Futurists on the Future
Michio Kaku: Can We Download Our Brains?
One day we might be able to download our consciousness into a computer chip, preserving our personalities forever—but first we will have to better understand brain architecture.
Ray Kurzweil: Your Robot Assistant Will Be Able to Do What No Human Can Do
Your computer will be an assistant that helps you through the day, will answer your questions before you ask them or even before you realize you have a question
Richard Branson Imagines the Future
The British entrepreneur's plan to populate outer space.
Elon Musk: Why I'm Betting on Solar
Elon Musk tends to be interested in industries that "a lot of people think are impossible or think you can’t succeed at - that’s usually where there’s opportunity."
Peter Thiel: Today, Silicon Valley; Tomorrow, the Atlantic
California is still the best place for tech companies to do business. But colonies on offshore platforms might one day become our centers of innovation.
One of the most devastating elements of the coronavirus pandemic has been the inability to personally care for loved ones who have fallen ill.
Again and again, grieving relatives have testified to how much more devastating their loved one's death was because they were unable to hold their family member's hand—to provide a familiar and comforting presence in their final days and hours.
How does one come to terms with the overwhelming grief and guilt over the thought of a loved one dying alone?
I don't have an answer to this question. But the work of a hospice doctor named Christopher Kerr—with whom I co-authored the book “Death Is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life's End"—might offer some consolation.
At the start of his career, Dr. Kerr was tasked—like any and all physicians—with attending to the physical care of his patients. But he soon noticed a phenomenon that seasoned nurses were already accustomed to. As patients approached death, many had dreams and visions of deceased loved ones who came back to comfort them in their final days.
Doctors are typically trained to interpret these occurrences as drug-induced or delusional hallucinations that might warrant more medication or downright sedation.
But after seeing the peace and comfort these end-of-life experiences seemed to bring his patients, Dr. Kerr decided to pause and listen. One day, in 2005, a dying patient named Mary had one such vision: She began moving her arms as if rocking a baby, cooing at her child who had died in infancy decades prior.
To Dr. Kerr, this didn't seem like cognitive decline. What if, he wondered, patients' own perceptions at life's end mattered to their well-being in ways that should not concern just nurses, chaplains, and social workers?
What would medical care look like if all physicians stopped and listened, too?
The project begins
So at the sight of dying patients reaching and calling out to their loved ones—many of whom they had not seen, touched, or heard for decades—he began collecting and recording testimonies given directly by those who were dying. Over the course of 10 years, he and his research team recorded the end-of-life experiences of 1,400 patients and families.
What he discovered astounded him. Over 80% of his patients—no matter what walk of life, background, or age group they came from—had end-of-life experiences that seemed to entail more than just strange dreams. These were vivid, meaningful, and transformative. And they always increased in frequency near death.
They included visions of long-lost mothers, fathers, and relatives, as well as dead pets come back to comfort their former owners. They were about relationships resurrected, love revived, and forgiveness achieved. They often brought reassurance and support, peace and acceptance.
Becoming a dream weaver
I first heard of Dr. Kerr's research in a barn.
I was busy mucking my horse's stall. The stables were on Dr. Kerr's property, so we often discussed his work on the dreams and visions of his dying patients. He told me about his TEDx Talk on the topic, as well as the book project he was working on.
I couldn't help but be moved by the work of this doctor and scientist. When he disclosed that he was not getting far with the writing, I offered to help. He hesitated at first. I was an English professor who was an expert in taking apart the stories others wrote, not in writing them myself. His agent was concerned that I wouldn't be able to write in ways that were accessible to the public – something academics are not exactly known for. I persisted, and the rest is history.
It was this collaboration that turned me into a writer.
I was tasked with instilling more humanity into the remarkable medical intervention this scientific research represented, to put a human face on the statistical data that had already been published in medical journals.
The moving stories of Dr. Kerr's encounters with his patients and their families confirmed how, in the words of the French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne, "he who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live."
I learned about Robert, who was losing Barbara, his wife of 60 years, and was assailed by conflicting feelings of guilt, despair, and faith. One day, he inexplicably saw her reaching for the baby son they had lost decades ago, in a brief span of lucid dreaming that echoed Mary's experience years earlier. Robert was struck by his wife's calm demeanor and blissful smile. It was a moment of pure wholeness, one that transformed their experience of the dying process. Barbara was living her passing as a time of love regained, and seeing her comforted brought Robert some peace in the midst of his irredeemable loss.
For the elderly couples Dr. Kerr cared for, being separated by death after decades of togetherness was simply unfathomable. Joan's recurring dreams and visions helped mend the deep wound left by her husband's passing months earlier. She would call out to him at night and point to his presence during the day, including in moments of full and articulate lucidity. For her daughter Lisa, these occurrences grounded her in the knowledge that her parents' bond was unbreakable. Her mother's pre-death dreams and visions assisted Lisa in her own journey toward acceptance—a key element of processing loss.
When children are dying, it is often their beloved, deceased pets that make appearances. Thirteen-year-old Jessica, dying of a malignant form of bone-based cancer, started having visions of her former dog, Shadow. His presence reassured her. "I will be fine," she told Dr. Kerr on one of his last visits.
For Jessica's mom, Kristen, these visions—and Jessica's resulting tranquility—helped initiate the process she had been resisting: that of letting go.
Isolated but not alone
The health care system is difficult to change. Nevertheless, Dr. Kerr still hopes to help patients and their loved ones reclaim the dying process from a clinical approach to one that is appreciated as a rich and unique human experience.
Pre-death dreams and visions help fill the void that may otherwise be created by the doubt and fear that death evokes. They help the dying reunite with those they have loved and lost, those who secured them, affirmed them, and brought them peace. They heal old wounds, restore dignity, and reclaim love. Knowing about this paradoxical reality helps the bereaved cope with grief as well.
As hospitals and nursing homes continue to remain closed to visitors because of the coronavirus pandemic, it may help to know that the dying rarely speak of being alone. They speak of being loved and put back together.
There is no substitute for being able to hold our loved ones in their last moments, but there may be solace in knowing that they were being held.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
Scientists discovered a new feature that makes humans distinct from other primates like chimpanzees. The research shows that the human body uses 30% to 50% less water per day than our closest animal relatives.
Certainly, our brain power, and the ability to walk upright are key in making us special but the efficiency with which the human body uses up water is another major difference. This characteristic likely came about as an evolutionary adaptation in ancient hunter-gatherers, who had to venture out further and further from water sources in search of food, thinks the study's lead author Herman Pontzer, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.
"Even just being able to go a little bit longer without water would have been a big advantage as early humans started making a living in dry, savannah landscapes," Pontzer said.
As our body constantly gets rid of water through processes like urinating or sweating, it is necessary for the water levels to be restored. "To sustain life, humans and other terrestrial animals must maintain a tight balance of water gain and water loss each day," as the paper's authors write.
For the study, the researchers looked at this cycle of water consumption and loss in 309 people from a variety of backgrounds. These included farmers, hunter-gatherers, and office workers, who were compared to 72 apes spread around zoos and sanctuaries.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
The scientists calculated the water intake of each person in the study, whether it came from drinks or food. They also tracked how much water was lost through urine, sweat or the GI tract. With all the numbers added up, it became clear that an average person's body goes through about 3 liters of water every day. That's about 12 cups. A chimp or a gorilla goes through twice as much.
The results were surprising because humans tend to sweat more than other primates. In one square inch of skin, "humans have 10 times as many sweat glands as chimpanzees do," explained Pontzer. We can sweat out about a half gallon in a 30-minute workout. We also lead much more active lives than the apes at the zoo, with most apes only moving a couple of hours a day, according to the scientists. So how is it that we use up so much less water?
The researchers believe that the very real difference in water processing they observed in humans compared to other primates is related to evolutionary mechanisms. Our bodies had to adjust to need less water to stay healthy.
The scientists are now focused on figuring out how exactly this change occurred. The data suggests that our sense of thirst diverged from other ape relatives. We just don't want so much water. Notably, the ratio of water-to-calories is 25% less in human breast milk than in ape milk.
It is also possible that our nose has a lot to do with this. Fossils point to the fact that humans started to get more protruding noses than its evolutionary cousins about 1.6 million years ago, with the dawn of Homo erectus. In contrast, gorillas and chimp have flatter noses.
What's good about our noses? Since we tend to breathe out water vapor, the nasal passages actually cool and condense it, turning it back into liquid. This liquid gathers inside the nose and get reappropriated back into the body. Essentially, having a nose that juts out likely helped ancient humans keep more moisture when breathing.
Read the study published in Current Biology.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.
- An international team of scientists has confirmed the occurrence of a "space hurricane" seven years ago.
- The storm formed in the magnetosphere above the North Magnetic Pole.
- The storm posed no risk to life on Earth, though it might have interfered with some electronics.
Seven years ago, a 600-mile wide space hurricane made of plasma raged for eight hours high over the North Magnetic Pole. Only now has an international team of scientists been able to describe the phenomenon and report on it in Nature Communications.
Many objects in space, like Earth, the Sun, most of the planets, and even some large moons, have magnetic fields. The area around an object that is affected by a magnetic field is known as the magnetosphere.
For us Earthlings, the magnetosphere is what protects us from the most intense cosmic radiation and keeps the solar wind from affecting our atmosphere. When charged particles interact with it, we see auroras. Its fluctuations lead to changes in what is known as "space weather," which can impact electronics.
Schematic of a space hurricane in the northern polar ionosphere.
Credit: Qing-He Zhang et al. / Nature Communications
This "space hurricane," as the scientists are calling it, was formed by the interactions between Earth's magnetosphere and the interplanetary magnetic field, the part of the Sun's magnetosphere that goes out into the solar system. It took on the familiar shape of a cyclone as it followed magnetic fields. For example, the study's authors note that the numerous arms traced out the "footprints of the reconnected magnetic field lines." It rotated counter-clockwise with a speed of nearly 7,000 feet per second. The eye, of course, was still and calm.
The storm, which was invisible to the naked eye, rained electrons and shifted energy from space into the ionosphere. It seems as though such a thing can only form under calm situations when large amounts of energy are moving between the solar wind and the upper atmosphere. These conditions were modeled by the scientists using 3D imaging.
Study co-author Larry Lyons of UCLA explained the process of putting the data together to form the models to NBC: "We had various instruments measuring various things at different times, so it wasn't like we took a big picture and could see it. The really fun thing about this type of work is that we had to piece together bits of information and put together the whole picture."
Lyons further mentioned that these findings were completely unexpected and that nobody had even theorized a space hurricane could exist.
Schematic of the 3D magnetosphere when a space hurricane happened. Different color shadings represent different regions of the magnetosphere.
Credit: Qing-He Zhang et al. / Nature Communications
While this storm wasn't a threat to any life on Earth, a storm like this could have noticeable effects on space weather. This study suggests that there could be several effects, including "increased satellite drag, disturbances in High Frequency (HF) radio communications, and increased errors in over-the-horizon radar location, satellite navigation, and communication systems."
The authors speculate that space hurricanes could also exist in the magnetospheres of other planets.
Lead author Professor Qing-He Zhang of Shandong University discussed how these findings will influence our understanding of the magnetosphere and its changes with EurekaAlert, saying, "This study suggests that there are still existing local intense geomagnetic disturbance and energy depositions which is comparable to that during super storms. This will update our understanding of the solar wind-magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling process under extremely quiet geomagnetic conditions."
- Archeologists recently discovered a first-of-its-kind chariot in Pompeii.
- The ceremonial chariot is decorated with bronze and tin medallions, while the sides sport bronzesheets and red-and-black paintings.
- Given looting activity in the area, it's lucky the 2,000-year-old treasure wasn't lost to the world heritage site.
In 79 CE, near the Bay of Naples, Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Geologically, this was business as usual for the volatile volcano, but for the nearby cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, it proved a cataclysmic event.
After the terrifying initial blast, the volcano spewed ash and rocks miles into the atmosphere. As this volcanic drift cooled, it began to snow onto the cities. It collapsed buildings under its weight and suffocated those unlucky enough to not flee. Then came the pyroclastic flows—massive waves of ash, gases, and lava fragments that washed over the cities at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. All told, Vesuvius unleashed more than 100,000 times the energy of the two atomic bombs dropped during World War II on doomed towns nestled beneath it.
It seemed as though the cities weren't simply wiped off the map but practically from history itself, banished to a footnote in historical text. And so when explorers in the 1700s found the super-heated ash had preserved the city with taxidermic care, it was a miraculous discovery.
Today, Pompeii's fossilized slice-of-life gives historians an unprecedented view into a moment of history and culture. Bodies lie where they lived, traces of their clothes and other belongings still clinging to their forms. Frescos retain their imagery and vibrant colors. Fast food joints (called thermopolium) can be found with the jars still holding remnants of their menu items. Even the brain cells of a young man managed to survive the ages in vitrified conservation.
Each excavation teaches us something new about life in this Roman resort town, and Pompeii continues to surprise archeologists and historians well in the 21st century.
One dope Pompeian whip
Researchers carefully extract the chariot from the sedimentary rock encasing it.
Credit: Luigi Spina, Archaeological Park of Pompeii
In a recent discovery, researchers unearthed a first-of-its-kind chariot at Civita Giuliana, an excavation site north of Pompeii's ancient walls. In Roman times, the site served as a getaway for Rome's elite and wealthy citizens, a serene countryside brimming with villas and Mediterranean farms. So, it's understandable why such an exquisite chariot was found here.
"I was astounded," Eric Poehler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who specializes in Pompeii traffic, told NPR. "Many of the vehicles I'd written about before ... are your standard station wagon or vehicle for taking the kids to soccer. This is a Lamborghini. This is an outright fancy, fancy car."
Located in a double-level portico, the chariot is a far cry from anything Ben-Hur would have been seen cruising around in. It sports four iron wheels and a high seat complete with arm- and backrest. The sides are adorned with engraved bronze and wooden panels painted with red-and-black figures. And the rear bumps with a register of bronze and tin medallion depicting Eros-inspired scenes of satyrs, nymphs, and cupids. In short, this chariot is slab.
"It is an extraordinary discovery for the advancement of our knowledge of the ancient world," Massimo Osanna, the director of the archaeological park, said in a statement. "At Pompeii vehicles used for transport have been found in the past, […] but nothing like the Civita Giuliana chariot."
But unlike a Lamborghini—which serves only to show the owner has more money than sense—this chariot served a social and cultural role. Likely a pilentum, it would have been rolled out in times of ceremony, potentially during festivals, processions, or weddings.
While similar chariots have been uncovered in northern Greece, this is the first such chariot to be discovered in Italy. Its presence in Pompeii will further help historians understand the people who called the city home, as well as their relation to the Mediterranean world.
As Poehler added, "This is precisely the kind of find that one wants to find at Pompeii, the really well-articulated, very well-preserved moments in time. And it happens to be in this case an object that is relatively rare despite its ubiquity in the past."
It belongs in a museum (not the black market)
Bronze and tin medallions depict satyrs, nymphs and cupids.
Credit: Luigi Spina, Archaeological Park of Pompeii
Beyond its gilded appeal, the chariot is also special because it survived so we could learn from it. The area where the vehicle was found has been favored in recent years by looters, and illicit tunnels had been dug precariously close to the chariot's resting place. For this reason, the archeological park has teamed up with the Public Prosecutor's Office of Torre Annunziata to protect Pompeii's history and excavate its treasures before they become lost or stolen.
"The collaboration between the Public Prosecutor's Office of Torre Annunziata and the Archaeological Park of Pompeii has proved itself to be a formidable instrument, not only for bringing finds of exceptional historical and artistic value to light, but also for halting the criminal actions of individuals who for years have been the protagonists in a systematic looting of the priceless archaeological heritage preserved in the vast area of the Civita Giuliana villa, which is still largely buried and to which the recent exceptional findings bear witness," Nunzio Fragliasso, chief prosecutor of Torre Annunziata, said in his joint statement with Osanna.
Nor is everything that glitters historic gold. Even Pompeii's everyday ephemera can have an outsized impact on history. Pompeian citizens, for example, viewed street walls as a type of "public advertisement space" and so painted them thick with graffiti. As historians must often rely on the written works of the literate elite, this graffiti gives the ordinary Pompeians their voice back. One such charcoal tag even corrected the record of Vesuvius's eruption by two months, from August to October, contradicting the traditionally accepted date set by Pliny the Younger.
"Today, archaeologists try to understand ancient societies by studying the entire material record -- not just the beautiful or luxurious objects, but also the broken bits of cooking pottery, the animal bones thrown into the trash, the microscopic grains of pollen in the soil, and much more," Caitlín Barrett, associate professor at Cornell University, told CNN.
This ephemera is also at risk. Looters looking for eye-catching treasure and artwork will often destroy everyday objects in their pursuit. And after centuries encased in protective sedimentary rock, the city has again been exposed to the rains, winds, and human blunders that erode. The goal now isn't just to excavate fantastic treasures, but to preserve the world heritage site and learn from it for as long as time (and maybe Vesuvius) will allow.