LEVI McPHERSON, a graduate student of analytical chemistry at the University of North Central Florida, is approached by agents of the Homeland Security’s Counter-terrorism Unit. The agency is recruiting Lee to study and expose the loopholes of screening instruments in airports. Struggling financially, he accepted the offer, making him a paid, benevolent hacker of the nation’s gateway. Yet Levi is horrified when an Airbus from Los Angeles disintegrated in mid-air.

At 40, when everybody’s career trajectory is going up, Levi’s still a poor graduate student, struggling financially. His research projects however, are worth million dollars. Researching the highly classified and heavily guarded secrets of detecting traces of explosives, what Lee know was a goldmine. The agency's offer is his financial break . So Levi tackles the problem like a scientist, detailing the loopholes of the aviation security and turning what he knew into a big time money machine.

JIM and JONATHAN of the counter-terrorism unit, where nowhere to be found after Charlotte International Airport, a hub of Delta Airlines closed abruptly because of instrument malfunctions in their security lines. And in a post-Osama Bin Laden’s era, the biggest blow to the United Stated after the 9/11 disaster comes unexpectedly when a passenger plane blew up in the skies of Washington D.C., in the heart of the nation.

Levi knew it was only the start of more troubles, so he recruits his fellow graduate students to counter the future attacks. They have to think like criminals—and scientists too. With the help of FBI counter-terrorism experts, Homeland Security and Transportation Security Agency, the team races to close and plug the loopholes Lee identified.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


One of my committee members*, who make a living doing Mass Spectrometry, once told me that one of his hobbies is scour the internet for definitions of 'mass'. He dealt with mass all his life and wants to know what really mass is. Pretty geeky but real. (On the other hand, one of my friends look for other variations of the Murphy's Law from the net.)

Honestly, have you ever wondered what causes the scale to read 150 lbs or so at your bathroom scale every time you stepped into the platform? It is adeceivingly simple question but science hasn’t really pinpointed what causes mass. Our definition of mass is primitive. Newton relates mass to force and acceleration (F=ma), while Einstein's famous equation relates mass to energy and speed of light (E=mc2) . Schrodinger has a complicated and intimidating equation butstill the equation still relates mass to something.

So what is mass? Mass is a mess (1). According to Ernst Mach, we only measure mass as ratios and one scientist jokingly concluded that "mass is what makesthe large sofas hard to push" (2). Again, we still didn't answer the question "what is mass?". I likened that question to a scene in the movie "Anger Management", when Jack Nicholson, the therapist, posed a question "Who are you?" to Adam Sandler. Sandler answered " I am Dave Buznik...." then Nickolson interupted "I didn't ask for your name". When Sandler continued telling the therapist he's a businessman, Nicholson interrupted "I didn't ask what you do". Sandler was irritated.

No doubt, the question "What is mass?" irritated the science community. So once and for all, they collaborated and try to find the "Higgs Boson", The "Higgs Boson"is allegedly responsible for mass. The Higgs came about from the ideas of theoretical physicist Peter Higgs. Theoretical physicist makes a living by making upsome things, and since "Higgs Boson" is a made up thing supported only by beautiful mathematics, everybody is hoping that it exist and can be detected experimentally.

Using particle accelerators to smash particles into pieces, the race is on to find the Higgs Boson. Fermi Lab and CERN were given the responsibility to finish the job. We are left hoping that this piece of the puzzle can answer basic questions such as "What is mass?", or "Are there mini-black holes?" And most importantly, the findings will answer the question why John Lennon was assassinated.

* Dr. Powell gave a presentation, of the same title as above, last year, Oct. 29, 2007, in a mass spectrometry class . The materials came from his discussion.
(1) K.D. Padgett, Physics Essays 3, 178-82 (1990)
(2) K.C. Cole "The hole in the Universe"

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