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David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
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Bryan Cranston
Actor
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Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
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Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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How Exploring Our Universe Opens New Conceptions of Reality

It's an incredibly exciting time to be alive, especially if you're an explorer. We may have been to almost every point on the globe, but there is so much left to understand.

Scott Parazynski: Why do humans explore? Well, part of it is quite fundamental to our nature; there’s adventure and challenge in it. But for me, the reason I’m drawn to exploration is because it forces us to think in novel ways. And as an inventor I love going into extraordinary environments and finding ways to do that more safely, more effectively, developing ways to extract better science. And so for me it’s actually been a wonderful catalyst for innovation.

Similar to NASA’s history—when you think back to the Apollo program, which is sort of the icon of my childhood, the thing that I wanted to be a part of as a kid, the things that had to be invented to safely send astronauts first into Earth orbit and then to the moon, the list is so long. But what came of that is an extraordinary list of technologies that we now take for granted. For example, the heart monitoring capabilities called the Holter monitor that we now have in daily practice around the world, that was something that was driven out necessity. We needed to monitor heart health, needed to make sure that the crew is still alive onboard those early tiny capsules. So by pushing our capabilities, whether it’s up in space, down in the Antarctic, inside volcanoes, underneath our oceans, we have to develop new technologies that benefit all the rest of us in our daily lives. And so the world is still very, very unknown and what I mean by that is yes we’ve been to most parts of our globe, but now we have a whole array of new sensing capabilities, new technologies, new analytical capabilities, big data analytics that will allow us to go back to these places and extract more knowledge and press our capabilities more. So I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be alive and certainly as an explorer.

Through the course of our space program and our space exploration thus far, we’ve developed the tools and countermeasures to safely send astronauts, colonists, to far-away worlds. And so, as I’ve already alluded, I think it’s our human destiny to go beyond Earth to hopefully create an outpost on the moon similar to what we have at the south pole, where we could conduct deep space research and also create a waypoint to resupply spacecraft that could travel further on, to Mars and other exciting places in our own solar system. You may have heard of Enceladus or Europa or Titan, these are ice-encrusted moons of our outer planets that have geothermal or volcanic activity within them and so they’re actually ice-crusted oceans, and wouldn’t it be amazing if we could send a spacecraft and/or crew there and sample those waters? I would think that the likelihood of finding at least some simple life forms there is quite high. That would change everything, to realize that life is perhaps not as unique as we thought.

I think deep space exploration is a human imperative, understanding our place in the solar system and in the broader universe. And one of the exciting things that’s happening right now is we’re discovering these exoplanets surrounding far-away star systems, and in fact planets are probably not the exception but probably the rule. There are probably planetary bodies around every little star, twinkle twinkle little star that we see in the night sky and so it’s incredibly exciting to think about what might be out there. Is there life elsewhere? And I think if we just think about it statistically, the trillions and trillions of star systems and far-away galaxies and the incredible number of planets that are certainly out there, the conditions for life must certainly exist. So I’m excited about the prospect of sending, hopefully, crews first to the moon but then on to Mars and I’m really so excited about Elon Musk’s vision of colonizing Mars. In fact, he’s got designs to design rockets that would carry a hundred colonists at a time and taking them to live out the rest of their lives on Mars. He’s a pretty interesting guy, as I’m sure you know, he’s been successful at pretty much everything that he has set his mind and his money to do, but he’s so dedicated to this concept of colonization that he’s stated that he wants to die on Mars and I think that’s commitment. 

I’m really passionate about virtual reality and mixed or augmented reality in the future, ways in which we can interact and learn and train ourselves to do new things from very remote places. And it will allow us to actually control robotics and do things that we would never be able to do in person because that environment is so dangerous. So the human-machine interface is actually something that is part of my daily life now. I’m at CEO of a tech startup company called Fluidity Technologies that is based on my intellectual property, robotic controls, leveraging, machine learning. So we’re able, in a single hand with our controllers, to operate drones, potentially even helicopters and ROVs, computer games, computer-aided design, augmented reality and maybe even teleoperation of surgical robots. And so in my far-away view, what I’d love to be able to offer the world is a surgeon here in New York City being able to operate with one of our controllers and deliver the same high-quality care to a patient in sub-Saharan Africa or in rural Nepal. That sounds like science fiction, but it’s really quite attainable with the technologies that I see on the forefront.

Scott Parazynski is the only person in history to have both flown to space and summited Mount Everest. He's seen more of this world than most, and some of what lies beyond it—so what is it about adventure that draws people like him in? Parazynski thinks it's innate curiosity that drives us, but that the more we explore the more we gain other reasons to keep going. Humanity has benefitted enormously from pursuing "moon shots"—like the Apollo missions—and NASA's research in particular has pushed our capacity for innovation, resulting in spin-off technologies that create new industries and change people's daily lives (3D printed food, invisible braces, memory foam, scratch resistant lenses, the DustBuster—come on!). Why keep your feet planted on Earth, or your mind planted in the known, when there could be life under the ice-encrusted oceans of Enceladus or Europa, a new home waiting for us on Mars, and technology on the horizon that will connect a surgeon in New York City with a person in danger in rural Nepal? Scott Parazynski is the author of The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed.

Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.

Big Think LIVE

Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.

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Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

Self-driving cars to race for $1.5 million at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ​

So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.

Indy Autonomous Challenge
Technology & Innovation
  • The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
  • The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
  • The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
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Bubonic plague case reported in China

Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.

(Photo by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Getty Images)
Coronavirus
  • The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
  • Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
  • Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
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The dangers of the chemical imbalance theory of depression

A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.

Image: solarseven / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
  • Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
  • Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
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