Physics on the Fringe: Dr. Kaku Answers Questions from Science Channel Viewers

Physics on the Fringe: Dr. Kaku Answers Questions from Science Channel Viewers

The Science Channel will re-run all five seasons of the sci-fi cult drama Fringe beginning tonight at 8pm. The two-hour pilot will air along with the first episode, followed by daylong marathons on Nov. 23 and Nov. 24

The relaunch will also feature "wraparound" introductions and bonus content from Big Think blogger Dr. Michio Kaku. In the Q & A below, Dr. Kaku answers some questions from Science Channel viewers, which ranged from the possibility of an alternate universe or multiverse to time travel, shape shifting, dream sharing and "Cortexiphan experiments."

Here are Dr. Kaku's answers. 

If an alternate universe exists, what would that world's Dr. Michio Kaku be known for? 

Many quantum physicists today, including several of my friends and colleagues who have won Nobel Prizes, lean toward the Many Worlds interpretation, which states that the quantum universe is continually splitting into parallel universes. String theory (my specialty) also leads naturally to this "multiverse" interpretation, since each solution of string theory represents a different quantum universe.

This means that, in principle, there may be quantum copies of ourselves in these different universes, in which we may be rock stars,famous politicians, or homeless people. Each of these parallel versions of ourselves, in turn, insists that they are the real person, and  that all other copies are fake. 

But this does not mean that we can easily enter such parallel universes to meet copies of ourselves to settle the question. Think of listening to the radio in your living room. There are many different radio waves filling up your room from different radio stations, but your radio only vibrates (i.e. is coherent) with one station. Your radio has decohered from these other universes and hence cannot pick up their signals. Similarly, each universe vibrates at different quantum frequencies, but we have decohered from them, i.e. we do not vibrate at the same frequency anymore. Hence, it is amazing that there are many parallel universes existing in your living room(e.g. with dinosaurs, pirates, comets, or nothing at all), but you have decohered from them, and hence cannot make contact them.

In principle, perhaps peope who have died are still alive in one of these universes in your living room, but if you reach out,you cannot make contact with them. Yes, this means that Elvis is probably still alive in one of these universes.

Many topics are explored in Fringe, including time travel, shape shifting and dream sharing. Which of these three topics are the most theoretically possible? 

All of these technologies are very difficult. but I would guess that dream sharing will come first. Already at the Univ. of Calif. at Berkeley, scientists have placed subjects in an MRI machine, used a computer to decode all the signals emanating from the brain,and then reassembled a reasonable picture of what the person is thinking. When viewing animals, people, buildings, this MRImachine is able to reconstruct a crude picture of these objects. In Kyoto, scientists there have been able to "read" the brain of people who are looking at different words. One possible next step is to place a sleeping person in the MRI machine, and then decodethe signals from the dreaming brain, and then put the image onto a screen. (This has already been done, but so far the images are very crude, but one can clearly tell that a person is dreaming about another person using this MRI machine). So, in the coming years, we might be able to watch our dreams on a DVD as soon as we wake up and share them. Also, deliberately altering the course of a dream, as it progresses, might be possible. "Lucid dreaming," where people are aware of the fact that they are dreaming and hence can alter the course of dreaming, has been verified at the Max Planck Inst. in Germany. Hence, it might be possible to watch a screen and deliberately alter the course of the dream by talking to the dreamer. 

Shape shifting might be possible within, say, a century. Already, scientists can create computer chips the size of grains of sand. These chips can be programmed to alter the electrical charge on the surface, so they bind in definite patterns. This is called programmable matter, where we tell these smart sand particles to reassemble into different shapes. Just like we program software,we might be able to program intelligent sand so that it can reassemble into different shapes.Eventually, these smart grains of sand might become the size of molecules, in which case we might be able to alter the shape of an object at will. Some scientists believe that the key to this might be a nanobot which can guide molecules to rearrange themselves into any object you want, like the replicator in Star Trek. Although physically possible, the techinical problems may take a century to solve. 

Time travel is also theoretically possible, but extremely difficult to achieve in the lab. If you have enough positive energy (e.g. a black hole) to punch a hole in space, and enough negative energy to keep the hole open against gravity, then you might be able to build a time machine. Since the energy necessary to tear a hole in space is comparable to that of a star, this technology is many thousands of years into the future, if it is possible at all. So far, no one has ever been able to find an error in the equations which allow for time travel. (One objection might be that radiation builds up as you enter the time machine, since energy can circulate an infinite number of timesthrough the time machine). Then it might explode as soon as you enter. But this problem may be eliminated in the ManyWorlds interpretation, where energy makes just a single pass through the machine.) To settle the question, we need a "theory of everything," like string theory, to calculate the radiation that might be created by the time machine.

Cortexiphan experiments were done on Agent Dunham when she was a child by Walter Bishop and William Bell. The result left Olivia and the other children in the trials with heightened mental abilities. While Cortexiphan is not real, is it safe to say heightened mental abilities can result from medical experimentation?

There are several ways in which one might, in principle, enhance our brain power. First, by using genetics. Already, scientists at Princeton have discovered the "smart mouse" gene, from which you can create a mouse with superiorcognitive skills. These mice can navigate mazes much faster, they learn tasks much faster, they have better memory, etc. The chemical pathways which make all this possible is also being decoded. Humans have a counter part of this gene in our body, so it might be possible one day to enchance our abilities in this fashion. Also, we are 98.5% genetically equivalent to a chimp, our closest evolutionary neighbor. But we live twice as long and are much more intelligent. Hence, among a handful of genes separating us from the chips are the genes which doubled our life span and alsoincreased our intelligence, and we are finding these genes now. 

Also, scientists have studied individuals with "savant syndrome," in which they suffer from mental disorders, but have fantastic calculational and artistic abilties far beyond normal. Usually, there is some degeneration, damage, or lesion on a specific part of their left temporal lobe of their brain. It is believed, although not proven, then this disrupts the balance between the left and right brain, so that the right brain compensates for the impairment of the left temporal lobe, causing these abilities to surface (while normally they are suppressed). Some scientists have even tried to use magnetic cranial devices to "shut down" this area of the left temporal lobe to induce this ability. (The results of this experiment were mixed, with some enhancement taking place, but nothing like what has been found in these individuals). It may be possible, however, that one day science can duplicate this miraculous ability. 

So far, there is no proven way of increasing our brain power. But all of this suggests that it might soon be well within the laws of science to enhance our intelligence.

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
  • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
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COVID and "gain of function" research: should we create monsters to prevent them?

Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

The misguided history of female anatomy

From "mutilated males" to "wandering wombs," dodgy science affects how we view the female body still today.

Credit: Hà Nguyễn via Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
  • The history of medicine and biology often has been embarrassingly wrong when it comes to female anatomy and was surprisingly resistant to progress.
  • Aristotle and the ancient Greeks are much to blame for the mistaken notion of women as cold, passive, and little more than a "mutilated man."
  • Thanks to this dubious science, and the likes of Sigmund Freud, we live today with a legacy that judges women according to antiquated biology and psychology.
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Why do holidays feel like they're over before they even start?

People tend to reflexively assume that fun events – like vacations – will go by really quickly.