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.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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