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Tuesday 28 June 2016

 

 

Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University gave a good overview of the discoveries that lead to the notion of Dark matter and of Dark Energy, from Edwin Hubble’s observations to the discovery of an accelerating Universe. The latter was first proposed in two papers in 1998. Computer simulations of the evolution of the Universe and detailed analyses of the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation (CMB) are the resources to establish the ratio 5, 26 and 69% for a composition of “normal” matter, Dark matter and Dark energy. The CMB also shows that the Universe is almost perfectly flat.

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Sir Roger Penrose definitely is one-of-a-kind as a scientist and as we observed also as a presenter. He insisted to use an overhead projector and he fumbled along with transparencies during his talk.
He does not believe in the inflationary Universe or rather states that inflation happened before the Big Bang. Illustrating the concept of conformal geometry with a graphic of the Dutch artist Escher, he showed that the usual bell-shape that is used to depict the evolution of the Universe could be replaced by a cylindrical shape so that he could represent both infinity (the ultimate fate of the Universe) and zero (the Big Bang).

Roger Penrose at the OHP

In his view the Big Bang was a “messy” (pun with “massy” was probably intended) event. Referring to the equivalence of mass and frequency he had calculated that it was 10124 times more likely that the Big Bang was a messy event. He analysed the CMB from the latest Planck satellite results and suggested that concentric ripples could be found that relate to collisions of super-massive black holes that happened before the Big Bang. These graphs of the CMB were the only ones he showed with the data projector. His claim is that Standard Cosmology does not explain these.

One of his final comments was: “If you don’t believe me you are not unique”. This talk was an extraordinary experience and I felt privileged to be in the same room with this highly decorated and likewise controversial scientist.

Chris Rapley discussed the various strong indicators of Abrupt Climate Change, referring to the accelerated increase in average global temperature, the record of more than 400 ppm carbon dioxide that has recently been reached in the atmosphere and has never happened since humans are around (and likely never for several billion years) and the decline of the ice cap in the Arctic ocean. He referred to plans to protect greater London against sea level rise, which technically would be limited to 3 to 5 metres, above which evacuation (“moving upstream”) would be the only feasible option. He discussed some ideas of geo-engineering and called for unprecedented global action as the only way to divert catastrophic climate change.

Jill Tarter and Neil deGrasse Tyson took their seats on stage for a discussion about “Intelligent Life in the Universe”. One of the questions was how more evolved aliens would treat us when they found us. Neil suggested that we best hide the fact that there is any intelligent life on Earth. However there are indicators that as a species we are evolving to a “kinder” and less aggressive life form. The suggestion that we should become an inter-planetary species looks good on paper according to Neil, but is highly unrealistic.

As to the question how likely it is that intelligent life exists elsewhere, it was noted how "accidental” we are, considering evolution of mammals here on Earth. Although, as Jill pointed out, that we are surrounded by stars that are considerably older than our Sun, the likelihood of intelligent life in our corner of the Universe is actually very small. And then, if we note how small the genetic difference is between us and chimpanzees, think about how different another species would be that has developed the same small amount further from us. There would be no way to even have the simplest of conversations. Yet it would be foolish not to use our technology to look around as the SETI institute does.

Eugene Kaspersby is reported to be “one of the top global thinkers”. He is expert in cyber security and quantified the various aspects of insecurity that we see in cyber space. There are more than 300,000 new malwares appearing every single day and the amount of users that are attacked is contuously increasing (2013: 56%; 2015: 62%). Through loss of information, internet access, etc. the cost of cyber crime amounts to 400 to 500 billion dollars per year globally. Attacks on digital industrial control systems are on the rise too and affect both manufacturing and transportation. Cyber terrorism and -sabotage form the next threat that needs to be taken seriously. Rapid innovation cycles and more secure platforms are essential to avoid a “Dark Age” of cyber security.

The comedian David Zambuka entertained us by demonstrating that he can travel in time by predicting an apparently arbitrary list of words and numbers that were developed with the help of the audience. Professor Brian Cox had the honour to open the padlock to a chest that contained the exact same list that during the presentation had been written on a flip chart.

Edvard Moser reported on the latest results in studying the brain cells that are responsible for our orientation in local space. Starting with experiments on rats by Tolman in 1948, “place cells” were identified by O’Keefe and Dostrovsky in 1971. Further research has now identified that place cells in the entorhinal cortex are triggered in patterns throughout local space at different scales that increase with a factor of 1.42 [probably the square root of 2?]. New cells have now been discovered that are also involved in our sense of spatial orientation. These are cells that relate to directional and speed information and also cells that indicate borders that are encountered in local space. A nearby part of the brain, the hippocampus is also playing a role, using our sense of space as a framework for memory. Neuroscience is very young but the barrier between physiology and psychology is rapidly disappearing.

Danny Hillis’ talk “The age of Entanglement” dealt with the diminishing distinction between things that grow organically and things that are manufactured. On the one hand we are getting more control over how nature makes things and on the other we are inspired by nature to create machines. This will increasingly lead to e.g. an ability to either make species extinct by genetic manipulation or to getting extinct species back. More frequently we are nowadays designing by mimicking nature. However rather than being “masters of nature” we should “collaborate with nature”.

Carolyn Porco is well known for her work in the Cassini mission to Saturn which was launched 26 years ago. She reviewed some of the highlights of this extremely successful mission, such as the monster storm observed in Saturn’s northern hemisphere, an event that repeats every 20 years, the vortex hurricane at the pole, and of course the ring system. The latter consists of particles with a size between talcum powder and big houses, is not more than 100 metre thick and shows intricate details that are mainly caused by resonance between particles and with small moons inside or near the ring system.

She reviewed the research at Titan that started with the soft landing of the Huygens probe but has since intensified by measurements from the Cassini spacecraft itself during numerous fly-bys. Arguably the biggest discovery has been the fountains of water ice and organic material ejected from the southern region of the moon Enceladus, warranting a new mission to further investigate this tiny but very special moon, that could be one of the harbours of extra-terrestrial life in the Solar system.

Carolyn finished with the famous image that was taken by Cassini in July 2013 of Earth and our moon visible between Saturn’s rings. This image was announced beforehand, inviting earthlings to wave at Saturn during this “selfie” event in the footsteps of the famous “Small Blue Dot” image by Voyager at the instigation of Carl Sagan. The Cassini image had a huge response world wide. She finished with pondering that “science can move us all; we are thinkers and explorers”, also referring to the proposed tiny spacecraft mission to Alpha Centaury.

Meetup with six Cosmonauts/Astronauts
The day concluded with the special occasion that STARMUS hosted six cosmonauts/astronauts who assembled on stage for an "Informal Symposium”. These were Sergey Volkov, Rusty Schweickart, Claude Nicollier, Roman Romanenko, Alexei Leonov, Garrett Reisman and Michael Lopez Alegria.

Each had a turn to riminis about their mission experiences, all of them relating to the effect of seeing the Earth without any visible borders as a reminder of how the peoples of the world should be united. Garrett Reisman flew on ISS and is now at SpaceX. He pointed at the amazing innovation that is happening by private industries and showed a film of the successful return of the first stage of recent SpaceX missions. Interestingly he referred to the development of the airplane that happened while nobody knew what a successful airplane would look like. We know that now, but the same evolution needs to happen about spacecraft. At some point we will know what a successful spacecraft looks like.

This concluded the second day of STARMUS 2016.

 

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