Virtual Brains, Virtual Currencies, Real Revolutions

In collaboration with Exponential Finance


Your Brain in the Cloud: Access the Internet Directly with Your Mind

What if we could reverse-engineer the pattern-recognition units of our brains? Technologist and futurist Ray Kurzweil sees this as an imminent possibility, which would enable us to build virtual, cloud-based extensions of our minds with exponentially greater ability to organize and analyze information.


Ray Kurzweil is one of many ahead-of-the-curve speakers at 2015’s Exponential Finance conference, June 2-3 in New York City. Co-produced by Singularity University and CNBC, Exponential Finance provides insight into new technologies that leaders need to understand in order to make the most of the accelerating change happening across business sectors.

Peter Diamandis on How to Become a Billionaire

Exponential technologies are rapidly shifting the way we live and do business, says Singularity University's Peter Diamandis. Those who learn to take advantage of them are sure to ride the wave to extraordinary success.

Peter Diamandis is one of many ahead-of-the-curve speakers at 2015’s Exponential Finance conference, June 2-3 in New York City. Co-produced by Singularity University and CNBC, Exponential Finance provides insight into new technologies that leaders need to understand in order to make the most of the accelerating change happening across business sectors.


Brad Templeton: How Bitcoin Disrupts the Finance Industry

Should you invest in Bitcoin? Maybe not, says Brad Templeton, but that doesn't mean the digital currency isn't amazing in and of itself. Templeton explains what Bitcoin achieves and how it's set to spur further innovation.

Brad Templeton is one of many ahead-of-the-curve speakers at 2015’s Exponential Finance conference, June 2-3 in New York City. Co-produced by Singularity University and CNBC, Exponential Finance provides insight into new technologies that leaders need to understand in order to make the most of the accelerating change happening across business sectors.

Ray Kurzweil: Can You Read 100 Million Web Pages in a Few Seconds? Your Robot Assistant Will.

Comprehension is the human genius. But in a world where computers can process all of human history in a flash, that genius can be scaled. What possible industries would this eliminate risk from? Could scaled comprehension reliably create new business opportunities, each more efficient and profitable than the last?


We are talking about something more than augmenting human abilities with machine efficiency and power. We are talking about creating something that's simply more human: more capable of creativity, of understanding, of love, and of courage.

Ray Kurzweil is one of many ahead-of-the-curve speakers at 2015’s Exponential Finance conference, June 2-3 in New York City. Co-produced by Singularity University and CNBC, Exponential Finance provides insight into new technologies that leaders need to understand in order to make the most of the accelerating change happening across business sectors.

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In the spring of 1970, colleges across the country erupted with student protests in response to the Vietnam War and the National Guard's shooting of student demonstrators at Kent State University.

At the University of Chicago, where Frank Wilczek was an undergraduate, regularly scheduled classes were "improvised and semivoluntary" amid the turmoil, as he recalls.

It was during this turbulent time that Wilczek found unexpected comfort, and a new understanding of the world, in mathematics. He had decided to sit in on a class by physics professor Peter Freund, who, with a zeal "bordering on rapture," led students through mathematical theories of symmetry and ways in which these theories can predict behaviors in the physical world.

In his new book, "Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality," published by Penguin Press, Wilczek writes that the lessons were a revelation: "To experience the deep harmony between two different universes — the universe of beautiful ideas and the universe of physical behavior — was for me a kind of spiritual awakening. It became my vocation. I haven't been disappointed."

Wilczek, who is the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at MIT, has since made groundbreaking contributions to our fundamental understanding of the physical world, for which he has been widely recognized, most notably in 2004 with the Nobel Prize in Physics, which he shared with physicists David Gross and David Politzer. He has also authored several popular science books on physics and the history of science.

In his new book, he distills scientists' collective understanding of the physical world into 10 broad philosophical themes, using the fundamental theories of physics, from cosmology to quantum mechanics, to reframe ideas of space, time, and our place in the universe.

"People wrestle with what the world is all about," Wilczek tells MIT News. "They're not concerned with knowing precisely what Coulomb's law is, but want to know more about questions like the ancient Greeks asked: What is space? What is time? So in the end, I came up with 10 assertions, at the levels of philosophy but backed up by very concrete facts, to organize what we know."

A rollercoaster reborn

Wilczek wrote the bulk of the book earlier this spring, in the midst of another tumultuous time, at the start of a global pandemic. His grandson had been born as Wilczek was laying out the structure for his book, and in the preface, the physicist writes that he watched as the baby began building up a model of the world, based on his observations and interactions with the environment, "with insatiable curiosity and few preconceptions."

Wilczek says that scientists may take a cue from the way babies learn — by building and pruning more detailed models of the world, with a similar unbiased, open outlook. He can recall times when he felt his own understanding of the world fundamentally shift. The college course on mathematical symmetry was an early instance. More recently, the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning has prompted him to rethink "what knowledge is, and how it's acquired."

He writes: "The process of being born again can be disorienting. But, like a roller- coaster ride, it can also be exhilarating. And it brings this gift: To those who are born again, in the way of science, the world comes to seem fresh, lucid, and wonderfully abundant."

"Patterns in matter"

Wilczek's book contains ample opportunity for readers to reframe their view of the physical world. For instance, in a chapter entitled "There's Plenty of Space," he writes that, while the universe is vast, there is another scale of vastness in ourselves. To illustrate his point, he calculates that there are roughly 10 octillion atoms that make up the human body. That's about 1 million times the number of stars in the visible universe. The multitudes within and beyond us are not contradictory, he says, but can be explained by the same set of physical rules.

And in fact, the universe, in all its diversity, can be described by a surprisingly few set of rules, collectively known as the Standard Model of Physics, though Wilczek prefers to call it by another name.

"The so-called Standard Model is the culmination of millenia of investigation, allowing us to understand how matter works, very fully," Wilczek says. "So calling it a model, and standard, is kind of a lost opportunity to really convey to people the magnitude of what's been achieved by humanity. That's why I like to call it the 'Core.' It's a central body of understanding that we can build out from."

Wilczek takes the reader through many of the key experiments, theories, and revelations that physicists have made in building and validating the Standard Model, and its mathematical descriptions of the universe.

Included in this often joyful scientific tour are brief mentions of Wilczek's own contributions, such as his Nobel-winning work establishing the theory of quantum chromodynamics; his characterization of the axion, a theoretical particle that he named after a laundry detergent by the same name ("It was short, catchy, and would fit in nicely alongside proton, neutron, electron, and pion," he writes); and his introduction of the anyon — an entirely new kind of particle that is neither a fermion or a boson.

In April, and then separately in July, scientists made the first observations of anyons, nearly 40 years after Wilczek first proposed their existence.

"I was beginning to think it would never happen," says Wilczek, who was finishing up his book when the discoveries were made public. "When it finally did, it was a beautiful surprise."

The discovery of anyons opens possibilities for the particles to be used as building blocks for quantum computers, and marks another milestone in our understanding of the universe.

In closing his book, Wilczek writes about "complementarity" — a concept in physics that refers to two seemingly contrasting theories, such as the wave and particle theories of light, that can separately explain the same set of phenomena. He points to many complementary theories of physics throughout the book and extends the idea to philosophy and ways in which accepting contrasting views of the world can help us to expand our experience.

"With progress, we've come to consider people and creatures as having intrinsic value and being worthy of profound respect, just like ourselves," he writes. "When we see ourselves as patterns in matter, it is natural to draw our circle of kinship very wide indeed."

Reprinted with permission of MIT News. Read the original article.

  • New research at Yale identifies the brain regions that are affected when you're in disagreeable conversations.
  • Talking with someone you agree with harmonizes brain regions and is less energetically taxing.
  • The research involves face-to-face dialogues, not conversations on social media.

You probably know the feeling: a rush of heat that assaults your entire body; your fingertips and forehead suffering fiery consequences of conflict; restrictions around your chest and throat; quickened breath, as if your lungs can no longer draw in the required oxygen; ears on alert, biding time for a break in your opponent's rhetoric to let loose the torrent of thoughts crowding your brain.

Of course, not everyone is an opponent. You likely know the opposite as well: the cool excitement of agreeableness, when the words in your head are returned to you from another being as in a mirror; unconscious head shaking as your sense of righteousness is validated; the warm exuberance of easy dialogue with a fellow tribe member.

In a digital age in which physical contact seems foreign and long past, we might have forgotten what it's like to agree—or debate—with someone in person. Pandemics are temporary, while societies are—well, nothing is forever, but we've outlived diseases before. According to new research from Yale University, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, disagreeing with someone takes up a lot of brain real estate, while finding a compatriot is a much less cognitively taxing endeavor.

For this study, researchers gathered 38 adults to ask their feelings on contentious topics like same-sex marriage and cannabis legalization. They then matched each volunteer with people who either agreed or disagreed. Every subject had their brain scanned with functional near-infrared spectroscopy during these face-to-face discussions, during which time they were given a total of 90 seconds to discuss a topic in 15-second increments.

There are two kinds of identity politics. One is good. The other, very bad. | Jonathan Haidt

Unsurprisingly, harmonious synchronization of brain states occurred when volunteers agreed, similar to group flow—the coordination of brain waves that hip-hop and jazz musicians (among others) experience when performing together. Coordination exceeds the social, into the neurological. As the team writes, "talking during agreement was characterized by increased activity in a social and attention network including right supramarginal gyrus, bilateral frontal eye-fields, and left frontopolar regions."

This contrasts with argumentative behavior, in which "the frontoparietal system including bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, left supramarginal gyrus, angular gyrus, and superior temporal gyrus showed increased activity while talking during disagreement."

Senior author Joy Hirsch notes that our brain is essentially a social processing network. The evolutionary success of humans is thanks to our ability to coordinate. Dissonance is exhausting. Overall, she says, "it just takes a lot more brain real estate to disagree than to agree," comparing arguments to a symphony orchestra playing different music.

As the team notes, language, visual, and social systems are all dynamically intertwined inside of our brain. For most of history, yelling at one another in comment sections was impossible. Arguments had to occur the old-fashioned way: while staring at the source of your discontent.

People of the "left-wing" side yell at a Trump supporter during a "Demand Free Speech" rally on Freedom Plaza on July 6, 2019 in Washington, DC.

Credit: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Leading us to an interesting question: do the same brain regions fire when you're screaming with your fingers on your Facebook feed? Given the lack of visual feedback from the person on the other side of the argument, likely not—as it is unlikely that many people would argue in the same manner when face-to-face with a person on the other side of a debate. We are generally more civil in real life than on a screen.

The researchers point out that seeing faces causes complex neurological reactions that must be interpreted in real-time. For example, gazing into someone's eyes requires higher-order processing that must be dealt with during the moment. Your brain coordinates to make sense of the words being spoken and pantomimes being witnessed. This combination of verbal and visual processes are "generally associated with high-level cognitive and linguistic functions."

While arguing is more exhausting, it also sharpens your senses—when a person is present, at least. Debating is a healthy function of society. Arguments force you to consider other viewpoints and potentially come to different conclusions. As with physical exercise, which makes you stronger even though it's energetically taxing, disagreement propels societies forward.

In this study, every participant was forced to listen to the other person. As this research was focused on live interactions, it adds to the literature of cognitive processing during live interactions and offers insights into the cognitive tax of anger. Even anger is a net positive when it forces both sides to think through their thoughts and feelings on a matter. As social animals, we need that tension in our lives in order to grow. Yelling into the void of a comments section? Not so helpful.

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

  • A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
  • It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
  • While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.

    Imagine it's 2045. You start hearing rumors from your well-heeled friends about a mysterious corporation based on an undisclosed island that's offering an unprecedented service: the ability to genetically design your baby.

    The baby will have some of your genetics, and some genetics from a sperm or egg donor, selected by you. But the rest of your child's genetic profile will be engineered by science. These changes will make it impossible for your child to develop genetic diseases. They'll also allow you to customize your child for dozens of traits, including intelligence level, emotional disposition, sexual orientation, height, skin tone, hair color, and eye color, to name a few.

    This raises unsettling philosophical questions for some customers. "When does my child stop being my child?" they ask the corporate representatives. These wary customers are reminded of how risky it is to reproduce the old-fashioned way. The Better Genetics Corporation's motto sums it up: "Only God plays dice—humans don't have to."

    This is the world described in a new science-fiction series by Eugene Clark titled "Genetic Pressure", which explores the moral and scientific implications of a future in which designer babies are becoming a major industry. The first book begins with the story of Rachel, a renowned horse breeder who befriends a billionaire client, and soon gets the funding to visit the tropical island on which the Better Genetics Corporation is headquartered.

    There, corporate executives walk her through the process of designing a baby—an experience that feels like an uncanny mix between visiting a doctor and designing a luxury car. The series is told from multiple perspectives, serving as a deep dive into a complex moral web that today's scientists may already be weaving.

    [T]he introduction of designer babies would create a labyrinth of philosophical dilemmas that society is only beginning to explore.

    Case in point: In 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he had helped create the world's first genetically engineered babies. Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR on embryos, He Jiankui modified a gene called CCR5, which enables HIV to enter and infect immune system cells. His goal was to engineer children that were immune to the virus.

    It's unclear whether he succeeded. But what's certain is that the experiment shocked the international scientific community, which generally agreed that it's unethical to conduct gene-editing procedures on humans, given that scientists don't yet fully understand the consequences.

    "This experiment is monstrous," Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, told The Guardian. "The embryos were healthy. No known diseases. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer."

    Importantly, He Jiankui wasn't treating a disease, but rather genetically engineering babies to prevent the future contraction of a virus. These kinds of changes are heritable, meaning the experiment could have major downstream effects on future generations. So, too, would a designer-baby industry, even if scientists can do it safely.

    With major implications on inequality, discrimination, sexuality, and our conceptions of life, the introduction of designer babies would create a labyrinth of philosophical dilemmas that society is only beginning to explore.

    Tribalism and discrimination

    One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.

    "[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."

    For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product."

    Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with.

    Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate?

    Sexuality dilemmas

    Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.

    But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.

    But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image.

    When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc.

    Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.

    "In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.

    But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme.

    Regulating designer babies

    On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.

    In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough."

    After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations into the 1970s). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century.

    Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies.

    But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits.

    If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the opposites of those traits are undesirable. As the International Bioethics Committee wrote, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."

    "Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps" by Eugene Clark is available now.


  • 2020 is tied with 2016 for being globally the hottest year on record.
  • The year's hotspot included the Arctic, which is warming at three times the global mean.
  • The United States endured a record-breaking year for billion-dollar natural disasters.

    • You may have noticed a trend in the last few years. At the beginning of every year, NASA and NOAA share their analyses of the previous year's climate data. And every year, their data reveal the previous year to be one of the hottest on record—with 2016 at the torrid top of 139 years of documentation. That's no coincidence. Climate change is happening, it's happening now, and it's human-caused.

      That's the consensus of 97 percent of climate scientists, according to a 2014 report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That's the same percentage of physicians and cardiovascular scientists who agree that smoking causes lung cancer, and it's a consensus reached through decades worth of surveys and studies into the realities and causes of climate change.

      Now, climate scientists have two more analyses to add to their overwhelming evidence. In a briefing at this year's 101st American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting, representatives for NASA and NOAA revealed their independent analyses of 2020's climate data. And the trend continues.

      A dead heat

      A graph showing the global mean temperatures from 1880–2020 (with the years 1951–1980 serving as the mean baseline).

      Credit: NASA and NOAA

      For its 2020 analysis, NASA gathered surface temperature measurements from more than 26,000 weather stations. This data was incorporated with data from satellites as well as sea-surface temperatures taken from ship and buoy instruments. Once tallied, NASA's data showed 2020 barely edged out 2016 as the warmest year on record, with average global temperatures 1.02°C (1.84°F) above the baseline mean (1951-1980).

      In a separate analysis of the raw data, NOAA found 2020 to be slightly cooler than 2016. This distinction is the result of the different methodologies used in each—for example, NOAA uses a different baseline period (1901–2000) and does not infer temperatures in polar regions lacking observations. Together, these analyses put 2020 in a statistical dead heat with the sweltering 2016 and demonstrate the global-warming trend of the past four decades.

      "The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend," Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in a release. "Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important—the important things are long-term trends. With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken."

      And they are. According to the analyses, 2020 was the warmest year on record for Asia and Europe, the second warmest for South America, the fourth warmest for Africa and Australia, and the tenth warmest for North America.

      All told, 2020 was 1.19°C (2.14°F) above averages from the late-19th century, a period that provides a rough approximate for pre-industrial conditions. This temperature is closing in on the Paris Climate Agreement's preferred goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C of those pre-industrial conditions.

      2020's hotspot was—the Arctic?

      A map of global mean temperatures in 2020 shows an scorching year for the Arctic.

      (Photo: NASA and NOAA)

      Heatwaves have become more common all over the world, but a region that really endured the heat in 2020 was the Arctic.

      "The big story this year is Siberia; it was a hotspot," Russell Vose, chief of the analysis and synthesis branch of NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information, said during the briefing. "In May, some places were 18°F above the average. There was a town in Siberia […] that reported a high temperature of 104°F. If that gets verified by the World Metrological Organization, it will the first there's been a weather station in the Arctic with a temperature above 100°F."

      The Arctic is warming at three times the global mean, thanks to a phenomenon known as Arctic Amplification. As the Arctic warms, it loses its sea ice, and this creates a feedback loop. The more Arctic sea ice loss, the more heat introduced into the oceans; the more heat introduced, the more sea ice loss. And the longer this trend continues, the more devastating the effects.

      For example, since the 1980s, there's been a 50 percent decline in sea ice, and this loss has exposed more of the ocean to the sun's rays. That energy then gets trapped in the ocean as heat. As the ocean heat content rises, it threatens rising sea levels and the sustainability of natural ecosystems. In 2020 alone, 255 zeta joules of heat above the baseline were introduced into Earth's oceans. In (admittedly) dramatic terms, that's the equivalent of introducing 5 to 6 Hiroshima atom bombs worth of energy every second of every day.

      Looking beyond the Arctic, the average snow cover for the Northern Hemisphere was also the lowest on record. Like the Arctic sea ices, such snow cover helps regulate Earth's surface temperatures. Its melt off in the spring and summer also provides the freshwater ecosystems rely on to survive and farmers need to grow crops, especially in the Western United States.

      Natural disasters get a man-made bump

      A map of 2020's billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, which totaled approximately $95 billion in losses.

      Credit: NASA and NOAA

      2020 was also a record-breaking year for natural disasters. In the U.S. alone, there were 22 billion-dollar disasters, the most ever recorded. Combined, they resulted in a total of $95 billion in losses. The western wildfires alone consumed more than 10 million acres and destroyed large portions of Oregon, Colorado, and California.

      The year also witnessed a record-setting Atlantic Hurricane season with more than 30 named storms, 13 of which were hurricanes. Typically, the World Meteorological Organization names storms from an annual list of 21 selected names—one for each letter of the alphabet, minus Q, U, X, Y, and Z. For only the second time in history, the Organization had to resort to naming storms after Greek letters because they ran out of alphabet.

      For the record, there's a consensus about the record

      Such records are a dramatic reminder of climate change's ongoing effect on our planet. They make for an eye-catching headline, sure. But those headlines can sometimes mask the fact that these years are part of decade-long trends, trends providing a preview of what a climate-changed world will be like.

      And in case there was any question as to whether these trends were the result of natural processes or man-made conditions, Schmidt and Vose did not mince words.

      As Schmidt said in the briefing: "Many, many things have caused the climate to change in the past: asteroids, wobbles in the Earth's orbit, moving continents. But when we look at the 20th century, we can see very clearly what has been happening. We know the continents have not moved very much, we know the orbit has not changed very much, we know when there were volcanoes, we know what the sun is doing, and we know what we've been doing."

      He continued, "When we do an attribution by driver of climate change over the 20th century, what we find is that the overwhelming cause of the warming is the increase of greenhouse gases. When you add in all of the things humans have done, all of the trends over this period are attributable to human activity."

      The data are in; the consensus is in. The only thing left is to figure out how to prevent the worst of climate change before it's too late. As bad as 2020 was, it was only a preview of what could come.

    • A study led by Berkeley Lab suggests axions may be present near neutron stars known as the Magnificent Seven.
    • The axions, theorized fundamental particles, could be found in the high-energy X-rays emitted from the stars.
    • Axions have yet to be observed directly and may be responsible for the elusive dark matter.

      • A study tantalizingly promises a possible location for new elementary particles called axions, which may also constitute the elusive dark matter. A team led by a theoretical physicist from the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has pinpointed axions as the potential source of the high-energy X-rays coming out of a cluster of neutron stars called the Magnificent Seven.

        Axions were first theorized as fundamental particles as far back as the 1970s but have yet to be directly observed. In a fun fact, the idea for the name "axion" came to the theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek from a laundry detergent brand. If they exist, they'd be produced in the core of stars, converting into photons (particles of light) upon encountering electromagnetic fields. Axions would likely have small masses and come into contact with other matter quite rarely and in a way that's hard to detect.

        They may also be responsible for dark matter, which could comprise about 85% of the known universe but is also yet to be seen. We think we know about it from its gravitational effects. If axions are real, they could account for this "missing" mass of the universe. Astronomical observations tell us that visible matter, including all the galaxies with their stars, planets, and everything else we can conceive of in space is still less than one sixth of the total mass of all of the universe's matter. Dark matter is thought to be making up the rest. So finding it and finding axions could be transformative for our understanding of how the universe really works.

        The new paper from Berkeley Lab proposes that the Magnificent Seven, a group of neutron stars that's hundreds of light-years away (but relatively not so far), may be a perfect candidate for locating the axions. These stars, coming into existence as the collapsed cores of massive supergiant stars, have very strong magnetic fields and feature an abundance of X-rays. They are also not pulsars, which give off radiation at varying wavelengths and would likely obscure the X-ray signature the researchers spotted.

        The study utilized data from the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton and NASA's Chandra X-ray telescopes to discover high levels of X-ray emissions from the neutron stars.

        Benjamin Safdi, from the Berkeley Lab Physics Division theory group which led the study, said they aren't saying yet they found the axions but are feeling confident the Magnificent Seven X-rays are a fruitful place to look.

        "We are pretty confident this excess exists, and very confident there's something new among this excess," Safdi said. "If we were 100% sure that what we are seeing is a new particle, that would be huge. That would be revolutionary in physics."

        Are Axions Dark Matter?

        Postdoctoral researcher Raymond Co from the University of Minnesota, who was also involved in the study, confirmed that "It is an exciting discovery of the excess in the X-ray photons, and it's an exciting possibility that's already consistent with our interpretation of axions."

        Building upon this research, the scientists also plan to use space telescopes like NuStar to focus on the X-ray excesses as well as to examine white dwarf stars, which also have strong magnetic fields, making them another possible location for the axions. "This starts to be pretty compelling that this is something beyond the Standard Model if we see an X-ray excess there, too," said Safdi.

        Besides Berkeley Lab, the current study also involved support from the University of Michigan, the National Science Foundation, the Mainz Institute for Theoretical Physics, the Munich Institute for Astro- and Particle Physics (MIAPP), and the CERN Theory department.

        Check out the study published in Physical Review Letters.