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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, March 30, 2015

My Favourite Movies: Sucker Punch

Even after watching this 5-6 times I still not really sure is this is a good, inspired, deeply flawed or simply a bad movie. I mean I loved the trailer and was hooked by the haunting melody (sung by the lead actress Emily Browning) and the totally arresting visuals. It was, at least to me, a must see movie.

On actually seeing it though I was torn. The movie is most definitely divided into two very different bits – there’s the asylum/bordello and then there’s the fantasy sequences. But as usual I’m getting ahead of myself. The story, such as it is, starts with the death of ‘Babydoll’s mother (that’s Emily Browning’s character as everyone has Superhero-lite Monika’s) and her attempted murder of her stepfather whilst protecting her younger sister from him. Sent to a mental hospital (how exactly that is achieved is glossed over) she has to survive with the other inmates. But then things get a little weird – as the asylum turns into a bordello (presumably in the mind of Babydoll?) – where the girls must dance for their clients. But when Babydoll dances something strange happens which blows everyone away – oddly we never actually see any of the dances but only what’s going on in her head. OK, so now I’ve completely confused everyone I get to the good bit – and no, I don’t mean the fact that all of the women (with the noted exception of Carla Gugino who played the dance instructor/psychiatrist) spend most of their time in either underwear, dance clothes or tight leather/micro-skirts. The costume designer either was a 14 year old boy or was channelling his inner teenager here. No, the best parts (but for which the film would have been pretty unwatchable) are the four fantasy scenes which are, well I’d have to say awesome.

Each fantasy section is a fight sequence. The first is between Babydoll (wearing her iconic micro-skirt, sailor top – with midriff showing [you see what I mean] – and wielding a samurai sword in one hand and a .45 Colt in the other) fighting three gigantic – 30 feet plus – Samurai warriors. The second section (equally nonsensical) is a WW1 battle scene complete with trenches, no man’s land and biplane/triplane/zeppelin combat into with Babydoll (dressed as per) plus her three compatriots (dressed in leather and totting state of the art 21st century firepower) taken on the German army of steam powered/clockwork activated zombie soldiers (told you it was senseless). The third section involves a dragon, a castle occupied by what looks like Orcs and a B-25 Mitchell bomber with the girls on-board (again I kid you not). The final section is a bit more coherent with the attempted recovery of a bomb from a moving train via Vietnam-style gunship whilst fighting off a horde of humanoid robots. You can see how all of this appealed to my inner 14 year old geek which is probably why I happily loved about half of the movie. Interestingly I think the distributers of the DVD knew exactly what their viewers wanted as each of the fantasy sections can be accessed directly without watching the entire movie from the special features section…

So, despite a deeply confusing plot, some pretty bad acting (I can’t think of a single scene or one person in the whole film that I could describe as good acting/a good actor) and some terrible dialogue this still managed to scrape into my favourites list. The soundtrack is great and the action/fantasy scenes are some of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s just a real shame that the rest of the film holding things together was so bad/poorly executed.    

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Name to a Face?

Just Finished Reading: French Women Don’t Get Fat – The Secret of Eating for Pleasure by Mireille Guiliano (FP: 2005)

It’s OK to be surprised at this book showing up in my reviews. Everyone who saw me reading it at work expressed surprise and not a little astonishment. But I do so much like messing with people’s heads and challenging their expectations. Sure the people I work with expect to see me with my face buried in a book, they often see me reading things (and expressing interest and pleasure) that either leave them cold or simply perplexed but I must admit this one raised even more eyebrows than normal.

This was a mixture of personal story starting with the tale of coming back from a foreign exchange visit to the USA rather chubbier than she went out and how she coped with such a life and wardrobe changing experience. Learning lessons from family friends and someone she referred to as ‘Dr Miracle’ she slowly outlines why French women in particular don’t get fat whilst still enjoying food and wine and all of the other ‘no no’s’ consistently associated with the West’s obesity epidemic. Most of her advice is very straight forward and very down to Earth starting with the blatantly obvious – if more calories go into your body than go out you will gain weight. That is essentially all you need to know. The ‘trick’ is to control those calories going both in and out of your body whilst still having fun with your food. Quite rightly the author says that if you force your body into what is essentially a starvation diet it will rebel and you’ll lose weight only to gain it back and then some! What you should do is give the body (and the pallet) a little of what it wants, drink LOTS of water, walk everywhere (or cycle) and always climb the stairs. Never eat on the move or in front of the TV, always eat quality food (and your body won’t crave quantity to compensate for poor quality) and never feel guilty over the occasional indulgence. Above all else find what works for you but expect it to change throughout your life with age, season, and life’s great events. Know your body and recognise what it’s telling you. Make food a part of your life – and an important part – without being obsessed by it. The author maintains that you can eat out, be a foodie and still stay slim.

OK, I skipped the recipes. I’m not generally a person who cooks which would horrify the author who is a great advocate for real food preferably prepared by your own hands. Processed food – no way! I also learnt to ignore her rather patronising and superior tone throughout the book – French women know the secret and I am going to let you into a small part of it! Sure she was amusing in places and often gave what I thought was reasonable advice but I doubt if I could have managed much more than the 272 pages of this slim volume. Definitely a different read for me and one that I am now going to pass on to my female work colleagues – at their request I hasten to add!  

Monday, March 23, 2015

Possible fatty acid detected on Mars

By Paul Rincon for BBC News

20 March 2015

A fatty acid might be among organic molecules discovered on Mars by Nasa's Curiosity rover.

However, it's not possible at this stage to determine whether the compound has a biological or non-biological origin. And contamination could still be responsible for the finding. The results come from Curiosity's SAM instrument, and were presented at the 46th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in Texas. Nasa scientist Daniel Glavin described the results from the first "wet chemistry" experiment carried out by Curiosity.

A long-chain carboxylic acid, or fatty acid, was a good fit for one of the data peaks detected in a mudstone called Cumberland, he told an audience at the meeting. A form of alcohol molecule may also be among the compounds analysed. The preliminary result will excite scientists because fatty acids are key components of the cell membranes found in all life forms, including microbial organisms. Dr Glavin told an audience that the result was "provocative", and said the link to biology was the "million-dollar question". But he explained that a non-biological origin was equally plausible at this stage of the research. One scientist commenting on the presentation suggested that contamination could not be ruled out as a cause of the signal.

The SAM team have been working to address the leak of a pre-existing chemical called MTBSTFA within the instrument. The fact this is also an organic molecule has complicated the search for indigenous carbon-containing compounds in Martian rocks. However, team members say they have turned the leak into an advantage, using their understanding of how MTBSTFA reacts with other compounds to identify Martian organics.

Curiosity landed on the Red Planet in August 2012, on a mission to explore Gale Crater, which billions of years ago would have held a lake. The instrument team has previously reported evidence of chlorobenzene in the same rock, from the Martian area known as Yellowknife Bay.

[…and that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we need people on Mars. No matter how good the robots are they just can’t do enough of the science stuff when it’s needed. If we had a team of scientists up there working away at the problem we’d have probably found life on Mars by now. So, it will cost the same as a small sized war – but what would you rather have? Proof of the existence of life elsewhere in the Solar System or more proof of the lack of intelligence on this one?]

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Name to a Face?
US Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic leads school to apologise

From The BBC

21 March 2015

A school in New York state has apologised after receiving complaints because a student recited the US Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic. The school's foreign language department arranged for the pledge to be read in a different language each day for a week. Complaints were received from people who lost family in Afghanistan and from Jewish parents, an official said. Neither the US nor New York state has an official language. The school district superintendant, Joan Carbone, told the Times Herald-Record newspaper that the Arabic pledge had "divided the school in half" and that she had received numerous complaints.

A statement from the district apologised "to any students, staff or community members who found this activity disrespectful" and said the reading was intended to "promote the fact that those who speak a language other than English still pledge to salute this great country". An Arabic-speaking student read the pledge during morning announcements at Pine Bush High School in Pine Bush, New York, on Wednesday. Officials said the school's foreign language department organised for different pledge translations to be read in celebration of National Foreign Language Week.

Many students reportedly shouted their disapproval during the recitation, and later complained on social media. Later in the afternoon, the school's principal made a school-wide announcement to explain why the pledge was read in Arabic and to apologise to those who took offence. Ms Carbone said the pledge would only be read in English in the future. The school's student leader, Andrew Zink, who is in charge of the morning announcements, told US media that he knew the reading would attract controversy. He permitted it to go forward, because he believed it was "the right thing to do". "What makes you American is not the language you speak, but the ideas you believe in," he said.

Sadyia Khalique, a spokeswoman for the New York chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, said: "All Americans who value our nation's history of religious and ethnic diversity should be concerned" by the reaction and subsequent apology. Arabic is not widely spoken in Afghanistan, where the major languages are Dari and Pashto.

[OK, not being an American I don’t ‘get’ the whole Pledge thing but this is particularly silly. How can a language – any language - be considered offensive? You can say offensive things (in any language) but is the Pledge of Allegiance in ANY language offensive? This makes no sense at all – at least to me. Can any of my American readers explain what I’m missing here?]

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Just Finished Reading: The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams (FP: 2012)

London, 1840. As England bakes under an unforgiving sun and London suffers a series of economic disasters Catherine Sorgeiul, recently out of hospital, must suffer the heat and the boredom alone as her uncle stays locked in his room – sometimes alone, sometimes with friends – doing God knows what until the early hours of the morning. But when a shop girl is killed just streets away and laid out in a bizarre fashion for all the world to see Catherine begins to wonder what her uncle does at night. As the killings go on and the police are baffled as to where to start Catherine’s fears open buried episodes in her childhood where she plotted the deaths of her parents and her brother. Convinced that some evil within her is attracting the killer she wanders the dangerous East End streets after dark looking for absolution and maybe death whilst hoping that it will not appear in the shape of her uncle or one of his friends. But Catherine knows from bitter experience that not everything she sees or hears actually happens. Sometimes she is convinced that she can see into the future or into the very mind of the killer. At others that items in her bedroom are going missing or that someone else is writing in her secret diary. Can her fears be the result of an overactive imagination brought on by childhood trauma or is there really a killer living in her very midst?

I am a sucker for Victorian crime novels (or at least books based during that fascinating period). Obviously channelling the much later case of Jack the Ripper this was an atmospheric piece that, at least in my mind, didn’t quite work. The sense of menace was certainly there and the various characters were well drawn. What rather annoyed me, as it does in movies, is the idea of the unreliable narrator – basically someone (like Catherine) – who does not know themselves if what they experience, and relay to the reader, is real or not. So we poor ‘observers’ can’t really make judgements of guilt and so on because we can never be sure of our foundations. It’s all rather annoying and unnecessary I feel. I was also confused, at least initially, by the sudden change of perspective into another characters eyes which I only realised was happening when I checked back with the particular chapter heading. Then there was a rather weird lesbian sub-plot which honestly didn’t add very much except the odd raised eyebrow. Take that out and the storyline is hardly affected.

Generally this was a reasonable read. It wasn’t exactly a struggle but I did find it taking longer to read that I’d planned or imagined. Again it wasn’t exactly boring but I found myself unable to get particularly involved in any of the characters’ lives so didn’t exactly rush to find out what was going to happen next. Not exactly as promising as the cover suggested.

[2015 Reading Challenge: A Book based entirely on its cover – COMPLETE (9/50)]    

Monday, March 16, 2015

My Favourite Movies: The War of the Worlds (1953)

War of the Worlds is probably my favourite classic Sf novel and I’m still hoping that someday a decent movie, in its original time setting, is eventually going to be made. I remember to this day the thrill of reading about the engagement between the Thunderchild – the state of the art warship – and the Martian Tripod. When the Martian machine crashed down in flames I cheered only to ‘see’ a second Tripod close in and cut the gallant warship in half with its heat ray. Now THAT would make a dramatic scene in any movie! But such things are not to be (though the generally appalling Tom Cruise version at least had the possibility of such a scene and fluffed it – maybe it was on the cutting room floor?).

Anyway…. Despite moving the action from South East England in the late 19th century to early 50’s California this wasn’t a bad version at all. Based more on the Wells radio show than the Wells novel I think it still managed to get the flavour of the novel without losing too much in the transition or translation. The initial ‘meteor’ impact and later emergence of the first Tripod is suitably dramatic and shocking. The Tripods or War Machines as they are often referred to are brilliant – despite the fact that you can easily pick out the wires holding them up on even low quality DVD copies. The magnetic flux holding them in the air and their force fields (deemed necessary to cope with ‘modern weapons’) are well done especially when you think this was made over 50 years ago. The early battle scenes when the American forces tried to hold them were really impressive and must have wowed 50’s audiences. The feeling of helplessness and despair in the face of unbeatable weapons of an invading power is still very palpable even at this distance. The cinema’s back then must have felt very claustrophobic indeed!

The acting was reasonable at best. The scientist who was working things out and helping the military (Dr Clayton Forester played by Gene Barry) was pretty good as the man on the spot caught in the middle of things during a fishing trip. His love interest (Sylvia Van Buren played by Ann Robinson) was pretty terrible as the supposed Masters student who didn’t even recognise the man she did her thesis on and who spent most of the film screaming at things and being hysterical. The rest of the cast where basically stereotypes – oddball and foreign sounding scientists, tough no nonsense military men, frightened townsfolk. The destruction of LA was pretty well done with some great explosions and buildings completely destroyed by Martian heat rays. Although it largely derives (from memory at least) I really didn’t like the ending where – not really a spoiler – the aliens had no immunity to Earth bacteria and gradually succumbed to things which we shrug off with little difficulty. The film portrayed this as a kindly act of God saving the world through His wisdom in creating the bacteria in the first place. Of course I saw the flaw in this idea even as a child when I saw the movie the first time. If God had intervened to save Humanity why did he allow presumably millions of innocent people to die before He intervened? Oh, and the other thing that jumped out at me was the idea that the Martians, unless stopped, would destroy the world in 6 days “the same it took to create it”. Of course conveniently forgetting that they’d already been fighting them for at least a few more days (at least) which kind of destroyed the whole Biblical angle completely.

However, despite these few niggles (and the lack of a Thunderchild scene) I still really enjoy this film. It still remains one of the best classic SF books made into one of the best classic SF movies of the Golden Age. Forget the Tom Cruise version. Check this one out!    

Saturday, March 14, 2015



March 12, 2013

WASHINGTON -- An analysis of a rock sample collected by NASA's Curiosity rover shows ancient Mars could have supported living microbes.

Scientists identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon -- some of the key chemical ingredients for life -- in the powder Curiosity drilled out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater on the Red Planet last month. "A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "From what we know now, the answer is yes."

Clues to this habitable environment come from data returned by the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments. The data indicate the Yellowknife Bay area the rover is exploring was the end of an ancient river system or an intermittently wet lake bed that could have provided chemical energy and other favorable conditions for microbes. The rock is made up of a fine grain mudstone containing clay minerals, sulfate minerals and other chemicals. This ancient wet environment, unlike some others on Mars, was not harshly oxidizing, acidic, or extremely salty.

The patch of bedrock where Curiosity drilled for its first sample lies in an ancient network of stream channels descending from the rim of Gale Crater. The bedrock also is fine-grained mudstone and shows evidence of multiple periods of wet conditions, including nodules and veins. Curiosity's drill collected the sample at a site just a few hundred yards away from where the rover earlier found an ancient streambed in September 2012. "Clay minerals make up at least 20 percent of the composition of this sample," said David Blake, principal investigator for the CheMin instrument at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

These clay minerals are a product of the reaction of relatively fresh water with igneous minerals, such as olivine, also present in the sediment. The reaction could have taken place within the sedimentary deposit, during transport of the sediment, or in the source region of the sediment. The presence of calcium sulfate along with the clay suggests the soil is neutral or mildly alkaline. Scientists were surprised to find a mixture of oxidized, less-oxidized, and even non-oxidized chemicals providing an energy gradient of the sort many microbes on Earth exploit to live. This partial oxidation was first hinted at when the drill cuttings were revealed to be gray rather than red.

"The range of chemical ingredients we have identified in the sample is impressive, and it suggests pairings such as sulfates and sulfides that indicate a possible chemical energy source for micro-organisms," said Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator of the SAM suite of instruments at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. An additional drilled sample will be used to help confirm these results for several of the trace gases analyzed by the SAM instrument.

"We have characterized a very ancient, but strangely new 'gray Mars' where conditions once were favorable for life," said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "Curiosity is on a mission of discovery and exploration, and as a team we feel there are many more exciting discoveries ahead of us in the months and years to come." Scientists plan to work with Curiosity in the Yellowknife Bay area for many more weeks before beginning a long drive to Gale Crater's central mound, Mount Sharp. Investigating the stack of layers exposed on Mount Sharp, where clay minerals and sulfate minerals have been identified from orbit, may add information about the duration and diversity of habitable conditions.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project has been using Curiosity to investigate whether an area within Mars' Gale Crater ever has offered an environment favorable for microbial life. Curiosity, carrying 10 science instruments, landed seven months ago to begin its two-year prime mission. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

[If microbial life did exist on Mars, even millions of years ago, I’d be surprised (actually very surprised) if it still didn’t exist either deep underground, in caves, or anywhere where the plentiful water ice occasionally melts (which it has done in fairly recent times). Personally I’m tending towards the cave option – they’re relatively sheltered from outside conditions and probably have their own micro-climates independent of general conditions that conceivably could be much more conducive to life as we know it. Of course what we really need on the surface of Mars are people capable of actively searching for things such as life rather than a handful of robots no matter how sophisticated or successful they are. Maybe one day. I’m looking forward to transmissions from the Red Planet as the cave exploring scientist puts out lichen on the walls and says ‘If you like that wait till you get a load of this….’ and turns his camera around to show a fully functioning and diverse underground ecosystem. Well, I can dream…]

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Name to a Face?

Just Finished Reading: Iron Curtain – The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 by Anne Applebaum (FP: 2012)

This was a heavy book in more ways than one: heavy subject, heavy times and even physically heavy with just a smidge under 500 pages of text and a further 115 pages of notes, bibliography and detailed index. But one thing this wasn’t was heavy going – well, at least I didn’t find it so though some of my work colleagues thought I was mad reading such a dreary subject. Concentrating on East Germany, Poland and Hungary (though with small forays into other Soviet States as well as Mother Russia herself) the author weaved a tale of destruction, conquest, promise (and promises), hardship, oppression, resistance, terror and hope. Each country had a different tale to tell. Some started out with more hope than others, some resisted more strongly and for much longer – Poland in particular had armed resistance to Soviet occupation long after 1945 – others welcomed the Soviets as liberators only to find that they had exchanged one set of masters for another.

The best historians bring their subject alive by making it personal. Using dairies, recently released official records as well as interviews undertaken by the author the day-to-day life of people high and low in the hierarchies of all three states under review allows the reader to see things from all sides and gives a much clearer picture of what went on (and why) as well as how individuals reacted to events unfolding all across the Soviet Union and in the West beyond the, at first, rather porous curtain. Although plans had been drawn up by Stalin early on the early days of occupation seemed chaotic and, in some ways at least, hopeful. After all the war was over and Germany had been defeated. Then there were the assurances of democratic government and what would become known as Human Rights. Of course, as the victorious Allies should have known, none of this meant much and none of it lasted very long before the various Secret police forces began taking people off the streets and bundling them off the points much further East. No one was safe which tended to encourage other to keep their collective heads down until things blew over – which of course they did – 54 years later. In the meantime watching what you said and who you said it to became a life and death matter.

The author showed throughout how easy it is to imposed a totalitarian form of government on a shattered population – how control, fear and propaganda are used to force compliance on millions of people. The aim was to produce Soviet Man who, so like Orwell’s characters in 1984, could not think outside the Soviet ideological box and would be, therefore, perfect citizens. As we all know by now this project singularly failed to achieve its aim. Despite everything in their rather substantial arsenal the Soviet Union failed to create such a being even in Russia itself. Humanity may be malleable but not as plastic as Soviet social scientists seemed to think.

This was, to use a much over used word, gripping. Some accolades on the back of the book regard it as remarkable and even magisterial. On this occasion I would have to agree. Soviet Eastern Europe is not something I knew a great deal about. I do now – much more that even a few months ago. This fascinating book has certainly prompted me to dig into my History TBR pile and pick out more books on this fascinating lesson from history. If you want to know about modern European history this is a must read for you. Highly recommended.  

Monday, March 09, 2015

Thinking About: The Next Election

With a little under two months to go the next election, to be held on May 7th, it’s already looking like a classic and very interesting contest – so much so that I have already booked the following day off work so that I can sleep in after staying up most of, if not all of, the night watching the results as they come in. To say that almost anything could happen on the night in question is almost an understatement. With an unpopular government in office, made up of an unpopular coalition, as well as an untrusted opposition who can’t seem to make any significant gains despite the incumbents unpopularity and, if that wasn’t enough, an apparently hugely popular but completely untested minority party (to say the least) snapping at everyone’s heels it’s really anyone’s guess what the final make-up of the next parliament never mind the next government will be. There are so many questions awaiting answers:

Can the Conservatives win an outright majority this time or will there be a second (unprecedented?) coalition government?

If it is another coalition who will be the partners? Conservative & UKIP if they do spectacularly well for themselves? Conservative & Liberal Democrats again if the Lib Dems survive the expected electoral massacre? Labour and Liberal Democrats (with the same caveat)? Labour and SNP especially if the SNP do as well as everyone expects?

Can Labour gain an absolute majority this time despite the electorate’s misgivings about their apparent mishandling of the economy last time around?

Just how many seats will UKIP win when it comes down to the crunch of Election Day? Will people see them as more than a protest party and actually put at least some of them in positions of power?

Just how many seats will the SNP win and what will this mean for Scottish Independence which hasn’t really gone very far away after the shock results of the recent referendum.

Just how many seats will the Liberal Democrats lose? What, if anything, will remain of one of the most hated parties in recent history on May 8th? Will Nick Clegg hold on to his own seat or will he suffer the ultimate humiliation and be ousted?

How well will the Green Party do after winning their first seat last time? In the local elections they regularly beat the Lib Dems into 4th and sometimes 5th place. Can they gain a few more seats at the Liberal’s expense?

As they say it is all to play for. I’m expecting canvassing from all parties large and small to be unprecedented. I might even have candidates at my door and might even tell them what I think! But how do I think things will turn out and how do I want things to happen?

I think that the most likely result – although not exactly what I would hope for – is that the Conservatives will win but with a reduced number of seats which will force them into an unholy alliance with UKIP and the tattered remains of the Lib Dem massacre as they have nowhere else to go and nothing left to lose. The next most likely result is that Labour will win (barely) but be without a working majority and will join with the SNP – necessitating some serious concessions in their inexorable move to independence – as well as the enlarged Green party (ditto). The third possibility, and what a real possibility it is, is that no one will gain overall control and cannot join together with other parties to make a stable coalition and a second election is forced upon us later in the year. It’s not unheard of just rather rare.

So, we’re probably going to have another coalition government (indeed we may be witnessing the end of single party governments for the foreseeable future) but whether it will be on the right or the left is anyone’s guess. Exciting isn’t it!      

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Name to a Face?
LHC restart: 'We want to break physics'

By Jonathan Webb for BBC News

5 March 2015

As the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) gears up for its revamped second run, hurling particles together with more energy than ever before, physicists there are impatient. They want this next round of collisions to shake their discipline to its core. "I can't wait for the switch-on. We've been waiting since January 2013 to have our proton beams back," says Tara Shears, a particle physics professor from the University of Liverpool. Prof Shears is raising her voice over the occasional noise of fork-lift trucks and tools, as well as the constant hum of the huge experimental apparatus behind her: LHCb, one of four collision points spaced around the LHC's 27km circumference. All this noise reverberates because we are perched at the side of an imposing cavern, 30 storeys beneath the French-Swiss border. The other three experiments - Atlas, CMS and Alice - occupy similar halls, buried elsewhere on this famous circular pipeline.

In mid-March two beams of protons, driven and steered by super-cooled electromagnets, will do full circuits of the LHC in both directions - for the first time in two years. When that happens, there will be nobody between here and ground level. Then in May, if the protons' practice laps proceed without a hitch, each of the four separate experiments will recommence its work: funnelling those tightly focussed, parallel beams into a head-on collision and measuring the results. For us, now, the other stations on the ring are a 10-20 minute drive away; for the protons, a lap will take less than one ten-thousandth of a second. They have the advantage of travelling a whisker under the speed of light. They are moving with so much energy that when they collide, things get hot. Historically hot. "We're recreating temperatures that were last seen billionths of a second after the Big Bang," Prof Shears explains. "When you get to this hot temperature, matter dissociates into atoms, and atoms into nuclei and electrons. Everything unravels to its constituents. And those constituents are what we study in particle physics."

Alongside more pedestrian items, like electrons, or the quarks that combine to make protons and neutrons, these constituents include the world-famous Higgs boson. This longed-for and lauded particle - the last major ingredient in the Standard Model of particle physics - was detected by the teams at Atlas and CMS in 2012. Then in early 2013, after countless further collisions with valuable but less sensational results, the LHC was wound down for a planned hiatus.

The two intervening years have been spent servicing and improving the collider. "All the magnets have been surveyed, the connections between them have been X-rayed and strengthened, and all the electrical and cryogenic systems have been checked out and optimised," Prof Shears says. This effort - between one and two million hours of work, all told - means that the LHC is now ready to operate at its "design energy". Its initial run, after a dramatic false start in 2008, only reached a maximum collision energy of eight trillion electronvolts. That came after a boost in 2012 and the extra power delivered the critical Higgs observations within a few months. When they kick off in May, the proton collisions will be at 13 trillion electronvolts: a leap equivalent to that made by the LHC when it first went into operation and dwarfed the previous peak, claimed by the 6km Tevatron accelerator in the US. "It's a really significant step in terms of what we might be able to see in the Universe," says Prof Shears. "The design energy is a little higher again, at 14 TeV. We want to make sure that we can run close to it, first of all. If operations there are smooth, then subsequently, after next year, we can put the energy up that last little bit." Alongside this radical hike in the beams' energy, the experiments housed at the four collision sites have also had time to upgrade. Some have added extra detectors as well as finishing, mending or improving equipment that was built for the first run.

In a sense, one of the shiniest new items in the LHC's armoury for Run Two is the Higgs boson. Now that its existence is confirmed and quantified, it can inform the next round of detection and analysis. "It's a new door - a new tool that we can use to probe what is beyond the Standard Model," says Dr Andre David, one of the research team working on the CMS experiment. Prof Shears agrees: "We've only had about a thousand or two of these new particles, to try and understand their nature. And although it looks like the Higgs boson that we expect from our theory, there's still a chance that it might have partners that would then tell us that we're not looking at our normal theory at all. We're looking at something deeper and more exotic." That is the central impatience that is itching all the physicists here: they want to find something that falls completely outside what they expect or understand. "The data so far has confirmed that our theory is really really good, which is frustrating because we know it's not!" Prof Shears says. "We know it can't explain a lot of the Universe. So instead of trying to test the truth of this theory, what we really want to do now is break it - to show where it stops reflecting reality. That's the only way we're going to make progress." In the canteen at Cern headquarters I meet Dr Steven Goldfarb, a physicist and software developer on the Atlas team. His sentiments are similar. "We have a fantastic model - that we hate," he chuckles. "It has stood up to precision measurements for 50 years. We get more and more precise, and it stands up and stands up. But we hate it, because it doesn't explain the universe."

In fact, only about 5% of the universe is accounted for by the Standard Model. Physicists think that the rest is made up of dark energy (70%) and dark matter (25%) - but these are still just proposals without any experimental evidence. Based on how fast galaxies move and spin, we know there is much more stuff in the universe than what we can see with telescopes. One idea for a "new physics" that might allow for more particles, including the mysterious constituents of dark matter, is supersymmetry. It has also never been glimpsed in data from the LHC or elsewhere, but remains a popular concept with theorists. Supersymmetry suggests that all the particles we know about have heavier, "super" partners - as yet unseen by science. That failure doesn't faze the theory's fans, Dr Golfarb explains. "If you say to someone who really likes supersymmetry, 'Hey, why haven't we found any of the particles yet?' they'll say, 'We've found half of the particles! We just need to find the other half...'"

They also make promising candidate building blocks for dark matter. But the researchers are open to other possibilities. Dr Goldfarb says the search need not focus on specific, ghostly particles: "It doesn't have to be supersymmetry. You can also just look for dark matter. That's why we build our detectors perfectly hermetically." CMS and Atlas are the two "general-purpose" experiments at the LHC. Both of them have detectors completely surrounding the collision point, so that nothing can escape. Well, almost nothing. "You can't build a neutrino detector - so neutrinos do get out. But we know under what circumstances and how often there ought to be neutrinos. So we can account for the missing energy." What the team really wants to see is a chunk of missing energy that they categorically cannot account for. "When you see a lot of missing momentum - more than is predicted in standard model - then you may have found a candidate for dark matter," Dr Goldfarb explains.

Even within the 5% of the universe that we do know about, there is a baffling imbalance. The Big Bang ought to have produced two flavours of particle - matter and antimatter - in equal amounts. When those two types of particle collide, they "annihilate" each other. A lot of that sort of annihilation went on, physicists say, and everything we can see in the universe is just the scraps left behind. But puzzlingly, nearly all of those scraps are of one flavour: matter. "You just don't get antimatter in the universe," says Prof Shears. "You get it in sci-fi and you get it when things decay radioactively, but there are no good deposits of it around." This glaring absence is "one of the biggest mysteries we have", she adds. And it is the primary target of the LHCb experiment. There, a series of slab-shaped detectors is waiting to try and pinpoint the difference between the particles and anti-particles that pop out of the proton collisions. Run One did reveal some of those differences - but nothing that could explain the drastic tipping of the universal scales towards matter. "We think now that the answer has to lie in some new physics," says Prof Shears. She hopes the near doubling of the collision energy will offer a peek. "We've got a million crazy ideas. All we can do is to keep our options open, to sift through the data - and to look for the unexpected."

There are other questions, too. Gravity, somewhat alarmingly, is nowhere to be found in the Standard Model. "There's no gravity on that mug," says Dr Goldfarb, pointing to an LHC souvenir with the model's equation emblazoned on its side. "That's annoying! But there's no answer in sight." And there is always the ongoing quest to smash the things we currently think are the smallest in existence, and find smaller ones. Dr Goldfarb calls this "the oldest physics" and imagines a cavewoman - the first physicist - banging rocks together to see what was inside. "We're still doing that today, and we still wonder what's inside," he says. "There's nothing that discounts the idea that electrons, or quarks, are made up of something else. We just call them fundamental because as far as we know, they are." The extra power in Run Two might produce just this kind of fundamental fruit. "The more energy we have for these collisions, the smaller the bits that we can look at," says Dr David. "The ultimate goal here is to understand what matter is made of." And the world's largest laboratory is not just repaired, but renewed and ready for that goal. "It's like you've put a ship in the harbour and replaced every single plank," Dr David says with pride. "It's not the same ship. It's a whole new ship and it's going on a new adventure."

[I so love stuff like this! I love that these scientists are actively hoping that the ‘break physics’ (what a brilliant idea!) in order to find out what’s really going on. I also love the frustration that experimental results are confirming what we already think we know – except that we know what we think we know is wrong so why all the confirmation! Love it, love it! Here’s hoping for some fundamental answers to some very fundamental questions….]