without the ability to read to a reasonable level I find that no matter what the topic, I am at a loss of how to help the pupil progress. (Please note: I am also aware of the level of criticism the learning styles models has received but thought it worth mentioning).

Every lesson I teach has some kind of written work, or at least the reading of instructions, results etc. The National Curriculum that schools follow, as a whole gives the pupils a well rounded subject knowledge, but it is not for everyone. If a pupil cannot read then surely this must be the schools number one priority. These students should not be spending their time in lessons they cannot interact or understand. Perhaps I am being short-sighted, and no doubt someone more qualified in this area could come up with a dozen arguments to why this is incorrect, but the one I know is that I am not trained sufficiently to help these children progress in the way they should.

It is frustrating to have to teach a topic involving maths, and the comprehension of a written set of questions to know full well that this subject matter cannot be accessed by half of the class I am teaching. Perhaps I just need more training, though I am unsure who is going to pay for that, what with the budgets for schools being as tight as they are, then again, I think that might be another blog post, for another time.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

No Regrets

I think we all have a few regrets throughout our life, though I do my best not to dwell on them. One which constantly pops up for me is never taking A-level maths. In the big scheme of things I suppose it’s pretty unimportant, but whenever I cover the more mathematical topics in chemistry, I always get a pang of regret about never pursuing it.

The main reason for this was my GCSE maths teacher. Now, to set the scene I will quite happily say that I must have been real handful to teach. I was lippy, lazy and didn't do any homework (for those that know me well, I’m probably still like that!). I think back now about how I could have achieved so much more (more regrets?) and then realise, with the way everything has panned out, I was probably quite lucky.

Anyways, my math teacher, who shall remain nameless, decided to drop me to a lower maths set due to the fact that I did no work, which in retrospect was probably quite right. Try as I might to impress her after this, she wouldn't budge and I rotted away in a lower set. As a result of this I ended up taking the intermediate maths paper (your maximum grade for this was a B). Now there are two sides to the argument here. On one had, I no doubt deserved to be moved to a lower set due to my work, and attitude. On the other hand, I also had the ability to do the higher paper and thus have a chance and getting an A (I proved this numerous times after school by getting A’s on the higher paper).

Perhaps, the teacher has made me learn a valuable lesson. Perhaps the teacher was wrong, and stopped a student who enjoyed maths, pursuing a different career path. Whatever the answer it has affected my life, but fortunately not my love of maths. The moral of the story here is that, in life, you often don't get second chances, so I suggest, always trying your best the first time round, or it might come back to haunt you.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

High Expectations

I love teaching A level Chemistry. It's the only time, in my particular job anyways, where I get to teach a group of bright pupils who are genuinely interested in what you are saying. Unfortunately, the majority of students I teach really just "don't care", and I find that the saddest thing of all. I remember when I was young, I certainly wasn't the best behaved of pupils, but I don't ever remember not caring. Well, most a-level kids certainly DO care but often they're expectations are totally unrealistic.

The first day of the new a-level intake, all the kids file in and take a seat, all eager to delve into the world of chemistry. Before I start the first lesson, I give them a run down of what we will be doing this year, how it is quite a lot harder than GCSE's and, even if you did manage to get A's and A*'s, how that does not, necessarily, mean your going to get them in A-levels. I try to keep their feet on the ground before they even start the course. I then ask THE QUESTION. I dread asking it, but feel that I have to. "How many of you are hoping to become doctors?".

I am almost knocked over by the wind generated from the hands that are thrown up in the air. An audible groan escapes my lips as I try to explain how the world of medicine, though a fantastic career, ISN'T the ONLY career. When I ask about any other routes, I am met with blank faces as far as the eye can see.

The majority of these kids are bright, but as you are no doubt aware (at least in the UK), you need to be getting A's and A* in all your a-levels. As well as that you need to pass the UKCAT or the BMAT and you need to impress in your interview. Now I would love for all these kids to become world renowned surgeons but I know that it isn't going to happen. If we can get one into medical school at the end of year 13, I am a happy man. It just irritates me that quite often, they are told by pushy parents that they must be doctors, even when they don't want to be. I have already come across one example where a student actually wanted to be an architect, yet based their entire a-level choices around becoming a doctor, all for their parents approval.

One small solution to this, is to ensure that these students are properly educated about the choices they have. Speakers coming into school, showing the pupils about other careers in science would be a small but very important step. It won't stop the parents fantasizing about their son/daughter becoming the next 'House', but it might educate the students enough to make their own, informed decisions.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Speed of Light?

So scientists at Cern have found that neutrinos can exceed the speed of light. According to reports they have carried out the experiment 16000 times, and they always arrive at 0.00000006 seconds before expected. Now, as insignificant as that sounds this really could be one of the most ground breaking discoveries of the past decade. If a particle, no matter how small, can travel at faster than the speed of light, then this totally rewrites the majority of the physics text books.

I have to remain skeptical though because of the sheer number of factors that can cause errors. When dealing with these kinds of numbers, the sheer amount of precision needed is mind blowing. The three kinds of errors being discussed so far are distance errors, time of flight errors, and errors in the timing of the production of neutrinos. All errors have been discussed at length and still, currently, don't account for this incredible discovery.

Now I am far from an expert on particle physics, but the thing that interests me the most relates to chemistry. It is well documented that electrons can act as both particles and waves. One of the ideas that I have found quite hard to get my head around is that electrons can be found in any number of their own energy levels, but are never found between them. This is a bit like saying that you are filmed traveling between points A and B and the film documents you leaving A and arriving at B but you are NEVER found between A and B. So if other particles are able to travel faster than the speed of light, then would that mean that they arrive before the light has time to effectively catch up, thus explaining the above? If anyone can shed some light on this idea, then please let me know!

For those who find all this boring, or just plain pointless, next time you use your Sat-Nav, or tag your location in Facebook using your GPS enabled phone, have a little think about how, without the speed of light being known, you wouldn't have any of those things.

To finish heres a little cartoon about how this discovery is in its infancy, and a small pinch of salt might be needed for a while yet.