This Hyperloop firm has yet to attempt a test run – but it’s already working on the app


Its rival, Hyperloop One, may have stolen a march in testing, but Hyperloop Transportation Technologies’ preparations for high-speed travel include advanced consumer software.

hyperloop.jpg
A depiction of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies’ supersonic travel system.

In a 2013 proposal, Tesla and SpaceX boss Elon Musk outlined a Hyperloop transport system that would cut the journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco to 35 minutes.

Transport pods would carry passengers or vehicles through low-pressure tubes at speeds of up to 760mph, or 1,220kph, with Musk envisaging “air bearings” to keep the pods suspended at high speeds, and deployable wheels for low speeds.

Private companies are now working on bringing the Hyperloop concept to market, and Musk started an ongoing Hyperloop design competition last year.

But Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, one of two private companies working to bring the Hyperloop concept to reality, has also decided to allocate resources to developing consumer travel software, even though it has yet to execute a successful testrun of its Hyperloop system.

Elon Musk's Hyperloop: Here's the Dutch team with designs on supersonic train concept

Engineers from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands are taking tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Hyperloop travel idea very seriously.

The Hyperloop Passenger App, the working title of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies’ software platform, will form the backbone of a suite of travel applications in a forthcoming Hyperloop Marketplace.

This marketplace will comprise a collection of local and international travel-service applications, such as on-demand car services and airline companies, which will be packaged in Docker containers.

“What we’re building is the infrastructure, where you’ll be able to say, ‘I want to go here’. And then it’s connected to the vault of providers,” Hyperloop Transportation Technologies CEO Dirk Ahlborn told an audience at last month’s Amsterdam Next Web Conference Europe.

He says passengers will be able to easily install and deploy these Dockerized apps, which contain all the code needed to run themselves regardless of the operating environment, into the main passenger app.

There is no release date yet for the Hyperloop Passenger App, but the company says when it does launch, in-app advertising will provide it and the marketplace’s participants with a revenue stream.

While other travel applications exist, such as Hipmunk and Kayak, the Hyperloop Marketplace app will be a high-bandwidth computing application that will be able to receive and process millions of events per second, according to Ahlborn. He sees it as a way to enhance the entire consumer travel experience.

Despite its ambitions to reinvent the consumer travel service industry, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies appears to be making slower progress on its Hyperloop design than its main competitor, Hyperloop One.

While Hyperloop Transportation Technologies plans to build a full-scale Hyperloop test track in California’s Quay Valley, with construction starting later this year, Hyperloop One already held a public testrun of its Hyperloop system in Nevada in May.

Nevertheless, Ahlborn insists his company is not on the losing team. He founded Hyperloop Transportation Technologies in 2014 when around 100 early contributors completed a Hyperloop feasibility study, each working a minimum of 10 hours per week in exchange for stock options. Today, more than 520 people and 40 companies contribute to Ahlborn’s company.

Russia taps Hyperloop for domestic transport

A proposed project to bring Musk’s Hyperloop to Russia would cost between $12 and $13 billion.

“Those are not just guys working in a checkroom. They’re people working at Apple, NASA, SpaceX, Boeing, dedicating their time to making this happen,” he says.

Still, Ahlborn seems equally focused on the Hyperloop Marketplace. On July 6, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies will host an international hackathon, called the Digital Innovation Challenge, at Bratislava International Airport in Slovakia. The main purpose of the hackathon is to deliver new applications to the Hyperloop Marketplace.

The hackathon’s organizer, Austria-based software company Catalysts, is developing the platform for the Hyperloop Marketplace, which is based on proprietary technology that can process about one million events per second in near real time, using only 700W of power.

By attracting companies like Catalysts to the Hyperloop Marketplace, Ahlborn hopes to nurture a pool of technological knowledge that is better than the sum of its parts.

“We don’t really believe that we’re the best. We believe that if we create an ecosystem, this ecosystem will actually innovate,” Ahlborn says.

Yoga Benefits Your Brain Function and Mental Health


Low-impact exercises such as yoga have a number of benefits. Not only can it provide the physical benefits of exercise, yoga may also help stave off cognitive decline, according to a recent study of older adults with early warning signs of waning memory.

Brain Function

Story at-a-glance

  • Yoga has been shown to combat cognitive decline. In one 12-week long study, volunteers who did yoga improved memory and mood to a greater degree than those who performed conventional brain training
  • Regular yoga practice has also been shown to have a positive effect on mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and schizophrenia
  • Other health benefits from regular yoga practice include improved immune function, reduced risk for migraines and heart disease, improved sexual performance, better sleep and reduced stress

While I believe most benefit from high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for optimal health, there’s no doubt that yoga can also be beneficial. It has mental, emotional and even spiritual benefits that can be very helpful for those struggling with stress-related health problems.

Yoga can be viewed as a form of moving meditation that demands your full attention as you gently shift your body from one asana (yoga position) to another.

As you learn new ways of moving and responding to your body, your mind and emotions may shift and change as well. In a sense, you not only become more physically flexible, but your mental outlook and approach to life may gain some needed flexibility as well.

Yoga Helps Mitigate Cognitive Decline

Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that physical activity helps keep your mind sharp with age, and this goes for activities such as yoga as well. Overall, inactivity is enemy No. 1 if you seek to optimize your cognitive function. According to the New York Times:1

“There also is growing evidence that combining physical activity with meditation might intensify the benefits of both pursuits.

In an interesting study2 … people with depression who meditated before they went for a run showed greater improvements in their mood than people who did either of those activities alone.

But many people do not have the physical capacity or taste for running or other similarly vigorous activities. So for the new study … researchers … decided to test whether yoga, a relatively mild, meditative activity, could alter people’s brains and fortify their ability to think.3,4

They began by recruiting 29 middle-aged and older adults … who … were anxious about the state of their memories and who, during evaluations … were found to have mild cognitive impairment, a mental condition that can be a precursor to eventual dementia.

The volunteers also underwent a sophisticated type of brain scan that tracks how different parts of the brain communicate with one another.”

The participants were divided into two groups. One group enrolled in a brain-training program consisting of mental exercises for one hour per week. They were also asked to practice at home for 15 minutes a day.

The second group participated in a Kundalini yoga class for one hour per week. They were also taught Kirtan Kriya meditation, which involves the use of mantras and fluid hand movements. They were asked to practice this meditation at home for 15 minutes each day.

Yoga Outperforms Standard Brain Training

After 12 weeks, all subjects again underwent cognitive tests and brain scans. Overall, all participants had improved to some degree, but the yoga group not only fared slightly better on memory tests, they also reported improvements in their mood. As reported in the featured article:

“The brain scans in both groups displayed more communication now between parts of their brains involved in memory and language skills.

Those who had practiced yoga, however, also had developed more communication between parts of the brain that control attention, suggesting a greater ability now to focus and multitask.

In effect, yoga and meditation had equaled and then topped the benefits of 12 weeks of brain training. ‘We were a bit surprised by the magnitude’ of the brain effects, said Dr. Helen Lavretsky … who oversaw the study.”

Why Yoga Is so Beneficial for Your Brain

Over the years, a number of studies have honed in on the brain benefits of yoga. For example, studies have found that:

Twenty minutes of Hatha yoga improves your brain function (speed and accuracy of mental processing) to a greater degree than 20 minutes of aerobic exercise (jogging).5,6 Potential mechanisms include enhanced self-awareness and reduced stress.

Yoga helps improve mental health, including psychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety, attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia.7,8,9,10

Some of the studies suggest yoga can have a similar effect to antidepressants and psychotherapy.

Yoga helps improve teenagers’ emotional resilience and ability to manage anger. As noted by yoga educator and writer Iona Smith:11

“During adolescence, the frontal lobes of the brain (the seat of language and reason) are still being formed, leaving teens to overly rely on their amygdala (the seat of emotions) …

The brain’s malleability during adolescence marks a crucial stage in both cognitive and emotional development.

Luckily, researchers are now able to paint a clearer picture of some of the factors that allow students to thrive throughout high school and into adulthood, such as self-awareness, managing distressing emotions, empathy, and navigating relationships smoothly.

When students hone these skills, they are not only happier and healthier emotionally, but are also better able to focus on academics.”

By improving stress-related imbalances in your nervous system, yoga can help relieve a range of symptoms found in common mental health disorders.

Researchers also believe yoga can be helpful for conditions like epilepsy,chronic pain, depression, anxiety and PTSD by increasing brain chemicals like gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA).12

Other Mind-Body Benefits of Yoga

Other studies have demonstrated that regular yoga practice can impart a number of different physical, mental and emotional benefits, including the ones listed below.13,14,15,16

One explanation for yoga’s wide-ranging effects is that it actually alters genetic expression — through its beneficial effects on your mind! In fact, the relaxation response triggered by meditative practices has been shown to affect at least 2,209 genes.17

Improved immune function18 Improved sleep19,20
Reduced risk for migraines21 Lowered risk of hypertension and heart disease22,23
Lowered cortisol (stress hormone) level by down regulating hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and calming sympathetic nervous system24 Improved sexual performance and satisfaction in both sexes25,26

How Yoga Aids Weight Loss and Promotes Good Health

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, yoga has also been shown to aid weight loss. In one study,27 overweight yoga participants lost an average of 5 pounds (lbs) whereas the non-yoga group gained 13 lbs. This held true even when accounting for differences in diet. Typically, HIIT is the most effective for weight loss, and the key to its effectiveness is the intensity. So how can the effectiveness of yoga — which is the converse of HIIT in terms of intensity — be explained?

According to Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine, yoga’s benefits are related to the fact that it does the opposite of more strenuous exercise. Rather than boosting your heart rate and stimulating your nervous system, yoga puts you in a parasympathetic state that lowers both your blood pressure and heart rate, and this helps promote a positivecascade of health effects.

This makes sense if you consider the adverse biological effects of stress. By promoting systemic inflammation, chronic stress can be a factor in everything from weight gain to high blood pressure and heart disease. It’s also been shown to trigger the onset of dementia. What’s worse, stress-induced weight gain typically involves an increase in belly fat, which is the most dangerous fat for your body to accumulate as it increases your risk for cardiovascular disease.

Stress actually alters the way fat is deposited because of the specific hormones and other chemicals your body produces when you’re stressed. For example, recent research28 shows that chronic stress stimulates your body to produce betatrophin, a protein that blocks an enzyme that breaks down body fat. So by reducing stress you reduce inflammation, and along with it your risk for any number of health problems, including stubborn weight.

A 2011 review29 of published clinical studies on yoga also concluded that yoga movements stimulate skin pressure receptors that boost activity in your brain and vagus nerve, both of which influence the production and release of various hormones. As vagus nerve activity increases, the levels of stress hormones like cortisol decrease. It also triggers the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role not only in your mood, but also in appetite control and sleep patterns.

The Importance of a Comprehensive Fitness Program

Yoga and other simple restorative exercises tone and strengthen your body, increase circulation and oxygen flow, energize you for the day and help you unwind in the evening. However, studies support the use of yoga to strengthen brain function and improve common psychiatric disorders (along with many other health benefits, including pain relief and increased flexibility and strength).

I believe it’s important to incorporate a variety of exercises into your routine for optimal results. Ideally, you’ll want acomprehensive fitness program that includes HIIT and resistance training, along with flexibility- and core-building exercises like yoga. Daily non-exercise movement is also important, and simply walking more each day can go a long way toward warding off many common health problems.

Human Species on the Brink


Recently, a patient of mine died of cancer, whom I loved very much. She had a special way of enjoying life; a half, wise smile that after our many years together did not take me too seriously and reflected her deep inner strength. She taught me about joy; I will miss her always. Her husband, understanding my loss, said that it was alright, that I had done my best, that he would pray for me. He empathized more with my pain, my loss, than with his own.

This same morning, I learned of the slaughter at the Pulse. I was mourning the death of one person of a terrible, but natural disease, while at a night club, a place to celebrate life, friends and lovers in the middle of dance, were cut down. No illness, no fault, no natural process, just slaughter. My grief is barren, tiny, pathetic, in the dark light of that terror and loss.

I am devastated. With my hands, my mind and soul, I have dedicated my life to fighting the rotting, disgusting malady we call cancer. One patient, one battle. Win some. Lose an awful lot. But, always the purest fight, reaching for one more day or month or year of happiness and life. Build hope. Build families. Build a community. Small steps forward.
Then, the massacre. A greater rot. Killing in Florida. Connecticut. California. Israel. Afghanistan. Iran. France. Africa. Asia. We are so good at killing. We are much better at taking life than saving it. We could cure cancer, AIDS, hunger, poverty, but instead, we kill. It comes to us so easily. We are gifted at torture, rape, genocide, murder. Nature’s killers.
On mornings like this, while I am filling out one death certificate, but thinking of the inch-thick pile of morbid declarations on a bloody desk in Orlando, I do not know how to grieve. I spend years cherishing one life, scraping by slowly, scratching out special small moments, and in minutes, 50 are bodies on a floor. How can this possibly make sense? My deepest feeling is not sadness for those souls, but I wonder whether mankind, humanity itself, will survive. Are we a failed species?
A flower does not strangle its sister in jealously of another’s blossom. No animal drowns its young at the watering hole. Even viruses and bacteria do not consume their own. But, homo sapiens, who have the ability to build, heal and love, excel at species suicide. Man can remember the past, dream of the future, as demi-gods mold tomorrow, but they cannot tolerate the pain of memories, the fear of the future, the terror of mortality and are consumed by their own awesome power. So, they kill. Our great gift this earth is our ability to destroy it and ourselves.
As a physician, a healer, I desperately want to believe in the dream, the possibility of who we could be. So, I will mourn my patient because I loved her, as I love man. I will also mourn her because, in a small way, my pain, my loss, my prayers, might honor and hold close those who die on dance floors all over this world. Perhaps by remembering one small life and a single tiny death, the importance and beauty of each person, the possibility in peace, hope and love, we can find the path to save all of man.

We stand at the brink, a moment in time, when man will decide whether his time on this earth will end or if we will continue. Together on the dance floor. Will the sound be music or gunfire? We are Pulse.
James C. Salwitz is an oncologist who blogs at Sunrise Rounds. This post appeared on KevinMD.com.

Drop Ban on Gun Violence Research at CDC, Urges AMA


After an emotional discussion, the American Medical Association House of Delegates passed a resolution Tuesday at its annual meeting urging Congress to end the ban on gun violence research at the CDC.

“During this AMA meeting, we witnessed the worst mass shooting in U.S. history,” saidJoshua Cohen, MD, a neurologist in New York City and author of the resolution. “America is looking to its physicians for our voice on this public health crisis. We will not stand idly by and watch our fellow Americans be slaughtered by the thousands.”

Michael Lubrano, MD, an anesthesia and perioperative care resident from San Francisco and a delegate from the Resident Fellow section, noted that the AMA’s upcoming interim meeting will be held in Orlando. Since the AMA includes many LGBTQ members, he said the House might have been mourning the loss of some of its own had the tragedy occurred during that meeting. “It’s the most urgent moment in U.S. history for this country to declare this a public health crisis. Please adopt this important and timely resolution as policy.”

The resolution reads, “Resolved, that our AMA immediately make a public statement that gun violence represents a public health crisis which requires a comprehensive public health response and solution, and be it further resolved that our AMA actively lobby Congress to lift the gun violence research ban.” It was sponsored by Cohen and the New York delegation, and co-sponsored by a number of groups, including the American Academy of Family Physicians, the AMA’s Minority Affairs Section, and the AMA’s Young Physicians Section.

Dan Koretz, MD, of Ontario. N.Y., a delegate from New York state, tried to add an additional piece to the resolution decrying violence against the LGBTQ community perpetrated by jihadist terrorists, but the House of Delegates voted that his resolution was not germane.

Only one delegate, Robert Hughes, MD, an otolaryngologist in Queensbury, N.Y. and a member of the New York delegation, spoke on his own behalf against the resolution. “Yesterday, you insulted my Christianity regarding religious hospital affiliations and also the community and culture within which I live,” Hughes said, referring to another resolution urging the AMA to study the effect of religiously affiliated hospitals’ policies on access to healthcare. “Guns should not be in the first [sentence] and the second [sentence] is reaffirmation” of AMA policy.

The resolution was passed on a voice vote. After it was passed, many members of the House stood up and applauded, and a moment of silence was held in honor of the victims of Sunday’s mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando; it was the second such moment of the meeting.

Meet LiDAR: The Amazing Laser Technology That’s Helping Archaeologists Discover Lost Cities


Space lasers developed in the 1970s are being put to a brand-new use.

Archaeologists have discovered several medieval cities, buried beneath the forest floor in Cambodia: the largest is said to rival the modern Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, in size. It’s a monumental discovery, based on two major archaeological surveys of the area around Siem Reap, not far from the famous temple complex of Angkor Wat in the heartlands of the ancient Khmer culture.The Conversation

Once, an archaeologist would have spent their entire career hacking through the jungle, machete in hand, in order to map these ruins. But thanks to the clever use of airborne laser scanning technology, the entire project took just three years. Such is the incredible power of Lidar—short for “light detection and ranging”—an innovation which is causing great excitement throughout the archaeological world.

From 2012 to 2015, archaeologist Damian Evans and his team used Lidar technology, mounted on helicopters, to map some 2,230km² with an accuracy of +/- 150mm. With 16 data points measured every square metre, the researchers were not only able to pinpoint well-known monumental stone structures in exquisite detail, they also discovered the massive urban cultures which surrounded these temples, identifiable by the remains of earthworks such as mounds, canals, roads and quarries.

Lidar was first developed in the early 1970s to assist with space exploration; it was initially used on the Apollo 15 mission to map the surface of the moon. As its name suggests, the technology uses lasers to measure distance. When linked to a high precision GPS and mounted on an aerial platform, such as a plane or helicopter, it can produce a three-dimensional point cloud of the land surface below.

This technology is very exciting for archaeologists. Not only can it rapidly map huge areas of ancient landscapes, but the lasers are actually able to “see through” vegetation by multiple scans and by recording several reflections from a single pulse. By carefully choosing the correct time of year, when the leaf coverage is reduced, it is possible to record landscapes in tropical environments—a feat which ground-based archaeologists have always had great difficulty with, due to dense plant coverage and often poor GPS reception.

A DIFFERENT PICTURE

With these findings, a completely novel view of the Khmer culture is emerging, which brings into question what we know about a great many other ancient civilisations.

So far, the great tropical civilisations of the world have remained some of the most enigmatic. Although they have produced great stone monuments, archaeologists still have many unanswered questions about how they operated, where their populations lived and how large they were.

This applies not just to the Khmer of Cambodia, but to civilisations throughout southeast Asia; from Srivijaya in Sumatra, to Borobudur in Java. Similarly, in Africa, we know little about the great kingdoms of Kongo or Benin, which are still largely covered in forest.

Lidar may well help us find answers to some of these questions. Already, Lidar is beginning to enrich our understanding of Mayan civilisation, especially the extensive field systems, which were used to support large cities. In Honduras, a large number of ancient sites have been foundbelonging to a largely unknown culture. And in Amazonia, settlements and fields are now beginning to emerge from beneath the rain forest canopy, thanks to remote sensing.

These results are more than just pretty pictures of ancient sites. They have the potential to challenge our understanding of the collapse of ancient civilisations. For example, they show that many areas which were once thought to be rainforest, actually used to be cleared, and sustained significant populations. They also show that many of the great ceremonial centres which are now engulfed in foliage, were once surrounded by large cities, with populations of hundred of thousands—or even millions—of people.

In often-fragile ecosystems, reliant on a stable climate, it is now much easier to see how environmental change might have contributed to the collapse of these ancient civilisations. As a result, many ideas about the collapse of ancient societies, such as those promoted by Jared Diamond—who emphasises social, political and economic factors—may require some significant rethinking.

WHAT COST?

There are, of course, several problems with this technology. One is cost: the Cambodia survey was generously funded by the European Research Council, but access to both the equipment and the planes would be limited for most archaeologists. Some of the landscapes may be too remote to even reach by light aircraft or helicopter, or local authorities may ban such flights.

Placing Lidar technology onto drones may solve this issue in the future, but at present there have been only limited examples of their use in tropical zones. Given the scale of some of these sites, and the minimum height required (around 800m) a plane will remain the preferred method for now.

There is also the problem of ground-truthing. While these Lidar images are amazing, they do require careful interpretation and validation. Some may well show ancient features, but others may be quite modern in origin. So the archaeologist with their machete may not be entirely redundant—in fact, with this new technology at hand, they may be even more important than before.

Mark Horton does

Promising Gene Therapies Pose Million-Dollar Conundrum


Economists, investors and medical insurers can’t figure out how to pay for cutting-edge drugs

Drugs that act by modifying a patient’s genes are close to approval in the United States, and one is already available in Europe. The developments mark a triumph for the field of gene therapy, once considered controversial.

But with estimated price tags of at least US$1 million per patient, how will anyone pay for these treatments? The question is just one in a broader debate about how to finance a range of super-expensive drugs that are now available, thanks to an explosion in genetic and molecular-biology research over the past 20 years.

“Advances in science are presenting a social affordability question like never before,” says economist Mark Trusheim at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “Do we want to convert the science into therapies that we actually would have to pay for?”

Trusheim spoke at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) meeting in San Francisco, California, on June 6–9, which featured much discussion about how society will pay for the rising costs of new drugs. At the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago, Illinois, on June 3–7, dozens of talks and abstracts focused specifically on the growing cost of cancer care.Cancer drugs that unleash the power of the immune system cost up to $40,000 per year.

Gene therapies that are close to US approval include treatments for haemophilia B, sickle-cell anaemia and the neurodegenerative disease cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy. A therapy under development at Spark Therapeutics in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for a type of blindness is considered the most advanced.

Many of the treatments deliver corrective genes using a modified virus that is considered safer than vectors used in earlier attempts. But many of the target disorders are rare, limiting the population that can be treated. And there are often no previously approved drugs that work similarly, removing the pressure on companies to lower their prices.

Such therapies could cost $1 million per patient, estimate haematologist Stuart Orkin of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massa­chusetts, and Philip Reilly, an investor with Third Rock Ventures in Boston (S. H. Orkin and P. Reilly Science 352, 1059–1061; 2016). Reilly co-founded Cambridge-based Bluebird Bio, which is working on several of the gene therapies that are close to market.

That’s the same price as Glybera, the gene therapy given the green light by European regulators in 2012, which has been taken by only one person so far. Experts attribute this low uptake to the high price and to doubts about its efficacy. If newer gene therapies are to do better, they will have to produce convincing data that they are worth the money, Trusheim says.

For medicines that are already approved, one increasingly popular solution is a deal between insurers and drug companies that ties payments to how well medicines perform. Last November, for example, Boston-based Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, a major New England insurer, announced that it will cover treatment for its clients with Repatha (evolocumab), one of a new class of cholesterol-lowering medication that is made by Amgen and costs $14,000. But if patients don’t reach pre-agreed cholesterol levels, or if Harvard Pilgrim ends up paying more than it has budgeted for, Amgen will refund the insurer.

Networks set up by insurance companies to gather and share data from health centres make such deals possible, says Michael Sherman, chief medical officer at Harvard Pilgrim. And they are on the rise around the world: one study found ‘pay-for-performance’ deals across 14 countries in 2013, predominantly in Europe and the United States, but also in middle-income countries such as China and Brazil.

These deals may work for some conditions, such as haemophilia B, for which several drugs might be approved. But for others, such as adrenoleukodystrophy, only one company is developing a product, so there won’t be the incentive for companies to negotiate, Trusheim says.

At the BIO meeting, investors and economists discussed a range of alternative solutions, including the medical equivalent of a mortgage or annuity, in which insurance companies or governments might spread the cost of a one-time treatment over many years, as long as a patient continues to benefit from it. One complication of such arrangements in the United States is that patients often move between insurers, so it is unclear who would continue to make these payments on a patient’s behalf.

The difficulties of paying for the fruits of the biotechnology revolution are something that governments are already struggling with. The state of Arkansas last year settled a lawsuit filed by three people who said they had been denied access to the $300,000 cystic fibrosis drug Kalydeco (ivacaftor) because of the cost. And in April, the Japanese government imposed a 50% price cut on a new hepatitis C treatment, Sovaldi (sofosbuvir). A US federal judge in Seattle, Washington, ruled on May 27 that states cannot delay treatment with Sovaldi, which costs up to $84,000, because of price concerns.

But those working on gene therapy are confident that a solution is out there. “Let’s say that a gene therapy that really made a world of difference in the life of a small child should cost a million dollars for one event,” Reilly says. “I can think of many things in medicine that cost that much or more, and we don’t think twice about that.”

Fossils Hint at Long-Sought Ancestor of Weirdest Human Species


700,000-year-old remains from Indonesia could elucidate the murky origins of the “hobbits” in our family tree

 
Skull of an anatomically modern human (right) dwarfs the H. floresiensis skull from the site of Liang Bua on Flores (left). The area highlighted in blue shows the area of jaw anatomy preserved in the new jaw fossil from Mata Menge.  

It is often said that every family has that one weird relative. Among the species that make up the human family, that relative is surely Homo floresiensis. Nicknamed the hobbit, this creature stood just over a meter tall with short legs, big feet and a tiny brain the size of a grapefruit—all primitive traits associated with human ancestors from millions of years ago. Yet H. floresiensis lived on the island of Flores in Indonesia as recently as 60,000 years ago, by which point human species with modern body and brain proportions—including Homo sapiens and Neandertals—were well established elsewhere in the world.

How did the Flores hobbits come to have their out-of-time features? Scientists have been puzzling over this question ever since the bizarre remains, found in a cave called Liang Bua in western Flores, were unveiled in 2004. Now new finds have emerged from another site on the island. Their discoverers say these fossils, which date to 700,000 years ago, illuminate the hobbits’ mysterious origin. But other researchers are not so sure.

Homo floresiensis is a mini human species that lived on the island of Flores in Indonesia as recently as 60,000 years ago. Reconstruction by Atelier Elisabeth Daynes. 

To date, paleoanthropologists have focused mainly on two competing hypotheses about how H. floresiensisevolved. The first holds that it descended from Homo erectus, a taller, larger-brained species that was the first member of the human family to spread out of Africa into other parts of the world. In this scenario the diminutive body and brain ofH. floresiensis evolved after its ancestor reached Flores, as adaptations to the limited food available on the island. Such dwarfing is well known in other large mammal species that colonize islands, including members of the elephant family, but had never before been documented in humans.

The second explanation posits that H. floresiensis descended from a more primitive ancestor that itself had a small body and brain, possibly Homo habilis or a member of the genus Australopithecus. In this scenario, H. floresiensis would have already been small when it arrived on Flores, retaining those primitive features—as well as others found in the arm, wrist, hand and foot—from its direct ancestor. But ancestors that primitive have never been discovered outside of Africa.

A third scenario, advanced by a small but vocal minority, is that the remains do not represent a distinct species at all but instead belong to H. sapiens individuals who had some kind of developmental disorder.

The absence of any human fossils from Flores that are older than the Liang Bua remains has hampered efforts to test these hypotheses—until now. In a pair of papers published in the June 9 Nature, Gerrit van den Bergh and Adam Brumm of the University of Wollongong in Australia and their colleagues announced their discovery of a collection of human fossils from a site in central Flores called Mata Menge that date to 700,000 years ago. The researchers have provisionally assigned the fossils—a piece of a small lower jaw and six small isolated teeth from at least three individuals—to H. floresiensis and suggest that they represent the direct ancestor of the Liang Bua hobbits.

Researchers have recovered a piece of lower jaw (above) and several teeth from the site of Mata Menge on Flores. The remains date to 700,000 years ago and are as small as those of the much younger H. floresiensis remains found at the site of Liang Bua. 

Analysis of the new jaw and teeth showed that they are similar in size and shape to their counterparts from Liang Bua, albeit less specialized in several respects, which is what one would expect to see in an ancestral hobbit. The authors note that other evidence from Mata Menge and Liang Bua support this close connection between the two groups: The simple stone tools at both sites are remarkably similar, too. The team also compared the Mata Menge jaw and teeth with those of other human species, including Australopithecus and H. habilis, and concluded that on the whole their find was more derived than those species, with features that call to mind H. erectus. Thus, they argue, their results support the hypothesis that H. floresiensis is a dwarfed descendant of H. erectusrather than a scion of a more primitive human ancestor.

The Mata Menge remains hint that this dwarfing occurred surprisingly quickly. The oldest known evidence of humans on Flores—a collection of stone tools from a site called Wolo Sege—date to around a million years ago. No human remains have turned up in association with those ancient tools, but if they were made by the big ancestor of the tiny Mata Menge people that lived 700,000 years ago, then the hobbits’ small body size may have evolved within perhaps just 300,000 years. That rapid diminution stands in sharp contrast to an evolutionary trend seen in other human fossils from the Pleistocene epoch, which spanned the time from around 2.6 million to 11,600 years ago. “Human body and brain size increased in the Pleistocene, but Flores shows that it was not unidirectional,” Van den Bergh said during a press teleconference on June 6.

Animal fossils found at the site show that the Mata Menge humans lived in a savannalike habitat with grasslands and fresh water nearby. Rodents, crocodiles, elephant relatives called stegodonts, Komodo dragons and an array of birds shared their world. Whether the pint-size people might have eaten any of these creatures is unknown; their stone tools would have enabled butchery, but the researchers did not find cut marks on any of the animal bones.

Paleoanthropologists not involved in the new discovery call the finds exciting and important. “They have made a very strong case” for a link between the Mata Menge fossils and the remains from Liang Bua, comments Fred Grine of Stony Brook University, S.U.N.Y., an expert on early human teeth. He notes that the small size of the new specimens would be enough to suggest such a relationship; the shape similarities strengthen the claim. Grine shares the team’s view that the remains support the notion that H. floresiensis is a dwarfed descendant of H. erectus. He adds that the new fossils kill the notion that the hobbits were merely diseased H. sapiens individuals. It is “difficult to argue this with another substantially older site now preserving the same type of material,” he explains.

Molar and incisor teeth are among the Mata Menge finds. 

But other experts have reservations about the team’s claims. Shara Bailey of New York University, who also specializes in fossil human teeth, says that nothing about the Mata Menge specimens ties them to H. floresiensisfrom Liang Bua apart from possibly the small size of the lower jaw. The shape characteristics of the Mata Menge teeth do not demonstrate a link, she contends, although they do not preclude such a link either. Bailey adds that the discovery of a lower third premolar (P3 in the parlance of anatomists) at Mata Menge could help settle the matter, because that tooth has a very distinctive shape in H. floresiensis from Liang Bua. “If they found a lower P3 that closely resembled the P3 of [Liang Bua], then I would be convinced,” she says.

Adam van Arsdale of Wellesley College, who specializes in fossil human jaws, expresses similar doubts about the argument that the Mata Menge remains represent the direct ancestor of the Liang Bua hobbits. “I am skeptical that the morphology of the specimens they have is sufficient to truly exclude specific relationships between the Mata Menge material and other Pleistocene [human] lineages,” he says. That is, the new finds are not diagnostic enough to rule out alternative possibilities for where they belong in the human family tree.

More definitive fossils may come. “The search is ongoing,” Brumm remarked in the press teleconference. He and his colleagues are now excavating sediments at Mata Menge dating to 900,000 years ago as well as other, earlier sites in the Soa Basin region of Flores. Topping his wish list: “legs and arms, wrists and feet, which are where the really curious features of floresiensis appear.”

How a Transgender Woman Could Get Pregnant


The uncharted territory of uterus transplants is sparking patients’ interest, but surgeons and endocrinologists remain wary.

When Mats Brännström first dreamed of performing uterus transplants, he envisioned helping women who were born without the organ or had to have hysterectomies. He wanted to give them a chance at birthing their own children, especially in countries like his native Sweden where surrogacy is illegal.

He auditioned the procedure in female rodents. Then he moved on to sheep and baboons. Two years ago, in a medical first, he managed to help a human womb–transplant patient deliver her own baby boy. In other patients, four more babies followed.

But his monumental feats have had an unintended effect: igniting hopes among some transwomen (those whose birth certificates read “male” but who identify as female) that they might one day carry their own children.

Cecile Unger, a specialist in female pelvic medicine at Cleveland Clinic, says several of the roughly 40 male-to-female transgender patients she saw in the past year have asked her about uterine transplants. One patient, she says, asked if she should wait to have her sex reassignment surgery until she could have a uterine transplant at the same time. (Unger’s advice was no.) Marci Bowers, a gynecological surgeon in northern California at Mills–Peninsula Medical Center, says that a handful of her male-to-female patients—“fewer than 5 percent”— ask about transplants. Boston Medical Center endocrinologist Joshua Safer says he, too, has fielded such requests among a small number of his transgender patients. With each patient, the subsequent conversations were an exercise in tamping down expectations.

To date there are no hard answers about whether such a fantastical-sounding procedure could enable a transwoman to carry a child. The operation has not been explored in animal trials, let alone in humans. Yet with six planned uterine transplant clinical trials among natal female patients across the U.S. and Europe reproductive researchers are hoping to become more comfortable with the surgery in the coming years. A string of successes could set a precedent that—along with patient interest—may crack open the door for other applications, including helping transwomen. “A lot of this work [in women] is intended to go down that road but no one is talking about that,” says Mark Sauer, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University.

Such a future is hard to imagine, at least in the near term. The surgery is still very experimental, even among natal women. Just over a dozen uterus transplants have been performed so far—with mixed results. One day after the first U.S. attempt, for example, the 26-year-old Cleveland Clinic patient had to have the transplanted organ removed due to complications. And only the Brännström group’s procedures have led to babies. More efforts are expected in the United States: Cleveland Clinic, Baylor University Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the University of Nebraska Medical Center are all registered to perform small pilot trials with female patients who are hoping to carry their own children.

A RISKY PROSPECT

The trouble is that uterine transplants are extremely complex and resource-intensive, requiring dozens of health personnel and careful coordination. First a uterus and its accompanying veins and arteries must be removed from a donor, either a living volunteer or a cadaver. Then the organ must be quickly implanted and must function correctly—ultimately producing menstruation in its recipient. If the patient does not have further complications, a year later a doctor may then implant an embryo created via in vitro fertilization. The resulting baby would have to be born through cesarean section—as a safety precaution to limit stress on the transplanted organ, and because the patient cannot feel labor contractions (nerves are not transplanted with the uterus). Following the transplant and throughout the pregnancy the patient has to take powerful antirejection drugs that come with the risk of problematic side effects.

The dynamic process of pregnancy also requires much more than simply having a womb to host a fetus, so the hurdles would be even greater for a transwoman. To support a fetus through pregnancy a transgender recipient would also need the right hormonal milieu and the vasculature to feed the uterus, along with a vagina. For individuals who are willing to take these extreme steps, reproductive specialists say such a breakthrough could be theoretically possible—just not easy.

Here is how it could work: First, a patient would likely need castration surgery and high doses of exogenous hormones because high levels of male sex hormones, called androgens, could threaten pregnancy. (Although hormone treatments can be powerful, patients would likely need to be castrated because the therapy might not be enough to maintain the pregnancy among patients with testes.) The patient would also need surgery to create a “neovagina” that would be connected to the transplant uterus, to shed menses and give doctors access to the uterus for follow-up care.

A small number of surgeons already have experience creating artificial vaginas and connecting them to uterine transplants. Most of Brännström’s transplant patients have been women with a condition called Rokitansky syndrome, and as a result they lack the upper part of the vagina and had to have a neovagina surgically made—typically by extending the lower vagina. Separately, surgeons that specialize in working with transwomen also often create neovaginas after castration, using skin from the penis and the scrotum.

BIOLOGICAL CONNECTION

Even if the hormonal and anatomical challenges are overcome, for someone who was born producing sperm instead of eggs there would be one more hurdle: Before castration that person’s sperm must be collected and combined with a donor’s or partner’s egg to make an embryo via in vitro fertilization, and that embryo would have to be frozen until the transplant patient is ready. If the embryo is successfully implanted, the transwoman would then naturally produce the placenta required to sustain the pregnancy and begin to lactate in preparation for breast-feeding, Cleveland Clinic’s Unger says.

Experts disagree about what would be the biggest barrier to pulling off these theoretical transplants and pregnancies. Giuliano Testa, a transplant surgeon at Baylor University Medical Center who will soon be directing uterine transplant surgeries among natal women, says the hormones would likely prove the biggest obstacle. “It would really be a feat of unknown proportions,” Testa says. “I would never do this.” But he concedes the transplants are not out of the question. “At the end of the day it is two arteries and two veins that are connected with fine surgical techniques.”

Unger—who is not involved in Cleveland Clinic’s uterine transplant team trial—worries about a consistent and ample blood flow to the fetus. Bowers, who is transgender herself, says she is concerned about dangers to the fetus from a potentially unstable biological environment and unforeseen risks for the mother-to-be. “I respect reproduction and I don’t think we will ever see this in my lifetime in a transgender woman,” she says. “That’s what I tell my patients.”

Costs and ethics also pose significant barriers. Many transgender patients have already been saving for years to pay for male-to-female genital surgery— which can cost around $24,000 without insurance coverage—so a uterine transplant could be out of financial reach, Unger says. And some doctors working on the frontlines with transgender patients have expressed concerns about the ethics involved in the risks. Sauer, the gynecologist from Columbia, says that with options including surrogacy and adoption available in many locations, an experimental surgery to help patients give birth—not save their lives—seems like a huge risk. Safer, medical director for the Center of Transgender Medicine and Surgery at Boston Medical Center, agrees. “If you are going to die without a transplant, of course you take [antirejection] drugs. But this is not the case here,” he says. “This is not life and death.”

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s Ethics Committee is already discussing how uterine transplants could be prioritized, says Sauer, who is a member of that panel. Yet there is no discussion yet about how transgender candidates would be included in the mix. Additionally, it is unclear how demand for a uterus would be weighed by a hospital or an organization like the United Network for Organ Sharing.

Yet interest in uterine transplants is growing: Brännström, the Swedish surgeon who led the prior transplant work among women, says his inbox is now inundated with messages from less-traditional patients. “I get e-mails from all over the world on this, sometimes from gay males with one partner that would like to carry a child,” he says. Brännström does not plan to perform such procedures himself—instead he wants to focus on women who were born without a uterus or lost it due to cancer or another illness. The next natural step for those interested in assisting transgender or male patients, however, would likely be tackling this procedure among women with a rare condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome, he says. A person with AIS appears largely female, but has no uterus and is genetically male.

Amid these complex discussions there is one bright spot, the relative ease of finding the organs. Already one group has proved rich in willing donors: people who are transitioning from female to male and have also decided to have their uteruses removed. Unger says among her female-to-male patients, “one in three” have asked if they could donate the organs. Because there is no protocol set up to deal with these offers (Cleveland Clinic’s trial uses cadaver uteruses), they are currently turned down. Such potential donors may seem ideal because they are not pursuing a hysterectomy due to disease. But a major catch is the medical risk they face: A standard hysterectomy takes between a half-hour and an hour, but preparing a uterus and its associated blood vessels for transplant would keep such patients under the knife for as long as 10 or 11 hours. Clearly, the ethics of such donations would have to be studied extensively, Unger says. Like uterine transplants for transgender patients, this is all uncharted territory.

Smart Stent Monitors Arterial Healing


Researchers in France are developing a new smart, connected stent containing sensors that can non-invasively monitor how an artery heals after stent implantation. The sensors can analyze whether the stent is becoming covered with too many smooth muscle cells, which can lead to potentially fatal restenosis, or if blood clots are forming on the device, which can lead to a fresh heart attack. The sensors will wirelessly transmit their data to the outside world so that it can be consulted by both patients and their doctors.

The two leading cardiovascular killers today are coronary heart disease and stroke. Both occur when endothelial cells, which line the artery wall, start to chronically dysfunction. The arterial wall thickens (known as arthrosclerosis) and the artery itself may eventually become blocked entirely.

Coronary stents are the main way of treating this problem. These mesh-like scaffolds, usually made of metal, are threaded into blocked arteries and the structures are then expanded, generally by inflating a balloon inside the stent, to hold the vessel open.

 

Stent can help observe endothelial damage. The animation shows how the stent is inserted into an artery and the arterial wall with its endothelial cells can be clearly seen. Credit: Courtesy of A.Barakat

ANTI-COAGULANTS, YES, BUT FOR HOW LONG?

The problem is that when a stent is placed in an artery, it damages the arterial wall (and in particular, completely obliterates the endothelial layer). One of the consequences is that blood coagulates on the surface of the stent. Clots formed during this process can lead to the opposite of what is intended – that is, a new heart attack or stroke.

To overcome this problem, patients are given anti-coagulants but it is difficult to know how long to prescribe this medication. Some patients heal within a matter of weeks, while others (especially very old patients) can take years to do so. And worryingly, during treatment, the patient cannot undergo any other surgical or dental procedure.

ENTER CONNECTED STENTS

“The connected stents could come into their own here,” explains Abdul Barakat, professor at the Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau near Paris and holder of the AXA Chair for Cardiovascular Engineering, who is helping to develop the devices in collaboration withInstent, a start-up created in 2014 with his former PhD student Franz Bozsak. “The stents contain electronic sensors that can send information as to how quickly the artery is healing, so a doctor can stop the anti-coagulants at the right time.”

The sensors, which can be made from metals or other materials, are powered by induction (think of your bus or train pass, which works by swiping it across a magnetic support) and are placed on the different struts on the stent, which are roughly 80 μm thick. They measure around 50 μm x 50 μm x 10 μm and are embedded in a biocompatible 10 μm-thick film.

SENDING THE APPROPRIATE SIGNAL

When covered with arterial tissue, the sensors can distinguish between three different possible scenarios and send the appropriate signal. The first, as mentioned above, is thrombosis, or blood clotting. The second is normal arterial wall healing, which is characterized by the stent being covered with new endothelial cells. The third is restenosis, or the uncontrolled proliferation of smooth muscle cells on the stent that can re-block the artery.

“The key thing for us is to be able to establish whether the sensors are covered with endothelial cells, smooth muscle cells, a blood clot or nothing,” says Barakat. “In vitroexperiments, and preliminary in vivo testing in pigs, indeed show that different signals are sent depending on the type of situation present and that the signals are sufficiently different to be distinguished.”

TOWARDS A BETTER STENT DESIGN

Beyond continuous stent follow-up, the data produced by the sensors will also be important for understanding which stent types and designs work best for particular patients, he adds. “This ‘big data/machine learning’ aspect of our work will help us to move towards a patient-specific approach to stenting – something that is lacking right now. Ultimately, we may even be able to design better stents and move away from designs that cause the most problems.

Instent now has seven employees and its mission is to get these smart connected devices to the patient, ideally by integrating the biocompatible film that goes on the stent and the associated wireless communication system with existing stents of large manufacturers. We hope to have a fully operational prototype by the end of this year and the first clinical trials in humans could start in 2018. If all goes to plan, patients could see the first connected stents by the end of this decade.”

The approach is so promising that Ulrich Sigwart, one of the first physicians to have implanted stents into patients and who is now honorary professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, has decided to invest in the new project himself. “Stents have fundamentally changed the way that patients with coronary heart disease and other arterial diseases can be treated without major surgery,” he says. “Up to now, there was only one way of finding out how the body had accepted the implant, and this was in an invasive way. What is more, the duration of drug treatment to inhibit thrombosis was vaguely defined. I find the concept of monitoring proper endothelialization of stents from the outside most attractive as it allows us to keep an eye on such implants so that we can make clinical decision without bothering the patient.”

 

Deploying the sensor on the stent. The stent wire, monitoring system and drug layer can be clearly seen in the blow-up.

A CONNECTED FUTURE

The new stents follow the trend for connected medical devices in general, and we need to prepare ourselves in the best way possible for this new era, says Barakat. There is huge promise, but we need to be conscientious and responsible. Patient privacy is crucial and the data from these technologies will need to be protected.

Gravitational Wave Observatory Finds More Colliding Black Holes


The second confirmation of ripples in spacetime is announced by astronomers at LIGO.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has spotted its second set of spacetime ripples, in this case coming from colliding black holes 14 and eight times the mass of the sun. 

Gravitational waves have struck again. Scientists who in February announced their landmark discovery of these ripples in spacetime revealed on Wednesday that they had detected more—again caused by a pair of crashing black holes. The gargantuan gravitational forces involved when two such incredibly dense objects ram into each other are so catastrophic that they wrench spacetime out of shape, curving it in powerful waves that travel clear across the cosmos. This second find shows that the initial discovery was not a rare windfall, but rather a preview of many more to come, ushering in an era where astronomers can use gravitational waves, rather than light, to “see” black holes and other invisible components of the hidden universe.

These waves were predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity but were never directly detected until the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) team observed them last September. Their sequel discovery stokes physicists’ hopes that they will soon collect enough findings to study the frequency of black hole fender benders and how they originate. More discoveries will also help researchers use gravitational waves to test relativity in extreme environments—possibly confirming the theory or even pointing to a deeper law of nature.

“Our intent was not to just detect the first gravitational wave or prove Einstein right or wrong—it’s to create an observatory,” says LIGO spokesperson Gabriela González of Louisiana State University. “Now we can really say the goal of LIGO has been justified.” The discovery, accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters, is the second firm detection from LIGO; the team also encountered one “candidate” event that was too weak to confirm, and had reported it in February along with the first conclusive finding. LIGO’s success so far is a good indication that it will be able to find gravitational waves at a steady clip. “It allows us to explore literally the dark side of the universe,” says Arizona State University theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, who is not involved in LIGO. “Gravitational-wave astronomy will become the astronomy of the 21st century.”

SMALLER BLACK HOLES

The newfound gravitational waves began about 1.4 billion years ago in the merger of two black holes—one about 14 times and the other about eight times the mass of the sun—that had gradually circled closer and closer to each other and eventually smashed together, according to scientists’ calculations. The crash produced a new black hole containing 21 times the mass of the sun—the missing mass from the parent black holes was converted to energy in the form of gravitational waves. Compared with LIGO’s first detection, which came from two larger colliding black holes (each roughly 30 solar masses), this merger created gravitational waves of a higher frequency that were “visible” longer than those involved in the initial discovery. In that case, scientists witnessed just one or two orbits of the black holes around each other but here they were able to track the objects’ final 27 orbits before they crashed. “That allows for better tests of general relativity and better characterization of the black holes’ parameters,” González says.

This time the researchers were also able to measure the black holes’ spin rates and found that at least the larger one was definitely twirling, likely at some 20 percent of the maximum theoretical spin for a black hole. “With the first detection it looked like the two black holes could be non-spinning,” says LIGO team member Vicky Kalogera of Northwestern University, “so this is a new finding.”

The gravitational waves announced Wednesday reached LIGO on December 26, 2015—just under three months after the observatory saw its first signal on September 14. LIGO uses two detectors—one in Louisiana and the other in Washington State—to capture the squeezing and expanding of spacetime that occurs when a gravitational wave passes through Earth. Both detectors are giant L shapes with four-kilometer-long legs. Scientists use mirrors to bounce laser beams back and forth through the legs and measure how long it takes to make the trip. Under normal circumstances the two legs are the same length and the travel times of the two light beams are exactly the same duration. But if a gravitational wave passes, the space between the mirrors will expand and contract minutely in one direction and the two perpendicular legs will briefly have unequal lengths, causing one of the laser beams to arrive a fraction of a second later than the other.

Advanced LIGO has made two confirmed gravitational wave detections and seen one candidate event during its initial run from September 2015 to January 2016. A second run is due to start later this year. Credit: LIGO

The change is infinitesimal—LIGO must be able to measure a difference in length smaller than one ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton in order to detect the waves. The $1-billion experiment, now officially called Advanced LIGO, is an upgraded version of a project that has been in the making since the 1960s and was first turned on in 2002. Its initial discovery earlier this year electrified the science community as well as the public and won the experiment’s founders the 2016 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics and a Breakthrough Prize as well as many other accolades. It has inspired dozens of follow-up theoretical papers analyzing all aspects of the discovery, from explorations of a possible connection between the black holes and dark matter to a discussion of whether they were not black holes at all, but wormholes. “The most interesting work was done outside of LIGO,” says LIGO team member Szabolcs Márka of Columbia University. “That’s how science should work.”

AFTER THE DAWN OF GRAVITATIONAL ASTRONOMY

Advanced LIGO has now completed its initial run of observations, which lasted from September through January. Its detectors are currently offline for upgrades, and scientists plan a test run in July. If that goes well, a second live run lasting about six months could start in the late summer. Meanwhile researchers continue to analyze the data from the first run. In addition to black hole collisions, physicists hope to find gravitational waves produced by neutron stars—the extremely small and dense hulks of former stars in which all the protons and electrons have been crammed so tightly that they essentially merge to form neutrons. If two neutron stars crashed together, they would theoretically trigger gravitational waves, which could also result from one spinning neutron star that is a bit lopsided, possibly with a protrusion on one side. “That’s not an explosive event like the collision of black holes—it would produce gravitational waves that are much fainter,” says Georgia Institute of Technology physicist Laura Cadonati, who chairs the LIGO Data Analysis Council. “That’s a long-term search—it takes time—that’s still being run now.”

As the team gathers more data, the researchers hope to be able to learn more about how black hole binary pairs originate. Perhaps most come from stars that were originally in pairs and then died, becoming black holes that stayed in orbit around each other. Another scenario suggests that binaries are born in tight stellar clusters, when black holes that might have started off as single stars before they died get caught up in each other’s gravity. “This is my primary interest—can we tell how these binary black holes actually form in reality?” Kalogera asks. “Is there one of these mechanisms dominating or is it more of a mixture?”

And the more gravitational waves LIGO finds, the better it can test whether they seem to fit predictions from general relativity. Although most scientists expect they likely will—after all, the theory has passed every test thrown at it so far—physicists would love to see some kind of deviation from relativity that points to a subtler truth about the universe. Such a discrepancy might provide a clue that helps devise a theory of gravity compatible with quantum mechanics, the current reigning rules of the microscopic realm. “So far we have found no inconsistencies with general relativity,” Cadonati says, “but if we start seeing anomalies—which can only come with higher statistics—we may start exploring beyond general relativity.”

In any case, scientists hope LIGO’s first two findings are just the beginning of a long and productive future for the experiment. “Three generations have already worked on this,” Márka says, “and there will be three generations more at least. We are only in the middle. Isn’t that gorgeous?”

%d bloggers like this: