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Article in today's Age about the research station on Heron Island.

The research team there are part of a project examining the biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo Reef in WA. They've just release some initial results which include the discovery of hundreds of new species.

Article here. Multimedia content (video and slideshows) here, which do a very nice job of showing off Heron Island.



When I was in Primary School, I wanted to be a marine biologist. My mother actually told a story last weekend, about how I came home from the library with a book on marine biology and read it within a few hours. He didn't really read it, she thought. He just looked at the pictures. So she quizzed me on it, and I answered every question.

Somewhere along the way I chose robots over reefs, and ended up in IT. It's not that I regret my choice. But I've been thinking about it a lot, ever since we got back from Heron Island.

Guess I'll just have to be an enthusiastic amatuer.

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The Large Hadron Collider got turned on while we were away. And the Universe totally failed to end.

This is completely unsurprising.

Why?

Here's the deal -- the LHC is trying to find the fundamental building blocks of reality.

It does this by firing a stream of sub-atomic particles called protons around its 27km loop, using super-powerful magnets to accelerate them to nearly the speed of light,  then smashing them into other protons racing along in the opposite direction. The collisions shatter the protons into the elementary particles they're made out of.

It's a bit like ramming two Lego toy cars together - they fall apart into the bricks used to build them.

Scientists are hoping that if they smash the protons together hard enough, they'll find some elementary particles that theoretical physicists think exist, but no one has ever actually seen before.

These types of experiments aren't new. Scientists have been smashing particles together and sifting the debris for decades. What makes the Large Hadron Collider special is that it can smash things together harder and faster than any collider before it. Consequently, it stands a good chance of uncovering new particles that other colliders are just too weak to shake loose.

There's a problem, though. Those elementary particles they looking for? They're the tiniest things humanity has ever tried to detect. And most of them only exist for less than a trillionth of a second.

Given that, if you were in charge of this project, would you:
  1. Turn the LHC on, and immediately start conducting experiments at maximum power, just praying that everything works
  2. Spend some time running experiments with known results, using them to test and calibrate the detectors
If you answered 2), congratulations! Go get a job at CERN.

Because that's what the Large Hadron Collider teams will be doing for the next few months - running tests.

On September 10, they tested that protons can actually be fired all the way around the loop.

In October, they'll run the first test collisions to check that the detectors are actually detecting.

Then -- after shutting down over the New Year -- in March 2009 they'll run the first experiments at maximum collision energy.

Even that won't destroy the world.

Because the physicists there aren't stupid. They've run the calculations. They've worked out the risks.

As CERN point out on their website, this may be the highest-energy collider ever built by humanity, but cosmic rays collide with greater energy than the LHC can muster all the time. "Over the past billions of years, Nature has already generated on Earth as many collisions as about a million LHC experiments – and the planet still exists."


DISCLAIMER: I am not a physicist. This entry is based on reading New Scientist and the CERN website. Repeat: I am not a physicist. But the Large Hadron Collider is the biggest machine in the world. It may uncover the true nature of reality. Come on. Aren't you just a little bit excited?

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