PHYS Physics

In quantum physics the future can affect the present

Quantum mechanics describes the strange behavior of photons, electrons and the other particles that make up the universe. Among its many outstanding mysteries, is the quandary of causality—whether events happen in a particular order. Generally, we experience things that seem to be triggered by earlier events. Astrophysicist Brian Koberlein writes, in an article for Forbes, that our lives follow a series of causes and effects—but, could an effect ever trigger a cause? In physics, this thought experiment is known as retrocausality. It is a concept of cause and effect where the effect precedes its cause in time.

In complex systems, order can be observed through entropy—basically the trajectory from ordered to disordered provides a clue about the direction of the event (e.g., a cup falling and shattering into a dozen pieces). However, there are quantum experiments where physicists try to mix up the order of cause and effect. As Koberlein explains it, quantum objects can sometimes behave similar to particles, and sometimes seem to behave like waves. These properties reveal themselves in different kinds of experiments. In the double slit experiment, when a beam of photons shines against a barrier with two slit openings, left unmeasured, the photons take on a wave behavior. However, if a detector is placed by each slit to measure which one each photon goes through, then the photons do behave like particles.

Things become fuzzier still in the delayed choice experiment, where you measure which slit each photon passes through, and measure where each photon strikes the distant screen, but before looking at the results, you destroy the data on which slit each photon passes through. In 1999, the experiment was conducted, and physicists discovered that delayed choice does determine the outcome. “[T]hat would mean destroying the data about the photons going through the slit would give the ‘wave’ interference pattern, even though the ‘particle’ data was collected at the time,” writes Koberlein. In other words, an effect can trigger a cause, and it is possible for the present to cause an outcome in the past.


New study proves that fasting increases stem cell regeneration

A new study examining the effects of fasting in mice reveals that just 24 hours of caloric restriction can boost the regeneration of cells in the gut, reports Peter Dockrill for Science Alert. “Fasting has many effects in the intestine, which include boosting regeneration as well as potential uses in any type of ailment that impinges on the intestine, such as infections or cancers,” explains MIT biologist Omer Yilmaz.

The study showed that fasting turns on a “metabolic switch” in the intestinal stem cells that increases fat burning. Intestinal stem cells typically renew intestinal lining in about five days, but once the metabolic switch is turned on, the process occurs much faster. Yilmaz’s team harvested intestinal stem cells from mice that had fasted for 24 hours, growing them in a culture to amass cells called organoids.

The team found that these cells had double the capacity to regenerate in comparison to mice that hadn’t fasted. “This was something that we saw in both the young mice and the aged mice, and we really wanted to understand the molecular mechanisms driving this,” says Maria Mihaylova, a biomedical researcher who participated in the study. The team discovered that fasting had activated transcription factors called peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor, which turn on genes involved in metabolizing fatty acids.

That activation induced the cells to break down fatty acids while increasing the cell’s ability to regenerate themselves. The researchers then treated the mice with a molecule that reproduced some of the beneficial effects of fasting, possibly opening avenues to replicating this effect in a pill, or other drug treatment.

Brain Research TECH_Social

Scientists clear up the mystery surrounding creative ‘hot streaks’

A new study published in the journal Nature reveals that “hot streaks,” or moments of creative inspiration do exist, and do not happen at random, reports Emma Betuel for Inverse. The study was led by associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management Dashun Wang, who originally supported the “random impact rule.” The rule held that career achievements generally appeared at random, perhaps in the beginning or middle or end of someone’s career. His latest theory refutes that rule, and establishes “hot streaks” as a non-random occurrence backed by science.

With his team, he examined the three biggest “hits” of someone’s career and compared the time that passed between each event. To accomplish this, he used statistical analysis of “hits” made during the careers of 3,480 artists, 6,233 movie directors, and 20,040 scientists. “If you look at the first big hit alone, you’d think, ‘Oh, that’s also random,’” he says. “But then we realized it’s because they’re all next to each other.” The team discovered that the biggest hits of a person’s career tend to appear in succession to one another. However, the first big hit that begins the hot streak does happen randomly. Following the first hit, the amount of time that passes between the next two big hits is fairly short.

They also found that hot streaks tend to last several years. According to their analysis, for artists, hot streaks lasted 5.7 years, and for directors, they lasted 5.2 years. Scientists’ hot streaks only lasted 3.7 years. The team calls these hot streaks “an endogenous shift in creativity.” Wang explains that “it’s not that you produce more during a hot streak, it’s just that for whatever reason, what you produce is substantially better.”

PHYS Physics

Without scientific data, ancient philosophers created theories that remain true today

Pre-Socratic philosophers pondered some of the more arcane questions of existence, sometimes coming up with answers that hold true today. Still, they are rarely credited with progress in the scientific field largely because they lacked scientific proof for their theories. According to Joe Carmichael in an article for Inverse, philosophy and science share a long, intertwined history, and these early philosophers were the Western world’s first empiricists.

Ancient philosophy professor at Brigham Young University, Daniel Graham, tells Inverse that these early philosophers have been discredited, because despite their incredible ideas, they had “no way of proving or disproving any of their theories.” The danger, Carmichael suggests, is that history will repeat itself and modern scientists may be ignored or repudiated by future researchers even if they uncover new paths to knowledge. Carmichael points to Parmenides, who developed a cosmology and was the first person in history to determine the earth’s true shape. Leucippus and Democritus, in late-5th-century B.C., hypothesized that atoms exist, while Anaxagoras discovered how eclipses work.

Graham believes that modern scientists should look to ancient philosophers as “soul mates” because they were people that already thought like scientists, even without access to the tools of science. “Proof follows conjecture,” Carmichael writes. In fact, concepts like the Big Bang began as speculation. The methodology of science is always the same, says Yasunori Nomura, a theoretical physics professor. “You just make the theories based on what you can measure.” As Carmichael puts it, scientists ought to consider any theory that is robust, steeped in evidence, and falsifiable.


Health officials warn of new STD that could morph into a superbug

British public health officials are warning that Mycoplasma genitalium, a bacterial infection known as MGen, could soon become immune to antibiotics, writes Peter Hess for Inverse. This occurrence would vault MGen into the growing class of bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotic drugs, known as a superbug.

The bacterium, lurking in humans’ urinary and genital tracts, is transmitted through sexual intercourse. Infected women can experience pelvic inflammation and cervical inflammation, while men can experience inflammation of the urethra. However, sometimes the infection will not cause any noticeable symptoms, which would allow an infected person to transmit the disease without realizing they’re doing so. The British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) issued guidelines for handling MGen in light of the emerging threat. BASHH officials explain that MGen typically responds to treatment with azithromycin, a common antibiotic. Still, in some cases, officials warn that the bacterium has shown resistance to drugs like moxifoxacin.

In the US, the CDC reports that while cases of MGen are higher than Neisseria gonorrhoeae (gonorrhea), it’s still relatively uncommon in the states. BASHH provided doctors with recommendations for treating patients in order to reduce the chance of developing antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They advised physicians to spread out doses of azithromycin over multiple days to help ensure that the entire population of pathogenic bacteria is obliterated, Hess writes. This method follows from research finding that the use of antibiotics for shorter periods of times can sometimes promote resistance. As with any sexually transmitted disease, the best course to follow is using a condom to mitigate the risk.


Parasitic fungus drugs cicadas with psychedelic chemicals

The American cicada is the well-known insect that spends its youth underground feeding on roots, only to emerge after 13 or 17 years to live and mate on the surface for a few weeks. Now scientists are revealing that some cicadas encounter a mind-altering drug on the way out, reports Ed Yong for The Atlantic.

Some cicadas encounter the spores of a fungus called Massospora, where a week after exposure the panels of their abdomens slough off and reveal a white “plug.” This is because the fungus has grown throughout the insect and consumed its organs, converting the rear third of its body into spores. Strangely enough, the insects go about their business unbothered, and while flying around, they disperse the spores among their companions. Matt Kasson, who studies fungi at West Virginia University, believes that Massospora doses its victims with mind-altering drugs, which allows the insects to behave as if a part of their body isn’t missing. “We call them flying saltshakers of death,” says Kasson, describing the way infected insects disperse the spores among themselves.  Greg Boyce, a member of Kasson’s team, discovered an additional surprise—he found that the chemicals in the white fungal plugs of various cicadas were loaded with psilocybin, the potent hallucinogen found in magic mushrooms. The team found that the substances are only in the infected cicadas and not in the uninfected ones.

The drugs explain infected cicadas odd behavior. Despite their injuries, the males become hyperactive and hypersexual. They try to mate with anything they can find, including other males, Yong writes. Sadly, all of their efforts go to waste, because their genitals have either been devoured by the fungus, or have fallen off with the rest of their butts. Of course, because psilocybin is a Schedule I drug, the researchers believed they needed a permit from the DEA to continue—however, the DEA determined that the amounts weren’t big enough to warrant a permit. Still, Kasson believes that it’s possible to get high by eating Massospora-infected cicadas. “Based on the ones we looked at, it would probably take a dozen or more.”

Business TECH TECH_Technology

China races to become the dominant machine-learning provider over US technology giants

China’s cloud providers, Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu, are getting ready to do battle with US giants Amazon, Google, and Microsoft to deliver AI online, writes Will Knight for MIT Technology Review.  Cloud computing companies are all racing to deploy increasingly sophisticated services featuring machine learning and AI.  Jian Wang, president of Alibaba’s technology committee and a senior figure at the company predicts that cloud AI will become a major trend.  “I’m convinced that AI or machine learning will be the major consumer of applications [in the cloud],” says Wang.

Speaking at EmTech China, an event held by MIT Technology Review in Beijing, Animashree Anandkumar, principal scientist at Amazon Web Services, touted the AI capabilities of her company.  Amazon Web Services is the largest cloud provider in the US, offering a number of AI services via the cloud.  Amazon has also developed its own deep-learning framework, called MXNet, to help build awareness among machine-learning pupils. “Currently, running experiments on AI requires huge computer resources,” says Anandkumar.

She continues by adding: “The cloud is a way to democratize AI because anyone can access that computer power.  The other aspect of democratizing AI is globalizing it.  How do we enable everybody to innovate locally, and have equally good support across languages and cultures?”

Google recently demonstrated an innovation designed to make it much easier to make use of the most powerful machine-learning algorithms; while the Chinese government is pushing its industry with massive investment. Whoever materializes as the dominant players could fashion the kinds of AI services that become widely adopted.


Deep reinforcement learning is the latest trend in AI technology

A new area of AI research, called Deep reinforcement learning (DRL) is making waves within artificial general intelligence (or AGI) circles, writes Sam Charrington for Venture Beat.  This is because DRL mirrors human learning by exploring and receiving feedback from environments.

Supervised machine learning trains models based on “known-correct” answers.  By contrast, researchers implement reinforcement learning by having an “agent” interact with an environment.  Thus, when the agent’s actions produce a desired result, it receives positive feedback.  The promise of DRL has led to a number of startups hoping to capitalize on this technology, writes Charrington.  Pieter Abbeel at the University of California Berkeley has founded Embodied Intelligence, a startup that will combine VR (virtual reality) and DRL and apply it to robotics. plans to out-trade traditional hedge funds by applying it to algorithms.

Increased interest has also led to startups creating new open source toolkits and environments for training DRL agents.  Charrington lists several of these interfaces, like House3D (a collaboration between UC Berkeley and Facebook AI researchers).  It offers over 45,000 simulated indoor scenes with realistic room and furniture layouts.  The primary task, introduced in the team’s paper, is “concept-driven navigation,” which would train an agent to navigate to rooms within a house.

Charrington cautions that applying DRL to non-trivial problems creates the challenge of constructing a reward function that encourages desired behaviors without the adverse effect of promoting cheating.  However, with all the tools and platforms in development, researchers hope to eventually work through these challenges.


Scientists offer new insight into the search for the “Fountain of Youth”

A new study led by researchers from Harvard and MIT may offer important advances in the quest to reverse the effects of aging, reports the Boston Globe. In a report published Thursday, researchers believe they have found a new tool in the field of study aimed at discovering ways to combat age-related frailty and diseases.

David Sinclair, a senior author of the study and a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School explains that as people age, their blood vessels lose the capacity to deliver oxygen and nutrients to muscles—this results in loss of endurance. He believes that NMN (nicotinamide mononucleotide) could increase life expectancy, restoring energy and vitality in humans. This naturally occurring compound is said to strengthen metabolism, cardiovascular functions, and cell maintenance.

In the study, 18-month-old mice treated with NMN for two months experienced a 56 percent to 80 percent increase in endurance. Mice that were 32 months old—equivalent to humans in their 80s—experienced the same effects. Sinclair believes this study is significant.

“It’s definitely going against the natural process of aging, which I think is one of the most important things humans need to work on, just like working against cancer or Alzheimer’s,” he says.

Although it is too soon to expect any benefits for humans, the team is in the first stage of a trial that is testing NMN in people.

NWT_Energy PHYS Physics Science

Researchers at CERN are on a subatomic hunt to detect rare particle decay

An experiment at CERN in Geneva, called NA62, is designed to let scientists watch a rare kind of particle decay, writes Ryan F. Mandelbaum for Gizmodo. Most particles, with the exception of the ones out of which we ourselves are made, and a couple of others—fall apart (decay) into other particles in a tiny fraction of a second. (Some of these particles survive only a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, or even less!)

The physicists working on the NA62 experiment are searching for subatomic particles that may reveal new laws of physics. Using a new detection method, the team may have finally spotted what they’re looking for. They are hunting for quarks, the building blocks of other subatomic particles. There are six kinds: the common up and down quark, the strange and charm quarks, and the rarest top and bottom quarks.

Protons and neutrons contain only up and down quarks. The experiment’s goal is to manufacture as many kaon particles, as possible. Kaons contain an up quark, along with the antiparticle of the strange quark. NA62 produces kaons by hitting a target with a beam of high-energy protons from an adjacent particle accelerator. The team passes the beam through a detector and makes measurements while the particles are traveling.

An incredibly rare, on-in-10 billion result, is that it splits into a neutrino, an antineutrino, and a “pi-on.” The team presented their first candidate at a seminar held by CERN. They spotted a potential instance of this particular kaon decay.

“They’re not at a point of scientific significance yet, but they’ve demonstrated that their technique works,” Bob Tschirart, chief project officer of the Fermi National Lab, said. He pointed out that NA62 has the potential to observe as many as 100 events. Given the one-in-ten billion odds, that could bring the uncertainty in the measurement down by a lot.