The seventh annual World Science Festival, held in Manhattan on May 28 – June 1, 2014, was organized to help explain cutting edge research to the general public and, as you might expect, there was plenty to keep the science fiction and fantasy fan abuzz as well.

Downloading the Brain

On Saturday, May 31, NYU research psychologist Gary Marcus led a panel of brainy people talkin’ ‘bout brains, specifically how they operate and how much of that operation we actually understand.

The panelists quickly debunked some long-standing mental myths, including the “we only use 10%” corker. They said there might actually be a kernel of truth in it, though, as we maybe only use a certain amount AT ANY GIVEN TIME. It’s not like shit is just sitting around, functionless, though. What’s more, it’s really hard to pin down a specific purpose for any one part of the brain, as many sections can interact with others to perform a certain function. Maybe only 80% is involved with learning, and 80% with emotion, but PART of the emotional locus is also part of the learning locus. There’s a lot of overlap, as opposed to some popular depictions of discrete “modules.”

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The Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless capitalized on the 10% brain myth in 2011. I think only 10% of audiences remember it.

Marcus also mentioned that the much ballyhooed fMRI technique (with all the pretty color pictures you see on TV) is not useful for “decoding,” the practice of trying to find specific functions for individual neurons. In addition to the fact that fMRI can only really tell us where the blood is, not necessarily what the brain’s doing with that blood, it’s also way too coarse of a picture. The fMRI can at best resolve a few million neurons. For closer examination, electrical engineer Michel Maharbiz has devised what he calls “neural dust;” tiny silicon interfaces that stay in a subject’s skull and monitor activity for a lifetime. Beats shoving an electrode into your cortex!

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An fMRI image doesn’t narrow things down enough for some people.

That and other techniques could help us determine if the human brain is truly modular, or if it’s more like a general purpose computer. If the latter is true, it will be very hard to simulate or duplicate. Beyond that, geneticist George Church says human biology operates very close to the Landauer limit, which is the minimum amount of energy required to manipulate a bit of information. Our best artificial circuits are about a million times off from that figure. So there are a lot of challenges left before we develop human-like machines or find a way to put your brain in a robot body.

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Maybe we should consult this guy to expedite the process.

Search for Life

“The Search for Life: The 20 Horizon” was moderated by Mario Livio (who I’ve spoken of before) and featured the most prominent trailblazers attempting to figure out how life began and if we can find it elsewhere.

The panel’s standout was Sara Seager, one of the lead scientists on the Kepler space mission, an orbital telescope that has so far established the existence of almost a thousand planets beyond our solar system, with perhaps three times that many waiting for confirmation. Her next project will be the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which will try to identify planets by the reduction of brightness in their home star as the planet crosses in front of it.

image03I spy with my electric eye…

Seager emphasized that despite what the media may want you to believe, no true “Earth analogue” has been discovered yet. Well, maybe it has, and we just can’t tell for sure. Kepler has found plenty of rocky bodies in about the same place that we are, but it’s very difficult to determine the composition of their atmospheres, so it’s too soon to brand any as really “Earth-like.” That could change if the proposed “Starshade” investigation obtains funding. Starshade aims to block the light from target stars almost completely, so that only potential planets shine through. Certain wavelengths of light are absorbed by particular atmospheric gases, so by noting the dark spots in the spectra from exoplanets, we can tell what their air is like. There aren’t many geologic processes that put up large amounts of oxygen, so if we found that, we’d be a step closer to finding ET.

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The proposed Starshade would like a giant flower, dozens of feet across, and would act to block a star’s light to better examine the planets that circle it. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Seager was surprisingly optimistic by saying that we will likely confirm the existence of SOME KIND of extraterrestrial life within 40 years. Biochemist Jack Szostak did her better by saying he’ll be able to create life resembling that of the early Earth in a lab in 20 years’ time. If he can do that, we could then imagine what the early atmosphere was like, and know better what to look for on other worlds. Now we all just need to put our brains in robot bodies so we can live long enough to see these things.

Ripples from the Big Bang

One of the premiere events of the weekend brought the audience on a journey through our discovery of the Big Bang and how it might have happened, culminating with a discussion of the potential gravity waves by the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2) project. And when I say “premiere,” I mean they really spared no expense. Check it out!

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Moderator and science-popularizer extraordinaire Brian Greene introduced the idea of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a faint glimmering echo of heat left over from the violent birth of our universe. The Big Bang was more or less confirmed by the CMB’s discovery in 1964, but was modified in 1980 by Alan Guth, one of the evening’s panelists, by an idea called inflation. Inflation supposes that the universe expanded at a staggering acceleration early on, from about 10-36 seconds to 10-33 seconds (try to wrap your head around that), before slowing down to a more gradual rate. This was devised to explain why stars and galaxies clump together, as tiny quantum fluctuations in space were magnified quickly to large scales.

Inflationary cosmology predicts the existence of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime itself caused by the mind-blowing ferocity of inflation. BICEP2 researchers, including panelist John Kovac, believe they’ve confirmed the existence of these “primordial” gravitational waves by analyzing the polarization of the CMB (or, more simply put, their orientation), and therefore all but confirmed that inflation did indeed occur.

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The swirly CMB pattern BICEP2 came up with. Please do not ask me to explain it.

Funny thing is, between the time the discovery was announced and when this panel commenced, BICEP2’s interpretation had come under heavy fire from other physicists, including panelist Paul Steinhardt, who originally helped develop the inflationary theory. Critics think the researchers didn’t do enough to rule out interstellar dust as the cause of the polarization. Kovac countered that they never said they were certain, as you never can be in science, but that forthcoming data from the orbiting Planck telescope should better inform the matter this fall.

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Still no sign at all of the messenger particle known as the graviton, though.

And you know what? That’s fine. In fact, it’s one of science’s great strengths; that weird and fantastic ideas can be checked by others to see if they pass muster. You don’t have to argue forever without coming to a conclusion, just get more data! And if you’re wrong, move on to the next thing. Steinhardt himself has all but abandoned the inflationary theory HE HELPED ORGIINATE when he decided the math doesn’t work out to his satisfaction. Try getting somebody in another field of work to do that.

Okay, enough of all that! The folks behind New York Comic Con will be holding an all new, comic book-focused event called Special Edition NYC this weekend, and I’ll be there LIVE-TWEETING both days! Follow me @russdobler46 and get the news first!