We Finally Know What Happened to Japan’s Lost Black Hole Satellite

We Finally Know What Happened to Japan's Lost Black Hole Satellite [UPDATED]

After a full month spinning out of control in space, Japan’s Space Agency has finally figured out how it lost control of Hitomi, a very expensive satellite that was hunting for black holes. This also means the agency will never get it back.

JAXA announced today that it has exhausted all efforts at getting Hitomi back and will leave the $273 million satellite—which it had previously described as key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe—to drift off into space. Although the agency will never get Hitomi back, it does, at long last, have an explanation for just what it was that caused the problems for the highly-anticipated satellite almost immediately after it was launched.

It wasn’t a collision with debris or a malfunctioning thruster, as had been speculated. Instead, the source of the trouble was a series of system errors (including software and human errors) that caused the satellite to spin wildly out of control. Even worse, the solar panels on both sides of the satellite broke away at their bases (potentially explaining some of that debris that was spotted around Hitomi immediately after it began having problems). This killed one of its primary power sources.

Hitomi had barely clocked a month in space before signs that something had gone wrong emerged. First, debris was spotted around the satellite. Then, attempts at contacting Hitomi were met with an eerie silence, until JAXA researchers spotted the satellite spinning wildly. Even then, the agency believed it might find a way to get the black hole-monitoring satellite back on track.

When the satellite re-emerged and sent some strange, terse messages back to JAXA, the researchers hoped it was a sign that the damage was relatively minor. Short and cryptic as they were, the mere fact that Hitomi had sent messages gave them hope that it could still be recovered.

Now, JAXA has not only given up hope of ever retrieving the lost satellite, but it also doubts whether it actually received any messages from the crippled Hitomi at all. Researchers inspected the messages much more closely and have noticed something odd. All the messages seemed to come from slightly different frequencies. While the agency had initially blamed damage for the nonsensical dispatches, it now looks like the real reason is that the “messages” were never from Hitomi at all. They were probably just the result of intercepted radio interference.

Now that it has given up all hope of ever retrieving the satellite, JAXA says it is going to focus on resolving the systematic issues that led to the malfunction, so that the next one doesn’t drift away from us, spinning alone into space.

Google wants to inject cyborg lenses into your eyeballs

Google has patented a new technology that would let the company inject a computerized lens directly into your eyeball.

The company has been developing smart glasses and even smart contact lenses for years. But Google’s newest patented technology would go even further — and deeper.

 google lens

(Note: the squeamish should skip to the next paragraph.) In its patent application, which the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office approved last week, Google says it could remove the lens of your eye, inject fluid into your empty lens capsule and then place an electronic lens in the fluid.

Once equipped with your cyborg lenses, you would never need glasses or contacts again. In fact, you might not even need a telescope or a microscope again. And who needs a camera when your eyes can capture photos and videos?

The artificial, computerized lenses could automatically adjust to help you see objects at a distance or very close by. The lenses could be powered by the movement of your eyeball, and they could even connect to a nearby wireless device.

Related: Google patent reveals screens you can rip

Google says that its patented lenses could be used to cure presbyopia, an age-related condition in which people’s eyes stiffen and their ability to focus is diminished or lost. It could also correct common eye problems, such as myopia, hyperopia, astigmatism.

Today, we cure blurry vision with eyeglasses or contact lenses. But sometimes vision is not correctable.

And there are clear advantages to being a cyborg with mechanical eyes.

Yet Google (GOOGL, Tech30) noted that privacy could become a concern. If your computerized eyes are transmitting data all the time, that signal could allow law enforcement or hackers to identify you or track your movements. Google said that it could make the mechanical lenses strip out personally identifying information so that your information stays secure.

Before you sign up for cyborg eyes, it’s important to note that Google and many other tech companies patent technologies all the time. Many of those patented items don’t end up getting made into actual products. So it’s unclear if Google will ever be implanting computers into your eyes — soon or ever.

‘Black Hole Blues’ Recounts the Quest to Find the Cosmic Kazoo

Just two months ago, scientists announced that they had heard, for the very first time, the sound of two black holes colliding in outer space.

The noise — commonly referred to as “the cosmic chirp” — may not have been much, sounding suspiciously like a kazoo. But to the physicists who had staked their reputations on this moment, that kazoo was about as celestial as it got. It confirmed the existence of gravitational waves, a key prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The universe had spoken. Wow.

As scientists were holding emotional news conferences about their discovery — here was the fabric of space, rippling like the surface of a lake — Knopf was planning to publish Janna Levin’s “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space,” about the decades-long quest to detect gravitational waves. But it was scheduled for release in August. Knopf quickly moved up the date.

I’ll give Ms. Levin this: She was remarkably prescient. She was on to the right story. As you read her first chapter, you’ll find your heart breaking for her, wishing she had discovered a wormhole in space to wriggle through in order to make some essential emendations before her book went to press. I was inserting imaginary asterisks throughout:

“No human has ever heard the sound of a gravitational wave” — *until now!“No instrument has indisputably recorded one” — *until now! Etc.

(Ms. Levin did, it turns out, update her text, but only in the form of an epilogue.)

Had those researchers not made their announcement in February, though, it’s not clear this dense, eccentric book would have found much of an audience.

Far more than gravitational waves, “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space” is about the politics and personal dynamics of Big Science. In theory, this is a fine idea for a book, and Ms. Levin, an astrophysicist, is in the ideal position to write it. Scientists may appear in a photogenic tableau after they have made a magnificent discovery — united in vindication, beaming with pride — but she knows that this pretty picture almost always belies years of tensions, politicking and crushing setbacks.

And the pair of facilities that detected the cosmic chirp, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), cost more than any project the National Science Foundation had ever funded. That automatically made it controversial. It didn’t help that many physicists thought the project was too quixotic to deserve funding.

Continue reading the main story

Ms. Levin’s first few chapters start strongly enough. She profiles the physicists who showed, despite widespread skepticism, an early and unwavering belief in gravitational waves, collaborating across institutions and nations to build the equipment that would ultimately prove their existence.

There was Rai Weiss, who built a prototype of LIGO’s detection device nearly a half-century ago, while he was still a young, underpublished professor at M.I.T. There was Kip Thorne, a wildly imaginative professor from Caltech whose gift for theory allowed him “to roam the vast ranges of the severely abstract.” There was Ron Drever, an “impossible” Scot who, as a university student in Glasgow, ran a series of ambitious physics experiments in his mother’s garden.

It turns out that these scientists, Mr. Drever in particular, had different ideas about what collaboration might look like. Their research institutions varied in their levels of support, and there were many obstacles to obtaining funding, from fellow scientists and Congress alike.

(The rise and fall of another physicist, Joe Weber, also hurt their cause: Mr. Weber claimed to have detected gravitational waves long before anyone else, only to be discredited for interpreting his data a mite too flexibly.)

Ms. Levin starts to lose her footing the moment she begins telling the story, rather than scribbling character sketches. Her narrative often devolves into an inside-baseball account of a very long, very slow season with a host of very grouchy managers.

“This bit gets gossipy and maybe isn’t that interesting or relevant except to position Vogt right where fate needed him,” she writes, summing up her own problem. (Robbie Vogt ran LIGO for a while.) She’s right. That part isn’t that interesting or relevant. She’s so exhilarated by the access she has gotten that she can’t distinguish the interesting from the dull.

“I’m the outsider. So I’m glad when the initial curiosity over my attendance on the best night of the week, Taco Tuesdays, subsides,” she writes, speaking of her evenings out with LIGO researchers, “and the drinks flow and inappropriate stories are told and I become one of the guys.”

Ms. Levin’s sentences are full of literary vim one minute and descend into bizarre incomprehensibility the next. “Progress was as random as the walk of a shred of lint through hot air.” (Pardon?) Awkwardness is everywhere. “As though too well inscribed with a mathematical ability nurtured under Utah’s firmament, Kip seemed destined for astrophysics.”

Editors. Where are they.

Her science writing may be the most problematic of all, which is curious, given that she has already published a popular book about cosmology, “How the Universe Got Its Spots,” as well as the novel “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.”

She presumes a familiarity with the basic vocabulary of physics that I do not think is safe. (Terms she uses without defining, at least not explicitly enough for me: “degenerate nuclear matter,” “inertial mass,” “active galactic nucleus.”) Her explanation of the book’s main subject — gravitational waves — can be very difficult to parse. Take this sentence:

“As one black hole orbits another, the curves in the shape of space-time must drag around with them, but the shape of space-time cannot acclimate instantaneously, since that would require propagation of information — about the motion of the holes — faster than the speed of light.”

Propagation of information? What, in this context, could that possibly mean? She gives zero indication. It’s a phrase physicists use, not laymen, and she doesn’t stop to illuminate it.

To me, the real drama in this story, which Ms. Levin only flicks at in her seventh chapter but never fleshes out in full, is internal: What kind of blind faith does it require, what kind of terror must one beat away, in order to labor in total darkness — toward an objective that so many of your peers believe is folly?

There’s a quote attributed to Niels Bohr, who, after listening to a revolutionary lecture from the particle physicist Wolfgang Pauli, responded with: “We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.”

The pioneers in this field were crazy enough. Yet they had no way of knowing — for years. What I would have given for her to have probed more deeply into that lonely void.

A New Physics Theory of Life

Jeremy England


Jeremy England, a 31-year-old physicist at MIT, thinks he has found the underlying physics driving the origin and evolution of life.

Why does life exist?

Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning and a colossal stroke of luck. But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

Plagiomnium affine


Cells from the moss Plagiomnium affine with visible chloroplasts, organelles that conduct photosynthesis by capturing sunlight.

“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” England said.

England’s theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations. “I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong,” he explained. “On the contrary, I am just saying that from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon.”

His idea, detailed in a recent paper and further elaborated in a talk he is delivering at universities around the world, has sparked controversy among his colleagues, who see it as either tenuous or a potential breakthrough, or both.

England has taken “a very brave and very important step,” said Alexander Grosberg, a professor of physics at New York University who has followed England’s work since its early stages. The “big hope” is that he has identified the underlying physical principle driving the origin and evolution of life, Grosberg said.

“Jeremy is just about the brightest young scientist I ever came across,” said Attila Szabo, a biophysicist in the Laboratory of Chemical Physics at the National Institutes of Health who corresponded with England about his theory after meeting him at a conference. “I was struck by the originality of the ideas.”

Others, such as Eugene Shakhnovich, a professor of chemistry, chemical biology and biophysics at Harvard University, are not convinced. “Jeremy’s ideas are interesting and potentially promising, but at this point are extremely speculative, especially as applied to life phenomena,” Shakhnovich said.

England’s theoretical results are generally considered valid. It is his interpretation — that his formula represents the driving force behind a class of phenomena in nature that includes life — that remains unproven. But already, there are ideas about how to test that interpretation in the lab.

“He’s trying something radically different,” said Mara Prentiss, a professor of physics at Harvard who is contemplating such an experiment after learning about England’s work. “As an organizing lens, I think he has a fabulous idea. Right or wrong, it’s going to be very much worth the investigation.”

A computer simulation by Jeremy England and colleagues shows a system of particles confined inside a viscous fluid in which the turquoise particles are driven by an oscillating force. Over time (from top to bottom), the force triggers the formation of more bonds among the particles.

Courtesy of Jeremy England

A computer simulation by Jeremy England and colleagues shows a system of particles confined inside a viscous fluid in which the turquoise particles are driven by an oscillating force. Over time (from top to bottom), the force triggers the formation of more bonds among the particles.

At the heart of England’s idea is the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of increasing entropy or the “arrow of time.” Hot things cool down, gas diffuses through air, eggs scramble but never spontaneously unscramble; in short, energy tends to disperse or spread out as time progresses. Entropy is a measure of this tendency, quantifying how dispersed the energy is among the particles in a system, and how diffuse those particles are throughout space. It increases as a simple matter of probability: There are more ways for energy to be spread out than for it to be concentrated. Thus, as particles in a system move around and interact, they will, through sheer chance, tend to adopt configurations in which the energy is spread out. Eventually, the system arrives at a state of maximum entropy called “thermodynamic equilibrium,” in which energy is uniformly distributed. A cup of coffee and the room it sits in become the same temperature, for example. As long as the cup and the room are left alone, this process is irreversible. The coffee never spontaneously heats up again because the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against so much of the room’s energy randomly concentrating in its atoms.

Although entropy must increase over time in an isolated or “closed” system, an “open” system can keep its entropy low — that is, divide energy unevenly among its atoms — by greatly increasing the entropy of its surroundings. In his influential 1944 monograph “What Is Life?” the eminent quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger argued that this is what living things must do. A plant, for example, absorbs extremely energetic sunlight, uses it to build sugars, and ejects infrared light, a much less concentrated form of energy. The overall entropy of the universe increases during photosynthesis as the sunlight dissipates, even as the plant prevents itself from decaying by maintaining an orderly internal structure.

Life does not violate the second law of thermodynamics, but until recently, physicists were unable to use thermodynamics to explain why it should arise in the first place. In Schrödinger’s day, they could solve the equations of thermodynamics only for closed systems in equilibrium. In the 1960s, the Belgian physicist Ilya Prigogine made progress on predicting the behavior of open systems weakly driven by external energy sources (for which he won the 1977 Nobel Prize in chemistry). But the behavior of systems that are far from equilibrium, which are connected to the outside environment and strongly driven by external sources of energy, could not be predicted.

This situation changed in the late 1990s, due primarily to the work of Chris Jarzynski, now at the University of Maryland, and Gavin Crooks, now at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Jarzynski and Crooks showed that the entropy produced by a thermodynamic process, such as the cooling of a cup of coffee, corresponds to a simple ratio: the probability that the atoms will undergo that process divided by their probability of undergoing the reverse process (that is, spontaneously interacting in such a way that the coffee warms up). As entropy production increases, so does this ratio: A system’s behavior becomes more and more “irreversible.” The simple yet rigorous formula could in principle be applied to any thermodynamic process, no matter how fast or far from equilibrium. “Our understanding of far-from-equilibrium statistical mechanics greatly improved,” Grosberg said. England, who is trained in both biochemistry and physics, started his own lab at MIT two years ago and decided to apply the new knowledge of statistical physics to biology.

Using Jarzynski and Crooks’ formulation, he derived a generalization of the second law of thermodynamics that holds for systems of particles with certain characteristics: The systems are strongly driven by an external energy source such as an electromagnetic wave, and they can dump heat into a surrounding bath. This class of systems includes all living things. England then determined how such systems tend to evolve over time as they increase their irreversibility. “We can show very simply from the formula that the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives on the way to getting there,” he said. The finding makes intuitive sense: Particles tend to dissipate more energy when they resonate with a driving force, or move in the direction it is pushing them, and they are more likely to move in that direction than any other at any given moment.

“This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments,” England explained.

Self Replicating Microstructures

Courtesy of Michael Brenner/Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Self-Replicating Sphere Clusters: According to new research at Harvard, coating the surfaces of microspheres can cause them to spontaneously assemble into a chosen structure, such as a polytetrahedron (red), which then triggers nearby spheres into forming an identical structure.

Self-replication (or reproduction, in biological terms), the process that drives the evolution of life on Earth, is one such mechanism by which a system might dissipate an increasing amount of energy over time. As England put it, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.” In a September paper in the Journal of Chemical Physics, he reported the theoretical minimum amount of dissipation that can occur during the self-replication of RNA molecules and bacterial cells, and showed that it is very close to the actual amounts these systems dissipate when replicating. He also showed that RNA, the nucleic acid that many scientists believe served as the precursor to DNA-based life, is a particularly cheap building material. Once RNA arose, he argues, its “Darwinian takeover” was perhaps not surprising.

The chemistry of the primordial soup, random mutations, geography, catastrophic events and countless other factors have contributed to the fine details of Earth’s diverse flora and fauna. But according to England’s theory, the underlying principle driving the whole process is dissipation-driven adaptation of matter.

This principle would apply to inanimate matter as well. “It is very tempting to speculate about what phenomena in nature we can now fit under this big tent of dissipation-driven adaptive organization,” England said. “Many examples could just be right under our nose, but because we haven’t been looking for them we haven’t noticed them.”

Scientists have already observed self-replication in nonliving systems. According to new research led by Philip Marcus of the University of California, Berkeley, and reported in Physical Review Letters in August, vortices in turbulent fluids spontaneously replicate themselves by drawing energy from shear in the surrounding fluid. And in a paper appearing online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Michael Brenner, a professor of applied mathematics and physics at Harvard, and his collaborators present theoretical models and simulations of microstructures that self-replicate. These clusters of specially coated microspheres dissipate energy by roping nearby spheres into forming identical clusters. “This connects very much to what Jeremy is saying,” Brenner said.

Besides self-replication, greater structural organization is another means by which strongly driven systems ramp up their ability to dissipate energy. A plant, for example, is much better at capturing and routing solar energy through itself than an unstructured heap of carbon atoms. Thus, England argues that under certain conditions, matter will spontaneously self-organize. This tendency could account for the internal order of living things and of many inanimate structures as well. “Snowflakes, sand dunes and turbulent vortices all have in common that they are strikingly patterned structures that emerge in many-particle systems driven by some dissipative process,” he said. Condensation, wind and viscous drag are the relevant processes in these particular cases.

“He is making me think that the distinction between living and nonliving matter is not sharp,” said Carl Franck, a biological physicist at Cornell University, in an email. “I’m particularly impressed by this notion when one considers systems as small as chemical circuits involving a few biomolecules.”



If a new theory is correct, the same physics it identifies as responsible for the origin of living things could explain the formation of many other patterned structures in nature. Snowflakes, sand dunes and self-replicating vortices in the protoplanetary disk may all be examples of dissipation-driven adaptation.

England’s bold idea will likely face close scrutiny in the coming years. He is currently running computer simulations to test his theory that systems of particles adapt their structures to become better at dissipating energy. The next step will be to run experiments on living systems.

Prentiss, who runs an experimental biophysics lab at Harvard, says England’s theory could be tested by comparing cells with different mutations and looking for a correlation between the amount of energy the cells dissipate and their replication rates. “One has to be careful because any mutation might do many things,” she said. “But if one kept doing many of these experiments on different systems and if [dissipation and replication success] are indeed correlated, that would suggest this is the correct organizing principle.”

Brenner said he hopes to connect England’s theory to his own microsphere constructions and determine whether the theory correctly predicts which self-replication and self-assembly processes can occur — “a fundamental question in science,” he said.

Having an overarching principle of life and evolution would give researchers a broader perspective on the emergence of structure and function in living things, many of the researchers said. “Natural selection doesn’t explain certain characteristics,” said Ard Louis, a biophysicist at Oxford University, in an email. These characteristics include a heritable change to gene expression called methylation, increases in complexity in the absence of natural selection, and certain molecular changes Louis has recently studied.

If England’s approach stands up to more testing, it could further liberate biologists from seeking a Darwinian explanation for every adaptation and allow them to think more generally in terms of dissipation-driven organization. They might find, for example, that “the reason that an organism shows characteristic X rather than Y may not be because X is more fit than Y, but because physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve,” Louis said.

“People often get stuck in thinking about individual problems,” Prentiss said.  Whether or not England’s ideas turn out to be exactly right, she said, “thinking more broadly is where many scientific breakthroughs are made.”

Janna Levin’s Theory of Doing Everything

The astrophysicist, conceptual writer and host of standing-room-only scientific soirees at a repurposed factory in Brooklyn sees science as a powerful force in culture.

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The astrophysicist and author Janna Levin has two main offices: One at Barnard College of Columbia University, where she is a professor, and a studio space at Pioneer Works, a “center for art and innovation” in Brooklyn where Levin works alongside artists and musicians in an ever-expanding role as director of sciences. Beneath the rafters on the third floor of the former ironworks factory that now houses Pioneer Works, her studio is decorated (with props from a film set) like a speakeasy. There’s a bar lined with stools, a piano, a trumpet and, on the wall that serves as Levin’s blackboard, a drink rail underlining a mathematical description of a black hole spinning in a magnetic field. Whether Levin is writing words or equations, she finds inspiration just outside her gallery window, where a giant cloth-and-paper tree trunk hangs from the ceiling almost to the factory floor three stories below.

“Science is just an absolutely intrinsic part of culture,” said Levin, who runs a residency program for scientists, holds informal “office hours” for the artists and other residents, and hosts Scientific Controversies — a discussion series with a disco vibe that attracts standing-room-only crowds. “We don’t see it as different.”

Levin lives in accordance with this belief. She conducted research on the question of whether the universe is finite or infinite, then penned a book about her life and this work (written as letters to her mother) at the start of her physics career. She has also studied the limits of knowledge, ideas that found their way into her award-winning novel about the mathematicians Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel.

Lately she has been developing the theory of an astrophysical object she calls a “black-hole battery,” a circuit created by a black hole and an orbiting neutron star that discharges in a sudden flash of electricity, rather like a lightning strike in deep space. Her latest book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space, rushed into print at the end of March, chronicles the dramatic history of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) experiment, from its fanciful conception in the 1960s to its recent, triumphant detection of gravitational waves — ripples in space-time coming from the distant merger of two black holes.

“I had a crush on the experiment,” Levin said at her speakeasy studio last month. Originally contracted to write about black holes themselves, she became increasingly drawn to the story of the scrappy scientists who built a fantastically complicated machine to detect them. “They’re after this abstract, arduous, difficult-to-understand thing, but there’s also this running theme of risk and obsession and curiosity and ambition that is universal, not specific,” she said. “The fact that the experiment turned out to succeed was just a gift.”

The New York Times Book Review called Levin a writer who “harmonizes science and life with remarkable virtuosity,” a description that could just as easily apply to her as a person. Quanta Magazine joined Levin in her speakeasy on a recent Thursday afternoon, in time for the happy hour she put on before dashing off to a speaking engagement at the French Embassy. An edited and condensed version of that conversation and a subsequent email exchange follows.

QUANTA MAGAZINE: How did you manage to become both an astrophysicist and a writer?

JANNA LEVIN: I’m more surprised people become only one or the other. All kids are scientists, and all kids are artists. They all read. How is it that we give up such big things? That’s the question if you ask me. I just didn’t give stuff up.

Is there an inner conflict or can you just go into either mode?

“I never studied math or physics in high school. I didn’t really finish high school — I don’t have a high school diploma.”

I don’t switch between the modes very easily. I can’t write in the morning and then do a calculation in the evening; that’s absolutely not how it’s going to work. If I’ve been calculating all day, I can’t even socialize later; I am so not in English mode. And if you look at my notes when I’m doing physics — very sparse on words. I’m usually only using a lot of words when I don’t know what’s going on. So it’s like, here you’re in language mode, and then you dig, dig, dig and get into this total math space, and then it’s just all calculations — pages and pages of calculations, not a word of insight. And then you come to an answer that you’re not sure you know how to interpret properly, and then you have to do the reverse movement until you can say it in plain English again.

Do you think language is a more approximate form of expression than mathematics?

Yes and no. I can’t figure out the charge on a black hole with words. But there are different levels of understanding. I thought I was a master at general relativity until I taught it. Having to explain the subject out loud, I had a whole new level of understanding. Is that approximate, intuitive? Maybe visceral. Maybe deeper in some sense. Less precise but deeper?

[No Caption]


What did you plan to be?I didn’t think I’d be a scientist. No way. I think our idea of what a scientist is has evolved a lot. We now think of a scientific person as curious, someone who asks questions. I thought a scientific person played with a chemistry set in the basement, and I didn’t do that. I thought physicists built bombs and memorized equations and were unoriginal, so that wasn’t very interesting.

I started college as a philosophy major, and I was interested in art history, the arts. But I grew to hate certain things in philosophy. I was really frustrated that people were trying to figure out what a long-dead man meant when he said something. Nobody is tearing their hair out saying, “What did Einstein mean by relativity?” Once he shared it, he shared it. It was ours. It’s when I discovered the difference between solving problems outright, and solving problems with this sort of polysyllabic obfuscating jungle, that I made the switch.

So you had no idea up to then that you’d be good at physics?

I never studied math or physics in high school. I didn’t really finish high school — I don’t have a high school diploma.

How did that happen?

I was a passenger in a pretty bad car accident in my junior year. We hit a footbridge and landed upside down in a canal, wheels whipping water around. We swam out the windows through broken glass and emerged bloody. I was 16 turning 17. Everybody just sort of insisted: Go to college. For reasons unknown, Barnard took a look at my application. I have no idea why; decisions had long been made for admissions. Anyway, a month later I was on my way to New York, a bit scarred from the accident but otherwise intact.

Why did they encourage you to leave home? Were you getting into trouble?

I can’t say I was a troubled teen; I was reckless at times. It’s hardly the first time I was injured. At 11 I was skateboarding and I grabbed onto the bumper of a passing car to gain speed. Ended up with a concussion, amnesia a few hours later. Eventually I was knocked out in a 24-hour coma in the hospital. My mom once quipped, “Imagine how smart you would have been.”

By junior year I was behaving maybe even more recklessly than usual and definitely getting into some trouble. I just think anyone who cared about me thought I’d be safer and make everyone less crazy if I moved on than if I stayed.

When did you start writing books?

Basically as soon as I could. I wrote my first book when I was a postdoc, after graduate school. And that’s just not done. I was told not to do that by everybody who cared about me. They said, you’ll never get a job as a scientist; nobody will take you seriously. Keep your head down; get your work done. But I did it anyway.

I very much have to write to please myself. I think some popular science doesn’t do that, and I think that’s where it stumbles. If you’re not writing for yourself, you’re always being a little bit disingenuous.

Now you’re tenured at Barnard College of Columbia University. How did you wind up in your role here at Pioneer Works? 

I could not imagine writing my book in my office at Columbia; it would have felt punitive. It’s wonderful to be in that office when I’m talking to physicists about physics; it’s a beautiful experience. But when I am doing something else, I just feel isolated. Before I came here, I was in another artists’ studio, a fantastic place, just to get some inspiration. Everybody was working like crazy, stuff was falling off the walls, people were welding, sawing, sparks were flying, and I was like, perfect, now I can get something done! It’s similar here. I came to Pioneer Works because this is a little more public-facing. I could do events here because of the beauty of the space, but it’s the community that makes me want to come back.

What I see in common among the people at Pioneer Works is that they want to live in a bigger world. They don’t feel that their inspiration is fueled by isolation. I am always looking out that gallery window, at who is building something.

In 2014, you launched Scientific Controversies, which has brought Nobel Prize winners to Pioneer Works. What’s the story behind that?

“Why should we think, since physics is so rooted in mathematics, that there is going to be a physical theory of everything?”

When I started here as scientist in residence, they asked me to give a talk, but I thought it would be much more fun to listen to a conversation. So I said, here’s what we should do: not a panel, not a debate, just two guests who aren’t trying to win an argument — who are having a genuine and extemporaneous conversation about topics we don’t know the answer to. That’s the idea and it came nearly instantly. Because I had done a lot of talks and other events, it was really clear to me what I would enjoy.

Clearly the public enjoys it too; the place is always packed.

Science is such an important force in culture, and we’re only beginning to understand how that is playing out. I feel like people’s interest in science has spiked, but we still see it as “other.” People’s avarice for information about science is really growing. It’s much different, I feel, than it used to be.

Let’s talk about your new book, Black Hole Blues. It’s basically a story about people building a machine.

I know! My friend was like, it’s totally postmodern!

When you started writing about LIGO and the search for gravitational waves, it wasn’t clear there would be a happy ending to report.

The suspense of not knowing is, to me, what the book became about. Even in August, LIGO co-founder Rai Weiss was saying things to me like, “This could be a failure.” That was the universal theme I felt I was writing about. And so, yeah, I was doing the same thing at the same time, taking this big risk that I’d write this book about a failed experiment. That’s the combination I love — the tension when you’re between something great and something that could just be a tragedy.

You got interested in LIGO by way of your research on black holes. Could you talk about this concept you’ve been developing —  the black-hole battery?

It started really naively. A neutron star has a giant magnetic field — it could be a thousand trillion times the magnetic field of the Earth. If you throw that into a black hole, the standard story is that the black hole can’t keep the magnetic field, because that would violate the black hole “no hair” theorems— the magnetic field would be “hair,” so the black hole has to shake it off. I’ve been taught that my whole life, and I just thought, something about that isn’t right.

So we did this calculation, with postdoc Sean McWilliams, where the neutron star is in orbit, which means you have a waving magnet around the black hole. You can create electricity from a waving magnet — if I unplug a lightbulb from that lamp, and I wave a magnet around, the bulb will light up. So we said: Look, we’re waving a magnet around; what lightbulb will turn on? I don’t know why no one else said it first.

So when LIGO detects a black hole swallowing a neutron star, you expect to be able to see a concurrent flash of light from the discharging battery?

Probably X-ray, gamma ray, maybe radio. Lately we’ve been talking about which wave band we would see it in. That’s a hard step, but we think all three, probably.

Your 2006 novel, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, deals with the concepts of infinity, truth and the limits of knowledge — themes you also explored in your research in cosmology, on the question of whether the universe is finite or infinite. You tell the story through a fictional account of the lives and horrible deaths of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel. Could you talk about what their work revealed about the nature of truth?

Gödel’s theorem says that there are facts that are true, but that can never be proved to be true. There are facts among the numbers that we will never know are true or false. When Gödel showed that — never mind when Turing came along and showed that most facts among the numbers are things about which we will never know anything — that was a shock. It means there is no “theory of everything” in mathematics. It was such a big blow.

I liked the idea of playing on Gödel’s theorem with a narrative in fiction where I’m telling a true story, even though I’m not doing so by only listing factual information. There’s a feeling of the truth of a fictional story — in a way, maybe more of a visceral experience of the truth, maybe a more lucid, bigger-picture feeling, than if I had just listed all the biographical facts.

I also just feel that science is part of culture, which motivates my connection with Pioneer Works. Why can’t I write a novel about science? You can write about domestic violence. You can write a novel about the shipping industry in Boston. Why can’t I write a novel about mathematicians? It’s just a natural part of culture.

Seeing as you’re a physicist who has thought so deeply about Gödel’s theorem, do you think the absence of a theory of everything in mathematics suggests there might be no theory of everything in physics?

I totally think about that. Why should we think, since physics is so rooted in mathematics, that there is going to be a physical theory of everything? The way we usually think about the Big Bang is: The universe is born, and it’s born with initial data. There are laws of physics, and somehow the initial data is just… something else. We really are dishonest about where that comes from. What if the law of physics that describes the origin of the universe is something that has to make a claim about itself, which is a classic self-referential Gödelian setup for a tangle. [A Gödelian tangle is an unprovable, self-referential mathematical statement, such as, “This statement is unprovable.”] What if the laws of physics have to make a claim about themselves in such a way that they themselves become somehow uncomputable?

I’m also super interested in the idea that the initial data of the universe could contain irrational or uncomputable numbers. Then the universe could never finish computing the consequences of the initial conditions. Maybe we can’t predict what’s coming next because every digit of the initial data is a toss of a coin.

But it’s not enough if I only have words, and I’ve never found something to write down in math, so I’ve just kind of waffled. I think a smart thing to do would be to look at a specific Gödelian tangle that exists in mathematics and try to map that to fictitious laws of physics. Then you would have a universe in which there was a Gödelian tangle. There are constructive things to try.

Is it something you plan to pursue?

Yeah, it always comes back around eventually. Right now I’m talking to somebody about a self-referential Big Bang again. Drawing up notes on the ideas, really. The notes help clarify what you know, what you understand, what you don’t really understand.

Why doesn’t everyone go vegetarian?

“I’m vegetarian.” “I’m vegan.” These statements typically will be met with a range of reactions, varying from bafflement to praise. But what makes people adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet? How are vegetarians and vegans viewed by the rest of society? And why don’t more people become vegetarian?


The ethics of eating

About 12% of the UK’s population is vegetarian or vegan. Many people adopt a vegetarian diet for health reasons, yet those that do appear to be less committed to their diet than those who reject meat for ethical reasons. So what is it about being ethically motivated that supports stronger commitments?

You often hear that people who shun meat for ethical reasons possess a greater capacity for empathy than those who don’t. Indeed, there is some evidence that ethically-motivated vegetarians and vegans score higher than omnivores on standard measures of empathy (for example, the empathy quotient).

Ethically-minded vegetarians and vegans also seem to have an expansive “circle of moral concern”, meaning that they think that many animals, including farm animals, deserve moral consideration and shouldn’t be harmed without good reason. A common attribute of meat eaters is that they tend to avoid thinking about the suffering of animals processed for meat. Because vegans and vegetarians place farm animals within their circle of moral concern, this causes them to take notice of their mental lives and suffering, and to scrutinise the justifications for eating meat.

Holier than thou?

It is not a secret that some people find vegetarians annoying. Ethically-motivated vegetarians and vegans in particular are often the target of ridicule and viewed as smug, self-righteous extremists. At the same time, many people acknowledge the ethical motivations of vegetarians and vegans, and give them credit for it. Why are these groups praised, yet also hated?

Ethically motivated people seem to serve as a source of anticipated reproach for most. People don’t like having their values or traditions criticised and respond defensively when they think they are under attack. It is not only vegetarians and vegans who are considered bothersome in this way. Any ethically motivated commitment, such as eating fair trade products, may be a source of anticipated reproach. The annoying ingredient seems to be the imagined criticism that the practice implies to those not practising it.

So why doesn’t everyone go vegetarian?

For the health-conscious vegetarian or flexitarian, complete rejection of animal products is not necessary. They can practice a healthy, balanced diet and still occasionally eat meat. However, for the ethically motivated, it is difficult to justify anything short of total abstention. If the suffering of animals matters at all, then in the absence of a good reason, harming them should be avoided (as well as paying money for it).

The ethical argument for not eating animals follows only if animals suffer, the suffering of animals matters, and eating them is not a good reason to cause them suffering. Research from psychology suggests that meat eaters seem to understand this logic, if only implicitly. When challenged about their meat consumption people tend to argue their case in one of three ways.

First, that there are good reasons for eating animals. When asked to justify why it is morally acceptable to use animals for food, many people tend to appeal to the necessity of eating meat (Angelina Jolie’s comment that being vegan almost killed her), how natural, normal, and nice it is, or that it’s impossible to be vegetarian.

Second, they tend to think that animals used as food are not really harmed. When thinking about animals as food, as opposed to living beings, concern for them is reduced, or the belief that they suffer or have the capacity to suffer is reduced.

Finally, there’s a belief that animals used as food don’t matter. There tends to be an inconsistency when thinking about animals. People in the West show concern over animals that are eaten in other cultures, such as dogs, but ignore things such as animal intelligence when thinking about the meat in their own diet.

Therefore it is rather easy to avoid the conclusion for vegetarianism and veganism. It requires a lot (“I have to stop eating bacon.” “My friends will find me annoying.”) and without the proper incentives, many are quick to convince themselves it is foolish or not worth it.

Antibiotics are inappropriately prescribed for some ailments, such as the common cold, a study finds.

As public health officials struggle to contain antibiotic resistance, new research shows the task may be more difficult than some thought. A review of patient data found that as much as 30 percent of all antibiotics were prescribed unnecessarily in physician offices and clinics.

The study found that patients are often prescribed antibiotics for afflictions, such as the common cold, which can be treated differently. But prescribing rates are high because patients expect to receive antibiotics and physicians may believe patients hold such expectations, according to the study’s authors.

The research, which was published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, comes amid ongoing concern about antibiotic resistance, which has been blamed for at least 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths annually, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And the authors calculate that prescribing would have to drop by an estimated 15 percent in order to meet the goals in a White House plan to cut inappropriate antibiotic usage in half by 2020. The plan, which was released last year, also seeks to reduce inappropriate use in hospitals by 20 percent.

“The findings underscore how important it is that we address antibiotic use in all settings, because increased use leads to resistance and contributes to the public health threat,” said Dr. David Hyun, a study coauthor who is a senior officer at the Pew Charitable Trust antibiotics resistance project, which provided this infographic.

The study examined more than 184,000 patient visits to doctors and clinics in 2010 and 2011 and found that of the 506 prescriptions written for every 1,000 people, 353 were appropriate. In other words, nearly one of every three prescriptions for an antibiotic was unnecessary.

Looked at another way, roughly 47 million prescriptions for antibiotics should not be given to patients each year, according to Hyun. To be more specific, about 3 million prescriptions for bronchitis and 8 million prescriptions for viral upper respiratory problems — the common cold — are written annually.

The researchers also sliced the data for some ailments in order to examine differences in age groups and found 6 million prescriptions are written unnecessarily for sinus infections each year. Most are for adult patients, and the amount of prescribing for people between 20 and 64 years old should be cut in half.

The study did not examine antibiotic pricing and the effect on health care costs, but Hyun noted there are several studies of hospitals that restricted antibiotic use, demonstrating not only reduced resistance and improved patient outcomes but also lowered health care costs.

The pharmaceutical industry has been criticized for failing to invest sufficiently in new antibiotics. Last year, the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, an effort commissioned by the UK government, proposed providing financial incentives to drug makers to develop new treatments.

The JAMA study also did not probe the extent to which pharmaceutical marketing may play a role in overprescribing, although Hyun indicated that this is “an area we need to explore. We’re still in the preliminary stages of understanding how industry can help or contribute to this issue.”

Some drug makers have also been criticized for improperly promoting antibiotics given to food-producing livestock. The US Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines for voluntarily removing language from labeling that indicates antibiotics can be used for weight gain. The effort begins later this year.

These smart headphones just solved your biggest listening woes


The ultimate earphones

The Dash comes with 4GB of storage, which means you don’t need an extra device for your music. It can hold up to 1,000 songs all on its own. But if you need more tunes in your life, you can seamlessly stream music from your phone through bluetooth and it’ll still sound amazingly clear. There won’t be any spotty signal interrupting your listening.

The earphones also have Optical Touch controls on the outside, so there’s no need to take out any external device in order to access the functions. You can browse through music or check on your workout progress by tapping and swiping the face of the earphone. This ease of access means that you don’t even have to take your eyes off of what you’re doing to skip a song or get an update.

Dash 1


So music is not the only reason to get on board with The Dash. Listening may be all you do with your current set of earbuds, but these are meant to be more like a personal assistant than a set of speakers for your ears.

For example, the wireless component and storage capacity make these earphones the optimal exercise accessory. Rejoice at the thought of never again fumbling with wires or getting your phone all sweaty.

With 23 sensors in each ear, The Dash can keep track of your heart rate and analyze other physical metrics while you get fit. It’ll count your steps and give you live feedback while you’re going through your workout.

The waterproof hardware is an added bonus for anyone who choses swimming as their way to keep in shape. Never before have swimmers had the luxury of listening to music while underwater, but The Dash changes the game completely. (This feature is also pretty useful for anyone who wants to run in the rain, or if you get caught in a downpour during your commute.)

You can even choose to hear the noise of the world around you, or block it out completely, with the swipe of your finger. This is great for your focus, whether you’re exercising or if you’re trying to concentrate in a noisy office. But if you want to be more aware of your surroundings, you have the option to keep the background noise audible.

Dash 2


What’s down the road for The Dash

Right now, these are an excellent set of earphones with cutting edge features, but they’re set up to be much more than that. Bragi thinks about this first iteration of The Dash like the very first in a series of smart phones.

The Dash’s hardware and design leaves a ton of room for growth as the software improves, so there will be much more capability and functionality for this device in the future.

For example, the team at Bragi is picturing a movement away from a numbers-based process of fitness tracking. In the future, they’d like to introduce a much more qualitative method. They want the fitness software to act more like a personal assistant than a fancy calculator.

Users could be able to input a specific goal, such as running a half marathon, and The Dash would act as a coach. If your pace was too quick, the earphones would tell you to take it down a bit so you can avoid injury, while also assuring that you finish your workout without becoming too exhausted. Inversely, if you weren’t making good time, the device would tell you to speed up so you can be motivated to reach your goal.

Bragi is also working on software that could let you control The Dash by moving different parts of your body. For example, jumping may activate the function that skips a song in your playlist. Incorporating interactive physical commands would make the immersive experience they want for their users even more unique.

These are just a couple possibilities for the groundbreaking earphones. But the Dash is still in its infancy. There is so much potential for growth, especially if more developers can get involved. Bragi is setting a slow pace to make sure they get everything right, but there are fantastic things down the road. The Dash is already an impressive set of microcomputers you can fit in your ears, but just imagine where they’ll be like five years down the line.


Revealed: How to lose weight – drink plenty of red wine

Research shows that resveratrol, an ingredient fround in grapes, berries and red wine can help turn flab into calorie-burning ‘brown’ fat. Just drink responsibly!

Red wine ingredient linked to lower diabetes risk

Red wine ingredient have been linked to lower diabetes risk.

Wine lovers rejoice! Research has shown that an ingredient in grapes, berries and red wine can turn excess flab into calorie-burning “brown” fat. The discovery suggests that diets containing the substance, resveratrol, may help combat obesity.

Scientists gave mice amounts of resveratrol equivalent to humans consuming 12 ounces of fruit per day. They found that despite a high fat diet, the mice gained 40% less weight than animals not fed the compound.

The research showed that the mice were able to change their excess white fat to active “brown” or “beige” fat which reduces weight gain by burning up calories. Other “polyphenol” chemicals in fruit may have a similar effect, the scientists believe.

Lead researcher Professor Min Du, from Washington State Univesity, US, said: “Polyphenols in fruit, including resveratrol, increase gene expression that enhances the oxidation of dietary fats so the body won’t be overloaded. They convert white fat into beige fat which burns lipids (fats) off as heat, helping to keep the body in balance and prevent obesity and metabolic dysfunction. We are using resveratrol as a representative for all the polyphenols.”

Research shows a glass of wine could be good for you

Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, grapes and apples are especially rich in the compounds, he said. Twelve ounces amounts to about two or three servings.

Red wines such as merlot or cabinet sauvignon are known to contain resveratrol, but at a fraction of the levels found in grapes, Prof Du pointed out. “Many of the beneficial polyphenos are insoluble and get filtered out during the wine production process,” he said.

wine animated GIF

The findings are reported in the International Journal of Obesity.

This cognitive sciences professor proves that reality is an illusion. Here’s the ‘truth’

The idea is simple yet almost unfathomable.  Everything in reality we see is just what our brains are programmed to interpret reality as.  The computer or phone screen you are looking at right now only appears and feels the way it does because that is the best way for out brains to understand what it actually is.

Confused? Professor Donald Hoffman at the University of California, Irvine offers a helpful metaphor for wrapping your head around the concept.  Imagine a folder on the desktop of your computer.  In that folder you know there are files, but you know that folder itself is not the files.  It is simply a visual representation of where and what the files are.  So in that same sense, he suggests that every object we see is simply a representation of true reality, just like the folder.

Listen to the video discussion. URL:https://youtu.be/oYp5XuGYqqY