Hadron Collider Update: It broke. And: compass cows.

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September 25, 2008

6:27 PM

It’s … broken

This is science. In spite of my enthusiasm, hours after my post went up on Sunday I found out that the Large Hadron Collider broke. It’s a minor problem: a wire that connected two magnets melted.

This would normally be a quick fix, but the timing will keep the LHC out of service until next year. The LHC operates at temperatures near absolute zero, so it will take a month to warm the damaged area enough for workers to repair it. The LHC also has a scheduled shutdown during the winter to conserve electricity, and a repair is not likely before then.

So, since unraveling the mystery of the formation of the universe will have to wait until next year, here is some equally important news:

Cows point in a North-South direction!

Really!

This suggests that they can detect the earth’s magnetic fields, since they orient to magnetic north, and not the North Pole. It isn’t clear what advantage cows would have by orienting themselves in this way. It also isn’t clear whether the cows are pointing with their heads to the North or the South — the resolution on Google Earth (yes, that’s where the data was gathered) isn’t clear enough.

The ability to detect magnetic fields has been seen in other animals; some birds navigate by sensing them. It is even thought that humans may have some form of this ability — we have ways of orienting ourselves that can’t easily be explained in other ways. I’ve heard that people who have to navigate through the woods or across plains when they are young develop a stronger sense of direction. It is possible that they are learning how to detect magnetic fields, but it’s not clear if humans have this ability at all.

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