LIGO Just Detected the Oldest Gravitational Waves Ever Discovered

Gravitational Waves Revealing The Universe

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) just detected gravitational waves, ripples in time and space, for the third time. Two black holes collided, forming a huge black hole 49 times more massive than our sun, and this generated the waves. This kind of collision was also the cause of the waves detected previously by LIGO, although the masses of the black holes varied. This repetition of the discovery confirms that a new area of astronomy now exists.

“We have further confirmation of the existence of stellar-mass black holes that are larger than 20 solar masses — these are objects we didn’t know existed before LIGO detected them,” MIT’s David Shoemaker, a LIGO spokesperson, said in a press release. “It is remarkable that humans can put together a story, and test it, for such strange and extreme events that took place billions of years ago and billions of light-years distant from us. The entire LIGO and Virgo scientific collaborations worked to put all these pieces together.”

In September 2015, LIGO first directly observed these gravitational waves during its first run since receiving Advanced LIGO upgrades. The second detection followed in December 2015, and this latest detection, called GW170104, followed in January of this year. In each case, both of LIGO’s twin detectors perceived gravitational waves from the collisions of the black holes, but this latest observation does offer a few new pieces of information.

For example, it suggests which directions the black holes might be spinning in, and indicates that at least one of the black holes in the pair may not be aligned with the overall orbital motion. Scientists are hoping that they can learn more about how binary black holes form by making more LIGO observations.

Image Credit: S. Ossokine, A. Buonanno/Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics
Image Credit: S. Ossokine, A. Buonanno/Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics

LIGO’s Future

This work is testing, and thus far providing proof for, the theories proposed by Albert Einstein. For example, the theory of relativity says that dispersion, the effect that happens as light waves in a physical medium travel at different speeds, cannot happen in gravitational waves. LIGO has not found any evidence of dispersion in gravitational waves, as predicted by relativity.

“It looks like Einstein was right — even for this new event, which is about two times farther away than our first detection,” Georgia Tech’s Laura Cadonati, the Deputy Spokesperson of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), said in the press release. “We can see no deviation from the predictions of general relativity, and this greater distance helps us to make that statement with more confidence.”

Moving forward, the LIGO-Virgo team will keep searching LIGO data for any hint of gravitational waves emanating from the far corners of the Universe. The sensitivity of the detector will improve during the next run starting in late 2018 after researchers apply technical upgrades, hoping to see even more. Caltech’s David Reitze, the LIGO Laboratory’s executive director, said in the press release, “While LIGO is uniquely suited to observing these types of events, we hope to see other types of astrophysical events soon, such as the violent collision of two neutron stars.”

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New Research Shows Microgravity Mutates Bacteria Into Superbugs

Space E-Coli

A new study might have bad news for future space travelers. Madhan Tirumalai, Post Doctoral Fellow at the University of Houston and part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, has discovered that bacteria mutate and proliferate in space-like conditions. As part of the most rigorous study to date, he observed E. coli development over 1,000 generations in a rotating container designed to simulate microgravity.

He found that the bacteria developed 16 mutations, and when they were placed next to normal E. coli cells, they grew around three times as many colonies and maintained a 72 percent adaptive advantage. Further, their adaptations remained even when researchers tried to erase them.

E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times. Image Credit: Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley. Wikimedia
E. coli magnified 10,000 times. Image Credit: Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley. Wikimedia

Some of the changes were slightly worrying: mutations affected the genes related to biofilm production, which often makes cells more robust and virulent. However, not every mutation necessitates a negative change. In fact, as Tirumalai wrote, the E. coli was still susceptible to antibiotics. Essentially, even if microgravity turns bacteria into superbugs, we can still rely on antibiotics.

Bugs and Space Travel

This could be worrying news for future space-travelers. E. coli is a relatively benign bacteria, but other nastier bugs and diseases could jeopardize entire missions — costing precious life and money — if they mutate in a violent or untreatable way. The potential consequences become more worrying when we consider that a 2013 study found that in space human immune “cells are not able to respond to a pathogen anymore,” which “means that it will be easier [for astronauts] to get sick because their immune system is weakening.”

A Checkup Aboard Skylab (NASA, Marshall, Archive, 1973). Image Credit: NASA. Wikimedia
A Checkup Aboard Skylab (NASA, Marshall, Archive, 1973). Image Credit: NASA. Wikimedia

Tirumalai explains, “We need more of this kind of experiment, especially with human space flight gaining more traction in recent years.” News concerning more people going to space as part of the commercial spaceflight revolution is exciting. However, practical considerations – such as how microgravity impacts bacteria and our bodies, as well as the potential consequences of isolation on our mental health– must be dealt with before we embark, particularly when it comes to long flights such as the plan to go to Mars.

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French President: If Trump Pulls out of the Paris Agreement, U.S. Climate Scientists Can Go to France

A Change In the Climate

Where U.S. president Donald Trump stands on climate change is no secret, and his administration has already put into effect a number of efforts that clearly demonstrate this. Now, perhaps the biggest blow to climate change efforts is about to unfold, as new reports surface about president Trump’s plans to back out of the historic Paris Climate Agreement.

According to the New York Times, three officials who know about the decision have confirmed that President Trump indeed plans to abandon the 2015 climate agreement that spurred many of the world’s nations to implement stricter measures and goals to fight climate change. In a tweet posted just today, President Trump said he will be announcing his decision in the coming days.

Newly-elected French president Emmanuel Macron had something to say about that decision, however. In a video posted on Facebook back in February, almost a month before he was elected, Macron expressed sympathy for U.S. climate experts.

“I do know how your new president now has decided to jeopardize your budget, your initiatives, and he is extremely skeptical about climate change,” he said then, at the height of news about the U.S. government’s controversial budget cuts. “I have no doubt about climate change.”

France’s Offer

President Macron offered an alternative for climate scientists working in the U.S.

“Please, come to France. You are welcome, ” Macron said in the video. “We want people working on climate change, energy, renewables, and new technology. France is your nation.”

Canada has also made similar offers that that time. Backing out of the Paris Climate Agreements, however, is an even more serious matter.

Technological Fixes for Climate Change
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While the U.S. is just one of the 195 nations that signed the Paris Agreement, it remains to be the second largest contributor to greenhouse gasses. Reversing on its commitment to the climate deal would have serious consequences on the environment, as well as to the policies of other countries.

“The actions of the United States are bound to have a ripple effect in other emerging economies that are just getting serious about climate change, such as India, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia,” Michael Oppenheimer, member of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the New York Times.

Clearly, fighting climate change is a global effort, as it takes the commitment of the rest of the world to reduce humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions. If the world’s largest economy to back out of such a fight, it could seriously push things back.

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Revolutionary Discovery About the Human Brain Could Lead to Second-Gen AI

Teaching Individual Neurons

The Neurophysiology department at the University of Lund has discovered that individual neurons can be taught patterns rather than just respond to a single, specific signal. This means that individual Purkinje cells (cells that control motor movement) are capable of learning, rather than learning being an emergent property (a property that a collection has but individual members do not).

Purkinje Cells (In Red). Image Credit: ZEISS Microscopy, Flickr
Purkinje Cells (In Red). Image Credit: ZEISS Microscopy, Flickr

Scientists’ previous understanding was that learning occurred due to an interaction of an entire neural network, however the study states:

Cerebellar control and coordination of motor behaviors may rely more on intracellular mechanisms and less on neuronal network properties than previously thought. It also suggests the capacity for information storage in the individual neuron is vastly greater and of a very different nature than suggested by the dominant paradigm.

The Lund researchers ‘taught’ the cells over a number of hours to associate different signals. Eventually, this meant the cells could learn several reactions in a series. The responses followed the time pattern of the stimuli, for example: They responded to “Signal – brief pause – signal – long pause – signal” with “response – brief pause – response – long pause – response.”

Dan-Anders Jirenhed, a researcher of associative learning at Lund, concluded that, “this means that the brain’s capacity for learning is even greater than previously thought!”

Learning Difficulties and AI

Disruptions in these systems could be responsible for a number of learning difficulties such as Autism, ADHD and language disorders, meaning that scientists may base future treatment therapies on principles derived from the study.

Understanding Machine Learning [INFOGRAPHIC]
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The most exciting application of the discovery, though, is for deep learning and artificial intelligence (AIs), most of which currently use neural networks. In order to build human-like intelligence, researchers need to understand how our minds accrue information.

This study shows that our minds learn on a single-cell basis, rather than through the combined effort of a neural network. Therefore, when building AI, we need to employ a similar model – programming the individual components to learn. If done successfully, this could result in more complex tasks being dealt with in a more efficient way, lessening the divide between human and machine even more.

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Microsoft’s Co-Founder Just Revealed the Largest Plane in the World


The world’s biggest plane, designed to carry spaceships, was innocuously rolled out of a hanger for the first time in the Mojave Desert today. Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates, unveiled the Stratolaunch, which was built by his company Stratolaunch Systems. It has a wingspan of 117 metres (385 feet) (about one-and-a-quarter times the height of the statue of liberty), weighs 226,796 kgs (500,000 pounds), and is propelled by six 747 aircraft engines.

The Stratolaunch. Image Credit: Stratolaunch Systems
The Stratolaunch. Image Credit: Stratolaunch Systems

The plane’s eventual goal is to carry spacecraft to low earth orbit in order to decrease the energy required for them to get to space. Leaving the hanger marks the end of the construction phase and the beginning of the aircraft ground and flight testing phase. All supporting Allen’s eventual aim to provide convenient, reliable, and routine access to low Earth orbit. The company will stage its first demonstration in 2019, and already has its first client — private spaceflight company Orbital ATK which plans to use the plane to launch its Pegasus XL rocket.

The Stratolaunch. Image Credit: Stratolaunch Systems
The Stratolaunch. Image Credit: Stratolaunch Systems

Democratizing Space

Paul Allen’s venture is one of many undertaken by some of the world’s biggest companies to make space commercial, all of which are making rapid headway. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s astral brainchild, says that they can make space access 100 times cheaper, and will make history by relaunching their Dragon capsule today; Virgin Orbit, Richard Branson’s company that hopes to take tourists into space, said that they will be able to do so starting next year; and Rocket Lab, who claim that they can launch small satellites into space for $ 4.9 million per flight, successfully launched their first rocket into space on May 24th.

Private companies are competing to make space more affordable for both commercial and leisurely ends. We are about to enter an age where the final frontier is not just accessible to astronauts trained for years, but to any citizen — providing we have the extra funds to spare. While its still not cheap, commercial spaceflight is moving in the right direction.

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It’s Official. Trump Just Withdrew the U.S. From the Paris Climate Agreement.

U.S. Withdraws From Paris

President Trump is officially withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, following through with his campaign promise. The 2015 climate change agreement committed almost every country to action intended to slow global warming, and this withdrawal seriously weakens it.

The administration’s official position is that U.S. participation in the Paris accord hurts the economy, and reports coming from the Washington Post assert that Tump has made the call: The U.S. will not participate in the Paris Accord. The memo follows:

“The Paris Accord is a BAD deal for Americans, and the President’s action today is keeping his campaign promise to put American workers first. The Accord was negotiated poorly by the Obama Administration and signed out of desperation.”

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore/WikiCommons
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore/WikiCommons

This withdrawal is particularly troubling given that the U.S. is both the largest economy and the second-largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world. The absence of the U.S. might set a series of events in motion that could have major, irreversible effects on the planet as other countries choose to ignore their commitments to curbing pollution.

“The actions of the United States are bound to have a ripple effect in other emerging economies that are just getting serious about climate change, such as India, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia,” Michael Oppenheimer told The New York Times. Oppenheimer is a member of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a Princeton professor of geosciences and international affairs. Once the impact of U.S. withdrawal has sunk in, he continued, reaching extreme, irrevocable atmospheric conditions will be more probable: “it is now far more likely that we will breach the danger limit of 3.6 degrees.”

The World Carries On

Other countries, including the entire EU and China, have promised to adhere to the terms of the Paris accord, with or without the U.S. President Xi Jinping of China, the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas and, more recently, a major force in the fight against climate change, has promised that China will continue its aggressive program to curb climate change. Mr. Xi has spoken with French President Emmanuel Macron and agreed that the two nations “should protect the achievements of global governance, including the Paris agreement.”

Our Warming World: The Future of Climate Change [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

This example highlights the precarious position the withdrawal places the U.S. in on the world stage. “From a foreign policy perspective, it’s a colossal mistake — an abdication of American leadership,” retired diplomat R. Nicholas Burns and former under secretary of state for George W. Bush told The New York Times. “The success of our foreign policy — in trade, military, any other kind of negotiation — depends on our credibility. I can’t think of anything more destructive to our credibility than this.”

Ultimately, though, the biggest losers here will be Earth and its citizens. The architects behind the accord argue that the absence of the U.S. will definitely weaken the chances of the agreement being enforced. For example, the country has thus far been instrumental in pursuing transparent, robust oversight of emissions reporting, monitoring, and verification.

It is possible that this move will prove just as dangerous for President Trump, depending on how American voters perceive it. The Paris agreement will not be officially in force until 2020, the year during which countries are committed to enact their voluntary efforts toward reducing emissions. In other words, there is still time for the U.S. to get back on board, depending on how the 2020 election goes. However, this won’t be an easy process, and it will also involved winning back the trust of the rest of the world.

Regardless, hope comes from other sectors. Innovation in renewables is soaring, and some of the world’s most renowned scientists and innovators, such as Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, and  far far more are dedicating their efforts towards combating anthropogenic climate change. Moreover, the 147 nations that have since formally ratified the accord remain committed to the cause.

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Experts Say AI Has a 50% Chance of Beating All Human Intelligence Within 45 Years

Timeline For AI’s Ascendance

Researcher Katja Grace at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and a team surveyed 1,634 of the leading artificial intelligence researchers from all over the world about when they believe intelligent machines and the AI that powers them will surpass human intelligence in a variety of contexts. 352 of the experts responded, and the team then calculated median responses. The results of the probe were presented this month.

The experts predicted that within the next decade, AI will outperform humans in tasks like driving trucks (by 2027), translating languages (by 2024), and writing high school essays (by 2026). The consensus was that other tasks such as writing a bestseller (2049) or carrying out surgeries (2053) wouldn’t be quite so imminent. Interestingly, the experts (who answered in 2015) predicted that AI would not surpass humans at Go until 2027 — yet that’s already happened. This suggests the sobering thought that in general their predictions may have been far too conservative against AI.

Still, even if we go with the estimates the experts provided — and these were attendees of two of the most significant AI events in 2015 — there is a 50% chance that AI will surpass human intelligence in all areas within about 45 years. AI researchers from Asia think it will happen in 30 years, while AI researchers in North America think it won’t happen for 74 years.

Image Credit: Katja Grace/University of Oxford
Image Credit: Katja Grace/University of Oxford

Getting Ready For AI

Regardless of which estimate is accurate, there isn’t much time left before AI will be capable of taking over any — if not every — job that exists right now. This means that the time to address the potential fallout from this change to our economy and culture is right now. Canada, as well as many other countries, is preparing for the automation age by investing in training and education. Many here in the U.S. have called for more investment into affordable education for the same reason.

Various nations and private companies are also planning or trialling universal basic income (UBI) programs, including Canada and a German startup in Berlin. Various tech leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk support UBI in the U.S., and see it is as the only possible future in light of automation. While there is no consensus around the world about how to prepare for the rise of AI, there can be no reasonable doubt that now is the time to begin planning and taking action.

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A World First CRISPR Trial Will Edit Genes Inside the Human Body

Uninvasive CRISPR

A new CRISPR trial, which hopes to eliminate the human papillomavirus (HPV), is set to be the first to attempt to use the technique inside the human body. In the non-invasive treatment, scientists will apply a gel that carries the necessary DNA coding for the CRISPR machinery to the cervixes of 60 women between the ages of 18 and 50. The team aims to disable the tumor growth mechanism in HPV cells.

The trial stands in contradistinction to the usual CRISPR method of extracting cells and re-injecting them into the affected area; although it will still use the Cas9 enzyme (which acts as a pair of ‘molecular scissors’) and guiding RNA that is typical of the process.

How CRISPR Works: The Future of Genetic Engineering and Designer Humans
Click to View Full Infographic

20 trials are set to begin in the rest of 2017 and early 2018. Most of the research will occur in China, and will focus on disabling cancer’s PD-1 gene that fools the human immune system into not attacking the cells. Different trials are focusing on different types of cancer including breast, bladder, esophageal, kidney, and prostate cancers.

Modifying Our World

The study, if it succeeds, will be promising for sufferers of HPV and act as a milestone in the CRISPR process. Although HPV is not necessarily cancerous, it can cause cervical cancer. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 3 million new infections every year. Although there is a vaccine for the virus, currently, once you have it you can never get rid of it.

More generally, the CRISPR process could be nothing short of a miracle: if it passes all medical tests it wouldn’t just make medicine a whole new kettle of fish, it would reinvent the kettle…and the fish, for almost any field. It is cheaper than other gene editing therapies, and could potentially save millions of lives by curing diseases we can only deal with therapeutically like cancer, diabetes and cystic-fibrosis. Crops could be altered more effectively using the process. Drugs and materials that were never possible before could be pioneered.

However, it is still extremely nascent technology, and many fear that there could also be a host of unexpected consequences. Recently, it has been found that it causes hundreds of unexpected mutations in DNA. While these concerns are valid, more research is necessary. Which is why the upcoming studies over the next few years are so vital to the future of our health.

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A Plant 1,000 Times More Efficient at CO2 Removal Than Photosynthesis Is Now Active

The CO2 Collector

Yesterday, the world’s first commercial carbon capture plant began sucking carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air around it. Perched atop a Zurich waste incineration facility, the Climeworks carbon capture plant comprises three stacked shipping containers that hold six CO2 collectors each. Spongey filters absorb CO2 as fans pull air through the collectors until they are fully saturated, a process that takes about two or three hours.

Technological Fixes for Climate Change
Click to View Full Infographic

The container then closes, and the process reverses. The collector is heated to 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit), and the pure CO2 is released in a form that can be buried underground, made into other products, or sold.

According to Climeworks, the startup that created this carbon capture facility, hundreds of thousands more like it will be needed by midcentury if we want to remain below the limits set by the Paris Agreement. However, to keep the planet’s temperature from increasing by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), we’ll need to do something more than simply lowering global emissions.

“We really only have less than 20 years left at current emission rates to have a good chance of limiting emissions to less than 2°C,” Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment director Chris Field told Fast Company. “So it’s a big challenge to do it simply by decreasing emissions from energy, transportation, and agriculture.”

Reducing Global Emissions

Other innovative efforts to reduce global CO2 levels are already underway all over the world. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), have found a way to turn captured carbon into concrete for building, while scientists from Rice University have found that doping graphene with nitrogen allows it to convert CO2 into environmentally useful fuels. If enacted, various proposals to preserve wetlands, old growth forests, and other areas could also reduce CO2 levels.

Climeworks’ plant is particularly appealing because it can be used repeatedly, produces something commercially useful, and is about 1,000 times more efficient at CO2 removal than photosynthesis.

“You can do this over and over again,” Climeworks director Jan Wurzbacher told Fast Company. “It’s a cyclic process. You saturate with CO2, then you regenerate, saturate, regenerate. You have multiple of these units, and not all of them go in parallel. Some are taking in CO2, some are releasing CO2.”

Even so, Field emphasizes that the possibility of carbon capture should not be seen as a license to emit more CO2. We need to combine the technology with a low-carbon economy to ensure our planet’s survival. “It’s not either/or,” according to Field. “It’s both.”

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