The GB&U: Large Hadron Collider, Hollywood, and the Chevy Volt

By Corey Conley

The Good: A Second Chance for the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs Boson God Particle

Large Hadron Collider inside

It’s the heartwarming particle physics story of the year! Okay, maybe not. But the fact that the Tevatron particle collider is still managing to impact science over a year after budget cuts shut it down is pretty cool.

Even cooler is what scientists found while crunching through the final trillions of collisions to run through the deactivated accelerator: evidence that scientists are hot on the trail of the Higgs Boson God Particle.

For those who don’t regularly curl up with a book on particle physics, the Higgs Boson God Particle is the big-daddy particle of the universe, the particle from which all other particles, from the proton to the electron, get their mass. That’s worth repeating: the Higgs Boson God Particle, if real, will explain how all things in the universe, from garden gnomes to supernovas, have mass. For 45 years this “God Particle” was predicted by chalkboards full of complicated math but never confirmed experimentally.

Scientists would very much like to have that confirmation, as it would neatly round off the last rough edges of the Standard Model of Physics, kind of like finding that last piece of the puzzle before you can say, definitively, that you have just assembled a unicorn.

Although not proven beyond all doubt, the findings back up last year’s research at the world’s current collider champ, the Large Hadron Colider. Their super powered collisions produced something big (on the subatomic scale, at least) within the predicted range of mass for a Higgs Boson. The Tevatron data backs up the Large Hadron Collider crew with a similar, if a little more uncertain, reading. The ‘tron’s readings lend gravity (pun so very intended) to the Large Hadron Collider, providing the kind of independent confirmation that good science thrives on.

Of course, nothing’s settled, and the Large Hadron Collider will soon be powering up for an even harder-hitting proton rodeo to further isolate the elusive Higgs Boson God Particle. The Tevatron, sadly, will remain shuttered until further notice.

The Bad: No Business Like Show Business as Record Low Ticket Sales Hit a 17 Year Low

Old Movie Theater

2011 brought the lowest ticket sales since 1995, 1.28 billion. Naturally, analysts blame general, recession-era belt tightening, the lack of a killer blockbuster, and a host of other factors. I disagree. As someone who’s had a unused movie gift certificate burning a hole in his pocket for lack of movie that interests me enough to see even for free – I see 2011 as a wake-up call for the industry.

Of course, this year could prove to be a resounding success for the big screens, and I and all the other naysayers could be eating crow this time next year. But I don’t think so. 2011 marked a convergence of technology, economic necessity, and ticket prices that signal an end to business-as-usual amongst the suede-curtain crowd.

Remember video arcades? Long before Abercrombie and Fitch these were the hot, dark, loud parts of malls where mop-headed brats were dumped off with a fiver to blow on Donkey Kong, Outrider, and Tekken. People in their 20s and older might remember jamming quarters into machines and cramming down pizza, but anyone younger is too busy playing million-dollar, photorealistic games on their home console and dad’s 55 inch TV.

That’s because arcades couldn’t keep ahead of the technology. Home consoles caught up and did almost everything arcades did, and did it cheaper and more conveniently. Now those same 55 inch TV’s are hooked to streaming services piping in millions of hours of instant content for the price of one movie ticket a month.

That TV at home starts looking better and better to Joe Moviebuff and his family of four when you factor in a night that starts at 15 dollars a head for 3D, plus another five each for overpriced and over-portioned concessions. Follow that up with 30 minutes of bombardment by A Clockwork Orange-style commercial, poor Joe is rightly expecting the movie to be the best two hours and 17 minutes he has all month.

But too often, it’s not. Between Hollywood’s love of sequels and the average suburban megaplex’s insistence on middling, over-hyped blockbusters and their sequels, the couple with the crying three-year-old, and the trio of front-row teens lit up by their iPhones like campers telling ghost stories, going to the theater can often end up an expensive disappointment. That 55-inch TV and a $1 Red Box rental look better by the minute.

The Ugly: Volt Hate

chevy volt getting smashed in crash test

I confess. We are not the biggest fan of Chevy’s Volt. It’s a worthy piece of plug-in Hybrid tech, but we’ve often lamented the fact that it starts around around 40 big ones before federal incentives. Still, the poor car – which has received numerous “best in show” style awards – has done nothing to deserve the beating it’s received the past several months.

First came the attacks from opportunists who saw it as a convenient political football. Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh lambasted the Volt as precisely the kind of miserable, eco-friendly car that the recently bailed out “Government Motors” would foist upon the American public. He also stated that the car could only go 40 miles before needing a recharge. What’s more, the line of attack got picked up by less ostentatious conservative opinion-makers like the Wall Street Journal’s George Will.

Of course, the problem with these particular attacks is they are untrue. The Volt concept was first unveiled in January 2007, which astute political observers might note was a full two years before our current President took office, and even longer before the auto industry bailouts. The almost production-ready version of the Volt car bowed in September 2008 – again, well before inauguration day.

The second charge (pun all but intended), that the Volt could travel only 40 miles, was also wrong. The car can travel around 40 miles on electric-only power before its gas engine needs to spool up to power the car the rest of the way. Although these facts were mentioned in every single article about the car, for many the argument still solidified the car as emblematic of everything wrong with the automaker bailouts.

The Volt’s woes hardly stopped there. A series of precautionary recalls tarnished the Volt’s reputation. The reason? Fire. Although General Motors designed the Volt battery with multiple impact and fire protections, and reached out to emergency first-responders across the country on how to most safely extract people from a Volt, it wasn’t enough. A Volt still caught fire… a crash-test Volt subjected to a side impact and a roll-over… three weeks after the test.

The fire, which hurt no one, occurred long after the initial impact, and could have been avoided if the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration had simply followed GM’s recommended post-crash precautions, still caused a flurry of rear-guard action from GM and much hysterical chatter on cable news.

At that point the Volt is portrayed as a no-range, spontaneously combusting, effete car built by big brother. Even that wasn’t enough; the car was too useful as a political bludgeon to abandon during an election year, and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, ignoring that the Volt was conceived and designed well within the years of the Bush administration, dusted off the argument that the Volt represented big government telling GM what to build, and us what to buy. “You can’t put a gun rack in a Volt,” he proclaimed to his audience at the end of his attack on the car. (For what it’s worth, the fact-checking site disputed this by actually fitting a Volt with a gun rack)

It’s hard to definitively say that any of this is contributing to the Volt’s lackluster sales, which failed to meet GM’s own modest predictions. GM just recently announced they were stopping production of the Volt until the backlog of unsold ones moved off the lot.

And that’s too bad. I’ve driven the car (it’s actually quite nice) and followed its evolution from the early, stunning concept to the somewhat dowdy and prohibitively expensive production car (but early adopters always pay more – remember the $1,000 Blu-Ray player?). Certainly the issues about the government’s role in shaping private innovation are worth debating, but I can’t help but feel sad to see an innovation like the Volt become the target of politics and misguided media chatter.

It should be noted that GM’s Ex-CEO Bob Lutz, made most of these same points in a public statement that laid into conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly and laid out these three points:

“1) The Volt was largely my idea, and I was its undeniable champion. Work on it was started in 2006. Obama was elected in 2008.
2) No Volt in service has ever shown as much as a wisp of smoke. Not in normal service, and not in crashes. The three Volt battery fires all occurred under extremely destructive experimental conditions. Two of the fires were induced in batteries not mounted in cars.
3) Those who know me will vouch for my credentials as a conservative and vocal global warming skeptic. I spent 11 years as a Marine attack aviator trained and ready to take out Communists during the Cold War.”

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