12 Events That Will Change Everything

[The feature article of the June 2010 edition of Scientific American (pp. 36-48) is actually a compilation of articles titled “12 Events That Will Change Everything.” Online version here.]

Scientific American, June 2010 Cover

This Scientific American feature discusses 12 major events. Below are the twelve events in order as presented in the magazine. (In parentheses are the likelihoods of each event as described in the magazine; the terms in order from least likely to most likely—very unlikely, unlikely, 50-50, likely, almost certain.)

The 12 Events:

  1. Cloning of a human (likely)
  2. Extra dimensions (50-50)
  3. Extraterrestrial intelligence (unlikely)
  4. Nuclear exchange (unlikely)
  5. Creation of life (almost certain)
  6. Room-temperature superconductors (50-50)
  7. Machine self-awareness (likely)
  8. Polar meltdown (likely)
  9. Pacific earthquake (almost certain)
  10. Fusion energy (very unlikely)
  11. Asteroid collision (unlikely)
  12. Deadly pandemic (50-50)

Each of these would have profound implications for the world, though some are certainly more important than others. The ones with the most immediate and negative global effects would be 3 (extraterrestrial intelligence), 4 (nuclear exchange), 11 (asteroid collision), and 12 (deadly pandemic). Of these, 4, 11, and 12 are deadly, while 3 has the likely potential to be.

Numbers 1 (human cloning), 2 (extra dimensions), 5 (creation of life), 6 (room-temperature superconductors), 7 (machine self-awareness) and 10 (fusion energy) all seem to be beneficial.

This leaves 8 (polar meltdown) and 9 (Pacific earthquake), of which the former will have slower but costly consequences, and the latter will have a non-global effect.

Whether the good events or the bad ones come first—or even at all—will depend on science, determination, and chance.

The Brain’s Dark Energy

If I said dark energy, you would probably think of some magic spell, or, given that this comes from Scientific American, the mysterious physical substance that constitutes 74% of our universe.

In Scientific American‘s March 2010 issue, the featured article “The Brain’s Dark Energy” by Marcus E. Raichle discusses a new type of dark energy—a type not in cosmology, but in neuroscience. Here’s the gist of it:

We previously thought that the human brain is at a low-energy rest state when a person is at rest, and goes into a more active state when a person is active, that is, performing some thought-provoking task. Recent findings from improved brain scans, however, show that the brain’s activity level is already very high at rest, and when active, increases by just 5%. In other words, the resting state consumes 20 times more energy than does the addition caused by active state. This high energy level in the brain’s resting, or default, mode was labeled dark energy, aptly so after the astronomical sense of dark energy, with which it shares many similarities.

All the substances in the universe we can see and interact with—all this together makes up less than 5% of the universe, with dark energy and dark matter at 74% and 23% respectively. In the same way, all the brain activity we are aware of—conscious thought—makes up about 5% of our total brain activity. Just as background energy in the universe is predominent, so is background energy in our brains. Dark energy is thus a fitting term for this phenomenon.

The article introduces a newly discovered brain system called the default mode network (DMN), for which the specifics are still being studied. The role of the DMN is essentially to orchestrate the actions of other systems in the brain; in fact, the author likens the function of the DMN to that of an orchestra conductor—to issue timing signals and to coordinate others in preparation for future events.

Implications of the DMN include much-needed insights into the understanding of consciousness, which is right now still a mysterious subject. We’ll take a look at attention, for instance. What if you had the attention span to get this far down my post, but your focus is now beginning to wander? What if I could see the neural activity of your brain in real time? What if I saw 30 seconds ago that your DMN was shutting off your brain’s conscious area, thus telling me that you will lose focus soon—about right now? And what if I told you that this type of prediction is possible, and has already been done, tested, and verified? (By the way, it has.)

Besides unlocking the nature of consciousness, dark energy could also provide new frameworks for brain diseases, in particular, Alzheimer’s, depression, and schizophrenia. For instance, the areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s are virtually the same as the areas that comprise the DMN. Depression has been linked to a decreased amount of connections between the DMN and areas controlling emotion. Schizophrenia, on the other hand, corresponds to increased signalling in the DMN, a finding still under investigation.

Life in the Multiverse

Looking for Life in the Multiverse” is the cover and feature article for the January 2010 Scientific American Magazine [pages 42-49 in print edition]. (The print version of the article contains a number of diagrams, illustrations, and sidebars not present in the above-linked online version.)

I truly enjoyed this article. Alejandro Jenkins and Gilad Perez brought this mind-boggling multiverse hypothesis down to our universe, if you will, and even within Scientific American (I’ve been a subscriber for three years and counting), this article possessed extraordinary insight and clarity. I shall attempt to summarize the article.

You may be familiar with the fine-tuned nature of the universe. If certain fundamental constants, e.g. the relative mass of the proton, were adjusted just slightly, stars would be unable to form and the universe as we know it would fall apart.

However, one revelation of the article is that if two constants are tweaked together, a universe may still be “congenial to life,” or be “compatible with the formation of complex structures and . . . forms of life.” This startled me. It looks like a simple idea once we already figured it out, but the concurrent tweaking of multiple constants is a novelty. It almost seems counterintuitive, as the scientific method normally calls for a control and the tweaking of one variable, or in this case, one constant, at a time. But, our universe becomes merely a soup of particles, so to speak, if only one constant is modified.

Okay, enough abstraction. The article then goes on to give an example—a drastic one—in which the possibility of life is retained. In the example, Perez and his team did not simply adjust a few few constants. They obliterated one of the four fundamental forces of nature: the weak nuclear force.

After tweaking several other constants, Perez’s team found a set of constants that would make the universe congenial to life, even with only three fundamental forces. Still, the “weakless” universe is different. In our universe, four protons can smash together into a nucleus, with two of the protons then decaying via the weak nuclear force into two neutrons, two electrons, and two antineutrinos. In other words, the four protons combine into a helium 4 nucleus. The formation of the helium 4 nucleus is fundamental to nuclear fusion.

In the weakless universe, this specific fusion process cannot occur. A proton cannot decay into a neutron because the weak force does not exist. Hence, stars burn dimmer, producing helium 3 instead, and although helium 4 is still possible to form, it is less common.

Basically, the point is that the weakless universe is capable of forming intelligent life. This revelation has, of course, profound philosophical implications. But I shall omit philosophy here.

A second revelation was found in the realm of quarks. In the “Tinkering with Matter” illustration, several manipulations of quark masses are given, and while some of them lead to congenial universes, others lead to no possibility of a stable carbon-like molecule, a requisite for life as we know.

I just thought this was interesting.