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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Can VR help us understand layers of oppression?

Researchers are using technology to make visual the complex concepts of racism, as well as its political and social consequences.

  • Often thought of first as gaming tech, virtual reality has been increasingly used in research as a tool for mimicking real-life scenarios and experiences in a safe and controlled environment.
  • Focusing on issues of oppression and the ripple affect it has throughout America's political, educational, and social systems, Dr. Courtney D. Cogburn of Columbia University School of Social Work and her team developed a VR experience that gives users the opportunity to "walk a mile" in the shoes of a black man as he faces racism at three stages in his life: as a child, during adolescence, and as an adult.
  • Cogburn says that the goal is to show how these "interwoven oppressions" continue to shape the world beyond our individual experiences. "I think the most important and powerful human superpower is critical consciousness," she says. "And that is the ability to think, be aware and think critically about the world and people around you...it's not so much about the interpersonal 'Do I feel bad, do I like you?'—it's more 'Do I see the world as it is? Am I thinking critically about it and engaging it?'"
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Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.

Big Think LIVE

Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.

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Scientists see an earthquake boomerang back and forth

Seismic data from 2016 reveals a rare bi-directional boomerang earthquake.

Credit: Hicks et al., published in Nature Geoscience / © Imperial College London
  • An earthquake ran quickly east before turning west beneath the Atlantic ocean near the equator in 2016.
  • Such earthquakes are likely to pack significantly more destructive power.
  • Land-based boomerang earthquakes may have been witnessed, but have never been recorded seismographically.

It was definitely an odd story Rosario García González told in the summer of 2010.

González is an elder of the indigenous Cucapah community in Baja, California/Mexico. He and his wife were in their trailer in Paso Inferior, about 20 kilometers south-southwest of Mexicali when they heard and felt the distinct, powerful rumble of earthquake moving across their valley. Looking outside, they watched as a cloud of light-colored dust was thrown up into the air along a path going in the opposite direction, as if a truck was retracing the earthquake's path. Except there was no truck.

It's not that scientists didn't believe González's story — they just couldn't figure out what he saw. Could an earthquake possible boomerang? The answer appears to be yes. A new study of seismic data has found clear evidence of another boomerang earthquake — technically a "back-propagating supershear rupture" — that shot back and forth deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean in 2016.

Boom and back

Reconstruction of Romanche fracture zone

Credit: Hicks et al., published in Nature Geoscience / © Imperial College London

The research was conducted by scientists from the University of Southampton and Imperial College, London in the U.K. First author Stephen Hicks of Imperial College says, "Whilst scientists have found that such a reversing rupture mechanism is possible from theoretical models, our new study provides some of the clearest evidence for this enigmatic mechanism occurring in a real fault."

The 2016 magnitude 7.1 quake occurred along along the Romanche fracture zone — this is a 900 kilometer-long fault line near the Atlantic equator, about 650 miles west of the coast of Liberia.

Speaking to National Geographic, Hicks recalled the discovery of what at first seemed like a pair of pulses that closer examination indicated might actually be two phases of the same quake. IF so, the quake zipped eastward, and then west. "This was a weird sort of configuration to see," he says. Confirmation of the boomerang was provided by Ryo Okuwaki of Japan's University of Tsukuba via the identification of seismic echoes from the distant event.

"Even though the fault structure seems simple, the way the earthquake grew was not, and this was completely opposite to how we expected the earthquake to look before we started to analyse the data," admits Hicks.

When modeled, the data collected by 39 seismometers arrayed along the bottom of the ocean-floor gash depicted a temblor that moved rapidly in one direction before suddenly turning around and going back in the other at a blistering 11,000 miles per hour. This likely caused seismic waves to pile up similarly to what happens with air-pressure waves triggering a sonic boom, significantly magnifying the quake's power.

Land boomerangs

Rosario García González points to where the earthquake doubled back.

Image source: CISESE/USGS

While it's logistically simpler to record and study earthquakes on land thanks to the ready availability of seismometer networks, land-based temblors tend to track complex fault systems, with geological slips occurring in a series like falling dominoes. Sea-bottom quakes appear to be simpler, making it easier to discern their underlying mechanisms and travels.

Only a few boomerang quakes have ever been recorded, and examples of them on land are virtually nonexistent, making accounts such as González's that much more valuable. Clearly, quakes that double back on themselves stand to do considerably more damage than one-way shakers, allowing more outward propagation of destructive seismic waves in the direction of travel, an amount that would be doubled in a boomerang. Seismologist Kasey Aderhold tells National Geographic, "Studies like this help us understand how past earthquakes ruptured, how future earthquakes may rupture, and how that relates to the potential impact for faults near populated areas."

Scientists developing computer models aimed at predicting seismic events haven't thus far been able to create worthily simulations of boomerang quakes, so the details provided the U.K. researchers provide some of the best information yet collected on these geologic oddities.

Viewing abstract art causes notable cognitive changes

Viewing art that doesn't look like anything makes your brain take extra steps to try and get it.

A young woman considers modern art

Africa Studio/Shutterstock
  • A new study finds that viewing modern art causes real cognitive changes in the viewer.
  • Abstract art causes the viewer to place more psychological distance between themselves and the art than with more typical works.
  • Exactly how this works is not yet known.
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Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
Surprising Science
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that scientists don't know.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning probe microscopes to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

"Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Rubidium atom illustration

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pushed about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3 percent of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," remarked Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

The dangers of the chemical imbalance theory of depression

A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.

Image: solarseven / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
  • Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
  • Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
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New guidelines redefine 'obesity' to curb fat shaming

Is focusing solely on body mass index the best way for doctor to frame obesity?

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • New guidelines published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal argue that obesity should be defined as a condition that involves high body mass index along with a corresponding physical or mental health condition.
  • The guidelines note that classifying obesity by body mass index alone may lead to fat shaming or non-optimal treatments.
  • The guidelines offer five steps for reframing the way doctors treat obesity.
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