Two Top Scientists Find The Existence of a Soul Through Quantum Theory

Yeah, it makes everyone a scientist and also provides good headline fodder for journalists. Plus, it’s great for many ‘spiritual leaders’ as they see it as a vindication of their position; something that they have been asserting all along just got some scientific backing. Unfortunately for them, it’s not all that clear cut. Dr. Stuart Hameroff, Professor Emeritus and the Director of the Center of Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona, and the world renowned physicist and mathematician, Sir Roger Penrose, join forces to forward a new theory – the theory of quantum consciousness.

Carrying the weighty soul?

Quantum what?

You might have already heard of that term, but not yet grasped its meaning. Leave aside all the terrible jargon that is thrown around when ‘spiritual teachers’ like Deepak Chopra speak on this subject, ‘quantum consciousness’ refers to the idea that the brain is a quantum computer and that our consciousness is related to the state of quantum information in our brains. Okay, that might be too much ‘quantum’ for you, so let’s break that up.

Okay… Quantum Mechanics (and Quantum Computers)

Quantum theory, as physicists understand it, has weird elements. It says that particles can be in a superposition of energies, rather than have one fixed energy, can have a ‘spread out’ position, rather than one pinpoint location and that two systems, spatially separated from one another, might still be able to ‘communicate’ with each other, if they were linked to begin with. It’s the last phenomenon that we shall discuss.

The idea is one of ‘coherence’. When two systems are quantum mechanically linked, or ‘entangled’, then measuring one affects the other instantaneously, violating the intuitive concepts of Einstein’s relativity. So if a system A is entangled to system B, measuring A will affect B, no matter how far B is from A, be it half the universe away. This instantaneous change of state has been hypothesized to be useful in making quantum computers.

In a quantum computer, information is stored in energy levels, and since there are more than two energy levels, the two-bit limitation of a normal computer is washed away. We can store much more information. Now, we can perturb a part of the system and, immediately, some other part of the system will be affected. This will help in fast computation, as series computations will take much lesser time.

Of course, for a machine to behave as a quantum computer, the two systems mentioned, say A and B, must remain ‘coherent’. If they disentangle, then they no longer form a quantum computer. Typically, there is a ‘decoherence time’, the typical time required for two entangled systems to disentangle.

And now… Quantum Consciousness!

Now, on to what Penrose and Hameroff are claiming. They claim that inside the neurons, there are tiny structures called microtubules. Information in these microtubules is what constitutes the ‘soul’ or our ‘consciousness’. They go further. Say the body dies. The microtubules lose their quantum state, but retain the quantum information (and information cannot be lost). Thus, the soul remains and is dissipated in the universe at large. This conforms to the eastern position of spirituality which says that the body is mortal, but the soul isn’t and there is a cycle of births.

Penrose and Hameroff dodge the cycle of births and cater to another popular public fascination – near death experiences. They say that the information can be restored into a microtubule if a dying patient is resuscitated and this is what they might feel as a ‘near death experience’.

Spreading the message? Or just spreading pseudo-science?

The theory has gained worldwide popularity owing to a documentary ‘Through a Wormhole’ narrated by Morgan Freeman, aired in the US on the Science Channel.

Quantum… sorry, plain rubbish – the damning rebuttal

At first glance, all of this sounds like hogwash and it probably will sound like that even when you hear it for the 42nd time. The problems are manifold and the scientific community overwhelmingly lines up against this quantum soul theory. Leave alone the fact that microtubules have not been found or that the quantum information dissipation can never be demonstrated or falsified. (Remember that these two are the major tenets of the theory and I am chucking these away!) Max Tegmark, in this paper, deals a severe blow to the quantum soul theory citing the fact that neurons and neural networks behave like classical systems. They aren’t quantum to begin with.

Shall we say that one more time? Yes, neurons and neural networks behave like bouncing tennis balls or moving buses, i.e. they obey laws of classical mechanics and quantum mechanics needn’t be invoked to explain them! Forget about being a quantum computer, these neurons are not even quantum mechanical! Just for fun, Tegmark quotes the typical ‘decoherence time’ (definition above) for these neurons. He notes that these are of the order of 10-13 s to 10-20 s, much much smaller than what’s needed for a quantum computer (~ 10-3 s). Okay, so even if the neurons were quantum objects, they would never form a quantum computer!

So much for the soul. There is still no evidence that it exists. May it rest in a quantum of peace!

Why is Hurricane Sandy So Damn Big?

Sandy is big! And it’s hitting the east coast of America with a vengeance. The adjectives being thrown around are ‘superstorm’, ‘Frankenstorm’ and ‘The perfect storm’. And the bad news is that all of these adjectives seem apt. Sandy is moving in fast from the east coast, boasting a fiery looking ‘eye’, which is nearly 150 km in diameter. The whole storm is somewhat close to 700 km. Worsening the situation is a cold front that is moving in from the north to the south, independently of Sandy’s activities. The fearful collision is awaited.

Hurricane Sandy as it makes landfall over Cuba.This is taken in infra-red. (Photo Courtesy: NOAA/NASA)

Sandy has forced the evacuation of reportedly 3.5 million people in New York alone. Sandy has been upgraded from a tropical storm to an extra-tropical storm. While this classification can be made just from the location of the storm – tropical storms occur in the tropics and extra-tropical ones out of the tropical regions – the correlation with storm size is direct. Extra-tropical storms always tend to be larger than tropical storms. Sandy has just moved northwards and has become even bigger.

Cyclones

Cyclones are one of Nature’s ways of transferring heat from the tropics to the polar regions. This happens only when the transfer needs to be dramatic – i.e. when the heat difference built up is large. There are other less destructive ways of heat transfer, including air currents like the jet stream, ocean currents like the Gulf Stream current and, of course, the prevalent winds. Cyclones are natural consequences of heat build-up in one region of the ocean. This creates a local low-pressure region. Colder winds from the surroundings rush in, but this chaos makes the wind swirl around the central ‘eye’. If the heat difference is large, the ocean’s heat can fuel the process to massive proportions.

The cyclone will move away from the equator, because that’s what wind systems do – move from hotter regions to colder ones. Plus, the rotation of the Earth makes sure that worldwide cyclones hit just the east coasts of landmasses! (Check this fact out and try to find an exception).

Worse…

Now that Sandy is moving further north, it will weaken because the ocean waters get colder and thus the heat source is no longer as proactive. But wait! The Gulf Stream – a warm ocean current moving along the east coast of N. America – is actually acting as a substitute for the ocean warmth. Since it carries warm water and flows along the surface of the ocean, it is intensifying Hurricane Sandy! Bad bad news! Sandy is expected to follow the warm water trail along the east coast, before it is driven on land.

A newer surprise is awaited when Sandy meets a cold wave that is coming in from the north. But that’s for another time.
Stay safe everyone and heed the warnings by the authorities.

Giant Stone Statues of Easter Island “Walked” Into Present Position, Experts Opine

After years of speculation during which various people said various things, including that they were rolled into position or even that aliens had something to do with them, it seems that the stone statues on Easter Island walked into their present position! Yes, literally walked!

One of the giant statues that seemingly walked into position

Before you start believing in a divine hand in the process or an extra-terrestrial one, let me tell you that the latest theory merely says that people rocked the statue from side-to-side and it ‘walked’. A group of local and US anthropologists and archeologists champion this theory. Not only that, they have even demonstrated that!

Walking…

There are as many as 887 statues, most towering at 32 feet and weighing up to 80 tons each, couldn’t have been rolled into position. They are just too heavy. This had been demonstrated earlier. The team, comprising 18 people, formed two groups on each side and started rhythmically tugging at the statue and it moved a surprising 100 meters in under an hour. True, this is still ardous, but this seems to be the only plausible explanation.

The team have even reported finding marks over many of the moai (the statues), which suggested that they might have toppled over and people wanted to return it to their upright position. It does seem that the moai walked right out of their construction sites and into their position.

Preserve history, destroy thyself

The moai are a way to immortalize their ancestors – the Rapa Nui. It is believed that they converted the island, west of Chile, from a flourishing paradise to an almost desert, felling trees recklessly both for their own subsistence and also to move these stone statues. Wood became a precious commodity and the different clans fought over it. It is believed that even cannibalism might have been prevalent.

The ancestors had come back to haunt the people through these statues, it seems.

Scientists Create Smart DNA Gel

This brings to mind the only and only Flubber. Robin Williams, the mad scientist, makes a lovable jelly that proves very difficult to control, wreaking havoc on the neighbourhood. The scientists at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) have been kinder! They have developed an artificial dynamic gel which contains DNA and responds to stimuli after it is fed ATPs. Yes, this is exactly how a cell might act. The brains behind this magic gel: Omar Saleh and Deborah Fygenson. Saleh explains:

This is a whole new kind of responsive gel, or what some might call a ‘smart’ material

Flubber!

The Wondrous Gel

The gel is fitted with nano-scale filaments. The team can then regulate the stiffness of the filaments and how much they are tangled up with each other using the DNA design. They used the bacterial motor protein called FtsK50C, which can bind to certain specific surfaces. The nanorods can then shorten and come together, making the contractions required for movements.

What is even more fascinating is that the gel uses Adenosine Tri Phosphate (ATP), which is the energy currency that a living cell uses. The great advantage of this gel is that it can be readily implanted into a living organism. This gel thus shows, as Saleh puts it, “quantitatively shows similar active fluctuations and mechanics to cells.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with biological motors, let me tell you that there are a variety of biological substances which can act as motors. The motors are however very specific in their activity. There is still a large gap in our understanding of biological motors and this can prove to be a major step in plugging that gap.

Idiocy Redefined: Italian Scientists Found Guilty of Not Being Able To Predict Quake Impact

When Einstein said that human stupidity knows no bounds, he wasn’t kidding. Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been found guilty of “multiple manslaughter” and sentenced to six years in prison. Their crime? They couldn’t predict the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, which was bad enough to kill 310 people in the city.

The L’Aquila devastation

Incorrect warning

In 2009, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake ravaged the city and these seven people had issued warnings which said that there is not much to be worried about. Tremors felt before 6th April, 2009 (the day of the quake) were not properly heeded by this group of scientists and, according to the prosecution, they delivered “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information. Thus, they have committed a crime. In addition to the six-year sentence, they have been barred from holding any public office ever again.

Revisiting the not-so-golden times?

This reminds me of the medieval times, when fortune tellers and soothsayers in court could be beheaded for making the wrong prediction. But haven’t we progressed from those dark days of ignorance? Weather science, and especially seismology, the science of earth movements, is a very unpredictable area of knowledge. We hardly know anything about the exact mechanism of the cause of earthquakes and thus we cannot predict it.

It’s not as if you’re looking into a crystal ball…

One of the damning statements from the prosecution bench came from one of their witnesses. Guido Fioravanti had called his mother on that night, just after the first tremor had struck. He says:

I remember the fear in her voice. On other occasions they would have fled but that night, with my father, they repeated to themselves what the risk commission had said. And they stayed.

He lost his father to the quake.

Just not possible

But the issue is bigger. The question is how we view science. Science is very accurate about many things, but climate science is not one of them. Are we going to stop making predictions? What about the numerous times the scientists have got the path of a cyclone correct? Why is it so difficult to understand that the parameters involved are just too many in number and that it’s impossible to track every one of them with the demanded accuracy? It’s difficult to even predict how the parameters influence the system and one another!

And thus, the human race wallows in stupidity.

Moon Formation: Zinc Makes Collision Theory More Plausible

Bash the Earth up and get a moon- that’s the theory that scientists have been looking at for a long time. However, the signs of violence are very subtle and very difficult to detect. It turns out that this cataclysmic event leaves behind a trail of only slight imbalance in the different varieties of zinc. Yes, boring – completely boring – to a layman, but to a scientist, it’s like adrenaline.

The Big Smashup?

Written down in Zinc

Planetary expert Frederic Moynier and his group at Washington University in St. Louis have claimed that they have discovered this tiny imbalance of zinc in the rocks of the Earth and that of the Moon. The theory goes like this: in the catastrophic event, under very hot conditions, heavier zinc atoms sunk in and condensed, while lighter ones escaped before condensation. These two isotopes (different atoms of the same element which differ only by their weights and not by their chemical properties) of zinc on the Moon will, thus, bear a ratio of their abundance different from what it is on Earth. In simpler language, say, the heavier zinc atoms outnumber the lighter atoms by a ratio 5:1 on Earth. On the moon, this ratio will be slightly (and not wildly) different – it can be say 6:1. Given that the other elemental abundances match very well, it is this tell-tale difference between the zinc ratios that should give us hints of its fiery origin.

Volatile situation

The moon rocks are chemically similar to those on Earth, except that the volatile elements are gone! This would be expected if a large body slammed into the Earth releasing a huge chunk of material that eventually formed the moon. Most of the Earth would retain whatever elements it had, but the Moon wouldn’t.

This loss of volatiles will also be accompanied by a process due to which heavy zinc atoms would outnumber the lighter zinc atoms! And this is precisely what the team found by analyzing the moon rocks.

In order to make sure that this depletion of the lighter zinc species is not a local aberration, i.e. located around only one point on the Moon’s surface, the team analysed rocks from different moon missions. These missions had picked up rocks from all over the moon and all the samples recorded the same heavy to light zinc ratio. This observation cannot be explained by any other theory and gives credence to the collision theory.

Sometimes, the smallest clues are the way to solve a great mystery. The jury is still undecided on this, however.

The technical study appears here:
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v490/n7420/full/nature11507.html

Discovered: A Planet With As Many As Four Suns!

Forget the world, the Sun is not enough. Astronomers have found a planet outside our own Solar System, which has as many as four suns! Yes, this planet, thought to be a gas giant, orbits four different suns.

And add a few more suns…

Discovery

The planet was discovered by volunteers who were using the Planethunters.org website, which allows enthusiastic astronomy amateurs access to a lot of data from NASA’s Kepler’s Space telescope. Kepler is built specifically for detecting exoplanets. The planet, named PH1, after the website, is just 5000 light years away, a stone’s throw away on the cosmological distance scales.

The technical ArXiv report is here: http://arxiv.org/abs/1210.3612

The planet is believed to be about the size of Neptune, just a bit larger. The interesting thing about this planet is the number of suns – there are four of them. Now, maintaining a stable orbit around four different suns is a very difficult and delicate problem. While it is moderately difficult to calculate the stable orbit configurations around one star, it is a huge pain to do it around two stars and impossible for four suns! There are virtually no stable points in the gravitational field in the region, where the planet can reside for an indefinite period of time.

Gravitational Confusion

We all know a single star – our Sun is an example. Now, imagine another star around it. This forms a binary system of stars. These are very abundant in the Universe – two stars circling around each other – and these reveal a lot of information about star formation and their subsequent evolution. Now, add two more stars orbiting this central binary system of stars! This is a highly improbable configuration. These outer stars will have a very hard time following a stable orbit around the core binary.

Now, throw in a gas giant planet in the mix! And what you get is utter confusion, if you could somehow see the pattern in the gravitational field. No one knows for how long this planet has existed or for how long it will exist.

One can only imagine the spectacular sunrise and sunset on the planet, but then all four suns won’t be rising or setting at the same time.

Shopping for Diamonds—in Space

Astrophysicists are hypothesizing that a previously discovered planet could have a diamond interior.

This planet, called 55 Cancri e, is an exoplanet (a planet outside the solar system) that orbits a star called 55 Cancri. Its was the one of the first ‘Super-earths’ to be discovered—its mass is greater than that of earth (around 7.8 times), yet much smaller than the masses of Uranus and Neptune. Estimates of its interior composition and atmosphere had already been made from previous studies observing its transits across the star (similar to the much talked-about Venus transit earlier this year). It was estimated that this planet had a core of iron and silicates, and an envelope of supercritical water (i.e., water in a blurred state between liquid and gas).

However, these estimates were based on the assumption that the planet had an oxygen-rich interior, similar to earth. This assumption is now being challenged in a new model proposed by researchers at Yale University. The star around which the planet orbits itself has a carbon-rich interior, and 55 Cancri e is the closest planet to the star. This led to a new model that the planet could have an interior of carbon instead of oxygen, which could also lead to the observed properties of the planet.

An illustration of the planet 55 Cancri e’s interior. A molten iron core at its center, an outer layer of graphite, and an interior of diamond. [Image Credit: space.com and Haven Giguerre]

However, based on the known temperature and pressure of 55 Cancri e, any carbon in its interior would have to exist in the form of diamond. “This is the first glimpse of a rocky world with a fundamentally different chemistry from Earth. The surface of this planet is likely covered in graphite and diamond rather than water and granite,” said Nikku Madhusudhan, who was the first author on this paper.

If this proves to be true, the phrase ‘like a diamond in the sky’, may turn out to be more than a simile. You can read about this research here and here.

Why Does a Nail on a Blackboard Make Us Cringe?

Why is the sound of nails on a blackboard (and to some of us, even the thought of it) enough to make us wince and cover our ears? Do our ears respond differently to them?

It has been previously known (by brain imaging studies) that in addition to the auditory part of our brain (the auditory cortex), the emotional center of the brain—the amygdala—is also activated by unpleasant sounds. Now how does this dual response work? How are unpleasant sounds represented in the brain? Do specific auditory signals go to the amygdala from the auditory cortex or does it receive them directly? Researchers at Newcastle University have performed a series of experiments seeking to determine precisely this.

The brain scans of 16 participants were obtained in response to a variety of pleasant (bubbling walter, a baby laughing) and unpleasant sounds (a fork scraping glass, nails against a blackboard). Based on these scans, the research team could chalk out the series of events that lead to the disturbed response exhibited upon hearing unpleasant sounds.

Why this aversion to some sounds? [Image Credit: http://myplaceforenglish.blogspot.com]

The sound signals are first processed by the cortex and then transferred to the amygdala. The amygdala, upon recognizing the signal as being ‘unpleasant’, kicks in to transfer a signal back to the auditory cortex, driving it to perceive the sound as even more unpleasant. What this means is that the intense discomfort you experience when you hear an electric drill is driven by an emotional response. “It appears there is something very primitive kicking in,” says Dr Sukhbinder Kumar, the paper’s author from Newcastle University. “It’s a possible distress signal from the amygdala to the auditory cortex.”

The authors also noted that most sounds we classify as unpleasant belong to a high frequency range of the auditory spectrum, the same range in which the sound of a human screaming can be found. Perhaps our aversion to these sounds are thus evolutionary.

This study could be extended to learn more about the generality of this result. Is this specific to unpleasant sounds? What about words with negative connotations? What about words that are merely ‘negative’ but not distinctly unpleasant? The same research methodology can be extended to uncover the mechanisms by which our brain processes auditory information.

You can read about this research here.

Indian Led Team Discovers Giant Black Holes

A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge, led by Dr Manda Banerji, has discovered previously undetected supermassive black holes in the deepest regions of the early universe. The study is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Infrared colour image of ULASJ1234+0907 located 11 billion light years from Earth and one of the reddest objects in the sky. (UKIDSS / Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer Observatory)

A Royal Astronomical Society press release said the team used “cutting-edge infrared surveys of the sky to discover a new population of enormous, rapidly growing supermassive black holes in the early Universe”. Apparently, these black holes have been hidden from our site due to a thick layer of dust that surrounds them. One of the super massive black holes, labeled ULASJ1234+0907, is 10,000 times the size of our own Milky Way galaxy. It, and other black holes like it, is emitting enormous radiation through violent interactions with its  host galaxy.

Dr Manda Banerji said, “Most black holes of this kind are seen through the matter they drag in. As the neighboring material spirals in towards the black holes, it heats up. Astronomers are able to see this radiation and observe these systems.” He went on to say, “Although these black holes have been studied for some time, the new results indicate that some of the most massive ones may have so far been hidden from our view.”

Most of the massive black holes are located at the center of galaxies. Due to collisions with other galaxies, they are often surrounded by massive clouds of dust. The team from Cambridge used infrared surveys being carried out on the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) to look past the dust and locate the giant black holes for the first time. This research could have significant impact on the way black holes are studied in the future. For more information, visit http://www.ras.org.uk.