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What's the Higgs Boson and Why Do We Care?

Researchers at CERN have announced a major finding that, while they're being cautious and cagey because they're conservative people, is clearly the first observation of the Higgs boson, popularly known as the "God particle." This is what the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) was built to find, and apparently it worked. The press release reads, in part:

“We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigma, in the mass region around 126 GeV. The outstanding performance of the LHC and ATLAS and the huge efforts of many people have brought us to this exciting stage,” said ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti, “but a little more time is needed to prepare these results for publication.”

"The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV we’re seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found,” said CMS experiment spokesperson Joe Incandela. “The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks."

“It’s hard not to get excited by these results,” said CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci. “We stated last year that in 2012 we would either find a new Higgs-like particle or exclude the existence of the Standard Model Higgs. With all the necessary caution, it looks to me that we are at a branching point: the observation of this new particle indicates the path for the future towards a more detailed understanding of what we’re seeing in the data.”

What's that "5 sigma" business? Read Brian Cox's explanatory tweet for more -- basically it means scientists are very, very confident that the Higgs boson has indeed been found.

So this brings us to a tricky science problem: what is the Higgs boson and why do scientists care about it so much? There are lots of answers to those questions online, but their quality is all over the map. I've assembled three starting points for you below, and they are all reasonably non-technical. To make a very long and complex story very short, the Higgs boson explains why particles have mass, filling in a crucial gap in the Standard Model of physics. Because we haven't actually been able to observe the Higgs boson, this explanation has been hypothetical for half a century -- today's news means the hypothesis is (tentatively) confirmed.

1. BBC News Coverage

If you're a reader, read the BBC's coverage of the discovery. Representative quote: "The particle's confirmation would stand out as one of the great scientific achievements of the 21st Century so far." This one has some interesting interactive elements as well.

2. Fermilab Water Analogy

This three-minute video from Fermilab scientist Don Lincoln uses the metaphor of water in a swimming pool to explain the Higgs field, and in turn the Higgs boson. This is a nice, short explanation that's good enough for most of us.

3. BBC Horizon 2012: The Hunt for the Higgs

If you have an hour to kill (and this video isn't removed from YouTube by the BBC), here's a nice documentary about the people working at CERN, what they're looking for, and why it matters. This is easy to follow, well-made, and very accessible to the non-scientist. I particularly enjoyed the interview with Dr. Michio Kaku starting around 27:30 -- Kaku helps to convey the wonder and mystery of science, demonstrating why this process of discovery is so compelling. You might also enjoy the portion in which various scientists guess at the Higgs boson's mass region -- now that we know it's apparently around 125-126 GeV.

Representative quote: "If the laws of science are framed in their most perfect, their most symmetrical form, then life cannot exist at all. There'd be no mountains, rivers, valleys, no DNA, no people, nothing. But here we are. Our world is teeming with life and complexity, and yet that seems to be incompatible with perfection in our equations. By rights, we shouldn't be here!" -Dr. Michio Kaku.

A Brief Personal Note

It is very hard for me to type "Higgs" without typing "Higgins," for obvious reasons. If you must know, my rap name is "God Particle" and former _floss blogger Ransom Riggs often refers to me as "Higgs Bro-son" just to get my goat.

(Brian Cox tweet via Kottke.)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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