Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
How kugelblitz black holes could power future spacecraft
In theory, we could use high-energy lasers to make our own artificial black holes, potentially capturing the enormous energy they emit.
- We think of black holes as traditionally being formed when matter is packed so densely that the gravity they exert prevents even light from escaping their event horizon.
- However, Einstein showed that energy and matter are equivalent; rather than taking the enormous amount of matter required to make a sufficiently sized black hole, we could make one using light, known as a kugelblitz.
- If we had the technology to capture it, the energy from a kugelblitz would be extraordinarily useful.
Here's the recipe to make a black hole: start with a sizeable amount of hydrogen, enough to make a star about 25 times the mass of the sun. That hydrogen will begin burning into helium. Let the star cook for a few million years, and it'll start to run out of hydrogen to burn. Then it will begin burning helium into carbon or oxygen, these elements will fuse to make others in a chain of different fusion reactions, and eventually it will start producing iron. Iron can't produce energy via fusion, so the star will run out of the fuel that made it a star. Its mass will collapse inward and bounce off the iron core, producing a supernova. If you started with a big enough star, then much of its mass will be concentrated in a space so dense that light cannot escape, resulting in a perfectly cooked black hole.
While it's the classic recipe, there are actually several ways to make black holes, but none are quite so interesting as the kugelblitz.
A black hole made from light
The clouds of elements, or nebula, left behind after a supernova. When a star explodes in a supernova, often, a black hole is left behind.
As far as we know, most black holes are made from a tremendous amount of matter being concentrated in a very tightly packed space. In theory, though, this doesn't have to be the case. Einstein's formula E = mc2 tells us that energy is equivalent to matter times the speed of light squared. In regard to making black holes, this has three important implications for us: mass and energy are equivalent, mass has a tremendous amount of energy locked away inside of itself, and gravity treats mass and energy the same.
Here's where the kugelblitz comes in. German for "ball lightning," a kugelblitz is a black hole made from light rather than matter. By light, we mean any kind of radiation, really. Although light has no mass, it does have energy. Since gravity treats mass and energy the same, in theory, we can focus enough radiation into a tiny space and produce an event horizon, an area in space so densely packed (with either matter or energy) that nothing can escape.
If we developed a laser that shot gamma rays (the most energetic form of electromagnetic radiation) that was magnitudes more powerful than any laser ever built and focused it on a very precise point in space, we could make ourselves a kugelblitz. A single pulse of this laser would need to put out an amount of energy equivalent to the sun in about 1/10 of a second, but we could theoretically construct such a device in the distant future.
Why would we want to do this?
An artist's depiction of a black hole.
We wouldn't want to make a black hole large enough to sustain itself indefinitely. All black holes emit Hawking radiation, but we think that smaller ones emit more radiation than larger ones. At a certain point, a small black hole emits so much radiation that it can't sustain its size, even by gobbling up nearby matter and energy. Eventually, a small black hole radiates itself into nonexistence.
Jeffrey Lee of Baylor University has written several papers on kugelblitz black holes, one of which focuses on its potential practical uses. In an 2015 article for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society called "Acceleration of a Schwarschild Kugelblitz Spaceship," Lee lays out the theoretical underpinnings of using a kugelblitz to, well, accelerate a spaceship.
If we had the capability to surround a kugelblitz with a Dyson sphere — hypothetical structures typically conceived of as surrounding and collecting the energy from stars — then we could capture the immense amount of energy it produces in the form of Hawking radiation. Since we would want to strike a balance between the kugelblitz's energy output and its lifespan (remember, the larger the black hole, the less Hawking radiation it produces, the longer it lives, and vice versa), Lee suggests producing an attometer-sized kugelblitz. That's a black hole one quintillionth the size of a meter.
Such a black hole would "live" for about 5 years and produce 129 petawatts of power, or 129 billion million watts. Attached to a perfectly efficient engine of a spacecraft, we could accelerate to 72% the speed of light before the kugelblitz dies, making interstellar travel a much more feasible proposition.
The hottest thing since the Big Bang
Could kugelblitzes be the spaceship engines of the future? Maybe. They also have the unfortunate property of being so hot that our current understanding of physics can't predict how they'll behave. Specifically, they would exceed the Planck temperature, which is 1.416808(33)×1032 kelvin, or (get ready for some zeroes) 142,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 K.
Here's the problem: That temperature is so hot that the math we use to predict the laws of physics breaks down. It's not that physics itself ceases to exist, but that our understanding is too limited to accurately say what will happen. As we progress in our technological capabilities and theoretical understanding, though, it may be that the use of kugelblitzes in spacecraft becomes our preferred method for interstellar travel.
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
New research from the University of Granada found that stress could help determine sex.
Stress in the modern world is generally viewed as a hindrance to a healthy life.
Indeed, excess stress is associated with numerous problems, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, obesity, and other conditions. While the physiological mechanisms associated with stress can be beneficial, as Kelly McGonigal points out in The Upside of Stress, the modern wellness industry is built on the foundation of stress relief.
The effects of stress on pregnant mothers is another longstanding area of research. For example, what potential negative effects do elevated levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine have on fetal development?
A new study, published in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, investigated a very specific aspect of stress on fetuses: does it affect sex? Their findings reveal that women with elevated stress are twice as likely to give birth to a girl.
For this research, the University of Granada scientists recorded the stress levels of 108 women before, during, and after conception. By testing cortisol concentration in their hair and subjecting the women to a variety of psychological tests, the researchers discovered that stress indeed influences sex. Specifically, stress made women twice as likely to deliver a baby girl.
The team points out that their research is consistent with other research that used saliva to show that stress resulted in a decreased likelihood of delivering a boy.
Maria Isabel Peralta RamírezPhoto courtesy of University of Granada
Lead author María Isabel Peralta Ramírez, a researcher at the UGR's Department of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment, says that prior research focused on stress levels leading up to and after birth. She was interested in stress's impact leading up to conception. She says:
"Specifically, our research group has shown in numerous publications how psychological stress in the mother generates a greater number of psychopathological symptoms during pregnancy: postpartum depression, a greater likelihood of assisted delivery, an increase in the time taken for lactation to commence (lactogenesis), or inferior neurodevelopment of the baby six months after birth."
While no conclusive evidence has been rendered, the research team believes that activation of the mother's endogenous stress system during conception sets the concentration of sex hormones that will be carried throughout development. As the team writes, "there is evidence that testosterone functions as a mechanism when determining the baby's sex, since the greater the prenatal stress levels, the higher the levels of female testosterone." Levels of paternal stress were not factored into this research.
Previous studies show that sperm carrying an X chromosome are better equipped to reach the egg under adverse conditions than sperm carrying the Y chromosome. Y fetuses also mature slowly and are more likely to produce complications than X fetuses. Peralta also noted that there might be more aborted male fetuses during times of early maternal stress, which would favor more girls being born under such circumstances.
In the future, Peralta and her team say an investigation into aborted fetuses should be undertaken. Right now, the research was limited to a small sample size that did not factor in a number of elements. Still, the team concludes, "the research presented here is pioneering to the extent that it links prenatal stress to the sex of newborns."
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."
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
What is the price of peace?
Or put another way, how much better off would we all be in a world where armed conflict was avoided?
To give some context, 689 million people - more than 9% of the world's population - live on less than $1.90 a day, according to World Bank figures, underscoring the potential impact peace-building activities could have.
Just over 10% of global GDP is being spent on containing, preventing and dealing with the consequences of violence. As well as the 1.4 million violent deaths each year, conflict holds back economic development, causes instability, widens inequality and erodes human capital.
Putting a price tag on peace and violence helps us see the disproportionately high amounts spent on creating and containing violent acts compared to what is spent on building resilient, productive, and peaceful societies.
—Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman, Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP)
The cost of violence
In a report titled "The Economic Value of Peace 2021", the IEP says that for every death from violent conflict, 40 times as many people are injured. The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
Grounds for hope
But the picture is not all bleak. The economic impact of violence fell for the second year in a row in 2019, as parts of the world became more peaceful.
The global cost dropped by $64 billion between 2018 and 2019, even though it was still $1.2 trillion higher than in 2012.
In five regions of the world the costs increased in 2019. The biggest jump was in Central America and the Caribbean, where a rising homicide rate pushed the cost up 8.3%.
Syria, with its ongoing civil war, suffered the greatest economic impact with almost 60% of its GDP lost to conflict in 2019. That was followed by Afghanistan (50%) and South Sudan (46%).
The report makes a direct link between peace and prosperity. It says that, since 2000, countries that have become more peaceful have averaged higher GDP growth than those which have become more violent.
"This differential is significant and represents a GDP per capita that is 30% larger when compounded over a 20-year period," the report says adding that peaceful countries also have substantially lower inflation and unemployment.
"Small improvements in peace can have substantial economic benefits," it adds. "For example, a 2% reduction in the global impact of violence is roughly equivalent to all overseas development aid in 2019."
Equally, the total value of foreign direct investment globally only offsets 10% of the economic impact of violence. Authoritarian regimes lost on average 11% of GDP to the costs of violence while in democracies the cost was just 4% of GDP.
And the gap has widened over time, with democracies reducing the cost of violence by almost 16% since 2007 while in authoritarian countries it has risen by 27% over the same period.
The report uses 18 economic indicators to evaluate the cost of violence. The top three are military spending (which was $5.9 trillion globally in 2019), the cost of internal security which makes up over a third of the total at $4.9 trillion and homicide.
Peace brings prosperity
The formula also contains a multiplier effect because as peace increases, money spent containing violence can instead be used on more productive activities which drive growth and generate higher monetary and social returns.
"Substantial economic improvements are linked to improvements in peace," says the report. "Therefore, government policies should be directed to improving peacefulness, especially in a COVID-19 environment where economic activity has been subdued."
The IEP says what it terms "positive peace" is even more beneficial than "negative peace" which is simply the absence of violence or the fear of violence. Positive peace involves fostering the attitudes, institutions & structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.
The foundations of a positively peaceful society, it says, are: a well functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbours, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption and equitable distribution of resources.
The World Economic Forum's report Mobilizing the Private Sector in Peace and Reconciliation urged companies large and small to recognise their potential to work for peace quoting the former Goldman Sachs chair, the late Peter Sutherland, who said: "Business thrives where society thrives."
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.