from the world's big
Why we can stop worrying and love the particle accelerator
By delving into the mysteries of the Universe, colliders have entered the Zeitgeist and tapped the wonders and fears of our age.
The scenario seems like the start of a bad Marvel comic, but it happens to shed light on our intuitions about radiation, the vulnerability of the human body, and the very nature of matter. Particle accelerators allow physicists to study subatomic particles by speeding them up in powerful magnetic fields and then tracing the interactions that result from collisions. By delving into the mysteries of the Universe, colliders have entered the Zeitgeist and tapped the wonders and fears of our age.
As far back as 2008, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), operated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), was charged with creating microscopic black holes that would allow physicists to detect extra dimensions. To many, this sounds like the plot of a disastrous science-fiction movie. It came as no surprise when two people filed a lawsuit to stop the LHC from operating, lest it produce a black hole powerful enough to destroy the world. But physicists argued that the idea was absurd and the lawsuit was rejected.
Then, in 2012, the LHC detected the long-sought Higgs boson, a particle needed to explain how particles acquire mass. With that major accomplishment, the LHC entered popular culture; it was featured on the album cover of Super Collider (2013) by the heavy metal band Megadeth, and was a plot point in the US television series The Flash (2014-).
Yet, despite its accomplishments and glamour, the world of particle physics is so abstract that few understand its implications, meaning or use. Unlike a NASA probe sent to Mars, CERN's research doesn't produce stunning, tangible images. Instead, the study of particle physics is best described by chalkboard equations and squiggly lines called Feynman diagrams. Aage Bohr, the Nobel laureate whose father Niels invented the Bohr model of the atom, and his colleague Ole Ulfbeck have even gone as far as to deny the physical existence of subatomic particles as anything more than mathematical models.
Which returns us to our original question: what happens when a beam of subatomic particles travelling at nearly the speed of light meets the flesh of the human body? Perhaps because the realms of particle physics and biology are conceptually so far removed, it's not only laypeople who lack the intuition to answer this question, but also some professional physicists. In a 2010 YouTube interview with members of the physics and astronomy faculty at the University of Nottingham, several academic experts admitted that they had little idea what would happen if one were to stick a hand inside the proton beam at the LHC. Professor Michael Merrifield put it succinctly: 'That's a good question. I don't know is the answer. Probably be very bad for you.' Professor Laurence Eaves was also cautious about drawing conclusions. '[B]y the scales of energy we notice, it wouldn't be that noticeable,' he said, likely with a bit of British understatement. 'Would I put my hand in the beam? I'm not sure about that.'
Such thought experiments can be useful tools for exploring situations that can't be studied in the laboratory. Occasionally, however, unfortunate accidents yield case studies: opportunities for researchers to study scenarios that can't be experimentally induced for ethical reasons. Case studies have a sample size of one and no control group. But, as the neuroscientist V S Ramachandran has pointed out in Phantoms in the Brain (1998), it takes only one talking pig to prove that pigs can talk. On 13 September 1848, for example, an iron rod pierced through the head of the US railway worker Phineas Gage and profoundly changed his personality, offering early evidence of a biological basis for personality.
And on 13 July 1978, a Soviet scientist named Anatoli Bugorski stuck his head in a particle accelerator. On that fateful day, Bugorski was checking malfunctioning equipment on the U-70 synchrotron – the largest particle accelerator in the Soviet Union – when a safety mechanism failed and a beam of protons travelling at nearly the speed of light passed straight through his head, Phineas Gage-style. It's possible that, at that point in history, no other human being had ever experienced a focused beam of radiation at such high energy. Although proton therapy – a cancer treatment that uses proton beams to destroy tumours – was pioneered before Bugorski's accident, the energy of these beams is generally not above 250 million electron volts (a unit of energy used for small particles). Bugorski might have experienced the full wrath of a beam with more than 300 times this much energy, 76 billion electron volts.
Proton radiation is a rare beast indeed. Protons from the solar wind and cosmic rays are stopped by Earth's atmosphere, and proton radiation is so rare in radioactive decay that it was not observed until 1970. More familiar threats, such as ultraviolet photons and alpha particles, do not penetrate the body past skin unless a radioactive source is ingested. Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, for instance, was killed by alpha particles that do not so much as penetrate paper when he unknowingly ingested radioactive polonium-210 delivered by an assassin. But when Apollo astronauts protected by spacesuits were exposed to cosmic rays containing protons and even more exotic forms of radiation, they reported flashes of visual light, a harbinger of what would welcome Bugorski on the fateful day of his accident. According to an interview in Wired magazine in 1997, Bugorski immediately saw an intense flash of light but felt no pain. The young scientist was taken to a clinic in Moscow with half his face swollen, and doctors expected the worst.
Ionising radiation particles such as protons wreak havoc on the body by breaking chemical bonds in DNA. This assault on a cell's genetic programming can kill the cell, stop it from dividing, or induce a cancerous mutation. Cells that divide quickly, such as stem cells in bone marrow, suffer the most. Because blood cells are produced in bone marrow, for instance, many cases of radiation poisoning result in infection and anaemia from losses of white blood cells and red blood cells, respectively. But unique to Bugorski's case, radiation was concentrated along a narrow beam through the head, rather than being broadly distributed from nuclear fallout, as was the case for many victims of the Chernobyl disaster or the bombing of Hiroshima. For Bugorski, particularly vulnerable tissues, such as bone marrow and the gastrointestinal track, might have been largely spared. But where the beam shot through Bugorski's head, it deposited an obscene amount of radiation energy, hundreds of times greater than a lethal dose by some estimates.
And yet, Bugorski is still alive today. Half his face is paralysed, giving one hemisphere of his head a strangely young appearance. He is reported to be deaf in one ear. He suffered at least six generalised tonic-clonic seizures. Commonly known as grand mal seizures, these are the seizures most frequently depicted in film and television, involving convulsions and loss of consciousness. Bugorski's epilepsy is likely a result of brain tissue-scarring left by the proton beam. It has also left him with petit mal or absence seizures, far less dramatic staring spells during which consciousness is briefly interrupted. There are no reports that Bugorski has ever been diagnosed with cancer, though that is often a long-term consequence of radiation exposure.
Despite having nothing less than a particle accelerator beam pass through his brain, Bugorski's intellect remained intact, and he successfully completed his doctorate after the accident. Bugorski survived his accident. And as frightening and awesome as the inside of a particle accelerator might be, humanity has thus far survived the nuclear age.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
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Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Kick off your next game night with these Mensa-recommended board and card games.
- Mensa members judge an annual competition to determine which games are the best on the market.
- Hundreds of board, card, and party games are considered each year but only a select few can win.
- These 10 top games are available to purchase and play right now.
Human brains evolved for creativity. We just have to learn how to access it.
- An all-star cast of Big Thinkers—actors Rainn Wilson and Ethan Hawke; composer Anthony Brandt; neuroscientists David Eagleman, Wendy Suzuki, and Beau Lotto; and psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman—share how they define creativity and explain how our brains uniquely evolved for the phenomenon.
- According to Eagleman, during evolution there was an increase in space between our brain's input and output that allows information more time to percolate. We also grew a larger prefrontal cortex which "allows us to simulate what ifs, to separate ourselves from our location in space and time and think about possibilities."
- Scott Barry Kaufman details 3 brain networks involved in creative thinking, and Wendy Suzuki busts the famous left-brain, right-brain myth.
Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.
- Manly Bands was founded in 2016 to provide better options and customer service in men's wedding bands.
- Unique materials include antler, dinosaur bones, meteorite, tungsten, and whiskey barrels.
- The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
The proposal calls for the American public to draft two candidates to lead the executive branch: one from the center-left, the other from the center-right.