Articles

When the mathematician AK Erlang first used probability theory to model telephone networks in the early twentieth century he could hardly have imagined that the science he founded would one day help solve a most pressing global
problem: how to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy sources.

It's official: the notorious Higgs boson has been discovered at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The Higgs is a subatomic particle whose existence was predicted by theoretical physics. Also termed the god particle, the Higgs boson is said to have given other particles their mass. But how did it do that? In this two-part article we explore the so-called Higgs mechanism, starting with the humble bar magnet and ending with a dramatic transformation of the early Universe.

In the first part of this article we explored Landau's theory of phase transitions in materials such as magnets. We now go on to see how this theory formed the basis of the Higgs mechanism, which postulates the existence of the mysterious Higgs boson and explains how the particles that make up our Universe came to have mass.

Infinity is a pain. Its paradoxes easily ensnare the unsuspecting reasoner. So over the centuries, mathematicians have carefully constructed bulwarks against its predations. But now cosmologists have developed theories that put them squarely outside the mathematicians' "green zone" of safety.

John Barrow gives us an overview, from Aristotle's ideas to Cantor's never-ending tower of mathematical infinities, and from shock waves to black holes.

Quantum mechanics and general relativity are incompatible — and this has led to a decades-long search for a theory of quantum gravity that could combine the two. But the particle physicist Richard Woodard thinks that the mismatch between the two could be nothing more than an illusion, created by the complicated maths techniques used in attempts to unite them.