Heisenberg, Tram Shambles and Black Holes
Wednesday, October 16th, 2013
A version of this post first appeared in the Daily Record’s Edinburgh Now supplement
Physics is sexy again and its new pin up boy is an unassuming octogenarian living – and still working – in Edinburgh.
Professor Peter Higgs is the man who came up with the theory of the “God particle” and now his research has received the ultimate scientific accolade, a Nobel prize.
It puts him into an elite club which includes Marie Curie and Albert Einstein.
Entertainment fans might be more interested to know that another previous winner of the physic award was Werner Heisenberg – the man whose name was adopted by the anti-hero in the uber cool TV show, Breaking Bad.
Whether or not Professor Higgs name ever inspires an award-winning TV show, his achievement is already enormous. Big enough to make him almost as well-known as grinning telly physics boffin, Brian Cox.
Not bad for a modest Edinburgh University professor who refuses to carry a mobile phone and was wandering home from lunch in Leith when the Nobel organisers were desperately trying to get hold of him to break the news of his award last week.
Now 84, Professor Higgs actually formulated his theory way back in the early 1960s. However, it was only proved in 2012 thanks to results in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 27km circular tunnel beneath the Swiss-French border near Geneva designed to smash atoms together.
Until the team at the LHC proved the existence of the elusive Higg’s boson (the incredibly short-lived particle which is believed to give matter its mass) the facility was probably best known for troubling scare stories.
At one point builders of the LHC even faced a lawsuit claiming the atom smashing experiments would create black holes which could destroy the entire planet.
Like most other people the work of Professor Higgs is a bit beyond me, especially when we start entering a sci-fi world of black holes and incredibly dense matter.
Then again, maybe a black holes expert is exactly what the country needs, since our entire road network seems to be disappearing into a series of them. There are stretches of road in Edinburgh which are more hole than tarmac.
The scale of the problem was made clear when it was revealed last week that Britain’s roads are blighted by a pothole every mile, making up a total area twice the size of the Isle of Wight, at 295 square miles.
Councils are paying out millions in compensation to injured cyclists and drivers with damaged cars, while falling further and further behind in maintaining our crumbling roads.
Financial Black Hole
Talking of transport issue, there’s another black hole that could do with coming under the scrutiny of Professor Higgs’ towering intellect: where exactly did that £776 million spent on the Edinburgh Trams project go?
Over the weekend I was told how one former Lothian Buses boss has been telling anyone who’ll listen that had he been that kind of money to burn through, he could have given everyone in Edinburgh free bus transport for the next 20 years.
I’ve heard more convincing explanations for the creation of the universe than I have for exactly where the huge sums of money actually went.
The numbers are now so ludicrously big it will take Professor Higgs or one of his very clever university colleagues can come up with a suitably complicated formula to help explain the tram spend.
However, armed with Higher Maths, a scraped pass in O-Grade physics and some help from Google, I was able to discover that it cost £2.6 billion to build the Large Hadron Collider.
It is one of the most enormous-yet-precise measuring devices ever created and has been described as “one of the great engineering milestones of mankind.”
It involved 10,000 scientists from more than 100 countries and lies in a tunnel which is 17 miles in circumference and reaches depths of 570 ft underground. It cost around £150 million per mile.
Meanwhile, the Edinburgh trams project has cost £90 million per mile. If we’d only stretched to £150 million per mile it might have been possible to get the track all the way to Leith, as originall planned.
Still, one of the greatest scientific mysteries of creation has been solved. We now know the most incredible dense stuff in the universe can be found in charge of the trams scheme.
I wonder if there might be a way to bottle the stuff, as it would would make a great pothole filler.
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