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By: Bogon, 11:59 PM GMT on July 08, 2012

This weekend I'm paying my monthly visit to Mom. There are advantages and disadvantages. Among the advantages is that it's cooler in the mountains. As I pen these words, it's 100 degrees back home in Burlington. It's only 93 here. ':o/ Friday I stopped for lunch in Banner Elk, NC, which is at an altitude approaching 4000 feet. It was quite pleasant there.

The principal disadvantage is that I'm here by myself. Wife had planned to accompany me on this trip, but she begged off at the last minute. Mom turned 95 years old last month. She's a fine old lady, but she's not exactly scintillating company these days. Besides, there's the whole generational thing. As time passes the relative difference in our ages decreases, but there's still a gap. Having Wife by my side always makes the occasion more fun.

This time, instead of one big unified blog entry, I present two short items back to back. Hopefully at least one of them will strike your fancy.

Le Tour

Several years ago one of my wife's friends, who is an avid cyclist, talked us into watching the Tour de France. We're still watching. This weekend I have been sharing the view with Mom.

Mom and I talked about bicycle racing as we watched. She remembered that Lance Armstrong, seven time winner of the tour, is under investigation for using proscribed substances. I hate to see that. Mom said she didn’t like cheaters, and I had to agree. But I like Lance (his public persona anyway -- don't know him personally). Alberto Contador is a past Tour winner currently serving out the last weeks of his sentence (banned from racing until August) for a similar infraction. Floyd Landis, who won the Tour only to have the victory revoked for failing a drug test, has apparently retired.

My feelings on this subject are altogether mixed. I don’t like cheaters, but I also don’t particularly like rules, especially when they seem arbitrary or capricious. Most of all, I don’t like not being able to tell who won the race. This witch hunt, which surfaces every year during the Tour de France, threatens to ruin my appreciation of the event.

Individual athletes have great incentive to try whatever gimmick might enhance their chances. They must dwell in a climate wherein temptation and bad advice are commonplace. It occurs to me that there are other ways to cheat, such as arranging for a competitor to crash or to have an equipment malfunction. One can sow seeds of discord among the members of an opposing team. Surely all such methods have been tried, and just as surely not all such misconduct has been brought to light. Not every possible infraction has a board of overseers to threaten individual bikers with disqualification. As far as I know, only one kind results in retroactive penalties after the race has been run. Why is this particular form of cheating singled out? By now it’s abundantly clear that the threat of exposure and disqualification does not suffice to deter athletes from trying whatever the ‘doctor’ recommends.

Far from reassuring me that the sport is being cleaned up, this annual round of finger pointing makes me think that bike racing must be a dirty, tainted business. I am afraid to pick someone (or even a team) to root for, for fear that my favorite will be snatched away. I still watch the Tour, but I enjoy it more as a travelogue than as a sporting event.

It might be different if I had some way of knowing what is actually going on. Unfortunately I have no way to independently verify the accusations, blood test results etc. All I know is what I hear in the news. Just as athletes have an incentive to try steroids or blood doping, it seems to me that people also have clear incentive to impugn reputations, fake tests or bribe officials. If every aspect of the sport suffered such intensive scrutiny, the racers would likely be out of business.


The cover of this week's Economist reminds me that the folks at CERN recently made an announcement. They think they may have found the Higgs boson. Whenever you get done jumping for joy, I'll resume my narrative.

Those of you who follow this blog assiduously (I'm optimistically assuming that there may be such people.) will recall that I have ranted about the Higgs boson before. I called it a fudge factor.

It's much more than that, really. The stakes are pretty high, potentially Promethean. A generation from now the things that currently occupy our minds — the shaky economy, the presidential race, the latest iGizmo from Apple etc. — will be fading memories. But if the physicists at CERN are correct about their discovery, that will be a big deal. That will fundamentally alter our understanding of the nature of reality. In a generation or two there might even be world-shaking applications of that knowledge. Consider that within a few decades of the publication of Einstein's theory of general relativity the atomic bomb changed geopolitics irrevocably.

Whether or not the new particle turns out to be the long-sought Higgs boson, it should be interesting. The Standard Model of particle physics is incomplete. There is some key insight about the universe that we still don't grasp. Hopefully the Large Hadron Collider can provide the experimental evidence physicists need to move beyond the Standard Model.

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Sports Physics

Updated: 2:25 AM GMT on July 09, 2012


About Bogon

Retired software engineer. "What is that?", you may ask. It's someone who has time to blog about the weather...

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