While many AI biotech companies are on journeys to discover new drug targets, Hong Kong-based Insilico Medicine is a step ahead. The startup not only scouts for new drug sites using its AI and deep learning platforms but also develops novel molecules to target them.
In February, the company announced the discovery of a new drug target for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a disease in which air sacs of the lungs get scarred, leading to breathing difficulties. Using information about the site, it developed potential drug targets. The startup recently raised $255 million in series C funding, taking its total to $310 million. The round was led by private equity firm Warburg Pincus. Insilico will use the funds to start human clinical trials, initiate multiple new programs for novel and difficult targets, and further develop its AI and drug discovery capabilities.
The company has stiff competition in the industry of using AI to discover new drugs. The global AI in Drug Discovery market was valued at $230 million in 2021 and is projected to reach a market value of over $4 billion by 2031, according to a report from Vision Gain. The area has already minted at least one billionaire, Carl Hansen of AbCellera, and others have also gained attention from investors. Flagship Pioneering-backed Valo Health announced this month it’s going public via SPAC.
Investors said that Insilico’s AI technology and partnerships with leading pharmaceuticals attracted them to the startup, despite the crowded field. “Insilico fits strongly with our strategy of investing in the best-in-class innovators in the healthcare,” said Fred Hassan of Warburg Pincus, “Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning is a powerful tool to revolutionize the drug discovery process and bring life-changing therapies to patients faster than ever before, he added.
CEO and founder Alex Zhavoronkov got his start in computer science, but his interest in research into slowing down aging drew him to the world of biotech. He received his Masters from Johns Hopkins and then got a PhD from Moscow State University, where his research focused on using machine learning to look at the physics of molecular interactions in biological systems.
The process for finding a preclinical target for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis highlights Insilico’s approach. The company had initially found 20 new target sites to treat fibrosis. Then it used its machine learning processes to narrow those down to a specific target which is implicated in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Then using its in-house tool, Chemistry42, it generated novel molecules to target the new site. The new preclinical drug candidate was found efficacious and safe in mice studies, the company said in a press release.
“Now we have successfully linked both biology and chemistry and nominated the preclinical candidate for a novel target, with the intention of taking it into human clinical trials, which is orders of magnitude more complex and more risky problem to solve,” Zhavoronkov added in a statement.
Treatments for this condition are a dire need. Patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis develop respiratory failure as their blood doesn’t receive adequate oxygen. Most patients die within two to three years of developing the condition. If the company’s drug candidate proves out during clinical trials, it would be a major step forward both for these patients and the industry as a whole.
“To my knowledge this is the first case where AI identified a novel target and designed a preclinical candidate for a very broad disease indication,” Zhavoronkov said in a statement.
I am a New York based health and science reporter and a graduate from Columbia’s School of Journalism with a master’s in science and health reporting. I write on infectious diseases, global health, gene editing tools, intersection of public health and global warming. Previously, I worked as a health reporter in Mumbai, India, with the Hindustan Times, a daily newspaper where I extensively reported on drug resistant infections such as tuberculosis, leprosy and HIV. I also reported stories on medical malpractice, latest medical innovations and public health policies.
I have a master’s in biochemistry and a bachelor’s degree in zoology. My experience of working in a molecular and a cell biology laboratory helped me see science from researcher’s eye. In 2018 I won the EurekAlert! Fellowships for International Science Reporters. My Twitter account @aayushipratap
CEO Alex Zhavoronkov founded Insilico Medicine in 2014, as an alternative to animal testing for research and development programs in the pharmaceutical industry. By using artificial intelligence and deep-learning techniques, Insilico is able to analyze how a compound will affect cells and what drugs can be used to treat the cells in addition to possible side effects. Through its Pharma.AI division, the company provides machine learning services to different pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and skin care companies. Insilico is known for hiring mainly through hackathons such as their own MolHack online hackathon.
Night owls might get a rap for staying up too late watching Netflix or getting lost in meme spirals on the web, but it’s not all fun and games. Study after study shows the later you sleep and rise, the more likely you are to develop some serious health complications.
A 2018 paper by researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Surrey in the UK doubles down on the findings that night owls are more likely to suffer from a host of different diseases and disorders—diabetes, mental illnesses, neurological problems, gastrointestinal issues, and heart disease, to name a few. It also concludes, for the first time, that night owls had a 10 percent increased risk of dying (in the time period used in the study) compared to those who are early to rise and early to sleep (a.k.a. larks).
“I think it’s really important to get this message out to people who are night owls,” says lead author Kristen Knutson, an associate professor of neurology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “There may be some compelling consequences associated with these habits, and they might need to be more vigilant in maintaining a healthier lifestyle.”
Published in Chronobiology International, the paper analyzed 433,268 individuals who participated in the UK Biobank, a massive cohort study run from 2006 to 2010 aimed at investigating the role of genetic predisposition and environmental contributions to disease prevalence. Those participants were asked questions related to their chronotype, or preferred time and duration of sleeping during a 24-hour day. Participants identified as “definitely a morning person,” “more a morning person than evening person,” “more an evening than a morning person,” or “definitely an evening person.”
The researchers found that about 10,000 subjects died in the six-and-a-half years that followed the end of the Biobank study, and the ones who were “definite evening types” had a 10 percent increased risk of perishing compared to “definite morning types.” This number, the researchers say, was found after controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and prior health problems.
That sounds scary, sure—but there are a few limitations worth considering. For one, says Knutson, “we weren’t able to pinpoint and find out why night owls were more likely to die sooner,” so the direct cause of mortality is unknown, creating some murkiness as to what extent night owl lifestyles influenced those deaths.
“We think,” says Knutson, “it is at least partly due to our biological clocks. We think the problem is that the night owls are forced to live in a more ‘lark’ world, where you have to get up early for work and start the day than their internal clocks want to. So it’s a mismatch between the internal clock and the external world, and it’s a problem in the long run.”
The mismatch Knutson is referring to has to do with circadian rhythms, the biological processes that govern the body over the course of the 24-hour day. Circadian rhythms determine sleep patterns, energy levels, hormones, and body temperature—basically all the most important things. “There are ideal or optimal times for certain things to occur,” says Knutson.
Messing with your preferred sleep schedule can drastically disrupt your circadian rhythms, which in turn can have severe, negative effects on your health. We’re all feeling the effects of this, to some extent, no matter when we like to go to sleep; research indicates that modern humans are sleeping poorly thanks to artificial light, warmer temperatures, and stress, and scientists are working to understand what kind of impact this has on our health. Studies on extreme cases—shift workers and people like ER doctors and firefighters who regularly stay up all night—suggest the downsides can be quite dire.
Unfortunately, the Biobank data only indicated whether someone identified as a morning or evening person, not whether they had a sleep schedule that suited their chronotype. “We know what their preferred time to sleep is, but we have no idea what they were actually doing on a day-to-day basis,” says Knutson. That’s a question she hopes to address in subsequent studies.
Moreover, the data is limited to just British participants, most of whom were caucasians of Irish or English descent. It’s likely the results would be similar for other populations in the Western world, but they could also be substantially different for night owls elsewhere.
To some extent, you’re stuck with the chronotype you’re born with. Genes play a significant role in governing your internal clock, so if you’re naturally attuned to sleeping at 3:00 a.m. and waking up at 11:00 a.m., your best bet would be to find a career and lifestyle where this is okay.
But there are certain actions individuals could take to minimize the difference between their internal clock and their external life. In a perfect world, Knutson notes, employers could be more cognizant and allow employees to pick a work schedule that offers a good compromise between everyone’s needs. People can also shift their sleep and wake hours a little earlier to minimize discord, but they would need to do so gradually, and maintain that shift consistently. Lapsing into night owl habits on the weekends or on vacation is out of the question.
Of course, being a creature of the night isn’t all bad. Other studies have shown that the whole morning versus night person debate is really more of a proxy battle between organized and meticulous, or being expressive and imaginative: day-dwellers might be more focused on achieving goals and paying attention to details, but all-nighters tend to be more creative and open to new experiences. If you’re a night owl, don’t be too rash to think you should change yourself. Maybe you just need a career that harnesses your artistic side—and lets you sleep in a little.
A night owl, evening person or simply owl, is a person who tends to stay up until late at night, or the early hours of the morning. Night owls who are involuntarily unable to fall asleep for several hours after a normal time may have delayed sleep phase disorder.
The opposite of a night owl is an early bird – a lark as opposed to an owl – which is someone who tends to begin sleeping at a time that is considered early and also wakes early. Researchers traditionally use the terms morningness and eveningness for the two chronotypes or diurnality and nocturnality in animal behavior. In several countries, especially in Scandinavia, early birds are called A-people and night owls are called B-people.
The tendency to be a night owl exists on a spectrum, with most people being typical, some people having a small or moderate tendency to be a night owl, and a few having an extreme tendency to be a night owl. An individual’s own tendency can change over time and is influenced by multiple factors, including:
a genetic predisposition, which can cause the tendency to run in families,
the person’s age, with teenagers and young adults tending to be night owls more than young children or elderly people, and
the environment the person lives in, except for the patterns of light they are exposed to through seasonal changes as well as through lifestyle (such as spending the day indoors and using electric lights in the evening).
The genetic make-up of the circadian timing system underpins the difference between early and late chronotypes, or early birds and night owls. While it has been suggested that circadian rhythms may change over time, including dramatic changes that turn a morning lark to a night owl or vice versa, evidence for familial patterns of early or late waking would seem to contradict this, and individual changes are likely on a smaller scale.
Horne JA, Östberg O (1976). “A self-assessment questionnaire to determine morningness-eveningness in human circadian rhythms”. Int J Chronobiol. 4 (2): 97–110. PMID1027738.
Walker, R. J., Christopher, A. N., Wieth, M. B., & Buchanan, J. (2015). Personality, time-of-day preference, and eating behavior: The mediational role of morning-eveningness. Personality and Individual Differences, 77, 13–17.
Laura H. Smith/Charles H. Elliott, Seasonal Affective Disorder for Dummies (2007) p. 73
Jeff Belanger/Kirsten Dalley, The Nightmare Encyclopedia (2005) p. 83
Walker, R. J., Kribs, Z. D., Christopher, A. N., Shewach, O. R., & Wieth, M. B. (2014). Age, the Big Five, and time-of-day preference: A mediational model. Personality and Individual Differences, 56, 170–174.
Life seems to be tied to bioelectricity at every level. The late electrophysiologist and surgeon Robert Becker spent decades researching the role of the body’s electric fields in development, wound healing, and limb regrowth. His 1985 book, The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life, was a fascinating deep dive into how the body is electric through and through—despite our inability to see or sense these fields with our unaided senses. But Becker’s work was far from complete.
One scientist who has taken up Becker’s line of inquiry is Michael Levin. He got hooked on the subject after he read The Body Electric. Levin has been working on “cracking the bioelectric code,” as a 2013 paper of his put it, ever since. “Evolution,” Levin has said, “really did discover how good the biophysics of electricity is for computing and processing information in non-neural tissues,” the many thousands of cell types that make up the body, our word for trillions of cells cooperating. “It’s really hard to define what’s special about neurons,” he told me. “Almost all cells do the things neurons do, just more slowly.”
How do disarranged cells and organs intuit what do to?
His team at Tufts University develops new molecular-genetic and conceptual tools to probe large-scale information processing in regeneration, embryo development, and cancer suppression—all mediated by bioelectric fields in varying degrees. This work involves examining, for example, how frogs, which normally don’t regenerate whole limbs (like salamanders do) can regrow limbs, repair their brains and spinal cords, or normalize tumors with the help of “electroceuticals” (a pun based on “pharmaceuticals”).
These are therapies that target the bioelectric circuits of tumors instead of, or together with, chemical-based therapies. Bioelectric fields are, in other words, more powerful than we have suspected and perform many surprising roles in the human body and all animal bodies.
Nature seems to have figured out that electric fields, similar to the role they play in human-created machines, can power a wide array of processes essential to life. Perhaps even consciousness itself. A veritable army of neuroscientists and electrophysiologists around the world are developing steadily deeper insights into the degree that electric and magnetic fields—“brainwaves” or “neural oscillations”—seem to reveal key aspects of consciousness.
The prevailing view for some time now has been that the brain’s bioelectric fields, which are electrical and magnetic fields produced at various physical scales, are an interesting side effect—or epiphenomenon—of the brains’ activity, but not necessarily relevant to the functioning of consciousness itself.
A number of thinkers are suggesting now, instead, that these fields may in fact be the main game in town when it comes to explaining consciousness. In a 2013 paper, philosopher Mostyn Jones reviewed various field theories of consciousness, still a minority school of thought in the field but growing.
If that approach is right, it is likely that the body’s bioelectric fields are also, more generally, associated in some manner with some kind of consciousness at various levels. Levin provided some support for this notion when I asked him about the potential for consciousness, in at least some rudimentary form, in the body’s electric fields.
“There are very few fundamental differences between neural networks and other tissues of bioelectrically communicating cells,” he said in an email. “If you think that consciousness in the brain is somehow a consequence of the brain’s electrical activity, then there’s no principled reason to assume that non-neural electric networks won’t underlie some primitive, basal (ancient) form of nonverbal consciousness.”
This way of thinking opens up exciting possibilities. It recognizes that there is perhaps some intelligence (and, to some thinkers, maybe even consciousness) in all of the body’s bioelectric fields, which are efficient sources of information transfer and even a kind of computation. In his work, Levin pieces together how these fields can contain information that guides growth and regeneration.
He sometimes describes these guiding forces as “morphogenetic fields.” It may sound like a mystical notion, but it’s quite physical and real, backed up by hard data. This information, Levin said, can be stored in multicellular electric fields “in a way that is likely very similar to how behavioral memories—of seeing a specific shape for example—are stored in a neuronal network.”
Take the case of a frog. “To become frogs, tadpoles have to rearrange their faces during metamorphosis,” Levin said. “It used to be thought that these movements were hardcoded, but our ‘Picasso’ tadpoles—which have all the organs in the wrong places—showed otherwise.” The apparent know-how that these bioelectric fields demonstrate, in terms of growing normal frogs in very un-normal circumstances, is uncanny. “Amazingly, they still largely became normal frogs!”
How do disarranged cells and organs intuit what do to? Levin, and the renowned philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennet, recently tackled this question in a rather provocatively titled article, “Cognition All the Way Down.” Something like thinking, they argue, isn’t just something we do in our heads that requires brains.
It’s a process even individual cells themselves, and not requiring any kind of brain, also take part in. To the biologists who see this as a cavalier form of anthropomorphization, Levin and Dennet say, “Chill out.” It’s useful to anthropomorphize many different kinds of life, to see in their parts and processes a variety of teleological experience. “Ever since the cybernetics advances of the 1940s and ’50s, engineers have had a robust, practical science of mechanisms with purpose and goal-directedness—without mysticism,” they write. “We suggest that biologists catch up.”
With respect to purposes and teleology (goal-directed behavior), they make their key point clear: “We think that this commendable scientific caution has gone too far, putting biologists into a straitjacket.”
A promising route for better understanding may be found, they write, in “thinking of parts of organisms as agents, detecting opportunities and trying to accomplish missions.” This is “risky, but the payoff in insight can be large.” For Levin, at least, bioelectric fields are key mechanisms for this kind of collective decision-making. These fields connect cells and tissues together, allowing, along with synaptic connections, for rapid information exchange, not only with immediate neighbors but distant ones as well.
These communication channels are involved in the emergence of cancer, which means that, according to Levin, they can potentially be useful in curing some forms of cancer. “You can [use bioelectric fields to] induce full-on metastatic melanoma—a kind of skin cancer—in perfectly normal animals with no carcinogens or nasty chemicals that break DNA,” he said. You can also use these same fields “to normalize existing tumors or prevent them from forming.” He’s currently moving this work to human clinical models.
The importance of bioelectric fields is all about connection, information, and computation. These ingredients equal cognition for Levin and Dennett, which is, for them, a continuum of complexity that has developed over a billion years of biological evolution. It’s not an all or nothing kind of thing but a spectrum—one that plays a role in development, evolution, cancer, and in the workings of consciousness itself.
The atmosphere of Mars is thin and, compared to Earth, barely even there at all, but it can still teach us about the history of the planet and its present-day status.
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which is a project from the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos, recently detected a gas that it never found before.
Hydrogen chloride, which requires specific conditions in which to form, has been detected in the atmosphere, raising many questions.
The Mars we see today is mostly dry, dusty, and barren. Sure, there is some water locked away in ice near the poles, and possibly some melting that happens during the Martian year, but aside from that there’s very little that offers clues as to the planet’s potentially rich and life-giving history. Projects like the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, sent to Mars by the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos space group, are helping to pull the curtain back and reveal some of the secrets the planet still holds.
Now, in a pair of new studies published in Science Advances, researchers using data from the Trace Gas Orbiter reveal that they’ve found a gas they’ve never seen before around Mars. The newfound gas, hydrogen chloride, which is the first halogen gas found in the Martian atmosphere, seems to be linked to seasonal changes, but the discovery ultimately raises more questions than it answers.
A planet’s atmosphere might not seem like a super important thing to study, especially in the case of an atmosphere as thin as that of Mars. But while the atmosphere of Mars may not be enough to support life on its surface, it can still serve as an indicator of what processes are playing out on the surface of the planet. The exciting part about discovering hydrogen chloride in the Martian atmosphere is that it suggests that water was (or still is) a significant component of the planet’s climatology.
“You need water vapour to free chlorine and you need the by-products of water—hydrogen—to form hydrogen chloride. Water is critical in this chemistry,” Kevin Olsen, co-author of the research, said in a statement. “We also observe a correlation to dust: we see more hydrogen chloride when dust activity ramps up, a process linked to the seasonal heating of the southern hemisphere.”
But what exactly does this mean? It’s still hard to say. Whatever is generating the gas appears to be linked to summer in the planet’s southern hemisphere, but beyond that, it’s difficult to determine the chain of events that is leading to its generation.
In the second paper, researchers reveal that measurements of the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in the planet’s atmosphere point to huge losses of water over the planet’s history. This supports the idea that Mars was once rich with water and potentially even supported massive lakes, rivers, and oceans on its surface.
Mike Wehner has reported on technology and video games for the past decade, covering breaking news and trends in VR, wearables, smartphones, and future tech. Most recently, Mike served as Tech Editor at The Daily Dot, and has been featured in USA Today, Time.com, and countless other web and print outlets. His love of reporting is second only to his gaming addiction.
The US space agency NASA has released the first audio from Mars, a faint crackling recording of wind captured by the Perseverance rover. A microphone did not work during the rover’s descent to the surface, but it was able to capture audio once it landed on Mars. The first-of-its-kind audio has been released along with extraordinary new video footage of the rover as it descended and landed last Thursday.
On the show we are joined by Dr Swati Mohan, the Indian American scientist who led the guidance and control operations of the Mars 2020 mission. She talks about the what the ‘Seven Minutes Terror’ was and about the tiny bindi she wore that has generated a huge buzz on social media. NDTV is one of the leaders in the production and broadcasting of un-biased and comprehensive news and entertainment programmes in India and abroad. NDTV delivers reliable information across all platforms: TV, Internet and Mobile. Subscribe for more videos: https://www.youtube.com/user/ndtv?sub… Like us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ndtv Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ndtv Download the NDTV Apps: http://www.ndtv.com/page/apps Watch more videos: http://www.ndtv.com/video?yt.
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Chinese scientists claim to have built a quantum computer that is able to perform certain computations nearly 100 trillion times faster than the world’s most advanced supercomputer, representing the first milestone in the country’s efforts to develop the technology.
The researchers have built a quantum computer prototype that is able to detect up to 76 photons through Gaussian boson sampling, a standard simulation algorithm, the state-run Xinhua news agency said, citing research published in Science magazine. That’s exponentially faster than existing supercomputers.
The breakthrough represents a quantum computational advantage, also known as quantum supremacy, in which no traditional computer can perform the same task in a reasonable amount of time and is unlikely to be overturned by algorithmic or hardware improvements, according to the research.
While still in its infancy, quantum computing is seen as the key to radically improving the processing speed and power of computers, enabling them to simulate large systems and drive advances in physics, chemistry and other fields. Chinese researchers are competing against major U.S. corporations from Alphabet Inc.’s Google to Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp. for a lead in the technology, which has become yet another front in the U.S.-China tech race.
Google said last year it has built a computer that could perform a computation in 200 seconds that would take the fastest supercomputers about 10,000 years, reaching quantum supremacy. The Chinese researchers claim their new prototype is able to process 10 billion times faster than Google’s prototype, according to the Xinhua report.
Xi Jinping’s government is building a $10 billion National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences as part of a big push in the field. In the U.S., the Trump administration provided $1 billion in funding to research into artificial intelligence and quantum information earlier this year and has sought to take credit for Google’s 2019 breakthrough.
The shift to cloud computing, the rise of video-gaming and the surge in e-commerce were all boosted by the pandemic’s effects. When the virus recedes, some of these trends may too. updated 2 hours ago Technology & Ideas
In September 2019, my colleague Anna Kapinska gave a presentation showing interesting objects she’d found while browsing our new radio astronomical data. She had started noticing very weird shapes she couldn’t fit easily to any known type of object.
Among them, labelled by Anna as WTF?, was a picture of a ghostly circle of radio emission, hanging out in space like a cosmic smoke-ring. None of us had ever seen anything like it before, and we had no idea what it was. A few days later, our colleague Emil Lenc found a second one, even more spooky than Anna’s.
EMU plans to boldly probe parts of the Universe where no telescope has gone before. It can do so because ASKAP can survey large swathes of the sky very quickly, probing to a depth previously only reached in tiny areas of sky, and being especially sensitive to faint, diffuse objects like these.
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I predicted a couple of years ago this exploration of the unknown would probably make unexpected discoveries, which I called WTFs. But none of us expected to discover something so unexpected, so quickly. Because of the enormous data volumes, I expected the discoveries would be made using machine learning. But these discoveries were made with good old-fashioned eyeballing.
Our team searched the rest of the data by eye, and we found a few more of the mysterious round blobs. We dubbed them ORCs, which stands for “odd radio circles”. But the big question, of course, is: “what are they?”
At first we suspected an imaging artefact, perhaps generated by a software error. But we soon confirmed they are real, using other radio telescopes. We still have no idea how big or far away they are. They could be objects in our galaxy, perhaps a few light-years across, or they could be far away in the Universe and maybe millions of light years across.
When we look in images taken with optical telescopes at the position of ORCs, we see nothing. The rings of radio emission are probably caused by clouds of electrons, but why don’t we see anything in visible wavelengths of light? We don’t know, but finding a puzzle like this is the dream of every astronomer.
We have ruled out several possibilities for what ORCs might be.
Could they be supernova remnants, the clouds of debris left behind when a star in our galaxy explodes? No. They are far from most of the stars in the Milky Way and there are too many of them.
Could they be the rings of radio emission sometimes seen in galaxies undergoing intense bursts of star formation? Again, no. We don’t see any underlying galaxy that would be hosting the star formation.
Could they be the giant lobes of radio emission we see in radio galaxies, caused by jets of electrons squirting out from the environs of a supermassive black hole? Not likely, because the ORCs are very distinctly circular, unlike the tangled clouds we see in radio galaxies.
Could they be Einstein rings, in which radio waves from a distant galaxy are being bent into a circle by the gravitational field of a cluster of galaxies? Still no. ORCs are too symmetrical, and we don’t see a cluster at their centre.
A genuine mystery
In our paper about ORCs, which is forthcoming in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, we run through all the possibilities and conclude these enigmatic blobs don’t look like anything we already know about.
So we need to explore things that might exist but haven’t yet been observed, such as a vast shockwave from some explosion in a distant galaxy. Such explosions may have something to do with fast radio bursts, or the neutron star and black hole collisions that generate gravitational waves.
Or perhaps they are something else entirely. Two Russian scientists have even suggested ORCs might be the “throats” of wormholes in spacetime.
From the handful we’ve found so far, we estimate there are about 1,000 ORCs in the sky. My colleague Bärbel Koribalski notes the search is now on, with telescopes around the world, to find more ORCs and understand their cause.
It’s a tricky job, because ORCS are very faint and difficult to find. Our team is brainstorming all these ideas and more, hoping for the eureka moment when one of us, or perhaps someone else, suddenly has the flash of inspiration that solves the puzzle.
It’s an exciting time for us. Most astronomical research is aimed at refining our knowledge of the Universe, or testing theories. Very rarely do we get the challenge of stumbling across a new type of object which nobody has seen before, and trying to figure out what it is.
Is it a completely new phenomenon, or something we already know about but viewed in a weird way? And if it really is completely new, how does that change our understanding of the Universe? Watch this space!
By: Ray Norris Professor, School of Science, Western Sydney University
A new study using observations from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope reveals the first clear-cut evidence that the expanding debris of exploded stars produces some of the fastest-moving matter in the universe. This discovery is a major step toward meeting one of Fermi’s primary mission goals. Cosmic rays are subatomic particles that move through space at nearly the speed of light. About 90 percent of them are protons, with the remainder consisting of electrons and atomic nuclei.
In their journey across the galaxy, the electrically charged particles become deflected by magnetic fields. This scrambles their paths and makes it impossible to trace their origins directly. Through a variety of mechanisms, these speedy particles can lead to the emission of gamma rays, the most powerful form of light and a signal that travels to us directly from its sources. Two supernova remnants, known as IC 443 and W44, are expanding into cold, dense clouds of interstellar gas.
This material emits gamma rays when struck by high-speed particles escaping the remnants. Scientists have been unable to ascertain which particle is responsible for this emission because cosmic-ray protons and electrons give rise to gamma rays with similar energies. Now, after analyzing four years of data, Fermi scientists see a gamma-ray feature from both remnants that, like a fingerprint, proves the culprits are protons. When cosmic-ray protons smash into normal protons, they produce a short-lived particle called a neutral pion.
The pion quickly decays into a pair of gamma rays. This emission falls within a specific band of energies associated with the rest mass of the neutral pion, and it declines steeply toward lower energies. Detecting this low-end cutoff is clear proof that the gamma rays arise from decaying pions formed by protons accelerated within the supernova remnants. This video is public domain and can be downloaded at: http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/goto?11209 Like our videos? Subscribe to NASA’s Goddard Shorts HD podcast: http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/vis/iTunes/f… Or find NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/NASA.GSFC Or find us on Twitter: http://twitter.com/NASAGoddard
Albert Einstein’s work so revolutionized physics that it is difficult to discuss him without slipping into hagiography. Indeed, his brilliance is so storied that his surname has become synonymous with “genius,” and his brain preserved for study.
And yet, while Einstein was undeniably a smart cookie, one cannot look back at the course of history without noticing that the dominoes were all there, set up, and waiting for someone like him to start toppling them. Part of Einstein’s brilliance was merely realizing this. Avi Loeb, a professor of physics at Harvard University with a regular a column in Scientific American, told me that he thinks that Einstein’s physics revelations would have been developed by others even if Einstein hadn’t been born. “It would take maybe a few more decades,” Loeb clarified. “Many of the things that Einstein personally was responsible for — there at least 10 touchstones in physics where each of them is a major intellectual achievement — you know, they would be discovered by different people, I think,” Loeb continued. “That illustrates his genius.”
Loeb is advising on a public project celebrating Einstein’s life and work at Hebrew University, which hosts an archive of Einstein’s documents. The project, “Einstein: Visualize the Impossible,” is slated to be an interactive online exhibition to engage the public with Einstein’s work. As a fellow physicist, Einstein’s work and his life have weighed on Loeb’s mind for years, which is why he was interested in helping curate.
In considering Einstein’s legacy, though, Loeb says we have to reckon with what has and hasn’t changed about the physics world. In the 1890s, when Einstein was in college, physics knowledge was a shell of what it is today. Quantum mechanics, dark matter, nuclear physics and most fundamental particles were unknown, and astronomers knew little about the nature of the universe — or even that there were other galaxies outside our own. Nowadays, many of the biggest physics discoveries happen by virtue of some of the largest and most expensive scientific instruments ever built: gravitational wave observatories, say, or the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
Given the landscape of physics today, could an Einstein-like physicist exist again — someone who, say, works in a patent office, quietly pondering the nature of space-time, yet whose revelations cause much of the field to be completely rethought?
Loeb thought so. “There are some dark clouds in physics,” Loeb told me. “People will tell you, ‘we just need to figure out which particles makes the dark matter, it’s just another particle. It has some weak interaction, and that’s pretty much it.’ But I think there is a very good chance that we are missing some very important ingredients that a brilliant person might recognize in the coming years.” Loeb even said the potential for a revolutionary physics breakthrough today “is not smaller — it’s actually bigger right now” than it was in Einstein’s time.
I spoke with Loeb via phone about Einstein’s legacy, and how physics has become “stuck” on certain problems; as always, this interview has been condensed and edited for print.
To start, let’s talk about some of Einstein’s contributions to science. What compelled you to help curate this celebration of Einstein’s legacy?
Well, to start, Einstein’s special theory of relativity revolutionized our notion of space and time. The fact that space and time are entities that are lumped together and that the speed of light is the ultimate speed, and, and that you can convert mass to energy, which is demonstrated by nuclear energy in particular. Then later on, he made the extremely important contributions to quantum mechanics, and of course developed the general theory of relativity that he published in November 1915, 105 years ago.
And amazingly, exactly a hundred years later, in August, 2015, gravitational waves were detected by the LIGO experiment — and they demonstrated that not only do gravitational waves exist, which are ripples in space and time that Einstein’s theory forecasted, but also that the forces of these gravitational waves are black holes, which are also a prediction of Einstein’s theory.
Obviously Einstein was very visionary, but also in a sense, he had peers — people like Karl Schwarzchild and Edwin Hubble — who were doing work that would help him test and correlate his theories. I’ve wondered, say, if Einstein were born 30 years later, would someone else have figured out relativity, and the photoelectric effect, and so on?
That’s a good question. Physics is about nature, right? So we’re trying to learn about nature. We’re trying to understand nature and you know, so, in that sense, we collect data and eventually someone comes up with the right idea. The question is, how long does that take? What I’m saying is, I believe that the same ideas would have been developed.
I don’t know how close to the time that Einstein and thought about them, but eventually. . . . it would take maybe a few more decades or something. But the most important thing is, I think it would have been fragmented. So, you know, many of the things that Einstein personally was responsible for — like there at least 10 touchstones in physics where each of them is a major intellectual achievement — they would be discovered by different people. So the fact that he came up with with all of them illustrates his genius.
But you know, if you look at people that got the Nobel prize, there are many people — examples of people that got it once for one major discovery, that’s pretty much what they did for their life. Either they did it early on in their life or late, but doesn’t matter. And that’s not true about Einstein. So he didn’t only deviate from the beaten path and, and come up with original ideas, but he did it multiple times. And by that, you know, it contributed to humanity. A great deal, I should say, like for example, his a general theory of relativity — this idea that space and time and gravity are connected.
It seems like physics has changed between Einstein’s day and now. Most of the underlying physical principles of our universe appear to have been well-defined and tested by now — say, the standard model of particle physics, or relativity and gravitation. And a lot of advances happen now because of data from huge teams working on government-funded instruments. Given the landscape of physics, is it actually possible that there could be somebody else like Einstein nowadays, someone who revolutionizes the whole field? Or do you think things have sort of fundamentally changed — both in terms of funding of experiments and of our understanding of the universe — so that such a thing is no longer possible?
I mean, we do have much bigger experiments as you said, and much more data in some fields. But we still need people that think about the blueprint of physics, that think about the fundamental assumptions that everyone else is making that might be wrong. We need critical thinking. And there are some dark clouds on the horizon, just as they were 150 years ago. You know, back then, back then it was the blackbody radiation. And people at the time thought, “well, we just need to clarify that dark cloud, and then we finish physics.” [Editor’s note: in the 1890s, the fact that objects glowed different colors as they heated up was one of the great mysteries of physics. It turned out to be related to quantum mechanics, the study of which prompted an ongoing revolution in physics.]
And right now there are some dark clouds, too, you know. Like, there is the nature of dark matter, or the nature of the cosmological constant, or that we don’t know where the vacuum gets its energy from. People will tell you, “oh, these are just minute details. You know, we just need to figure out which particles makes the dark matter, it’s just another particle. It has some weak interaction, and that’s pretty much it. And the dark energy, you know, it’s just the vacuum energy density, you know, for some reason it’s more maybe, because otherwise we wouldn’t exist here.” You know, we can give each other awards and celebrate the end of physics.
I think it’s pretty much similar [to the 19th century situation]. And I think there, there is a very good chance that we are missing some very important ingredients that a brilliant person might recognize in the coming years, in the coming decades.
What are some of the “dark clouds” in physics, as you say?
One of the challenges is unifying quantum mechanics and gravity. So you have this huge contingency of string theories that agree among themselves that they are leading the frontier, but nevertheless, they haven’t provided any concrete predictions that can be tested by experiments over the past 40 years. [Editor’s note: String theory unifies quantum mechanics and gravity, but it is, as Loeb mentions, not testable as far as anyone knows.]
[String theorists] are still advocating that they’re the smartest physicists — although they’re not doing physics, because in my book, physics is about testing your ideas against reality, with experiments. And, you know, I very much believe that put your theory to the guillotine of experimental data, and it may cut its head off. But if you don’t risk your theory by testing it, you can be very proud of yourself. The only way that you maintain your humility is by recognizing that there is something superior to your ideas, which is nature. And it’s a learning experience where you’re not supposed to know everything in advance.
And that’s unfortunately not popular these days. Today, it’s all about impressing each other. And that’s part of social media, you know, trying to impress other people to say things that look smart, that look very intelligent, that completely align with what everyone else is saying so that they will like you, that you would have more likes on Twitter. Okay. So that’s the motivation, so that you can get more awards, more grants so that you can get a tenure appointment and everyone would respect you.
That’s wrong. That was clearly not the motivation of Einstein. He was not trying to be liked, and that’s why he was working in a patent office. But his ideas happened to be right. And in a way he was naive in that sense, but that’s the right approach — you should be always learning.
So I would say there is the same potential — even greater now — because we are at a time when we recognize the success of physics. It has a huge impact on the economy, on politics, and so forth. So we recognize that — but if you look at the frontiers of physics, which is blue sky research, you know, it’s supposed to be open minded — but it’s not open-minded. There are groups of people, entrenched in ideas that will never be tested and they believe that they’re leading the frontier.
Right. So are you saying that the premise of the some of the major experiments might even be wrong? Like, all the prominent dark matter experiments are trying to find this weakly-interacting, supersymmetric particle, but even that assumption may be wrong?
So here is an example: Supersymmetry, you know, that was an idea advocated for decades now. [Editor’s note: Supersymmetry is the theory that for every fundamental particle, there is a “partner” particle; so for the electron, there would be a supersymmetric “selectron,” and for the top quark, there would be a supersymmetric “squark,” and so on. Dark matter is theorized to be made of one of these particles. Yet none of the supersymmetric particles have ever been observed.] And people celebrated this idea, and gave each other awards. The Large Hadron Collider in CERN was supposed to detect the lightest supersymmetric particles — and it didn’t. There’s no evidence for supersymmetry.
So obviously what people say is, “oh, maybe it’s around the corner.” But it’s already ruled out — the most natural versions of supersymmetry are ruled out. So here’s an idea that was celebrated as part of the mainstream — not only celebrated, but it was the foundation for string theory. So they put it as a building block: “We know it exists, put it as a brick at the bottom of the tower that we are building called string theory, called superstring theory. And let’s assume that we know it it’s completely trivial, experimentalists will eventually find it, we don’t even need to think about it — let’s put it as a building block of our tower.”
Doesn’t exist. LHD [Large Hadron Collider] didn’t find it. So then, people say, “okay, weakly interacting massive particles are dark matter — but for decades, they haven’t found anything. [Editor’s note: One prominent theory to explain dark matter is that it consists of particles that are heavy but rarely interact with normal matter, though they bounce off of themselves and have a gravitational interaction. Most of the major experiments searching for dark matter are attempting to find this type of weakly interacting massive particle, or WIMP for short.]
And so I asked the experimentalists, “how long will you continue to search for WIMPs, these weakly interacting particles, since the limits are orders of magnitude below the expectation?” And he said, “I will continue to search for WIMPs as long as I get funding.”
So in the mainstream approach, there is this stubbornness — like, we stick to the ideas that we believe in. And then anyone that deviates from that will be sidelined. You know, anyone that considers any other theory for unifying quantum mechanics and gravity through string theory is sidelined, even though there is no reasonable evidence for string theory. So I would say the potential now for a breakthrough that will be really revolutionary is not smaller — it’s actually bigger right now [than it was in Einstein’s]. It’s just, the social pressure is stronger.
So we do need — we desperately need another Einstein. There is no doubt.
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It would change everything we know about life in the Solar System and far beyond.
Or would it? What if we accidentally transported life to Mars on a spacecraft? And what if that is how life moves around the Universe?
A new paper published this week in Frontiers in Microbiology explores the possibility that microbes and extremophiles may migrate between planets and distribute life around the Universe—and that includes on spacecraft sent from Earth to Mars.
What is ‘panspermia?’
It’s an untested, unproven and rather wild theory regarding the interplanetary transfer of life. It theorizes that microscopic life-forms, such as bacteria, can be transported through space and land on another planet. Thus sparking life elsewhere.
It could happen by accident—such as on spacecraft—via comets and asteroids in the Solar System, and perhaps even between star systems on interstellar objects like ʻOumuamua.
However, for “panspermia” to have any credence requires proof that bacteria could survive a long journey through the vacuum, temperature fluctuations, and intense UV radiation in outer space.
Cue the “Tanpopo” project.
What is the ‘Tanpopo’ mission?
Tanpopo—dandelion in English—is a scientific experiment to see if bacteria can survive in the extremes of outer space.
The researchers from Tokyo University—in conjunction with Japanese national space agency JAXA—wanted to see if the bacteria deinococcus could survive in space, so had it placed in exposure panels on the outside of the International Space Station (ISS). It’s known as being resistant to radiation. Dried samples of different thicknesses were exposed to space environment for one, two, or three years and then tested to see if any survived.
“The results suggest that deinococcus could survive during the travel from Earth to Mars and vice versa, which is several months or years in the shortest orbit,” said Akihiko Yamagishi, a Professor at Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Sciences and principal investigator of Tanpopo.
That means spacecraft visiting Mars could theoretically carry microorganisms and potentially contaminate its surface.
However, this isn’t just about Earth and Mars—the ramifications of panspermia, if proven, are far-reaching.
“The origin of life on Earth is the biggest mystery of human beings (and) scientists can have totally different points of view on the matter,” said Dr. Yamagishi. “Some think that life is very rare and happened only once in the Universe, while others think that life can happen on every suitable planet.”
This is bacteria surviving in space for a long period when shielded by rock—typically an asteroid or a comet—which could travel between planets, potentially spreading bacteria and biologically-rich matter around the Solar System.
However, the theory of panspermia goes even further than that.
What is ‘interstellar panspermia’ and ‘galactic panspermia?’
This is the hypothesis—and it’s one with zero evidence—that life exists throughout the galaxy and/or Universe specifically because bacteria and microorganisms are spread around by asteroids, comets, space dust and possibly even interstellar spacecraft from alien civilizations.
In 2018 a paper concluded that the likelihood of Galactic panspermia is strongly dependent upon the survival lifetime of the organisms as well as the velocity of the comet or asteroid—positing that the entire Milky Way could potentially be exchanging biotic components across vast distances.
Such theories have gained credence in the last few years with the discovery of two extrasolar objects Oumuamua and Borisov passing through our Solar System.
However, while the ramifications are mind-boggling, panspermia is definitely not a proven scientific process.
There are still many unanswered questions about how the space-surviving microbes could physically transfer from one celestial body to another.
How will Perseverance look for life on Mars?
NASA’s Perseverance rover is due to land on the red planet on February 18, 2021. It will land in a nearly four billion-year-old river delta in Mars’ 28 miles/45 kilometers-wide Jezero Crater.
It’s thought likely that Jezero Crater was home to a lake as large as Lake Tahoe more than 3.5 billion years ago. Ancient rivers there could have carried organic molecules and possibly even microorganisms.
Perseverance’s mission will be to analyze rock and sediment samples to see if Mars may have had conditions for microorganisms to thrive. It will drill a few centimeters into Mars and take core samples, then put the most promising into containers. It will then leave them on the Martian surface to be later collected by a human mission in the early 2030s.
I’m an experienced science, technology and travel journalist interested in space exploration, moon-gazing, exploring the night sky, solar and lunar eclipses, astro-travel, wildlife conservation and nature. I’m the editor of WhenIsTheNextEclipse.com and the author of “A Stargazing Program for Beginners: A Pocket Field Guide” (Springer, 2015), as well as many eclipse-chasing guides.
The U.S. domestic response to the COVID-19 pandemic thus far has been “weak,” Bill Gates believes. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation co-chair and Microsoft co-founder told TIME senior health correspondent Alice Park during a TIME100 Talks discussion on Thursday that he’d give the U.S.’s COVID-19 response, “on a relative and absolute basis, not a passing grade.”
But, he added, the U.S.’s funding for vaccine and therapeutic research “has been the best in the world,” so if it coordinates to share resources globally, the U.S. could “potentially score the highest” in that realm.
During a global pandemic like COVID-19, Gates argued, governments must collaborate to ensure the virus is fully eradicated. The U.S. has historically led global responses to past health crises like smallpox or polio, he told Park, but has been less of a leader during COVID-19. Instead, countries that were exposed to SARS or MERS responded most quickly and “set a very strong model.”
“There’s about six countries that immediately went to the private sector and said okay, ‘how do we get mass testing? We’ll commit to buy tests’,” he said. “That never happened in the U.S.”
The U.S. continues to face huge delays that make many tests “a waste of money,” he continued, adding that while the responsibility for testing has been delegated to the states, they “don’t have enough power” to speed up testing.
“The more you know about this, the more you wish experts were taking charge,” Gates continued.
If the U.S. can get its COVID-19 numbers down in the next few months, he noted, that will make a “huge difference” in terms of the death rate “going into the fall,” which “could be a challenge because people are indoors more, it’s colder and the flu symptoms will be confusing.”
Fall could also bring new developments in vaccine and therapeutic research, however. “Even within two months, we can have some new anti-virals and antibodies that could make a big difference,” Gates said, adding that countries will need to work together to distribute those resources globally.
Companies that create vaccines need to coordinate with those that have factory capacity and adopt tiered pricing “so the poorest countries get it for the lowest price,” he continued. And governments will also need to ensure that the vaccine is allocated equally—not only within countries but between countries. That can’t be done using only market forces, he said. “The private sector all by itself, would simply charge the highest price and only give to the very wealthy.”
As of yet, the U.S. hasn’t “shown up in the international forums where money to get these tools out to countries is being discussed,” he told Park. Still, he continued, “that still absolutely can be fixed.”
In 1981, many of the world’s leading cosmologists gathered at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a vestige of the coupled lineages of science and theology located in an elegant villa in the gardens of the Vatican. Stephen Hawking chose the august setting to present what he would later regard as his most important idea: a proposal about how the universe could have arisen from nothing.
Before Hawking’s talk, all cosmological origin stories, scientific or theological, had invited the rejoinder, “What happened before that?” The Big Bang theory, for instance — pioneered 50 years before Hawking’s lecture by the Belgian physicist and Catholic priest Georges Lemaître, who later served as president of the Vatican’s academy of sciences — rewinds the expansion of the universe back to a hot, dense bundle of energy. But where did the initial energy come from?
The Big Bang theory had other problems. Physicists understood that an expanding bundle of energy would grow into a crumpled mess rather than the huge, smooth cosmos that modern astronomers observe. In 1980, the year before Hawking’s talk, the cosmologist Alan Guth realized that the Big Bang’s problems could be fixed with an add-on: an initial, exponential growth spurt known as cosmic inflation, which would have rendered the universe huge, smooth and flat before gravity had a chance to wreck it. Inflation quickly became the leading theory of our cosmic origins. Yet the issue of initial conditions remained: What was the source of the minuscule patch that allegedly ballooned into our cosmos, and of the potential energy that inflated it?
Hawking, in his brilliance, saw a way to end the interminable groping backward in time: He proposed that there’s no end, or beginning, at all. According to the record of the Vatican conference, the Cambridge physicist, then 39 and still able to speak with his own voice, told the crowd, “There ought to be something very special about the boundary conditions of the universe, and what can be more special than the condition that there is no boundary?”
The “no-boundary proposal,” which Hawking and his frequent collaborator, James Hartle, fully formulated in a 1983 paper, envisions the cosmos having the shape of a shuttlecock. Just as a shuttlecock has a diameter of zero at its bottommost point and gradually widens on the way up, the universe, according to the no-boundary proposal, smoothly expanded from a point of zero size. Hartle and Hawking derived a formula describing the whole shuttlecock — the so-called “wave function of the universe” that encompasses the entire past, present and future at once — making moot all contemplation of seeds of creation, a creator, or any transition from a time before.
“Asking what came before the Big Bang is meaningless, according to the no-boundary proposal, because there is no notion of time available to refer to,” Hawking said in another lecture at the Pontifical Academy in 2016, a year and a half before his death. “It would be like asking what lies south of the South Pole.”
Hartle and Hawking’s proposal radically reconceptualized time. Each moment in the universe becomes a cross-section of the shuttlecock; while we perceive the universe as expanding and evolving from one moment to the next, time really consists of correlations between the universe’s size in each cross-section and other properties — particularly its entropy, or disorder. Entropy increases from the cork to the feathers, aiming an emergent arrow of time. Near the shuttlecock’s rounded-off bottom, though, the correlations are less reliable; time ceases to exist and is replaced by pure space. As Hartle, now 79 and a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explained it by phone recently, “We didn’t have birds in the very early universe; we have birds later on. … We didn’t have time in the early universe, but we have time later on.”
The no-boundary proposal has fascinated and inspired physicists for nearly four decades. “It’s a stunningly beautiful and provocative idea,” said Neil Turok, a cosmologist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, and a former collaborator of Hawking’s. The proposal represented a first guess at the quantum description of the cosmos — the wave function of the universe. Soon an entire field, quantum cosmology, sprang up as researchers devised alternative ideas about how the universe could have come from nothing, analyzed the theories’ various predictions and ways to test them, and interpreted their philosophical meaning. The no-boundary wave function, according to Hartle, “was in some ways the simplest possible proposal for that.”
But two years ago, a paper by Turok, Job Feldbrugge of the Perimeter Institute, and Jean-Luc Lehners of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany called the Hartle-Hawking proposal into question. The proposal is, of course, only viable if a universe that curves out of a dimensionless point in the way Hartle and Hawking imagined naturally grows into a universe like ours. Hawking and Hartle argued that indeed it would — that universes with no boundaries will tend to be huge, breathtakingly smooth, impressively flat, and expanding, just like the actual cosmos. “The trouble with Stephen and Jim’s approach is it was ambiguous,” Turok said — “deeply ambiguous.”
In their 2017 paper, published in Physical Review Letters, Turok and his co-authors approached Hartle and Hawking’s no-boundary proposal with new mathematical techniques that, in their view, make its predictions much more concrete than before. “We discovered that it just failed miserably,” Turok said. “It was just not possible quantum mechanically for a universe to start in the way they imagined.” The trio checked their math and queried their underlying assumptions before going public, but “unfortunately,” Turok said, “it just seemed to be inescapable that the Hartle-Hawking proposal was a disaster.”
The paper ignited a controversy. Other experts mounted a vigorous defense of the no-boundary idea and a rebuttal of Turok and colleagues’ reasoning. “We disagree with his technical arguments,” said Thomas Hertog, a physicist at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium who closely collaborated with Hawking for the last 20 years of the latter’s life. “But more fundamentally, we disagree also with his definition, his framework, his choice of principles. And that’s the more interesting discussion.”
After two years of sparring, the groups have traced their technical disagreement to differing beliefs about how nature works. The heated — yet friendly — debate has helped firm up the idea that most tickled Hawking’s fancy. Even critics of his and Hartle’s specific formula, including Turok and Lehners, are crafting competing quantum-cosmological models that try to avoid the alleged pitfalls of the original while maintaining its boundless allure.
Garden of Cosmic Delights
Hartle and Hawking saw a lot of each other from the 1970s on, typically when they met in Cambridge for long periods of collaboration. The duo’s theoretical investigations of black holes and the mysterious singularities at their centers had turned them on to the question of our cosmic origin.
In 1915, Albert Einstein discovered that concentrations of matter or energy warp the fabric of space-time, causing gravity. In the 1960s, Hawking and the Oxford University physicist Roger Penrose proved that when space-time bends steeply enough, such as inside a black hole or perhaps during the Big Bang, it inevitably collapses, curving infinitely steeply toward a singularity, where Einstein’s equations break down and a new, quantum theory of gravity is needed. The Penrose-Hawking “singularity theorems” meant there was no way for space-time to begin smoothly, undramatically at a point.
Hawking and Hartle were thus led to ponder the possibility that the universe began as pure space, rather than dynamical space-time. And this led them to the shuttlecock geometry. They defined the no-boundary wave function describing such a universe using an approach invented by Hawking’s hero, the physicist Richard Feynman. In the 1940s, Feynman devised a scheme for calculating the most likely outcomes of quantum mechanical events. To predict, say, the likeliest outcomes of a particle collision, Feynman found that you could sum up all possible paths that the colliding particles could take, weighting straightforward paths more than convoluted ones in the sum. Calculating this “path integral” gives you the wave function: a probability distribution indicating the different possible states of the particles after the collision.
Likewise, Hartle and Hawking expressed the wave function of the universe — which describes its likely states — as the sum of all possible ways that it might have smoothly expanded from a point. The hope was that the sum of all possible “expansion histories,” smooth-bottomed universes of all different shapes and sizes, would yield a wave function that gives a high probability to a huge, smooth, flat universe like ours. If the weighted sum of all possible expansion histories yields some other kind of universe as the likeliest outcome, the no-boundary proposal fails.
The problem is that the path integral over all possible expansion histories is far too complicated to calculate exactly. Countless different shapes and sizes of universes are possible, and each can be a messy affair. “Murray Gell-Mann used to ask me,” Hartle said, referring to the late Nobel Prize-winning physicist, “if you know the wave function of the universe, why aren’t you rich?” Of course, to actually solve for the wave function using Feynman’s method, Hartle and Hawking had to drastically simplify the situation, ignoring even the specific particles that populate our world (which meant their formula was nowhere close to being able to predict the stock market). They considered the path integral over all possible toy universes in “minisuperspace,” defined as the set of all universes with a single energy field coursing through them: the energy that powered cosmic inflation. (In Hartle and Hawking’s shuttlecock picture, that initial period of ballooning corresponds to the rapid increase in diameter near the bottom of the cork.)
Even the minisuperspace calculation is hard to solve exactly, but physicists know there are two possible expansion histories that potentially dominate the calculation. These rival universe shapes anchor the two sides of the current debate.
The rival solutions are the two “classical” expansion histories that a universe can have. Following an initial spurt of cosmic inflation from size zero, these universes steadily expand according to Einstein’s theory of gravity and space-time. Weirder expansion histories, like football-shaped universes or caterpillar-like ones, mostly cancel out in the quantum calculation.
One of the two classical solutions resembles our universe. On large scales, it’s smooth and randomly dappled with energy, due to quantum fluctuations during inflation. As in the real universe, density differences between regions form a bell curve around zero. If this possible solution does indeed dominate the wave function for minisuperspace, it becomes plausible to imagine that a far more detailed and exact version of the no-boundary wave function might serve as a viable cosmological model of the real universe.
The other potentially dominant universe shape is nothing like reality. As it widens, the energy infusing it varies more and more extremely, creating enormous density differences from one place to the next that gravity steadily worsens. Density variations form an inverted bell curve, where differences between regions approach not zero, but infinity. If this is the dominant term in the no-boundary wave function for minisuperspace, then the Hartle-Hawking proposal would seem to be wrong.
The two dominant expansion histories present a choice in how the path integral should be done. If the dominant histories are two locations on a map, megacities in the realm of all possible quantum mechanical universes, the question is which path we should take through the terrain. Which dominant expansion history, and there can only be one, should our “contour of integration” pick up? Researchers have forked down different paths.
In their 2017 paper, Turok, Feldbrugge and Lehners took a path through the garden of possible expansion histories that led to the second dominant solution. In their view, the only sensible contour is one that scans through real values (as opposed to imaginary values, which involve the square roots of negative numbers) for a variable called “lapse.” Lapse is essentially the height of each possible shuttlecock universe — the distance it takes to reach a certain diameter. Lacking a causal element, lapse is not quite our usual notion of time. Yet Turok and colleagues argue partly on the grounds of causality that only real values of lapse make physical sense. And summing over universes with real values of lapse leads to the wildly fluctuating, physically nonsensical solution.
“People place huge faith in Stephen’s intuition,” Turok said by phone. “For good reason — I mean, he probably had the best intuition of anyone on these topics. But he wasn’t always right.”
Jonathan Halliwell, a physicist at Imperial College London, has studied the no-boundary proposal since he was Hawking’s student in the 1980s. He and Hartle analyzed the issue of the contour of integration in 1990. In their view, as well as Hertog’s, and apparently Hawking’s, the contour is not fundamental, but rather a mathematical tool that can be placed to greatest advantage. It’s similar to how the trajectory of a planet around the sun can be expressed mathematically as a series of angles, as a series of times, or in terms of any of several other convenient parameters. “You can do that parameterization in many different ways, but none of them are any more physical than another one,” Halliwell said.
He and his colleagues argue that, in the minisuperspace case, only contours that pick up the good expansion history make sense. Quantum mechanics requires probabilities to add to 1, or be “normalizable,” but the wildly fluctuating universe that Turok’s team landed on is not. That solution is nonsensical, plagued by infinities and disallowed by quantum laws — obvious signs, according to no-boundary’s defenders, to walk the other way.
It’s true that contours passing through the good solution sum up possible universes with imaginary values for their lapse variables. But apart from Turok and company, few people think that’s a problem. Imaginary numbers pervade quantum mechanics. To team Hartle-Hawking, the critics are invoking a false notion of causality in demanding that lapse be real. “That’s a principle which is not written in the stars, and which we profoundly disagree with,” Hertog said.
According to Hertog, Hawking seldom mentioned the path integral formulation of the no-boundary wave function in his later years, partly because of the ambiguity around the choice of contour. He regarded the normalizable expansion history, which the path integral had merely helped uncover, as the solution to a more fundamental equation about the universe posed in the 1960s by the physicists John Wheeler and Bryce DeWitt. Wheeler and DeWitt — after mulling over the issue during a layover at Raleigh-Durham International — argued that the wave function of the universe, whatever it is, cannot depend on time, since there is no external clock by which to measure it. And thus the amount of energy in the universe, when you add up the positive and negative contributions of matter and gravity, must stay at zero forever. The no-boundary wave function satisfies the Wheeler-DeWitt equation for minisuperspace.
In the final years of his life, to better understand the wave function more generally, Hawking and his collaborators started applying holography — a blockbuster new approach that treats space-time as a hologram. Hawking sought a holographic description of a shuttlecock-shaped universe, in which the geometry of the entire past would project off of the present.
That effort is continuing in Hawking’s absence. But Turok sees this shift in emphasis as changing the rules. In backing away from the path integral formulation, he says, proponents of the no-boundary idea have made it ill-defined. What they’re studying is no longer Hartle-Hawking, in his opinion — though Hartle himself disagrees.
For the past year, Turok and his Perimeter Institute colleagues Latham Boyle and Kieran Finn have been developing a new cosmological model that has much in common with the no-boundary proposal. But instead of one shuttlecock, it envisions two, arranged cork to cork in a sort of hourglass figure with time flowing in both directions. While the model is not yet developed enough to make predictions, its charm lies in the way its lobes realize CPT symmetry, a seemingly fundamental mirror in nature that simultaneously reflects matter and antimatter, left and right, and forward and backward in time. One disadvantage is that the universe’s mirror-image lobes meet at a singularity, a pinch in space-time that requires the unknown quantum theory of gravity to understand. Boyle, Finn and Turok take a stab at the singularity, but such an attempt is inherently speculative.
There has also been a revival of interest in the “tunneling proposal,” an alternative way that the universe might have arisen from nothing, conceived in the ’80s independently by the Russian-American cosmologists Alexander Vilenkin and Andrei Linde. The proposal, which differs from the no-boundary wave function primarily by way of a minus sign, casts the birth of the universe as a quantum mechanical “tunneling” event, similar to when a particle pops up beyond a barrier in a quantum mechanical experiment.
Questions abound about how the various proposals intersect with anthropic reasoning and the infamous multiverse idea. The no-boundary wave function, for instance, favors empty universes, whereas significant matter and energy are needed to power hugeness and complexity. Hawking argued that the vast spread of possible universes permitted by the wave function must all be realized in some larger multiverse, within which only complex universes like ours will have inhabitants capable of making observations. (The recent debate concerns whether these complex, habitable universes will be smooth or wildly fluctuating.) An advantage of the tunneling proposal is that it favors matter- and energy-filled universes like ours without resorting to anthropic reasoning — though universes that tunnel into existence may have other problems.
No matter how things go, perhaps we’ll be left with some essence of the picture Hawking first painted at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences 38 years ago. Or perhaps, instead of a South Pole-like non-beginning, the universe emerged from a singularity after all, demanding a different kind of wave function altogether. Either way, the pursuit will continue. “If we are talking about a quantum mechanical theory, what else is there to find other than the wave function?” asked Juan Maldacena, an eminent theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who has mostly stayed out of the recent fray. The question of the wave function of the universe “is the right kind of question to ask,” said Maldacena, who, incidentally, is a member of the Pontifical Academy. “Whether we are finding the right wave function, or how we should think about the wave function — it’s less clear.”