Allowed & Forbidden Universes

“On June 25, Timm Wrase awoke in Vienna and groggily scrolled through an online repository of newly posted physics papers. One title startled him into full consciousness.

“The paper, by the prominent string theorist Cumrun Vafa of Harvard and his collaborators, conjectured a simple formula dictating which kinds of universes are allowed to exist and which are forbidden, according to string theory. The leading candidate for a “theory of everything” weaving the force of gravity together with quantum physics, string theory defines all matter and forces as vibrations of tiny strands of energy. The theory permits some 10,500 different solutions: a vast, varied “landscape” of possible universes. String theorists like Wrase and Vafa have strived for years to place our particular universe somewhere in this landscape of possibilities.


“But now, Vafa and his colleagues were conjecturing that in the string landscape, universes like ours—or what ours is thought to be like—don’t exist. If the conjecture is correct, Wrase and other string theorists immediately realized, the cosmos must either be profoundly different than previously supposed or string theory must be wrong.


“The conjectured formula—posed in the June 25 paper by Vafa, Georges Obied, Hirosi Ooguri, and Lev Spodyneiko, and further explored in a second paper released two days later by Vafa, Obied, Prateek Agrawal, and Paul Steinhardt—says, simply, that as the universe expands, the density of energy in the vacuum of empty space must decrease faster than a certain rate. The rule appears to be true in all simple string-theory-based models of universes. But it violates two widespread beliefs about the actual universe: It deems impossible both the accepted picture of the universe’s present-day expansion and the leading model of its explosive birth.

“Since 1998, telescope observations have indicated that the cosmos is expanding ever so slightly faster all the time, implying that the vacuum of empty space must be infused with a dose of gravitationally repulsive “dark energy.”

“In addition, it looks like the amount of dark energy infused in empty space stays constant over time (as best as anyone can tell).

“But the new conjecture asserts that the vacuum energy of the universe must be decreasing…”

Text: The Universe as We Understand It May Be Impossible, The Atlantic.

Pic: Oystein Aspelund, from Dark Brasilia


90 Percent

“Every year, millions of tonnes of plastic debris ends up in the sea – a global environmental problem with unforeseeable ecological consequences. The path taken by plastic to reach the sea must be elucidated before it will be possible to reduce the volume of plastic input. To date, there was only little information available on this. It has now been followed up by an interdisciplinary research team who were able to show that plastic debris is primarily carried into the sea by large rivers.


“In the meantime, minute plastic particles can be found in the water in virtually every sea and river. This constitutes a serious and growing global environmental problem. There are enormous quantities of input each year and plastic weathers only very slowly. Marine life can be harmed by the tiny plastic particles floating in the water. One example of how this happens is when fish, seabirds or marine mammals mistake the particles for food and consume them. “It is still impossible to foresee the ecological consequences of this. One thing is certain, however: this situation cannot continue,” says Dr. Christian Schmidt, a hydrogeologist at the UFZ. “But as it is impossible to clean up the plastic debris that is already in the oceans, we must take precautions and reduce the input of plastic quickly and efficiently.”

“However, in order to take practical measures to reduce plastic input, it will be necessary to answer the initial questions: Where does all the plastic come from anyhow? And how does it get into the sea? Schmidt and his team addressed these questions in a study that recently appeared in the current issue of “Environmental Science & Technology” journal. For this purpose, the researchers analysed various scientific studies that examined the plastic load – that is the quantity of plastic carried by the water – in rivers. They converted the results of the studies into mutually comparable datasets and determined the ratio of these figures to the quantity of waste that is not disposed of properly in the respective catchment area. “We were able to demonstrate that there is a definite correlation in this respect,” says Schmidt. “The more waste there is in a catchment area that is not disposed of properly, the more plastic ultimately ends up in the river and takes this route to the sea.” In this context, large rivers obviously play a particularly large role – not only because they also carry a comparatively large volume of waste on account of their larger discharge. Schmidt says, “the concentrations of plastic, i.e. the quantity of plastic per cubic metre of water are significantly higher in large rivers than small ones. The plastic loads consequently increase at a disproportionately higher rate than the size of the river.”

“The researchers have also calculated that the ten river systems with the highest plastic loads (eight of them are in Asia and two in Africa) – areas in which hundreds of millions of people live, in some cases – are responsible for around 90 percent of the global input of plastic into the sea. “Halving the plastic input from the catchment areas of these rivers would already be a major success”, says Schmidt. “To achieve this, it will be necessary to improve the waste management and raise public awareness for the issue. We hope that our study will make a contribution to a positive development so that the plastic problem in our oceans can be curbed in the long run.”

Text: Rivers carry plastic debris into the sea

Pic: Rachel Honnery, ‘…researching marine plastics and their role as kipple’.

Objects In The Sky

“In 1896, newspapers throughout the United States began reporting accounts of mysterious airships flying overhead. Descriptions varied, but witnesses frequently invoked the century’s great technological achievements. Some sources reported dirigibles powered by steam engines. Others saw motorized, winged crafts with screw propellers. Many recalled a flying machine equipped with a powerful searchlight.

“As technologies of flight evolve, so do the descriptions of unidentified flying objects. The pattern has held in the 21st century as sightings of drone-like objects are reported, drawing concern from military and intelligence officials about possible security threats.


By the 19th century […] the age of industrialization transferred its awe onto products of human ingenuity. The steamboat, the locomotive, photography, telegraphy, and the ocean liner were all hailed as “modern wonders” by news outlets and advertisers. All instilled a widespread sense of progress—and opened the door to speculation about whether objects in the sky signaled more changes.

“Yet nothing fueled the imagination more than the possibility of human flight. In the giddy atmosphere of the 19th century, the prospect of someone soon achieving it inspired newspapers to report on tinkerers and entrepreneurs boasting of their supposed successes.

“The wave of mysterious airship sightings that began in 1896 did not trigger widespread fear. The accepted explanation for these aircraft was terrestrial and quaint: Some ingenious eccentric had built a device and was testing its capabilities.

“But during the first two decades of the 20th century, things changed. As European powers expanded their militaries and nationalist movements sparked unrest, the likelihood of war prompted anxiety about invasion. The world saw Germany—home of the newly developed Zeppelin—as the likeliest aggressor. Military strategists, politicians, and newspapers in Great Britain warned of imminent attack by Zeppelins.

“The result was a series of phantom Zeppelin sightings by panicked citizens throughout the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand in 1909, then again in 1912 and 1913. When war broke out in August 1914, it sparked a new, more intense wave of sightings. Wartime reports also came in from Canada, South Africa, and the United States. In England, rumors that German spies had established secret Zeppelin hangars on British soil led vigilantes to scour the countryside…”

Text: How UFO Reports Change With the Technology of the Times

Pic: Andy Warhol – Silver Clouds, M Woods Museum.

The Event

“After I arrived, I was ushered into what I thought was the green room. But instead of being wired with a microphone or taken to a stage, I just sat there at a plain round table as my audience was brought to me: five super-wealthy guys – yes, all men – from the upper echelon of the hedge fund world. After a bit of small talk, I realized they had no interest in the information I had prepared about the future of technology. They had come with questions of their own. […]


“Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked: “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the Event?”

“The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr Robot hack that takes everything down.

“This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers – if that technology could be developed in time.

“That’s when it hit me: at least as far as these gentlemen were concerned, this was a talk about the future of technology. Taking their cue from Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Peter Thiel reversing the ageing process, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape…”

Text: Douglas Rushkoff,  How tech’s richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse

Wolves and Bunnies

“Population biology was a radical new field back in the early 20th century. Rather than just collecting statistics to describe animal populations, a few ambitious researchers like Alfred Lotka wanted to create basic mathematical models of things like predators and prey to predict the evolution of their linked populations. Predators (like wolves) eat prey (like bunnies) so they can make more wolf babies, thereby increasing the wolf population. Bunnies do a fine job of reproducing on their own, but if too many are eaten, their population numbers suffer. Today, population biologists, ecologists, and their compatriots use mathematical models to study everything from the spread of disease to the propagation of invasive species. The approach has even found its way to the study of human civilizations, including their collapse in places like Easter Island.


“We used these tools to build a simple model for the evolution of a civilization with its planet. In our approach, the exo-civilization’s population and the planetary environment are braided together by energy use and its consequences. The planet gives the civilization energy resources. The civilization consumes them to do the work of civilization building. As a civilization harvests more power from the planet, its capacities soar. That includes the ability to make and feed more babies. This link between available energy (in the form of food for simple organisms) and rising birth rates is fundamental to population biology. And for human civilization the steep rise we’ve seen in population is closely tied to fertilizer involving fossil-fuel use. So greater energy will, in the beginning, mean bigger populations. But there’s no free lunch from a planetary perspective. Using all that energy has to result in feedback on the planet. That’s what we earthlings are just starting to see with climate change. If global warming gets really nasty, everything from energy harvesting to food production is going to get severely stressed and our large human population won’t be sustainable. That’s why our exo-civilization models linked rising planetary impacts with population declines. It was all pretty straightforward, requiring no assumptions about alien economics, sociology, or any other science-fiction ideas.

“But to allow for some choice on the part of the exo-civilization we also included a basic switch describing how the civilization could respond to changing planetary conditions. For the sake of simplicity, we imagined that the planet had just two kinds of energy resources. One had a high planetary impact (like fossil fuels). The other had low impact (like solar energy). In some models we allowed the civilization to switch from to one to the other as things got bad.

“So, what did the model tell us? We saw three distinct kinds of civilizational histories. The first—and, alarmingly, most common—was what we called “the die-off.” As the civilization used energy, its numbers grew rapidly, but the use of the resource also pushed the planet away from the conditions the civilization grew up with. As the evolution of the civilization and planet continued, the population skyrocketed, blowing past the planet’s limits. The population, in other words, overshot the planet’s carrying capacity. Then came a big reduction in the civilization’s population until both the planet and the civilization reached a steady state. After that the population and the planet stopped changing. A sustainable planetary civilization was achieved, but at a high cost. In many of the models, we saw as much as 70 percent of the population perish before a steady state was reached. In reality, it’s not clear that a complex technological civilization like ours could survive such a catastrophe…”

Text: Adam Frank, How Do Aliens Solve Climate Change? The Atlantic 

What the Map Doesn’t Show

“Where the City Can’t See is the first fiction film shot entirely through laser scanning technology, directed by artist Liam Young and written by author Tim Maughan. Set in the Chinese owned and controlled Detroit Economic Zone (DEZ), in a not-too-distant future where Google maps, urban management systems and CCTV surveillance are not only mapping our cities, but ruling them.

“Exploring the subcultures that could emerge from these new technologies, the film follows a collection of young factory workers across a single night, as they drift through the smart city in a driverless taxi, searching for a place they know exists, but that the map doesn’t show. They are part of an underground community that work on the production lines by day, by night adorn themselves in machine vision camouflage and the tribal masks of anti-facial recognition, enacting their escapist fantasies in the hidden spaces of the city. They hack the city and journey through a network of stealth buildings, ruinous landscapes, ghost architectures, anomalies, glitches and sprites, searching for the wilds beyond the machines…”

Text: Where The City Can’t See, andfestival
Video: WHERE THE CITY CAN’T SEE TEASER from liam young on Vimeo.


“You’re talking about memories…”

“UCLA biologists report they have transferred a memory from one marine snail to another, creating an artificial memory, by injecting RNA from one to another. This research could lead to new ways to lessen the trauma of painful memories with RNA and to restore lost memories.

“I think in the not-too-distant future, we could potentially use RNA to ameliorate the effects of Alzheimer’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorder,” said David Glanzman, senior author of the study and a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology and of neurobiology. The team’s research is published May 14 in eNeuro, the online journal of the Society for Neuroscience.


“RNA, or ribonucleic acid, has been widely known as a cellular messenger that makes proteins and carries out DNA’s instructions to other parts of the cell. It is now understood to have other important functions besides protein coding, including regulation of a variety of cellular processes involved in development and disease.

“The researchers gave mild electric shocks to the tails of a species of marine snail called Aplysia. The snails received five tail shocks, one every 20 minutes, and then five more 24 hours later. The shocks enhance the snail’s defensive withdrawal reflex, a response it displays for protection from potential harm. When the researchers subsequently tapped the snails, they found those that had been given the shocks displayed a defensive contraction that lasted an average of 50 seconds, a simple type of learning known as “sensitization.” Those that had not been given the shocks contracted for only about one second.

“The life scientists extracted RNA from the nervous systems of marine snails that received the tail shocks the day after the second series of shocks, and also from marine snails that did not receive any shocks. Then the RNA from the first (sensitized) group was injected into seven marine snails that had not received any shocks, and the RNA from the second group was injected into a control group of seven other snails that also had not received any shocks.

“Remarkably, the scientists found that the seven that received the RNA from snails that were given the shocks behaved as if they themselves had received the tail shocks: They displayed a defensive contraction that lasted an average of about 40 seconds.

“It’s as though we transferred the memory,” said Glanzman, who is also a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute.

“In the field of neuroscience, it has long been thought that memories are stored in synapses. (Each neuron has several thousand synapses.) Glanzman holds a different view, believing that memories are stored in the nucleus of neurons.

“If memories were stored at synapses, there is no way our experiment would have worked,” said Glanzman, who added that the marine snail is an excellent model for studying the brain and memory.”

Text: Biologists ‘transfer’ a memory between snails, University of California.

Pic: Paul Rumsey, Snail, 1988-93.