Sometimes there seems to be a lack of news when it comes to the science and engineering fields. Is it a coincidence that the lull in stories occurs during the summer months? It could be; scientists and engineers get to take vacations too. However, there are usually updates in stories that were reported on earlier in the year. It is also hard to get excited about news that primarily involves Apple or mosquitoes being able to survive rain, and It's fitting, as today we'll recap what we once talked about before, featuring some important updates, and some fun stuff (at least fun for me).
On January 9, we talked about the Higgs Boson. Well, guess what? That bad boy is back and he is actually here to stay. I reported that the teams at the LHC particle accelerator thought that they detected is evidence of the Higgs boson, the God particle. The Higgs is the particle that every other particle interacts with that lets those other particles have mass. It is still mind-blowing to think about something giving something else mass – at least for yours truly – but it seems to be true. The Higgs is the last remaining particle in the Standard Model that defines particle physics.
There were two teams of physicists that said they had detected the particle. Both analyzed their data and came up with a 5-sigma level certainty that the particle exists in the data they processes. A 5-sigma certainty level means the teams are 99.9999% certain their data is correct. Most were hoping for at most a 4-sigma level of certainty, making the 5-sigma level a pleasant surprise.
What this means in an applications sense is not yet certain, at least for this engineer. Maybe some faster flash memory drives or perhaps messing with antigravity (or maybe just creating lighter materials?). But, the applications of the Higgs discovery certainly will not be seen in the next few years. It will take at least 10 years to see any commercially available products that use the science of the Higgs boson. Regardless, it is an exciting time for physicists because of the doors that are opened by truly understanding and completing the Standard Model.
Last year the 10th anniversary of September 11th brought with it the opening of the 9/11 Memorial on the footprints of the World Trade Center buildings 1 and 2, commonly referred to as the Twin Towers. Just last month, the skeleton of WTC 4 was completed. In April, WTC 1 – the building that already well defines the skyline of downtown Manhattan – became the tallest building in New York City, beating out the iconic Empire State Building in a return bout after some 40 years.
I constantly hear the comment, “But I thought they ended the space program.” If you are unsure if this is a true statement or you believe it to be true please educate yourself by reading this and/or this. On a personal bit of reporting, I recently flew over the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in New York City and the Space Shuttle Enterprise is sitting happily on its deck. It is really big. Many times you know that things are big, but you never really understand how big they are until you see them in person, even from 800 feet in the air.
If you still believe that the space program has ended then you should know that on May 22, 2012, a commercial company called SpaceX launched the first commercial space vehicle into orbit that docked with the International Space Station. It was a great achievement in that no commercial company had been able to build a capsule that maneuvered in orbit, docked with another craft, and flew back to earth to be recovered along with the cargo that it brought back.
SpaceX is a company that was started by the guy who co-founded PayPal, Elon Musk. Musk is trying to push the company to manned spaceflight within the next 5-10 years and missions to the moon within the next 15-20 before finally achieving manned missions to Mars within the next 25-30 years. It is a very ambitious schedule, and it will be interesting to see how well he does sending NASA astronauts to the International Space Station within the next 5 years. NASA has been pushing commercial companies to develop spacecraft for their astronauts. It would be cheaper and more strictly regulated (becoming safer) than traveling in our Russian counterpart’s ships, which unfortunately still seem to have issues.
Hopefully, this push for more commercial spacecraft by NASA will lead to competition among spacecraft developers. NASA wants the price per pound of a space launch to decrease. This is best done by good old-fashioned capitalism and competition.