There is no dark matter. Instead, information has mass, physicist says

Is information the fifth form of matter?

Information in the universe. Is information the fifth form of matter?
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  • Researchers have been trying for over 60 years to detect dark matter.
  • There are many theories about it, but none are supported by evidence.
  • The mass-energy-information equivalence principle combines several theories to offer an alternative to dark matter.


The  “discovery” of dark matter

We can tell how much matter is in the universe by the motions of the stars. In the1920s, physicists attempting to do so discovered a discrepancy and concluded that there must be more matter in the universe than is detectable. How can this be?

In 1933, Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky, while observing the motion of galaxies in the Coma Cluster, began wondering what kept them together. There wasn't enough mass to keep the galaxies from flying apart. Zwicky proposed that some kind of dark matter provided cohesion. But since he had no evidence, his theory was quickly dismissed.

Then, in 1968, astronomer Vera Rubin made a similar discovery. She was studying the Andromeda Galaxy at Kitt Peak Observatory in the mountains of southern Arizona when she came across something that puzzled her. Rubin was examining Andromeda's rotation curve, or the speed at which the stars around the center rotate, and realized that the stars on the outer edges moved at the exact same rate as those at the interior, violating Newton's laws of motion. This meant there was more matter in the galaxy than was detectable. Her punch card readouts are today considered the first evidence of the existence of dark matter.

Many other galaxies were studied throughout the '70s. In each case, the same phenomenon was observed. Today, dark matter is thought to comprise up to 27% of the universe. "Normal" or baryonic matter makes up just 5%. That's the stuff we can detect. Dark energy, which we can't detect either, makes up 68%.

Dark energy is what accounts for the Hubble Constant, or the rate at which the universe is expanding. Dark matter on the other hand, affects how "normal" matter clumps together. It stabilizes galaxy clusters. It also affects the shape of galaxies, their rotation curves, and how stars move within them. Dark matter even affects how galaxies influence one another.

Leading theories on dark matter

NASA writes: 'This graphic represents a slice of the spider-web-like structure of the universe, called the "cosmic web." These great filaments are made largely of dark matter located in the space between galaxies.'

Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Hallman (University of Colorado, Boulder)

Since the '70s, astronomers and physicists have been unable to identify any evidence of dark matter. One theory is it's all tied up in space-bound objects called MACHOs (Massive Compact Halo Objects). These include black holes, supermassive black holes, brown dwarfs, and neutron stars.

Another theory is that dark matter is made up of a type of non-baryonic matter, called WIMPS (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles). Baryonic matter is the kind made up of baryons, such as protons and neutrons and everything composed of them, which is anything with an atomic nucleus. Electrons, neutrinos, muons, and tau particles aren't baryons, however, but a class of particles called leptons. Even though the (hypothetical) WIMPS would have ten to a hundred times the mass of a proton, their interactions with normal matter would be weak, making them hard to detect.

Then there are those aforementioned neutrinos. Did you know that giant streams of them pass from the Sun through the Earth each day, without us ever noticing? They're the focus of another theory that says that neutral neutrinos, that only interact with normal matter through gravity, are what dark matter is comprised of. Other candidates include two theoretical particles, the neutral axion and the uncharged photino.

Now, one theoretical physicist posits an even more radical notion. What if dark matter didn't exist at all? Dr. Melvin Vopson of the University of Portsmouth, in the UK, has a hypothesis he calls the mass-energy-information equivalence. It states that information is the fundamental building block of the universe, and it has mass. This accounts for the missing mass within galaxies, thus eliminating the hypothesis of dark matter entirely.

Information theory 

To be clear, the idea that information is an essential building block of the universe isn't new. Classical Information Theory was first posited by Claude Elwood Shannon, the "father of the digital age" in the mid-20th century. The mathematician and engineer, well-known in scientific circles—but not so much outside of them, had a stroke of genius back in 1940. He realized that Boolean algebra coincided perfectly with telephone switching circuits. Soon, he proved that mathematics could be employed to design electrical systems.

Shannon was hired at Bell Labs to figure out how to transfer information over a system of wires. He wrote the bible on using mathematics to set up communication systems, thereby laying the foundation for the digital age. Shannon was also the first to define one unit of information as a bit.

There was perhaps no greater proponent of information theory than another unsung paragon of science, John Archibald Wheeler. Wheeler was part of the Manhattan Project, worked out the "S-Matrix" with Niels Bohr and helped Einstein develop a unified theory of physics. In his later years, he proclaimed, "Everything is information." Then he went about exploring connections between quantum mechanics and information theory.

He also coined the phrase "it from bit" or that every particle in the universe emanates from the information locked inside it. At the Santa Fe Institute in 1989, Wheeler announced that everything, from particles to forces to the fabric of spacetime itself "… derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely … from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits."

Part Einstein, part Landauer 

Vopson takes this notion one step further. He says that not only is information the essential unit of the universe but also that it is energy and has mass. To support this claim, he unifies and coordinates special relativity with the Landauer Principle. The latter is named after Rolf Landauer. In 1961, he predicted that erasing even one bit of information would release a tiny amount of heat, a figure which he calculated. Landauer said this proves information is more than just a mathematical quantity. This connects information to energy. Through experimental testing over the years, the Landauer Principle has held up.

Vopson says, "He [Landauer] first identified the link between thermodynamics and information by postulating that logical irreversibility of a computational process implies physical irreversibility." This indicates that information is physical, Vopson says, and demonstrates the link between information theory and thermodynamics.

In Vopson's theory, information, once created has "finite and quantifiable mass." It so far applies only to digital systems, but could very well apply to analogue and biological ones too, and even quantum or relativistic-moving systems. "Relativity and quantum mechanics are possible future directions of the mass-energy-information equivalence principle," he says.

In the paper published in the journal AIP Advances, Vopson outlines the mathematical basis for his hypothesis. "I am the first to propose the mechanism and the physics by which information acquires mass," he said, "as well as to formulate this powerful principle and to propose a possible experiment to test it."

The fifth state of matter

To measure the mass of digital information, you start with an empty data storage device. Next, you measure its total mass with a highly sensitive measuring apparatus. Then, you fill it and determine its mass. Next, you erase one file and evaluate it again. The trouble is, the "ultra-accurate mass measurement" device the paper describes doesn't exist yet. This would be an interferometer, something similar to LIGO. Or perhaps an ultrasensitive weighing machine akin to a Kibble balance.

"Currently, I am in the process of applying for a small grant, with the main objective of designing such an experiment, followed by calculations to check if detection of these small mass changes is even possible," Vopson says. "Assuming the grant is successful and the estimates are positive, then a larger international consortium could be formed to undertake the construction of the instrument." He added, "This is not a workbench laboratory experiment, and it would most likely be a large and costly facility." If eventually proved correct, Vopson will have discovered the fifth form of matter.

So, what's the connection to dark matter? Vopson says, "M.P. Gough published an article in 2008 in which he worked out … the number of bits of information that the visible universe would contain to make up all the missing dark matter. It appears that my estimates of information bit content of the universe are very close to his estimates."

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

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U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
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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
Coronavirus

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."
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