Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night and the questions of the previous day have you perplexed enough that you can't get back to sleep. You just lay there in the dark staring at the midnight shadows on the ceiling, wondering how to make sense of it all. Last night it was three questions in particular, and this morning we will explore the questions that kept me up all night and we'll seek some answers from the Internet so we can freaking move on with our day.

1) How do they name these damn hurricanes, anyway?

I had thought that the World Meteorological Organization had alternated the male and female names every year and, as a result, I had misinformed someone the other day. When I saw on the news that the next hurricane was going to be named "Hanna" and that the last one was named "Gustav" I went, "Oh dammit," and it kept me up all night.

So, for the record, before 1979 they were all women's names, but after 1979 male and female names were included in the lists for the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. The name lists, which are agreed upon at lively international meetings of the World Meteorological Organization where the weathermen submit the names of their ex-girlfriends, have a French, Spanish, Dutch, and English flavor because hurricanes affect several nations and are tracked by the public and weather services of many countries. Women's and men's names are alternated on every storm and the list is alphabetical so you can get some idea of when in the season it blew in.

The Tropical Prediction Center in Miami keeps a constant watch on oceanic storm-breeding grounds. Once a system with counterclockwise circulation and wind speeds of 39 mph or greater is identified, the Center gives the tropical storm a name from the list for the current year. The letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z are not included because of the scarcity of names beginning with those letters. Names associated with storms that have caused significant death and/or damage are usually retired from the list, and in 2005 there were so many storms that they ran out of names and just started using Greek letters (Alpha, Beta, etc.)

Moving right along...

2) So did the latest Indiana Jones movie take place in Area 51 or Roswell, or both, even though they're a thousand miles apart?

"Roswell" is known for the UFO incident that allegedly happened in New Mexico in 1947 in which aliens crash landed outside of town and the debris and bodies were recovered by the U.S. military. "Area 51" is the remote air force base in southern Nevada where UFOs are sighted all the time. In the latest Indiana Jones movie, Indy is kidnapped and taken somewhere to recover some alien skull thing and then there's a big chase scene and a nuclear test, all in the first twenty minutes of the flick. Answer? It takes place at Area 51 in Nevada:

A sign in the background of one scene even reads "Hangar 51" to add more mystery. Then they recover the crate (from the fabled Well of Crates warehouse) which is stamped:

Now, the nuclear bomb was developed and first tested in New Mexico, but later the testing was moved to Nevada. To make matters all the more confusing, Spielberg and Lucas filmed the thing in New Mexico. I've been to both places and in the movie -with all that red dirt- it is clearly not Nevada, hence my confusion. Kept me up last night.


3) When the physicists turn on the LHC next month, is it going to create a tiny black hole that will suck in and destroy the earth and end life as we know it?

If you don't know, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is:
[from the Wikipedia]

...the world's largest particle accelerator complex, intended to collide opposing beams of 7 TeV protons. Its main purpose is to explore the validity and limitations of the Standard Model, the current theoretical picture for particle physics. The LHC was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), and lies under the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland. The LHC is the world's largest and the highest-energy particle accelerator. It is funded and built in collaboration with over eight thousand physicists from over eighty-five countries as well as hundreds of universities and laboratories. The idea of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), began in the early 1980s. The first approval of the project by the CERN Council occurred in December 1994 and the first civil engineering construction work began in April 1998. The collider is currently undergoing commissioning while being cooled down to its final operating temperature of approximately 1.9 K (−271.25 °C). Initial particle beam injections were successfully carried out on August 11th, 2008, and the first attempt to circulate a beam through the entire LHC is scheduled for September 10th, 2008, and the first high-energy collisions are planned to take place after the LHC is officially unveiled, on October 21st, 2008. When activated, it is theorized that the collider will produce the elusive Higgs boson, the observation of which could confirm the predictions and "missing links" in the Standard Model of physics and could explain how other elementary particles acquire properties such as mass. The verification of the existence of the Higgs boson would be a significant step in the search for a Grand Unified Theory, which seeks to unify three of the four known fundamental forces: electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force, leaving out only gravity. The Higgs boson may also help to explain why gravitation is so weak compared to the other three forces. In addition to the Higgs boson, other theorized novel particles that might be produced, and for which searches are planned, include strangelets, micro black holes, magnetic monopoles and supersymmetric particles...

If that was too much for you, then you might want to watch this, which is like Schoolhouse Rock for particle physics:

So I ask you: is it worth risking the known universe to uncover the Higgs boson? Anyway, there are a few scientists who are concerned enough to sue. Fret not. Discover Magazine says "No, the LHC won't destroy the earth." People still fretted, so the nice researchers at CERN did a full-on revised safety assessment and then Discover Magazine concluded that the "LHC still will not destroy the earth." So that's a relief.

As far as I can tell, that theoretical tiny black hole has already been created and its sucked in everyone's tax dollars. The fact that a few physicists convinced eighty-five nations to give billions of dollars to an experiment that will produce results that only, like, fifty people in the world will ever understand is more a testament to the Arts of Persuasion than it is to science, but hey, Dog bless them for it! The whole thing could be a hoax, you know, so we'll be safe. (But what did they do with all that cash?)

Hold on, though: sometime in the next decade they're going to upgrade the Large Hadron Collider to something they wistfully call the Super Large Hadron Collider (SLHC) -so there's still a chance the universe will collapse on itself near the French border. And if that doesn't do it? Something creatively named the Very Large Hadron Collider (VLHC) is in the works for a couple hundred billion more dollars, but you can rest easy because that's decades away.

Interestingly, when they lit up the first atomic bomb there were a few scientists who claimed that the entire atmosphere would catch fire and incinerate the earth. I don't remember that happening. Also, Indiana Jones is only a movie and hurricanes don't make it as far north as Oceanside.

Now, go back to sleep.