Stephen Hawking Says 'God Particle' Could Wipe Out the Universe
By Kelly Dickerson, Staff Writer | September 08, 2014
Stephen Hawking bet Gordon Kane $100 that physicists would not discover the Higgs boson. After losing that bet when physicists detected the particle in 2012, Hawking lamented the discovery, saying it made physics less interesting. Now, in the preface to a new collection of essays and lectures called "Starmus," the famous theoretical physicist is warning that the particle could one day be responsible for the destruction of the known universe. Hawking is not the only scientist who thinks so. The theory of a Higgs boson doomsday, where a quantum fluctuation creates a vacuum "bubble" that expands through space and wipes out the universe, has existed for a while. However, scientists don't think it could happen anytime soon. "Most likely it will take 10 to the 100 years [a 1 followed by 100 zeroes] for this to happen, so probably you shouldn't sell your house and you should continue to pay your taxes," Joseph Lykken, a theoretical physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, said during his lecture at the SETI Institute on Sept. 2. "On the other hand it may have already happened, and the bubble might be on its way here now. And you won't know because it's going at the speed of light so there's not going to be any warning."
The Higgs boson, sometimes referred to as the 'god particle,' much to the chagrin of scientists who prefer the official name, is a tiny particle that researchers long suspected existed. Its discovery lends strong support to the Standard Model of particle physics, or the known rules of particle physics that scientists believe govern the basic building blocks of matter. The Higgs boson particle is so important to the Standard Model because it signals the existence of the Higgs field, an invisible energy field present throughout the universe that imbues other particles with mass. Since its discovery two years ago, the particle has been making waves in the physics community. Now that scientists measured the particle's mass last year, they can make many other calculations, including one that seems to spell out the end of the universe. Universe doomsday The Higgs boson is about 126 billion electron volts, or about the 126 times the mass of a proton. This turns out to be the precise mass needed to keep the universe on the brink of instability, but physicists say the delicate state will eventually collapse and the universe will become unstable. That conclusion involves the Higgs field.
The Higgs field emerged at the birth of the universe and has acted as its own source of energy since then, Lykken said. Physicists believe the Higgs field may be slowly changing as it tries to find an optimal balance of field strength and energy required to maintain that strength. "Just like matter can exist as liquid or solid, so the Higgs field, the substance that fills all space-time, could exist in two states," Gian Giudice, a theoretical physicist at the CERN lab, where the Higgs boson was discovered, explained during a TED talk in October 2013. Right now the Higgs field is in a minimum potential energy state — like a valley in a field of hills and valleys. The huge amount of energy required to change into another state is like chugging up a hill. If the Higgs field makes it over that energy hill, some physicists think the destruction of the universe is waiting on the other side. But an unlucky quantum fluctuation, or a change in energy, could trigger a process called "quantum tunneling." Instead of having to climb the energy hill, quantum tunneling would make it possible for the Higgs field to "tunnel" through the hill into the next, even lower-energy valley. This quantum fluctuation will happen somewhere out in the empty vacuum of space between galaxies, and will create a "bubble," Lykken said.
Here's how Hawking describes this Higgs doomsday scenario in the new book: "The Higgs potential has the worrisome feature that it might become metastable at energies above 100 [billion] gigaelectronvolts (GeV). … This could mean that the universe could undergo catastrophic vacuum decay, with a bubble of the true vacuum expanding at the speed of light. This could happen at any time and we wouldn't see it coming." The Higgs field inside that bubble will be stronger and have a lower energy level than its surroundings. Even if the Higgs field inside the bubble were slightly stronger than it is now, it could shrink atoms, disintegrate atomic nuclei, and make it so that hydrogen would be the only element that could exist in the universe, Giudice explained in his TED talk. But using a calculation that involves the currently known mass of the Higgs boson, researchers predict this bubble would contain an ultra-strong Higgs field that would expand at the speed of light through space-time. The expansion would be unstoppable and would wipe out everything in the existing universe, Lykken said. "More interesting to us as physicists is when you do this calculation using the standard physics we know about, it turns out we're right on the edge between a stable universe and an unstable universe," Lykken said. "We're sort of right on the edge where the universe can last for a long time, but eventually it should go 'boom.' There's no principle that we know of that would put us right on the edge."
Not all doom and gloom
Either all of space-time exists on this razor's edge between a stable and unstable universe, or the calculation is wrong, Lykken said.
If the calculation is wrong, it must come from a fundamental part of physics that scientists have not discovered yet. Lykken said one possibility is the existence of invisible dark matter that physicists believe makes up about 27 percent of the universe. Discovering how dark matter interacts with the rest of the universe could reveal properties and rules physicists don't know about yet. The other is the idea of "supersymmetry." In the Standard Model, every particle has a partner, or its own anti-particle. But supersymmetry is a theory that suggests every particle also has a supersymmetric partner particle. The existence of these other particles would help stabilize the universe, Lykken said. "We found the Higgs boson, which was a big deal, but we're still trying to understand what it means and we're also trying to understand all the other things that go along with it "This is very much the beginning of the story and I've shown you some directions that story could go in, but I think there could be surprises that no one has even thought of," Lykken concludes in his lecture.
Biologists delay the aging process by 'remote control'
September 8, 2014 University of California - Los Angeles
UCLA biologists have identified a gene that can slow the aging process throughout the entire body when activated remotely in key organ systems.
Working with fruit flies, the life scientists activated a gene called AMPK that is a key energy sensor in cells; it gets activated when cellular energy levels are low.
Increasing the amount of AMPK in fruit flies' intestines increased their lifespans by about 30 percent -- to roughly eight weeks from the typical six -- and the flies stayed healthier longer as well.
The research, published Sept. 4 in the open-source journal Cell Reports, could have important implications for delaying aging and disease in humans, said David Walker, an associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA and senior author of the research.
"We have shown that when we activate the gene in the intestine or the nervous system, we see the aging process is slowed beyond the organ system in which the gene is activated," Walker said.
Walker said that the findings are important because extending the healthy life of humans would presumably require protecting many of the body's organ systems from the ravages of aging -- but delivering anti-aging treatments to the brain or other key organs could prove technically difficult. The study suggests that activating AMPK in a more accessible organ such as the intestine, for example, could ultimately slow the aging process throughout the entire body, including the brain.
Humans have AMPK, but it is usually not activated at a high level, Walker said.
"Instead of studying the diseases of aging -- Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes -- one by one, we believe it may be possible to intervene in the aging process and delay the onset of many of these diseases," said Walker, a member of UCLA's Molecular Biology Institute. "We are not there yet, and it could, of course, take many years, but that is our goal and we think it is realistic.
"The ultimate aim of our research is to promote healthy aging in people."
The fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, is a good model for studying aging in humans because scientists have identified all of the fruit fly's genes and know how to switch individual genes on and off. The biologists studied approximately 100,000 of them over the course of the study.
Lead author Matthew Ulgherait, who conducted the research in Walker's laboratory as a doctoral student, focused on a cellular process called autophagy, which enables cells to degrade and discard old, damaged cellular components. By getting rid of that "cellular garbage" before it damages cells, autophagy protects against aging, and AMPK has been shown previously to activate this process.
Ulgherait studied whether activating AMPK in the flies led to autophagy occurring at a greater rate than usual.
"A really interesting finding was when Matt activated AMPK in the nervous system, he saw evidence of increased levels of autophagy in not only the brain, but also in the intestine," said Walker, a faculty member in the UCLA College. "And vice versa: Activating AMPK in the intestine produced increased levels of autophagy in the brain -- and perhaps elsewhere, too."
Many neurodegenerative diseases, including both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, are associated with the accumulation of protein aggregates, a type of cellular garbage, in the brain, Walker noted.
"Matt moved beyond correlation and established causality," he said. "He showed that the activation of autophagy was both necessary to see the anti-aging effects and sufficient; that he could bypass AMPK and directly target autophagy."
Walker said that AMPK is thought to be a key target of metformin, a drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes, and that metformin activates AMPK.
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Aging (grants R01 AG037514 and R01 AG040288). Ulgherait received funding support from a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (GM07185) and Eureka and Hyde fellowships from the UCLA department of integrative biology and physiology.
Co-authors of the research were Anil Rana, a postdoctoral scholar in Walker's lab; Michael Rera, a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar in Walker's lab; and Jacqueline Graniel, who participated in the research as a UCLA undergraduate.
Clever Trout Match Chimps in a Cognitive Challenge
By Brandon Keim 09.08.14
Certain forms of collaboration are supposed to be so sophisticated that only the smartest creatures—namely humans and perhaps a few close relatives—are capable of them. Yet this exclusive club has a new and unexpected member: a species of fish, a class of animals seldom associated with high-level intelligence.
As demonstrated in a series of experiments published today in Current Biology, coral trout not only solicit the help of moray eels when they hunt, but also pick their hunting partners wisely. They know when they need help, and quickly learn which eels best provide it. It’s a seemingly simple yet surprisingly sophisticated cognitive trick.
“Prior to our study, chimpanzees and humans were the only species known to possess both of these abilities,” said zoologist Alex Vail of England’s University of Cambridge. “I think the evidence is mounting that fish have more going on in their heads in terms of cognition than they have been given credit for.”
In earlier research, Vail and colleagues observed that coral groupers and coral trout—two closely-related species of large, reef-dwelling predatory fish found in the Indian and western Pacific oceans—used their bodies to point moray eels at prey hiding in otherwise inaccessible seabed holes. The eels followed directions, flushing prey from the holes and giving groupers an easy meal.
In the cognitive argot, this appeared to be evidence of referential communication: groupers didn’t merely express an emotional state or some straightforward want, as with a mating display. Rather, their gestures referred to an external object, and seemed to display conscious intent. It was not the behavior of a stimulus-response machine.
It was an exciting finding. In recent years, even as scientific journals burst with studies of clever crows and empathic rats and tool-using dolphins, fish remained at the back of the class. Yet that may say more about our own assumptions than anything else. Fish have been around for more than 500 million years, and have as much evolutionary incentive as other creatures to smarten up.
In the new study, Vail and his colleagues, fellow Cambridge zoologist Andrea Manica and biologist Redouan Bshary of Switzerland’s University of Neuchatel, decided to give coral trout an especially challenging test, adapting an experiment originally conducted with chimpanzees.
That experiment, published to widespread scientific acclaim in 2006, involved one chimp freeing another from a cage in order to jointly tug on a rope, thus releasing food that couldn’t be reached by a single chimp’s efforts. Chimps figured out when they needed help and learned which other chimps best provided it—aptitudes that until then had been considered uniquely human.
'Coming years will see the discovery of a lot more surprising cognitive abilities.'
In the new experiment, the scientists placed coral trout in an aquarium containing a plastic moray model and a frozen baitfish. Fishing lines attached to the eel and baitfish allowed researchers to control them and mimic the movements of a real-world hunt. Sometimes the bait was placed under a container, forcing the coral trout to enlist the moray’s assistance in chasing it out.
Just like the chimps, coral trout at first sought the moray’s help indiscriminately, but within a day learned to ask for help only when necessary. Then, in a second experiment, the researchers put two moray models in the aquarium: one was controlled so as to be an efficient prey-chaser, the other less so. Again, within a day, trout learned to seek help from the more helpful eel.
“Our study strengthens the case that a relatively small brain (compared to warm-blooded species) does not preclude at least some fish species from possessing cognitive abilities that compare to or surpass those of apes,” wrote Vail and colleagues.
Brian Hare, a Duke University evolutionary anthropologist who worked on the original chimpanzee study, called the new findings “exciting.” The fish indeed appear to be collaborating in a manner “similar to what we see in apes,” said Hare, a result which challenges the notion “that only animals that look like us can be smart.”
Vail and colleagues do caution that they don’t know exactly what’s happening in the coral trout’s minds. They might be thinking along the same lines we do when cooperating. It’s also possible that they achieve the same result through a very different thought process.
An open question is whether groupers and coral trout are exceptionally smart, or possess abilities shared by many as-yet-unstudied fish species. The answer, said Vail, is probably a bit of both. Groupers and coral trout appear to be especially curious, a trait generally considered a sign of smarts, but circumstance has likely guided the evolution of complex intelligence in some other species. Vail thinks groupers and coral trout developed their intelligence as a predatory adaptation, one that helped them learn the habits of their many prey species and was later applied to working with moray eels.
“I think that the coming years will see the discovery of a lot more surprising cognitive abilities in a wide variety of fish species,” said Vail. “They still have plenty more surprises in store for us.”
Navy’s Exoskeleton Could Make Workers 20 Times More Productive
By Liz Stinson 09.10.14
Military work is physically demanding—and we’re not just talking about soldiers on the battlefield. Travel down the chain, and you’ll find plenty of positions where strength and stamina are highly valued skills. Take the Navy for example. The Navy needs ships and those ships need to be built and maintained—a rough, physically draining job. Sandblasting, riveting, and grinding excess metal off the ships can take a toll on the human body. You’re often carrying tools that can weigh upwards of 30 pounds. “There’s a lot of wear and tear on you,” says Adam Miller, director of new initiatives for Lockheed Martin. “Skilled workers can maybe do that for three to four minutes then they need to put the tool down and they need to rest.”
For the past couple of years, Miller has been leading a team of engineers and designers to create one of the first industrial-use exoskeletons. Called the FORTIS, the exoskeleton is able to support tools of up to 36 pounds and transfer that load from a worker’s hands and arms to the ground. The goal is to lighten workers’ loads, ultimately making them more productive and skilled at their jobs. The U.S. Navy recently bought two of the exoskeletons and plans to test them over the next six months to see how they might be used in an industrial situation.
Wish Granted: 7-Year-Old Writes And Stars In His Own Sci-fi Movie
DATE: Sep 10, 2014 BY: Joelle Renstrom
Many of us have dreams to make our own television shows or movies, but few of us are fortunate, talented, and/or lucky/driven enough to make that happen. But thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, one terminally ill 7-year-old from the U.K. was able to do just that.
Clark Doyle from Northwest England was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy 3 years ago at the age of 4. The disease is a particular form of MD caused by a mutation in the dystrophin gene, which is involved in muscle fiber strength and connective tissue. The disease only manifests in males, though females can be carriers. There’s no cure for the disease, which causes weakness and loss of muscle mass, usually starting in the legs and pelvis, and then moving on to the arms, torso, and other areas. The disease causes muscle tissues to atrophy to the extent that most children afflicted by this condition are confined to a wheelchair by age 12, and eventually causes paralysis and death (life expectancy is approximately 25 years).
As it turns out, Clark is also a big science fiction fan—Godzilla is a particular favorite—and the U.K. Make-A-Wish Foundation gave him the opportunity to write and star in his very own movie, Dimension Zero. Charlotte Knight Productions helped Clark with the script, and then the whole family got to take a trip to London to watch the filming. Clark stars as Tiger, and his dad has a major role in the film as well. There’s even a puppet—a Hang Tongue Frog puppet, to be specific—made by the folks at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
I love how the opening sequence is a little reminiscent of Doctor Who, and Clark just scooped Interstellar with his integration of a wormhole into the plot. Take that, Christopher Nolan. The CGI is pretty good, too. I also think pretty much all sci-fi movies would be better if the protagonist had a slight lisp and can say things like, “I’ve never been weadier.”
The experience “couldn’t have been better,” according to Clark’s mom, especially when it comes to encouraging him to continue writing stories and being creative. Last Sunday, Clark and his family arrived to the local cinema via limo for the film’s premier. I didn’t think anything could be cooler than giving a five-year-old a chance to be Batman and save an entire city, but granting Clark Doyle’s wish to become a filmmaker gives that one a run for its money. Props once again to Make A Wish.