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Physicist advances a radical theory of gravity

Erik Verlinde has been compared to Einstein for completely rethinking the nature of gravity.

Erik Verlinde

Photo by Willeke Duijvekam
  • The Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde's hypothesis describes gravity as an "emergent" force not fundamental.
  • The scientist thinks his ideas describe the universe better than existing models, without resorting to "dark matter".
  • While some question his previous papers, Verlinde is reworking his ideas as a full-fledged theory.


The Dutch theoretical physicist Erik Verlinde is no stranger to big ideas. His 2009 hypothesis about gravity earned him comparisons to Einstein for its complete rethinking of what gravity could be. Verlinde proposed that gravity was not a fundamental force of nature but rather emerged out of the interactions of information that fills the universe. He also didn't think there was such a thing as "dark matter" – a useful construct which is supposedly taking up 27% of the known universe (but is yet to be observed). Now, in a new interview, Verlinde reveals he is taking steps towards conceptualizing his groundbreaking ideas in a full-fledged theory.

As reported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), Verlinde understands why many had trouble accepting his original proposal. After all, the previous leading explanations of gravity have been by Newton, who saw it as an invisible pulling force, and Einstein, who conceived of it as a curvature of space-time by mass and energy.

In Verlinde's view, based on string theory, quantum information theory and the physics of black holes, gravity is an "entropic" force that comes into existence as a result of "information associated with the positions of material bodies," as he wrote in his 2011 paper. What drives gravity is the quantum entanglement of tiny bits of spacetime information.

Ten years after publishing his ideas in a paper that caused much discussion, both from admirers and critics, Verlinde shares that he is still fleshing them out, based on the research and advancements that have taken place since then.

"Over the past ten years, we have gradually learned a lot more about how you should talk about space and time information," said Verlinde to NWO. "I am seriously considering rewriting my story from 2009, but now formulated much more precisely. I think that could remove some of the scepticism that still exists.'­­

Verlinde: Gravity Doesn't Exist

In 2016, Verlinde's ideas were tested by a team from Leiden Observatory, which found that a key prediction of the physicist held up. They studied the lensing effect of gravitational fields that are far away from the centers of more than 33,000 galaxies and found the numbers to be consistent with what the Dutch scientist's theory showed. The only way to get these calculations to match under the prevalent gravitational theory would have been to invoke dark matter – a potential fudge factor more than fact at this point.

A 2017 study from Princeton University found against Verlinde's ideas, however, showing that they are not consistent with the observed data on the rotation velocities of dwarf galaxies.

While some have accused of Verlinde of publishing his thoughts too early, before they are packaged in a theory that explains all of the implications, the scientist thinks such naysayers don't really understand the way theoretical physics works. "You need to elaborate and test a new idea step-by-step," he explains, adding "We must find the correct formulations and techniques.'

Scientists like the theoretician Koenraad Schalm from Leiden University defend Verlinde, saying that "Contrary to the sceptics' opinions, Verlinde's work is definitely taken seriously". In fact, Verlinde, who is the winner of the Spinoza Prize, has been cited over 700 times by other scientists.

The physicist himself feels his overall thesis that information is the fundamental building mechanism of the universe is becoming more accepted. Perhaps his long-awaited new paper on the subject can bring it to an even stronger position amidst the main physics ideas of our time.

Dark matter and dark energy explained | Erik Verlinde

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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