God is a Scientist

That’s the intriguing possibility raised by the idea of “cosmogenesis” – it’s entirely possible that within a few decades, humans will develop the technological capability to create their own universes. It hinges on the existence of a theoretical particle called a monopole – if discovered, pumping enough energy into a monopole should create a tiny black hole. It would be harmless to us, but if you were to go through its tiny mouth you’d find a rapidly inflating universe on its other side – one much like our own, as described by the “big bang” and inflationary theories of creation. If we have the capability of creating our own universes, could we be living inside one created by someone else?

The rabbit-hole of this idea is very similar to the argument that we live inside a simulation – if advanced intelligent civilizations can produce their own universes, and many of them, it’s much more likely that we live inside such a universe than a naturally occurring one. Perhaps our “God” that created our universe is looking toward a tiny particle in his or her alien lab, unable to directly influence what happens within it once it’s been created.

It’s an intriguing possibility that raises all sorts of ethical discussions. If we can create our own universes, should we? Some would argue that intelligent life has inherent value, and if we have the ability to create more of it by creating new universes that may give rise to intelligence, we have an moral obligation to do so.

It’s also a deeply offensive idea to many of the religious faithful, and this has resulted in papers describing it being censored for fear of backlash. But there is a technicality: the Judeo-Christian Bible explicitly describes a universe created from nothing, while cosmogenesis describes a universe created through technical means from something. So it’s at least possible from a philosophical standpoint for both worldviews to co-exist.

But, like the simulation hypothesis, proving or disproving whether we live inside an artificially created universe may be impossible, and ultimately is a question science – or anything else –
cannot answer. If you’d like to read more, check out “The Idea of Creating a Universe in the Lab is No Joke” which goes into much more depth on the idea, and how it’s been suppressed. It’s picking up steam after being republished by Discover Magazine.

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Are We Living in a Simulation?

In a recent episode of StarTalk, Neil DeGrasse Tyson made some surprisingly strong statements about the hypothesis that we’re all living in a simulation. My first reaction was that Dr. Tyson has finally lost it.

But he’s in good company – Elon Musk firmly believes this as well:

Now, one could argue that Mr. Musk lost it a long time ago (read this great biography and decide for yourself) – but you can’t argue with his, or Dr. Tyson’s results. These are smart people, and if they both give this idea serious consideration, perhaps we should as well.

The argument goes something like this: in 40 years we’ve gone from Pong to creating virtual-reality video games. In another 40 years, we will probably have games that are indistinguishable from reality. And as artificial intelligence advances, it’s entirely plausible that a short time later we will be capable of creating simulated brains that experience a simulated universe that is indistinguishable from reality. Extrapolating further, and assuming there is more than one “base reality” advanced civilization out there in the real world, it’s much more likely that we’re part of a simulated universe than in part of a real one.

This is not a new idea; questions about the nature of our existence go back to Plato. But even this latest interpretation goes back to 2003, in a paper by philospher Nick Bostrom called “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” The argument is that we may be part of an “ancestor simulation” created by an advanced version of humanity seeking to understand itself, by simulating all of its prior existence. If you crunch the numbers, you find that a planet-sized supercomputer should be able to fully simulate every human brain that ever existed many, many times every second – and presumably, constructing sensory inputs to those brains for some shared virtual environment is a cakewalk in comparison. Given that we seem to be on track to develop such capability, it’s much more likely we are simulations than the real thing. And when you consider we may not be the only intelligent species in the universe, the odds get even worse that we’re real.

This would also provide a neat explanation for some scientific curiosities we’ve actually observed. There’s evidence that our 3-dimensional universe is really a holographic projection from a 2-D reality. There is real, observational evidence of this. It also explains the existence of the Planck length and Planck time – discrete values of time and space below which you cannot go smaller. Sounds an awful lot like pixels and video frames in a computer game! It also explains a lot of the weirdness found in quantum mechanics, where particles have no “real” state until they are observed. If you were making an ancestor simulation, why would you bother simulating the infinite tracts of the universe that your ancestors never interacted with at all? And it also explains the “Fermi paradox” – by some lines of reasoning, we really should have encountered extraterrestrial intelligence already. Perhaps the simulation we live within is only interested in human minds.

But, there are some real problems with the simulation hypothesis. Dr. Matt Dowd of PBS Space Time was Dr. Tyson’s guest on the StarTalk episode I mentioned, and he’s posted a great analysis of it here:

The main problem is that the simulation hypothesis is non-falsifiable. There is no experiment that you can even dream up that would prove that we’re not in a simulation. This is true of most conspiracy theories – you can’t prove the moon landing wasn’t faked, you can’t prove I’m not an evil alien lizard establishing a new world order, and you can’t prove the Earth isn’t flat and part of some elaborate cover-up of its flatness. In general, you can’t disprove a negative – so being unable to disprove something is most definitively not evidence in support of it.

But the simulation hypothesis is even worse. Not only can you not disprove it, you can’t prove it either! It is entirely a philosophical exercise, and that’s all it ever can be – unless the basement-dwelling gamer who created us decides to suddenly reveal himself. Perhaps the simulation hypothesis can also explain religion!

Beyond that, there are other problems. Even Nick Bostrom, creator of the “ancestor simulation” hypothesis, is on record of believing there’s less than a 50% chance of it being true. That’s because there are at least two equally plausible explanations:

  • Advanced civilizations just aren’t interested enough in simulating their ancestors to bother with it.
  • No civilization survives long enough to create an ancestor simulation.

I find the former argument pretty compelling. Why would anyone expend the resources to build a planet-sized computer just to simulate their ancestors?

So for now, the simulation hypothesis is certainly a great topic for interesting conversations – but it can’t be more than that. Besides, if we were to discover that we are simulations – our dungeon-master might decide to pull our plug! Let’s hope our universe doesn’t wink out of existence once I hit the “publish” button here.

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China’s Killing It Lately

Take note, if you want to “Make America Great Again” – China’s been killing it lately in science and technology.

This week a Chinese satellite shattered the record for quantum entanglement, by entangling photons between the ground and a satellite 500km above the Earth with a total distance of 1200km. This is Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance,” where two particles can be “entangled” in such a way that the state of one particle will instantly affect a measurement of the second particle’s state, no matter how far apart they are in space. There are practical limitations that prevent this from being used for faster-than-light communication, but it does provide a means for a perfect encryption scheme for secure communications over large distances. By demonstrating this in space, China has opened up the eventual possibility of a global, perfectly secure Internet of their own. Applying this system to encryption is in fact their next step, followed by experiments in long-distance quantum teleportation.

China also launched their own space-based X-Ray telescope this week. It will search the Universe for black holes and neutron stars, aiding our understanding of these strange objects. Here’s the kicker – this X-Ray observatory satellite is just the last in a series of four science missions launched by China over the past 18 months. It was built together with a dark matter probe, some microgravity experiments, and the quantum entanglement satellite described above.

China is also gearing up to build a world-class terrestrial telescope of their own, a 12-meter optical and infrared telescope slated to go online in the 2020’s. And you may have heard that following a successful robotic moon landing last year and deployment of their own robotic Lunar rover, China is now planning to land humans on the Moon by 2036.

Meanwhile, although NASA likes to talk about going to Mars, they have no mandate at all from our Congress to go anywhere – nor any concrete plans to do so. They’re sort of working in that direction just because nobody’s told them to do anything different. Meanwhile, private companies such as SpaceX and other countries such as the UAE are unveiling their own Mars plans.

So, if you’re worried about America losing its “greatness” as a world leader in science and technology – you should be. And you should ask yourself if the policies and budgets Americans are supporting are consistent with changing this trend. They’re not – and countries like China are seizing on the opportunity. Why not use this increased competition as an opportunity in itself? Given a mandate and sufficient funding, NASA could partner with its private-sector partners (including SpaceX) to do something truly grand, inspiring, and – dare I say it – great.

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Rethinking The Geekery’s Strategy

I started Frank’s Geekery with the mission of spreading excitement and interest about science in a scalable way. I’ve taken a shotgun approach to finding out what works:

  • Video podcasts (vlogs)
  • Audio podcasts
  • Blogs
  • Facebook / Twitter

3 weeks in, there’s enough data to make a call here.

The good news is that social media posts seem to be doing pretty well.

But despite some paid promotions and constantly improving quality, viewership of the weekly video podcasts have been trending down instead of up. Audio podcasts have fared a little better, but are also trending in the wrong direction. I think it’s clear that I should leave podcasting and YouTube to the professionals – there are already several highly successful podcasters and YouTubers promoting science, with audiences of millions. These people have full-time staffs and experienced presenters. Instead of trying augment or compete with them, the right thing to do is support them instead.

I’m already a Patreon supporter of Veritasium and StarTalk, and have contributed not only money but content as well. So, instead of spending hours every week producing podcasts that are struggling to find an audience, the mission of Frank’s Geekery is far better served by using that time to make more money, and donating that money toward the production of more and better content from the people who already have an audience.

For example, Veritasium just released this amazing video on YouTube using equipment that his Patreon supporters funded:

So, the Frank’s Geekery podcasts are coming to an end. Instead, I’ll support the people who have the time, energy, and talent to do a much better job than I could.

However – the blog here shall remain, and I’ll continue to use this as a place to post my own commentary going forward. I’ll continue to post on the Frank’s Geekery Twitter and Facebook accounts, although you’ll see more links to existing articles than original content. Again, the epiphany is this: the most scalable way for me to promote science literacy is by making more money, and helping to fund people who are already promoting science literacy at a large scale. As a self-employed individual, my time really is money – and the money I can make with a few hours of time can fund a bigger impact than I could by using those hours to produce my own content.

Anyhow – a bit of a stream of consciousness there, but I wanted to explain my line of thinking. If the Frank’s Geekery social media channels build up a large enough following, it may make sense to revisit creating podcasts. But for now, the focus will be on helping out the existing evangelizers of science however I can.

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A Spray Tan That Really Gives You a Tan

It turns out redheads held the secret of how tanning works.

As any redhead will tell you – they don’t tan in the sun, they just burn. Understanding why turned out to be the key to producing a new compound that really gets your skin to tan – even if you’re a redhead.

Tanning happens when a skin receptor called melanocytes responds to signals to create more melanin in your skin, in response to increased UV exposure. By studying the redhead equivalent of mice, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston realized their melanocytes do not respond to these signals – and it’s due to how melanocytes are encoded in the redhead version of the gene MC1R.

Further research revealed that a protein called salt-inducible kinase (SIK) is what acts as the “off switch” for melanin production in redheads. All that was left to do was order up a molecule known to inhibit SIK, apply it in liquid form on a redheaded mouse, and see what happens. Sure enough, the mouse’s skin turned almost jet black in response!

They proceeded to try it on a patch of human skin, which turned a nice shade of brown.

This isn’t just a cosmetic breakthrough – unlike today’s spray tans, this gives you a real tan – one that can help protect you against UV radiation and offer up some resistance to skin cancer. And if it keeps some people out of tanning booths, that too will reduce skin cancer.

It has yet to go through clinical trials, so you probably won’t see this on the shelves anytime soon. But it’s a really great story of an interesting breakthrough, and one that can make redheads around the world proud!

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The Impact Crater for “The Great Dying” Extinction May Have Been Found

Everyone knows about the impact crater off the coast of Chicxulub, Mexico, thought to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. But a much larger extinction event, known as “The Great Dying,” wiped out 96% of all known life on our planet 250 million years ago. So far, there has been no compelling evidence of an impact that caused this – until now.

Studies of gravitational anomalies around the Falkland Islands have uncovered what appears to be a 200-kilometer-wide impact crater underwater. Michael Rampino of New York University first published his suspicions of what these anomalies represented in 1992, but his paper was soon forgotten due to the lack of additional evidence.

Maximiliano Rocca of Buenos Ares, Argentina, rekindled this investigation. An amateur scientist funded by The Planetary Society’s Planetary Defense grants, Rocca corroborated Rampino’s initial data with newer, more detailed gravitational data, seismic data, and magnetic data – all of which points to a large crater similar in structure to the one at Chicxulub. The suspected age of this anomaly matches up with The Great Dying – making it the simplest explanation for this mass extinction. The next step would be to drill a core sample to confirm the age of the crater.

Rocca’s findings will be published in the August issue of the peer-reviewed journal Terra Nova. And it’s a reminder that another extinction-level impact on Earth isn’t a question of if it will happen again, it’s a question of when. And we are still entirely unprepared for it as a species.

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Even Moderate Alcohol Consumption Causes Brain Damage (or does it?)

Even one or two drinks a day can cause brain damage to your hippocampus, according to a recent study in the British Medical Journal. But, how much faith should we put into these findings?

I’ve pointed out the flaws in studies that try to link benefits to supposedly bad behavior, such as the study that says eating cheese is good for you, or that chocolate is good for your heart. The former was funded by cheese and dairy industry groups, and the latter was not a controlled study that had lots of statistical limitations. We should subject this paper to the same scrutiny – and not just because it’s a message we don’t want to hear.

The BMJ is the same journal that published that “chocolate is good for your heart” study, and upon closer examination you’ll find that this one has many of the same caveats.

The study involved 550 Londoners who filled out surveys about their drinking habits and had an MRI every 5 years for 30 years. The paper concludes that one drink per week is associated with a 0.01 percent decline in the size of your hippocampus, which is associated with memory and navigation.

You don’t need to be a statistician to see the problems here:

  • This study reports only on correlation; it is not a double-blind experiment and so we can say nothing about causation.
  • 550 people, all of whom are part of the same social group and in London, probably aren’t representative of all humans to begin with.
  • 0.01% is a very small change to detect, especially given this sample size. For comparison, your hippocampus shrinks 0.02% per year on its own, just due to aging.
  • There is the potential of selection bias, as participants in the study had to have the means and willingness to travel to Oxford from London to undergo these periodic tests.
  • Here’s the real kicker – for some reason, this change was only statistically significant for the right hemisphere of the hippocampus. It makes no sense that alcohol would affect it in such a selective manner. What would make more sense is that the arbitrary threshold chosen for “significance” just happened to be right on the cusp of the results for the right hemisphere observations – but “statistical significance” does not mean the effect is real!

In fact, a different way to report on this study is “having 8-12 drinks per week actually isn’t that bad for your brain.” If there is an effect, it’s barely detectable. That’s a more honest way to report these results. But it’s also true that claims of moderate drinking being beneficial are also probably sketchy.

To be fair, the authors are quite up front and transparent about these caveats, as they were in the chocolate study. But not all press coverage really presented these findings in their full context.

Hang on while I get a beer.

Image credit: iStock.com / Ezhukov

Frank’s Geekery Episode 3: Spreading Science Literacy, and a Visit to Kennedy Space Center

In this week’s episode, we talk about what you can do as a citizen to promote science literacy in the US, and around the world. We’ll also show you the latest at Kennedy Space Center’s visitor center, where they’re kicking off their “Summer of Mars” program.

As always we start with a review of the week’s science news, including:

Links mentioned in this episode:

The Planetary Society
The National Center for Science Education

Music licensed from SoundDogs, images from iStock.com.

Available in video and audio form below:

Precursors of Life Found Around Young, Sun-Like Stars

One of the great mysteries of science is how life arose on Earth. We just don’t know. Did it evolve from scratch, from chemical reactions inside Earth’s early primordial ooze? Did it come to us in bacterial form from Mars, where it evolved further here? Did our solar system pass through some cloud of organic material as it spun around the galaxy? Are we all just in The Matrix? We simply don’t know.

A hint comes from studies of a distant cluster of sun-like stars called IRAS 16293-2422, which discovered the presence of a complex organic molecule called methyl isocyanate. This “prebiotic” molecule is very similar to peptide, which is what holds the amino acids inside proteins together. Proteins are an essential part of life as we know it.

These stars are very young, suggesting that complex organic molecules can form even before planets do, under the right conditions. Methyl isocyanate was also discovered in the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko two years ago in our own solar system, which shows this compound also existed while our own planet was being formed. Methyl isocyanate has also been found inside large star-forming gas clouds, such as Orion KL and Sagittarius B2(N).

Together these findings suggest that the building blocks of organic life are easily found in the environments stars form within – it’s not something unique to our solar system. What we don’t know is how unique our solar system is in providing the conditions needed to build these components into actual living, breathing creatures such as ourselves! But we’re one step closer to understanding that process.

This discovery was made using the ALMA array, a group of 66 dishes high in the Andes mountains, using both new and archived data. The results are published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and summarized nicely at the AAAS Science website.

Image credit: iStock.com/zhudifeng

The Oldest Human Fossils Just Got Discovered

Well, this is sort of a big deal – our own species, Homo Sapiens, is 50% older than we thought!

An ancient skull found in the Jebel Irhoud cave in Morocco has actually been around for awhile, but was recently re-dated. This new data shows that modern humans emerged 300,000 years ago – 100,000 years earlier than previously known.

This fossil shows that modern humans evolved “face-first” – our faces flattened before the backs of our skulls finished developing into their contemporary shape.

Searches for the origins of humans have historically centered around Africa’s Great Rift Valley, so finding this specimen in Morocco was somewhat unexpected. Morocco would have been at the edges of the ranges of Homo at the time, based on what we currently know.

The details are presented in the journal Nature.

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