Physicists puzzled by strange numbers that could explain reality
Eight-dimensional octonions may hold the clues to solve fundamental mysteries.
- Physicists discover complex numbers called octonions that work in 8 dimensions.
- The numbers have been found linked to fundamental forces of reality.
- Understanding octonions can lead to a new model of physics.
Is our reality, including its forces and particles, based on the strange properties of numbers with eight dimensions called "octonions"? A physicist thinks so, having found a way to expand 40-year-old research to reach surprising new directions.
First, a brief history of numbers.
Regular numbers that we are familiar with in our everyday life can be paired up in a special way to create "complex numbers," which act like coordinates on a two-dimensional plane. This was discovered in 16h-century Italy by the mathematician Gerolamo Cardano. As explains Natalie Wolchover of Quanta Magazine, you can perform operations on complex numbers like adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing by "translating and rotating positions around the plane."
An Irish mathematician by the name of William Rowan Hamilton discovered in 1843 that if you pair the complex numbers in a certain way, they can form 4-D "quaternions." He was apparently so excited about figuring out that formula, that he immediately carved it into the Broome Bridge in Dublin. Not to be outdone, John Graves, a friend of Hamilton's who was a lawyer and math whiz, showed that quarternions can be paired up to become "octonions" – numbers that can assume coordinates in an abstract 8-dimensional (8-D) space.
Each type of numbers has been utilized extensively in the development of modern physics, with complex numbers used in quantum mechanics and even the quaternions employed in Albert's Einstein's special theory of relativity.
What hasn't been completely understood and put to work – the octonions, usually represented by the capital letter O and whose multiplication rules are encoded in a triangular diagram called the Fano plane (that looks like something the Freemasons would devise).
A mnemonic for the products of the unit octonions using the Fano plane.
The mystery of these numbers has led to speculation among researchers that they have a special purpose and can eventually explain the deeper secrets of the universe. In an email interview with Quanta Magazine, the particle physicist Pierre Ramond from the University of Florida explained that "Octonions are to physics what the Sirens were to Ulysses."
In 1973, Murat Günaydin, the then-Yale-graduate student (now professor at Penn State) and his advisor Feza Gürsey, discovered that there is an unexpected link between octonions and the strong force that keeps quarks together in an atomic nucleus. Günaydin continued his research quite outside the mainstream, looking at connecting the numbers to such ideas as string theory and M-theory.
In 2014, Cohl Furey, a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, Canada, built on Günaydin's work by finding a new use for the hard-to-imagine numbers. She devised an octonionic model that includes both the strong and electromagnetic forces. Now a postdoc in UK's University of Cambridge, Furey generated a series of results that link the octonions to the Standard Model of particle physics, in work that has been praised by other scientists. She has "taken significant steps toward solving some really deep physical puzzles," said Shadi Tahvildar-Zadeh, a mathematical physicist at Rutgers University.
Others, like the noted string theorist and Imperial College London professor Michael Duff, are more reserved, excited about her work but saying it's "hard to say" yet if it will become "revolutionary."
Furey is undeterred by working in a currently obscure field, thinking of her research as a "process of collecting clues," as she explained in an interview.
She published a paper in May 2018's The European Physical Journal C, where she consolidated several of her findings, looking to complete the standard model of particle physics and find the rightful place in our understanding of the world for the octonions.
To learn more, watch Furey explain the octonions here:
For those inclined to delve deeper into the math, check out this fascinating graphic:
Lucy Reading-Ikkanda/Quanta Magazine
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The federal government and private insurers greatly increased Americans' telehealth access during the pandemic. Will these changes be permanent?
- When telehealth visits began skyrocketing at the start of the pandemic, hospitals had to increase their number of virtual appointments by magnitudes. Most did it seamlessly.
- Big Think spoke to Dr. Martin Doerfler, director of the Office of Clinical Transformation at Northwell Health, about this transition and how it benefited patients.
- Telehealth has proven its value during the pandemic, but it might stop evolving unless the federal government redesigns the regulatory framework—particularly in terms of reimbursements.
What are the obstacles facing telehealth?<p>One of the biggest obstacles to widespread adoption of telehealth has been a lack of national legislation providing financial incentive for health centers to adopt it.</p><p>"Telehealth has been limited from really having anywhere close to its potential based upon the regulatory framework that it lives in," Doerfler said.</p><p>States laws vary on how practitioners are paid for telehealth visits. In some states, laws require insurance providers to cover telehealth visits at parity—the same rate as in-person visits. But in states without parity laws, there's little incentive for health care organizations to invest in telehealth infrastructure and training.</p><p>Access is also a major obstacle. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) generally reimburse practitioners for telehealth visits only when patients live in "designated rural underserved areas."</p><p>But not all underserved areas are in small, remote places. After all, a single parent living in Queens, New York, might also have trouble accessing quality healthcare.</p><p>"Three hours to drive 200 miles is no different than three hours to take two trains, two buses and a cab," Doerfler said. "So access is almost certainly going to be improved by the greater availability of telehealth in that direct-to-patient, in-their-home-or-office, setting."</p><p>Lack of internet access is also a problem. A <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2768771?appId=scweb" target="_blank">paper</a> published by the JAMA Network in August found that 41 percent of Medicare beneficiaries don't have a computer at home with access to high-speed internet, and roughly the same number don't have a smartphone with an unlimited data plan.</p>
What is the future of telehealth?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU1NTU1Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjA1MjkxMH0.1UuR6tky1k58rOeE9Vcgt8bUfhA2vut6yaCAXik1MEY/img.jpg?width=980" id="9f55b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4549f30a0347a85c7145690870cf742c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Caucasian female doctor delivering telemedicine consultation to a patient" />
Credit: Daniilvolkov via AdobeStock<p>Lawmakers in both parties and health care professionals have indicated a desire to make permanent some of the regulatory changes to telehealth enacted during the pandemic. That's key, because without the financial incentives to continue expanding telehealth, health care providers may revert to the pre-pandemic approach.</p><p>"One issue, which people who are not in health care might not understand, is that telehealth will continue to expand dramatically as long as there's funding and reimbursement for it," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "If the insurance companies and government decide, 'We don't want to pay for telehealth going forward or virtual visits,' then it's going to slow down. If there is no delivery system, no health care system or doctor is going to continue to expand telehealth if they don't get paid for it."</p><p>Yet some of the nation's biggest insurers have already <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/09/29/united-healthcare-anthem-telemedicine-coverage-insurers/" target="_blank">stopped waiving</a> telehealth deductibles and copays for some customers, even though there's no clear end in sight for the pandemic.</p><p>The long-term solution, Doerfler said, is for CMS to start paying for telehealth services, at parity, up and down the chain. He added that, while telehealth can't replace all traditional health care services, it should be "<a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/how-to-have-an-effective-telehealth-visit" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in the toolbox</a>" for patients and physicians.</p><p>"In the modern world, where this type of technology is being used for all sorts of personal and business uses, excluding something as personal as your care between you and your doctor from fitting into that modern paradigm makes no sense," Doerfler said.</p>
The theory could resolve some unanswered questions.
- Most stars begin in binary systems, why not ours?
- Puzzles posed by the Oort cloud and the possibility of Planet 9 may be solved by a new theory of our sun's lost companion.
- The sun and its partner would have become separated long, long ago.
If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.
The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The Oort cloud
Image source: NASA
Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.
Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)
No object in the Oort cloud has been directly observed, though Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons, and Pioneer 10 and 11 are all en route. (The cloud is so far away that all five of the craft will be dead by the time they get there.) To derive a clearer view of the Oort cloud absent actually imagery, scientists utilize computer models based on planetary orbits, solar-system formation simulations, and comet trajectories.
It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."
"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."
Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."
Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA
The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.
"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."
The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."
Missing in action
Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."
So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."
Younger Americans support expanding the Supreme Court and serious political reforms, says new poll.
- Americans under 40 largely favor major political reforms, finds a new survey.
- The poll revealed that most would want to expand the Supreme Court, impose terms limits, and make it easier to vote.
- Millennials are more liberal and reform-centered than Generation Z.
Another amazing tardigrade survival skill is discovered.
- Apparently, some water bears can even beat extreme UV light.
- It may be an adaptation to the summer heat in India.
- Special under-skin pigments neutralize harmful rays.
Stressor testing<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU1MzIzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjc2MDc4Mn0.5R6DAfzsq29zvETCEH1sR9rprcnJv_L0KyUW2qedslE/img.jpg?width=980" id="c6b71" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e7afe644fc94631ed9ea6837ed3920d3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="water bear illustration" />
3D illustration of a tardigrade
Credit: Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock<p>It seems at times like scientists enjoy playing the "let's see if <em>this</em> kills them" game with tardigrades, a game that humans usually lose. After searching the campus of the Indian Institute of Science, researchers gathered some water bears and brought them back to the lab to see what they could handle.</p><p>The scientists found that after they exposed <a href="http://cshprotocols.cshlp.org/content/2018/11/pdb.emo102301.full" target="_blank"><em>Hypsibius exemplaris</em></a> tardigrades to very high doses — 1 kilojoule (kJ) per square meter — of UV light for about 15 minutes, they would in fact die over the next 24 hours. However, when they aimed the same blasts at the reddish-brown tardigrades…nothing. The humans even quadrupled the UV intensity and, nope, they tracked the water bears for 30 days, and a majority of them, 60 percent, were still fine.</p><p>As is often the case with tardigrades, the question is how?</p>
Turning deadly light blue<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU1MzIwMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMTM1NTE2N30.n8FiCLgp5aTqmYby2bjpeu9QJRTV7KzaB9tmTHBzWtk/img.jpg?width=980" id="5d4cc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7aa8735a958123bcfb269920eb4d2aed" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Tardigrade's normal appearance (left), and under inverted fluorescence (right)
Credit: Suma et al., Biology Letters (2020)<p>When the researchers examined the tardigrades under an inverted fluorescence microscope they found that when they were exposed to UV light, they became blue. The researchers' hypothesis is that these tardigrades carry fluorescent pigments beneath their skin that they deploy as necessary to transform UV light into simple benign, blue light. It may be that this ability has emerged as an evolutionary response to southern tropical India's often-extreme heat. The study says that typical summer-day UV levels in this region are about 4kJ per square meter.</p><p>Of the 40 percent of the reddish-brown tardigrades that had died before 30 days — mostly after about 20 days — the scientists concluded they had less pigment with which to neutralize UV light.</p><p>When the scientists extracted the pigment from the UV champions and coated some <em>Hypsibius exemplaris</em> tardigrades with the stuff, their resistance to UV exposure was also enhanced, boosting their survival rate to almost twice that of their uncoated brethren.</p><p>Autofluorescence has been found in other animals — parrots, scorpions, chameleons, and frogs, among others — so it's not completely unheard of. In parrots, for example, autofluorescence is hypothesized to be involved in tweaking coloration during mating rituals. Still, surprise, tardigrades seem to be putting it to unusual use by employing it for UV protection. </p>
Rare structures and artifacts of the Viking religion practiced centuries prior to Christianity's introduction have been uncovered by archaeologists in Norway, including a "god house."