Earth’s continents are constantly in motion, and by running the tape forwards and backwards we can figure out where they were in the past – and where they might go in the future

75 million years ago, North America was split in two (Credit: Stocktrek Images Inc/Alamy)

Science calls it “Pangaea Proxima”. You might prefer to call it the Next Big Thing. A supercontinent is on its way that incorporates all of Earth’s major landmasses, meaning you could walk from Australia to Alaska, or Patagonia to Scandinavia. But it will be about 250 million years in the making.

For Christopher Scotese at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, the fact that our continents are not stationary is tantalising. How were they arranged in the past – and how will they be positioned in the future?

“Fifty million years from now, Australia will be in collision with southeast Asia to a much larger degree,” he says. Africa will also be pushing right up against southern Europe, while the Atlantic will be a far wider ocean than it is today.

To visualise all of these details, Scotese has produced an animation illustrating his predictions as time elapses.

However, he admits that projections for the period beyond 50 million years in the future – which include his Pangaea Proxima prediction – are “very speculative”.

Earth’s continents rest on a system of plates and these move at differing speeds. Some travel about 1.2in (30mm) per year while others might move at five times that rate. These are roughly the speeds at which human fingernails and hair grow, respectively.

These days, plate motion is tracked with satellite positioning instruments embedded into the ground. But we knew that plates moved long before such technology was invented. How? How did we ever realise that we were standing on huge, shifting plates, given that they move so slowly and are so massive?

Iceland sits on the divide between two plates (Credit: M. Timothy O'Keefe/Alamy)

Iceland sits on the divide between two plates

The idea that the continents moved around dates back centuries, but the first time anyone produced any serious evidence in favour of the idea was 100 years ago. That someone was German geophysicist Alfred Wegener.

For many geologists, continental drift was a crackpot idea with little hard evidence

He noticed remarkable similarities between the fossilised plants and animals found on continents that were separated by vast oceans. This suggested to him that those continents were connected when those now fossilised species were alive.

What’s more, when Wegener looked at his maps, he could clearly see that South America and Africa were like two giant puzzle pieces – they fit together. Could that really just be coincidence, or were they connected millions of years ago, only to drift apart?

That was the essence of Wegener’s theory: continental drift. But few people liked it.

In fact, for many geologists, continental drift was a crackpot idea with little hard evidence. How exactly could massive continents move?

Africa and South America fit suspiciously neatly (Credit: Illustration Works/Alamy)

Africa and South America fit suspiciously neatly

Wegener could not provide a satisfactory explanation. He died in 1930. But his idea lived on, and 20 years later, his vindication would begin.

South America and Africa were like two giant puzzle pieces – they fit together

The crucial secrets that would unlock the truth of his theory were not to be found on those moving continents. They were all hidden under the sea.

Marie Tharp was one of the first people to realise that mountain ranges and huge valleys were not just features found on land, but under the oceans as well. In the early 1950s Tharp helped to map a gigantic submarine mountain range, thousands of kilometres long but only a few kilometres wide, zigzagging right down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Similar ranges lie beneath the waves of other oceans. They have since been named “mid-ocean ridges” – and their discovery helped turn the tide of thought on how the Earth’s surface had formed.

The ocean floor is dotted with mountain ranges (Credit: The Protected Art Archive/Alamy)

The ocean floor is dotted with mountain ranges (Credit: The Protected Art Archive/Alamy)

Harry Hess, an American geologist and submarine commander in World War Two, recognised the potential significance of the mid-ocean ridges.

This sideways movement of rock… could ultimately explain why the continents themselves moved

During the war, Hess had used sonar to map some areas of the ocean floor in detail. He had found it to be far from the flat, featureless landscape most geologists had assumed it to be.

The discovery of mid-ocean ridges fit with an idea he was developing – namely that the ocean floor is constantly, but very slowly, renewing itself. He suggested that hot magma welled up along the mid-ocean ridges and cooled into rock. Then, as more hot magma welled up at the ridge, the cool rock was pushed down the ridge flanks to make room.

This sideways movement of rock, perpendicular to the mid-ocean ridges, could ultimately explain why the continents themselves moved. They were being pushed around by the upwelling of magma along the mid-ocean ridges.

His theory became known as “seafloor spreading”. But still, other geologists were sceptical. Other features under the sea were providing more clues, though, and gradually turning the tide of opinion in Hess’s favour.

It was, simply, the best evidence yet of a driving force that could shift continents

Many rocks on Earth contain magnetic minerals. Before these rocks solidified from magma, those minerals could spin around like tiny compass needles and align themselves with the Earth’s magnetic field. Upon cooling, the “compass needles” became frozen in place.

Canadian geologist Lawrence Morley and British geologists Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews realised that this alignment process provided more evidence for seafloor spreading.

Every so often the Earth’s magnetic field flips: our compass needles would point towards Antarctica rather than the Arctic. That flipping process showed up in the rocks that make up the very fabric of the seabed. It was “striped”, laid out in bars of normal and reverse polarity that lay parallel to the mid-ocean ridge.

Magnetic anomalies on the seabed (Credit: Universal Images Group North America LLC/Alamy)

Magnetic anomalies on the seabed

The best way to explain this was through seafloor spreading.

The plates are like little bits of crust on top of the soup

The magnetic minerals in hot lava at a mid-ocean ridge are aligned to the Earth’s magnetic field, and then frozen when the lava cools. As rock is formed and then moves down the flanks and away from the ridge, it preserves a record of the changes in Earth’s magnetic field over tens of thousands of years. The study of these records is called “palaeomagnetism”.

The idea also explained why the stripes on each side of the ridge were generally exact mirror images of each other. Rock usually trundles away from both sides of the mid-ocean ridge at the same rate.

It was, simply, the best evidence yet of a driving force that could shift continents. Geologists now accept that Hess – and Wegener before him – were right to envisage Earth’s geography as constantly in motion.

The boundary between two continental plates (Credit: Photo Researchers Inc/Alamy)

The boundary between two continental plates

“It’s like a big soup cauldron,” says Susan Hough, a seismologist at the US Geological Survey in California. “The plates are like little bits of crust on top of the soup.”

The plates are in a kind of eternal war, fighting for position on the face of the Earth

There are two layers in the Earth’s crust and upper mantle that are described by this metaphor. The lithosphere – the hard, cooler part of the crust, including the plates themselves – and the asthenosphere, where molten rock moves up towards the lithosphere and sometimes breaks through at the mid-ocean ridges.

The ground under your feet is not as rock-solid as you might have thought. All of this convection and mechanical activity drives the motion of plates. They can bump into each other, slide past or shift away from each other. Some plates can even become buried, or “subducted”, under neighbouring plates, “recycling” their rock back to the Earth’s interior.

The plates are in a kind of eternal war, fighting for position on the face of the Earth.

We know that the plates have moved, but how can we actually plot their positions back through time? Scotese has produced animations showing what we believe to be the movements of the continents over the last 750 million years.

“It’s sort of like a CSI investigation,” he says. “You have to use all the evidence you can to tell the story because there’s no eyewitnesses, there’s no video cameras taking pictures.”

Fossils of Mesosaurus are found, not just in South America, but Africa as well

Despite the challenge, Scotese says we can get 70 million years into the past with a good degree of confidence. That’s because we can track the progress made by seafloor spreading quite accurately to work out where the continents used to be. But there are also different types of geological records that let us see even further back.

Scotese gives the example of ancient fossil coral reefs. Between 300 and 400 million years ago, what is now North Africa was crossing from polar to tropical latitudes.

“If you look carefully, you can see exactly when it crossed that boundary from being in the cold half of the hemisphere to the warm half,” explains Scotese. “So coral reefs appear for the first time [in this region] and begin to grow on these carbonate platforms.”

Indeed, the fossil record is a hugely significant area of evidence. This, of course, was what initially gave Wegener confidence in his ideas.

When Mesosaurus was alive, it was possible to walk between almost any two points on any two continents

Take the example of Mesosaurus, a creature not dissimilar from today’s crocodiles. It was a freshwater reptile with a long, powerful jaw, which lived between 270 and 300 million years.

Here is the weird part. Fossils of Mesosaurus are found, not just in South America, but Africa as well. It was a freshwater animal and could never have swum across the Atlantic Ocean to develop colonies on both continents. How did its fossils end up on either side of that vast ocean, then?

The answer is simple: 300 million years ago, there was no Atlantic. Those two continents were joined, and Mesosaurusnever had to swim that distance.

In fact, when Mesosaurus was alive it was possible to walk between almost any two points on any two continents. All the landmasses were united in the supercontinent Pangaea – which is something Scotese expects to happen again about 250 million years from now when his “Pangaea Proxima” supercontinent forms.

Mesosaurus: from Brazil and Africa (Credit: Chris Howes/Wild Places Photography/Alamy)

Mesosaurus fossils are found in Brazil and Africa

The existence of the ancient Pangaea is recorded in the distribution of other fossils. Lystrosaurus, for example, was a giant herbivore. Its fossil remains are now found in Africa, India and even Antarctica.

Beyond 300 million years ago, the ancient magnetic record becomes much more patchy

Even the plant Glossopteris, a woody shrub that grew to 98ft (30m) in height, helps to confirm the idea that at one stage all of today’s continents were jammed together as Pangaea.

Fossil evidence of Glossopteris has been discovered in South America, Africa, India, Antarctica and Australia. Importantly, the seeds of the plant were massive and could not have floated or been blown on the wind to other land masses. A supercontinent, on which the seeds could be dispersed via land, is thought to be the only credible explanation.

However, all these forms of evidence have their limitations. Beyond 300 million years ago, the ancient magnetic record becomes much more patchy, so it is difficult to find hard evidence of continental movements. And at 500 million years, says Scotese, the fossil record also becomes less detailed.

As for predicting what will happen in the future, Scotese does this first of all by looking at how the plates are moving today and then extrapolating that movement over time. This is the simplest way to develop a prediction. But, he adds, after many millions of years, there is no telling what geological events might cause unforeseen changes to that movement.

Plate tectonics give us valleys and huge mountain ranges, earthquakes and continental boundaries

“In the plate tectonic world, plates do evolve slow and steady until we have one of these plate tectonic catastrophes like continental collisions,” he says. “This fundamentally changes plate tectonic regimes.”

Various statistical models help to provide a range of options for how the continents will be arranged more than 100 million years from now. But that is so far in the future, it is not clear to anyone how accurate these are.

Still, it is fun to speculate, and it helps reinforce the reality that the Earth is an active, dynamic planet – the very face of which keeps changing. Plate tectonics give us valleys and huge mountain ranges, earthquakes and continental boundaries. And there are still mysteries about how they work.

Mars seems to have had some tectonic activity (Credit: Dennis Hallinan/Alamy)

Mars seems to have had some tectonic activity

Hough points out that we are still investigating exactly why the Tibetan plateau, which lies north of the Himalayas, is as high as it is.

Plus, our knowledge of plate tectonics on other planets is incredibly limited. Indeed, we have only recently found some evidence that suggests tectonics on Mars and Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

The continents really did move – and they have not stopped yet

“You get into some interesting questions,” says Hough. “Like, is it a coincidence that we live on a tectonically-active planet, or was that somehow important for the emergence of life?”

For now we can only wonder. But plate tectonics have undoubtedly been significant for the development and dispersal of life on Earth. The secrets of the shifting ground beneath our feet have largely been revealed – and mostly within the last 50 years.

For a long time we thought there was little more stationary and stable than the Earth beneath us. But now we know that Wegener, in principle, was right. The continents really did move – and they have not stopped yet.

For first time, carbon nanotube transistors have outperformed silicon

For the first time, scientists have built a transistor out of carbon nanotubes that can run almost twice as fast as its silicon counterparts.

This is big, because for decades, scientists have been trying to figure out how to build the next generation of computers using carbon nanotube components, because their unique properties could form the basis of faster devices that consume way less power.

“Making carbon nanotube transistors that are better than silicon transistors is a big milestone,” said one of the team, Michael Arnold, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “This achievement has been a dream of nanotechnology for the last 20 years.”

First developed back in 1991, carbon nanotubes are basically minuscule carbon straws that measure just 1 atom thick.

Imagine a tiny, cylindrical tube that’s approximately 50,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, and made from carbon atoms arranged in hexagonal arrays. That’s what a carbon nanotube wire would look like if you could see it at an atomic level.

Because of their size, carbon nanotubes can be packed by the millions onto wafers that can act just like a silicon transistor – the electrical switches that together form a computer’s central processing unit (CPU).

Despite being incredibly tiny, carbon nanotubes have some unique properties that make them an engineer’s dream.

They’re more than 100 times stronger than steel, but only one-sixth as heavy. They’re stretchy and flexible like a thread of fabric, and can maintain their 1-atom-thick walls while growing up to hundreds of microns long.

“To put this into perspective,” says Washington-based carbon nanotubes producer, NanoScience Instruments, “if your hair had the same aspect ratio, a single strand would be over 40 metres long.”

And here’s the best part: just like that other 1-atom-thick wonder-material, graphene, carbon nanotubes are one of the most conductive materials ever discovered.

With ultra-strong bonds holding the carbon atoms together in a hexagonal pattern, carbon nanotubes are able to produce a phenomenon known as electron delocalisation, which allows an electrical charge to move freely through it.

The arrangement of the carbon atoms also allows heat to move steadily through the tube, which gives it around 15 times the thermal conductivity and 1,000 times the current capacity of copper, while maintaining a density that’s just half that of aluminium.

Because of all these amazing properties, these semiconducting powerhouses could be our answer to the rapidly declining potential of silicon-based computers.

Right now, all of our computers are running on silicon processors and memory chips, but we’ve about hit the limit for how fast these can go. If scientists can figure out how to replace silicon-based parts with carbon nanotube parts, in theory, we could bump speeds up by five times instantly.

But there’s a major problem with mass-producing carbon nanotubes – they’re incredibly difficult to isolate from all the small metallic impurities that creep in during the manufacturing process, and these bits and pieces can interrupt their semiconducting properties.

But Arnold and his team have finally figured out how to get rid of almost all of these impurities. “We’ve identified specific conditions in which you can get rid of nearly all metallic nanotubes, where we have less than 0.01 percent metallic nanotubes,” he says.

As Daniel Oberhaus explains for Motherboard, the technique works by controlling the self-assembling properties of carbon nanotubes in a polymer solution, which not only allows the researchers to clean out impurities, but also to manipulate the proper spacing of nanotubes on a wafer.

“The end result are nanotubes with less than 0.01 percent metallic impurities, integrated on a transistor that was able to achieve a current that was 1.9 times higher than the most state-of-the-art silicon transistors in use today,” he says.

Simulations have suggested that in their purest form, carbon nanotube transistors should be able to able to perform five times faster or use five times less energy than silicon transistors, because their ultra-small dimensions allow them to very quickly switch a current signal as it travels across it.

This means longer-lasting phone batteries, or much faster wireless communications or processing speeds, but scientists have to actually build a working computer filled with carbon nanotube transistors before we can know for sure.

Arnold’s team has already managed to scale their wafers up to 2.5 by 2.5 cm transistors (1 inch by 1 inch), so they’re now figuring out how to make the process efficient enough for commercial production.

Watch the video.URL:

NASA plans to send an autonomous submarine to explore Titan’s oceans

NASA is making plans to send a smart submarine to Saturn’s moon, Titan, so it can autonomously explore the depths of its frigid oceans.

The submarine would probe the freezing liquid methane and ethane oceans that cover the moon’s surface, beaming back valuable data to Earth, cryogenics engineer Jason Hartwig announced at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Symposium last week.

The tech blueprints of the autonomous submarine include a huge communications ‘fin’ on its back that would let it communicate directly with receivers on Earth, covering a distance of around 1,429 million kilometres (886 million miles).

The 6-metre-long (20-feet-long) sub would also use an interesting ballast system, taking on liquid when it wants to sink, and expelling it when it wants to rise. There won’t be any tanks of fuel on Titan, so using as little energy as possible is going to be crucial.


The current submarine design. 

As you might expect, the submarine is going to be packed with all kinds of meteorological tools, including a range of sensors and radar and sonar equipment, plus cameras to build up the best picture possible of what it’s actually like on Titan.

The moon might be incredibly cold, and covered with liquid methane and clouds of cyanide, but it’s of interest to scientists because of the way it resembles an early Earth.

Other than Earth, it’s the only known body in the Solar System with stable, liquid seas on its surface. Its atmosphere works in a similar way to our own, with comparable hydrological cycles to those on Earth that define how water moves between fresh and salt, or between liquid and ice.

One of the key benefits for using a submarine to explore Titan is the craft’s versatility. On the surface it can measure waves, atmosphere, and wind, and once it dives, it can test the composition of the liquid it’s moving through, and take samples from the sea bed.

“If you can get below the surface of the sea, and get all the way down to the bottom in certain areas, and actually touch the silt that’s at the bottom, and sample it and learn what that’s made of, it’ll tell you so much about the environment that you’re in,” said one of the researchers, Michael Paul from Penn State University.

The sub design is on hold for now, until we see what else NASA’s Cassini spacecraft can discover about Titan and its seas. The project is expected to be reassessed by March 2017.

This will involve analysing any new information the team has received from Cassini about the depths, pressures, and temperatures of Titan’s oceans, and adapting their submarine design accordingly.

Once the design is finalised, it’ll still be some time before the submarine is nosing its way through Titan’s oceans – a first mission has been tentatively scheduled for 2038.

So even though we don’t want to have to wait to see what comes of this fantastic voyage, it looks we’re going to have to. But in the meantime, check out this cute animation of our new favourite sub below:

Watch the video:

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Mother Teresa: Do miracles have a place in the modern-day Catholic Church?

As Catholics around the world celebrate the canonisation of their newest saint Mother Teresa, debate is raging over whether miracles have a place in the modern-day Church.

The path to sainthood in the Catholic Church is usually a long one. Among the prerequisites is proof of two miracles approved by the Vatican’s own investigators.

In the case of Mother Teresa, both involved curing cancer.

Mother Teresa

For the first, Indian woman Monica Bersa said a cancerous tumour in her abdomen had been cured in 1998 after a beam of light had emanated from a picture of Mother Teresa contained in a locket. The miracle was recognised by the Church in 2002.

The second, recognised in 2015, involved the 2008 healing of a Brazilian man with multiple brain tumours.

Australia’s own Saint Mary McKillop also had two miracles attributed to her involving two more cured cancer patients.

But the so-called saint-making machine came under fire last year, when two exposes revealed sainthoods could cost the Vatican up to $735,000 each, forcing the Pope to impose transparency measures.

There has also been debate about whether miracles have a place in the modern-day Church.

Former Catholic priest turned church historian and theologian Paul Collins said he had a “sheepish embarrassment” about miracles.

“My problem is I don’t believe in a God who constantly intervenes in the business of nature to suspend nature,” he said.

“I don’t believe that God is constantly intervening in life. I think God’s interaction with us is much more subtle, much deeper.”

Less-developed societies ‘far more ready to accept miracles’

He said most “miracles” were often claimed where there was no scientific or medical explanation for an event.

“The argument is: science can’t explain it,” he said.

“There are a few things still in life that science doesn’t explain, and we don’t necessarily call them miracles.

“I suppose most progressive Catholics in Australia would feel that way. But … we live in a post-enlightenment society. We live in a scientific society.

“But the Catholic Church is a universal church … and many, many Catholics do not live in that kind of a society.

“People in … less-developed societies … they are far more ready to accept miracles.”

Choosing saints ‘a political process’: Collins

Mr Collins said the Vatican office that investigated miracles had been set up in the mid-18th century and currently sat in a building behind the Holy See’s press office.

“It goes through a historical process of looking at the person, looking at their work, their beliefs, their lives, their morality, how they behaved and it teases all of that out in what is really a quite tedious process,” he said.

“In the end, it makes a decision as to whether this person can be put forward as a model of Christian life.

“But, of course, as a number of people have pointed out … this is a political process.

“John Paul II wanted a certain type of Christian, so the people he proposed were the ones who fulfilled that.”

St Peter's Square at canonisation of Mother Teresa

Church ‘moving away’ from miracles

Mr Collins said the church was moving away from the emphasis on miracles under Pope Francis.

“I think Francesco, he perhaps believes it, but it’s at the side of his agenda,” he said.

“What Pope Francis is trying to do is to re-emphasise mercy, of reaching out to other people, or caring for others, of serving their needs.

“He’s kind of taken Mother Teresa and her canonisation as a happy accident to be able to illustrate that.”

Mr Collins said Mother Teresa did not need to perform miracles to make her a saint.

“I think Mother Teresa’s miracle is her life. You don’t need any spectacular suspensions of nature,” he said.

“This is a woman who left a teaching career behind … she saw the state of the poor, she decided to do something about it.

“The test of her is in the work that she’s done. I think that’s where the miracle is.”

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Few of us really understand the weird world of quantum physics – but our bodies might take advantage of quantum properties

Chemical compasses may rely on quantum spin (Credit: Andrey Volodin/Alamy)

If there’s any subject that perfectly encapsulates the idea that science is hard to understand, it’s quantum physics. Scientists tell us that the miniature denizens of the quantum realm behave in seemingly impossible ways: they can exist in two places at once, or disappear and reappear somewhere else instantly.

The one saving grace is that these truly bizarre quantum behaviours don’t seem to have much of an impact on the macroscopic world as we know it, where “classical” physics rules the roost.

Or, at least, that’s what scientists thought until a few years ago.

Quantum processes might be at work behind some very familiar processes

Now that reassuring wisdom is starting to fall apart. Quantum processes may occur not quite so far from our ordinary world as we once thought. Quite the opposite: they might be at work behind some very familiar processes, from the photosynthesis that powers plants – and ultimately feeds us all – to the familiar sight of birds on their seasonal migrations. Quantum physics might even play a role in our sense of smell.

In fact, quantum effects could be something that nature has recruited into its battery of tools to make life work better, and to make our bodies into smoother machines. It’s even possible that we can do more with help from the strange quantum world than we could without it.

Photosynthesis looks easy (Credit: Morley Read/Alamy)

Photosynthesis looks easy

At one level, photosynthesis looks very simple. Plants, green algae and some bacteria take in sunlight and carbon dioxide, and turn them into energy. What niggles in the back of biologists minds, though, is that photosynthetic organisms make the process look just a little bit too easy.

It’s one part of photosynthesis in particular that puzzles scientists. A photon – a particle of light – after a journey of billions of kilometres hurtling through space, collides with an electron in a leaf outside your window. The electron, given a serious kick by this energy boost, starts to bounce around, a little like a pinball. It makes its way through a tiny part of the leaf’s cell, and passes on its extra energy to a molecule that can act as an energy currency to fuel the plant.

Photosynthetic organisms make the process look just a little bit too easy

The trouble is, this tiny pinball machine works suspiciously well. Classical physics suggests the excited electron should take a certain amount of time to career around inside the photosynthetic machinery in the cell before emerging on the other side. In reality, the electron makes the journey far more quickly.

What’s more, the excited electron barely loses any energy at all in the process. Classical physics would predict some wastage of energy in the noisy business of being batted around the molecular pinball machine. The process is too fast, too smooth and too efficient. It just seems too good to be true.

Inside the photosynthetic machinery (Credit: Kim Taylor/

Inside the photosynthetic machinery

Then, in 2007, photosynthesis researchers began to see the light. Scientists spotted signs of quantum effects in the molecular centres for photosynthesis. Tell-tale signs in the way the electrons were behaving opened the door to the idea that quantum effects could even be playing an important biological role.

This could be part of the answer to how the excited electrons pass through the photosynthetic pinball machine so quickly and efficiently. One quantum effect is the ability to exist in many places at the same time – a property known as quantum superposition. Using this property, the electron could potentially explore many routes around the biological pinball machine at once. In this way it could almost instantly select the shortest, most efficient route, involving the least amount of bouncing about.

Quantum physics had the potential to explain why photosynthesis was suspiciously efficient – a shocking revelation for biologists.

“I think this was when people started to think that something really exciting was going on,” says Susana Huelga, a quantum physicist at Ulm University in Germany.

Quantum physics had the potential to explain why photosynthesis was suspiciously efficient – a shocking revelation for biologists

Quantum phenomena such as superposition had previously been observed mostly under highly controlled conditions. Typical experiments to observe quantum phenomena involve cooling down materials to bitingly cold temperatures in order to dampen down other atomic activity that might drown out quantum behaviour. Even at those temperatures, materials must be isolated in a vacuum – and the quantum behaviours are so subtle that scientists need exquisitely sensitive instruments to see what’s going on.

Can quantum physics explain photosynthesis? (Credit: RooM the Agency/Alamy)

Can quantum physics explain photosynthesis?

The wet, warm, bustling environment of living cells is the last place you might expect to see quantum events. “[But] even here, quantum features are still alive,” Huelga says.

Of course, just because these quantum features make an unexpected appearance in living cells, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re playing a useful role. There are theories as to how quantum superposition may be speeding up the process of photosynthesis, but a hard link between this behaviour and a biological function is still missing, Huelga says.

“The next step will be having some quantitative results saying that the efficiency of this biological machine is this due to quantum phenomena.”

How do robins know which way to fly? (Credit Photoshot License Ltd/Alamy) (Credit: Credit Photoshot License Ltd/Alamy)

How do robins know which way to fly?

Quantum effects in biology aren’t just a quirk of plants and other organisms that do the peculiar job of turning sunlight into fuel. They may also provide an answer to a scientific puzzle that’s been around since the 19th Century: how migratory birds know which way to fly.

Quantum effects in biology might explain how migratory birds know which way to fly

In a journey thousands of kilometres long, a migratory bird such as the European robin will often fly to southern Europe or North Africa to escape particularly cold winters. This journey over an unfamiliar landscape would be dangerous, if not impossible, without a compass. Start the journey in the wrong direction and a robin setting off from Poland might end up in Siberia rather than Morocco.

A biological compass isn’t an easy thing to picture. If there was some form of tiny magnetic iron needle-like structure spinning deep inside a robin’s brain or eyes, biologists would almost certainly know about it by now. But no such luck: a biological structure that could do the job has never been found.

Another theory, first proposed in the late 1970s, suggested an alternative way birds might know which way to fly: perhaps they carry a chemical compass that relies on quantum phenomena to tell which way is north.

Chemical compasses may rely on quantum spin (Credit: Andrey Volodin/Alamy)

Chemical compasses may rely on quantum spin

Peter Hore, a chemist at the University of Oxford in the UK, says that such a chemical compass would work with the help of molecules with excitable lone electrons, known as radicals, and a quantum property known as spin.

Electrons in molecules usually come in pairs, spinning in opposite directions and effectively cancelling out each other’s spin. A “lone” electron spinning on its own, though, isn’t cancelled out. This means it is free to interact with its environment – including magnetic fields.

A “lone” electron spinning on its own is free to interact with its environment – including magnetic fields

As it turns out, Hore says, robins can become temporarily disorientated when exposed to radio waves – a type of electromagnetic wave – of a particular range of frequencies. If a radio wave has a frequency of just the same rate that an electron spins, it could cause the electron to resonate. This is the same kind of resonance you might experience when you sing in the shower – certain notes sound a lot louder and fuller than others. Hitting the right radio wave frequency will make the electron vibrate more vigorously in the same way.

But what does this have to do with the idea that birds use a chemical compass? The theory is that ordinarily, radicals at the back of the bird’s eye respond to the Earth’s magnetic field. The magnetic field will cause the electron to leave its spot in the chemical compass and start a chain of reactions to produce a particular chemical. As long as the bird keeps pointing in the same direction, more of the chemical will build up.

So the amount of this chemical present is a source of information, generating signals in the bird’s nerve cells. As part of many different environmental cues, this information will inform the bird about whether it is pointing towards Siberia or Morocco.

A bird's nervous system tells it where to go (Credit: Tim Gainey/Alamy Stock Photo)

A bird’s nervous system tells it where to go

The radio wave observation is an important one because we would expect anything that interferes with electron spin to be able, at least in principle, to disrupt the chemical compass. It can be as useful to study why something sometimes doesn’t work as it is to study why it generally does work.

Even so, the quantum compass remains an idea. It hasn’t yet been found in nature. Hore has been focusing on finding out how the quantum compass can work in principle, using molecules that theoretically ought to be able to do the job.

The quantum compass remains an idea – it hasn’t yet been found in nature

“We’ve done experiments on model compounds to establish the principle that one can make a chemical compass,” Hore says. These have helped to pin down some molecules that do seem to be fit for the purpose of detecting magnetic fields, he says. “What we don’t know is whether they behave in exactly the same way inside a cell in the bird’s body.”

The magnetic compass is just part of a complex and poorly understood system of navigation in birds, Hore says. The quantum theory for how such a compass works may be the best out there so far, but there’s still a lot of ground to cover to link up the behavioural patterns of birds with the theoretical chemistry.

The science of smell (Credit: Cultura Creative RF/Alamy)

The science of smell

There is one field that seems tantalisingly close to demonstrating the reality of quantum biology, though: the science of smell.

Exactly how our noses are capable of distinguishing and identifying a myriad of differently shaped molecules is a big challenge for conventional theories of olfaction. When a smelly molecule wafts into one of our nostrils, no one is yet entirely sure what happens next. Somehow the molecule interacts with a sensor – a molecular receptor – embedded in the delicate inner skin of our nose.

Exactly how are our noses capable of distinguishing and identifying a myriad of differently shaped molecules?

A well-trained human nose can distinguish between thousands of different smells. But how this information is carried in the shape of the smelly molecule is a puzzle. Many molecules that are almost identical in shape, but for swapping around an atom or two, have very different smells. Vanillin smells of vanilla, but eugenol, which is very similar in shape, smells of cloves. Some molecules that are a mirror image of each other – just like your right and left hand – also have different smells. But equally, some very differently shaped molecules can smell almost exactly the same.

Luca Turin, a chemist at the BSRC Alexander Fleming institute in Greece, has been working to crack the way that the properties of a molecule encode its scent. “There is something very, very peculiar at the core of olfaction, which is that our ability to somehow analyse molecules and atoms is inconsistent with what we think we know about molecular recognition,” Turin says.

He argues that the molecule’s shape alone isn’t enough to determine its smell. He says that it’s the quantum properties of the chemical bonds in the molecule that provides the crucial information.

According to Turin’s quantum theory of olfaction, when a smelly molecule enters the nose and binds to a receptor, it allows a process called quantum tunnelling to happen in the receptor.

When a smelly molecule enters the nose and binds to a receptor, it allows quantum tunnelling to happen

In quantum tunnelling, an electron can pass through a material to jump from point A to point B in a way that seems to bypass the intervening space. As with the bird’s quantum compass, the crucial factor is resonance. A particular bond in the smelly molecule, Turin says, can resonate with the right energy to help an electron on one side of the receptor molecule leap to the other side. The electron can only make this leap through the so-called quantum tunnel if the bond is vibrating with just the right energy.

When the electron leaps to the other site on the receptor, it could trigger a chain reaction that ends up sending signals to the brain that the receptor has come into contact with that particular molecule. This, Turin says, is an essential part of what gives a molecule its smell, and the process is fundamentally quantum.

“Olfaction requires a mechanism that somehow involves the actual chemical composition of the molecule,” he says. “It was that factor that found a very natural explanation in quantum tunnelling.”

The strongest evidence for the theory is Turin’s discovery that two molecules with extremely different shapes can smell the same if they contain bonds with similar energies.

Turin predicted that boranes – relatively rare compounds that are hard to come by – smelled very like sulphur, or rotten eggs. He’d never smelt a borane before, so the prediction was quite a gamble.

Boranes smell like rotten eggs (Credit: Dimitri Otis/Alamy)

Boranes smell like rotten eggs

He was right. Turin says that, for him, that was the clincher. “Borane chemistry is vastly different – in fact there’s zero relation – to sulphur chemistry. So the only thing those two have in common is a vibrational frequency. They are the only two things out there in nature that smell of sulphur.”

While that prediction was a great success for the theory, it’s not ultimate proof. Ideally Turin wants to catch these receptors in the act of exploiting quantum phenomena. He says they are getting “pretty close” to nailing those experiments. “I don’t want to jinx it, but we’re working on it,” he says. “We think we have a way to do it, so we’re definitely going to have a go in the next few months. I think that nothing short of that will really move things forward.”

Turin wants to catch these receptors in the act of exploiting quantum phenomena

Whether or not nature has evolved to make use of quantum phenomena to help organisms make fuel from light, tell north from south, or distinguish vanilla from clove, the strange properties of the atomic world can still tell us a lot about the finer workings of living cells

“There is a second way of seeing how quantum mechanics interacts with biology, and that is by sensing and probing,” Huelga says. “Quantum probes would be able to shed light on many interesting things in the dynamics of biological systems.”

And whether or not nature got there first, it’s no excuse for us not to mix biology with quantum phenomena to develop new technologies, she says. Making use of quantum effects in biologically inspired photovoltaic cells, for instance, could give solar panels a huge boost in efficiency. “At this very moment there is quite a lot of activity in organic photovoltaics, to see whether with natural or artificial structures one can have an enhanced efficiency that exploit quantum effects.”

So even if alternative, as yet entirely unknown mechanisms emerge for these stubborn biological puzzles, biologists and quantum physicists certainly won’t have seen the last of each other. “This will definitely be a story with a happy end,” she says

Several physicists have suggested that our Universe is not real and is instead a giant simulation. Should we care?

Could we all be living in the Matrix? (Credit: AF Archive/Alamy)

These used to be questions that only philosophers worried about. Scientists just got on with figuring out how the world is, and why. But some of the current best guesses about how the world is seem to leave the question hanging over science too.

Several physicists, cosmologists and technologists are now happy to entertain the idea that we are all living inside a gigantic computer simulation, experiencing a Matrix-style virtual world that we mistakenly think is real.

Our instincts rebel, of course. It all feels too real to be a simulation. The weight of the cup in my hand, the rich aroma of the coffee it contains, the sounds all around me – how can such richness of experience be faked?

But then consider the extraordinary progress in computer and information technologies over the past few decades. Computers have given us games of uncanny realism – with autonomous characters responding to our choices – as well as virtual-reality simulators of tremendous persuasive power.

It is enough to make you paranoid.

The Matrix formulated the narrative with unprecedented clarity. In that story, humans are locked by a malignant power into a virtual world that they accept unquestioningly as “real”. But the science-fiction nightmare of being trapped in a universe manufactured within our minds can be traced back further, for instance to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985).

Over all these dystopian visions, there loom two questions. How would we know? And would it matter anyway?

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX (Credit: Kristoffer Tripplaar/Alamy)

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX

The idea that we live in a simulation has some high-profile advocates.

In June 2016, technology entrepreneur Elon Musk assertedthat the odds are “a billion to one” against us living in “base reality”.

Similarly, Google’s machine-intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil has suggested that “maybe our whole universe is a science experiment of some junior high-school student in another universe”.

What’s more, some physicists are willing to entertain the possibility. In April 2016, several of them debated the issue at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, US.

None of these people are proposing that we are physical beings held in some gloopy vat and wired up to believe in the world around us, as in The Matrix.

Instead, there are at least two other ways that the Universe around us might not be the real one.

Cosmologist Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US has suggested that our entire Universe might be real yet still a kind of lab experiment. The idea is that our Universe was created by some super-intelligence, much as biologists breed colonies of micro-organisms.

There is nothing in principle that rules out the possibility of manufacturing a universe in an artificial Big Bang, filled with real matter and energy, says Guth.

Nor would it destroy the universe in which it was made. The new universe would create its own bubble of space-time, separate from that in which it was hatched. This bubble would quickly pinch off from the parent universe and lose contact with it.

This scenario does not then really change anything. Our Universe might have been born in some super-beings’ equivalent of a test tube, but it is just as physically “real” as if it had been born “naturally”.

However, there is a second scenario. It is this one that has garnered all the attention, because it seems to undermine our very concept of reality.

Conceivably, someone made our Universe (Credit: Take 27 Ltd/Science Photo Library)

Conceivably, someone made our Universe

Musk and other like-minded folk are suggesting that we are entirely simulated beings. We could be nothing more than strings of information manipulated in some gigantic computer, like the characters in a video game.

Even our brains are simulated, and are responding to simulated sensory inputs.

In this view, there is no Matrix to “escape from”. This is where we live, and is our only chance of “living” at all.

But why believe in such a baroque possibility? The argument is quite simple: we already make simulations, and with better technology it should be possible to create the ultimate one, with conscious agents that experience it as totally lifelike.

Supercomputers get ever more powerful (Credit: Max Alexander/Science Photo Library)

Supercomputers get ever more powerful

We carry out computer simulations not just in games but in research. Scientists try to simulate aspects of the world at levels ranging from the subatomic to entire societies or galaxies, even whole universes.

For example, computer simulations of animals may tell us how they develop complex behaviours like flocking and swarming. Other simulations help us understand how planets, stars and galaxies form.

We can also simulate human societies using rather simple “agents” that make choices according to certain rules. These give us insights into how cooperation appears, how cities evolve, how road traffic and economies function, and much else.

These simulations are getting ever more complex as computer power expands. Already, some simulations of human behaviour try to build in rough descriptions of cognition. Researchers envisage a time, not far away, when these agents’ decision-making will not come from simple “if…then…” rules. Instead, they will give the agents simplified models of the brain and see how they respond.

Scientists simulate the Universe's birth (Credit: Patrick Landmann/Science Photo Library)

Scientists simulate the Universe’s birth

Who is to say that before long we will not be able to create computational agents – virtual beings – that show signs of consciousness? Advances in understanding and mapping the brain, as well as the vast computational resources promised by quantum computing, make this more likely by the day.

If we ever reach that stage, we will be running huge numbers of simulations. They will vastly outnumber the one “real” world around us.

Is it not likely, then, that some other intelligence elsewhere in the Universe has already reached that point?

If so, it makes sense for any conscious beings like ourselves to assume that we are actually in such a simulation, and not in the one world from which the virtual realities are run. The probability is just so much greater.

Are we all just a computer simulation? (Credit: Andrzej Wojcicki/Science Photo Library)

Are we all just a computer simulation?

Philosopher Nick Bostrom of the University of Oxford in the UK has broken down this scenario into three possibilities. As he puts it, either:

(1) Intelligent civilisations never get to the stage where they can make such simulations, perhaps because they wipe themselves out first; or

(2) They get to that point, but then choose for some reason not to conduct such simulations; or

(3) We are overwhelmingly likely to be in such a simulation.

The question is which of these options seems most probable.

(Credit: Volker Springel/Max Planck for Astrophysics/Science Photo Library)

We can now simulate entire galaxy clusters

Astrophysicist and Nobel laureate George Smoot has arguedthat there is no compelling reason to believe (1) or (2).

Sure, humanity is causing itself plenty of problems at the moment, what with climate change, nuclear weapons and a looming mass extinction. But these problems need not be terminal.

What’s more, there is nothing to suggest that truly detailed simulations, in which the agents experience themselves as real and free, are impossible in principle. Smoot adds that, given how widespread we now know other planets to be (with another Earth-like one right on our cosmic doorstep), it would be the height of arrogance to assume that we are the most advanced intelligence in the entire Universe.

What about option (2)? Conceivably, we might desist from making such simulations for ethical reasons. Perhaps it would seem improper to create simulated beings that believe they exist and have autonomy.

But that too seems unlikely, Smoot says. After all, one key reason we conduct simulations today is to find out more about the real world. This can help us make the world better and save lives. So there are sound ethical reasons for doing it.

That seems to leave us with option (3): we are probably in a simulation.

But this is all just supposition. Could we find any evidence?

Many researchers believe that depends on how good the simulation is. The best way would be to search for flaws in the program, just like the glitches that betray the artificial nature of the “ordinary world” in The Matrix. For instance, we might discover inconsistencies in the laws of physics.

Alternatively, the late artificial-intelligence maven Marvin Minsky has suggested that there might be giveaway errors due to “rounding off” approximations in the computation. For example, whenever an event has several possible outcomes, their probabilities should add up to 1. If we found that they did not, that would suggest something was amiss.

Some scientists argue that there are already good reasons to think we are inside a simulation. One is the fact that our Universe looks designed.

The constants of nature, such as the strengths of the fundamental forces, have values that look fine-tuned to make life possible. Even small alterations would mean that atoms were no longer stable, or that stars could not form. Why this is so is one of the deepest mysteries in cosmology.

One possible answer invokes the “multiverse”. Maybe there is a plethora of universes, all created in Big Bang-type events and all with different laws of physics. By chance, some of themwould be fine-tuned for life – and if we were not in such a hospitable universe, we would not ask the fine-tuning question because we would not exist.

However, parallel universes are a pretty speculative idea. So it is at least conceivable that our Universe is instead a simulation whose parameters have been fine-tuned to give interesting results, like stars, galaxies and people.

While this is possible, the reasoning does not get us anywhere. After all, presumably the “real” Universe of our creators must also be fine-tuned for them to exist. In that case, positing that we are in a simulation does not explain the fine-tuning mystery.

Others have pointed to some of the truly weird findings of modern physics as evidence that there is something amiss.

The Universe works like mathematics (Credit: Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library)

The Universe works like mathematics

Quantum mechanics, the theory of the very small, has thrown up all sorts of odd things. For instance, both matter and energy seem to be granular. What’s more, there are limits to the resolution with which we can observe the Universe, and if we try to study anything smaller, things just look “fuzzy”.

Smoot says these perplexing features of quantum physics are just what we would expect in a simulation. They are like the pixellation of a screen when you look too closely.

However, that is just a rough analogy. It is beginning to look as though the quantum graininess of nature might not be really so fundamental, but is a consequence of deeper principles about the extent to which reality is knowable.

A second argument is that the Universe appears to run on mathematical lines, just as you would expect from a computer program. Ultimately, say some physicists, reality might be nothing but mathematics.

At its root the Universe may be mathematics (Credit: Sputnik/Science Photo Library)

At its root the Universe may be mathematics (Credit: Sputnik/Science Photo Library)

Max Tegmark of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argues that this is just what we would expect if the laws of physics were based on a computational algorithm.

However, that argument seems rather circular. For one thing, if some super-intelligence were running simulations of their own “real” world, they could be expected to base its physical principles on those in their own universe, just as we do. In that case, the reason our world is mathematical would not be because it runs on a computer, but because the “real” world is also that way.

Conversely, simulations would not have to be based on mathematical rules. They could be set up, for example, to work randomly. Whether that would result in any coherent outcomes is not clear, but the point is that we cannot use the apparently mathematical nature of the Universe to deduce anything about its “reality”.

However, based on his own research in fundamental physics, James Gates of the University of Maryland thinks there is a more specific reason for suspecting that the laws of physics are dictated by a computer simulation.

Gates studies matter at the level of subatomic particles like quarks, the constituents of protons and neutrons in the atomic nucleus. He says the rules governing these particles’ behaviour turn out to have features that resemble the codes that correct for errors in manipulating data in computers. So perhaps those rules really arecomputer codes?

Maybe. Or maybe interpreting these physical laws as error-correcting codes is just the latest example of the way we have always interpreted nature on the basis of our advanced technologies.

At one time Newtonian mechanics seemed to make the universe a clockwork mechanism, and more recently genetics was seen – at the dawn of the computer age – as a kind of digital code with storage and readout functions. We might just be superimposing our current preoccupations onto the laws of physics.

It is likely to be profoundly difficult if not impossible to find strong evidence that we are in a simulation. Unless the simulation was really rather error-strewn, it will be hard to design a test for which the results could not be explained in some other way.

We might never know, says Smoot, simply because our minds would not be up to the task. After all, you design your agents in a simulation to function within the rules of the game, not to subvert them. This might be a box we cannot think outside of.

There is, however, a more profound reason why perhaps we should not get too worried by the idea that we are just information being manipulated in a vast computation. Because that is what some physicists think the “real” world is like anyway.

Quantum theory itself is increasingly being couched in terms of information and computation. Some physicists feel that, at its most fundamental level, nature might not be pure mathematics but pure information: bits, like the ones and zeros of computers. The influential theoretical physicist John Wheeler dubbed this notion “It From Bit“.

In this view, everything that happens, from the interactions of fundamental particles upwards, is a kind of computation.

“The Universe can be regarded as a giant quantum computer,” says Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “If one looks at the ‘guts’ of the Universe – the structure of matter at its smallest scale – then those guts consist of nothing more than [quantum] bits undergoing local, digital operations.”

This gets to the nub of the matter. If reality is just information, then we are no more or less “real” if we are in a simulation or not. In either case, information is all we can be.

Does it make a difference if that information were programmed by nature or by super-intelligent creators? It is not obvious why it should – except that, in the latter case, presumably our creators could in principle intervene in the simulation, or even switch it off. How should we feel about that?

The quantum world is fuzzy and undetermined (Credit: Richard Kail/Science Photo Library)

The quantum world is fuzzy and undetermined (Credit: Richard Kail/Science Photo Library)

Tegmark, mindful of this possibility, has recommended that we had all better go out and do interesting things with our lives, just in case our simulators get bored.

I think this is said at least half in jest. After all, there are surely better reasons to want to lead interesting lives than that they might otherwise be erased. But it inadvertently betrays some of the problems with the whole concept.

The idea of super-intelligent simulators saying “Ah look, this run is a bit dull – let’s stop it and start another” is comically anthropomorphic. Like Kurzweil’s comment about a school project, it imagines our “creators” as fickle teenagers with Xboxes.

The discussion of Bostrom’s three possibilities involves a similar kind of solipsism. It is an attempt to say something profound about the Universe by extrapolating from what humans in the 21st Century are up to. The argument boils down to: “We make computer games. I bet super-beings would too, only they’d be awesome!”

In trying to imagine what super-intelligent beings might do, or even what they would consist of, we have little choice but to start from ourselves. But that should not obscure the fact that we are then spinning webs from a thread of ignorance.

It is surely no coincidence that many advocates of the “universal simulation” idea attest to being avid science-fiction fans in their youth. This might have inspired them to imagine futures and alien intelligences, but it may also have predisposed them to cast such imaginings in human terms: to see the cosmos through the windows of the Starship Enterprise.

Our Universe is like a quantum computer (Credit: Harald Ritsch/Science Photo Library)

Our Universe can be thought of as a quantum computer (Credit: Harald Ritsch/Science Photo Library)

Perhaps mindful of such limitations, Harvard physicist Lisa Randall is puzzled by the enthusiasm some of her colleagues show for these speculations about cosmic simulation. For her they change nothing about how we should see and investigate the world. Her bafflement is not just a “so what”: it is a question of what we choose to understand by “reality”.

Almost certainly, Elon Musk does not go around telling himself that the people he sees around him, and his friends and family, are just computer constructs created by streams of data entering the computational nodes that encode his own consciousness.

Partly, he does not do so because it is impossible to hold that image in our heads for any sustained length of time. But more to the point, it is because we know deep down that the only notion of reality worth having is the one we experience, and not some hypothetical world “behind” it.

There is, however, nothing new about asking what is “behind” the appearances and sensations we experience. Philosophers have been doing so for centuries.

The quantum world is counter-intuitive (Credit: Mike Agliolo/Science Photo Library)

The quantum world is counter-intuitive (Credit: Mike Agliolo/Science Photo Library)

Plato wondered if what we perceive as reality is like the shadows projected onto the walls of a cave. Immanuel Kant asserted that, while there might be some “thing in itself” that underlies the appearances we perceive, we can never know it. René Descartes accepted, in his famous one-liner “I think therefore I am“, that the capacity to think is the only meaningful criterion of existence we can attest.

The concept of “the world as simulation” takes that old philosophical saw and clothes it in the garb of our latest technologies. There is no harm in that. Like many philosophical conundrums, it impels us to examine our assumptions and preconceptions.

But until you can show that drawing distinctions between what we experience and what is “real” leads to demonstrable differences in what we might observe or do, it does not change our notion of reality in a meaningful way.

In the early 1700s, the philosopher George Berkeley argued that the world is merely an illusion. Dismissing the idea, the ebullient English writer Samuel Johnson exclaimed “I refute it thus” – and kicked a stone.

Johnson did not really refute anything. But he may nevertheless have come up with the right response.

Talking About Near-Death Experiences Could Help Soldiers Heal, Says Retired Colonel

In Beyond Science, Epoch Times explores research and accounts related to phenomena and theories that challenge our current knowledge. We delve into ideas that stimulate the imagination and open up new possibilities. Share your thoughts with us on these sometimes controversial topics in the comments section below.

Diane Corcoran, R.N., Ph.D., and retired U.S. Army colonel, heard her first near-death experience account from a soldier in Vietnam in 1969.

“I’ve got to tell you this,” he said earnestly and urgently. “Please believe me, this is real.” He described what Corcoran has come to know as a common near-death experience (NDE)—essentially a profound experience spurred by a brush with death.

NDEs are as varied as the people who have them, though some common traits include seeing dead loved ones, encountering angels or other transcendental beings, feelings of lightness and euphoria, and being able to view one’s own physical body from outside of it. Some NDEs are also terrifying and traumatic for various reasons.

Studies in the United States, Germany, and Australia have shown that anywhere from 4–15 percent of the general population have had some form of NDE. Soldiers experience so much trauma and are so much more likely to have encounters with death that Corcoran estimates more than 15 percent and even close to half may have had NDEs.

She’s listened with an open ear as a military insider for some 40 years; a lot of soldiers have confided in her, many with trepidation.

“My belief is … they could heal themselves of some of the issues they have if someone was there to support them, to validate their experience,” Corcoran said during a discussion at the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) 2014 Conference in Newport Beach, Calif., on Aug. 30.

Corcoran is the current president of IANDS, and she has seen the comfort, hope, and sense of purpose many have gained from their NDEs. On the other hand, for soldiers an NDE can become one of many traumatic experiences if they feel the NDE shows they are mentally unstable. The NDE may become something they feel ashamed of, something they must deal with on their own.

When the young man in Vietnam told her of his experience, she knew that, “This was really emotional for him, this was really important for him.”

“I intuitively knew that people were walking out of hospitals everyday having had NDEs and never having a soul to talk to,” she said. “In the military at least, it was my goal that … military nurses and doctors would do this.”

She spoke about NDEs loud and clear throughout her years in the military and even became known as the “Death and Dying Lady.” Corcoran has spoken at veterans’ meetings, hospitals, and similar forums. While awareness of NDEs and their role in a soldier’s mental health has taken “baby steps,” Corcoran said, many professionals treating soldiers wouldn’t know to differentiate an NDE from a psychiatric break.

People are terrified of seeming crazy if they talk about their NDEs, Corcoran said. She has been trying to find a soldier to discuss his or her NDE on camera to make a film and raise awareness. All have refused, worried they could lose benefits or their security clearance could be compromised if they appear mentally unstable.

Gathering data about military NDEs is difficult due to this unwillingness to open up, Corcoran said. She can only make educated guesses as to the number and impact of NDEs in the military. She continues to inspire confidence in experiencers, many of whom feel more comfortable opening up to a retired colonel than to someone outside of the military.

When she worked as a military nurse for 25 years, she didn’t necessarily bring up NDEs with those she cared for. She just listened. “You have to have time, you have to have some ability to sit and look into their eyes and say, ‘I’m here, I’m interested. Tell me about your experiences … You can tell me anything, I’m here to support you.’”

During Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s, she was working at a 300-bed hospital that had to become a 1,000-bed hospital within a couple of days. She gave a talk to the medical staff and told them to be prepared for soldiers discussing NDEs. She gave advice on how to help those soldiers cope.

That she continued to climb in rank over the years and to give talks to military personnel on NDEs shows that soldiers can openly believe in and discuss NDEs

Scientists Discover An Ocean 400 Miles Beneath Our Feet That Could Fill Our Oceans 3 Times Over!

After decades of theorizing and searching, scientists are reporting that they’ve finally found a massive reservoir of water in the Earth’s mantle — a reservoir so vast that could fill the Earth’s oceans three times over. This discovery suggests that Earth’s surface water actually came from within, as part of a “whole-Earth water cycle,” rather than the prevailing theory of icy comets striking Earth billions of years ago. As always, the more we understand about how the Earth formed, and how its multitude of interior layers continue to function, the more accurately we can predict the future. Weather, sea levels, climate change — these are all closely linked to the tectonic activity that endlessly churns away beneath our feet.

This new study, authored by a range of geophysicists and scientists from across the US, leverages data from the USArray — an array of hundreds of seismographs located throughout the US that are constantly listening to movements in the Earth’s mantle and core. After listening for a few years, and carrying out lots of complex calculations, the researchers believe that they’ve found a huge reserve of water that’s located in thetransition zone between the upper and lower mantle — a region that occupies between 400 and 660 kilometers (250-410 miles) below our feet. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1253358 – “Dehydration melting at the top of the lower mantle”]


As you can imagine, things are a little complex that far down. We’re not talking about some kind of water reserve that can be reached in the same way as an oil well. The deepest a human borehole has ever gone is just 12km — about half way through the Earth’s crust — and we had to stop because geothermal energy was melting the drill bit. 660 kilometers is a long, long way down, and weird stuff happens down there.

Basically, the new theory is that the Earth’s mantle is full of a mineral called ringwoodite. We know from experiments here on the surface that, under extreme pressure, ringwoodite can trap water. Measurements made by the USArray indicate that as convection pushes ringwoodite deeper into the mantle, the increase in pressure forces the trapped water out (a process known as dehydration melting). That seems to be the extent of the study’s findings. Now they need to try and link together deep-Earth geology with what actually happens on the surface. The Earth is an immensely complex machine that generally moves at a very, very slow pace. It takes years of measurements to get anything even approaching useful data.

Spicy Food Is Associated With A Lower Risk Of Death

Spicy Food Is Associated With A Lower Risk Of Death

Good news for chili chompers: Regularly chowing down on spicy foods is associated with a lower risk of death, especially if you stay away from booze. But before you start drowning your cheerios in tabasco sauce, it’s unclear at this stage whether it is the spicy food itself or some other factor that is potentially bestowing the observed benefits. Regardless, further research is warranted, and the findings add to a growing body of evidence that chili could be healthful. The study has been published in The BMJ.

The world seems to have an ongoing obsession with unlocking the secrets to longevity. What makes people live longer, and can we alter our lives to stitch a few years onto our finite timelines? There is no simple answer at this stage; aging is incredibly complex, but one factor that has long been considered the cornerstone of health and longevity is diet.

While we know that eating your greens and grains and avoiding too much sugar and processed food is the way to go, what about components of food, like spices? Lab investigations and small population studies have highlighted possible benefits of the active ingredients of various spices, and given the popularity and widespread use of chili in particular, researchers decided to embark on an impressively large and more robust study to find out more.

Almost half a million adults from 10 geographically diverse areas in China were enrolled between 2004 and 2008 and followed for around seven years. At the start of the study, participants filled in a questionnaire about their spicy food consumption habits, including how often they ate these foods and what spices they tended to contain, like fresh chili pepper or chili sauce. Data was also collected on numerous other factors and characteristics, such as education, alcohol consumption, physical activity and intake of red meat and other foods.

After excluding those with a family history of cancer, heart disease and stroke, during the follow-up investigation more than 20,000 of the participants died. They found that those who ate spicy foods one or two days a week had a 10% lower risk of death – both overall and from specific causes like cancer – than those who only ate such foods less than once per week. Those who ate spicy foods almost every day were at a 14% lower mortality risk than infrequent consumers. Although the same trends were seen in both men and women, the relationship was strongest in those who avoided alcohol.

So should we all start shoveling spices to live longer? Not so fast. The study has merits due to the large sample size, but also clear limitations: It was confined to the Chinese population and may therefore not be generalizable, it relied on self-reporting – which is not quantitative and cannot be validated – and studies such as this cannot infer cause and effect. Furthermore, since it is rare to use one spice in isolation, it is difficult to point the finger at chilies when it could be another ingredientcommonly used in conjunction, or even a style of cooking, that is behind the observed relationship.

That being said, various prior studies have identified numerous possible health benefits of the active compound in chili, capsaicin, which seems to possess antioxidant, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory properties, to name just a few. The association is therefore plausible, but not confirmed, so further studies are warranted.