Category: Top Posts

What’s Going On With the World’s Most Destructive Mud Volcano?

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Now abandoned, part of Sidoarjo town is entombed in mud metres thick. (Credit: sawerigading)

The world’s most destructive mud volcano was born near the town of Sidoarjo, on the island of Java, Indonesia, just over 11 years ago – and to this day it has not stopped erupting. The mud volcano known as Lusi started on May 29, 2006, and at its peak disgorged a staggering 180,000 cubic meters of mud every day, burying villages in mud up to 40 meters thick. The worst event of its kind in recorded history, the eruption took 13 lives and destroyed the homes of 60,000 people. But although the mud is still flowing more than a decade later, scientists are not yet agreed on its cause.

The debate is whether the eruption of Lusi was due to an earthquake several days previously, or down to a catastrophic failure of the Banjar Panji 1 gas exploration well that was being drilled nearby at the time. Given the huge impact of the volcano on the communities nearby and the fields that were their livelihoods, why are we still unsure of the cause? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

What Would It Take to Wipe Out All Life on Earth?

An asteroid smacks into planet Earth.

(Credit: Shutterstock)

The first exoplanet was spotted in 1988. Since then more than 3,000 planets have been found outside our solar system, and it’s thought that around 20 percent of Sun-like stars have an Earth-like planet in their habitable zones. We don’t yet know if any of these host life – and we don’t know how life begins. But even if life does begin, would it survive?

Earth has undergone at least five mass extinctions in its history. It’s long been thought that an asteroid impact ended the dinosaurs. As a species, we are rightly concerned about events that could lead to our own elimination – climate change, nuclear war or disease could wipe us out. So it’s natural to wonder what it would take to eliminate all life on a planet. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: natural disasters

Can Breathing Like Wim Hof Make Us Superhuman?

By Nathaniel Scharping | July 6, 2017 11:24 am
(Credit: Innerfire BV)

(Credit: Innerfire BV)

Take a deep breath. Feel the wave of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide press against the bounds of your ribcage and swell your lungs. Exhale. Repeat.

Before consciously inhaling, you probably weren’t thinking about breathing at all. The respiratory system is somewhat unique to our bodies in that we are both its passenger and driver. We can leave it up to our autonomic nervous system, responsible for unconscious actions like our heartbeat and digestion, or we can seamlessly take over the rhythm of our breath.

To some, this duality offers a tantalizing path into our subconscious minds and physiology. Control breathing, the thinking goes, and perhaps we can nudge other systems within our bodies. This is part of the logic behind Lamaze techniques, the pranayamic breathing practiced in yoga and even everyday wisdom — “just take a deep breath.”

These breathing practices promise a kind of visceral self-knowledge, a more perfect melding of mind and body that expands our self-control to subconscious activities. These may be dubious claims to some.

For Wim Hof, a Dutch daredevil nicknamed “The Iceman,” it is the basis of his success. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Memory Repression: A Dubious Theory That’s Sticking Around

By Ian Graber-Stiehl | July 6, 2017 10:34 am
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Compared to the other generational tragedies of the late ’80s and early ’90s, the rise of memory repression cases is hardly remembered. But nevertheless, during that time hundreds of abuse cases in the courts hinged on unproven theories of Sigmund Freud, tearing hundreds of families asunder and solidifying memory repression in clinical lore. Harvard University psychologist Richard McNally famously called repressed memories “the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy.”

For journalist Mark Pendergrast, it was the start of his career as a science writer. Falling into a rabbit hole of research on Freud for another book on Coca Cola, he began investigating memory recovery therapy. The resulting book, “Victims of Memory,” debunked many of the claims buttressing memory repression, and he painted an uncomfortable picture of a justice system that filed an some 800 criminal cases based on what may amount to pseudoscience.

But far from being a one-time phenomenon, belief in memory repression remains a prevalent notion. So Pendergrast has written two new books on the subject: ‘Memory Warp: How the Myth of Repressed Memory Arose and Refuses to Die,’ and an academic textbook ‘The Repressed Memory Epidemic: How It Happened and What We Need to Learn from It.’ He incorporated new incorporated new research, conducted in partnership with Southern Mississippi University’s Lawrence Patihis, in his new work. Discover spoke with Pendergrast about why he decided to revisit a topic he dug into more than two decades ago.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Designing a Safer Explosive

By David Chavez | July 3, 2017 2:40 pm
fireworks

(Credit: Shutterstock)

This Fourth of July, as you and your family settle on a sandy beach or grassy lawn to watch a fireworks display, you’re probably not thinking about the science behind the explosives you’re witnessing. In fact, you probably are not even thinking of them as explosives. But that’s exactly what they are—-and there’s a lot of science that goes into creating that dazzling display of fire and colors.

Fireworks often comprise mixtures of oxidizers and fuels that are ready to participate in combustion chemical reactions. When given enough energy to begin the reaction process, the oxidizers and fuels react to generate heat, smoke and reaction products such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapor and nitrogen. The heat generated can be used to excite “coloring agents,” or metal ions, that then emit the colored light we are accustomed to seeing in fireworks. The metal ions commonly used in pyrotechnics are sodium (yellow-orange), calcium (red-orange), barium (green), strontium (red) and copper (blue).
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: materials science

Will Robots Rule Finance?

finance

(Credit: Shutterstock)

The year is 2030. You’re in a business school lecture hall, where just a handful of students are attending a finance class.

The dismal turnout has nothing to with professorial style, school ranking or subject matter. Students simply aren’t enrolled, because there are no jobs out there for finance majors.

Today, finance, accounting, management and economics are among universities’ most popular subjects worldwide, particularly at graduate level, due to high employability. But that’s changing. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

When Did People Start Using Money?

By Chapurukha Kusimba, American University | June 20, 2017 1:49 pm
money

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Sometimes you run across a grimy, tattered dollar bill that seems like it’s been around since the beginning of time. Assuredly it hasn’t, but the history of human beings using cash currency does go back a long time – 40,000 years.

Scientists have tracked exchange and trade through the archaeological record, starting in Upper Paleolithic when groups of hunters traded for the best flint weapons and other tools. First, people bartered, making direct deals between two parties of desirable objects. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Creating a Universe in the Lab? The Idea Is No Joke

By Zeeya Merali | June 19, 2017 1:15 pm
universe

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Physicists aren’t often reprimanded for using risqué humor in their academic writings, but in 1991 that is exactly what happened to the cosmologist Andrei Linde at Stanford University. He had submitted a draft article entitled ‘Hard Art of the Universe Creation’ to the journal Nuclear Physics B. In it, he outlined the possibility of creating a universe in a laboratory: a whole new cosmos that might one day evolve its own stars, planets and intelligent life. Near the end, Linde made a seemingly flippant suggestion that our Universe itself might have been knocked together by an alien ‘physicist hacker’. The paper’s referees objected to this ‘dirty joke’; religious people might be offended that scientists were aiming to steal the feat of universe-making out of the hands of God, they worried. Linde changed the paper’s title and abstract but held firm over the line that our Universe could have been made by an alien scientist. ‘I am not so sure that this is just a joke,’ he told me.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century, and the notion of universe-making – or ‘cosmogenesis’ as I dub it – seems less comical than ever. I’ve travelled the world talking to physicists who take the concept seriously, and who have even sketched out rough blueprints for how humanity might one day achieve it. Linde’s referees might have been right to be concerned, but they were asking the wrong questions. The issue is not who might be offended by cosmogenesis, but what would happen if it were truly possible. How would we handle the theological implications? What moral responsibilities would come with fallible humans taking on the role of cosmic creators?

Theoretical physicists have grappled for years with related questions as part of their considerations of how our own Universe began. In the 1980s, the cosmologist Alex Vilenkin at Tufts University in Massachusetts came up with a mechanism through which the laws of quantum mechanics could have generated an inflating universe from a state in which there was no time, no space and no matter. There’s an established principle in quantum theory that pairs of particles can spontaneously, momentarily pop out of empty space. Vilenkin took this notion a step further, arguing that quantum rules could also enable a minuscule bubble of space itself to burst into being from nothing, with the impetus to then inflate to astronomical scales. Our cosmos could thus have been burped into being by the laws of physics alone. To Vilenkin, this result put an end to the question of what came before the Big Bang: nothing. Many cosmologists have made peace with the notion of a universe without a prime mover, divine or otherwise.

At the other end of the philosophical spectrum, I met with Don Page, a physicist and evangelical Christian at the University of Alberta in Canada, noted for his early collaboration with Stephen Hawking on the nature of black holes. To Page, the salient point is that God created the Universe ex nihilo – from absolutely nothing. The kind of cosmogenesis envisioned by Linde, in contrast, would require physicists to cook up their cosmos in a highly technical laboratory, using a far more powerful cousin of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva. It would also require a seed particle called a ‘monopole’ (which is hypothesized to exist by some models of physics, but has yet to be found).

The idea goes that if we could impart enough energy to a monopole, it will start to inflate. Rather than growing in size within our Universe, the expanding monopole would bend spacetime within the accelerator to create a tiny wormhole tunnel leading to a separate region of space. From within our lab we would see only the mouth of the wormhole; it would appear to us as a mini black hole, so small as to be utterly harmless. But if we could travel into that wormhole, we would pass through a gateway into a rapidly expanding baby universe that we had created. (A video illustrating this process provides some further details.)

We have no reason to believe that even the most advanced physics hackers could conjure a cosmos from nothing at all, Page argues. Linde’s concept of cosmogenesis, audacious as it might be, is still fundamentally technological. Page, therefore, sees little threat to his faith. On this first issue, then, cosmogenesis would not necessarily upset existing theological views.

But flipping the problem around, I started to wonder: what are the implications of humans even considering the possibility of one day making a universe that could become inhabited by intelligent life? As I discuss in my book A Big Bang in a Little Room (2017), current theory suggests that, once we have created a new universe, we would have little ability to control its evolution or the potential suffering of any of its residents. Wouldn’t that make us irresponsible and reckless deities? I posed the question to Eduardo Guendelman, a physicist at Ben Gurion University in Israel, who was one of the architects of the cosmogenesis model back in the 1980s. Today, Guendelman is engaged in research that could bring baby-universe-making within practical grasp. I was surprised to find that the moral issues did not cause him any discomfort. Guendelman likens scientists pondering their responsibility over making a baby universe to parents deciding whether or not to have children, knowing they will inevitably introduce them to a life filled with pain as well as joy.

Other physicists are more wary. Nobuyuki Sakai of Yamaguchi University in Japan, one of the theorists who proposed that a monopole could serve as the seed for a baby universe, admitted that cosmogenesis is a thorny issue that we should ‘worry’ about as a society in the future. But he absolved himself of any ethical concerns today. Although he is performing the calculations that could allow cosmogenesis, he notes that it will be decades before such an experiment might feasibly be realized. Ethical concerns can wait.

Many of the physicists I approached were reluctant to wade into such potential philosophical quandaries. So I turned to a philosopher, Anders Sandberg at the University of Oxford, who contemplates the moral implications of creating artificial sentient life in computer simulations. He argues that the proliferation of intelligent life, regardless of form, can be taken as something that has inherent value. In that case, cosmogenesis might actually be a moral obligation.

Looking back on my numerous conversations with scientists and philosophers on these issues, I’ve concluded that the editors at Nuclear Physics B did a disservice both to physics and to theology. Their little act of censorship served only to stifle an important discussion. The real danger lies in fostering an air of hostility between the two sides, leaving scientists afraid to speak honestly about the religious and ethical consequences of their work out of concerns of professional reprisal or ridicule.

We will not be creating baby universes anytime soon, but scientists in all areas of research must feel able to freely articulate the implications of their work without concern for causing offense. Cosmogenesis is an extreme example that tests the principle. Parallel ethical issues are at stake in the more near-term prospects of creating artificial intelligence or developing new kinds of weapons, for instance. As Sandberg put it, although it is understandable that scientists shy away from philosophy, afraid of being thought weird for veering beyond their comfort zone, the unwanted result is that many of them keep quiet on things that really matter.

As I was leaving Linde’s office at Stanford, after we’d spent a day riffing on the nature of God, the cosmos and baby universes, he pointed at my notes and commented ruefully: ‘If you want to have my reputation destroyed, I guess you have enough material.’ This sentiment was echoed by a number of the scientists I had met, whether they identified as atheists, agnostics, religious or none of the above. The irony was that if they felt able to share their thoughts with each other as openly as they had with me, they would know that they weren’t alone among their colleagues in pondering some of the biggest questions of our being.Aeon counter – do not remove

 

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: cosmology

For Funding, Scientists Turn to Unorthodox Sources

By Wudan Yan | June 14, 2017 11:47 am
science-funding

(Credit: isak55/Shutterstock)

When Donna Riordan first moved to the idyllic Orcas Island just off the coast of Washington state, she had no plans of doing any sort of research, despite her background in science and education policy. But a few years later, in 2012, she learned that Pacific International Terminals, part of marine and rail cargo operating company SSA Marine, planned to build the largest coal transport terminal in North America. She’d be able to see it from her home.

The proposed site was on top of two recently discovered fault lines. Riordan wanted to investigate the seismic hazards — which could influence how the terminal should be built, if at all. But there was one issue: how she could get the necessary money. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: science policy

Meet Dean Lomax, Master of the Prehistoric ‘Death March’

By Jon Tennant | June 12, 2017 12:35 pm
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Lomax meticulously studies an ammonite death march. (Courtesy: Dean Lomax)

Paleontologists study creatures that have long ceased to be, all in the hopes of “resurrecting” the history of their lives on Earth.

But paleontologist Dean Lomax, an Honorary Visiting Scientist at the University of Manchester, has made a name for himself recreating a very specific part of ancient creatures’ lives: their final struggle before death. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: paleontology
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