I, SCIENCE THE SCIENCE MAGAZINE OF IMPERIAL COLLEGE
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I,SCIENCE THE SCIENCE MAGAZINE OF IMPERIAL COLLEGE
Editors-in-Chief Bruno martin Madeleine Finlay Magazine Editor raquel Taylor Web Editor Lucy Timms Pictures Editor Natasha gertler Business Manager liz killen Marketing and social Media Tori Blakeman Radio Editor catherine Webb News Manager Sarah Barfield Marks Online Features Manager katharina kropshofer Events Manager judit agui TV Editor Vidish Athavale Sub-Editors Ipsita Herlekar Frances McStea Marcela Leite Helena Spooner rachel baxter emma lisle david walker Cover Illustrator emils gedrovics
I, Science is a publication of the Science Communication Unit, Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication, Imperial College London. However, it is a student publication, and as such the views expressed in I, Science do not reflect the views of the Unit, Centre or College. s 2016 draws to an end, most of us are reflecting on what a strange and surprising year it has been. Many of this year’s events have been sad and exasperating, from the death of David Bowie in January, through to the election of Trump.
We witnessed the Zika virus plaguing the Olympic games in Rio, North Korea launching long-range rockets into space, the abhorrent attacks in Brussels and, of course, Brexit. It is no wonder, therefore, that here at I, Science we have been desperate for some science-based escapism. So, in this edition, we invite you to travel with us to other worlds. Drift through space with Thomas Halworth, who takes us on a journey into the nebula clouds where stars are born and new worlds come into existence. If you’d rather stay closer to home, consider Henry Alman’s suggestions of moving to Mars, on pages 8 and 9. Roam the intangible landscapes of our minds, from pages 16 to 21. Amy Thomas delves into our dreams, Eugene Kwa hunts
How about exploring the most otherworldly environments of our own planet? Travel our top five other worlds on Earth, curated by Rachel Gillespie, before jumping into the seas with Emma Parkin to meet some of the aliens of the deep. Or voyage instead through the new world online. Zeb Mattey gives us a glimpse into the cutting-edge technology of virtual and augmented reality. If you’re interested in what we’re doing here at Imperial to investigate the cyber world, turn to page 30, where Artur Donaldson interviews researchers from the Data Science Institute and the Department of Computing Security Research Group, to discuss all things data. We hope you enjoy the adventures, out of 2016 and into other worlds.
bruno and madeleine
about the front cover picture: Emils Gedrovics
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hallucinations, and Annabel King shows us a machine that can induce them.
This is my friend’s collection of carnivorous plants in glass vials, double exposed with a stuffed bird under a green glass. I started playing with double exposure technique two years ago and it quickly became my favourite way of capturing memories. Like many people, I struggle with mindfulness, finding myself in one place whilst mentally wandering elsewhere. I realised that double exposure can portray my mind being in two or even more different realities, worlds—often a more accurate representation of my memories than a singly exposed photo. There is also something comforting in seeing that this clash of different worlds can result in something beautiful, where both of the components are complementary to each other. To find out about the rest of the artwork featured in the magazine, please visit isciencemag.co.uk
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Moving homes Can we overcome the obstacles to colonising space?
speedy science Your quick-fire space questions, answered.
top 5 other worlds in space Take a journey through our universe’s strangest planets.
Science behind the photo Look into the edges of the Milky Way.
Unravelling Reality What do we know about the fantasy worlds created by our minds?
at the crossroads of you mind
Plausibility | A short story exploring our relationships with time and memory.
| underwater world Darling, it’s quirkier down where it’s murkier. Robots and submarines reveal the denizens of the deep.
playing chicken with the planet | Is this the Anthropocene? If it is, we don’t like it.
| Top 5 other worlds on earth Out of this world? No. Otherwordly? Yes. The most surreal places on Earth.
Perilous climates | As our world’s climate begins to change, societies will need to adapt and evolve to avoid some difficult dilemmas.
| A timeless world When a chilly world messes their body clock, Svalbard’s reindeer know exactly what to do.
new realities | Virtual reality has seized its second chance.
30 | Meet the data scientists
Absent attraction | Mysterious forces are at work when it comes to the gravity of galaxies.
Where, and why, do dreams and reality meet?
the birth of other worlds Out of distant clouds come stars and planets…
| chasing visions Do you want to see what is not there? Close your eyes, look into the Dreamachine...
Artur Donaldson meets Professor YvesAlexandre de Montjoye and Professor Michael Huth to discuss all things data.
news Connecting the dots for human consciousness
Plant power: photosynthesis can counter human CO2 emissions
by Sarah Barfield Marks
by Sophie Protheroe
ave you ever wondered where human consciousness comes from?
A recent study involving a group of researchers from Harvard Medical School may have the answer. These scientists have advanced the understanding of the physical origins of consciousness in the human brain. Arousal and awareness were already understood to be two prerequisites for consciousness. Previous studies identified the brainstem, which controls processes like sleep and breathing, as being involved in regulating arousal. Awareness has been thought to reside somewhere in the cortex, but has been more difficult to pinpoint. The study involved investigating patients with brainstem lesions. Of these, a few were in comas but most were conscious. The brainstems were mapped to understand why some had remained conscious, while others had not. They were able to identify a specific area in the brainstem that was damaged in the comatosed patients, but not in the conscious ones. The researchers then consulted a connectome: a healthy human brain map showing all the discovered connections in the brain. They identified two regions in the cortex that were connected to this specific area in the brainstem. These two regions in the cortex have been linked to the awareness part of consciousness in the past. Brain scans for 45 comatosed patients were then analysed and all had a faulty connection between these three areas. Although this was a small study in need of replication, it is the first time a connection has been made between the brain regions for arousal and awareness. If confirmed these findings could be the key to new treatments for comatose patients, as well as some amazing insights into human consciousness.
or the first time, scientists have shown that plants can affect atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels over long periods. During the first few years of the new millennium, plants temporarily halted the acceleration of rising CO2 levels.
During photosynthesis, plants absorb CO2. This is more efficient when CO2 concentrations are higher. But plants also release CO2 during respiration. Whether plants are net consumers or producers of CO2 depends on the delicate balance between these two processes. Between 2002 and 2014, CO2 concentrations rose slower than predicted by climate simulations. Research has revealed that plants absorbed more carbon dioxide than they released, and helped keep the atmospheric rise in CO2 steady, despite the increasing carbon emissions from human activities. Land plants and the oceans are crucial to maintaining the atmosphere, removing approximately 45% of CO2 emitted by human activities every year. In the last 50 years, the amount of CO2 absorbed by plants and the oceans has more than doubled. Before we get too excited about this apparent solution to combatting carbon emissions, scientists have warned that plants can only do so much. Unless we tackle the root of the problem and reduce human CO2 emissions, plants will have little effect. David Schimel, a climate scientist at NASA, said: “the last couple of years have been the warmest on record. Whatever was going on is done.” Rising temperatures may increase the rate of CO2 release when plants respire. Plants may also suffer under extreme weather conditions causedby climate change, such as drought or flooding. This greenhouse that damages plants is clearly in need of repair.
X-tremely unusual activity detected on Pluto
by Henry Bennie
luto may have been demoted to a “dwarf planet”, but it is still a source of intrigue. A recent study has shown that investigating it could unlock a new tool for detecting bodies on the edge of our solar system. Carey Lisse, an astronomer from the Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, first pointed the Chandra X-ray telescope at Pluto in 2014. He did this three more times in 2015 and detected seven x-ray photons streaming from Pluto. At first glance this doesn’t seem to be very peculiar. Except that, according to a recent survey of its atmosphere and solar wind, this is a lot more than we would expect Pluto to produce. Many planets and comets generate x-ray photons. It occurs when solar wind from the sun, a stream of charged particles, interacts with their magnetic field or gas particles in their atmosphere. The intrigue in the case of Pluto is that it hardly has an atmosphere at all and has no detectable magnetic field. The signal appears genuine to Lisse and his team, as they detected x-ray photons on four separate occasions and the energy of the photons does not match the background noise, also detected by the telescope. To confirm their findings, Lisse will need to team up with Konrad Dennerl, an astrophysicist in Germany, who is “not fully convinced” by the low signal. They aim to point a totally different x-ray detecting instrument at Pluto, to verify the strange trickle of x-rays. This alternative tool will be the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton satellite. If x-ray photons are indeed streaming away from Pluto, other hard-to-detect bodies with small atmospheres, like the ring of icy debris past Neptune, may be detected.
The Birth of Other Wor Out of distant clouds come stars and planets… by Thomas J. Haworth
nebula... a cloud of material so big that it would take Usain Bolt 800 million years to sprint across it.
At its edges, this cloud is extremely cold (at about -250 degrees Celsius) and dark. Near the middle lies a young cluster of hundreds of stars. The stars formed together, they are siblings, eventually parting ways to travel in smaller numbers across the cosmos. For now though, newly formed, they remain in a group. The light from the largest stars in the cluster is so powerful that it can heat up the inner parts of the cloud to about 10 thousand degrees. At this temperature, atoms are ripped apart, causing them to emit a spectacular array of colours. The specific colours emitted depend on what the cloud is made of. When this light eventually reaches the Earth we can collect it to figure out what nebulae are made of, without ever having to visit them. Now zoom in on one of the young stars. A star, perhaps, that is destined to be similar to our Sun. As you get closer you will notice a dark, dusty disc of material orbiting it, like a record spinning on a turntable. This disc is much smaller than the nebula – this time it would take Bolt a mere one hundred thousand years to get from the star to the disc’s outer edge. The strong light emitted from the star’s siblings, which is ripping apart the gas in the nebula, is also doing its best to destroy the disc.
Picture: Maddy Dench
The outer layers are being heated up and stripped away from the disc in huge plumes of material. However, compared to the nebula, the disc is very dense. The strong light therefore cannot make it down to the inner parts (you can’t shine a torch through a wall). This is very fortunate, since deep down in the inner layers of the disc, is the region where young planets are being created.
rlds The disc itself is leftover from the materials that formed As of November 2016, 3533 planets have been detected the star. around 2650 stars, with many more yet to be confirmed. These have been detected either because they block a It exists thanks to the balance between the star’s gravity, tiny part of their parent star’s light when they orbit it, or trying to pull material inwards, and the forces from the because they are large enough and close enough to their spinning material, trying to push it out. parent star to make it wobble due to gravity. Amazingly, almost every time we search for planets around stars, we How the disc transforms from raw material to something find them. that harbours planets is still not fully understood. Somehow, very small clumps of solids, called grains, Excitingly, there is huge diversity in the types of solar in the disc merge with each other, forming larger and systems that we discover. Some stars only host one or larger objects. They eventually become so huge that two planets, whereas others have many. We also find gravity pulls in material from the disc, aiding their planets that are nothing like any of those in our solar transformation into planets. They continue to get bigger system. For example, we see planets bigger than Jupiter as they make their way through the disc, sculpting orbiting extremely close to their parent star. out channels which can be detected from Earth using state of the art instruments such as the Atacama Large We see “Super Earths”, which are rocky planets much Millimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile. A famous example, larger than our own such as Earth and Mars. We also see detected only in the last few years, is the HL Tau disc, planets orbiting their stars at distances much further out which shows exquisite concentric dark rings, or lanes, than our dwarf planets, like Pluto. These far out planets that are likely created by planets. are particularly interesting in light of recent suggestions that our own solar system hosts a mysterious dark In addition to removing material to create these dark planet somewhere beyond Pluto. We do know that such lanes, planets can also shepherd material in the disc to planets exist from looking at other solar systems, so the create features like spirals, which we can also now detect. idea isn’t necessarily that crazy! Observations, like those from ALMA, are now able to tell us what is happening inside the discs, allowing us to One of the biggest challenges now facing astronomers is gain a deeper understanding of how planets form. understanding how such diverse planetary systems are These exciting new technologies will help us to answer formed. We also need to understand how our own solar questions like when and where do planets form in discs? system fits in - are systems like ours common, or quite Do they form quickly or slowly? Do planets stay at the rare? same distance from the star that they formed, or do they move around? How important are planets in the To answer these questions we have to understand how destruction of discs? With fantastic new images and planets emerge and evolve. To do this we must turn our ever-improving theoretical simulations, the answers to attention back to the discs from which they are made. these questions are not too far away. What is it about these discs that gives rise to such a variety of planets? As disc material consumed by the star goes into making planets, and evaporates, the disc disappears about As a Junior Research Fellow in the Astrophysics Group 10 millions years after it formed. So, Bolt would have at Imperial I will be looking at the importance of light had time to make it! Left behind are planets and other from stars in young clusters during disc evolution, to bodies such as asteroids and comets — a brand new understand how a disc’s environment can influence the solar system has been created! planets that form.
Moving homes Race to mars
Can we ever overcome the obstacles to colonising space? It starts with Mars. by Henry Alman
t has taken the entire sum of human history to explore and document the landmass of just our world. Now, only 47 years after a human first set foot upon the Moon, a whole host of plans exists to colonise a new planet. Multiple sources, including the private company SpaceX and NASA, estimate establishment of the first colony on Mars during the 2030s. It sounds like mere fantasy, but many are considering how the inhospitable conditions may be overcome to accomplish it. The list of impediments to human survival on Mars is staggering. Temperatures range from -87 to -5°C, surface pressure is so low that saliva would boil on the tongue, the atmosphere too thin to filter out ultraviolet sunlight, the air too thick with CO2 and poor in oxygen to allow for animal or even plant life, and— without a magnetosphere—deadly cosmic rays easily reach the surface. All this before the practicalities of building and powering a colony are considered. This is not to say, however, that colonisation is impossible. A process known as terraforming may allow planetary conditions to be tweaked for human survival. Despite the litany of hazards, the surface of Mars may be amenable to this process. Other candidates include the atmosphere of Venus, the poles of Mercury, the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt and various moons in our system. Full terraforming, in which conditions on the surface of a planet
are indistinguishable from Earth’s, is soundly within the realm of science fiction. Partial terraforming, however, is perhaps possible. On Earth, climate change demonstrates that human activity can influence the atmosphere of a planet using current technology. The terraforming of Mars would utilise a similar process, introducing greenhouse gases to thicken the atmosphere. This would increase atmospheric pressure, allowing survival on the surface of Mars without a pressurised suit, and also increasing the temperature in a process analogous to global warming on Earth. What makes this feasible is its selfperpetuating nature: the increased temperature would melt CO2-rich ice caps on Mars’ poles and release even more CO2 into the atmosphere, beginning a positive feedback loop of CO2 release and rising temperature. However, there are some major obstacles. The first issue is that nobody is sure why ancient Mars originally lost its atmosphere, and the cause may continue to strip away any new atmosphere created. One explanation is that Mars’ lack of a shielding magnetosphere allows cosmic rays and solar winds to strip gases away. This being the case, terraforming Mars would require actually constructing a magnetosphere, an incredible undertaking that demands outlandish solutions like detonating a nuclear device at the planet’s core or constructing planet-encircling superconducting rings. Even
artificially-created atmosphere, introducing greenhouse gases is a daunting challenge in itself. Suggested strategies include melting the CO2 caps by placing gigantic mirrors into orbit to focus sunlight, increasing solar heat absorption by scattering dark dust on the surface, and directing ammonia-rich asteroids from the outer solar system to strike the planet. It is reasonable to doubt the practicality of terraforming, so some instead recommend the construction of pressurised, closed ecosystems on the surface. These would be small, self-sufficient structures completely isolated from the outside world, providing breathable air and all resources, including food and power. Waste would be recycled with absolute efficiency. nothing leaves, nothing enters—all that changes is the state that substances occupy. This approach seems much more feasible with current technology, and is even testable. Several experiments have been conducted on Earth, notably the BIOS-3 and Biosphere 2 projects. Both involved a team of scientists living inside the closed system for three months and two years, respectively. Though Biosphere-2 was not completely successful, as oxygen injection was required during the second year, both projects illustrate the feasibility of a functional closed ecosystem. Even if possible, however, such a habitat requires a power supply, and providing this from within the small confines of the system itself would be problematic. Biosphere 2 used natural gas powered generators, but ideally a
Mars colony would not run on finite energy sources burning precious oxygen that must be converted back. The best current options for powering a colony are nuclear plants, similar to those used in power stations and large ships on Earth, and solar-powered satellites. While the former option is wellknown and understood, it has the primary downside of relying on nuclear fuel, which we have no evidence exists on Mars. This would therefore have to be sent from Earth, preventing the colony from being self-sufficient and risking leaving it stranded without energy—a lethal situation— were anything to happen to its supply of fissionable material. The process also produces radioactive waste that must be carefully disposed of, as irradiating a closed system could have disastrous consequences. Solar-power satellites (SPS) therefore become an attractive option. They have the benefit of providing an unlimited source of energy, and operate permanently, unlike ground-based solar power. Their energy would be wirelessly transmitted to a receiver on the surface, as laser beams or microwaves. The efficiency of this system has been questioned, due to multiple conversions between electricity and photons, yet both Japan and China are currently pursuing space-based solar power on Earth, where it would be even less efficient due to the diffusion effect of our thicker atmosphere. The theoretical possibility of colonisation matters little, however,
if the financial cost involved is too great to be practical. With launching material into outer space being prohibitively expensive, Earth’s own gravity might be what stops space colonisation. Even with the latest technology it costs around $850 to put just one pound of material into space.
One proposed solution is mining asteroids and the surface of Mars for raw materials instead of launching from Earth. Asteroids contain vast resource deposits. Indeed, the profitability of asteroid mining is one of the primary
motivations for space exploration; the 1943 Anteros asteroid contains ores with an estimated worth of over $5.5 trillion. If these theoretical and practical considerations are addressed, as it seems they eventually might, the colonisation of Mars could occur. However, beyond the scope of this or even colonisation of other locations in our solar system, is the dream of one day colonising planets orbiting far-off stars. The Milky Way alone may contain 11 billion planets of Earth-like size orbiting in a habitable zone around Sun-like stars, each a potential candidate. A successful Mars colony opens the possibility of humanity spreading throughout space, with the remaining barrier being the ability to travel and communicate across vast distances within our galaxy. There are many seemingly insurmountable obstacles to humanity’s ambition of colonising space, yet as a species we remain confident in our ability to astonish ourselves, and not without historical precedent. Little more than 50 years ago nobody had considered it possible to reach the moon, and before that the concepts of flight, or reaching the South Pole and the bottom of the ocean were unimaginable. The speed and surprising nature of human advancement gives us hope that, in our never-ending quest for knowledge and exploration, we will conquer the stars too.
Picture: Lizzie Riach
Speedy Science Your quick-fire space questions, answered. by Hannah Banks
How do we know what stars are made of?
Given their sheer distance from Earth, sampling the composition of stars directly is clearly not feasible. Instead, astronomers rely on a technique known as spectroscopy. A spectrometer is a device which separates white light out into its component wavelengths—much like a prism. Given that stars emit radiation across all wavelengths, we would expect starlight to have a continuous spectrum. However, as radiation from the hot stellar interior passes through the cooler outer layers of the star on its way to Earth, some of it is absorbed by the intervening gas particles. Each chemical species has a unique set of discrete wavelengths at which it can absorb light—its own chemical fingerprint. If a particular element is present in a star, the light at its characteristic wavelengths will be absorbed and will therefore not be observed in the stellar spectrum. By measuring the ‘missing wavelengths’ in light from a particular star, astronomers can deduce its composition even though it is billions of miles away from Earth.
Picture: Spectroscopy, Warongdech.
Are black holes really black?
When black holes are modelled using classical physics, there is a boundary of no return known as the ‘event horizon’. Beyond this point the gravitational field is so strong that nothing, not even light, is able to exit. However, in 1974 Professor Stephen Hawking showed that contrary to our previous understanding, black holes should actually release radiation.
Picture: Black Hole, vchal
Quantum theory predicts that even in a vacuum there are random energy fluctuations which can cause a particle and its corresponding particle of anti-matter to be spontaneously created. These so-called ‘virtual’ particle-antiparticle pairs only exist on microscopic time-scales before they destroy each other. If a particle-antiparticle pair is created close to the event horizon there is a chance that one of the particles will be pulled into the black hole, whilst the other escapes. An observer watching this process would therefore see this as radiation being emitted from the black hole. Since the total energy of the Universe is known to be constant, for a black hole to radiate a particle it must itself lose mass. It therefore appears that black holes are actually not as black as we thought and are also slowly disappearing.
Are we alone?
Gazing up at the sky on a clear night, it is impossible not to question what or who else is out there. With around a billion-quadrillion stars thought to exist in the universe, each of which could have several planets, the number of potential ‘hosts’ of extraterrestrial life is enormous. However, with extremely varied physical environments, only a small fraction of these planets will meet the stringent conditions needed for any kind of life to form, let alone one which could evolve into an intelligent civilisation. This idea is quantified by the famous Drake equation: a series of astrophysical, biological and sociological factors combined to make an estimate of the number of intelligent civilisations in the Universe. Whilst there is no exact solution, given the sheer size of the Universe, the probability of alien life somewhere out there is not as small as you might have thought. The question still remains however of where, and if, we should be looking for it.
Picture: Flying UFO, Vectortatu.
What is between the stars?
It is common to think of outer space as being a complete void. Whilst it is true that most interstellar regions are even emptier than the best vacuums that we can create on Earth, there is still matter there. Consisting mainly of gas and dust, this so-called Interstellar Medium (ISM) actually accounts for nearly a sixth of the total mass of luminous matter in our galaxy. Despite its tenuous nature, the ISM plays a crucial role in galactic evolution.
Picture: Stars in the Galaxy, 4Max
The denser regions of the ISM, known as ‘molecular clouds’, provide the material for star formation. Millions of years later, as these stars near the end of their lifetimes, they replenish the ISM by either exploding as supernovae, or in the case of smaller mass stars, blowing off their outer layers to form planetary nebulae. The whole process can then begin again with a new generation of stars forming from the remnants of their ancestors.
Why does Saturn have rings?
Arguably one of the most magnificent sights of the solar system, Saturn’s iconic rings have puzzled scientists ever since they were first observed by Galileo in 1610. Extending thousands of miles out into space, Saturn’s ring system is divided into several distinct rings, each of which consists of millions of individual particles. These fragments of water-ice and rock range in size from microscopic grains to lumps larger than skyscrapers. Whilst scientists are yet to pin down exactly how Saturn’s rings formed, it is currently thought that much of the material originated from comets, asteroids or even moons which were torn apart by Saturn’s huge gravitational field. Although Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus also have ring systems, they contain significantly less of the highly reflective water-ice particles which make Saturn’s rings quite so spectacular.
Picture: Saturn, MarcelClemans.
What causes auroras?
Often referred to as the Northern and Southern Lights, auroras are spectacular light displays caused by the interaction of charged particles from the Sun with the Earth’s magnetic field. Temperatures in the Sun’s outer atmosphere, known as the corona, are so hot that charged particles have enough energy to escape the Sun’s gravitational field. These particles are released into the solar system in a continuous stream known as the solar wind. Most of the time, Earth is protected from solar wind bombardment by its magnetic field which deflects the particles back out into space. However, during periods of high solar activity, this natural defence mechanism breaks down and the particles are accelerated along the Earth’s magnetic field lines towards the poles. As they pass through the atmosphere, they collide with gas molecules causing them to emit the colourful lights that have fascinated humans for centuries. Picture: Aurora over Jokulsarlon lagoon in Iceland, Krissanapong Wongsawarng.
Absent Attraction Mysterious forces are at work when it comes to the gravity of galaxies. by Elena Sellentin that surprising, as a particle that interacts primarily through the force of gravity is going to be extremely difficult to detect. If we do not wish to postulate the existence of new particles to explain cosmology’s problems with gravity on cosmological scales, we can instead modify its laws. Currently our best account of gravity is Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. It encases Newton’s theory of gravity, but unlike Newton, Einstein abandoned the notion of a gravitational force, and explained gravity using the curvature of space-time. Within our Solar System, Einstein’s theory has been found to be valid with remarkable accuracy. So, if it applies on Earth and in the Solar System, why should it not apply to the whole Universe?
ravity is a ubiquitous force that holds together entire galaxies, acting across the vast distances between them. However astronomical observations indicate that this simple picture of gravity is not quite complete. Galaxies are known to rotate so quickly that they should actually tear themselves apart, as the visible matter within them does not provide enough mass for them to be gravitationally stable. So, is gravity stronger for galactic systems? Or is there more matter out there than we observe? The problem reoccurs on even larger scales, where galaxies line up along a filamentary web in our cosmos. The emergence of this web cannot be explained by the gravity of the luminous matter in our Universe alone. Astronomers have therefore postulated a hidden form of matter, which gravitates, but doesn’t emit, reflect, or absorb light. It has therefore been dubbed as ‘Dark Matter’ and is thought to be four to five times more abundant than its detectable counterparts. Without it, we cannot explain the
Picture: WikiMedia formation of structures in our Universe. Sadly, Dark Matter itself does not solve all of the problems to do with gravity. Our Universe expands with time, and so do the distances between galaxies. If just Dark Matter was at work galaxies would fall slowly towards each other – the fact that they recede at an accelerating rate indicates that another force must be acting repulsively over such vast distances. Scientists explain this effect with Dark Energy, which is considered to be either a special substance with repulsive gravity, or a natural constant of gravity similar to Newton’s gravitational constant. However it only becomes relevant on cosmological scales and is therefore known as the Cosmological Constant. But what are these new elements of the standard model of cosmology used to explain these problems with gravity? Dark matter is believed to be a particle, which could in principle be detected in Earthbound experiments. Despite decades of effort, such an elusive dark particle has not been directly observed. This is not
The answer is that physical laws usually only work on certain scales. For example, we know that our world is quantum at heart, and yet our everyday life can be described perfectly well by classical physics. This is because quantum mechanical effects are important for the very small, but not everyday scales. Concerning gravity, we are in a similar situation: our Earth is imperceptible in comparison to a galaxy, let alone the entire Universe. Additionally, Earth is much denser than the vast emptiness of intergalactic space. This might mean that our notions of gravity are biased, because when it comes to sizes and densities, we live in a very atypical region of the Universe. The gravitational laws that we find in our Solar System might then be a small-scale approximation of those working at larger scales. Theoretical physicists are therefore searching for ways to modify Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, to explain the problems we have with gravity on cosmic scales. These efforts to unravel the mysteries behind dark matter and dark energy may take 50 years or so to give us reliable answers. One day however, we may finally know exactly what to think about the gravity in our Universe.
Top five: other worlds in space Take a journey through our universe’s strangest planets. by Aran Shaunak Kepler-16b: The planet that orbits two suns
S G E T I
tar Wars fans, pay attention: Kepler-16b orbits two suns rather than one! This ‘binary star system’ consists of two stars orbiting each other at the centre of a planetary system. Kepler-16b completes its orbit around both stars at the same time—it is known as a ‘circumbinary planet’. Despite the fact that Kepler-16b experiences two sunsets (much like the iconic Star Wars planet), someone managed to resist the urge to call it Tatooine.
Apart from just being awesome, Kepler-16b is of genuine interest in the search for extraterrestrial life. Most stars in our galaxy are binary star systems, but it was previously unclear whether planets could stably orbit multiple stars at once. The discovery of Kepler-16b increases the potential number of planets in our galaxy, and thus makes the existence of extraterrestrial life significantly more likely. Gliese-436b: The planet with hot ice liese-436b is a true example of a paradox. Imagine a planet with vast oceans of water and an average surface temperature of 300°C. But the oceans aren’t boiling—in fact, they are frozen! The atmosphere of Gliese-436b is so thick that it creates an enormously high atmospheric pressure. So high, that it outweighs the incredibly high temperature and forces the water molecules to remain in their solid form (ice), even at 300°C.
While it might seem bizarre, there is actually nothing special about ice going over 100°C, since the boiling point of water is totally dependent on the atmospheric pressure. It’s a great example of the fact that things that are ‘impossible’ on Earth might be totally normal on some other world. WASP-17b: The backwards planet very planet we have ever discovered orbits around its sun in the same direction as that sun is spinning on its axis—except one. WASP-17b orbits its sun (imaginatively named WASP-17) in the opposite direction to the sun’s rotation, in what is called a retrograde orbit. When galaxies form, planets and stars are pushed outwards as the galaxy expands. Following rules about the conservation of momentum (derived from Newton’s laws of motion), most things end up travelling in the same direction, which is why retrograde orbits appear to be so rare.
It is still unclear why exactly WASP-17b has this unique property: the most likely theory is that it flew too close to another planet in the distant past, and the gravitational pull from that near-collision switched the direction of its orbit and made it very, very special. “Methuselah”: The oldest known planet echnically named PSR B1620-26b, the so-nicknamed Methuselah is famous just for being old. Formed some 12.7 billion years ago, this planet is only marginally younger than the universe itself (by a mere billion years—these things are all relative). By comparison, the Earth is a youthful 4.5 billion years old.
Methuselah sits deep in the core of a ‘globular cluster’ of stars: a dense collection of stars formed much earlier than the majority of the stars in our galaxy. The incredible age of this planet indicates it was formed relatively rapidly after the big bang, which leads astronomers to believe that planets may actually be far more abundant in the universe than previously thought. Its catchy nickname comes from the Bible, as in Christian tradition Methuselah was the oldest man to have ever lived. Uranus & Neptune: The planets where it rains diamonds f you are sick of planets with numbers in their name, here is something a little closer to home. The surfaces of Neptune and Uranus are littered with diamonds and the precious stones literally fall from the sky. The atmosphere of these gas giants is approximately 5% methane, which can be ignited by lightning storms to produce carbon soot. As this falls from the sky it is subjected to a huge increase in pressure, which compacts it into graphite and then ultimately into diamond. In fact, new data suggest that a similar process might occur on Saturn and Jupiter, although here the high temperatures near the planets’ cores would probably cause the diamonds to melt, which makes them less romantic than the sparkling landscapes of Uranus and Neptune.
science behind by Giorgos Gavriil
This is a picture of the night sky in which the Milky Way, the galaxy that contains our Solar System, is clearly visible. The name Milky Way comes from its appearance as a white-glowing band in the sky, which can often be seen even with the naked eye. The reason why most people never see the Milky Way and all those stars visible in the picture is the light pollution coming from our cities. This picture was taken at a rural location in the island of Cyprus, with no artificial lighting for a few thousand metres. Even there the lights of a distant city were visible, that’s why there is a yellow glow at the bottom of the image. The Milky Way appears very dim to the naked eye. A camera, though, is able to capture light over a long period of time: 20 seconds in this case. The camera used was a fairly inexpensive Nikon D3200, paired with a 18-55mm lens. With a long exposure time and a small lens aperture, the light coming from this band of stars is clearly visible. The ISO was set to 3200, that’s why the image is a bit ‘noisy’—the higher the ISO, the more the electronic signal from the camera sensor is amplified. Amplifying the signal increases the sensitivity to light, but also amplifies any signal noise, which can make the photo look grainy. It’s not difficult to take a picture like this. All you need is a dark location and a camera with basic manual settings. Techniques such as exposure stacking can then be used to minimise noise. Photographing objects in the night sky is satisfying and surprisingly addictive. Why not give it a go? Get out there and shoot!
Unravelling Reality What do we know about the fantasy worlds created by our minds? by Eugene Kwa
n 2006, neurologist Oliver Sacks received a late night phone call from a nursing home. They explained to Sacks that one of their patients – Rosalie – had been seeing things. Men in Eastern dress. Children running up and down the stairs. A horse in a snowy field. But the remarkable thing was, Rosalie was blind.
cruel, commanding, or seductive. In simpler auditory hallucinations, people may hear a tone or note rather than voices. For example, tinnitus or the ‘ringing in the ears’ accompanies a variety of conditions ranging from inner ear damage to head trauma. In some rare cases, people even report hearing music. There are even hallucinations outside
for several days often report seeing hallucinations. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies indicate that the visual cortex becomes more excitable when people are deprived of light for a few hours, or even minutes. Anatomical differences in the brain might also play a role in hallucinations. Several studies suggest that the hearing
Rosalie had Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS): a rare neurological disorder that causes the visually impaired to hallucinate. CBS was first described by Charles Bonnet in 1760, after he observed it in his cataract-afflicted grandfather. Although losing his sight, Bonnet’s grandfather would describe seeing bizarre images such as floating spotted handkerchiefs and miniature table-top scaffolds. Like many CBS patients, he was often fully aware that these images were fictional. However, he was not infallible: during a visit from his granddaughters, Bonnet’s grandfather asked who their fashionably dressed escorts were. The strangers evaporated when the granddaughters replied that they were alone. Occasionally, CBS patients may experience ‘textual’ hallucinations – hallucinations of letters, numbers, maths symbols, and even musical notation in mid-air or covering surfaces. Often these hallucinations are unintelligible: words with too many or no vowels, letters that are completely alien, and music with several notes on a given stem. But not all conditions conjure the surreal images like those seen in CBS. Migraines often produce a humble show of flickering, uncoloured zigzags. Similar simple visual hallucinations, known as auras, also precede seizures in epilepsy. Hallucinations are not always visual – some can be auditory. Famously, hearing voices is often a sign of schizophrenia: a mental illness where the patient is not able to separate reality from illusion. For the schizophrenic, the voices are usually
of the realm of sight and sound. For example, amputees often report feeling phantom limbs, and patients with brain tumours may complain of phantom smells - a phenomenon called phantosmia or, if the smell is unpleasant, cacosmia. Though hallucinations can occur in all the senses, what is common is the disconnect between perception and reality. There are several theories to explain why hallucinations happen. One theory is that the brain, devoid of sensory input, becomes excited or free of normal inhibitory circuits and starts to construct its own reality. This is thought to be what happens in blind patients with CBS. Similarly, people who are blindfolded
of voices in schizophrenia might be linked with volume reductions in parts of the brain such as the superior temporal gyrus, the prefrontal cortex, and the cerebellar cortex. These differences appear to prevent the schizophrenic from recognising internal voices as his own. However, the link between brain anatomy and hallucinations is not firmly established as of yet, and more evidence is needed. A further theory is that hallucinations may be caused by unregulated chemical signals, or neurotransmitters, in the brain. High levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine are thought to cause hallucinations in schizophrenics, and
have also been associated with hallucinations in Parkinson’s patients, who are given dopamine as part of their treatment. Other neurotransmitters play a role in hallucinations as well: pimavanserin – approved in April 2016 by the U.S. Food and Drug Association to treat hallucinations and psychosis in Parkinson’s – hijacks how the brain responds to the neurotransmitter
serotonin. Also, hallucinations in 30% of Alzheimer’s patients are thought to be linked with lowered levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. The role of neurotransmitters in hallucinations gives an indication of how many hallucinogenic drugs work. Amphetamines, for example, work by preventing the removal of dopamine in the brain. Hallucinogens may also alter interconnectivity in the brain: a 2012 fMRI study showed that the hallucinogen psylocibin impairs the default-mode network – a network needed to construct the ‘self’ and also the site of important ‘connector hubs’ in the brain. These changes in connectivity may prime the
brain to hallucinate. Clearly, there are many questions still left unanswered concerning hallucinations. In order to solve these questions, researchers have historically turned to animal models. In the 1980s, researchers injected African Vervet monkeys with amphetamines over several days to induce hallucinations. The monkeys developed
‘prolonged staring’ and some began to bite or pick at parts of their body, to the point of causing ‘superficial tissue damage’. Nowadays, hallucination research using animal models has shifted to rats or has been replaced with modern brain imaging technology like fMRI. Researchers are also attempting to find new therapies for hallucinations. Though these are largely drug-based, one interesting alternative is Avatar therapy. In Avatar therapy, patients who hear unpleasant voices create a computergenerated avatar to represent the entity tormenting them. They then interact with this avatar and use the programme to gradually make the avatar friendlier –
a way of giving some control back to the patient. After this treatment, patients reported that they heard voices less frequently, and that these voices were less malevolent. One interesting question within hallucination research is whether hallucinations are influenced by our culture. A study in 2002 found that British schizophrenic patients in the UK were more likely to hallucinate commanding voices and suffer delusions of mindcontrol, whereas Pakistani patients in Pakistan were more likely to hallucinate spirits or ghosts and have delusions about being a celebrity or messianic figure. Additionally, Pakistani schizophrenics living in the UK were found to experience symptoms more similar to British patients in the UK, than Pakistani patients in Pakistan. This influence of culture on hallucinations might help clinicians decide how best to interact with their patients. Hallucinations are a fascinating phenomenon that have many possible causes and invite many interesting questions. However, while hallucinations are largely understood in the context of illnesses, there are also non-illness-related hallucinations. For example, hallucinating the voice of a recently deceased loved one is perfectly normal. This is important to remember, especially given the stigma against hallucinations. In his famous 1973 article On Being Sane in Insane Places, psychologist David Rosenhan details how healthy actors who pretended to hear voices were swiftly and incorrectly diagnosed as being schizophrenic by several institutions, even though they showed no other symptoms. Whilst the field of medicine has advanced since then, today there is still considerable prejudice against ‘hearing voices’ or ‘seeing things’ as being signs of insanity. Clearly, more research into hallucinations is needed for us to dispel this prejudice.
Picture: Helena Spooner
At the crossroads Where, and why, do dreams and reality meet? by Amy Thomas The brain’s ability to dream arises from the intricate workings of our neuronal networks during our sleep, firing in ways we don’t fully comprehend to form the parallel worlds within our minds. Dream researcher Philip Gerrans describes dreaming as a “unique and more fully developed form of mind-wandering”. In fact, dreaming shares the ‘dorsolateral prefrontal deactivation’ of the brain found in schizophrenic delusions. Is there any advantage to this delusional thought process? Dreaming gives us the ability to probe deeper at our underlying emotional states, piece together strands of unrelated information and generate ideas. Historically, dreams have great mystical significance, used as fuel for interpretation, and have even leaked into religious ideologies. In more recent years, scientists have thought that dreaming is essential to the development of ‘imagination’: training our minds from a young age to produce mental imagery that is separate from our senses. This concept, known as Hesslow’s simulation hypothesis, centres on the idea of using known actions and feelings to simulate new perceptions through familiar neural mechanisms. Since the ability for humans to generate ideas and to imagine is extremely beneficial for survival, this could be one of the reasons why dreaming still exists. But what happens when these mechanisms go too far, throw us into unknown territories and leave us shivering in the dark realms of our minds? Sleep paralysis
Unlike in the real world, the dream world is unforgiving. Your higher brain functions are in lock-down and you are free from reason or control. What is sleep paralysis? Picture: Judit Agui
During REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, our body paralyses itself to prevent us acting out our created scenes or delusions. This is mostly controlled by portions of the pons region in the brainstem. Some people are unfortunate enough to become consciously aware of their surroundings during this muscular paralysis, leaving them with a ‘lockedin’ sensation. Sleep paralysis is believed to be caused by an ‘abnormally weak’ neural mechanism that is responsible for inhibiting wakefulness during nonREM sleep, or a mismatch between these sleep state transition switches. It could be that these differences come from hyperactivity of certain neuron groups or, conversely, due to a decreased sensitivity to other regions in the brainstem. Despite research, we are still far from a complete understanding of the physiological mechanisms producing muscle paralysis during REM. In addition to this, the emotional response centres of the brain are hyperactive and can cause strong feelings of fear and evil. Speaking to people who experience sleep paralysis regularly, frequent comments include mention of “demonic” forces and other detailed descriptions of visual, olfactory and auditory hallucinations. “Sometimes I see demons, I see hands of the dead getting me, pulling my feet.” Lucid dreaming
but effective technique to identify this conscious control during muscle paralysis in REM sleep and distinguished it from other forms of dreaming. I asked some lucid dreamers whether it had changed their personality in any way. “It changes the very concept of “you”,” one dreamer said. “And when that concept changes, reality is nothing but a never ending, ever changing, flickering game.” Would you rather live there? “At this point of time in my life, I would choose living in the lucid dream world, because it seems more fun to me right now…” The underground culture of dream chasers and a Facebook group comprised of over twenty-thousand people all discussing how to improve lucid dreaming runs parallel to the increased scientific interest in this area. Current dream research aims to explore how lucid dreaming could be harnessed usefully and even used to treat psychological disorders like PTSD.
Could there be any advantages to these other worldly places that exist in our dreams? The neurological phenomenon of ‘lucid dreaming’ gives a strange experience of consciousness while dreaming. It allows you to navigate through unknown territories of the mind and control the actions of your dream self. Neuroscientist Stephen LeBerge developed a simple
“If you use it to reprogram your thinking habits, phobias and fears from the inside, then you will be transformed” – lucid dreamer.
Exploring the intriguing worlds inside our minds leaves us with questions about the idea of human consciousness and weather it could be understood by neuroscience alone. Additionally, understanding the science behind dreaming, sleep paralysis or lucid dreaming could open new avenues for psychological therapy and may reveal other aspects of human behaviour.
of your mind chasing visions
Picture: Judit Agui
Do you want to see what is not there? Close your eyes, look into the Dreamachine... by Annabel King Inner worlds and hallucinations have inspired some mind boggling art, but what if the art itself could transport you to another realm? In a psychedelic haze of the early 1960s, art and science collided to produce a device that claimed to do just that: they called it the Dreamachine. Designed for viewing with closed eyes, the Dreamachine produces flashes of light which can stimulate visual hallucinations similar to those
experienced under the influence of drugs. The Beat Hotel in Paris set the scene for its development by visual artist Brion Gysin and technician Ian Sommerville. The hotel was a creative hub for the bohemian American authors of the ‘Beat Generation’, who explored spirituality and the human condition whilst experimenting with psychedelic drugs. Gysin was inspired by the writing of pioneering neurophysiologist William Grey Walter, who examined electrical impulses and rhythms of the brain using a technique called electroencephalography (EEG). Grey Walter introduced the notion that ‘flicker’ (flashes of light) can stimulate and synchronise rhythms of electrical activity in the brain via the optic nerve. The psychoactive potential of
flicker captured Gysin’s imagination, inspiring him to search for a drugfree high. The fabric of the machine is quite basic (Gysin’s original plans can be found online to build one of your own!). It comprises an ordinary light bulb, a record player set to 78 RPM and a cylindrical cardboard lampshade. The lampshade has windows cut out of it at specific intervals which, when placed on the record turntable, causes light from the bulb to flicker in a rhythmic fashion at a frequency of 8-13 cycles per second. This frequency is important as it matches a type of brain activity called alpha wave rhythm. The Dreamachine’s flickering light stimulates the viewer’s optic nerve and leads to the spread of alpha-synchronised electrical activity throughout their cerebral cortex. This can be demonstrated by EEG. Alpha wave activity in the brain is associated with reflection, meditation, lucidity and the threshold of waking relaxation and the subconscious. This transitional state is known as hypnagogia and happens as we drift off to sleep. Dreamachine users report visions of increasingly complex dynamic patterns of colour seeming to appear behind their eyelids, which probably explains why Gysin went on to produce many artworks based upon his Dreamachine visions.
A short story exploring our relationships with time and memory. by Silvia Lazzaris
had always thought about misery as something you find under the sea. A small, unattainable pebble. It would take years of swimming in the deepest water to find it.
In order to unearth such a misery, you need to look for it – I used to tell myself. It isn’t something that just comes along. I was convinced I had to stay away, avoid it: I could recognise the smell of misery in people, objects, temptations. And I would distance myself from them. Despite all the ways in which life had tried to sell misery in golden packages, I had kept myself away from those little pebbles my whole life. That morning I was preparing my coffee, as I did every morning. The day smelled of white, the sky seemed an opaque glass, the English countryside was frosted, there outside the window. We were waiting for my mother to come for Sunday brunch. Annie was getting ready in the toilet, as she did every morning. Where’s the green tablecloth? I put it in the laundry! The toaster announced that the bread was ready. Shall I cook some eggs? Yes! Annie, hurry up: my mum is coming and today I haven’t told you the story yet. Yes, yes. I still remember it, though. I know and you know that we cannot miss a day. She came out with her toothbrush in her mouth, brushing with compulsive fury. She looked nervous. After all, one day doesn’t matter! The milk has a bad smell. It does matter, Annie. It’s out of date, I said. I’m going to buy it then, she answered. Her gaze was unfocused and eerie. I can go instead. No, don’t worry. Sure? You know it’s a losing battle. Fair enough. She was wearing a pearl necklace. She was austere, with her long neck and pronounced jaw. She wore pearls on important occasions: when she
discussed her doctoral dissertation, when we married, when she quit smoking. Pearls were a signal. I ignored them. She came up and hugged me. But that was not just a hug – ah, I had to understand! She was squeezing me, asking me to hug her back properly. She was disseminating signals that I was trying to dodge like the letters on the floor in the entrance. I hugged her, I stroked her head. Hug me tighter, don’t let me go! Don’t let me go, she said. What could be clearer? Yes, honey, I’m here, I replied. She got irritated. I’ll walk there. It will take too long, the breakfast is ready, my mom is coming. At least take the bike. You know it’s a losing battle, Arthur. Why doesn’t it seem to get into your head? She said that with a high pitch in her voice. How couldn’t I get it? I heard her take the car keys before heading out the door. Brava, see you soon! I couldn’t help it: my mind was searching for causes and effects everywhere. I’m sorry, she said. I’m sorry. With that tone. Ah, I should’ve known! Istarted to read the culture section of the newspaper, hastily sipping black coffee: a philosopher talked about time. I laughed and turned the page. I got to the end. No one had arrived yet. Still, I didn’t have any reasons to worry. It had been a very long time since life could offer me any surprises. I trusted my wife. We told each other everything, and we did so honestly. I narrated our past, she spoke of our future. We liked to repeating ourselves with some irony that, despite the calamity that had distorted our existences, we would live a normal life. We could benefit from it. In the past, in the present, in the future. Through time, which for us had no boundaries. I put down the newspaper, glanced at the clock. It was late. Too late. My mother hadn’t arrived yet. Annie had been hiding meaning in her movements. I jumped off the chair, down the stairs, on the bike. I cycled wildly. I had a kind of premonition. For years I had no longer trusted my intuitions.I used to ask Annie directly. And today she had not said anything in particular, but I hadn’t paid attention. The Earth shook inside me. The small pebble of misery was not far away under the sea of panic. I saw it clearly sitting and waiting in my stomach. I hadn’t seen it, engulfed as it was in deepest darkness. But it was coming up, uncontrollable. Coming up more and more as I cycled. As I approached the scene.Coming up when I saw our car parked in the middle of the street, turned at an odd angle. When I heard the yelling, hitting me like a strong, cold wind of dread and despair. Coming up whilst I ran to find my wife sitting on the floor with my mother in her arms. My mum cradled like a child, bleeding on the pearl necklace. Annie was screaming, rattling. She was ugly. I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry. I lay on the ground and vomited my misery. You’re a murderer, I retched. It was an accident, shouted some passers-by. I couldn’t help it and you know it, she screamed. Murderer, I repeated. It was an accident, they called out again. How could I explain? How could I explain my anger to the normal people? Many years before, Annie had told me about her change. At first I thought she was joking. As soon as something becomes present I live it, but immediately it passes, and when it becomes past it is already forgotten. I felt both curious and amused. I can’t understand how you can have this conversation if you don’t remember what I just said. It’s simple: I remember what I’m going to say! she replied. I thought she was joking, I couldn’t understand. Teasing, I asked her to make predictions. A thought came to my mind that we could make money out of it, her. She got very serious. None could know. Ever. They would think she was crazy and never leave her alone. I don’t know the future of everyone. I know my own, and of the
people who gravitate around me. It’s like memories. You don’t remember the past of other people. You remember what you’ve experienced or learned first-hand. How would you react if some random person came to you asking to tell him about his past? Same here. I’m not an oracle. Maybe you’ve gone crazy, I used to repeat to her. At the beginning. And then I got worried that she really was mad. Slowly she started to prove her reliability. I’m just projected in a different way, she used to repeat. I was trying to take her seriously, I would ask her every moment to tell me what the next would look like. In my head there is everything I will do immediately. It isn’t present in my mind together. I don’t know how to explain this to you. It’s not that when you think about your past you can see all of it. You can remember some things, the things you’re affected by. You remember the most significant events quite clearly, and then other parts are hazy. Sometimes your memories are more detailed and bright, but so much of it is murky and opaque. Then, memories to which you hadn’t paid attention for a long while appear – and suddenly they have meaning, a narrative is given to your present. Same here, she would insist, there are things that I always remember about my future, but then once in a while something else comes out. And what about the past? She said she could guess it from her future, exactly as I could guess my future through the knowledge of my past. It was as if, gradually, the plausibility of this other world was opening up in my eyes. I was curious.
past years. Encasing it, there’s a soft shell of narcissistic pain. I’ve slowly started to realise I had assumed too many things about my blameless behaviour. I’ve thought of the story that I used to tell Annie about her past. It didn’t refer to her most painful failures, nor to any betrayal, or to her bad depression. It didn’t tell of her dad’s alcoholism, to her sister’s selfishness. It narrated about a courageous woman, a passionate love, a happy childhood. In the end I had betrayed her as much as she had betrayed me. The truth was ugly and no one could do anything about it. But I had betrayed her twice. There hadn’t been any honest narration, from either side. Then I had blamed Annie, and left her alone. “Arthur, we know it’s a losing battle” she would say. My life was just an unfortunate losing battle. The misery was inflexibly rooted inside me.
So, you know about your death. Do you know about your birth? No. Same here. Do you know about your first years of life? Not that much. Same here. It’s too fuzzy to know anything about my final days. She used to repeat that there was not that much of a difference. It made some sense to me, but not enough. I wanted to know more. It took me years of questioning and indefinite answers to finally be able to figure out what it could be like to be her. Can you change your future, if you don’t like it? I remember that suddenly gave her dark circles. Arthur, I can do nothing to change the future. I just stick to my memories – they give meaning to my actions as well as your past gives meaning to yours. Can you change your past? It feels like you choose your present. But you’re conditioned by your past, and your past can’t change. The asymmetry is an illusion, it’s an interpretation that pushes us forward. There is nothing to build. Past and future are parts of the same whole. Everything is there, only to be lived and interpreted. “I just wanted to protect you!” a scream brought me back “There was no need to hurt you, no need to ruin your life!” I was exhausted. I had been there for Annie and we swore we would be honest, I repeated to myself. But lying on the ground was my wife, who had known for all those years that she was going to crash the car into my mother. In my view, when you already know that you are going to do something horrible and you don’t try to change it, you are guilty. You are a murderer. I despised Annie, I hated her. I could have hurt her. Instead I stood up, and left both of them there in the road. Five years is a lot of time. I’ve no idea of how she might look now. Psychiatry Department, says the facade. I’ve thought a lot about my misery, in the
Darling, it’s quirkier down where it’s murkier. Robots and submarines reveal the denizens of the deep. by Emma Parkin
he deep sea: so dark and mysterious that even the little mermaid wouldn’t set tail there. Its high pressures, cold temperatures and lack of oxygen have produced creatures so contorted, so alien to our world that they’d give the makers of the Twilight Zone nightmares. Yet, despite it being one of the largest habitats on Earth, it’s often been said that we know more about the moon than the deep sea. How can this be? The pressures found at the bottom of the ocean are some of the highest on the planet, increasing by one atmosphere every ten metres. Humans obviously can’t directly venture into these depths, and the machines built to do so must be able to withstand pressures ranging from 2-1,000 atmospheres. This makes studying deep sea creatures in their environment rather challenging. Additionally, since these organisms are so well adapted to their surroundings, they cannot survive near the surface— it would be like us trying to survive on another planet. Deep sea animals tend to have a high internal pressure to match the pressure coming from outside, which has occasionally lead to them exploding under laboratory conditions. Since we can’t study these exciting creatures alive, we’re struggling like fish out of water to understand our oceans. One of the first successful attempts to explore the deep sea was the Challenger expedition in 1872-76. Obtained from the Royal Navy, the HMS Challenger was modified by the Royal Society to include research laboratories and travelled 130,00 kilometres, trawling the ocean floor. The expedition catalogued 4,000 unknown oceanic species, and laid the foundations of oceanography. Deep sea exploration advanced considerably through the 1900s, driven by technological
22 I,Louisa Science Picture: Lim
advances. These ranged from sonar systems, which reflected sound pulses to detect the presence of underwater objects, to the improvement of deepdiving submersibles equipped with high-resolution cameras, seismographs and manoeuvrable robotic appendages for collecting samples. By the 1960s, the two-manned Bathyscaphe Trieste submarine was able to make the deepest dive in history of 10,915 metres into the Mariana Trench, the deepest known part of the ocean. In 2012, filmmaker James Cameron also descended into the trench to film deep sea life for the first time. What’s in store for the future of deep sea exploration? Given the limitations of human physiology, remotely operated vehicles and advancements in robotics are likely to have us uncovering the mysteries of the deep from the safety of our desks. Advancements in fibre optics and satellites will also enable us to study the ocean floor in more detail.
Aliens of the deep
The Goblin Shark: This peculiar pink creature has extending jaws and a distinctive, protruding snout which contains specialised cells for picking up electric fields in the salty environment. This highly sensitive electrosense makes finding prey a lot easier in the pitch black.
The Giant Tube Worm: These resilient worms grow over seven feet long and can survive inhospitable conditions. Living around hydrothermal vents, which churn out high concentrations of chemicals and can experience temperatures of over 400°C, the giant tube worms have adapted to survive without oxygen by evolving a symbiotic relationship with
bacteria kept in a special organ called the trophosome. Through chemosynthesis, the bacteria convert hydrogen sulphide into energy and organic molecules that keep the worm alive.
Uscrum, conor silicipiest remo Hagfish: These eel-like scavengers, which use their horizontal jawsterfess to entrace Axim graze on ‘marine snow’ (the constant essimen tessuliisse non fall of detritus from above), can devour halem patum o whole whale carcasses from the inside out! Their low metabolism also allows inte atiente rem them to survive for months between inculium iam i feeds. Yet the most bizarre feature of C. Ihint virivat the hagfish is that, when attacked, ittatici can cris aude produce up to 20 litres of milky, fibrous incum atodi po ‘slime’ or mucus from the hundreds um potem pot of glands along its body. This slime can clog a predator’s gills, helpingpubliam the acivili remussiderum hagfish to slip away in the confusion. Bons obunc re rum con restal 3000 m posterf eript The Vampire Squid: Living inBithe pitch black, most organisms temquam have com either evolved blindness or huge, audemus cae fo complex eyes determined to seekpertermaio, out qu the tiniest pricks of light. The vampire sis es cupio tam squid, named after its dark, webbed vendenit. tentacles which protrude to form aPatiquius. sort Is et of cape, has proportionally the largest pero, consimus eyes of any animal on Earth. When popubit arterm agitated, this mollusc releases a cloud of biolumiscent mucus which revigil can icipime Cuppli dazzle predators for up to ten minutes, illegilis um lii patquos giving the squid time to escape. optimori comn pariam num p 4000 m tur. Ehena, pon The Viper Fish: A mere adduciam 25 ad s centimetres long, this small fishcavo, has te ella ren protruding, needle-like teeth which achum diestor are deadly for unsuspecting prey. aciem horem q During the day the viper fish swims verra in the depths, but at night it moves to et? Ibunt Nosulem rebat shallower waters where it hunts prey Hacestio hors by luring them closer with light. Its dienatum adhu bioluminescence is produced through a chemical reaction in special cells called Multo et at. Si ‘photophores’, found along its body. untilia? Ordi s vistiam quastre ihil henari pull www.isciencemag.co.uk num tata ingul
rtiur urobsenatum pra olto vis. Sp. Damque ducie e poptes? quo iaequit, Ti. n aturesc eremus, vivere nsus ingul verticatus octuden ihilibes, ducio mque cumum, intre nos in hor alis; nonlocum se te ma, cribuliu cae alin eo, maximus host dem otam intimum te conditilnem vilis, vicit, furorbi icit atalici pecondes? An m opoenesilis int. em ni consitatqua ductolatuit. pte audesta liciena, esmpliceriam sidem sedium orionf erorum teatil host uamdite imis hilibus, nosm, coerici cultum inprion
Playing chicken with the planet Is this the Anthropocene? If it is, we don’t like it. by Katharina Kropshofer
t veris condum morum us? Overit, sum me mi liumus ad re, prei in e nsilinvocaet estum, ssed pro, notiusci publistiur patum neque et pre, nihilica sent. Tia prici prati, noteres hos rehebansign onfeconum sa vis se enius; non ses convonsultudees verissu piones r lii serissus proximis etis que veremquondam ac re tri cum, quam vivite, Ti. tius avesserum molius. invendam no. Am in uisque atui sa omni sa L. puliam postrum tritat, se firtu mores re iam cul eis habus, essimus pionlabus videes bon hordii www.isciencemag.co.uk lique ommoer ad Cuperid
s soon as biologist Eugene Stroemer and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen proposed to name our current geological era ‘Anthropocene’, many questions were raised within the scientific community. Has our impact really been so big that we have created a new time period, or even world? How will this era be defined? Are we important enough to name an era after ourselves, or is this yet another anthropogenic point of view? We have only been around for less than 0.01% of Earth’s existence, but we still seem to have had more impact than any other organism. Erik van Sebille, a climate scientist at Imperial College’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change, is finding these times very worrying. “Earth has changed so much, because of what we are. CO2 levels have just passed 400 ppm (parts per million) this year and the last time that happened was three and a half million years ago in the Pliocene,” he explains. While this might not trigger alarm bells with most people, the argument becomes more striking when we discover that during that time, sea levels were four meters higher than they are now. The Geology of mankind
Climate scientists seem to agree that man-made change is going on around us. “It might seem like word-mitting, but it is more than that. Normally, geologists are very careful about naming epochs, so for a new one there must be a lot of alterations,” explains van Sebille. Until now, new geological eras have been described by changes in strata: the composition of sedimentary rock layers. What is the appropriate way of defining a new man-made geological era? According to van Sebille, the scientific debate revolves around three possible human markers.
Many scientists have suggested plastic as a possible marker, especially in the oceans, as plastic doesn’t really decompose. Even if it does, it will take millions of years and can probably be traced back to current human activity. Another possibility is the use of isotopes from 1950s nuclear bomb testing, which could help to pinpoint human activity in the future. Yet the most innovative suggestion lies in using chicken bones as human markers. Before they were domesticated by humans, these birds were not particularly successful. Now, due to our excessive use of agriculture, there are chicken bones everywhere. A world without humans
The question is: which argument will last the longest: isotopes, plastic or chicken bones? While we know about the longevity of isotopes via their half-life, and of bones from archaeological excavations, the role of plastic is less certain. “Plastic per se is not a bad thing, it is helping us in a lot of good ways. The only thing that is wrong is that we are using it sometimes without realizing that it will stay around forever,” says van Sebille, who is currently conducting research into the spread of plastic in our oceans. We therefore need to fix our waste system, especially because almost a third of our global packaging ends up in the environment. Some people may have stated that we have gone too far, and that our impact on the planet has already reached a tipping point, even if we do all die tomorrow. However, van Sebille still has quite a positive view: “Don’t worry about the planet. It has seen worse than this and ecosystems will adapt.” What we really need to fear is the destruction of civilization, especially if we continue to live in such an unsustainable way. Naming our era Anthropocene might raise awareness of the problem, which no longer affects only us, but our environment too. At the moment, a new and human-free world seems quite possible. Why don’t we try to stick around a little longer, by changing the way we live a little more, and altering the world around us a little less?
TOP five: other worlds on earth Journey into The Lost World, Mount Roraima, South America
reacherous pitcher plants. Crystal-carpeted valleys. Winding labyrinths of stone. And perhaps the screech of a pterodactyl. The inspiration for Conan Doyle’s novel Mount Roraima is a tepui (table-top) plateau on the border of Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil. Thirty-one square kilometres and bounded by 400-metre sheer cliffs, this fortress rises abruptly from the jungle below. One of Earth’s oldest geological formations, Roraima is a remnant of a sandstone massif dating back over two billion years. It is unsurprising then that this island harbours an exquisite collection of endemic creatures, 35% of which are found nowhere else. Moist air rising in the heat produces billowing rain clouds across the summit and magnificent waterfalls cascading onto the clouds below. So to witness the shifting landscapes of Roraima yourself, just whip out those waterproofs and pitch a tent on this mist-shrouded mountaintop. Picture: Lost World Mount Roraima, Curioso.
Float on Cloud Nine, Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia overing 10,582 square kilometres of the Bolivian Altiplano, the Salar De Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. Formed by the gradual evaporation of a prehistoric lake, this glistening white expanse contains ten billion tonnes of cemented salt and varies in surface altitude by less than a metre over its entire area. When the plain is flooded, this extraordinary flatness creates the illusion of a giant mirror, offering visitors the sky-high sensation of planting their feet amongst the clouds. Indeed, the Salar’s unwavering elevation has made it the perfect terrain for calibration of NASA Earth observation satellites. So if you think you can get your head around this Earth-sky continuum, or fancy staying in a hotel built entirely from salt (yes, entirely–down to the flush toilets!), visit the Salar in March or April, during the rainy season.
Picture: Salar De Uyuni Bolivia, Shanti Hesse.
Out of this world? No. Otherwordly? Yes. The most surreal places on Earth. by Rachel Gillespie Enter the Tenth Circle, Darvaza Crater, Turkmenistan
Picture Tenth Circle Darvaza Turmenistan, Matthew Baron.
Keep your cool in the Hottest Place on Earth, Dallol,Ethiopia
idely known as the “Door to Hell”, the inferno of Darvaza crater blazes in the otherwise barren Karakum desert. Whilst there are no records of how this fiery abyss came to be, urban legend recounts a mishap during a Soviet natural gas expedition in 1971, during which the ground beneath a drilling rig gave way. Fearful that noxious methane from the collapsed crater would reach nearby villages, geologists set it alight in the hope that its reserves would fizzle out in a matter of days. Over 40 years later, this hellish pit still burns. In 2013, the first expedition into its depth earthed extremophile bacteria thriving in ~1000o C temperatures. So if you think you can take the heat, catch a tour to the crater’s edge sooner rather than later—there’s no knowing when this bonfire will burn out.
ited as the cruelest place on Earth, the now abandoned district of Dallol (literally: disintegration) is a hyperactive hydrothermal wonder. Bubbling away largely unnoticed on the Danakil Depression, northern Ethiopia, the area contains a 30-metre-wide explosion crater and boasts a spectacular palette of mineral deposits, hot springs and steaming geysers, evocative of a Martian landscape. Inflowing groundwater is heated by the subterranean magma, and as it travels upwards it dissolves various salts washed from the underlying layers. Evaporation of this brine in the 35+ o C heat leaves psychedelic concretions of sulphur, potassium and iron salts. But even for the most avid volcanologist, this hostile domain will keep you on your toes; sulphuric acid pools (with pH values under 1!) are concealed amongst Dallol’s waters, and there’s no knowing when toxic fumes might spurt from a vent nearby.
Picture: Hottest place on Earth, Einat Klein Photography
Picture: Sea of Stars Vaadhoo Island Maldives, PawelG.
bathe in a Sea of Stars, Vaadhoo Island, Maldives
ike a scene out of Avatar, on the shores of Vaadhoo Island, you would be forgiven for thinking you’ve landed on Pandora. As night falls, the waves transform from their postcard-blue of daytime into a sparkling ‘Sea of Stars’. This is no reflection, but a stunning example of the Nobel-winning phenomenon of bioluminescence. The ‘stars’ are in fact dinoflagellates, a unicellular phytoplankton. Movement in the surrounding water generates electrical impulses at the dinoflagellates’ luminescent body, leading to activation of an enzyme, luciferase, which produces the flash of mystical blue light. Yet there’s menace behind the magic; this enchanting glow remains even after the dinoflagellate is ingested, within a predator’s stomach! Vaadhoo’s twinkling tides are present year-round, all you need is a moonless night to jump into these wondrous waters at their best.
As our world’s climate begins to change, societies will need to adapt and evolve to avoid some difficult dilemmas. by Frances McStea While in Africa it is drought posing the environmental danger driving people to cities, floods are the greatest threat in Asia. Last year saw a staggering 2000 people each day leave rural areas of Bangladesh for the capital, Dhaka. Most of these migrants hailed from coastal areas under heavy pressure from increased salinity, floods and cyclones. In a study tracking over a thousand migrants, almost all stated that environmental changes, specifically fresh water scarcity, led to them deciding to leave. By 2050 up to half the world´s population is expected to live in urban areas, and many megacities will be severely affected by elevated sea levels. Among the largest predicted to suffer from coastal flooding are Mumbai, Calcutta, Shanghai, Bangkok and Miami.
Picture: Kalyani Lodhia
hen we talk about climate change we talk about erratic weather patterns, floods and storms. We talk about melting ice sheets and rising oceans, or maybe El Nino and coral bleaching. It’s far less likely that we will talk about climate refugees, people who are forced to seek refuge in foreign lands as a direct or indirect result of climate change. It is now the scientific consensus that the climate warming trend is a result of human activity. The gradual change to the environment and Earth’s weather patterns are also increasingly being linked to human migration. Most recently, a study provided compelling evidence that water scarcity caused by climate change played a role in the social unravelling of Syria, and the subsequent mass exodus. The political situation was of course the major driving factor, yet it is worth noting that the recent conflicts coincided with the worst long-term drought since agricultural settlement first began in Syria, which likely contributed to instability in the country. The dry weather led to multiple crop failures
and the death of livestock, prompting large portions of the rural population to seek a better life in the cities where they uneasily joined refugees fleeing the war in Iraq. With soaring food prices and an infrastructure that couldn´t cope with the burden, the pressure eventually erupted into open conflict. While this is an issue that’s close to home, as Europe struggles with the sudden influx of refugees, it is but one instance of human migration for which climate change may have been a trigger or intensifying factor. The conflict in Darfur, Western Sudan, was labelled the first “climate war”, as plummeting rainfall and an ever-advancing desert were believed to be the root of tensions between herders and farmers over dwindling water resources. In the subSaharan Sahel area, desertification is driving people north in a bid to escape poverty. One study has linked the local rising temperature averages to a growing likelihood of war in this area of Africa. Another suggested that desertification in Egypt raised food prices and contributed to the Arab Spring uprising in that country.
Urbanisation of this magnitude will put even more demands on agriculture - one UN estimate proposed that we will need to generate 50% more food output within the next few decades, even though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts the actual output dropping by 2% per decade. Already, rich yet import-dependant countries have begun investing in farmlands abroad, notably in Africa, putting more pressure on the already strained local food production. The foundation for conflict over dwindling resources has been laid, and both dangerous weather patterns and poverty are major drivers of migration. The issue is not entirely without controversy. Critics point to flaws in various studies and label their conclusions as overly simplistic. Others claim that the discussion is alarmist rhetoric motivated by political desires to redistribute wealth on a global scale. However, it is difficult for anyone to completely dismiss the significant body of evidence highlighting that climate change is at the very least aggravating local and political frictions, and thus may be having an effect on migration. This is a very tangible and immediate impact of climate change and should go some way to prompting us to tackle the issue with far more aggression.
A Timeless World
When a chilly world messes their body clock, Svalbard reindeer know exactly what to do. by Tori Blakeman
n the high Arctic islands of Svalbard another world exists. A world where the high latitude prevents the sun from setting in the summer and rising in the winter. Here, the constant light conditions persist for much of the year, with traditional day and night cycles only briefly occurring for a few weeks during the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Outside of this rare arctic environment, all organisms measure the passage of time by an evolutionarily conserved internal body clock, known as the circadian rhythm. This approximately 24-hour cycle is maintained by an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which responds to the conditions of the surrounding world, including light levels perceived by the eye. Known as the master pacemaker, the SCN therefore entrains the timing of physiology and behaviour according to what time of day it is. However, far above the Arctic Circle, the continuous periods of daylight and night are insufficient for providing the conditions required to synchronise a pattern of activity. As a result, several organisms, such as the Svalbard reindeer, do not maintain classic circadian rhythm as there is little selective advantage in maintaining a strong clock in a largely non-periodic environment. Yet interestingly, the largely constant sunlight, or lack thereof, means these reindeer instead maintain an incredibly robust yearly calendar. Known as â€˜circannual rhythmâ€™, Svalbard reindeer experience annual cycles of physiology - cultivating high seasonal awareness and preparation that is crucial for their survival in such an extreme environment. This circannual rhythm is modulated by a hormone called
melatonin, which is released from a small endocrine gland within the brain known as the pineal gland. Melatonin release is influenced by the seasonal changes in day-length detected by the eye and SCN, modulating the supply of hormones that impact processes such as reproduction, metabolism and moulting. Melatonin is delivered during darkness and its pulsatile secretion is suppressed during hours of light. Consequently, as the length of day a n d night changes over time, the duration of melatonin release represents the external changes in light according to the season. At the two equinoxes of spring and autumn, melatonin levels rise at night, and reduce in the day. The spring equinox is followed by the constant light of summer, supressing melatonin release, and the autumn equinox is followed by the constant dark of winter where melatonin is continuously released. The short period of alternating melatonin levels experienced at these equinoxes, and the subsequent constant melatonin signal, is what is thought to influence the precise seasonal behaviour observed in the Svalbard reindeer. In particular, it is thought that melatonin specifically plays a role in the timing of seasonal breeding, as these reindeer exhibit remarkable precision, with 90% of all births occurring in a ten-day period at the beginning of June. It therefore appears that the seasonal melatonin release programmes the hormone circuits of the Svalbard reindeerâ€™s brain to drive this unique, and exact, breeding period. This other world in which the Svalbard reindeer lives is extreme and extraordinary. Here, exceptional adaptive capabilities have aided comfortable survival, even in the most otherworldly environment. Picture: Amy Thomas
Through the looking glass Virtual reality has seized its second chance. Newfound success hints at a future of promising applications, and not all in entertainment. by Zeb Mattey he 80s and 90s are littered with the skeletons of failed virtual reality (VR) entertainment kits produced by the likes of Nintendo, Sega and even NASA. The leftover scepticism amongst the public was considerable; VR was relegated to the dusty shelf of gimmicky ten-minute tech, later to be joined by Google Glass. However, it is apparent that once again commercial and public interest is at a high today, with forty million new users this year alone. Perhaps it was Mark Zuckerberg’s $2 billion purchase of Oculus Rift (a VR company which specialised in gaming) in 2014 that brought the industry back in a serious way, or possibly the news that Google, Sony and HTC were all labouring away at their own VR projects in the meantime. Whatever the case, 2016 has been filled with hype for virtual reality and its applications, with Pokémon Go showing that even the most rudimentary levels of augmented reality (AR) can make a Twitter beating, billion-dollar app.
It’s set to be the year that marks the first generation of VR, a focal point for the big players to finally get their consumer-ready hardware on the market. HTC’s Vive, Oculus Rift and Sony’s Morpheus have all entered the market in the past six months. Technically the kits are fairly similar. They feature headsets that beam images directly into your eyes via 1080x1200 resolution OLED screens, while seventy concealed sensors track your movements with millimeter accuracy. The combination seamlessly lulls your brain into a lucid virtual dream. If you tilt your head the horizon shifts, jerk your arm and a limb swings by your vision—your limb. Well, at least that’s what the mind thinks.
have exerted minimal responsibility, creating a wicked blend of awe and fear. Nonetheless, users always leave the experience grinning and amazed, any preconceived notions of a gimmick or fad apparently left in the dust of the roller coaster experience that the technology offers. The result has been acclaim from critics and users alike.
Mark Zuckerberg saw a glimmer, and two years on it’s starting to look like he’s struck gold. Yet gaming and pokémon’ing, the CEO says, are a minor chunk of what he believes will become a huge industry. Indeed, finance firms are projecting a $120+ billion dollar VR/AR market by 2020, and with that kind of money you can expect a technical push bulldozed At a HTC Vive demo event forward by the sheer weight I’ve seen a mother of three of dollar bills. screeching and flailing in a zombie simulation as she Oculus acted on their cogets chowed, and children owners’ vision earlier this ducking as the Millennium year by collaborating with Falcon almost scrapes the NASA. They created a VR top of their heads in a Star experience centered around Wars drive by. VR creators the new Exploration class have great power, and in SLS rocket, allowing the the demos I’ve experienced public to witness the craft’s www.isciencemag.co.uk
65 metre height first-hand. If NASA continues to utilise VR it could accelerate the technology’s development, and even change how we digitally experience future off-planet missions.
Consumers can already get a taste for first person robot VR via the DJI Mavik drone.
These store-sold devices boast a front facing 3D VR Our grandparents watched compatible camera the the Apollo moon landing on user can inhabit via an their cutting edge twelveOculus Rift, inch CRTs, and now is it not plausible that when the SpaceX or NASA manned rocket first pulls into view of Mars, we could be there, shoulder to shoulder with the crew, witnessing the moment first-hand through 3rd generation Oculus Rift goggles? VR’s symbiosis with other technologies turns these futuristic projections up a notch. Samsung and Sony revealed earlier in the year that they are developing high-tech contact lenses. They are planned to feature built-in cameras and augmented reality features. With rapidly shrinking device sizes there’s potential for micro 3D cameras to slot in just beside a person’s iris, capturing their field of view. NASA and leading medical firms are also pumping R&D money into VR and robotics projects. The hope is that surgeons would one day be able to conduct work remotely via robotic arms, or that engineers will be able to control interplanetary rovers from orbit, or even Earth. www.isciencemag.co.uk
while hovering at several thousand feet and hitting 40 mph speeds. People have been making use of the drone’s sevenkilometre range by blitzing them around the London airspace at night, an activity which is currently underpoliced. Yet VR is still in its first generation, a baby matrix waiting to be built, with all the hiccups one would expect of a fresh technology. Motion sickness is a real problem; as you spin your head in the pixel world your brain notes a tilting horizon and rapid motion, while your inner ear (rightly) senses a disproportionate level of acceleration. And as for the mental trauma induced by
Picture: Maddy Dench
a zombie attack or a great white shark bite (see PS4 Morpheus demo, screeching Vice journalist included) we’ll just have to wait and see. There exist a large number of potential unknown psychological and physiological problems which will all have to be discovered and adapted for with use. Hypotheses and daydreaming about the future aside, my recommendation is for interested readers to go down to “Virtually Reality” in Camden and try the aforementioned hardware out firsthand. Or more conveniently, to catch the occasional Vive kit that seems to pop up at promotional events on Imperial campus. I, Science
Meet the Data Scientists
Artur Donaldson meets Professor Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye and Professor Michael Huth to discuss all things data.
it. It is data.
t is at our fingers but cannot be touched. We leave a trail of it wherever we tread. It drives our daily lives. Yet there are relatively few who understand
So who are the scientists with the power to make sense of it? Imperial College London is home to the Data Science Institute, and a renowned computer science department, who are delving into the depths of data science. We have put questions to two of its residents: Professor Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, recently arrived from MIT, and Professor Michael Huth, who specialises in cybersecurity and trust. Professor de Montjoye works with metadata – unseen data providing information such as your location and your IP address. Metadata is crucial for making webpages work, but is invariably used to track consumers and generate targeted ads. Responsible companies try to anonymise metadata, for instance by splitting it into separate categories for recordal. But this is no longer enough for the scale and diversity of current datasets. For example, de Montjoye has shown in his research that locating four geographical positions of a mobile phone is enough to identify 95% of people. This isn’t just theoretical. Recently, a German newspaper revealed that millions of people had been identified from a database of URLs collected by browser add-ons, including the security extension “Web of Trust” (WoT). Is there a way to stop such invasions of our privacy? For de Montjoye, the answer is to think like the enemy. “Good data privacy is like hacking… You can’t be a good hacker if you’re inside and all you do is build up walls. To be a good hacker you need to know how it works … A lot of [my] work is to develop the tools that would be used to re-identify individuals”. Can we trust data? On the other side of the spectrum is Professor Huth, who works with trust. As
he welcomed me into his office, I asked him how he would describe himself. “Not a data scientist … a trained mathematician who now works on security, verification, and optimization”. Huth is particularly interested in handling nuclear proliferation. For example, imagine that a country agrees to an arms reduction treaty. Another nation is called upon to inspect whether the arms stockpile is actually being reduced. However, the host country insists that weaponry is not visible during inspection in order to protect design secrets. How can the world know with confidence whether the treaty is being upheld?
technology has evolved, it has begun to challenge this unwritten right to privacy. For instance, with the invention of photography, and then the internet, it is easy and quick to capture and share an image of a complete stranger with millions of other people. The stranger has no choice or control over such a situation. This might not bother most people, but Prof de Montjoye explains it is an important issue to consider. “We could live in different times… it is essential to think of what the rules are in times when we trust our government, but also when we distrust the government or if we were to live in a different country.”
The answer is not big data, but just enough data, and the method used to collect it. Inspectors are given multiple identical devices. Inside the device sophisticated sensors assess whether a weapon is present, using factors such as the ratio of isotopes detected. From this, a simple yes or no is reported, which provides enough information to the inspector whilst protecting design secrets. Nothing to hide Huth has also used artificial intelligence to visualise the internal structure of organizations in terms of electronic interactions, such as emails. “In the future, HR departments will be digitised”, he says confidently, “[organisations will be able to see the activity of individuals] at any level of [detail] – this is a great opportunity for more effective HR - but a balance with privacy should be struck.” Some are terrified by such a prospect, citing an apparent disregard for workers’ rights. But, why should honest people be worried? Underlying the anger which Trump stirred up over Clinton’s emails was transparency. So I put the question to Professor de Montjoye, “why should people worry about privacy if they don’t have anything to hide?” “I see [privacy] as a right to be left alone, … think freely … develop an opinion”. In the past, he explains, privacy was protected by informal agreements but, as
Picture: Courtesy of the Data Science Institute. Back at Imperial… Before leaving, I was keen to find out what a typical day in the life of a data scientist involved: “Conferences, whiteboard work, and lots and lots of coding”. It may not sound glamorous, but among the academics I have met there is a spirit of moral imperative. “It is a question of values in society,” says de Montjoye. “Which kinds of societies do we want to live in?” Huth draws on another point, giving the example of drivers being required to always keep a hand on the steering wheel in selfdriving vehicles - “We will do well to always have humans in the loop in decision making that affects living things.” What is data science about then? Certainly not playing with, or restricting, the powers of data; if anything, it is about understanding their relevance to society.
A University of Thoughts by Artur Donaldson
This is the place thought created. This is the place that shapes ideas. This is your place. This is our place. A world inside a skull A world of concrete walls Not a prison An exoskeleton For beautiful insight Drawn with thought By a soul Alone. An infinite sea of ideas Drifting apart We feel alone. Who can fathom across intergalactic abyss between gravitationally conspiring ideas? Alone We are each a star Brilliant and bound. Together A universe-itE A world of *-)
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