Monday, August 17, 2009

23 questions..


By Lifeboat Foundation Scientific Advisory Board member Daniel D. Brown.
Print report!

Ever since the evolution of the sensory neuron, organisms have been using these amazing peepholes into existence to direct the course of their lives. Now, humankind has elevated the role of these senses, and even created technological extensions of them, in order to find order and true knowledge of this Universe in which we exist. We are all scientists looking at the world through our own tiny peepholes, attempting to find our place within it.

We have sought to understand what we are made of, what drives our constant fight against entropy, and what defines us as thinking, living entities. Who knows what the future may hold or what constraints will be placed on our knowledge, whether through considered intellect and experience or through societal and cultural pressures? For the purpose of this article, I am ignoring any social, cultural, or religious implications or constraints that may face the endeavors of science. I simply ask: what questions remain about ourselves and our reality that science may theoretically be able to answer in the future?

1. What exactly makes us different from our animal cousins?

With the completion of the human genome project, we now know that at the DNA level, we are 96-98% identical to our closest cousin, the chimpanzee. Scientists around the world are now scrambling to decipher what exactly in that DNA defines us as human and what separates us from the rest of our animal brethren. We have far yet to travel. It appears now that only about 1.5% of our genome encodes for proteins; the rest of it is often (and inappropriately) called "junk" DNA. We have deciphered the function of only a fraction of the protein-coding genes.

Furthermore, many of the differences between chimps and humans lie within this non-coding DNA. The coming years and decades will yield much knowledge as to exactly which genes have evolved in the hominin line, which regulatory regions within the non-coding sequences have changed, and which structures in the brain and other organs define our differences. We already have a sizeable list of genesthat putatively separate us from apes. However, there is still much work to be done.

2. What is the nature of the mind? How do the emergent properties of consciousness arise from the underlying interactions of synapses and neural pathways in our brain?

This one is going to take a while. Eventually, however, we must assemble a complete working knowledge of all genes and all of their functions and interactions. We will combine our knowledge of molecular biology with our knowledge of cell biology. Over this synthesis, we will layer our understanding of neuroscience and cognitive psychology.

We must take into account the existence of memory, emotion, learning, sense perception, and every other integral process or function of the brain. The question is: will the underlying structures and functions of all microscopic and macroscopic aspects of the human brain allow us to predict and explain the emergence ofconsciousness? Only time and science may tell.

3. What is love, hate, and emotion?

Scientists have largely answered this question already, but as with most neuroscience, the details remain fuzzy. It is quite clear from decades of research that everything we feel, whether it be sensation or emotion, is mediated by the release of molecules, largely neuropeptides, between synapses in the brain.

Dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, and a large cadre of other small molecules act as the signals between our brain cells. Our understanding is growing piecemeal, but as with the emergence of consciousness, soon we will hopefully be able to synthesize a complete model of emotion, including not only happiness, anger, sadness, joy, fear, and courage, but also spiritual experiences, amazement, and euphoria.

4. Who am I? What is the self?

This may be seen as more of a philosophical question than a question that science can answer, and there are obviously huge aspects of this question that are inherently untouchable by science. However, I think that if we can understand all aspects of neuroscience and cognition, and if it turns out that we can predict and explain the emergence of consciousness from the underlying levels of complexity, then a full understanding of what defines the "self" may be a natural outcome.

We will have a full synthesis of all aspects at all levels of the human brain, and it seems likely that we will then be able to define the "self" as a construct containing everything within the model. That is, you are the sum of all your parts, biochemistry, memories, senses, experiences, feelings, and the emergent properties themselves.

5. Can artificial intelligence have consciousness?

No doubt, this question may be answered sooner than we think. The field of artificial intelligence is ever expanding, and as the complexity of our computing systems and programming grow, so too may that complexity lead to emergent properties that we may define as consciousness.

A better question is perhaps: how long will it be before a computer or robot passes the Turing test (a conversation in which the human cannot tell whether he or she is talking to a human or a machine)?

6. Can a single human consciousness be replicated or simulated by computer or another organic form?

This is almost the same question as number five, though it has a slightly different focus. This question could be reworded: if we can understand all aspects of consciousness and "self", and if we have the computing power or organic synthesis power, could we theoretically "download" a human consciousness into another brain or into a computer. It's the classic sci-fi dream.

Who knows whether this is even theoretically possible? It would certainly take an almost unfathomable level of complexity of circuitry. In all likelihood, any specific consciousness or self would be too defined by the molecular and perhaps even quantum properties of its own constituent parts.

I cannot really conceive of humanity becoming so adept at manipulating the physical world that we can completely mimic every neuronal connection and interaction in the brain. But then again, this very thought may be considered small-minded several generations from now. There are also the philosophical issues of whether the "self" would truly be transferred. Nonetheless, I think this is a mind boggling question that may just be answered by science. Who wouldn't want to be made virtually immortal?

7. What is the nature of memory? How is it stored in the brain?

Here's what we know: certain structures such as the hippocampus and amygdala are integrally involved in memory. In addition, much research is going on at this very moment in an attempt to define the method by which memories are encoded. Current results have shown that memories are likely encoded by the formation and connections of specific synapses (neural connections).

There are an estimated 60 trillion (that's 60 million million) synaptic connections in the brain. Hopefully, we will soon understand exactly how information of our perceived reality is stored in these connections. Just as importantly, we hope to discover how this information is retrieved and processed, parsed, and associated with other memories and senses. Why are smells so often vividly linked with memory?

8. How did life evolve?

Although this is a question we will never be able to definitively answer (unless Number 18 becomes possible), I think we will one day be able to demonstrate practical ways in which life can evolve from non-life. In 1953, Miller and Urey demonstrated the formation of essential amino acids by simply electrocuting boiled methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and water — compounds believed to be abundant on the early Earth. Since then, many researchers have uncovered many specific conditions that can result in the formation of compounds necessary for life as we know it, including the formation of nucleic acids.

It is very conceivable that in the near future, scientists may demonstrate the formation of self-assembling, replicating molecules in such an experiment. Perhaps they will then show how these replicating molecules can acquire membranes, like the phospholipid bilayers of our own cells (which are already known to be self-assembling). A wide variety of theories exist concerning the abiotic origins of life, too many to debate here, and I think that we may in our own lifetimes find practical methods that our own molecular ancestors might have used to become life.

9. What is the exact evolutionary lineage of all life on Earth?

As above, historical events are by definition inherently unknowable, from a definitive standpoint. However, as the fossil record continues to accumulate, and more importantly, as more and more genomes are sequenced, we will be able to compare the specific DNA codes of all life on Earth (or as much as we want) to calculate the ultimate Tree of Life on Earth.

There will always be holes, and specific areas of fuzziness in the data. Many organisms have been show to transfer genetic material between species, largely due to things like retroviruses and bacteria, which can muddy our understanding of specific lineages. Nonetheless, we will eventually construct a tree of evolution that comes close to outlining the entire history of natural selection on Earth.

10. Can we engineer our own evolution?

The trajectory of current molecular and developmental biology places us squarely in line to eventually understand the contributions of all genes within human development and physiology. We are already at the point where embryos can be screened for genetic defects, such as Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome), before being implanted into a woman's uterus.

Our tools for genetic manipulation are improving, though we are still far from using gene therapy as a routine treatment. It seems likely that we will one day be faced with the opportunity to engineer our own evolution. The current state of civilization seems to suggest that at least a macro level, humans are not experiencing selective pressure to evolve, other than negative selection against disease (see my article on human evolution).

However, we may one day be able to direct the course of our own evolution. We would need the currently unimaginable computing power necessary to simulate potential genetic changes, and superb genetic tools. Perhaps with enough knowledge of developmental biology, physiology, anatomy, and with the necessary computing power and tools, we could make our species happier, adapted to undersea life, more intelligent, free of disorder and disease, or any number of things we can imagine for our species.

Of course, there are enough moral and societal issues with this possibility to fill a Wikipedia. Then again, who knows what kind of world humans will live in many generations from now.

11. What are the costs and benefits to specific changes in the brain?

An interesting issue has been brought up by the fields of clinical psychology and cognitive psychology, and it is the issue of the cost/benefit of deficits or enhancements in the brain. Many have speculated that a growing list of artists, geniuses, and creative thinkers from our history have been autistic, or at least have had personalities in the autistic spectrum.

In addition, creativity has been positively linked with bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression). The study of neuroscience and neuropsychology will likely discover some interesting links between gaining certain abilities or traits, while displaying deficits of others. We have all heard of the rare "savants". If we do get to the point of self-directed evolution or even personal enhancement with drugs, it may be interesting to define the interplay between these different traits in the human psyche.

12. How does a single cell turn itself into a thinking, breathing organism?

How does a fertilized egg regulate its own genes and control the timing and three dimensional growth of cells to form tissues and organs? The field of developmental biology is currently in an explosion of data. What at first seemed only insanely complex, now seems near-infinitely more so with the discovery of the roles of things such as microRNAs, epigenetics, and maternal contribution on development, on top of the role of protein-coding genes.

It seems like it will take centuries for us to parse out the different factors, interactors, and processes involved in the construction of an organism. However, time is something we're not concerned with here. Assuming all remains right with the world, science will almost definitely explain exactly how a sperm and an egg can come together to create someone like you.

13. Is there a maximum human life span?

The human body did not evolve to be particularly long-lived. As we age, our somatic telomeres shorten (which degrades genes at the end of a chromosome). We accumulate mutations, oxidative damage, and cellular debris, and we develop diseases. How many of these things can we overcome?

As of this moment, there is only one proven method of extending life spans in mammals: caloric restriction. Eat less, live longer — at least on a population level. It remains to be seen how long we can extend the human life. Even if we can extend it further, we will have to address issues of quality of life as well. Nevertheless, I have much optimism that science could extend the human life dramatically, given the time and knowledge.

14. Can we save our planet?

How much power can we wield over mother earth? Will we learn to alter climate? Will we learn to utilize renewable energy? Can we cure hunger? To me, it seems that we may always remain as ants when compared to the larger forces of this planet. I cannot foresee large scale engineered climate change and weather control. Then again, who could have conceived of gene therapy two hundred years ago? I think that science has already provided at least rudimentary answers to both renewable energy and hunger. The main issues with these seem now to be cultural and economic, which I don't want to get into here.

Bioengineering is almost assured to produce a new revolution in energy production. I predict that we will soon have microbes producing ethanol or other hydrocarbon fuels from cellulosic material. We already have solar technology. And bioengineering is also in the beginning stages of creating more nutritious foods that are easier to grow. These will have negative effects and issues of their own (such as the loss of biodiversity and increased susceptibility to sudden disease), but these are issues that I believe we can overcome.

15. Can humans survive on other planets?

Scientists have already discovered over 300 extrasolar planets (planets around other stars). Right now, our technology is limited to inferring planets by the wobble their gravity induces on nearby bodies, so most of the discovered planets are enormous Jupiter-like planets.

However, mounting evidence suggests that earth-like planets orbiting "habitable" zones, which are areas of proper temperature ranges, may be much more common than initially suggested. Thus, I think it's easily conceivable that with new detection technologies, we may discover watery earth-like worlds in our own lifetime, or our children's. Now can we get there?

16. Is interstellar travel possible?

This would obviously take a revolution in the world of physics. Light seems to be the limit right now. The closest star to Earth is Proxima Centauri at 4.2 light years distant. However, our current technology cannot even hit 0.004% the speed of light. Perhaps we will one day be able to accomplish a more sizeable proportion of the speed of light and reach the nearest star within a lifetime (10 years at about 50% c), though the energy required for such speeds boggles the mind.

Science fiction writers and theoretical physicists are always theorizing that there may be loopholes in the way reality actually works. Perhaps we can figure out a way to circumscribe the peed of light conundrum (a wormhole anyone?) Only science will tell.

17. Are we alone in the Universe?

Aliens are courtesy of The Jim Henson Company.

Will SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life) one day finally receive that long awaited telephone call? Will the Phoenix lander discover microbes beneath its microscope (albeit very tiny ones)? Will future craft find beings inhabiting the oceans of Europa that make whales look like shrimp? Our own galaxy contains roughly 100 billion (yes — 100 thousand million) stars. In addition, there are about 100 billion galaxies in our observable Universe. That's 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars (assuming our galaxy is average).

Considering the frequency with which we are discovering new planets, it seems more than possible that many planets are habitable and may harbor life. The question boils down to the likelihood of life making that first step from non-life, which is a complete unknown. But it is a question sure to be at the forefront of human thought and scientific curiosity. Perhaps we are already being visited. Scientific evidence is lacking, but it doesn't seem so unlikely to be impossible. See the Drake Equation to play with more astronomical numbers on alien life.

18. Is the Universe inherently deterministic or is there "true randomness" in nature?

Do steadfast laws underlie quantum physics? At the macro level, all physics seemsdeterministic; i.e. every action is causally linked and predictable in theory based on the events preceding it. Current quantum theory seems to indicate an inherent randomness in the behavior of quantum particles. Some claim that this is due to an incomplete understanding of nature — that there are hidden variables and even at the quantum level, causality holds true.

The question remains: is there "true randomness" inherent in nature at the subatomic levels? I have read that most physicists currently lean toward true randomness. If there is no "true randomness", then every event in existence was determined by those before it, thus eliminating the possibility of free will. However, if there is randomness, this at least leaves open the possibility of true free will.

Obviously, we are edging into philosophy here — and a topic which we could debate for years, no less. Nonetheless, if physicists can reconcile quantum physics with Newtonian physics and relativity, and all the other weird quantum stuff I am light years from understanding, perhaps they may answer the question of the nature of the existence.

19. What is the maximum carrying capacity of the Earth? Will we enact global population control measures?

Just how many people can live on the Earth? Some would argue that we have already surpassed the carrying capacity, while others believe we have a ways to go.

Given current birth rates and ever-expanding life spans, it seems inevitable that we will be forced to enact population controls on a world scale. It is science that will have to tell us exactly what our resources can handle. No doubt, technology can increase our carrying capacity, if utilized properly.

20. What is the Ultimate fate of our Universe?

Will our observable Universe eventually cease in a frozen motionless entropic heat death? Or will the dark matter and energy pull all matter back into the singularity from which we exploded (The Big Crunch or Gnab Gib)?

This is still a hotly debated topic. We lack much crucial data. However, current measurements indicate that the Universal expansion is accelerating and not decreasing in its rate of expansion. How much dark matter is actually out there? And...

21. What is dark energy and dark matter, anyway?

The distribution of dark matter obtained from a large numerical simulation. Note how the dark matter is clustered into dark matter halos, which are connected by a large filamentary network.

I don't have much to say about dark matter or dark energy, and I'm not sure that physicists have much more. Actually I'm sure that they do — I am probably just avoiding them.

Something seems to be out there, swirling within galaxies, holding them together, and pulling groups of galaxies into clusters and superclusters. We have inferred its existence from its effect on other mass. More than that I cannot tell you. I hope that science will tell us much much more in the coming years.

22. Is time travel possible?

Yes. Forward at one second per second. I jest. Again, theoretical physicists have come up with scenarios in which some form of time travel might be possible. They all seem baffling to me.

I had high hopes for the Time Traveler Convention of 2005, but unfortunately it seems that humans will not eventually discover time travel, or that when they did, they will have never heard of the Convention and so failed to show up.

23. What is the true nature of existence? Parallel Universes, multiple dimensions, strings?

Superstrings may exist in 11 dimensions at once.

Physicists — I leave this one to you. I have tried on many occasions to wrap at least a few brain cells around string theory (may those neurons rest in peace). If science ever comes to grips with the nature of our physical reality and devises the Grand Unified Theory of everything, I sure hope the math can be translated into more conceptual terms.

If it turns out that we live in only one (or four) of 13 dimensions or some other such craziness, we prove it, and I still cannot understand it, it will be a sad and anticlimactic day.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Design of the Universe


Dark matter is crucial to the Big Bang model of cosmology as a component which corresponds directly to measurements of the parameters associated with Friedmann cosmology solutions to general relativity. In particular, measurements of the cosmic microwave background anisotropies correspond to a cosmology where much of the matter interacts with photons more weakly than the known forces that couple light interactions to baryonic matter. Likewise, a significant amount of non-baryonic, cold matter is necessary to explain the large-scale structure of the universe.
astrophysicist George Smoot shows stunning new images from deep-space surveys, and prods us to ponder how the cosmos -- with its giant webs of dark matter and mysterious gaping voids -- got built this way.

Friday, August 14, 2009

First-Ever Asteroid Tracked From Space to Earth


For the first time, scientists were able to track an asteroid from space to the ground and recover pieces of it. The bits are unlike anything ever found on Earth.The asteroid was spotted entering Earth’s atmosphere over Sudan in October and was believed to have fully disintegrated, but an international team found almost 280 pieces of meteorite in a 11-square-mile section of Sudan’s Nubian Desert. The largest was the size of an egg. Lab analysis showed that the rocks belong to a rare class of asteroid that has never been sampled in such a pristine state, so it could fill some gaps in our understanding of the solar system’s early history.

"It’s the first time we’ve been able to track something through the air and watch it fly apart and then find pieces of it," microbial ecologist Rocco Mancinelli of SETI, a co-author of a study on the meteorite pieces Wednesday in Nature, told

Finding the meteorites was a long shot, but because the rocks would be so important, meteor astronomer Peter Jenniskens of SETI, lead author of the study, took a bus loaded with 45 students and staff from the University of Khartoum deep into the desert to hunt for them. A 10-hour bus ride and an 18-mile trek through the sand took them to the remote area where scientists thought the rocks, if they existed, would be. The group began sweeping the desert in a line and two hours later the first meteorite was found by a student.

"It was very, very exciting. Everybody was celebrating," Jenniskens said. "You have to remember how important it is to find a piece linked to an asteroid we have seen in space."

Scientists use asteroids to learn about the early solar system because they are among the oldest objects in the universe and can remained relatively unchanged from when they formed, providing a historical snapshot. It is estimated that hundreds of meteorites fall to Earth each year, but only a few end up in the hands of scientists.

Because asteroids are typically surrounded by a shroud of dust as they travel through space, they reflect light differently in flight than they do in the lab, making it difficult to connect meteorites found on
Earth with particular types of asteroids. But because the car-sized
Sudan asteroid was spotted 20 hours before it hit Earth’s atmosphere, scientists were able to determine that it was an unusual type of asteroid that falls between the two most common types.

For the first time, scientists can begin to connect the light signatures of asteroids in space to signatures of meteorites in the lab.

"This is like the first step toward a Rosetta Stone for classifying asteroids," said study co-author, cosmic mineralogist Michael Zolensky, at a press conference at NASA’s Johnson
Space Center Wednesday.

The team, led by Jenniskens, hopes the intermediate meteorites will reveal details about how planets formed in the early solar system.

"It gives a window on the past," Jenniskens told "You see a little piece of early history coming into focus."

The Sudan meteorites are from a rare class of asteroids known as ureilites, which contain a lot of carbon, much of it in the form of graphite, as well as diamonds produced by shock. The Sudan specimens show evidence of volcanic activity, which means they came from a parent body that was almost big enough to call a planet.

"It’s showing us that this asteroid had planet-like activity on it,"
said astronomer Lucy McFadden of the University of Maryland, who was not involved in the study. "We’re lucky that the Earth was in the right place and placed itself in front of this new meteorite."

But that planet shut down, lost its heat source and quit growing,
Zolensky said. This gives scientists a glimpse of a specific stage in the evolution of planets.

"What this does is give us first-hand knowledge of what happens when planetesimals form from one that fell apart and failed to become a planet," Mancinelli said. "It really tells you what happens when these rocks bang into each other and some actually stick to each other and form a planetesimal."

There’s nowhere else to find this sort of information, he said, because you need the planet forming process to stop before it becomes a full-fledged planet.

"This is highly unusual," Mancinelli said. "It is key to understanding the early solar system."

Space scientist Ted Bunch at Northern Arizona University studies these rare meteorites. "Of the tens of thousands of meteorites that have been found, there’s probably only 100 that are ureilites," he said.

Ureilites are interesting in that they have a very primitive composition, Bunch said. And the Sudan ureilite pieces are even more rare because they were picked up so soon after they fell. Meteorites that have been lying around on Earth for a long time can become contaminated.

"To see something which is pristine, the chance of contamination is pretty low," Bunch said. "Whatever you see in the stone is what came from outer space, with no contribution from Earth."



Image 1: The contrail left by the asteroid’s passage through the atmosphere.Credit: Muawia Shaddad.
Image 2: Typical meteorite fragment. Credit: Muawia Shaddad.
Image 3: This space-based view of the Nubian Desert shows altitude in kilometers
(in white circles) and meteor locations in red. Credit: NASA
Image 4: Students from the University of Khartoum line up to go meteorite hunting in the Nubian desert.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Big Bang?

We have come so far in the last 100 years, and so has our picture of the Universe. From an island galaxy ruled by Newton's gravity and classical electromagnetism, we've come through the discovery of general relativity, the expanding Universe, the need for dark matter, the big bang, the synthesis of all the elements in the Universe, and, for good measure, we walked on the Moon. By the 1970s, we had a fabulous picture of the History of the Universe.


There's just one (huge) problem: What caused the Big Bang? We know the laws of gravity and quantum mechanics, and we know that the Universe is finite in age, expanding, cooling, and bathed in the afterglow of the Big Bang. As far as we could tell, galaxies and clusters of galaxies looked exactly as they should, and the only cosmological problem left was the one of the dark matter holding clusters and galaxies together.


But a closer look revealed a number of problems. First off, this "leftover glow" from the Big Bang was the same exact temperature everywhere. Why? Why would this be the case? After all, if you look in one direction, you find a temperature of 2.725 Kelvin, and it comes from a distance of around 46 billion light-years away. But in the opposite direction, 46 billion light-years the other way, the temperature is also 2.725 Kelvin. How could this be, if these two things never touched each other? It takes time for temperatures to even out; this is why the people in the back seat of your car always complain about a lack of air conditioning in the summer! Even today, we know that the temperature difference in any two parts of the sky is only a few hundred thousandths of a degree:


So, that's the first problem. Why is the Universe the same temperature everywhere?

But that's not the only problem. If you take a look outside, the Earth looks pretty flat to you, doesn't it. We know it's a sphere, but the reason it looks flat to us is because we can only see a tiny area of it. What about the Universe? Well, we can imagine three possible "shapes" for the Universe: flat, sphere-like, or saddle-like:


What we observe is not only that the Universe is flat, but it's so flat that, back in the early stages of the big bang, it had to be flat to 1 part in 10^51! This is so unlikely, it would be like throwing a dart at the entire Earth and hitting the correct atom.

Furthermore, there were other problems as well, such as:

  • What provided the tiny, gravitational imperfections that allowed stars, galaxies, and clusters of galaxies to form?
  • Why, if the Universe was so hot early on, are there no stable relics (like magnetic monopoles, for example) left over? And finally,
  • How did we wind up with a Universe that was hot, dense, and expanding in the first place?
There were a number of very smart people working on these problems, many of whom made great contributions. But it was a (then) young MIT physicist who figured it out:

The theory of Cosmological Inflation was put forth by Alan Guth in late 1979, and by time the paper was published in early 1980, practically every cosmologist on the planet was working on it.

Here's what Guth's inflation says. Start with a completely random Universe. Maybe some parts are expanding, maybe some parts are contracting, maybe some parts are hot, maybe some parts are cold. But in one (perhaps miniscule) location, you get the right conditions for inflation. What inflation does is it takes this one tiny region of space, and inflates it, like a high pressure hose inflating an infinitely stretchable balloon. Regardless of what the Universe looked like before inflation, after only a tiny fraction of a second of inflation, the Universe will be stretched flat, will be empty, expanding exponentially fast, and will be unstable.


The exponential expansion solves most of the above problems. Things can be the same temperature everywhere because the tiny region where inflation started -- that gives rise to our Universe -- could easily have been uniform enough to give us the same temperature everywhere in the Universe. The Universe is flat, because inflation stretched it so that it appears flat. (Take a look at this balloon from the ant's perspective if you don't believe it.)


And, the tiny little imperfections that give rise to stars, galaxies, and clusters can be created in a very clever way. Empty space, according to the laws of quantum mechanics, isn't so empty. Tiny little pairs of particles and antiparticles, waves and anti-waves, are popping in and out of existence all the time. But in an exponentially expanding Universe, the space between them gets stretched so far that they can't find each other again to annihilate, and this creates slight differences in densities that persist to this day.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about inflation is that it's unstable! This exponentially expanding space is full of this mysterious energy, but since E=mc^2, we can use this energy to make matter! And that's precisely what happens. This unstable energy converts into photons, quarks, electrons, neutrinos, and all the types of matter and antimatter that are physically possible. At the end of Inflation, this gives us a Universe that is:

  1. roughly the same temperature everywhere,
  2. necessarily flat (or indiscernible from flat),
  3. devoid of any crazy stuff that may have existed before inflation,
  4. seeded with tiny differences in densities on all scales, and
  5. hot, dense, full of matter, and expanding!
And that describes the Big Bang, as we need it to be, almost exactly.

Inflation is a rich area, and Alan Guth wasn't the only one working on it, but he was the first and only one to articulate how inflation solves all of these problems. I've had the privilege to meet Alan Guth, and he's very congenial and humble, if just slightly socially awkward. I've also had a chance to meet other important people who've worked on inflation, such as Andrei Linde, Alexei Starobinski, and Paul Steinhardt. They're not humble, and make overt glory-grabs when it comes to taking the credit for inflation. Make no mistake about it: this is Guth's idea and Guth's alone. Watson didn't invent the telephone, Hilbert didn't invent General Relativity, and for this idea, Guth will surely win a Nobel Prize. It makes me feel dirty to realize that he's going to wind up sharing it with some of the more political (and less scientifically deserving) people above.

But from me, Alan Guth gets the accolade he deserves: the inventor of inflation, the most important scientist of his decade, and the glory of figuring out what must have caused the Big Bang!

Sacred Geometry/Flower of Life
This one one i put under "out there" but very interesting.
Drunvalo is the author of three books including The Ancient Secrets of the Flower of Life, Volumes I and II and his newest one, Living in the Heart. These books have been published in 29 languages and reach out to over one hundred countries throughout the world. Drunvalo also founded the Flower of Life Workshops with over 300 trained and certified facilitators teaching in over sixty countries.

Our Solar System's End ( a long time from now)

This artist's impression shows the types of molecules that have been identified in Venus's lower atmosphere. Earth’s atmosphere is predicted to become like Venus’s in about 1 million years.
Credit: C. Carreau, ESA
So we’ve got about 1 billion years to get out of town. But it’s difficult to imagine humans surviving for a billion years regardless of the Sun’s evolution. Any number of manmade or celestial events could bring on Armageddon. Probably the highest probability for our destruction would be a comet collision, because comets can come and go unpredictably.

Asteroids would be civilization killers too if we don’t develop the technological wherewithal to deflect them. Manmade disasters could include nanotechnology run amok, plagues brought on by terrorist-engineered super-organisms, or extinction by intelligent machines -- among many other man made disasters yet to be imagined.

The absence of any evidence for intelligent life in space, commonly known as the Fermi Paradox, would suggest that extraterrestrial civilizations are short-lived because they easily succumb to natural or technology-induced catastrophes, otherwise they would have stopped by and visited us by now. The vast age of our Milky Way allows more than enough time to star-hop across the galaxy at a fraction of the speed of light.

But let’s be wildly optimistic for a moment and assume that humanity will have the stability, cultural tenacity, and technological prowess to hold onto our planet for the next billion years.

Knowing that our world will inevitably succumb to the Sun’s evolution, a far advanced civilization on Earth could undertake an extraordinary engineering project to keep Earth inhabitable for the next 5 billion years.

Watch Programme 5: New Worlds in Educational | View More Free Videos Online at

Monday, August 10, 2009

BBC Wildlife - Gorilla

Gorilla Follows the 3 newly discovered gorilla sanctuaries in northern Congo, in search of the true nature of the lowland gorilla - uncovering as tangled a web of romance and friendship, jealousy and innocence as any human soap opera might contrive.

Watch BBC Wildlife - Gorilla in Educational | View More Free Videos Online at

Australias Aborigines
Man's longest unbroken culture (over 40,000 years) maybe they've been here so long unchanged because they believe all things are part of the same life force and exist as one (we ought to take a lesson from them)

In Australian Aboriginal mythology, The Dreaming or Altjeringa (also called the Dreamtime) is a sacred 'once upon a time' [1] time out of time in which ancestral Totemic Spirit Beings formed The Creation.

Fred Alan Wolf opens chapter nine of The Dreaming Universe (1994) entitled The Dreamtime with a quote from The Last Wave, a film by Peter Weir:

Aboriginals believe in two forms of time; two parallel streams of activity. One is the daily objective activity, the other is an infinite spiritual cycle called the "dreamtime", more real than reality itself. Whatever happens in the dreamtime establishes the values, symbols, and laws of Aboriginal society. It was believed that some people of unusual spiritual powers had contact with the dreamtime.

this is a good vid.
<a href="">Australia's Aborigines</a>


The European Organization for Nuclear Research known as CERN is the world's largest particle physics laboratory, situated in the northwest suburbs of Geneva on the Franco-Swiss border, established in 1954. The organization has twenty European member states, and is currently the workplace of approximately 2,600 full-time employees, as well as some 7,931 scientists and engineers (representing 580 universities and research facilities and 80 nationalities).

CERN's main function is to provide the particle accelerators and other infrastructure needed for high-energy physics research. Numerous experiments have been constructed at CERN by international collaborations to make use of them. It is also noted for being the birthplace of the World Wide Web.

The main danger could be now just behind our door with the possible death in blood of 6.500.000.000 (US notation 6,500,000,000) people and complete destruction of our beautiful planet. Such a danger shows the need of a far larger study before any experiment ! The CERN study presents risk as a choice between a 100% risk or a 0% risk. This is not a good evaluation of a risk percentage!
Cryogenics: compressor-bldg-SH1 CERN Control Centre Descent of the last dipole magnet into the LHC tunnel
Cryogenics: compressor-bldg-SH1. Courtesy of CERN. CERN Control Centre. Courtesy of CERN Descent of the last dipole magnet into the LHC tunnel. Courtesy of CERN
An aerial view of the Geneva region, showing the position of the LHC tunnel Cryogenics for the LHC test facility in 2001, String 2 First magnets for the LHC accelerator installed, but unconnected, in the 27 km tunnel
An aerial view of the Geneva region, showing the position of the LHC tunnel. Courtesy of CERN. Cryogenics for the LHC test facility in 2001, String 2. Courtesy of CERN. First magnets for the LHC accelerator installed, but unconnected, in the 27 km tunnel. Courtesy of CERN.
LHC magnet: superconducting quadrupole magnet Members of Fermilab's Technical Division gathered for a send-off celebration LHC Magnet in tunnel
LHC magnet: superconducting quadrupole magnet. Courtesy of CERN. Members of Fermilab's Technical Division gathered for a send-off celebration for an advanced superconducting magnet (orange) bound for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Courtesy of Fermilab Visual Media Services. LHC Magnet in tunnel. Courtesy of Fermilab Visual Media Services.

If we add all the risks for the LHC we could estimate an overall risk between 11% and 25%!.

We are far from the Adrian Kent's admonition that global risks that should not exceed 0.000001% a year to have a chance to be acceptable. [Ref. 3] .Even testing the LHC could be dangerous. Even an increase in the luminosity of the RHIC could be dangerous! It would be wise to consider that the more powerful the accelerator will be, the more unpredicted and dangerous the events that may occur! We cannot build accelerators always more powerful with interactions different from natural interactions, without risk. This is not a scientific problem. This is a wisdom problem!

Our desire of knowledge is important but our desire of wisdom is more important and must take precedence. The precautionary principle indicates not to experiment. The politicians must understand this evidence and stop these experiments before it is too late!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Monkeys Recognize Poor Grammar

Monkeys can form sentences and speak in accents—and now a new study shows that our genetic relatives can also recognize poor grammar.

"We were really curious whether monkeys could even detect the common trend found in human language to add sounds to word edges, like adding 'ed' in English to create the past tense," said lead study author Ansgar Endress, a linguist at Harvard University.

Previous research in cotton-top tamarins had shown that the animals can understand basic grammar, for instance, identifying which words logically follow other words in a sentence.

But that same study, published in the journal Science in 2004, found that monkeys did not understand complex grammar, such as when words in a sentence depend on each other but are separated.

While that study suggested monkeys were deaf to complex communication, the new research shows that tamarins can grasp at least one advanced concept: prefixes and suffixes.


For their study, Endress and colleagues played recordings of made-up English words to a population of captive cotton-top tamarins for roughly 30 minutes a day.

Half of the tamarins were exposed to words with a varied stem but a constant suffix (such as bi-shoy, mo-shoy, and lu-shoy). The other half were exposed to a constant prefix followed by a varied stem (such as shoy-bi, shoy-mo, and shoy-lu).

The following day, individual tamarins were brought into an observation enclosure equipped with an audio speaker and video-recording equipment to capture their behavior. These tamarins were then exposed to more words.

Many of the words followed the same language rules that the tamarins had heard the day before, with half hearing "shoy" as a suffix and half hearing it as a prefix.

However, every once in a while, the researchers would play a recording of an "incorrect" word. For instance, the speaker would broadcast "shoy" as a suffix when it had previously been presented as a prefix, or vice versa.

Mental Machinery

Other biologists who were not aware of the research question were asked to watch and note every time the small mammals turned their heads toward the speaker.

When tamarins were exposed to words that "broke" the rules they had learned, they looked toward the speaker in a startled manner, observers noted.

(Related: "Monkeys Can Subtract, Study Finds.")

The finding is dramatic, Endress explained, because it reveals that our distant cousins seem to have the mental machinery to identify verbal structures like suffixes and prefixes.

Black Holes

Simulated view of a black hole in front of the Large Magellanic Cloud. The ratio between the black hole Schwarzschild radius and the observer distance to it is 1:9. Of note is the gravitational lensing effect known as an Einstein ring, which produces a set of two fairly bright and large but highly distorted images of the Cloud as compared to its actual angular size.

In general relativity, a black hole is a region of space in which the gravitational field is so powerful that nothing, including light, can escape its pull. The black hole has a one-way surface, called an event horizon, into which objects can fall, but out of which nothing can come. It is called "black" because it absorbs all the light that hits it, reflecting nothing, just like a perfect blackbody in thermodynamics. Quantum analysis of black holes shows them to possess a temperature and Hawking radiation.

Unknown sewer organism

Public Utilities Group Confirms "Sewer Monster" Is Real, But Doesn't Know What It Is

If you've been following the ongoing sewer monster story from North Carolina, I've got some seriously crazy news for you. First of all, the video of the throbbing poop-esque creature has been confirmed as real. But what is it?

We've been tipped off by an anonymous source about how the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, is responding as the viral video of a seething blob in the city sewers made its way across the internet yesterday. Marti Gibson is the Environmental/EMS Coordinator for Public Utilities in the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, and she has been as confused as the rest of us. When she first looked at the video, she emailed our anonymous source to say it was a slime mold that was in the phase of its lifecycle where it looks like a throbbing, breathing animal (see io9's report on slime molds from a few weeks ago where we talked about this exact thing).

She assured our tipster that any water passing by this slime would pass through a treatment plant and be thoroughly cleansed.

But then, a few hours later, Gibson retracted her statement in an email:

The video was taken in a private sewer system by a private contractor working for them. It does not belong to the City of Raleigh nor will it reach the Neuse River Wastewater Treatment Plant. This is the response from our director: "The video is of the private sanitary sewer in the Cameron Village and was taken by a private contractor working for them and not taken by our staff. The blob has been identified by others as worms."

Worms? What kind of worms look like that?

Also I love how the privatization of the sewer system under this particular town has led to a terrible situation where the city's public utilities commission has no ability to guarantee that the situation will be dealt with in a reasonable way.

Can some environmental scientist or worm expert please step up and tell us what this really is?


According to the News & Observer:

Actually, the sewer monster is made up of thousands of tiny organisms called bryozoans, or moss animacules, said N.C. State University biologist Thomas Kwak. Invertebrates, they bunch together in colonies and feed with tiny tentacles.

But another scientist said no way to bryozoans. DeepSeaNews interviewed Dr. Timothy S. Wood, an expert on freshwater bryozoa and an officer with the International Bryozoology Association. He said:

No, these are not bryozoans! They are clumps of annelid worms, almost certainly tubificids (Naididae, probably genus Tubifex). Normally these occur in soil and sediment, especially at the bottom and edges of polluted streams. In the photo they have apparently entered a pipeline somehow, and in the absence of soil they are coiling around each other. The contractions you see are the result of a single worm contracting and then stimulating all the others to do the same almost simultaneously, so it looks like a single big muscle contracting.

An example of Tubifex is pictured above.