Further Confirmation of the Big Bang

The Big Bang / BBC Science

The Big Bang / BBC Science

And it all started with a Big Bang…

Everyone knows our universe began with a Big Bang.  Actually, it is probably more accurate to say that approximately 13.8 billion years we know that what we can observe seemed to have underwent a significant phase transition, which directly led to the creation of all known matter and energy, and perhaps led to the existence of space and time itself.  But we don’t know that the Big Bang was the start of everything there is.  We don’t know whether there are other areas of our universe that existed pre-Big Bang.  And perhaps more importantly, we don’t know what caused the Big Bang itself.

However, I definitely don’t want to undersell how powerful a theory the Big Bang theory is.  The Big Bang theory is the central, guiding theory in all cosmology, and can explain nearly every aspect of the universe we observe.  That is quite an ambitious and successful theory by any measure.  And last month the Big Bang theory got a big boost by a team of international researchers that massively strengthened one of the four observational pillars of the Big Bang.

For everyone who doesn’t know, the four observational pillars of the Big Bang are:

  1. Expansion of the fabric of space
  2. Cosmic Background Radiation
  3. Abundance of light elements
  4. Galactic evolution and distribution

The observed expansion of spacetime itself is crucial to supporting the idea that our observed universe started with a Big Bang.  All galaxies are rushing apart from each other.  The further apart two galaxies are, the further apart they are rushing apart.  This expansion has been ongoing since the beginning of spacetime itself.  We can extrapolate expansion rates into the past, and with help from Einstein’s theory of general relativity, we can get an estimate on the conditions of the early universe.

The Cosmic Background Radiation (CBR) is equally important to understanding the Big Bang as the expansion of spacetime.  Discovered in the 1960s, the CBR is empirical confirmation that the universe was once in a primordial state with no galaxies or stars.  It is actually a snapshot of time approximately 380,000 years post-bang when the universe had just started to form atoms and photons were first able to roam freely.  This period in the universe’s development was predicted by the general theory of relativity, and thus is a fantastic example of the predictive power of the theory.

The fourth pillar (we’ll get to the third after!) is also important.  We now know that galaxies have evolved in a quite straightforward direction of time.  As the universe expanded gravity pulled slightly unevenly distributed matter into larger and larger clumps.  First gravity sculpted clouds of hydrogen.  Then young galaxies.  Then super clusters of galaxies.  Today the largest structures in the universe are galaxies connected like giant cosmic filaments.  Our universe as a giant web of matter (that is admittedly being ripped further and further apart).

Finally, the third pillar: the abundance of light elements.  For a while chemists wondered how we could possibly explain why 99% of the universe was composed of the lightest elements: hydrogen, helium, and lithium.  Stars are chemical factories, but the known process of thermonuclear fusion predicts that there should be a higher percentage of heavier elements than observed.  The only way we can explain the observed abundance of light elements is if the universe was once as hot and dense as a star for a short period of time.  If this was the case we should suspect that the universe in this state would have only been able to produce the lightest elements, which would explain why they are so abundant.

Wait… that is what the Big Bang theory predicts!  Perfect!  This phenomenon is called “Big Bang nucleosynthesis“.  But there is a problem.  Scientists have shown that the Big Bang theory roughly accounts for the amount of hydrogen and helium observed.  Over the past few decades astronomers have observed that there are two times the amount of two Lithium isotopes (Li-6 and Li-7) than Big Bang nucleosynthesis could account for.  This is a major problem that cosmologists have been working to resolve now for over twenty years.  Some scientists suspected that there could be pre-galactic fusion cores that we don’t have the technology to observe yet.  Some thought there was a big enough discrepancy in observations to that justify re-working the Big Bang theory itself.

However, last month the aforementioned Big Bang pillar-reinforcing study demonstrated that the problem was technological.  The authors claim that the observed over-abundance of lithium was due to poor observational quality in the past.  In their study, utilizing the powerful W.M. Keck Observatory’s 10-meter telescope, they completely reconciled the Big Bang theory with the observed abundance of lithium.

As a result, the pillars are stronger than ever.  Our universe, at least what we can observe of it, started with Big Bang.  Future studies related to reinforcing the pillar of the Big Bang will now be focused on observing the first stars and galaxies in our universe’s history.  In order to do that, astronomers will have to wait for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is the planned successor of Hubble and is scheduled to launch in 2018.

What do you think of this scientific development?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

Into The Microscopic

Technology has allowed humanity to extend its vision to scales of reality that our ancestors could have never imagined. Ever more advanced telescopes are allowing us to see the birth pangs of the universe and the formation of the very first large scale objects. In contrast, ever more advanced microscopes are allowing us to see the very structure of all normal matter. It seems like scientists are in a race to see who can see further and deeper faster; and there may not be an “end” or “bottom” in either direction.

few days ago an epic milestone into new realities was reached when a team of physicists captured the first ever image of a hydrogen atom’s orbital structure. This was done using a quantum microscope, which should help physicists better understand the way atoms behave and interact.

Below is a ode to the microscopic. I have assembled images we have taken of objects at ever-decreasing size. The purpose of this exercise is to realize that at every scale of reality there is beauty and new wonder. Every scale of reality seems to be like a world unto itself, just like we imagine our “middle world” to be. Enjoy!

Largest known bacteria (0.001 m) (Image Credit / teachoceanscience.net)

Largest known bacteria (0.001 m) (Image Credit / teachoceanscience.net)

Human egg (0.0001 m) (Image Credit / thetimes.co.uk)

Human egg (0.0001 m) (Image Credit / thetimes.co.uk)

Cell nucleus (0.00001 m) (Image Credit / wikipedia.org)

Cell nucleus (0.00001 m) (Image Credit / wikipedia.org)

X Chromosome (0.000001 m) (Image Credit / scienceclarified.com)

X Chromosome (0.000001 m) (Image Credit / scienceclarified.com)

AIDS Virus (0.0000001 m) (Image Credit / science.nationalgeographic.com)

AIDS Virus (0.0000001 m) (Image Credit / science.nationalgeographic.com)

Hydrogen Atom's Electron Orbital (0.00000000001 m) (Image Credit / i09.com)

Hydrogen Atom’s Electron Orbital (0.00000000001 m) (Image Credit / i09.com)

Also, this is fun.

What do you think of the first picture of an electron orbital?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

 

 

 

 

 

Infinite Boltzmann Brains

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I have finally encountered an idea that is too mind boggling for me to really comprehend. Unsurprisingly, it is from the world of theoretical physics. In a recent paper published in Physics Review D string theorists Claire Zukowski and Raphael Bousso explore the idea of Boltzmann brains.

Boltzmann brains are hypothesized self-aware (conscious) entities that are produced from random fluctuations in the fabric of spacetime. That just means that stochastic fluctuations in the level of entropy (disorder) in the universe could theoretically produce something complex (i.e., a self-aware entity) if given enough time. Apparently brains can theoretically blink into existence.

Physicist Ludwig Boltzmann first demonstrated that this was mathematically probable in the 19th century.

Fortunately for Boltzmann, dominant cosmological models today allow enough time for his brains. Current models suggest that our universe will produce Boltzmann brains post Black Hole Era, before the universe decays out of existence.

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Image Credit / Wikipedia

Boltzmann brains are a serious paradox for physicists to explain away. If there is enough time remaining in the life of the universe for essentially infinite number of Boltzmann brains to come into existence, our subjective experience of the universe will be highly unusual. We perceive the universe to have a directionality, or an “arrow of time” and all of our understanding of the physical laws derive from this observation. But if the experience of Boltzmann brains is the usual experience then we must question the universality of our physical theories. This is because in a post “Black Hole Era” universe there will be no distinguishable past and future; there will be no arrow of time.

Zukowski and Bousso are working to resolve this insane paradox. Zukowski stated:

It has to be more likely to be an ordinary observer than a Boltzmann brain

They believe that we have to rely on string theory to resolve the paradox. String theorists believe that our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes within a larger multiverse. In this multiverse, universes are constantly budding off of parent universes and inflating over time. Zukowski and Bousso contend that in this framework there are more universes with a discernible arrow of time than universes without (i.e., more universes decay before the appearance of Boltzmann brains than the opposite situation). This would mean experience like our own, with a discernible arrow of time, should be the dominant experience in the multiverse.

Obviously, this is all theoretical. The multiverse itself has not been empirically demonstrated, and is but one of several competing theories to describe the conditions that caused the big bang.

I suppose it is reassuring to know that if the multiverse does exist, it may not be overrun wit Boltzmann brains that have no concept of entropy?

As bizarre as this is to think about, it is too much for me to comprehend for evolutionary reasons. First, I have no idea how the trillions of atoms that create our conscious experience could possibly assemble randomly, even if given infinite time. Second, how strange would it be to have no concept of the arrow of time? To not have a temporal lineage with which to trace your own existence? You just exist, seemingly out of nowhere. You would have no baring on any direction at all. No possible way to understand your origin. A consciousness produced from nothing.

I’ll clarify that I am not saying the math is wrong. I am not qualified to say. Clearly if it is being taken seriously by physicists the math is something to be concerned about. And incredulity is not a good enough reason to doubt the possibility of such entities. If it is theoretically possible, so be it. I’m just saying it is an idea too bizarre for me to really grasp. I don’t think I’ve encountered a stranger idea.

Thanks physics.

What do you think of Boltzmann brains?  Let Cadell know on Twitter.

Cosmic Natural Selection

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If you regularly read this blog, you already know that I believe adaptive evolutionary processes explain system order in the universe. There does appear to be a unity between how systems evolve (whether they be chemical, biological, cultural, technological, etc.). In this sense, selection-like processes generate order in the natural world that many cultural groups assumed was intelligently designed. But can selection be extended to explain the universe itself?

Before humans knew that there were other planets in the universe, many people believed that Earth could only be explained by intelligent design (e.g., God). However, we now know that the Earth’s existence can be explained by probability. There are likely way more than sextillion planets in the observable universe, so it is not necessarily surprising that one suitable for complex life exists. In fact, it would not be surprising if billions of planets suitable for complex life existed just within our own galaxy.

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But people who make the God-of-the-gaps argument never really go away. Now that it is intellectually bankrupt to argue Earth (or life, or our star, or our solar system, or our galaxy) was intelligently designed, many turn to the universe itself. As physicists have pointed out, our universe is well-designed for the emergence of intelligent life (although not that well-designed).

Therefore, it is the job of 21st century science to uncover the mysteries as to why our universe appears to have the physical constants it does. At the moment, the theory is far ahead of the empirical evidence (unlike the situation in evolutionary biology). A dominant theory proposed to explain our universe’s physical constants is Cosmic Natural Selection (CNS). This theory, first explored by physicist Lee Smolin suggests that:

black holes may be mechanisms of universe reproduction within the multiverse, an extended cosmological environment in which universes grow, die, and reproduce. Rather than a “dead” singularity at the centre of blackholes, a point where energy and space go to extremely high densities, what occurs in Smolin’s theory is a “bounce” that produces a new universe with parameters stochastically different from the parent universe. Smolin theorizes that these descendant universes will be likely to have similar fundamental physical parameters to the parent universe (such as the fine structure constant, the proton to electron mass ratio, and others) but that these parameters, and perhaps to some degree the laws that derive from them, will be slightly altered in some stochastic fashion during the replication process. Each universe therefore potentially gives rise to as many new universes as it has black holes.

The analogy with how selection operates in biological systems is impossible to miss. Given that this is how complexity is generated by other natural systems, it seems logical that this could be the case of our universe (within the multiverse). In fact, a study published this month in the journal Complexityposits that Smolin’s CNS theory would mathematically be in concordance with the production of universe’s increasingly likely to produce black holes (and therefore universe’s conducive to complex life).

Let that sink in. If Smolin’s theory is true, our universe exists the way it does because of a cosmic natural selection between universe’s within a multiverse of universes with different physical laws.

But all theories need empirical evidence. There is currently no evidence for the existence of either a multiverse or successive generations of universes that transmit their fundamental constants. And it’s possible we won’t have that evidence in the near future (or ever).

Either way, I’m optimistic. Advances in physics theory are likely to further support the idea of a multiverse and the CNS. And I wouldn’t bet against CNS being lifted from theoretical obscurity. The idea has a certain Copernican principle to it. Just as scientific inquiry revealed that our planet, solar system, and galaxy were not particularly special, it seems increasingly likely that scientific inquiry will do the same for our universe as well.

What do you think of Cosmic Natural Selection?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

Also posted via Svbtle:

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Top Science Discoveries of 2012

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This is my personal top 25 discoveries and stories from the world of science this year.  In terms of criteria I wanted to make a list of what I thought was interesting or important.  I also wanted to try and equally represent discoveries in the environmental, physical, life, and social sciences.  I purposefully left out more applied scientific discoveries in health and technology.  This is because it is hard for me to quantify their importance next to more theoretical and conceptual breakthroughs.  There were also a lot of interesting discoveries that I had to leave off the list.  I debated making a list of the top 50 discoveries, but this project took me a very long time as it is.  Its purpose is to be thought-provoking, inspire a broad interest in science, and give people a snapshot of what the world’s best researchers are discovering about our Universe!

25. Mapping Earliest Complex Human Societies

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A new system has been developed to help understand early human settlement patterns.  This system utilizes computers to scour satellite images for telltale clues of human habitation, like soil discolorations and the distinctive mounding that results from the collapse of mud-brick homes.  This method was first applied this year by a team of archaeologists in a 23,000 square kilometer area of northeastern Syria.  The images revealed 9,000 possible ancient settlements between 7,000 and 8,000 years old.  These data were staggering and will help archaeologists understand an area of the world where the first complex human societies emerged in greater detail.  At the moment archaeologists only have small-scale understandings of the ancient world.  However, with these new techniques we may be able to understand the ancient world on large, complex scales.  Consequently, we may gain a new understanding of how humans made the first transition from hunting and gathering to settled agricultural city-states.

Article:

Mapping patterns of long-term settlement in Northern Mesopotamia at a large scale

24. Record Minimum Arctic Sea Ice

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Arctic sea ice extent has been shrinking consistently since satellite records have been tracking it over the past 30 years.  This year represented the start of what climatologists are calling “uncharted territory”.  In 2012, the record for lowest extent of Arctic sea ice coverage was broken three times.  The previous record was broken on the 18th of Septemeber 2007, when the Arctic sea ice extent low was 4.17 million square kilometers.  In 2012, Arctic sea extent was 4.10 million square kilometers on 26th of August, below four million square kilometers on the 4th of September, and reached the now record low of 3.41 million square kilometers later in September.  This is almost one million square kilometers less than the previous record and is 50% lower than the 1979-2000 average Arctic sea ice extent.  At current rates, climatologists now expect no Arctic sea ice by the 2030s.

Report:

Record minimum for Arctic sea ice

23. First Objects Temporally Cloaked

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Scientists developed spatial cloaking earlier this century.  However, now researchers have developed a device that can hide events in time, or “temporal cloaking”.  The device does this by speeding up and slowing down different parts of a light beam and then putting them back together.  As a result, the event would become “hidden in time”.  At the moment, this technology can only hide events for 40 trillionths of a second (0.00012), which is a time frame impossible to directly impact human actions.  In the future, the ability to cloak events in both time and space simultaneously may be improved to the point where events and spaces can be hidden on the scale of seconds and minutes.  Combining the ability to cloak events both spatially and temporally is theoretically possible.  Likewise, extending the current timeframe and spatial scale of cloaking ability is also possible.

Article:

Demonstration of temporal cloaking

22. XNA Compounds Demonstrate Evolution

genetic-engineering

In the emerging field of astrobiology, researchers are attempting to understand if life elsewhere could be based on a host of alternative nucleic acids other than the ones that compose RNA and DNA.  Synthetic biologists seem to have proven it is likely that life could be based on a number of different nucleic acids.  The team showed that artificial molecules can be made to pass genes onto their descendants by focusing on XNA’s (xeno-nucleic acids).  XNA’s are based on different sugars than RNA and DNA, but even with a different sugar backbone, XNA can mimic many of DNA’s properties.  This evidence suggests that XNA’s (or other forms of DNA) could form the basis of life on other planets or moons, where different conditions lead to different types of chemistry than found on Earth.  Perhaps most importantly, this research makes it even more likely that some moons in our solar system with different chemistry to Earth (e.g., Titan, Europa) may host complex life.

21. Origins of Indo-European Language Family Linked to Farming

GeographicOrigin_IndoEuropeanLanguages_map

There are currently two competing hypotheses for the emergence of the Indo-European language family, which is the most widespread language family in the world.  The history of this language family is relatively clear over the past 2,000 years because these languages have been written consistently and the history of their peoples is understood as a result.  However, it is less clear when these language families emerged.  At the moment the majority view is that the language family emerged in Ukraine 6,000 years ago, and the minority view is that it emerged in Anatolia between 8,000-9,000 years ago.  Researchers from the Max Planck Institute attempted to better understand this emergence by applying a Bayesian phylogenetic approaches to model the expansion of the family and test the two hypotheses.  This analysis revealed that the minority view is likely correct.  It appears as though the Indo-European language family first emerged in Anatolia between 8,000-9,000 years ago.  This means that the spread of the Indo-European language family is likely connected to the emergence of farming and the societies that first adapted to a farming lifestyle in central Eurasia.

Article:

Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family

20. Star Formation 1/30th of its Peak

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The first-generation stars born after the Big Bang were massive and short-lived by today’s standards.  These early stars produced the complexity of elements found in third-generation stars and solar systems like ours.  However, the stars in the present day Universe are much smaller and longer-lived than their predecessors.  Understanding this cosmic evolution is key to understanding its future development.  In order to better understand this evolution astronomers wanted to assess whether star formation rate over cosmic time was stable, increasing, or decreasing.  A team of international researchers collected information on star-forming regions of galaxies at different distances.  Using this data the team was able to determine that star formation was at its highest rate 11 billion years ago, and is 1/30th of its peak in contemporary times.  If this decline continues, 95% of the stars that will ever be created in the Universe have already been born.  This is because stars today are lasting billions of years longer than their predecessors and are exploding their gaseous material into an ever-expanding Universe.  This means fewer stellar nurseries will form in the future.  These data help scientists better understand how our Universe has evolved and how it will be structured billions and trillions of years from now.

19. Lichen Survive Mars-like Environment

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Scientists have debated for decades whether Mars may be host to microbial life.  Although no indigenous Martian life has been discovered, research this year demonstrated that it is theoretically possible.  A team of researchers exposed lichen (Circinaria gyrosa) to Mars-like conditions at the German Aerospace Center’s Mars Simulation Laboratory for 34 days.  The lichen were subjected to the same conditions that they would have experienced if they were placed on Mars.  The researchers discovered that these lichen adapted fairly easily to the environment, but were most successful at surviving in small cracks within the simulated Martian soil.  It is believed that these areas allowed the lichen to avoid harsh radiation.  This experiment revealed that fairly complex life could still exist on Mars.  It is known that Mars had a much more hospitable environment billions of years ago.  If life arose during this time period, there may still be indigenous life forms on Mars in present day niches that resemble areas that the lichen adapted to in the simulated environment.  This research also shows that life is extremely adaptable, even to extremely harsh conditions, and indicates that life could theoretically survive in others areas of the solar system.

Article:

The resistance of the lichen Circinaria gyrosa (nom. Provis.) towards simulated Mars conditions – a model test for the survival capacity of an eukaryotic extremophile

18. 100-km, 3-Billion-Year Old Impact Crater Discovered

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There have been several massive asteroid and meteor impacts in Earth’s natural history.  However, a team of scientists in Greenland discovered one of the largest and oldest.  The team that made the discovery has been methodically piecing together the key evidence of this impact over the past three years.  It took so long to understand what caused the geological structures observed in western Greenland because the impact occurred three billion years ago.  Scientists had previously thought that it would be impossible to find evidence of such an impact from this epoch due to geological processes like erosion.  However, this impact was so large and intense that the shock wave penetrated deeper into the crust than any other known crater.  The impact itself was around 100 kilometers in size and would have completely reshaped the evolution of the early Earth’s climate and life.  Future research will be needed to understand how these processes were affected.

Article:

Oldest Known Meteorite Impact Uncovered

17. Lethally Hot Temperatures During Early Triassic

EarlyTriassic

Earth suffered a major mass extinction called the end-Permian event 252 million years ago.  However, scientists were always unable to answer why it took 5 million years for life to recover from that mass extinction event.  Palaeoclimatologists in 2012 revealed why: the Earth became “lethally” hot.  The end-Permian die off killed almost all of the Earth’s plants, and without any plants to consume carbon dioxide, the Earth experienced a runaway greenhouse effect.  Researchers discovered that at its worst, oceans reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit (compare that with contemporary oceans that are 77-86 degrees).  Over this time period the Earth was virtually life-less.  This study also shows how our planet reacts to a climate with unbalanced levels of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is currently driving up average global temperature every year.

Article:

Lethally Hot Temperatures During the Early Triassic Greenhouse

16. Pleistocene Plant Blooms Again

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We got a little closer to Jurassic Park in 2012.  A team of scientists brought a 30,000 year-old Siberian Pleistocene plant (Silene stenophylla) back to life.  This is by far the oldest plant brought back to life; 2,000 year-old date palm seeds held the previous record.  The scientists claim that the seeds of the Pleistocene plant were in permafrost for the entire period of time, which acted as a giant freezer, leaving them undisturbed and unthawed.  This research represents a landmark discovery that biological material can be revived after laying dormant for tens of thousands of years, and may be an important development in the quest to revive other species, including species that are currently extinct.

Article:

Regeneration of whole fertile plants from 30,000-y-old fruit tissue in Siberian permafrost

15. Dark Matter Scaffolding Directly Detected

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Dark matter is thought to make up 83 per cent of matter in the universe, yet until 2012, astronomers had never directly detected its existence.  In July a team of researchers announced that they had directly detected dark matter between two galactic clusters Abell 222 and Abell 223.  The discovery came as a surprise to the science community, which did not expect dark matter to be directly detected until future advancements in telescope technology were made.  The team made the discovery after analyzing the light of more than 40,000 background galaxies to determine the percentage of unseen mass holding Abell 222 and Abell 223 together.  Astronomers have said that this research is a resounding confirmation of standard theory of structure formation in the universe.  Future research and improved telescope technology should give astronomers more opportunities to study the structure of dark matter in the universe.

Article:

A filament of dark matter between two clusters of galaxies

14. Super Volcanoes May Be Predictable

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Supervolcanoes are extremely rare, but extremely devastating events for the Earth’s climate and biosphere.  Research into the nature of supervolcanic eruptions has revealed some startling and terrifying results.  However, volcanologists main concern has been trying to devise a way to predict when the next supervolcanic eruption would occur.  New results from an international study this year may have revealed how much time we would have to prepare for such an event.  By studying the crystals in pumice rock from the Santori site, researchers realized that magma was growing within the caldera underneath the volcano for decades.  This new discovery should help volcanologists predict a supervolcanic eruption decades in advance, as opposed to weeks or months in advance.  Some tell tale signs would be rapid caldera chamber build up, increased rock deformation, and increased gas emission to the surface.  Our species biggest challenge now becomes trying to understand what we would do to prepare for such an event.

Article:

Decadal to monthly timescales of magma transfer and reservoir growth at a caldera volcano

13. Human-Caused Megafaunal Extinctions During Quaternary

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Scientists have long-debated about the cause of Quaternary megafaunal extinctions in Eurasia, Australia, and the Americas.  This debate frequently centers around climate change or anthropogenic overkill as the main cause.  However, several research papers this year seemed to strongly indicate that anthropogenic overkill was the main cause of megafaunal extinctions throughout the world.  Research studying environmental change in Australia over 130,000 years concluded that human presence disrupted ecological equilibrium, not climate change.  Other researchers studying geographic ranges of over 150 animals in North America, attempted to understand whether extinctions disproportionately effected taxa with small geographic ranges.  They found that the extinction event did not preferentially impact taxa with small geographic ranges, but did preferentially impact taxa with large body size.  This is also consistent with the anthropogenic overkill hypothesis.  Furthermore, theoretical research was also used to integrate our understanding of Neanderthal extinction into the larger Quaternary megafaunal extinction events.  These studies have important implications for contextualizing contemporary extinction events, and predicting our future impact on the biosphere.

Articles:

The Aftermath of Megafaunal Extinction: Ecosystem Transformation in Pleistocene Australia

The Quaternary megafaunal extinction and the fate of Neanderthals: An integrative working hypothesis

Range sizes and shifts of North American Pleistocene mammals are not consistent with a climatic explanation for extinction

12. Oldest Galaxy Discovered

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Astronomers are constantly improving our understanding of the early universe by utilizing new technologies and methods.  As a consequence, our knowledge of the Universe in its infancy keeps improving.  Before 2012, astronomers had little knowledge of the “cosmic dawn” a period between 400-600 million years ago.  This year, we gained a better understanding of this period when a family of the oldest galaxies were discovered.  The oldest of these galaxies was UDFj-39546284, which formed approximately 380 million years after the Big Bang.  This galaxy, along with its surrounding galaxies, which formed between 400-600 million years ago, have indicated that the first galaxies formed gradually, as opposed to suddenly.

Article:

The Abundance of Star-Forming Galaxies in the Redshift Range 8.5 to 12: New Results From The 2012 Hubble Ultra Deep Field Campaign

11. Denisovan Genome Decoded

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Until recently, most scientists thought that there were only two species of humans (i.e., modern humans and Neanderthals) living in Eurasia in the Upper Palaeolithic (50 – 10 thousand years ago).  However, over the past decade several finds have indicated that there were several more.  Svante Paabo and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) of Evolutionary Anthropology have revealed further proof of this fact with genetics.  They sequenced the genome from the bones of an individual that had been found in Denisova Cave in southern Siberia.  The results indicated that the individual was not a modern human or a Neanderthal.  The new species has been named Denisovans.  Together with Neanderthals, Denisovans are the closest extinct relatives of modern humans.  It is likely that all three species knew of each others existence and may have even lived together in what is today Siberia.  Future genomic comparative studies should help scientists uncover important genetic differences that contributed to the development of modern human culture and technology.

Article:

A High Coverage Denisovan Genome

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10. Secret to Hydra Immortality Revealed

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Scientists have known for several years that the polyp Hydra displayed signs of negligible senescence.  It appears as though this animal can only die from predation or disease.  One of the ways in which the Hydra can do this is because of continuous proliferation of stem cells.  This year, researchers in Germany gained a better understanding of this process, and believe their findings have relevance to ageing in humans.  They identified the gene FoxO, which is known to play a role in ageing, and they genetically modified three groups of Hydra.  One group had normal FoxO levels, one group had inactivated FoxO, and one group had enhanced FoxO levels.  They were able to show that the Hydra with inactive FoxO started to have severe complications with their immune systems.  Many of these complications mirrored immune system dysfunction that is seen in elderly humans.  The team concluded that FoxO plays a critical role in ageing, and that immune system function and stem cell proliferation may be the key to prolonging the human lifespan as well.

Article:

FoxO is a critical regulator of stem cell maintenance in immortal Hydra

9. Earth-sized and Habitable Zone Exoplanet Detection

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The search for “another Earth” continued this year, with phenomenal results.  Before 2012 astronomers had detected over 800 planets, but none of them were Earth-sized or within the habitable zone of their host star.  That changed this year.  In the first month of 2012 astronomers identified three of the smallest planets ever detected (smallest was Mars-sized).  However, all three planets orbited their host star as closely as Mercury orbits our Sun, making them way too hot to be Earth-like candidates.  Later in the year astronomers made two more significant finds: an Earth-sized planet in the closest solar system to ours (Alpha Centauri), and a “super-Earth” within the habitable zone of its host star.  The Earth-sized planet in Alpha Centauri orbits very closely to its host star, but demonstrated astronomer’s ability to detect Earth-sized planets and suggested that Earth-sized planets were relatively common.  The “super-Earth” discovered is only 42 light-years away and is thought to be a candidate for life because it may be covered in liquid water.  More interesting news from exoplanet detections was made this December when astronomers announced the possible discovery of an Earth-sized planet within the habitable zone of Tau Ceti (12 light-years away).  If confirmed, this would become the number one candidate for the discovery of “another Earth” and also a potential hot-spot for complex life in the universe.

Reports:

NASA’s Kepler Mission Finds Three Smallest Exoplanets

Earth-size planet found orbiting the star system next door

Another Earth Just 12 Light-Years Away?

8. Crucial Milestone for Quantum Teleportation

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Teleportation is no longer just science fiction…  at least at the atomic scale.  Scientists have been teleporting photons for several years now.  However, scientists from the University of Waterloo recently broke a new teleportation distance record with significance for the future of teleportation.  They successfully achieved quantum teleportation over 143 km distance from the Canary Islands to the islands of La Palma and Tenerife.  This distance is significant because that is the minimum distance between the ground and orbiting satellites.  Once full-scale networked quantum computing exists, quantum teleportation could allow for secure communication.  The next goals for the research team is to start quantum teleporting upwards.

Article:

Quantum teleportation over 143 kilometers using active feed-forward

7. “Ratcheting” Separates Humans From Other Primates

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Sir Isaac Newton famously stated that we “stand on the shoulders of giants”, insinuating that humans are able to accomplish deep scientific understanding, create rich artistic traditions, and build sophisticated technology because our culture becomes increasingly complex.  We build on the cultural achievements of the generations that came before us.  However, a study in 2012 provided strong evidence indicating that this is absent in other species, even our closest relatives.  Researchers compared the ability of human children, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys to solve a complex puzzle box with three different stages.  In order to solve the puzzle box (and acquire a food reward) the individuals would have to cooperate and teach each other in order to accomplish progressively higher-level solutions at each stage.  All human children were able to accomplish these tasks, however no chimpanzee or capuchin groups were able to exhibit the behaviour necessary to complete the task.  This led primatologist Victoria Horner to conclude: “if cumulative culture does exist in other species, it is extremely rare.”

Article:

Identification of the Social and Cognitive Processes Underlying Human Cumulative Culture

6. Next Ice Age Offset by Human Fossil Fuel Consumption

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A study from the environmental sciences this year provided significant evidence that the next scheduled Ice Age would occur 1,500 years from now, if we had left fossil fuels in the ground.  This study, although it can be interpreted positively, demonstrates just how dramatically humans are changing climate on a global scale.  The researchers claimed that even if we stopped burning fossil fuels immediately, the next Ice Age would already be averted.  The researchers were able to calculate when the next Ice Age would have occurred by comparing the Earth’s pre-industrial climate to past interglacial phases over the past few million years.  Ice Age and interglacial cycles occur in distinct patterns known as Milankovitch cycles.  These cycles are caused by subtle variations in the Earth’s orbit that take tens of thousands of years to change.  If we stop burning fossil fuels by 2100 the Earth should experience its next Ice Age approximately 120,000 years from now.

Article:

Determining the natural length of the current interglacial

5. Final Great Ape Genomes Decoded

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Before 2012, humans, chimpanzees, and orangutans had their complete genomes decoded.  This year two separate European research groups decoded the gorilla and bonobo genomes.  Researchers at Cambridge decoded the gorilla genome.  The results indicated that gorillas share 98% of our DNA and diverged from the human/chimp/bonobo lineage 10 million years ago.  Although these numbers weren’t major shocks, the speciation date was earlier than had previously been thought.  Researchers at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Evolutionary Anthropology decoded the bonobo genome shortly later in the year.  Their genome revealed that only 4 amino acids per 1,000 within their DNA sequence differed from chimpanzees.  Using these data researchers were able to pin point the chimp/bonobo divergence to 1 million years ago.  Now researchers at MPI are going to try to understand more about the human/chimp/bonobo common ancestor by comparing all three species genomes in greater detail.

Articles:

Insights into hominid evolution from the gorilla genome sequence

The bonobo genome compared with the chimpanzee and human genomes

4. First Model Simulation of Observable Universe

This year a team of French researchers used CURIE, a new supercomputer, to create the first ever computer model simulation of the entire observable universe from the Big Bang to the present (a distance equivalent to 90 billion light years).  The super computer created this simulation by following the evolution of 550 billion particles as part of a project called Deus: full universe run.  The results from these simulations allowed the researchers to a) estimate the total number of galaxy clusters with a mass larger than hundred thousand billion solar masses (144 million), and b) discover that the first of these galaxy clusters developed around 2 billion years after the Big Bang.  Their data also revealed that the largest massive cluster in the observable universe weighs 15 quadrillion (15 thousand trillion) solar masses.  In the future, data from this simulation will help cosmologists understand the imprint dark energy leaves on cosmic structures and how dark energy can be inferred from observing distributions of matter.

Article:

First-ever model simulation of the structuring of the observable universe

3. Planets Around Stars: Rule, Not Exception

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A long-term astronomy study this year suggested exoplanets outnumber stars by a large margin in our galaxy.  Their results revealed that each of the 100 billion or so stars in our galaxy hosts 1.6 planets on average.  Most of these planets are likely to be low mass, indicating that there may be hundreds of millions of small/rocky planets like Earth.  This study was based on statistical extrapolation and provided considerable evidence that stars with a gravitationally bound planetary system is the rule, rather than the exception.  The data was collected between 2002-2007 with earth-based telescopes using gravitational microlensing.  Gravitational microlensing is a more reliable approach to uncover hidden extrasolar worlds because other popular methods (e.g., photometry, radial velocity) are biased towards finding stars that orbit closely to their parent star.  This made statistically extrapolating the number of planets in the Milky Way based off of the data collected in this study more accurate.  Although it is now estimated that there are around 160 billion planets in our galaxy, the number of total planets is likely double that because of the recent discovery of nomad planets (planets without a host star).

2. ENCODE

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In early September our understanding of the human genome was increased substantially with the coordinated publication of 30 research papers produced by the research consortium Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE).  Before their publication we understood how small sections of DNA — genes — coded for important chemicals and proteins in our body.  However, that was only 2% of the entire human genome; the rest was thought to be ‘junk DNA’.  Researchers revealed that 80% have our genome does have a function, but further research will be needed to elucidate exactly what it does.  Most aspects of this part of the human genome is information that is coded to be ‘on’ or ‘off’ during certain times in our lives.  Medical professionals hope that we will be able to use this information to understand how these ‘on/off’ switches can be modified to prevent diseases, improve overall health, and slow the ageing process.

Articles:

ENCODE-funded Publications

1. Discovery of the Higgs Boson

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On July 4th, CERN rocked the world of physics with the discovery of the Higgs boson, the last of the elementary particles in the Standard Model of physics.  The Higgs can explain why particles acquire mass and why the electromagnetic force and the weak force are divided.  Although it is still unclear whether the boson was exactly what the Standard Model predicted 40 years ago, the discovery is sure to define the entire subject for the foreseeable future, and open up the possibility of “new” physics.  Perhaps most importantly, this discovery allows physicists to make a pitch for a new next-generation collider that would work as a “Higgs factory” and enable the possibility for a theory to unify quantum mechanisms and the theory of general relativity.

Articles:

Observation of a new boson at a mass of 125 GeV with the CMS experiment at the LHC

Combined search for the Standard Model Higgs boson using up to 4.9 fb-1 of pp collision data with the ATLAS detector at the LHC

Shoulders of Giants

Everyone is influenced by the accomplishments, thoughts, and beliefs of the generations that preceded them.  As Sir Isaac Newton stated: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  The following is a list of the top 10 modern scientists who have influenced my perceptions, ideas, and thoughts regarding the universe and our species’ place within it.

10. David Christian (Big Historian)

As an adult, I have always been obsessed with origins: the origins of our universe, galaxy, planet, life and species.  So it is no surprise that big history expert David Christian makes this list.  Big History is the multi-disciplinary study of the past 13.7 billion years in order to understand the history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity.  In an attempt to ensure the children of the 21st century have a deep understanding of our place within the universe, he has combined efforts with Bill Gates to start the Big History Project.  This project aims to bring big history to life for high school students.  He is also a successful author who wrote one of my favourite books, Maps of Time: An Introductory to Big History (2005).

“We, as extremely complex creatures, desperately need to know this story, of how the universe creates complexity, despite the second law [of thermodynamics].”

9. Stephen Hawking (Theoretical Physicist)

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Stephen Hawking has become a cultural icon for our generation.  His story is inspirational and his work is even more so.  Hawking is not the most accessible science writer, but his grasp of the most extreme environments in our universe is unparalleled.  While I was just starting to express an interest in the universe, Hawking was able to give me the most detailed and accurate description of objects like black holes, worm holes and quasars.  His most famous work A Brief History of Time (1988) will always be remembered as a personal classic.

“God not only plays dice, He also sometimes throws the dice where they cannot be seen.”

8. Matt Ridley (Evolutionary Biologist)

There are a few major concepts throughout my academic career that have become central to my understanding of our species.  Matt Ridley, an evolutionary biologist, has expounded brilliantly on two of them: nature/nurture divide and evolving prosperity.  In his 2003 book Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, & What Makes Us Human, Ridley successfully destroys the nature/nurture dichotomy but was also able to build a real case for properly understanding their intimate and interconnected effects on our species both individually and collectively.  In his 2010 book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Ridley does a fantastic job of elucidating not only why it is rational to be optimistic about the future, but also why romanticizing the past is so dangerous.  He is one of the most talented science writers of our generation and I’m sure he will be a constant source of inspiration in the future.

“In my lifetime the average per capita income, of the average person on the planet in real terms adjusted for inflation has trebled, lifespan is up by 30% in my lifetime, child mortality is down by two/thirds, per capita food production is up by a third. And all this at a time when the population has doubled […] how did we become the only species that becomes more prosperous as it becomes more populous?”

7. Jane Goodall (Primatologist)

When I first started reading Jane Goodall’s works, she left me in a state of awe and wonder.  Her story, her journey and her insight into what our closest relatives could tell us about our species inspired me to follow a career path into primatology.  She is famous as the “woman who redefined man,” but it is her perseverance, spirit, and heart that have made her a scientist worthy of international acclaim she currently receives.  Her most famous works, In the Shadow of Man (1971) and Through a Window (1990) are books that will be remembered as 20th century science classics, and they certainly altered the way I saw both humans and life on this planet.

“I sometimes think that the chimps are expressing a feeling of awe, which must be very similar to that experience by early people when they worshipped water and the sun, things they didn’t understand.”

5. Jonathan Marks (Biological Anthropologist)

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Whereas Jane Goodall is someone who inspired me as a primatologist, Jonathan Marks is someone who shaped my perspective on what it means to be a biological anthropologist, and more broadly, an anthropologist.  He is one of the few scientists who has taken the time to completely understand both the biological sciences and the social sciences, and has found a way to integrate knowledge from both.  In essence, Mark’s philosophy is what attracted me to biological anthropology in the first place because it is so effective at explaining some of the most difficult and problematic concepts in human history (e.g., race, religion, objectivity, knowledge, creation, etc.).  All of these ideas were explored brilliantly in What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee (2002) and Why I Am Not a Scientist (2009).

“If we know that there are gradients, not boundaries; that human variation is patterned locally, not transcontinentally; that the extremes are not the purest representatives of anything, but simply the most divergent; that populations are invariably mixed with their neighbours, and in the last half-millennium with people from far away; and that clustering populations into larger units is a cultural act that values some differences as important and submerges others – then race evaporates as a natural unit.”

5. Neil deGrasse Tyson (Astrophysicist)

What would this list be without one of the most recognizable and likeable scientists today?  Neil deGrasse Tyson has undoubtedly become a cultural icon for his work as a science communicator.  His insatiable desire for knowledge and his unbounded enthusiasm for all things science is as infectious as it is informative.  Tyson has a completely unique way of seeing the world that is not restricted to just a lab or a classroom.  He brings science wherever he goes and can make scientific understanding relevant in almost any setting or environment.  Whether he is tweeting from a baseball game or answering questions about the size of the Universe, Tyson is enthralling and insightful.  His recent work focused on ensuring that we continue exploring space makes him the rightful heir to Carl Sagan.

“I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

4. Jared Diamond (Environmental Historian and Evolutionary Anthropologist)

If you looked up the word academic or scholar in a dictionary, Jared Diamond’s picture should be there.  He has professionally studied everything from biophysics to evolutionary ecology and everything in between.  During the last few decades of his career, he has published three of the most influential books in modern science (i.e., The Third Chimpanzee (1992), Guns, Germs and Steel(1997), Collapse (2005)).  He completely changed the way we understand the human development of the past 100,000 years.  His most famous work, Guns, Germs and Steel may be my favourite book of all time (and is definitely in the top 3), because it provided a framework for understanding the development of civilization.  For anyone wanting to understand the biggest questions related to development and progress, I would recommend starting here.

“I’ve always been interested in a lot of things, and a lot of things at the same time, and I always tried to explain them to myself. I ask a lot of questions.”

3. Richard Dawkins (Evolutionary Biologist)

In recent years, Richard Dawkins has become known as the world’s most recognizable atheist and outspoken critic of religion.  Although his philosophy regarding religion has deeply influenced my own beliefs, Dawkins had his greatest impact on me with his writings on the evolution of life.  I have never read a book by someone with a greater understanding of the history of life on this planet and with a better way of communicating very difficult concepts in astonishing and intriguing ways.  His books The Selfish Gene (1976), The Extended Phenotype (1982), Climbing Mount Improbable (1998), The Ancestor’s Tale (2004) and The Greatest Show On Earth (2009) will be remembered for generations as a few of the greatest books on the evolution of life that have ever been written.

“The fact that life evolved out of nearly nothing, some 10 billion years after the universe evolved out of literally nothing, is a fact so staggering that I would be mad to attempt words to do it justice.”

2. Ray Kurzweil (Futurist)

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There are certain thinkers that define a generation because they successfully answer the biggest question of the time.  In my mind, Ray Kurzweil is one of those thinkers.  He has been called the heir to Thomas Edison because of his accomplishments as an inventor.  However, for me the book The Singularity Is Near (2004) will always define Kurzweil because it forever changed my perspective on the future within a few days.  For those who believe the concept of the technological singularity, Kurzweil has become somewhat of a modern day prophet.  His predictions of technological innovation over the last few decades have been unbelievably accurate lending considerable support to the idea that we should listen to what his predictions for the next few decades will be, regardless of how much they would change our species and universe.

“Machines will follow a path that mirrors the evolution of humans. Ultimately, however, self-aware, self-improving machines will evolve beyond human’s ability to control or even understand them.”

1. Carl Sagan (Astronomer)

Carl Sagan was a science popularizer and communicator who changed the way the public understood their relationship to the rest of the universe.  To me, his astronomical insight was jaw dropping, but that is not what makes him the most influential person academically in my life.  He has shaped the way I understand the universe because of the way he situated our species within the context of astronomical thought.  He used astronomy and big history and applied it to contemporary global decision making.  Using the macrocosmic scale and applying it to the microcosm of our existence was a completely transformative way of thinking and infinitely useful (and humbling).  If all politicians, scientists and great thinkers did this there would be no limit to what our species could accomplish.  I believe that he was a thinker who was literally decades, and even possibly a century before his time.  Luckily, his words and wisdom will live on for as long as our species exists.

“Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds through the solar system and beyond will be unified by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet and by the knowledge that whatever other life may be, the only humans in all the universe come from Earth. They will gaze up and strain to find the pale blue dot in their skies. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of our raw potential once was. How perilous our infancy. How humble our beginnings. How many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.”

Other suggested readings not mentioned above:

The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 by Alfred Crosby (1972)

Orientalism by Edward Said (1979)

Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God by Carl Sagan (1985)

Hyperspace by Michio Kaku (1994)

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan (1994)

History of God by Karen Armstrong (1994)

The Demon-Hauned World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan (1996)

The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm (1996)

Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins (1998)

The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil (2000)

A Devil’s Chaplain by Richard Dawkins (2003)

On The Shoulders of Giants by Stephen Hawking (2003)

Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2004)

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2004)

Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean Carroll (2006)

The Living Cosmos: Our Search for Life in the Universe by Chris Impey (2007)

The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker (2007)

History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer (2007)

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku (2008)

The Wayfinders by Wade Davis (2009)

The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester (2009)

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shuban (2009)

Jane Goodall: 50 Years at Gombe by Jane Goodall (2010)

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (2011)

Big History and the Future of Humanity by Fred Spier (2011)

Evolution: The First Four Billion Years ed. by Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis (2011)

The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brian Greene (2011)

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2012)

Wild Cultures: A Comparison of Chimpanzee and Human Cultures by Christophe Boesch (2012)

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking (2012)

Lone Survivors: How We Came To Be The Only Humans On Earth by Chris Stringer (2012)