Well Great… Now the LHC Rap is Stuck in My Head

Two things to discuss today… to be honest, if you know me at all, galleons, you saw this post coming, and the fact that I’ve delayed it is testament to my innate laziness (it’s so much easier to babble on about zombies than about intelligent fare).

First, who’s heard about the recent (possible) discovery made by the Tevatron? They’ve found an interesting possible explanation for the lack of antimatter in the visible universe.

Okay, before we can really talk about the Tevatron’s find, we’ll do a quick primer on antimatter. What is antimatter? Antimatter is the antiparticle to matter (like the positron, which is the antiparticle to the electron). Which… actually, you know what? The LHC Rap does a great job of describing antimatter:

Antimatter is sort of like matter’s evil twin
Because except for charge and handedness of spin
They’re the same for a particle and its anti-self
But you can’t store an antiparticle on any shelf
Cuz when it meets its normal twin, they both annihilate
Matter turns to energy and then it dissipates

When matter is created from energy
Which is exactly what they’ll do in the LHC
You get matter and antimatter in equal parts
And they try to take that back to when the universe starts
The Big Bang – back when the matter all exploded
But the amount of antimatter was somehow eroded
Because when we look around we see that matter abounds
But antimatter’s nowhere to be found.

See, during the Big Bang, physicists believe that matter and antimatter should have been created in equal portions. But… we live in a universe full of matter, and the only time we’ve found any antimatter is when we create it in a particle collider (of course, it then promptly annihilates). This asymmetry plagues the scientific community. Where did all the antimatter go?

Okay, second bit of the primer- CP symmetry (a combination of charge conjugation and parity symmetries). Briefly, CP symmetry states that the laws of physics should remain the same if a particle and the anti-particle are swapped and if left and right are flipped. If this symmetry gets all wonky, we have a CP violation on our hands.

Now, what does this mean in terms of matter and antimatter? Well, you’ve probably been wondering something- if matter and antimatter were supposedly created in equal parts during the Big Bang… why is there an imbalance of matter now? Shouldn’t the antimatter and matter have all annihilated?

Physicists agree that the gross disparity of matter in the universe now points to CP violation during the earliest phases of the Big Bang. Problem is… the two ways the Standard Model has for the breaking of CP symmetry aren’t sufficient to describe the violation that would have had to occur to make the laws of physics different for antimatter and matter during the Big Bang.

As you can see from this diagram charting results of the D0 experiment, the CP violation found (black dot) is about 10 orders of magnitude greater than that projected by the Standard Model (blue dot).

Now, back to the Tevatron.

The D0 experiment had researchers observing collisions of protons and antiprotons. Theoretically, they should have produced particles of matter and particles of antimatter in equal parts. However, they instead found that pairs of matter particles were created slightly more often than the matter/antimatter sets. A 1% difference was found. Which means… CP violation has been documented!

Now, we can’t get ahead of ourselves here. Other experiments will have to be done to verify or disprove the findings (including experiments at the LHCb)- that’s the way of science, after all. Still, even the possibility of actual CP violation verification is a huge blow to the Standard Model. Who knows- maybe we’ll soon find ourselves having to rewrite our laws governing the interactions of subatomic particles.

It wouldn’t be the first time, after all.

***

The second juicy piece of science news this week has sparked all kinds of delicious controversy. At a press conference on Thursday, biologist Craig Venter announced he had synthesized an artificial strain of DNA and transplanted it into a host cell. The little Mycoplasma microbe then looked and behaved exactly like any other Mycoplasma microbe.

“[It’s] the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer,” Venter said. “This is a philosophical advance as much as a technical one.”

And that’s where everyone is throwing a shit-fit. Because the philosophical implications of such a creation are, in everyone’s minds, staggering.

Of course, this is where I roll my eyes and scoff. Loudly and with much gusto.

Everyone’s in a tizzy primarily because the synthesis of life challenges our definition of what life actually is. Here’s something that might surprise you- the scientific community actually doesn’t have a proper definition of life.

Buh-wha?

See, it’s easy when you’re talking about a rock (not alive) and a cat (alive, unless it’s been hanging out with Schrödinger, then it’s a crapshoot). But what about a virus? Viruses are made from proteins (the stuff of life), but they cannot reproduce independently… so are they alive or aren’t they? Most biologists say life starts at bacteria, but there’s not a solid definition of life. So… we’re confused as to whether Venter’s little microbe is even in the category of “life,” taking the synthetic nature of its creation out of the equation. It’s like the whole “is a blastocyst alive?” debate- there’s just not a consensus one way or another.

So the synthetic-virus-that-could is not the Frankenstein’s monster that everyone’s making it out to be, but I will grant you that it’s a visible step down a road of synthetic biology. People worry that we’re playing God with such creations, and that we need to draw the line somewhere in this moral quagmire.

Okay, that’s great and all… so let’s say you get cancer. Any medication you receive to treat your disease is, in effect, “playing God.” According to the rules of deities and whatever, you were supposed to get that disease and (probably) die- to attempt to prevent it is to decide who deserves to live (people with good health insurance) and who deserves to die. How is synthesizing life any different than artificial insemination? How is that acceptable, but this microbe is a danger to our moral foundations?

There’s a Buddhist proverb that reads, “To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.” Scientific knowledge is that key. Our ability to synthesize life is a key. And it could open a gate to heaven (production of drugs and vaccines, for example) or a gate to hell (the microbe might not operate by the laws of nature and essentially go on an insane rampage and kill crops or humanity or maybe start the zombie apocalypse…). The knowledge and ability are just a key. A powerful key, a powerful tool, but essentially neither good nor evil. Power is not inherently polarized- it’s how it is used.

The thing is, as Richard Feynman said, “…in spite of the fact that it could produce enormous horror in the world, science is of value because it can produce something.”

Besides, any super zombie virus is still ages away. All Venter managed was one weak cell based on a pre-existing organism. There’s been less genetic tampering there than occurs in insemination labs, really.

People need to calm the fuck down over all this. Hell, it wasn’t even a fully synthetic cell- only the genome was synthesized (then planted in a host cell). Instead of panicking over the dangers (there are dangers to anything- remember the whole “knowledge is a key” business?), we should focus on the potential, enormous benefits this technology could yield us. I love theoretical physics, don’t get me wrong, but this microbe isn’t just a thought experiment- it has physical, practical applications to our everyday lives. I think that deserves less of a torch-and-pitchfork approach and more of a sense of wonderment as we envision the possibilities.

***

We’ll end our science babble with some humor:

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