Mathematician Proposes Blocking Tsunamis with Sound Waves

de84f-tsunami-japan-1
Screenshot youtube.com
Usama Kadri, a mathematician at Cardiff University in the UK, has published new calculations in the open-access journal Heliyon demonstrating the possibility of neutralizing tsunamis with underwater sound waves. While actually implementing such a scheme would be enormously expensive and an enormous technical challenge, there aren’t a whole lot of other tsunami defenses that don’t basically just reduce to „getting the fuck to high ground before the wave hits.“ So, it’s pretty novel.

By Michael Byrne | MOTHERBOARD

The sound waves in question are more properly known as acoustic gravity waves (AGWs): vast underwater waves that travel at the speed of sound and are generated naturally by earthquakes and other geological events. In a sense, Kadri is then proposing fighting fire with fire. AGWs form naturally with tsunamis and act as subsurface precursors to the main event, affecting disturbances to the water column all the way from the surface to the seabed. AGW detection has recently been proposed as a an early-warning mechanism for tsunamis and rogue waves.

„Besides acting as tsunami precursors, AGWs can exchange and share energy with surface ocean waves,“ Kadri explains. This exchange occurs in an interaction known as the resonant triad, which is probably easier to just visualize.

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Neither Male Nor Female Birth Control Should Make People Feel Like Crap

Bild: 4ever.eu
Bild: 4ever.eu
Much noise has been made this week about a study on a male birth control injection. The good news is that the hormonal contraceptive worked: it was 96 percent effective at preventing pregnancy in the trial population. The bad news is that it caused a lot of negative side effects, including depression, leading a review board to terminate the study.

By Kaleigh Rogers | MOTHERBOARD

If you read the trending headlines on the topic, though, the study was ended because men are big babies who can’t handle the mild side effects that women on the pill endure all the time. Others lamented that it perpetuated a double standard. But multiple doctors (and Vox’s Julia Belluz) have pointed out that this is straight up inaccurate and also completely misses the point: We all need, and deserve, better birth control.

Some of the criticism stems from the understandable place of anger over the horrendous history of women’s birth control testing, which ignored serious health risks in early trials. But that should only be a lesson to us to hold all future testing, for men and women, to higher and safer standards.

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New Knitting Technique Produces Electronic Smart Fabrics at Industrial Scales

Image: Foroughi et al
Image: Foroughi et al
Australian scientists have developed a knitting technique capable of producing electrically-conductive Spandex-carbon nanotube hybrid textiles at industrial scales. As described earlier this month in a paper published in ACS Nano, the stretchable fabrics „exhibit excellent performance“ as sensors and artificial muscles. Potential applications include adjustable smart clothing, robotics, and medical devices.

By Michael Byrne | MOTHERBOARD

At the core of the material is regular old Spandex, which is basically artificial super-rubber spun into fibers. In the process outlined in the paper, SPX filaments are coated with aerogel sheets of carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes have the neat property of tunable electrical conductivity, and by tweaking the fabrication process, it’s possible to create materials with electrical and mechanical properties that change as the fabric changes shape. Meet the bike shorts of the future.

„The coating method operates at room temperature, requires no solvents, and does not compromise textile production speeds,“ the Australian team reports. As such, the hybrid yarns are also pretty cheap to produce—a key requirement.

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The Global Human Footprint Is Running Out of Globe

Image: Venter et al
The physical, geographical impact of humans on global ecosystems—what’s known as the human footprint—has grown more slowly than Earth’s human population, finds a study published this week in Nature Communications. That is, as more humans are added to the planet, the rate of increase of those humans‘ impact on the planet in terms of land use has not kept pace. The implication is that on a per-person average, humans are leaving a smaller ecological imprint now than they had been previously.

By Michael Byrne | MOTHERBOARD

The human footprint generally refers to land taken up by humans for urbanization and agricultural purposes. It was first measured on a global scale in the 1990s, but has apparently not been updated since then. To this end, ecosystems researcher Oscar Venter and colleagues set about creating an updated footprint measurement using existing data on built surfaces, roads, crop and pasture land, nighttime lights, and human population density.

What they found was a footprint increase of about 9 percent between 1992 and 2009. This is in contrast to an increase in the human population on planet Earth of about 23 percent. That’s a fairly dramatic improvement, but we also don’t have any data to about how this relationship has changed through other periods in history.

„The primary aims of this study are to update the original human footprint map to provide a contemporary view of human pressures, and to create the first temporally consistent maps of the human footprint, such that patterns of change over time can be analysed,“ Venter and co. write.

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Physicists Squeeze Water Molecules Into an Entirely New State

Image: A. I. Kolesnikov et al.
Image: A. I. Kolesnikov et al.
Physicists from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have discovered a new state of water that cannot be explained as a solid, liquid, or gas. It is a peculiar, and like exceedingly common, „other“ state that water molecules are forced to exist in in conditions of extreme confinement. Here, quantum effects begin to take over, leaving behind the rules of classical physics that we’re used to: solids, liquids, and gases just stop making sense.

By Michael Byrne | MOTHERBOARD

The group’s work is published in the current Physical Review Letters.

To start, we need to imagine just a single water molecule: two hydrogen atoms bound to a single oxygen atom. This molecule is placed in a tiny natural channel cleaved through the hexagonal crystals of the mineral beryl. The channel, which is large enough to host just a single water molecule, is only about 5 angstroms across, or roughly one ten-billionth of a meter. According to the physicists, such confinement should be fairly common in the natural world, taking place in certain geological and biological environments such as soils, mineral interfaces, and cell walls.

Atoms themselves are only about 1 angstrom across, so the beryl channels are really more straitjackets than cages. Trapped like this, the water molecules begin to demonstrate tunneling behavior, becoming „delocalized.“ As we should expect in the quantum world, the molecules and their constituent atoms are able to exist in multiple states at once.

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‚Monkey Malaria‘ Is Poised To Become More Deadly—and More Transmissible

Image: shankar s./Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Image: shankar s./Flickr/CC BY 2.0
A species of malaria-causing parasite that is increasingly being transmitted from macaques to humans in South Asia has the potential to evolve into a more virulent form that is also capable of being efficiently transmitted from human to human. This is according to a paper published Monday morning in the journal Nature Communications by researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

P. knowlesi, aka „monkey malaria,“ has been stalking the Earth already for some 257,000 years, but in that time the parasite has largely left humans out of its business. In some large part this has to do with a relative lack of overlap between human populations and macaque populations. As such, mosquitoes get to feast on the blood of one species or the other but rarely both.

Lately, however, monkey malaria has become a significant human threat in the countries of South Asia, particularly Borneo. In February, researchers were able to link massive deforestation in that country to the parasite’s increasing spread—it turns out that one species of macaque known to carry P. knowlesi thrives on deforested land. Put this together with a general increase in human encroachment on macaque territory in the region and we have an ideal case for introducing the parasite to human populations in far greater numbers.

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Neuroscientists Hack the Brain’s Circuitry for Winning and Losing

We may be programmed in such ways as to predispose us toward „winning“ or „losing,“ according to research published this week in Science by neuroscientists at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan. This is the case, at least, for zebrafish, which were found to have separate neural circuits whose relative activity could be used to predict the outcome of fights. Generally, what they’ve found is a biological mechanism for conflict resolution and social aggression.

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

The neural subregions in question are both part of the dorsal habenula (dHb), a wad of neurons right in the brain’s central nut responsible for such things as stress and pain responses, reproductive behavior, and learning.

„Losing“ zebrafish were found to have increased neural activity in the lateral regions of the dHb—particularly a pathway linking it to another brain region called the interpeduncular nucleus (IPN)—while „winning“ fish were found to have increased activity in the medial regions of the dHb.

Moreover, by selectively silencing these regions, the researchers were able to essentially hard-wire different fish for winning and losing. Which is a bit weird.

„Aggression is an evolutionarily conserved behavior critical for animal survival,“ the authors explain. „When conflict is unavoidable, animals use aggression to establish a social hierarchy that determines how to share limited resources. Most animal conflicts aim at establishing a social hierarchy rather than causing lethal damage to opponents, which achieves the best cost-benefit for the group. However, the biological mechanisms governing the resolution of social conflict remain largely unknown.“

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Astronomers: Our Sun Is Likely Capable of Producing an Apocalyptic ‚Superflare‘

Pipsqueak Star Unleashes Monster Flare. Image: NASA
Pipsqueak Star Unleashes Monster Flare. Image: NASA
It would be make for an impressive doomsday. One moment, here we are gardening or walking to lunch in the mellow light of a spring Sun, and the next moment said Sun has shredded Earth’s atmosphere and twisted up our power grids, radio communications, GPS, and most anything else electrical. And it would all stay twisted for some time because what we’re talking about isn’t just a bad solar storm but a full-on superflare. Life on Earth would be jeopardized.

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

A superflare is a solar eruption expected to be up to 10,000 times more powerful than the largest observed solar storm of the modern era: the Carrington event. Said event, which took place in 1859, wrecked havoc on the worldwide telegraph system, and, according to ice core records from Greenland, caused significant damage to the planet’s ozone layer. Nonetheless, the intensity of the Carrington event is just a tiny fraction of what astronomers now know some stars to be capable of.

Since the 2012 discovery of widespread superflare phenomena among distant stars, courtesy of data collected aboard the Kepler space observatory, astronomers have wondered if the same thing could happen right here in our Solar System. Now, researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark have reached the conclusion that, yes, the Sun is indeed capable of producing a superflare. While its magnetic field is generally much weaker than those stars most likely to produce a superflare, some lesser stars still do manage to produce destructive superflares.

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Scientists Studied How Our Brains Would React to Teleportation

Image: Ekstrom et al
Teleportation turns out to be an easy thing to simulate, neurologically speaking. The rhythmic brain patterns that appear in real-world spatial navigation reappear as subjects navigate virtualized environments on a screen, and, while real-world teleportation is not a thing that exists, in a virtual environment it’s just a matter of suddenly dropping a subject in new surroundings. Click.

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

Thanks to neuroscientists at UC Davis, we now have some idea of what the neurological response is to such an abrupt change. In a study published Thursday in Neuron, the group describes virtualized navigation experiments involving three epilepsy patients who had been previously wired with electrodes inside of their brains for seizure-monitoring purposes. The Davis group was able to „borrow“ these electrodes to observe deep-brain neurological activity relating to navigation and memory that would be otherwise impossible to observe with more typical, non-invasive external electrodes.

The neuroscience of spatial navigation is an elusive thing. Observations in rat models have found a rhythmic neural firing deep down within the brain’s hippocampus that is clearly part of navigation and related memory functions, but how this firing relates to sensory input has remained mysterious. Based on observing neurological activity from the hippocampus in simulated teleportation events, it appears that these neural oscillations may not have anything to do with sensory input at all, a finding that goes against explanations offered by most neurological models.

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Behind the Top Secret Light-Based Communications of the Mantis Shrimp

A photograph of A female Odontodactylus Scyllarus mantis shrimp. Image by : wikimedia.org/Roy L. Caldwell/PD
In terms of communications privacy, mantis shrimp are way ahead of humans. Their security measures are built in, biologically, thanks to a peculiar communication strategy based on sending information from shrimp to shrimp through the polarization of light. Eavesdropping predators can’t see this information-carrying component, so the mantis shrimp is able to signal to its fellow mantis shrimp invisibly. Evolution is pretty clever.

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

Researchers from the Ecology of Vision Group at the University of Bristol have been working to understand this system using a combination of light measurements, theoretical modeling, and anatomical observations. In a paper published in this week’s Scientific Reports, the group describes a never-before-seen optical material employed by the mantis shrimp that allows it to reflect bright and colorful polarized light using microscopically thin features. As one might imagine, this could potentially be useful for future human communications technologies as it represents an entirely new way of building polarizers.

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Lab Grown Mini-Brains Could End Animal Testing (on Brains)

Bild: animalequality.de
Bild: animalequality.de
Each year, millions of animals around the world are used for laboratory testing. Animal advocacy groups such as PETA and the Human Society have been very vocal about the need to end this practice, both on moral and economic grounds (animal testing, as it turns out, is very unreliable), while researchers continue to defend the practice, arguing that it is necessary to improve the quality of human life.

By Daniel Oberhaus|MOTHERBOARD

Yet thanks to some pioneer research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, animal testing may soon become a thing of the past, at least as far as the brain is concerned.

As the researchers detailed today at a conference for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, they have successfully developed “mini-brains” made up of neurons and cells of the human brain that are capable of replicating some of its functionality. The researchers hope that their tiny balls of brain cells will change the way new drugs are tested for effectiveness and safety, obviating the need for animal trials.

„Ninety-five percent of drugs that look promising when tested in animal models fail once they are tested in humans at great expense of time and money,“ study leader Thomas Hartung, Professor and Chair for Evidence-based Toxicology at the Bloomberg School, said in a press release. „While rodent models have been useful, we are not 150-pound rats. And even though we are not balls of cells either, you can often get much better information from these balls of cells than from rodents.”

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Soft Robots for Surgery Are Just Around the Engineering Corner

Behind the collective cringe of surgery there’s certainly many things: blood, lights, cold sterility, possibility of death. But the whole ordeal is symbolized perfectly by its tools, the rigidity of steel in hyper-intimate contact with the profound squish of the human body.

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

Fortunately, this jarring contrast may soon enough be replaced by soft robotics, at least in part. In the February issue of IEEE Transactions on Robotics, engineers from the BioRobotics Institute describe „a modular soft manipulator for minimally invasive surgery.“ It’s just what it sounds like.

The unit is pneumatically activated and is based on a silicon matrix. It achieves the rigidity needed to do surgery-type things thanks to what’s known as granular jamming, e.g. when some materials like sand or snow stiffen under pressure. The result isn’t even that creepy, or it at least isn’t as creepy is that robotic head-surgery worm.

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Dark Energy May Be Distorting Our View of Gravitational Waves

An illustration showing how SDSS-III was able to measure the distant universe. Light rays from distant quasars (dots at left) are partially absorbed as they pass through clouds of intergalactic hydrogen gas (center). CREDIT: Zosia Rostomian, LBNL; Nic Ross, BOSS Lyman-alpha team, LBNL; and Springel et al, Virgo Consortium and the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics
Dark energy may be distorting long-sought gravitational wave signals from distant sources in the universe, according to a paper posted to the arXiv pre-print server by astrophysicists at Penn State University. The waves may still be visible to us, the researchers say, but because of these still poorly understood effects, they could look very different from expected. Blame the expansion of the universe.

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

A gravitational wave detection is currently one of astrophysics‘ white whales. Despite an impressive number of detection experiments currently underway worldwide, we’ve yet to actually bag a gravitational wave observation. For the past couple of weeks, the astrophysics rumor mill has been buzzing with the prospect of a detection at the United States‘ massive LIGO experiment—which is based on an interferometer stretching from Washington state to Louisiana—but no announcement has been made, nor does one seem to be forthcoming.

The difficulty in detecting gravitational waves has to do with their relative weakness. They arise as the result of some massive body, with a very large amount of gravitational attractiveness, accelerating through space and leaving faint ripples in the fabric of space-time. This is general relativity: gravity deforms space-time itself. An acceleration, a change in velocity, will cause a change in this deformation, which we should be able to experience as gravitational waves.

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The ‚Soft Hair‘ on Stephen Hawking’s Black Holes

Image Credit: MOTHERBOARD
Image Credit: MOTHERBOARD
On Tuesday, Stephen Hawking and friends posted a new paper to the arXiv server. It has a great, or at least peculiar, title: „Soft Hair on Black Holes.“

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

What in the great wide universe could that possibly mean? Glad you asked.

The subject of the paper is a deeply vexing problem known as the black hole information paradox. This is the conundrum that arises when we ask what happens to information as it falls into a black hole. Does it persist in some form or is it lost? We hope that it persists in accordance with the rules of quantum physics, which demand that the probabilistic information governing a quantum state not vanish, but that sure doesn’t seem to be the case.

Or at least it’s really hard to imagine how the information inside of a black hole might stay intact, given that there is no conceivable way of accessing it. Is it to be found in the junk leftover after a dying black hole disappears in a final fit of radiation? Or can we access it through Hawking radiation, that slow dissipative fizz of energy that gives every black hole a finite (if very, very, very long) lifetime?

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A Newly Discovered Form of Sound Wave Could Change Drug Delivery

Surface acoustic wave in crystal substrate. Image: Wiki
Acoustics experts from Australia’s RMIT University have created a new variety of hybridized sound wave, the first in over 50 years of acoustics research. Their work, which is described in the current issue of Advanced Materials, has „revolutionary“ implications in an unexpected field: stem cell therapy.

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

The RMIT group calls its new hybrid waves „surface reflected bulk waves,“ as they exist as a combination of two existing varieties of acoustic waves known as bulk waves and surface waves. While powerful, the waves are also gentle enough to be employed in biomedical applications such as manipulating stem cells in non-disruptive and non-destructive ways, thus opening up new possibilities for the cells‘ usage.

A surface wave can be imagined as an ocean wave, where the wave propagates along the surface of the body of water without having much of an effect on everything beneath it. That is, a swimmer might simply duck underwater to escape most of the force of an approaching breaker. Sound waves can propagate like this too, where a „surface“ might represent the interface between substances of different densities.

A particularly interesting form of surface wave is the surface acoustic wave (SAW). These are, naturally, acoustic waves—waves of alternating compression and relative decompression in some material—propagating along the surface of an elastic material. It’s a more specific phenomenon and one employed widely in signal processing applications; your phone probably has a few SAW devices built into it.

Where the elastic material is actually a solid, SAWs are known as Rayleigh waves. An example would be a wave moving along the surface of a crystal or piezoelectric material (a material designed to convert applied surface stress to electricity).

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Behold: „The Screams of a Star Being Ripped Apart“

Image: Chandra/Harvard
Image: Chandra/Harvard
There is more to the violence of a black hole than the cataclysmic inward suck of infinite gravity. There is a yang to the yin of a black hole’s inward attraction (accretion), which takes the form of relativistic jets that blast outward from the black hole stretching for sometimes millions of light-years.

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

A recent discovery, described in a paper published Friday in Science, offers a new perspective on these jets thanks to a passing star unfortunate enough to wander into the outflowing blast from a quasar (either a supermassive black hole or a binary black hole system found at the center of a galaxy) spotted by the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN) project. The event is known as ASASSN-14li.

The star in question was promptly ripped to shreds, resulting in a tidal disruption flare (TDF) as its remains fell inward and were then blasted back out into space by the energy of the black hole’s jet. A TDF is a very rare event—occurring about once every 100,000 years or so per galaxy—and one highly sought after by astronomers trying to generally explain the accretion/outflow balance of black holes. This is an ongoing challenge for the simple reason that the processes involved typically evolve at timescales much longer than a human lifespan.

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New Measurements Confirm That Electrons Will Outlive God

Image: Borexino collaboration
Image: Borexino collaboration
66,000 yottayears is a 6.6 followed by 28 zeroes. It looks like this.

6,600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

This is the expected lifespan of a single electron, according to new measurements described in this week’s Physical Review Letters from physicists at Italy’s Borexino experiment. It’s roughly five-quintillion times the current age of the universe, as Physics World notes.

This is about what should be expected given the Standard Model of Physics, which is our current, albeit incomplete, best description of the universe’s fundamental units of matter and force. Electrons aren’t expected to decay because there are no other, less massive particles for them to decay into that would allow for a transfer of the electron’s charge. We might imagine it decaying into an electron neutrino and a photon, both fundamental particles of lower/no mass and both particles without charge, but this would break all kinds of rules, particularly the one that forbids the creation or destruction of electric charge.

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A New Object-Recognition Algorithm Could Change the Face of Machine Learning

Image: Danqing Wang
Image: Danqing Wang
The basic principle of machine learning is training. As humans, we can learn very profound things from single examples—spoiled milk tastes bad, fire is hot—but machines need more because they learn statistically. Machines depend upon data.

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

Or this is the current state of things, anyhow. It may prove to be less fundamental than is usually assumed, according to a study published this week in Science. The report, which comes courtesy of researchers at NYU and MIT, introduces the Bayesian program learning (BPL) framework, a new machine learning model capable of mimicking the human mind’s capacity for generalizing from single examples. It’s a model that „learns to learn.“

„People learn richer representations than machines do,“ the paper notes, „even for simple concepts, using them for a wider range of functions, including creating new exemplars, parsing objects into parts and relations, and creating new abstract categories of objects based on existing categories. The best machine classifiers do not perform these additional functions, which are rarely studied and usually require specialized algorithms.“

„A central challenge is to explain these two aspects of human-level concept learning,“ the authors continue. „How do people learn new concepts from just one or a few examples? And how do people learn such abstract, rich, and flexible representations?“

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New Report: Civilian Nuclear Facilities Are Just Begging To Be Hacked

Image: IAEA Imagebank
Worldwide civilian nuclear infrastructure is woefully underprepared for the likelihood of a cyberattack, according to a new report from researchers at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank. As facilities become more reliant on digital systems and off-the-shelf software, and as top-level awareness of cybersecurity threats stagnates, a serious event seems foretold.

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

„Recent high-profile cyber attacks, including the deployment of the sophisticated 2010 Stuxnet worm, have raised new concerns about the cyber security vulnerabilities of nuclear facilities,“ begins an executive summary of the report. „As cyber criminals, states, and terrorist groups increase their online activities, the fear of a serious cyber attack is ever present.“

„This is of particular concern because of the risk—even if remote—of a release of ionizing radiation as a result of such an attack,“ the summary continues. „Moreover, even a small-scale cyber security incident at a nuclear facility would be likely to have a disproportionate effect on public opinion and the future of the civil nuclear industry.“

Some part of the problem is that nuclear facilities have often delayed implementation of digital control systems, usually the result of regulatory requirements. This lateness means that nuclear facility operators have less experience when it comes to cybersecurity. For decades, they’ve focused on physical, real-life security, while digital defenses languished. You’re probably not going to get a bomb near a reactor core, but malicious code is another story.

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‚Schrödinger’s Bacterium‘ Puts a Biological Spin on Quantum Mechanics

The bacterium, Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) producing a zone of hemolysis when grown on Blood Agar Petri plates. www.biology101.org. Image: Anthony D'Onofrio/Flickr/Flickr
The bacterium, Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) producing a zone of hemolysis when grown on Blood Agar Petri plates.
http://www.biology101.org.
Image: Anthony D’Onofrio/Flickr/Flickr
We’re used to being told that the fundamental oddities of quantum mechanics don’t really pertain to the world we live in. They’re there, of course, but not at the scales we interact with.

By Michael Byrne|MOTHERBOARD

I can safely say that this chair is here and only here and not both here and there and everywhere in-between all at once because the chair is an almost unfathomably vast collection of quantum particles that, together, behave in all of the deterministic ways we’re used to and depend upon.

Nonetheless, physicists have been enthusiastically pushing the boundaries of this classical/quantum boundary. In a paper posted recently to the arXiv pre-print server, a pair of researchers from Purdue University and Tsinghua University have proposed an experiment in which a bacterium, a living object that would seem to be very much so a part of our classical deterministic world, is put into a superposition of states in a real-life version of the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment. So: a single bacterium simultaneously occupying multiple quantum states.

To be clear, this wouldn’t be a sudden jump from, like, single electrons to creatures each composed of around 1011 atoms. There’s been a steady progression of increasing complexity in superposition experiments: from electrons to protons to atoms to molecules to, finally, tiny mechanical systems. Quantum coherence even seems to serve as a component of photosynthesis functions in some plants, just as a natural way of doing things.

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