May has morphed into June, but there are a couple of “origin” stories from last month that will percolate for a long time in the groove that they’ve dug into my brain.
Although one is about the origins of the Universe and the infinite mystery of why we exist at all – always a biggie – and the other is about the origins of humans – a story with a much smaller scale – both have immense CPP (Cocktail Party Potential) values.
We exist because matter exists, but why matter itself exists has been the $10billion (and counting) question in particle physics. Thanks to some folks who study high-energy collisions between sub-atomic particles, we now have a clue. But the news comes not from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the alpha-dog of particle accelerators – near Geneva, Switzerland. This time, the scoop belongs to Fermilab (situated amidst what appears to be cow pastures near Chicago), where a small bunch of Davids calling themselves the DZero collaboration have been trying to hold their own against the LHC Goliath. Well, the DZeroes have now scored an A-plus.
According to conventional particle physics, the fall-out from the Big Bang consisted both of matter (protons, neutrons, electrons, and the rest of the gunk found inside atoms) as well as anti-matter (mirror images of these sub-atomic particles that go by the names anti-protons, anti-neutrons, and so on). But when matter and anti-matter come into contact, they instantly destroy each other, leaving nothing. So high-energy physicists reasoned that the Big Bang must have spawned the Universe by generating a bit of extra matter than anti-matter, so that galaxies and other stuff could be made.
By studying proton-antiproton collisions under conditions similar to those at the birth of the universe, the Fermilab folks have now ID’d this extra matter – it turns out to be a kind of heavy electron called a muon. When the collision happens, there are 1% more muons than anti-muons – a miniscule difference that the physicists say might be one factor that helped get the universe to…well…begin.
The other story is about human evolution and as it turns out, we’re all a little bit Neandertal, genetically speaking. A cross-disciplinary team of paleogeneticists, genomics and sequencing experts, anthropologists, and some downright talented cave-diggers assembled a complete sequence of the Neandertal genome from bone samples that are about 40,000 years old. Comparing this with the genome of modern humans, the team found (among other very interesting data) that we’ve inherited 1-4% of our DNA from Neandertals. To put this in perspective, 50% of our DNA comes from one of our parents, 25% from a grand-parent, 12.5% from a great-grand-parent, which would make Neandertals our…you should totally do the math. And also consider petitioning GEICO to cease and desist with those silly ads.