Brian Cox on Colbert

brian_cox_colbertPhysicist Brian Cox had a bit of fun on Colbert a few nights back*. At Stephen Colbert’s prompting he mentions the nonsense about time travel and the Higgs boson, (which I decided not to blog since it was so frustratingly idiotic and had no business in, for example the science section of a national newspaper not the least because it just serves to confuse readers with even more nonsense about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) than they already have been) and then has a blast (it seems) discussing the importance of Special Relativity, [tex]E=mc^2[/tex], and why you should care, which is the subject of his new book with Jeff Forshaw.

Unfortunately he seems, at one point, to fall into the usual (high-horsed physicist) pattern of dismissing another legitimate science endeavour (food science in this case) as not science, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it was just a joke made in the heat of the moment. He’s too smart and likeable a guy, (and a very good public spokesperson for science education by all accounts and past appearances), to be quite so dismissive. Riffing fast and furious with Colbert will no doubt sometimes produce such slips.

By the way (and Brian does not get this wrong, but does not get the chance to say it, and I’m sure he knows it) people often get left with the impression from press releases about the LHC (see related posts below for lots of LHC background) and other popular discussions of particle physics that because the Higgs particle gives mass to all the massive elementary particles we know (an amazing thing to learn more about if we can, and that is the main point of the LHC!), that somehow this is responsible for the mass that we measure of everyday things, like a coffee mug, or the mass you measure on the scales in the bathroom. This is not really the case. The Higgs business accounts for only a tiny amount of the mass of everyday things. Most of the mass of everyday objects can be traced to the fact that the elementary particles bind together to make the big everyday stuff. When things bind together, it takes energy to defeat the force (nuclear or other) that binds them together (imagine pulling apart two objects you glued together). By [tex]E=mc^2[/tex], yes that famous equation, that binding energy is detectable as a mass. That’s mostly what you see on your scales. It does not mean that the Higgs particle – and learning more about how it gives the elementary particles their specific properties – is not important, but it is important to understand what people mean when they say we are understanding “where mass comes from” and other such phrases that are bandied about in connection with the LHC. It is not as direct as all that. Remember that when Stephen makes the joke about the weight loss program. You’d lose some mass, but it would be about as effective as most weight loss programs on the market, which is to say that your money would be better spent on just ignoring the program and getting more exercise…

Ok, anyway, here’s the Brian Cox clip. Enjoy!

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Brian Cox
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*Thanks T and T.

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