Escape to a Parallel Universe

Card: How might the universe end?

Michio Kaku: Well, when we try to look at the whole universe itself --  many people ask the question, "Well Professor, how do you know -- how do you know that the universe is expanding?  How do you know that it came from a big bang?  How can you project so far into the future, billions to trillions of years into the future?  Well one way we do this is by looking at the Doppler shift.  Now, the doppler shift is something that even children are familiar with.  When children play "Star Wars" with each other, they go err, err, err with their rocket ships.  Right?  Well, what makes that err, sound?  It's the Doppler effect.  When a car moves toward you, the pitch is higher, when the car moves away from you the pitch is lower.  And it sounds like this.  Eee err.  We've all heard it.  Same thing with starlight.  When yellow light moves toward you, it turns greenish and bluish.  When the yellow light moves away from you it turns reddish.

Now, how can you memorize this?  Well, I was reading a paper a few years ago and I read this fascinating story of a high school physics teacher who got a speeding ticket for running a red light.  The physics teacher went to the blackboard and said, "Your Honor.  My car was moving toward a yellow light.  Light is compressed in a forward direction when you move toward it, and therefore it turned green.  This is the Doppler shift," he said.  And he went to the black board and he correctly wrote down all the equations of the Doppler shift.  And then this high school physics teacher said, "Your Honor.  I do not deserve a traffic ticket."  Well, the judge scratched his head and according to the article, the judge said, "Well, I guess there is a law higher than the state of New Jersey, and these are the laws of physics."  But then, according to the article, there was a high school kid in the court room and he raised his hand and he said, "Your Honor, I'm just a high school kid, but I happen to be in his high school physics class and he just taught this a couple of weeks ago that this only happens when you approach the speed of light."  End of article. 

To this day, I still don't know what happened to that poor high school kid.  But I tell my students, that if I'm ever in court arguing a speeding ticket or red light, they better not raise their hand if they know what's good for them and they know what's good for their grade. 

So, when we look in the heavens, we look at starlight emitted from distant galaxies and we find that the light is slightly reddish.  Redder than it's supposed to be.  That means that these objects, the gigantic galaxies are moving away from us and therefore the universe is expanding.  Well, we could run the video tape backwards, and by running the video tape backwards we could then calculate when all these galaxies came from a single point.  And that's how we calculate the age of the universe, by simply hitting the rewind button when we calculate the expansion of the universe.

So by running the video tape backwards, we see that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, plus or minus 1%.  So, we now know the age of the universe.  13.7 billion years by running the video tape backwards.  But what happens if we hit fast forward.  What happens if we go forward in time billions of years?  Well, here it gets murkier.  But by analyzing how the universe has been expanding in the past, we used to think that the universe is slowing down.  We used to think the universe is aging and therefore it's slowing down; running out of steam.  Wrong.  We now believe that the universe is speeding up.  It's actually accelerating, in runaway mode which means that in stead of dying in a big crunch, we'll probably die in a big freeze.  We're not positive.  We don't know if this will keep on going for billions of years.  But if so, the universe is in a runaway mode.  It means that one day, perhaps when we look at the night sky; perhaps we'll see almost nothing because the distant galaxies are so far that light cannot even reach our telescopes.  Not a pleasant thought.  But our universe may eventually die in a big freeze rather than a big crunch.

Card: How soon would this scenario most likely take place?

Michio Kaku: Nobody knows when this big freeze will take place, or if it will ever take place.  However, estimates have been made, perhaps hundreds of billions of years, perhaps trillions of years.  One day it will get so cold that you'll look at the night sky and it will be almost totally black.  All the stars will have exhausted all of their nuclear fuel, the universe will consist of neutron stars, dead black holes, the temperature will reach near absolute zero, and at that point even consciousness, even thought itself, cannot exist.  and some people think that perhaps the laws of physics are a death warrant to all intelligent life; that we're all going to die when the universe freezes over. 

But you know, there's a loophole.  There's a loophole in the laws of physics.  you see, trillions of years from now, perhaps intelligent life will be able to master what is called, "The Planck Energy."  The Planck Energy is the ultimate energy.  It's the energy of the Big Bang.  It's the energy at which gravity itself begins to breakdown. 

You know that if you have a microwave oven and you heat it up, you can take ordinary water and make it boil; ice can melt, water can boil.  But what happens if you crank up that microwave oven even more?  Eventually the steam starts to break up into oxygen and hydrogen.  If you crank it up some more, all of a sudden ions form; atoms themselves begin to rip apart.  And then if you crank up that microwave oven even more, then even the nucleus begins to break apart and you get a plasma of protons and neutrons.  You crank it up some more and you get a gluon plasma.  And if you crank it some more to this incredible energy.  Ten to the 19 billion electron volts, we're not sure, but perhaps even space itself begins to boil.  Even space time becomes unstable.  Bubbles begin to form at this Planck Energy.  And perhaps these bubbles are gateways.  Gateways to a parallel universe. 

Of course, we're not sure about this.  This pure speculation, but there are theories that say that there could be universes right next to our universe.  And in fact, the Large Hadron Collider will give us the first experimental evidence about the existence of parallel universes. 

So, think of us a ants living on a sheet of paper, but perhaps there are other parallel sheets of paper with other ants living on them.  And perhaps we are very close to these other universes, but we can't reach them.  The energy necessary to reach a parallel universe would be the Planck Energy, 10 to the 19 billion electron volts.

I would suppose that trillions of years from now, intelligent life, facing the ultimate demise of the universe itself might decide to leave the universe.  To leave our universe and enter a parallel universe in the same way that Alice entered the looking glass to enter Wonderland.

 

Like many physicists, Michio Kaku thinks our universe will end in a "big freeze." Unlike many physicists, he thinks we might be able to avoid this fate by slipping into a parallel universe "in the same way that Alice entered the looking glass to enter Wonderland."

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Dubai to build the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant

Can you make solar power work when the sun goes down? You can, and Dubai is about to run a city that way.

Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • A new concentrated solar plant is under construction in Dubai.
  • When it opens next year, it will be the largest plant of its kind on Earth.
  • Concentrated solar power solves the problem of how to store electricity in ways that solar pannels cannot.
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19th-century medicine: Milk was used as a blood substitute for transfusions

Believe it or not, for a few decades, giving people "milk transfusions" was all the rage.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Prior to the discovery of blood types in 1901, giving people blood transfusions was a risky procedure.
  • In order to get around the need to transfuse others with blood, some doctors resorted to using a blood substitute: Milk.
  • It went pretty much how you would expect it to.
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