How Enlightenment Changes the Brain — And How You Can Become Enlightened
Enlightenment is a traditionally mystical and slippery concept, but when it is subjected to the rigors of empirical analysis, there is a lot to be learned about our brains and ourselves.
Dr. Andrew Newberg is the director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine and a physician at Jefferson University Hospital. He is board certified in internal medicine and nuclear medicine. Andrew has been asking questions about reality, truth, and God since he was very young, and he has long been fascinated by the human mind and its complex workings. While a medical student, he met Dr. Eugene d’Aquili, who was studying religious experiences. Combining their interests with Andrew’s background in neuroscience and brain imaging, they were able to break new theoretical and empirical ground on the relationship between the brain and religion.
Andrew’s research now largely focuses on how brain function is associated with various mental states—in particular, religious and mystical experiences. His research has included brain scans of people in prayer, meditation, rituals, and trance states, as well as surveys of people's spiritual experiences and attitudes. He has also evaluated the relationship between religious or spiritual phenomena and health, and the effect of meditation on memory. He believes that it is important to keep science rigorous and religion religious. Andrew has also used neuroimaging research projects to study aging and dementia, Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, depression, and other neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Dr. Newberg has published over 100 research articles, essays and book chapters, and is the co-author of the best selling books, Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (Ballantine, 2001) and How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (Ballantine, 2009). He has presented his research throughout the world in both scientific and public forums. He appeared on Nightline, 20/20, Good Morning America, ABC's World News Tonight, National Public Radio, London Talk Radio and over fifteen nationally syndicated radio programs. His work has been featured in Time, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other newspapers and magazines.
His newest work is How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation.
When we start to think about enlightenment we try to divide it into two basic ideas about enlightenment. And one is what I usually refer to as the small E enlightenment experiences and these are the kind of experiences that people have a number of times through their life. It may be kind of the sudden epiphany about how to resolve some problem at work or solve an issue with a relationship. Some issue you’ve been working on for a long time and you suddenly figure it out and you kind of understand things in a different way for the first time. But that’s the little E experience. And the big E experiences are usually those experiences that are kind of are life changing. They’re mind blowing. They change everything about the way you think, about the world, about life, about death, about spirituality. Whatever it is it changes everything about who you are.
For example one of the experiences that people often have is a very profound sense of an intensity of the experience. The experience is the most powerful experience they have ever had. And if there’s specific elements within it, if it’s something that they’ve seen, if it’s some vision of light or something like that - it’s the most beautiful light that they’ve ever seen. It’s the most beautiful music they’ve ever seen. It’s the most intense feeling of love that they’ve ever seen. So whatever it is it’s this very, very powerfully intense experience.
We can look at the areas of the brain that help us to determine which things in our lives are particularly important, are particularly intense to us. This usually occurs within an area of our brain called the limbic system, which is the emotional areas of our brain - particularly areas such as the amygdala and the hippocampus - which light up. They go crazy when something really important happens in our life.
The limbic system also helps to write things into our memory. So when something happens in our life and thousands of things happen to us every day we don’t remember most of them because they don’t trigger that kind of a response. But if we get into a fight with somebody we’ll remember that for a while because it was very emotional to us. So when people have these intense enlightenment kinds of experiences not only do they feel incredibly real at the moment but they are remembered almost for the entire lifetime of the person that they keep coming back to that experience and they always remember this experience as being that life changing moment that from that point forward everything was different.
Another core element of these experiences for example is a feeling of unity, connectedness, oneness. So the people will often say, “I felt connected with everything in the universe. I felt one with God.”
There’s an area of our brain, a parietal lobe which is in the back of our brain and this normally takes all of our sensory information and helps us to reconstruct a sense of ourself and how that self relates to the world in some kind of spatial way. Well we found that this area of the brain in particular starts to quiet down when people have these profound experiences of oneness or unity. Now this makes a lot of sense. If it’s trying to create your sense of self and your sense of space if it starts to shut down well you lose your sense of self. You lose your sense of space.
And I suppose ultimately one of the most important aspects of the enlightenment experience is its permanence is that it rearranges the way our brain works for the rest of our lives. So when people have that experience and they suddenly now realize what their beliefs are in spirituality or their beliefs are about life or death or whatever there’s some incredible change that occurs perhaps in many different areas of our brain that really rearranges the way the person thinks, the way they feel, the way they behave in life.
And one of the real key areas, one last area I’ll mention at the moment is one of the key areas that seems to be involved in that is a very central structure called the thalamus. And this is located deep inside the brain. Some people think that the thalamus is actually the seat of consciousness and it actually takes a lot of our sensory information and sends it to the different parts of our brain and it helps different areas of our brain communicate with each other. Well this is an area that seems to be dramatically changed by these kinds of practices and experiences. So if you think about it if the thalamus is changed it’s really changing a person’s overall perceptions of reality, the way they think about reality, the way they sense reality and ultimately the way their brain interacts with that reality.
These are not experiences that are happening only to the Mother Teresa’s of the world and the Buddha’s of the world. These are experiences that are happening to everyone. These are just regular people. These are people who go to church. They’re people who are religious, people who are not religious, people who are agnostic, people who had a drug- induced experience, people who were meditating. And my favorite some of them were just people basically walking down the street or driving their car down the street and the experience just hit them.
As a neuroscientist if you look at everybody’s brain we all have a lot of the same basic structures in the same basic ways. We have our frontal lobes and our temporal lobes and our limbic system. And even when you look at brain scans usually we’re not more than five or ten percent different from each other. So we all have kind of the same basic circuitry, which makes me think that the ability to have these kinds of experiences is within all of us. It’s just a matter of how one activates it and whether one activates it through a very traditional religious path or some other more unusual path.
When you start to think about how to induce these kinds of experiences one of the things that to me is very interesting is that we tend to look at kind of the more modern technologies and there’s a device called transcranial magnetic stimulation which sends magnetic waves into different parts of the brain. There’s been some work by other investigators who have tried to see if different electromagnetic waves into areas like the temporal lobe along the side of the brain help to induce these kinds of experiences. But for thousands of years people have found ways of inducing these experiences. And you go back, you know, into the shamanic traditions and people using mushrooms and peyote and ayahuasca and all these other kind of pharmacological, if you will, substances. And people have induced various physiological changes in their body by not eating for a period of time, not sleeping for a period of time, going into some kind of cave or doing some sort of sleep deprivation process, or sensory deprivation process.
And it’s interesting because in our kind of Western modern way of thinking about things we do tend to think about this as, you know, you push a button or that this is some sort of artificial stimulation of these experiences. For example a shaman who takes some mushrooms to get into a spiritual state, that shaman doesn’t look at that whole process as being artificial. That shaman basically looks at it as, “This is what I need to do to get my brain to another level so that I can interact with the spiritual world.”
And part of the way I always think about it as a guy who wears glasses and doesn’t see very well. When I wake up in the morning the world’s a very blurry place. I put my glasses on and the world becomes clear. So what if it is that transcranial magnetic stimulation or drugs or, you know, meditation. What are these are like basically putting on glasses for your brain to see the world in a clearer way, in a different way but that really was always there in the first place? So there’s some very interesting and important epistemological questions about the realness of these experiences irrespective of how they actually wind up getting started and how they become induced in that particular individual.
But it also raises another kind of larger picture question and I challenge my own students a lot about this which is where do all of our experiences come from when you think about it from the perspective of the human brain? And what I mean by that is is that if you look at what’s really going on and what’s going on whether or not I’ve got a drug in my brain or not.
For a neuron to fire at all sodium and potassium ions are crossing back and forth across the membrane and it depolarizes the neuron and it fires. So there’s these ions that are moving across a membrane. They cause electrical activity which can be measured. That causes the neuron to turn on its metabolic interface so we can see increases in metabolic activity and how it’s using energy. And then there’s the release of all different kinds of neurotransmitters and serotonin and dopamine that move across this little synaptic cleft and activate another neuron.
So where in all of this does the thought occur? You know where is our thought? Where is our experience of the world? When we say we see something, we feel something, we think something where in all of that is that really happening? And so if I give a person a drug or if a person meditates or whatever it is they’re doing, you know, how do I ultimately link that back to what’s going on in the brain itself and how reductionistic can we ultimately be? Or is it possible that our brain is merely just kind of receiving all of this information and certainly, you know, if you go through a kind of Buddhist or Hindu perspective on a lot of this, consciousness is all around us and our brain is more like a radio receiver that taps into this universal consciousness for a period of time while we’re here on earth and then goes back to that universal consciousness when we go away.
So we don’t know and the bottom line is is that neuroscience is going to have a lot of difficulty ultimately being able to isolate exactly where these experiences are and how drugs or whatever it is that a person is using or doing to induce some kind of experience how that really is having an effect and where those experiences truly come from.
Enlightenment is a traditionally mystical and slippery concept, but when it is subjected to the rigors of empirical analysis, there is a lot to be learned about our brains and ourselves. Dr. Andrew Newberg, who has put enlightenment through a battery of scientific tests, says there are actually two kinds of enlightenment: lowercase-e enlightenment, which changes our opinions about the world, and Enlightenment, which changes our essence, i.e. how we think of life, death, God, etc.
Capital-e Enlightenment is notable because of how people report the experience anecdotally and how it changes the brain. Whatever sensation accompanies the experience of Enlightenment — whether light, or music, or color — it tends to be the most intense experience a person has had with that element. And this intensity is reflected in the brain's limbic system, which processes emotion, and its parietal lobe, which organizes our sensory information to create sensations of time, space, and self.
When people experience Enlightenment, they frequently report losing their sense of self, and scientific analysis confirms that brain activity is a driving cause of this sensation. And while Enlightenment is typically associated with religious individuals like Mother Teresa or the Buddha, people from all walks of life experience essence-changing events — sometimes just walking down the street, says Newberg.
What's more, these experiences can be purposefully induced through the use of pharmacological substances like LSD or hallucinogenic mushrooms. And while these experiences may seem aberrant from so-called real life, Dr. Newberg argues that we come hard-wired ready to have them. Perhaps Enlightenment experiences are like a pair of glasses, he says: we are born into the world with bad vision until we experience corrective lenses. Whether these lenses are applied to our eyes or to our brains may matter little in an epistemological sense.
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Virtual reality continues to blur the line between the physical and the digital, and it will change our lives forever.
- Extended reality technologies — which include virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality — have long captivated the public imagination, but have yet to become mainstream.
- Extended reality technologies are quickly becoming better and cheaper, suggesting they may soon become part of daily life.
- Over the long term, these technologies may usher in the "mirror world" — a digital layer "map" that lies atop the physical world and enables us to interact with internet-based technologies more seamlessly than ever.
What will the Disneyland of the future look like? | Hard Reset by Freethink www.youtube.com
Immersive technology aims to overlay a digital layer of experience atop everyday reality, changing how we interact with everything from medicine to entertainment. What that future will look like is anyone's guess. But immersive technology is certainly on the rise.
The extended reality (XR) industry — which includes virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), which involves both virtual and physical spaces — is projected to grow from $43 billion in 2020 to $333 billion by 2025, according to a recent market forecast. Much of that growth will be driven by consumer technologies, such as VR video games, which are projected to be worth more than $90 billion by 2027, and AR glasses, which Apple and Facebook are currently developing.
But other sectors are adopting immersive technologies, too. A 2020 survey found that 91 percent of businesses are currently using some form of XR or plan to use it in the future. The range of XR applications seems endless: Boeing technicians use AR when installing wiring in airplanes. H&R Block service representatives use VR to boost their on-the-phone soft skills. And KFC developed an escape-room VR game to train employees how to make fried chicken.
XR applications not only train and entertain; they also have the unique ability to transform how people perceive familiar spaces. Take theme parks, which are using immersive technology to add a new experiential layer to their existing rides, such as roller coasters where riders wear VR headsets. Some parks, like China's $1.5 billion VR Star Theme Park, don't have physical rides at all.
One of the most novel innovations in theme parks is Disney's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge attraction, which has multiple versions: physical locations in California and Florida and a near-identical virtual replica within the "Tales from the Galaxy's Edge" VR game.
"That's really the first instance of anything like this that's ever been done, where you can get a deeper dive, and a somewhat different view, of the same location by exploring its digital counterpart," game designer Michael Libby told Freethink.
Libby now runs Worldbuildr, a company that uses game-engine software to prototype theme park attractions before construction begins. The prototypes provide a real-time VR preview of everything riders will experience during the ride. It begs the question: considering that VR technology is constantly improving, will there come a point when there's no need for the physical ride at all?
Maybe. But probably not anytime soon.
"I think we're more than a few minutes from the future of VR," Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan told the Washington Post in 2020. "Will it be this year? No. Will it be next year? No. But will it come at some stage? We believe that."
It could take years for XR to become mainstream. But that growth period is likely to be a brief chapter in the long history of XR technologies.
The evolution of immersive technology
The first crude example of XR technology came in 1838 when the English scientist Charles Wheatstone invented the stereoscope, a device through which people could view two images of the same scene but portrayed at slightly different angles, creating the illusion of depth and solidity. Yet it took another century before anything resembling our modern conception of immersive technology struck the popular imagination.
In 1935, the science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote a short story called "Pygmalion's Spectacles," which describes a pair of goggles that enables one to perceive "a movie that gives one sight and sound [...] taste, smell, and touch. [...] You are in the story, you speak to the shadows (characters) and they reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it."
The 1950s and 1960s saw some bold and crude forays into XR, such as the Sensorama, which was dubbed an "experience theater" that featured a movie screen complemented by fan-generated wind, a motional chair, and a machine that produced scents. There was also the Telesphere Mask, which packed most of the same features but in the form of a headset designed presciently similar to modern models.
The first functional AR device came in 1968 with Ivan Sutherland's The Sword of Damocles, a heavy headset through which viewers could see basic shapes and structures overlaid on the room around them. The 1980s brought interactive VR systems featuring goggles and gloves, like NASA's Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW), which let astronauts control robots from a distance using hand and finger movements.
1980's Virtual Reality - NASA Video youtu.be
That same technology led to new XR devices in the gaming industry, like Nintendo's Power Glove and Virtual Boy. But despite a ton of hype over XR in the 1980s and 1990s, these flashy products failed to sell. The technology was too clunky and costly.
In 2012, the gaming industry saw a more successful run at immersive technology when Oculus VR raised $2.5 million on Kickstarter to develop a VR headset. Unlike previous headsets, the Oculus model offered a 90-degree field of view, was priced reasonably, and relied on a personal computer for processing power.
In 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion, and the following years brought a wave of new VR products from companies like Sony, Valve, and HTC. The most recent market evolution has been toward standalone wireless VR headsets that don't require a computer, like the Oculus Quest 2, which last year received five times as many preorders as its predecessor did in 2019.
Also notable about the Oculus Quest 2 is its price: $299 — $100 cheaper than the first version. For years, market experts have said cost is the primary barrier to adoption of VR; the Valve Index headset, for example, starts at $999, and that price doesn't include the cost of games, which can cost $60 a piece. But as hardware gets better and prices get cheaper, immersive technology might become a staple in homes and industry.
Advancing XR technologies
Over the short term, it's unclear whether the recent wave of interest in XR technologies is just hype. But there's reason to think it's not. In addition to surging sales of VR devices and games, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Facebook's heavy investments into XR suggests there's plenty of space into which these technologies could grow.
A report from The Information published in March found that roughly 20 percent of Facebook personnel work in the company's AR/VR division called Facebook Reality Labs, which is "developing all the technologies needed to enable breakthrough AR glasses and VR headsets, including optics and displays, computer vision, audio, graphics, brain-computer interface, haptic interaction."
What would "breakthroughs" in XR technologies look like? It's unclear exactly what Facebook has in mind, but there are some well-known points of friction that the industry is working to overcome. For example, locomotion is a longstanding problem in VR games. Sure, some advanced systems — that is, ones that cost far more than $300 — include treadmill-like devices on which you move through the virtual world by walking, running, or tilting your center of gravity.
But for the consumer-grade devices, the options are currently limited to using a joystick, walking in place, leaning forward, or pointing and teleporting. (There's also these electronic boots that keep you in place as you walk, for what it's worth.) These solutions usually work fine, but it produces an inherent sensory contradiction: Your avatar is moving through the virtual world but your body remains still. The locomotion problem is why most VR games don't require swift character movements and why designers often compensate by having the player sit in a cockpit or otherwise limiting the game environment to a confined space.
For AR, one key hurdle is fine-tuning the technology to ensure that the virtual content you see through, say, a pair of smart glasses is optically consistent with physical objects and spaces. Currently, AR often appears clunky, unrooted from the real world. Incorporating LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) into AR devices may do the trick. The futurist Bernard Marr elaborated on his blog:
"[LIDAR] is essentially used to create a 3D map of surroundings, which can seriously boost a device's AR capabilities. It can provide a sense of depth to AR creations — instead of them looking like a flat graphic. It also allows for occlusion, which is where any real physical object located in front of the AR object should, obviously, block the view of it — for example, people's legs blocking out a Pokémon GO character on the street."
Another broad technological upgrade to XR technologies, especially AR, is likely to be 5G, which will boost the transmission rate of wireless data over networks.
"The adoption of 5G will make a difference in terms of new types of content being able to be viewed by more people." Irena Cronin, CEO of Infinite Retina, a research and advisory firm that helps companies implement spatial computing technologies, said in a 2020 XR survey report. "5G is going to make a difference for more sophisticated, heavy content being viewed live when needed by businesses."
Beyond technological hurdles, the AR sector still has to answer some more abstract questions on the consumer side: From a comfort and style perspective, do people really want to walk around wearing smart glasses or other wearable AR tech? (The failure of Google Glass suggests people were not quite ready to in 2014.) What is the value proposition of AR for consumers? How will companies handle the ethical dilemmas associated with AR technology, such as data privacy, motion sickness, and the potential safety hazards created by tinkering with how users see, say, a busy intersection?
Despite the hurdles, it seems likely that the XR industry will steadily — if clumsily — continue to improve these technologies, weaving them into more aspects of our personal and professional lives. The proof is in your pocket: Smartphones can already run AR applications that let you see prehistoric creatures, true-to-size IKEA furniture in your living room, navigation directions overlaid on real streets, paintings at the Vincent Van Gogh exhibit, and, of course, Pokémon. So, what's next?
The future of immersive experiences
When COVID-19 struck, it not only brought a surge in sales of XR devices and applications but also made a case for rethinking how workers interact in physical spaces. Zoom calls quickly became the norm for office jobs. But for some, prolonged video calls became annoying and exhausting; the term "Zoom fatigue" caught on and was even researched in a 2021 study published in Technology, Mind, and Behavior.
The VR company Spatial offered an alternative to Zoom. Instead of talking to 2D images of coworkers on a screen, Spatial virtually recreates office environments where workers — more specifically, their avatars — can talk and interact. The experience isn't perfect: your avatar, which is created by uploading a photo of yourself, looks a bit awkward, as do the body movements. But the experience is good enough to challenge the idea that working in a physical office is worth the trouble.
Cyberspace illustrationtampatra via Adobe Stock
That's probably the most relatable example of an immersive environment people may soon encounter. But the future is wide open. Immersive environments may also be used on a wide scale to:
- Conduct job interviews, potentially with gender- and race-neutral avatars to eliminate possibilities of discriminatory hiring practices
- Ease chronic pain
- Help people overcome phobias through exposure therapy
- Train surgeons to conduct complex procedures, which may be especially beneficial to doctors in nations with weaker healthcare systems
- Prepare inmates for release into society
- Educate students, particularly in ways that cut down on distractions
- Enable people to go on virtual dates
But the biggest transformation XR technologies are likely to bring us is a high-fidelity connection to the "mirror world." The mirror world is essentially a 1:1 digital map of our world, created by the fusion of all the data collected through satellite imagery, cameras, and other modeling techniques. It already exists in crude form. For example, if you were needing directions on the street, you could open Google Maps AR, point your camera in a certain direction, and your screen will show you that Main Street is 223 feet in front of you. But the mirror world will likely become far more sophisticated than that.
Through the looking glass of AR devices, the outside world could be transformed in any number of ways. Maybe you are hiking through the woods and you notice a rare flower; you could leave a digital note suspended in the air so the next passerby can check it out. Maybe you encounter something like an Amazon Echo in public and, instead of it looking like a cylindrical tube, it appears as an avatar. You could be touring Dresden in Germany and choose to see a flashback representation of how the city looked after the bombings of WWII. You might also run into your friends — in digital avatar form — at the local bar.
Of course, this future poses no shortage of troubling aspects, ranging from privacy, pollution from virtual advertisements, and the currently impossible-to-answer psychological consequences of creating such an immersive environment. But despite all the uncertainties, the foundations of the mirror world are being built today.
As for what may lie beyond it? Ivan Sutherland, the creator of The Sword of Damocles, once described his idea of an "ultimate" immersive display:
"...a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked."
Hospitals often deal with the aftermath of gun violence, but they can play a key role in preventing it.
- Approximately 41,000 people are killed each year due to gun violence. That's more lives lost to guns than to car accidents. So why do we devote more attention (and money) to car safety than we do gun safety?
- As Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling points out, the deaths are not the whole story. The physical, emotional, and psychological trauma reverberates through communities and the public at-large. "This is just not about guns," says Dowling," this is a serious public health issue and we've got to look at it that way.
- Hospitals often deal with the aftermath of gun violence, but they can play a key role in preventing it. Medical staff are trained to assess health risk factors. Dowling argues that a similar approach is needed for guns. "We have to be much more holistic in our approach."
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
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During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
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What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
Reality is far stranger than fiction.
- Black holes are stranger than fiction, especially when we explore the weird effects of watching someone or something fall into one.
- Rotating black holes may be traversable if the physics as we understand it holds.
- To discuss the physics, we explore a fictional tale with a grand ending.
What happens when someone falls into a black hole? If you are the unfortunate soul being gobbled up, things don't look too bad until they turn really bad. Unless, there is an outlet through a wormhole. And you are really lucky.
The fictional story below — an abridged version of one published in my 2002 book The Prophet and the Astronomer explains why. Since we now know that black holes exist and that even Jeff Bezos can fly into outer space, it is only a matter of time before humans fly into black holes — albeit a very, very long time from now: the nearest black hole to Earth (as of now) lies a "mere" 1,500 light-years away.
But first, a refresher. In his general theory of relativity, Albert Einstein equated gravity with the curvature of space around a massive body. The effect is quite negligible for light masses but becomes important for massive stars and even more so for very compact massive objects such as neutron stars, whose gravity is 100,000 times stronger than at the sun's surface. Distortions of space caused by a larger mass (stars) will cause small moving masses (planets) to deviate from what Newtonian gravity predicts. Another remarkable consequence of Einstein's theory of gravity is the slowing down of clocks in strong gravitational fields: strong gravity bends space and slows down time.
Now, on with the story.
In my young days, I traveled from planet to planet looking for old spaceship parts. It was in one of my travels in search of a rare gyroscope for a 2180 Mars Lander that I found "Mr. Ström's Rocket Parts," an enormous hanger littered with mountains of space garbage. While I was consulting the store's virtual stock-scanning device to search for the gyroscope, Mr. Ström himself came to greet me. He was famous throughout the galaxy for claiming to have come closer than anyone to a black hole, a story that, to most, was just that — a story.
Like many before me, I asked Mr. Ström to tell me his story. After hesitating a while, he gave in.
"I was commander of a fleet built to explore the complex astrophysical X-ray source known as Cygnus X-1," he started. "Since the 1970s, over three millennia ago, this was suspected to be a binary star system 6,000 light-years from Earth. The two members of the binary system, thought to be a blue giant star about 20-30 solar masses and a black hole about 7-15 solar masses, orbited so close together that the black hole frantically sucked matter from his huge companion into a spiraling oblivion. This mad swirling heated the in-falling stellar matter to enormous temperatures, producing the X-rays astronomers on Earth observed. Even though the data indicated that the smaller object of the pair had a mass much larger than the maximum mass for neutron stars, it was still not clear if it was a black hole. Since other attempts to identify it had failed, the League of Planets decided that the only way to know for sure was to go there.
"The fleet consisted of three vessels, each under the command of a Ström, a great honor to my family. I led the vessel named CX1, my middle brother led CX2, and the youngest led CX3. I will spare you the details of how the mission was prepared, and how, after many problems with our hyper-relativistic plasma drive, we finally arrived to within one light-month of our destination. Through our telescopes we could see an enormous hot blue star being drained by an invisible hole in space.
"We were instructed to fly single file toward the black hole, keeping a very large distance from each other; my younger brother first, my mid-brother second, and me last. We knew that, from a large distance, a black hole behaves like any other massive object, as the differences general relativity predicted happen only fairly close to it. We also knew that every black hole has an imaginary limiting sphere around it known as the 'event horizon,' which marks the distance from which not even light could escape.
"My young brother's ship, the CX3, was to approach the hole, sending us periodic light flashes with a given frequency; we were to follow at a distance, measuring the frequency of the radiation emitted by my brother's ship as well as the time interval between the pulses, and then compare them with the theoretical predictions for gravitational redshift and time delay. The three vessels plunged to a distance of 10,000 kilometers from the hole; while CX1 and CX2 hovered at that distance, my brother closed in to 100 kilometers from the hole. He was instructed to send us infrared radiation, but we detected only radio waves. The gravitational redshift formula was indeed correct. Furthermore, the intervals between two pulses increased quite perceptibly; time was flowing slower for my brother, as viewed from our distant ships. He plunged to the dangerously close distance of ten kilometers from the hole, only seven from the event horizon; this was the closest distance the ship could stand, due to the enormous tidal forces around the hole, which stretch everything into spaghetti. (Numbers assume a one-solar-mass black hole.)
"From that close orbit, my brother was to send pulses of visible light, but all we detected were (invisible) radio waves; we could not see my brother's ship any longer, and I started to feel very uneasy. The theory was correct: a ship falling into a black hole will become invisible to a more distant ship (us) due to the red shifting of light. That also meant that we would never be able to see a star collapsing into a black hole, as it will become invisible before it meets its end. A related effect was the slowing of time. As my younger brother approached the black hole, the radiation pulses were arriving at increasingly long intervals. Thus, not only could we not see him, but we would also have to wait an enormous amount of time to receive any message from him. This confirmed the prediction that for a distant observer, the collapse of a star would take forever. Of course, for the unlucky traveler that freefalls into the black hole, nothing unusual with the passage of time would happen, as explained by the equivalence principle: gravity is neutralized in free fall. Unfortunately, his body would be horribly stretched.
"The turbulence and steady bombardment of matter swirling around the black hole caused my brother's spaceship to drift uncontrollably into the maelstrom. I had to try to rescue him. After all, this was a rotating black hole, and the theory predicted that instead of a crushing singularity at its center, there should be a wormhole connected to another point in the universe. A desperate maneuver to be sure.
"My mid-brother waited in a safe distant orbit around the black hole. As I plunged in, the whirling of space dragged me in as water into a drain. The combination of enormous gravitational pull and furious bombardment of radiation and particles took a toll on my ship; but its fuselage miraculously — what else could it be but a miracle? — survived, as I did, thanks to the once controversial anti-crunch shield. Outside, space seemed to convulse into infinitely many coexisting shapes. Inside a black hole, I realized, reality had no boundaries.
"I felt an enormous push, as if the spaceship was being coughed up by a giant. I must have remained unconscious for quite a while. When I looked into a mirror, I could hardly believe what I saw; my hair had turned completely white, and my face was covered with wrinkles I didn't have moments (moments?) ago. I checked my location in the computer and realized that, somehow, I re-emerged 2,000 light-years away from Cygnus X-1. The only possible explanation was that I traveled through a wormhole, which somehow was kept open inside the black hole and was tossed out by a white hole at a faraway point in space."
Apart from the sequence of facts inside the black hole — where we know very little — the rest is what we should expect from watching someone fall into a black hole. Reality, for these cosmic maelstroms, is definitely stranger than fiction.