Is the universe a hologram? The strange physics of black holes.
Black holes may give us a glimpse of the underlying nature of reality.
Dr. Michelle Thaller is an astronomer who studies binary stars and the life cycles of stars. She is Assistant Director of Science Communication at NASA. She went to college at Harvard University, completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif. then started working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Spitzer Space Telescope. After a hugely successful mission, she moved on to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), in the Washington D.C. area. In her off-hours often puts on about 30lbs of Elizabethan garb and performs intricate Renaissance dances. For more information, visit NASA.
MICHELLE THALLER: Black holes really are kind of getting to the very heart of our physics. And I believe that they're kind of showing us the way that eventually we're going to need different physics and new physics. People ask questions like, "What happens inside a black hole?" Or even, "What happens at the very boundary of a black hole, the event horizon, when light is absorbed?" And honestly, our physics is telling us a lot of contradictory things. And our image of what an event horizon really is may be changing. People like Stephen Hawking and Leonard Susskind have recently come up with this idea that a black hole should not be able to destroy information. O.K., what do we mean by information? Information can be almost anything.
All of the different atoms in my body have angular momentum, they have charge, they have mass. There's all sorts of little bits of information that make me me. At the quantum mechanic level, the tiniest of levels, there are different amounts of energy, there are different probabilities that are contained in the structure of my matter. And information, in some ways is a form of energy. It's actually a way that you can describe something which is somehow, in a strange way, a higher energy state than not being able to describe something. And so one of the questions is, "If energy really can't be destroyed energy itself is something that is intrinsic in the universe, you can't really created or destroy it is it possible that information is the same way? Is there really no way to actually destroy the information about what all of my subatomic particles are doing right now?"
So black holes kind of stare you right in the face. What a black hole supposedly does is it absorbs everything. Space and time bend into a black hole so that nothing can escape. That means that any information about the material that fell in is gone. The only thing we know about it is that as a black hole absorbs material, it gets more massive. It actually adds that mass to the mass of the black hole. And as that mass increases, the event horizon becomes larger. Basically, the area where space is so curved that you can't get out begins to extend the more massive a black hole is. The most massive black holes we know of in the universe are many billions of times the mass of our sun. And the physical extent of this event horizon is about the size of our solar system, maybe like out to the planet Pluto.
So is it possible, then, if everything goes into a black hole and nothing ever comes out, space and time go inside the black hole and don't come out? What happened to that information? And this has begun to make a lot of people wonder if we really have thought of black holes the wrong way. Maybe there isn't an event horizon in the true sense. I actually had a friend of mine that studies black holes say, "Well, I'm not sure if they're black. They may be very, very dark navy blue." And what he meant by that is, maybe there are some tricks to actually get information out of a black hole. Maybe there really is some form of energy that can leak away from the black hole over time. Now, Stephen Hawking wondered if quantum effects very near the event horizon could actually separate something called virtual particles, the energy of space itself. If you're familiar with Einstein's equation, E equals MC squared, energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Energy and mass are the same thing. They're equivalent.
You can actually make mass into energy, and you can make energy into mass. Around a black hole, where there's very hot gas, very high temperatures, very strong magnetic fields, perhaps, there's a lot of energy. And that energy can actually manifest itself as particles, mass. And the energy always creates particle/antiparticle pairs. They're called virtual particles. And matter and antimatter, the thing you know about it is that it annihilates immediately. So these tiny little particles come into existence, then annihilate, and you're back to energy. And this happens all around us all the time. So, if this happens near a black hole, it's possible one of these little particles can go into the black hole and the other one escapes. And all of a sudden, there's a particle that shouldn't be there. The universe basically has a new particle, energy from nowhere. And how can that work?
And the information theory people say that what happens is that energy has to come out of the black hole. The black hole's mass begins to decrease if there is this poor little orphan particle that shouldn't have been there in the first place. So over time, tiny particle by tiny particle, These black holes can evaporate away. And maybe there's something about those virtual particles that contain some information about the black hole and what fell into it. It even gets stranger than that, because a lot of people think that time goes slower and slower as you approach a black hole, till, at the event horizon, time basically stops. So instead of anything really ever falling into a black hole, what the event horizon may be is some sort of shell of information.
Things are stopped in time as they fell into the black hole. And right at that boundary, there is almost kind of a sphere, a two-dimensional surface that somehow contains all the information about what's inside the black hole. And this reminded people of something that the humans invented, called a hologram. Now, a hologram is a two-dimensional object. You can make it out of glass or a piece of film. And you shine a light through it, and all of a sudden, there seem to be three-dimensional projections. And the idea is that are we looking at some fundamental way the universe stores information. Around a black hole, where space and time have been crushed out of existence, could there be a shell of information, something like a hologram?
And a lot of people began to wonder, maybe that's the way the universe works on a larger scale. Maybe black holes are showing us, intrinsically, what the underlying nature of reality is, that there really is a two-dimensional surface of something that contains all information about the entire universe. Maybe in some way, we are part of this giant hologram. And I should mention that the word, hologram, in no way implies that somebody made the hologram. We're just talking about the universe may really be information contained in a two-dimensional structure, not the three dimensions that we're aware of now. This all sounds incredibly strange. I'm always a little bit afraid to even talk about it. But I think that the thing to really kind of gain from this is that black holes are staring us right in the face. We're now observing them.
They're right there. And we cannot really describe how the universe should work with one of these things. They don't make sense. The universe shouldn't be able to lose information. So how do you get information when space itself are bent in and nothing comes out? Black holes may be the key to where the next physics has to go. We all know that we need a next Einstein, a next quantum theory, something that actually describes how gravity works in very intense situations like a black hole. Now we're actually observing black holes well enough that we really have to get on this. We really have to figure out how the universe works around one of these things. And we may end up learning what the universe itself really is.
- Since energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed, some argue that information — arguably a form of energy — cannot be destroyed either. So then, what happens to information when it is absorbed into a black hole? Scientists don't know for certain, but some posit that it may be possible for it to leak away from the black hole over time.
- Black holes may hold information in a two-dimensional manner similar to a hologram, which take on three dimensions when light is shone through them. Some theorize that the underlying nature of reality can be glimpsed through black holes — that all the information about the entire universe is somehow held on a two-dimensional space of something.
- To better understand how black holes work, as well as the elements surrounding them, we may need a level of physics to be developed.
- The basis of the universe may not be energy or matter but information ›
- The Universe Is Not a Holograph - Big Think ›
- Scientists Find First Observed Evidence That Our Universe May Be a ... ›
- 3 wonders of the universe, explained - Big Think ›
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A new brain imaging study explored how different levels of the brain's excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters are linked to math abilities.
- Glutamate and GABA are neurotransmitters that help regulate brain activity.
- Scientists have long known that both are important to learning and neuroplasticity, but their relationship to acquiring complex cognitive skills like math has remained unclear.
- The new study shows that having certain levels of these neurotransmitters predict math performance, but that these levels switch with age.
Why do roughly one in five people find math especially difficult?
You might blame teaching methods, which some argue explains why the U.S. lags behind other countries in standardized math test scores. You could point to math anxiety, which affects about 20 percent of students and 25 percent of teachers, according to surveys. And there are also medical conditions that make math difficult, such as dyscalculia, a learning disability that disrupts the normal development of arithmetic skills.
But another explanation centers on neurotransmitters. In a new study published in PLOS Biology, researchers explored how the brain's levels of GABA and glutamate relate to math abilities over time in students of varying ages. The results showed that levels of these neurotransmitters can predict students' performance on math tests. However, this relationship seems to flip as people get older.
GABA and glutamate are responsible for regulating brain activity. In the mature brain, GABA is the brain's main inhibitory neurotransmitter, helping to block impulses between nerve cells in the brain, which can calm feelings of stress, anxiety, or fear. GABA is made from glutamate, the brain's major excitatory neurotransmitter that helps send signals throughout the central nervous system.
Researchers have long known that these neurotransmitters play crucial roles in learning, development, and neuroplasticity. That is partly because they are thought to help trigger developmental windows (or "sensitive periods") during which neural systems become more plastic and better able to acquire certain cognitive skills.
"Importantly, sensitive periods vary for different functions, with relatively simple abilities (e.g., sensorimotor integration) occurring earlier in development, while the sensitive period for acquiring more complex cognitive functions extends into the third decade of life," the researchers wrote.
GABA, glutamate, and math
Still, the exact relationship between GABA, glutamate, and complex cognitive functions has remained unclear. The new study explored that relationship by focusing on associations between the neurotransmitters and math abilities, which "provides a unique cognitive model to examine these questions due to its protracted skill acquisition period that starts already from early childhood and can continue for nearly two decades," the researchers wrote.
For the study, the researchers measured levels of GABA and glutamate in the left intraparietal sulcus (IPS) of 255 students, ranging from primary school to college. The participants completed a math test as their brains were imaged. About a year and a half later, the participants repeated the same process.
"The longitudinal design allowed us to further examine whether neurotransmitter concentration is linked to MA [mathematical abilities] as well as predict MA in the future," the researchers wrote. "Crucially, adopting this design allowed us to discern the selective effect of glutamate and GABA in response to natural (i.e., learning in school) rather than artificial environmental stimulation, thus allowing us to test the knowledge gained from lab-based experiments in high ecological settings."
The results suggest that GABA and glutamate play an important role in math abilities, but that the dynamic switches with age. For the young participants, higher GABA levels in the IPS were associated with higher scores on math tests. The opposite was observed among older students: higher glutamate levels correlated with higher scores. Both results held true on subsequent math tests.
Although the study sheds light on how neurotransmitter levels at different stages of development contribute to learning some cognitive skills, like math, the researchers noted that acquiring other skills may involve different processes.
"Our findings may also highlight a general principle that the developmental dynamics of regional excitation and inhibition levels in regulating the sensitive period and plasticity of a given high-level cognitive function (i.e., MA) may be different compared to another high-level cognitive function (i.e., general intelligence) that draws on similar, albeit not identical, cognitive and neural mechanisms," they wrote.
Do our thoughts have any meaning whatsoever?
- Epiphenomenalism is the idea that our conscious minds serve no role in affecting the physical world.
- On the contrary, our thoughts are a causally irrelevant byproduct of physical processes that are occurring inside of our brains.
- According to epiphenomenalism, we are like children pretending to drive a car — it can be great fun, but we are really not in charge.
What if you don't matter? What if all of your thoughts, precious feelings, great dreams, and terrible fears are completely, utterly, spectacularly irrelevant? Might it be that all of your mental life is just some pointless spectator, looking on as your body does the important stuff of keeping you alive and running about? What actually is the point of a thought?
This is the view of "epiphenomenalism," and it might just be one of the most disturbing ideas in all of philosophy.
The pointless chiming of the clock
On any given day, we will make thousands of decisions and perform countless actions. We will move our legs to walk, open our mouths to eat, smile at our friends, kiss our loved ones, and so on. Today, we know enough about neuroscience and physiology to give a complete and full account of how this happens. We can point to the parts of the brain that activate, the route the nerve signals will take up and down the body, the way the muscles will contract, and how the body will react. We can, in short, give a full physical account of everything we do.
The question, then, is: what is the point of our consciousness? If we can explain all of our behavior quite happily (or "sufficiently" as philosophers like to say) with physical causes, what is there left for our thoughts to do?
Anthropologist Thomas Huxley argued that our thoughts are a bit like a clock's chime at the hour. It makes a sound, but it makes no difference at all to the time. Likewise, our thoughts and subjective feelings might be very nice and appear very special to us, but they are completely uninvolved.
The problem of mind-body dualism
This all stems from a key problem of dualism, which is the philosophical idea that the mind and body are different things. There is something intuitive to the idea. When I imagine a flying dragon with fiery breath and leathery wings, that is entirely different from the physical world of lizards, candles, and bats. Or, put another way, you cannot touch with your finger or cut with a knife the stuff that happens in your head. But we don't like believing that our thoughts don't exist. So, what are they?
The problem in dualism is understanding how something mental, nonphysical, and subjective possibly could affect the physical world and especially my physical body. Yet, it clearly happens. For instance, if I want a cupcake, I make my hand move toward it.
So, how can the immaterial affect the material? This "problem of causal interaction" is not easily resolved, and so some philosophers prefer the epiphenomenalist response, "Perhaps our minds don't do anything." If we want to retain the idea that our minds exist but in a completely different way as the physical world, then it might be more palatable to jettison the idea that they do anything at all.
Integrated information theory
Then, what is the point of consciousness? There are some, such as neuroscientist Daniel De Haan and philosophers Giulio Tononi and Peter Godfrey-Smith, who argue that consciousness can best be explained by "integrated information theory."
In this theory, consciousness is something that emerges from the sum of our cognitive processes — or, more specifically, the "capacity of a system to integrate information," as Tononi writes. In other words, consciousness is a net product of all the other things our mind is doing, such as synchronizing sensory inputs, focusing on specific objects, accessing various types of memory, and so on. The mind is an overseer at the center of a huge web and is the result or byproduct of all the incredibly complex things it needs to do.
But this kind of "emergentist" theory (since the mind "emerges" from its operations) does leave us with some epiphenomenal questions. It seems to suggest that the mind does exist but that it can be fully explained and accounted for by other physical processes. For instance, if we suppose our consciousness is the product of our complex and various sensory inputs, as Godfrey-Smith offers, then what does conscious thought actually add to the equation that our sight, smell, interoception, and so on are not already doing? By analogy, if a "traffic jam" is just the term for a collection of stationary cars and trucks, what does the concept "traffic jam" add that all those vehicles don't already provide? A traffic jam has no causal role to play.
This is not to say that consciousness is a mistake or without value. After all, without it, I would not be me and you would not be you. Pleasure would not exist. There would be no world at all. We cannot even imagine a life without consciousness. And epiphenomenalism does believe that physical events, like our synaptic sparks and neuronal interactions, do cause our mental events.
But if epiphenomenalism is correct, it means that our thoughts don't add anything to the physical world that isn't already ongoing. It means that we are locked in our heads. All the thoughts and feelings are ultimately pointless or nonsense. We are like children pretending to drive a car — it can be great fun, but we are really not in charge.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
An ancient skeleton of a man dating back to the Iron Age was uncovered outside of London last month, and though archaeologists aren't certain what the cause of death was, clues point to a murder most foul.
A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.
The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin.
"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," said archaeologist Rachel Wood, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."
Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died.
"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to Live Science. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm
The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where a tunnel is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins.
The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway Icknield Way that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds.
Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.
Ceremonial burial site
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2
While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.
The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered.
Sacred timber circle
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2
One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.
This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice.
Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near Stonehenge that is considered to date back to around the same time.
For the ancients, hospitality was an inviolable law enforced by gods and priests and anyone else with the power to make you pay dearly for mistreating a stranger.
- Ancient literature is replete with stories about gods or people with magical powers taking the form of impoverished strangers who are begging for help.
- Those who reject the strangers are punished — often being turned into birds.
- Hospitality toward strangers is a foundation of society and religion.
The following is an excerpt from the book The Power of Strangers. It is reprinted with kind permission of the author and publisher.
Two guys walk into a village. They're dressed like beggars, and they're going door-to-door to make sure people are being nice to strangers. One is Jesus Christ, Son of God, in the Christian tradition. The other is Saint Peter, his right-hand man and the rock upon which his church is built.
Jesus and Peter arrive at the house of an old peasant woman and beg for some bread. She gives them some crumbs. Jesus gives her another chance. He miraculously causes the cake in her oven to grow larger, giving her more food to share. She stiffs them again. At this point, Jesus and Peter decide they have seen enough, and they turn her into an owl.
This is a European folktale from the Middle Ages, but other versions exist. In a variation that appeared in Baltic countries, Jesus and Peter punish the miser by forcing her to raise two snakes as foster children. In another version, this one Scandinavian, she is turned into a woodpecker. In Germany, they turn her into a cuckoo.
These stories aren't just Christian, nor are they limited to Europe or the Middle Ages. A Moroccan version, which also turned up in Spain, Russia, and Turkey, features the Prophet Muhammad in the beggar role. His rich host refuses to kill a sheep for him, and instead boils a cat. Muhammad responds by reviving the cat and turning the man into an owl. In a Native American folktale, it's an old woman and her grandson who are turned away by stingy townspeople. They punish the misers by turning them and all of their children into, you guessed it, birds.
In the Japanese folk tradition, the stranger — ijin, or "different person" — often appears as a tinker, a foreigner, a beggar, or some other kind of vulnerable outsider, but in reality is a god, a priest, a prince, or someone else endowed with magical powers. In one such story, a Buddhist priest named Kōbō Daishi arrives in a village where water is scarce. He's dressed like a beggar, and he begs for a cup. A woman travels a great distance to a well and brings water back for him. To thank her, Kōbō Daishi strikes his staff against the ground, and a spring of water bubbles forth. In the next village, where water is plentiful, Kōbō Daishi is rejected. This time he strikes the ground in anger. The wells dry up and the settlement fails.
In the West, the ancient Greeks are perhaps most famous for promoting the idea that gods reside in strangers. Strangers were said to be protected by Zeus, who was both the father of the gods and the god of strangers. He frequently took up the wandering beggar guise to make sure people weren't mistreating strangers. In The Odyssey, the epic Greek poem written in the eighth century BC, a former charge of the hero Odysseus encounters his former master after a long separation. The man doesn't recognize Odysseus, but still he extends hospitality. "All wanderers and beggars come from Zeus," he says.
But why did he send them?
Like other social innovations, like greeting rituals and honorary kinship in hunter-gatherer societies — hospitality started out as a practical solution to a novel problem. There was a lack of strong central institutions and there were strangers around. Hosts had to reconcile the threat strangers posed with the opportunities they may present. In time, though, it proved so integral to the success of humans that it eventually became simply part of our morality, something we did without thinking, something encoded in our genes. "It's something that evolved with us, as us," says Andrew Shryock, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan who specializes in hospitality.
The tradition of hospitality toward strangers is, in other words, more than just folk stories by and for people who seem to really hate birds. It has lived in practice for thousands of years. In 1906, Edward Westermarck, a well-traveled Finnish philosopher who is considered one of the founders of sociology, published a book called The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, in which he examined dozens of traditional societies that extended generous hospitality to strangers. "The stranger is often welcomed with special marks of honor," Westermarck observed. "The best seat is assigned to him; the best food at the host's disposal is set before him; he takes precedence over all the members of the household; he enjoys extraordinary privileges." There was such prestige attached to hosting the stranger that people would compete for his favor. Among the Arabs of Sinai, Westermarck wrote, "If a stranger be seen from afar coming towards the camp, he is the guest for that night of the first person who describes him, and who, whether a grown man or a child, exclaims, 'There comes my guest!'"
Shryock has spent years studying Arab hospitality — karam — research that led him to the Balga tribes of Jordan. To the Balga, Shryock wrote in 2012, "a house without guests, without the spaces necessary to take them in, and without the materials needed to prepare food and drink, is not only weak, it is shameful." Hospitality is a kind of deep faith there, he writes, "'a burning in the skin' inherited 'from the father and the grandfathers.'" One Balgawi man told Shryock, "Karam is not just a matter of food and drink. Hospitality is from the soul; it's from the blood."
The depth of the obligation was such that the Bedouins there were said to occasionally host the stranger with a zeal that could tip into a kind of madness, specifically, hiblat al-'arab — "the Arab madness" — in which a person overcome by the spirit gives everything away to guests. Shryock spent years searching for one particular Jordan Valley folk story in which a man gave away his children to a stranger because he had nothing more valuable to offer. There were more such tales bearing the same message. In the way a zealot could lose everything in his quest for the face of God, so, too, can the karim — the hospitable man — draw too close to the ruinous ideal of total hospitality when met with the face of a wayfaring stranger.
Indeed, for many of these cultures, Shryock tells me, hospitality and religion were not just connected, they were inextricable. "Hospitality developed into and alongside religion," he says. "It's hard to say if hospitality derives its power from its sacredness, or if it lends its power to the sacred." In other words, are we religious because of hospitality? Or are we hospitable because of religion? It's impossible to say. But the practice of hospitality is foundational to human civilization. "My own hunch," says Shryock, "is that human sociability is impossible without hospitality."
Today when we think of hospitality, we usually think of the private hospitality industry, which hosts weary travelers for a fee, replacing conversation with Wi-Fi, and the lavish spreads of old with rust-colored coffee and those clammy, shrink-wrapped muffins served in the lobby between seven and nine a.m. But for our distant ancestors, hospitality to strangers was something else entirely, a daily practice elevated to a supernatural plane, fashioned into an inviolable law enforced by gods and priests and anyone else with the power to make you pay dearly for mistreating a stranger.
Which leads to our next question: Why?
From the book THE POWER OF STRANGERS by Joe Keohane. Copyright © 2021 by Joe Keohane. Published by Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World