Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

No matter the industry new ideas are often met with swift resistance.  Rather than embrace change our default reaction, hard-wired into our brains by millions of years of evolution, is to greet change with anger, to reject it, to cling to what is known and familiar, to what is safe.  History is littered with examples of innovations that were simply ahead of their time, rejected outright by those in power, fearful of the revolution that a controversial new idea would bring about.

Climate change deniers are proof of this phenomenon which makes it really hard to bring about vital change in the energy sector.  Thanks to this reality our move away from a reliance on fossil fuels is going to be a slow burn, not a quick fix.

Luckily, there’s a new biofuel on the horizon that could help with the transition since it’s essentially a renewable version of an existing product.  Instead of replacing coal with something else, we’d just replace it with a better version of coal.  Everyone wins, those open to change and even those among us who are more close-minded, desperate to hold onto what they’ve always been told to believe.

According to Science Alert, “This ‘instant coal’ biofuel brings the high energy efficiency of coal without the usual damaging side-effects – such as deep mining to collect it, and resulting pollution from burning it and releasing impurities. What’s more, it doesn’t take eons to form underground, and is instead made from agricultural waste including wood and plants. That means we’ve potentially got a never-ending source of the stuff, according to the team developing it at the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI), part of the University of Minnesota Duluth.”

In other words, we’re talking about creating an abundant artificial coal made out of plants that would replace existing coal, thereby eliminating mining operations and saving the planet in the process.  Hopefully, as this research continues to develop it will be met with less and less resistance once everyone realizes how much of a no-brainer decision it is to switch.

Image result for instant coal biofuelIs Instant Coal the Greatest Idea Ever?



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A lot of people, including Elon Musk, believe that we could be living inside of a computer simulation.  While that does sound far-fetched, it is at least a possibility.  Especially when you consider that we may soon have the ability to create a Universe in a lab.  After all, if we can do that, couldn’t a more advanced civilization have created the universe as we know it inside one of their computers?

Before we go down that rabbit hole though let’s focus on the issue at hand: the idea that we could actually create a Universe in a lab.  It sounds cool but how would this even work?

As Futurism explains:

“The kind of cosmogenesis envisioned by [Andrei] 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 space-time 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.”

What would be the point of creating a Universe in a lab?  Well, for starters it may help us understand how our own Universe is expanding.  As time goes on we could study the inner workings of a cosmos that may be utterly different than our own or remarkably similar.  It could also help us ponder philosophical questions about creation, religion, and our place in the Universe.  And if nothing else, it’ll probably be fun to play God.  Just like the aliens who created the computer simulation that we’re living in.

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Is a Universe in a Lab the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,200 – Quark Power

Now that Syria has signed the Paris Agreement only the United States stands against trying to save the planet from the perils of Climate Change.  Thankfully, there are still scientists out there who are constantly searching for new sources of renewable energy that could save the planet in the long run.  In fact, they may have even found a source of energy that would be eight to ten times more powerful than nuclear fusion, without any of the risks associated with nuclear power.

The trick to this new energy source is that instead of fusing atomic nuclei together, as in nuclear fusion, you’d instead fuse together even smaller subatomic particles known as quarks.

According to Futurism, “These particles are usually produced as a result of colliding atoms that move at high speeds within the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), where these component parts split from their parent atoms. It doesn’t stop there, however, as these disassociated quarks also tend to collide with one another and fuse into particles called baryons.  It is this fusion of quarks that Karliner and Rosner focused on, as they found that this fusion is capable of producing energy even greater than what’s produced in hydrogen fusion.”

Sounds pretty scary, doesn’t it?  A new technology even more powerful than hydrogen fusion.  The most destructive force known to man.  But, don’t worry.  We won’t be dropping quark bombs anytime soon.

As Futurism explains, “their fears that this quark fusion could be weaponized soon fizzled out as they realized in subsequent experiments that quarks exist only for about one picosecond. That’s too short a time to create a chain reaction to set off more baryons, as the quarks quickly decay into less volatile, lighter quarks.”

In fact, we won’t be doing anything with quark energy anytime soon.  Since the particles disappear too quickly the researchers haven’t been able to test their theories yet.  For now, this research is purely speculative, albeit theoretically possible.  Hopefully, in the future we’ll actually figure out how to tap into this potential new renewable energy source.  And how to do so safely.

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Is Quark Power the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,198 – Limitless

Recently a colleague challenged me to learn one new skill a week.  Daunting, yet imminently achievable, I’ve decided to embrace this new challenge with open arms, starting with learning how to paint.  But thanks to DARPA there may soon be an even easier way to learn new skills.  A cheap and non-invasive device that would use targeted electrical simulation to your prefrontal cortex as a way of boosting your cognitive abilities by as much as 40%.

According to Futurism:

“New research funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has successfully demonstrated how a non-invasive method of stimulating the brain can boost cognitive performance. Working under DARPA’s Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program, scientists from HRL Laboratories in California, McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and Soterix Medical in New York tested their brain device on macaques and observed a substantial increase in the monkeys’ ability to quickly perform certain tasks.

In their study published, which has been published in the journal Current Biology, the HRL team describes how they used non-invasive transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to stimulate the prefrontal cortex in the macaques. They then prompted the animals to perform a task based on associative learning — learning associations between visual cues and a location — in order to get a reward.

The macaques that wore the tDCS brain device significantly outperformed the control group. The former needed only 12 trials to learn how to immediately get the reward, while the latter needed 21 trials, with the tDCS device accounting for the 40 percent increase in learning speed, according to the researchers.”

The appeal of this technology is immediately obvious.  In addition to making us all smarter, it could also help soldiers quickly learn new skills on the fly, or help people suffering from traumatic brain injuries to recover faster.  Compared to other similar techniques this new approach is also supposed to be cheap and commercially viable.  Limitless here we come!

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Is DARPA’s approach to learning new skills the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Everything we think we know about the Universe, from the motion of planets to the existence of blackholes, can be explained by physics.  Even the mind-bending question of how the Universe got started in the first place, how we got something from nothing, makes sense when examined through the lens of quantum mechanics, when you realize that particles can be in two places at once or exist in multiple states at the same time.

Underpinning physics is math which is why physicists try to come up with mathematical formulas to prove their hypothesizes.  Einstein’s E=mc2 is the most famous of these equations but there are dozens of other examples from Newton’s laws to the elusive and yet to be solved Theory of Everything.  When there’s something that we don’t yet understand such as Dark Matter or Dark Energy, what we’re really saying, is that we don’t yet have an equation for it. There’s some data set or piece of the puzzle that we’re missing.  But, rest assured, we will one day have a formula for everything.  Even Dark Matter.  That’s just the way that physics works.  And physics is the way that everything works.

With that in mind (pun intended) it makes sense to consider that there may also be a mathematical formula that would govern how the brain works.  A remarkably simple equation that would explain how the brain is able to quickly make complex decisions based on the outputs that it collects.  And a researcher by the name of Joe Tsien thinks he knows what it is.

According to Futurism:

“The theory describes how groups of similar neurons form a complexity of cliques to handle basic ideas or information. These groups cluster into functional connectivity motifs (FCM), which handles every possible combinations of ideas. More cliques are involved in more complex thoughts.

In order to test it, Tsien and his team monitored and documented how the algorithm works in seven different brain regions, each involved in handling basics like food and fear in mice and hamsters. The algorithm represented how many cliques are necessary for an FCM, a power-of-two-based permutation logic (N=2i–1), according to the study.

They gave the animals various combinations of four different foods (rodent biscuits, pellets, rice, and milk). Using electrodes placed at specific areas of the brain, they were able to ‘listen’ to the neurons’ response. The scientists were able to identify all 15 different combinations of neurons or cliques that responded to the assortment of food combinations, as the Theory of Connectivity would predict. Furthermore, these neural cliques seem prewired in the brain, as they appeared immediately as soon as the food choices did.”

This theory makes sense to me on two different levels.  First of all, it makes sense logically.  If the laws of physics govern how everything in the Universe works then it makes sense that something as complex as the human brain would also be rooted in math, follow the laws of physics, and be governed by an algorithm.

And, furthermore, it makes sense if you believe in Information Theory, in the idea that naturally occurring systems are driven to process information as efficiently as possible.  This theory explains why cells cluster together, why individuals in a species prefer to live together, why cities form, why a global Internet emerged, and why matter in space accretes into planets, why solar systems form, why galaxies cluster, and finally, why the Universe is expanding in constant pursuit of the lowest possible energy state that it can reach.  If all that is true then it stands to reason that the brain would also operate according to that same logic.  That it would also, as if governed by a fundamental law of nature, adhere to a standard operating procedure, one in which its neurons would self-assemble into cliques, and then clusters of cliques or “motifs”, in order to systematically process information in the most efficient way possible mathematically.

Why is all this important?  Because if it’s true, and we have a proven formula for how the brain processes information, then we can imbue that knowledge onto the Artificial Intelligence that we are already modeling after the human brain.  To date, the human brain far exceeds the capabilities of AI in several instances, such as image and pattern recognition.  But if we had an algorithm that we could upload that could suddenly give AI all of those innate human abilities then that’s a real game-changer.  In that case, the Singularity would be near.

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Is the human brain powered by an intelligence algorithm?

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I’ve never bought into the doomsday hysteria surrounding Artificial Intelligence.  Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking may fear it, but I don’t.  Rogue AI? A real-life Skynet? Please.  It’s foolish to think that AI will turn on us just because that’s what science fiction has trained us to think.  Besides, even if they did, we have Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics to protect us.

Instead I choose to believe that developing superior artificial intelligence is in our best interest as we could use this advanced intelligence to augment our own, allowing us to improve our way of life and figure out how the Universe works.  Eventually, after using AI to eradicate diseases and solve all of our terrestrial problems, we could make our way across the cosmos, colonizing space along the way to ensure the long-term survival of our species.

There’s just one problem with that plan.  The doomsday declaring chicken littles may have been on to something.  For Google’s Go playing AI, AlphaGo Zero, is now smart enough to learn on its own, signaling the start of an advanced intelligence similar to early man developing mathematics for the first time.

As Science Alert puts it, “Zero’s predecessor, dubbed simply AlphaGo, was described as ‘Godlike’ by one of the crestfallen human champions it bested at the ancient Chinese board game, Go, but the new evolution has refined its training arsenal by eradicating human teachings from its schooling entirely.

The AlphaGo versions that kicked our butts at Go in a series of contests this year and last year first learned to play the game by analyzing thousands of human amateur and professional games, but AlphaGo Zero is entirely self-taught, learning by 100 percent independent experimentation.”

Does this mean that we should immediately retreat to an underground bunker and wait out Armageddon?  Of course not.  AI still has a long way to go before they declare war on us.  The Singularity is not near.

But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore this news either.  In fact, we probably should start loading up on supplies for our bunker.  For this is a tremendous breakthrough signaling the dawn of a new era for Artificial Intelligence and for mankind.  How it all plays out, nobody knows.  But when in doubt, it’s always best to air on the side of caution.  Even if that fear is irrational at the moment.  If Science Fiction has taught us anything, it’s that.

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Is AlphaGo Zero the Greatest Idea Ever?

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You might want to take a nap before reading this.  Or at least make sure you’re well hydrated and sitting down when you do.  For your mind is about to be blown:

A New Era of Astronomy 

For the first time ever, astronomers have observed the same celestial event, two neutron stars merging, via two different detection methods, observing visible light and gravitational waves simultaneously, marking the start of multi-messenger astronomy.

As the Christian Science Monitor put it:

“Four times over the past two years, astronomers detected gravitational waves emanating from merging black holes. These detections were all made by scientists at the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Its European counterpart, VIRGO, collaborated for the fourth detection. But with no light escaping black holes, astronomers using traditional telescopes – which view the universe in the electromagnetic spectrum – couldn’t see anything.

The fifth detection was different; this time, the colliding bodies were visible. So astrophysicists at LIGO and VIRGO detected the motion from the collision, and astronomers saw the flash of light. Scientists are already using this multi-messenger detection to unravel long-standing mysteries about the universe, such as where heavy elements like gold, platinum, and uranium form.

‘It is the Rosetta Stone for all of high-energy astrophysics,’ says Richard O’Shaughnessy, a theoretical gravitational wave astrophysicist and LIGO researcher at the Rochester Institute of Technology. ‘Superlatives understate the significance of this event, and I haven’t figured out a way of conveying it, even to myself.’”

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Ordinary Matter Found

For the first time scientists have been able to observe and thereby account for, most of the missing ordinary matter in the Universe.  To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we now know what Dark Matter is.  On that front we’re still in the dark, pun intended.  But what it does mean is that we now know where all of the ordinary matter (all the protons, neutrons, and electrons) resides.

As Futurism explains:

“The two teams confirmed that the missing ordinary matter in the universe can be found in the form of filaments of hot, diffuse gas linking galaxies together.

While long predicted, these gasses have a tenuous nature that has made them impossible to detect using X-ray telescopes. To get around that, both teams made use of the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect. This phenomenon occurs when leftover light from the Big Bang passes through hot gas, leaving behind a trace of the gas that can be captured.”

The hope is that scientists can now use this knowledge to help them paint a more complete picture of what the Universe looks like helping us to unravel the rest of its mysteries.

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The Skyrmions Are Falling Into Place

Moore’s Law may soon be a thing of the past thanks to a new breakthrough that could fundamentally alter what we think we know about computer processing and data storage.
As Futurism puts it:

“Currently, data is read and written one bit at a time — a feat accomplished by altering the placement of magnetic particles. Instead, this new method manipulates ‘skyrmions’ — virtual particles made of small disturbances in the orientation of this magnetism — by using electric fields. These ‘particles can store data for much longer than traditional methods.

Geoffrey Beach, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, led the original study which first documented the existence of skyrmions in 2016. In this new study, he has demonstrated, for the first time, that it’s possible to create the virtual particles in specific locations (when previously documented, the particles’ location was entirely random). This most recent development is what will be key in creating improved data storage systems.”

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Quantum Video Calls

If you thought FaceTime was cool you ain’t seen nothing yet.  Soon we could have quantum video calls that are completely unhackable.

As Futurism explains:

“On September 29, a video call took place between Beijing, the capital of China, and Vienna, the capital of Austria. This wasn’t any ordinary call, however: it was the first live demonstration of a call powered and securely encrypted using quantum technology. It marks a huge breakthrough in the realm of quantum communications, and shows the potential impact the technology could have on how information is transmitted and secured.

The quantum video call is the result of a collaboration between researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and the University of Vienna. The call was encrypted by sending information embedded in particles of light (photons) generated by the Micius satellite. Micius was launched last year and successfully used quantum cryptography to send data to Earth back in August.”

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Are any of these the Greatest Idea Ever?

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