Sep 232011

CERN announced today that they had published results indicating that they have discovered that neutrinos may travel at speeds a tiny fraction faster than the speed of light – breaking what you could call the Universe’s speed limit. At least according to Einstein‘s theories.

This has caused a certain amount of fuss amongst the media, and probably a lot of discussion around every water cooler where physicists gather. Of course the media has grandly announced that Einstein was wrong. Well, not really (and I should add that I’m no physicist).

Firstly, this is more a “Hey! That’s weird” moment – nobody except the media is saying we should tear up Einstein’s theories as yet. CERN themselves have said what amounts to “Hey guys! Can you check this out, because it’s weird”. They want other scientists to check their results because it is so unexpected.

Secondly even if this pans out, and CERN have found that something travels faster than light it doesn’t mean that Einstein was completely wrong. He came up with a theory that explained the Universe as understood for pretty much a hundred years. Just like the Newtonian universe that went before, the Einsteinian universe was correct (and may still be so) for the Universe as understood by scientists until this discovery.

Bear in mind that the Newtonian universe is taught in schools today – not as a historical curiosity, but as a simplistic if somewhat flawed model of how the Universe works, suitable for children learning about the Universe.

Feb 282008

First of all, a little apology … I’m no expert Mathematician, was pretty dire at Physics, and I’m no great name in Computer Science. In fact the “physics” here could be any science that makes use of mathematics as a tool. Now for the really scary part … I’m going to be talking about equations.

At least some of the unpopularity of Physics has something to do with the equations that can be found in it. There is no getting around it, Physics and other sciences cannot be really called “science” without equations. But I do believe that physicists do make their equations a little too mysterious :-

e = m c ^ 2

(apologies for not using real symbols there)

Now that is one of the better known equations from physics, but were it one that was less well-known the general reaction would be “eh?”. Does the obscurity of the variables here help ?

When I was learning to write programs, I quickly came to the realisation that using descriptive variables was the start of writing understandable code and went some way to documenting what was going on. It is all very well writing a piece of code with less expressive variables but it makes understanding what you wrote some weeks (or months) ago much harder.

The use of obscure variables come from Maths where you start with equations like :-

x ^ 2 = 9

Now Maths (as I understand it) is basically a set of puzzles that have to be solved using the techniques of Maths; those techniques and the puzzles are divorced from any real problems. The use of deliberately inscrutable variables is by design.

Which way should sciences that use equations go ? The way that Maths goes with inscrutable variable names, or the way of software engineering with descriptive variables ? Historically sciences have gone down the route in common with Maths; understandably enough, but why not try descriptive names. Isn’t an equation like :-

Energy = Mass * Speed of Light ^ 2

… far more understandable, and possibly just a little bit less scary to those put off by equations ? If changing to descriptive variables brings a few more young people into the study of science, is that a good reason for using them. I think so.

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