Neil deGrasse Tyson: We Don’t Understand the Most Fundamental Aspects of Our Universe

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We have nanobots that swim inside our bodies and monitor our vital organs. We have autonomous robots that work alongside human doctors to perform complex surgeries. There are rovers driving across the surface of Mars and, as you read this, thee humans are orbiting high above you, living in the cold vacuum of space.

In many ways, it seems like we’re living in the future. But if you ask Neil deGrasse Tyson, it seems like we’re little more than infants trying to clutch sunbeams in our fists.

At the 2018 World Government Summit in Dubai, Tyson gave a presentation to an enraptured audience. The topic? How humans will — most definitely not — colonize Mars (Tyson, if you aren’t aware, is an eternal skeptic). It seems fitting then that, following his rather depressing speech, he took the time to discuss how humans are, in many ways, entirely ignorant.

Here are three things that, according to Tyson, show just how far we have to go:

Dark Matter

A portion of our universe is missing. A rather significant portion, in fact. Scientists estimate that less than 5% of our universe is made up of ordinary matter (protons, neutrons, electrons, and all the things that make our bodies, our planet, and everything we’ve ever seen or touched). The rest of the matter in our universe? Well, we have no idea what it is.

“Dark matter is the longest standing unsolved problem in modern astrophysics,” Tyson said. He continued with a slightly exasperated sigh, “It has been with us for eighty years, and it’s high time we had a solution.” Yet, we aren’t exactly close.

The problem stems from the fact that dark matter doesn’t interact with electromagnetic radiation (aka light). We can only observe it because of its gravitational influence — say, by a galaxy spinning slower or faster than it should. However, there are a number of ongoing experiments that seek to detect dark matter, such as SNOLAB and ADMX, so answers may be on the horizon.

Dark Energy

Dark energy is, perhaps, one of the most interesting scientific discoveries ever made. This is because it may hold the keys to the ultimate fate of our universe. Tyson explains it as “a pressure in the vacuum of space forcing the acceleration of the [expansion of] the universe.” Does that sound confusing? That’s probably because it is.

If you weren’t aware, all of space is expanding — the space between the galaxies, the space between the Earth and the Sun, the space between your eyes and your computer screen. Of course, this expansion is minimal. It’s so minimal that we don’t even notice it when we look at our local solar system. But on a cosmic scale, its impact is profound.

Because space is so vast, billions of light-years of space are expanding, causing many galaxies to fly away from us at unimaginable speeds. And if this flight continues, eventually the cosmos will be nothing more than a cold unendingly dark void. If it reverses, the universe will collapse in on itself in a Big Crunch.
Unfortunately, we have absolutely no idea which will happen, as we have no clue what dark energy is.


We know a lot about how life evolved on Earth. About 3.5 billion years ago, the earliest forms of life emerged. These single-celled creatures dominated our planet for billions and billions of years. A little over 600 million years ago, the first multicellular organisms took up residence. The Cambrian explosion followed soon after and *boom* the fossil record was born. Just 500 million years ago, plants started taking to land. Animals soon followed, and here we are today.

However, Tyson is quick to point out that we don’t understand the most vital component of evolution — the beginning. “We still don’t know how we go from organic molecules to self-replicating life,” Tyson said, and he noted how unfortunate this is because “that is basically the origin of life as we know it.” The process is called abiogenesis. In non-scientific jargon, it deals with how life arises from nonliving matter. Although we have a number of hypotheses related to this process, we don’t have a comprehensive understanding or any evidence to support one.

There we have it. The biggest mysteries of the cosmos just happen to be some of the most important and fundamental. So, when will we finally figure out these scientific conundrums and move out of our infancy? Tyson refuses to make a prediction.

If there’s one thing he knows, it’s how very little humans actually know: “I’m not very good at predicting the future, and I’ve looked at other people’s predictions and seen how bad those are even among those that say ‘I am good.’ So I can tell you what I want to happen, but that’s different than what I think will happen.”

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Neil Gaiman is turning The Sandman into an expanded comics universe

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Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series The Sandman set a new high-water mark for the comics industry when it debuted in 1988, and 30 years later the author is expanding that world into its own full-fledged mini-universe. Dubbed The Sandman Universe, the series will be part of DC’s Vertigo imprint, and consist of four new individual comic series, each handled by a different writer, with the entire thing kicking off on August 8th.

“I found Vertigo at a time when I was bored with comics, then I read Sandman and my head exploded,” Vertigo executive editor Mark Doyle said in a press release. “Suddenly I saw all these endless storytelling possibilities. I knew I had to get into comics, and I had to get into Vertigo. To return to the imprint and…

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Scientists Now Know When the First Stars Formed in the Universe

Using a compact radio antenna 10 years in the making, researchers have discovered evidence of the oldest suns in the known universe. They’ve published their findings in Nature.

When we look at stars, we see them as they were, not as they are. That’s because the light takes time to travel from its source to our eyes. With powerful enough telescopes, we could directly see the very oldest stars in the universe. Unfortunately, those telescopes don’t exist.

Instead, we have to rely on indirect evidence. So that’s what a team of astronomers from Arizona State University (ASU), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of Colorado at Boulder set out to find. Their search was part of the Experiment to Detect the Global EoR (Epoch of Reionization) Signature (EDGES) project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF)

The researchers posited that the earliest stars likely changed the universe’s background electromagnetic radiation, also known as cosmic microwave background (CMB). Although they knew what they were looking for — a small change in the intensity of CMB radio signals between certain wavelengths — finding it wasn’t going to be easy, considering everything else going on in the universe.

“Sources of noise can be 10,000 times brighter than the signal — it’s like being in the middle of a hurricane and trying to hear the flap of a hummingbird’s wing,” Peter Kurczynski, an NSF program director, noted in a press release.

Based on previous research, the team also knew that the universe’s earliest stars released large quantities of ultraviolet (UV) light. When this light interacted with hydrogen atoms, it would absorb CMB photons, leaving a signal in radio frequencies; an indication that stars were forming.

Using a customized radio antenna in the Australian desert, the team collected radio wave data until, at last, they found what they’d been looking for: a clear dip in CMB intensity. This dip indicated that ancient suns first emerged about 180 million years post-Big Bang. For several years the researchers checked and rechecked the data before concluding its validity.

“Finding this minuscule signal has opened a new window on the early universe,” said lead investigator Judd Bowman, an ASU cosmologist, in the press release. “It’s unlikely we’ll be able to see any earlier into the history of stars in our lifetime.”

Image Credit: N.R.Fuller, National Science Foundation
Image Credit: N.R.Fuller, National Science Foundation

Not only does this discovery give us a glimpse of the universe’s earliest stars, it may also help us solve one of its greatest mysteries: the nature of dark matter.

The signal at the center of the EDGES project was twice as intense as expected, indicating that the absorbing hydrogen atoms were colder than researchers thought they’d be. One possible explanation could be an interaction with dark matter.

“If that idea is confirmed, then we’ve learned something new and fundamental about the mysterious dark matter that makes up 85 percent of the matter in the universe,” said Bowman. “This would provide the first glimpse of physics beyond the standard model.”

Even without the possible dark matter connection, the discovery is groundbreaking. The EDGES project team’s follow-up projects, designed to build off this remarkable research, are already in the works.

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Technology as racial exploitation in ‘Black Gooey Universe’

Art is often about making you look at regular, day-to-day objects in ways you haven't before. Artist and UNBAG co-founder American Artist has certainly done that with Black Gooey Universe, showing at Brooklyn's HOUSING studio until February 16th. The…
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New Study Links Human Consciousness to a Law That Governs the Universe

Human Entropy

Our species has long agonized over the concept of human consciousness. What exactly causes it, and why did we evolve to experience consciousness? Now, a new study has uncovered a clue in the hunt for answers, and it reveals that the human brain might have more in common with the universe than we could have imagined.

According to a team of researchers from France and Canada, our brains might produce consciousness as something of a side effect of increasing entropy, a process that has been taking place throughout the universe since the Big Bang.

Their study has been accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review E.

The concept of entropy is famously confusing, and the definition has evolved over time. Essentially, entropy is a thermodynamic property that refers to the degree of disorder or randomness in a system. It can be summed up as the description of a system’s progression from order to disorder.

The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy can only remain constant or increase within a closed system — a system cannot move from high entropy to low entropy without outside interference. A common example that demonstrates entropy is an ice cube melting — the cube is in a state of low entropy, but as it melts and disorder grows, entropy increases.

Many physicists think that the universe itself is in a constant state of increasing entropy. When the Big Bang occurred, the universe was in a state of low entropy, and as it continues to gradually spread out, it is growing into a higher entropy system. Based on this new study, our brain may be undergoing something similar, and consciousness happens to be a side effect of the process.

The Brain and Disorder

To see how the concept of entropy could be applied to the human brain, the researchers analyzed the amount of order in our brains while we’re conscious compared to when we’re not. They did this by modeling the networks of neurons in the brains of nine participants, seven of whom had epilepsy.

They looked at whether or not neurons were oscillating in phase with one another as this could tell them if the brain cells were linked. They compared observations from when patients were awake, when they were asleep, and when patients with epilepsy were having seizures.

The researchers found that the participants’ brains displayed higher entropy when fully conscious. “We find a surprisingly simple result: normal wakeful states are characterized by the greatest number of possible configurations of interactions between brain networks, representing highest entropy values,” the team wrote in the study.

This finding prompted the researchers to suggest that consciousness might be a side effect of a system working to maximize information exchange. In other words, human consciousness emerges due to increasing entropy.

While the team’s theory is exciting and will likely lead to further research exploring a potential link between human consciousness and entropy, it is far from conclusive. The study’s sample size was exceptionally small, so they’ll need to replicate their results on larger groups and different types of brain states. Still, it provides a fascinating explanation for human consciousness and may be the clue that eventually helps us fully understand the strange phenomenon.

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Project 77 is a fantastic art book that provides a glimpse into a massive universe

If you like science fiction or concept art, there’s a good chance that you’ve come across ArtStation. Founded in 2014, it proclaims to be a place for artists to show off their work, with artists like Maciej Rebisz, Kim Petersen, Raphael Lacoste, and many others posting their portfolios to the site. Now, the site is going beyond showcasing artwork online: it’s launching a series of art books by authors on the site. Last fall, it released Martin Deschambault’s Project 77, a neat blend of art and science fiction story telling.

High-concept art books have been growing in popularity recently — Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag recently funded and released his latest art book, The Electric State, through Kickstarter, while Gregory Manchess’s…

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We May Have Uncovered the Origins of The Most Mysterious Particles in the Universe

Unified Origin

One new theory could put some long-standing physics mysteries to rest. A recent astrophysical model suggests that three different types of high-energy “cosmic messenger particles” could all originate from the same phenomenon.

The theory asserts that these particles — ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays, very high-energy neutrinos, and high-energy gamma rays — were potentially all shot into space after jets from supermassive black holes accelerated cosmic rays.

Developed by scientists from Penn State and the University of Maryland, this model is the first astrophysical model of its kind. A paper describing it and its computational basis was recently published in the journal Nature Physics

Kohta Murase, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, stated in a press release: “Our model shows a way to understand why these three types of cosmic messenger particles have a surprisingly similar amount of power input into the universe, despite the fact that they are observed by space-based and ground-based detectors over ten orders of magnitude in individual particle energy.”

An artist's interpretation of cosmic messenger particles, being accelerated by jets from a supermassive black hole and entering earth's atmosphere.
An artist’s interpretation of a “multi messenger” emission from cosmic rays, accelerated by jets from a supermassive black hole. Image Credit: Kanoko Horio

Murase went on to explained that neutrinos and gamma rays, as suggested by the model, are produced naturally by particle collisions as offspring particles of cosmic rays. This means that they “inherit” the energy of their parent particles, explaining why the three cosmic messengers have similar energies.

Cosmic Messenger Particles

Each of these three extreme-energy particles has a host of unique qualities, but all share ultra-high energy levels. Neutrinos are inherently elusive and highly difficult to find, though high-energy neutrinos can and have been detected in the IceCube neutrino observatory in Antarctica. High-energy gamma rays have the highest-known electromagnetic energy. Ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays are mostly atomic nuclei, but sometimes other particles, that travel at a speed close to the speed of light.

The method used by this research team found that this “multi-messenger approach” of the three cosmic messenger particles can be explained by numerical simulations.

“Our work demonstrates that the ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays escaping from active galactic nuclei and their environments, such as galaxy clusters and groups, can explain the ultrahigh-energy cosmic-ray spectrum and composition,” said Ke Fang, a postdoctoral associate at the University of Maryland, in the press release. “Simultaneously, the very high-energy neutrino spectrum above one hundred million mega-electronvolts can be explained by particle collisions between cosmic rays and the gas in galaxy clusters and groups.”

The revelation provided through this model’s simulations serves to resolve previous discrepancies in physics and our understanding of the universe. It is a step towards creating a unifying model of how these three extreme-energy particles are physically connected. This method also pushes forward multi-messenger astronomy, which uses both theory and data from all three particles.

“The golden era of multi-messenger particle astrophysics started very recently,” explained Murase in the press release. “Now, all information we can learn from all different types of cosmic messengers is important for revealing new knowledge about the physics of extreme-energy cosmic particles, and a deeper understanding about our universe.”

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Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and More Cartoon Network Shows Arrive in ‘Magic Jigsaw Puzzles’

Jigsaw puzzles are fun, but they’re also kind of a pain in the butt. First of all you need kind of a lot of space where you can put them together, and if you’re not going to finish a whole puzzle in one sitting then it’s going to be taking up that space until you’re finished. I remember not using our coffee table for a whole month as me and my roommates slowly pieced together a particularly difficult puzzle. Then there’s the problem of losing or bending pieces, which can ruin hours of work. Similar to board games with their many pieces to keep track of, puzzles have benefited greatly from touchscreen devices becoming popular. Sure, it’s not quite the same as doing a puzzle in real life, but you can carry dozens of puzzles with you in your pocket and you’re never going to lose a piece. It’s pretty cool. One of the best digital puzzle apps around is Zimad’s Magic Jigsaw Puzzles [Free] which has been offering literally thousands of puzzles to players for several years now. This week they announced a partnership that piqued our interest as the latest update to Magic Jigsaw Puzzles adds in some of your favorite Cartoon Network personalities. Check it out.

Adventure Time, Steven Universe, The Amazing World of Gumball, Ben 10, and The Powerpuff Girls are all included in this latest update, and more shows are planned for updates in the coming months. Another cool benefit to a digital jigsaw puzzle is that you can choose the number of pieces you want for each picture meaning you can adjust the difficulty to suit your taste. The puzzles in Magic Jigsaw Puzzles range from a simple 12 pieces all the way up to a very tricky 630 pieces. If Cartoon Network stars aren’t your thing, there are thousands and thousands of other types of puzzles for you to choose, or you can upload your own photos and create personalized puzzles. Magic Jigsaw Puzzles is free to download and try and you can either get new puzzles as you go buy using in-game coins earned through watching ads or buying IAP, or you can buy a subscription which basically gives you free reign to the entire collection. I know puzzles might not be the MOST exciting thing in the world for the TouchArcade audience, but I thought this Cartoon Network partnership was pretty cool and figured there might be some jigsaw puzzle lovers out there. So if that describes you, give Magic Jigsaw Puzzles a download for free and check out these new Cartoon Network puzzles.


‘Pathfinder Duels’ Card Battler Based on the ‘Pathfinder’ Universe Now Available

The Pathfinder brand is huge in the world of tabletop RPGs, being a spinoff and extension of Dungeons & Dragons, and they’ve extended into the digital world with the Pathfinder Adventures [Free] mobile game, which was a digital adaptation of the physical tabletop game Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. We enjoyed Pathfinder Adventures very much when it launched in May of 2016, and with numerous content updates and highly-requested iPhone support being added to the game since its launch it has remained one of the better RPG adventures on the App Store. Then this past August, 37Games announced their own officially licensed Pathfinder mobile game, this time a competitive card game called Pathfinder Duels [Free], and today that game has officially launched in the App Store.

I know what you might be thinking: “ANOTHER card battler??” Yes, there is a ton of competitive card battling games in the App Store, but where Pathfinder Duels hopes to make itself stand out is with its simultaneous turn-taking. Yes, rather than each player taking turns putting cards out on the board, in Pathfinder Duels each player will play their cards at the same time and then sit back and see how the action plays out on the board afterward. It sounds really cool, and another thing that sticks out to me is how Pathfinder Duels seems to be especially geared to playing on the iPhone. Many card battlers feel like they were designed for a large tablet screen first and foremost, with iPhone support being kind of an afterthought, so this is a nice change of pace. We’ll be digging into Pathfinder Duels over the next few days, but if you’ve had this one on your radar there’s no reason to hold off on checking out the game for free right now.


How Humans Might Outlive Earth, the Sun, and Even the Universe Itself

Nuclear war. Runaway climate change. A global pandemic. Today our world faces all manner of existential threats. But scary possibilities like these are nothing compared to what astronomers say lies in store for Earth. Our planet’s ultimate destiny is to be baked, blasted, and eventually disintegrated.

There’s nothing we can do to prevent this cataclysm. Yet according to scientists who study the far future, including University of California astronomer Gregory Laughlin, the prospect for life is, oddly, rather bright. Given technological advances and the continuing evolution of our species, humans should be able to survive — in some form — long after Earth has ceased to exist.

But our distant descendants are going to have to do some planet-hopping.

The Multiplanet Era

The first major cosmic crisis will strike in about 1.5 billion years. At that point, according to projections by environmental scientist Andrew J. Rushby at the University of East Anglia in England, the brightening sun will set off what might be termed “super-global” warming. Earth will be heated until the oceans boil.

By then, though, will we care? We already have the technology to establish bases on the moon and Mars. So a billion and a half years from now, we’ll likely have colonized the whole solar system — and perhaps other star systems in our Milky Way galaxy.

As the sun grows hotter, other planets will become more appealing. Just as Earth becomes too toasty to sustain life, Mars will reach a temperature that makes it habitable. Cornell University astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger has run models showing that the Red Planet could then stay pleasant for another 5 billion years.

About 7.5 billion years from now, the sun will exhaust its hydrogen fuel and switch to helium. That will cause it to balloon into an enormous red giant. Mars as well as Earth will be fried. On the other hand, the once icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn will have become tropical water worlds — prime real estate for human colonies. We could live there for a few hundred million years.

Humans might outlive everything with the help of space colonization.
Jupiter’s moon Io is dotted with volcanoes heated by gravitational friction. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University Of Arizona

About 8 billion years from now, the flaring sun will make conditions intolerably hot all the way out past Pluto. “The exact dates depend on how much mass you estimate the sun will lose and how much planets will move,” Kaltenegger says. But the message is clear: Life will be impossible in our solar system.

The Star-Hopping Era

Fortunately, Laughlin points out, there are 200 billion other stars in the Milky Way, most with planets of their own. Perhaps our descendants will have mastered near-light-speed travel. Even with current technology, however, interstellar travel is conceivable on the kind of timescales we’re talking about.

The fastest spacecraft built to date, Voyager 1, is racing away from the sun at 38,027 miles per hour. At that speed, it would take 70,000 years to reach the nearest star. But future humans might build interstellar arks, giant ships on which generations of travelers would live and die before delivering colonists to a new destination. Such star-hopping colonists could spread across our entire galaxy before Earth overheats, even assuming no advances in rocketry.

An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft entering interstellar space. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

At first, those voyagers might choose to set sail for planets around midsize, yellow stars similar to our own. That will take care of us for quite a while, since sunlike stars last 12 billion years before they fizzle. As one star ages and dies, we can move on to the next. We’ve got time.

Fifty billion to 100 billion years from now, though, all of the raw material for new stars will be used up. The last generation of sunlike stars will burn out, and humans will need a new kind of place to live.

It turns out that we have better options than yellow stars like our sun. The Milky Way is dotted with red dwarfs, cooler and dimmer than our sun but built to last. “For the next 10 trillion years, the red dwarfs are just coming into their own,” Laughlin says.

And so planets around red dwarf stars may be our homes until about 15 trillion years from now, when they too will expire.

The Gravitational Era

Red dwarfs will be the last generation of stars. Once they die, the universe will go dark — literally. Even so, Laughlin doesn’t see this as the end of the line for life. Instead, we will enter what he calls “the gravitational era.”

In this dark future, we might build enormous space power plants around black holes, lowering masses toward them to harvest their gravitational pull “like the weights pulling down in a grandfather’s clock,” says Princeton physicist J. Richard Gott. Or we might tap the internal heat of planets to generate energy: The gravitational interaction between celestial bodies creates friction, which can keep planets hot inside even without any starshine.

Don’t picture cave dwellers huddling around geothermal heaters. Trillions of years of evolution will have long since transformed us, Laughlin says. Perhaps we will have merged with our computers. Perhaps we won’t even have a physical form. The only thing our descendants will definitely have in common with us is the essential spark of life: not flesh and blood necessarily but information.

“That’s the most important lesson from thinking about the far future universe,” Laughlin says. “We’re being naïve when we think of life only in terms of Earthlike planets and carbon-based life.”

Information-based life can keep going almost forever. The gravitational era that begins around 15 trillion years from now could continue for quintillion years and beyond, Laughlin estimates. A quintillion is a 1 followed by 18 zeroes. It is trillion times as long as the entire history of our hominid line on Earth.

Will the Universe Die Before We Do?

Still, even this near-eternity is not the same as eternity. At some point, life runs into the physical limits of matter itself.

Physics theories suggest that sometime between 10^34 (1 decillion) and 10^64 (1 vigintillion) years from now, the protons found in the nuclei of all atoms will decay. That means black holes will be the only organized form of matter in the universe. Future humanity can’t have any physical form at this point.

At 10^100 years — 10 duotrigintillion years A.D. — even black holes will evaporate. There will be no energy or structures of any kind — just a cold, eternal mist of farflung particles. This really is the end point for life.

Or maybe not. Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University, one of the founders of modern cosmological theory, is exploring a model in which the universe goes through endless cycles of creation. His latest version, developed with Anna Ijjas of Columbia University, suggests that the universe could experience a new Big Bang well before the final black hole apocalypse.

If it does come, a new Big Bang would wipe away all traces of this universe — unless we can find a way to leapfrog into the next cosmic cycle. Current physics offers no guidance here.

Then again, we have quite a while to ponder the problem.

How Humans Might Outlive Earth, the Sun…and Even the Universe was originally published by NBC Universal Media, LLC on December 20, 2017 by Corey S. Powell. Copyright 2017 NBC Universal Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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