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“Time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live”*…

A new kind of matter?…

In a preprint posted online… researchers at Google in collaboration with physicists at Stanford, Princeton and other universities say that they have used Google’s quantum computer to demonstrate a genuine “time crystal.” In addition, a separate research group claimed earlier this month to have created a time crystal in a diamond.

A novel phase of matter that physicists have strived to realize for many years, a time crystal is an object whose parts move in a regular, repeating cycle, sustaining this constant change without burning any energy.

“The consequence is amazing: You evade the second law of thermodynamics,” said Roderich Moessner, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, Germany, and a co-author on the Google paper. That’s the law that says disorder always increases.

Time crystals are also the first objects to spontaneously break “time-translation symmetry,” the usual rule that a stable object will remain the same throughout time. A time crystal is both stable and ever-changing, with special moments that come at periodic intervals in time.

The time crystal is a new category of phases of matter, expanding the definition of what a phase is. All other known phases, like water or ice, are in thermal equilibrium: Their constituent atoms have settled into the state with the lowest energy permitted by the ambient temperature, and their properties don’t change with time. The time crystal is the first “out-of-equilibrium” phase: It has order and perfect stability despite being in an excited and evolving state…

Like a perpetual motion machine, a time crystal forever cycles between states without consuming energy. Physicists claim to have built this new phase of matter inside a quantum computer: “Eternal Change for No Energy: A Time Crystal Finally Made Real.”

See also: Time Crystals #1 (source of the image above).

And for a not-altogether-apposite, but equally mind-blowing read, see “Scientist Claims That Aliens May Be Communicating via Starlight.”

* Albert Einstein


As we push through purported paradoxes, we might send accomplished birthday greetings to James Bowdoin II; he was born on this date in 1726. A successful businessman who was a political and intellectual leader during in the decade after the American Revolution (for a time, as Governor of Massachusetts), he was also an important experimental scientist. His work on electricity with his friend Benjamin Franklin earned him election to both the Royal Society of London and the American Philosophical Society. He was a founder and first president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, to whom he bequeathed his library. Bowdoin College in Maine was named in his honor after a bequest by his son James III.


“Human decision-making is complex. On our own, our tendency to yield to short-term temptations, and even to addictions, may be too strong for our rational, long-term planning.”*…

Many of us acknowledge that long-term thinking is a difficult, but necessary investment in a safe and happy future– our obligation to those who come after us. But it turns out that long-term thinking has more immediate benefits as well…

In times of global crisis, focusing on the present is justified. Yet as we move into 2021, there is good reason to spend some time also reflecting on our place within the longer-term past and future. For one, there remain creeping problems that we cannot ignore, such as climate change, antibiotic resistance or biodiversity loss. But also because contemplating deeper time can help replenish our mental energies during adversity, and offer a meditative source of catharsis amid the frenzy of the now.

In my research and writing, I explore the worldviews of nuclear waste experts in Finland, who reckon with radioactive isotopes over extremely long-term planetary timeframes. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years, whereas uranium-235’s half-life is over seven hundred million years. Like many anthropologists doing fieldwork within other cultures, my mission has been to uncover insights that could widen people’s perspectives in my own or other societies.

While the experiences of a nuclear waste expert may seem an unusual source of inspiration for well-being, this research has taught me that there can be personal benefits to stretching the intellect across time. Here’s how you might integrate some of these principles into your own life as you step into next year.

Doing Safety Case-inspired deep time exercises can not only help us imagine local landscapes over decades, centuries, and millennia. It can also help us take a step back from our everyday lives – transporting our minds to different places and times, and feeling rejuvenated when we return.

There are several benefits to this. Cognitive scientists have shown how creativity can be sparked by perceiving “something one has not seen before (but that was probably always there).” Corporate coaches have recommended taking breaks from our familiar thinking patterns to experience the world in new ways and overcome mental blocks. Contemplating deep time can cultivate a thoughtful appreciation of our species’ and planet’s longer-term histories and futures.

Yet it can also help us refresh during frazzled moments of unrest. Setting aside a few minutes each day for deep time contemplation can enrich us by evoking a momentary sense of awe. A Stanford University study has shown how awe can expand our sense of time and promote well-being. Anthropologist Barbara King has shown how awe can be “mind- and heart-expanding.”

Our challenge, then, is to discover, in ourselves, techniques for always bringing an awe-inspired awareness of deep time with us – wherever our futures may lead.

Taking inspiration from a far-sighted Finnish nuclear waste project, anthropologist Vincent Ialenti (@vincent_ialenti) explains why embracing Earth’s radical long-term can be good for well-being today: the benefits of embracing ‘deep time’ in a year like this.

* Peter Singer


As we find perspective and peace in being good ancestors, we might say alles Gute zum Geburtstag to Georg Christoph Lichtenberg; he was born on this date in 1742. Lichtenberg held the first professorship in Germany explicitly dedicated to experimental physics; he is remembered for his posthumously published notebooks, which he himself called sudelbücher, a description modelled on the English bookkeeping term “waste books” or “scrapbooks”, and for his discovery of tree-like electrical discharge patterns now called Lichtenberg figures.

One of the first scientists to introduce experiments with apparatus in their lectures, Lichtenberg was a popular and respected figure in contemporary European intellectual circles. He was one of the first to introduce Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod to Germany by installing such devices in his house and garden sheds. He maintained relations with most of the great figures of that era, including Goethe and Kant. Ans was sought out by other leading scientists: Alessandro Volta visited Göttingen especially to see him and his experiments; mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss sat in on his lectures.

But Lichtenberg was also an accomplished satirist, whose works put him in the highest ranks of German writers of the 18th century. And he proposed the standardized paper size system used globally today (except in Canada and the U.S.) defined by ISO 216, which has A4 as the most commonly used size.

Perhaps in time, the so-called Dark Ages will be thought of as including our own…

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg


“In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness”*…

There is a portion of the sky where no spacefarer wants to go. It causes Astronauts to see shooting stars in front of their eyes, sets off emergency sensors and renders satellites useless. This Bermuda Triangle of space isn’t just a cause for concern for our future of space exploration, it could be the sign of something far more deadly. This may herald an event that last happened 42,000 years ago, which wiped out our closest relative, the Neanderthals. Welcome to the terrifying world of the South Atlantic Anomaly.

In the 80s engineers noticed that most satellite errors happened over South America and the South Atlantic. These errors ranged from minor glitches, wiped data to full-blown crashed satellites. But they couldn’t quite pinpoint what was causing these troubling errors, they named this mysterious area the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA).

We didn’t understand the dangers of this region for a long time. When the Hubble Space Telescope first turned on in 1990 they found that the computers kept crashing and data was corrupted almost every time it flew over the South Atlantic. Not wanting their billion-dollar telescope to crash to Earth, the engineers had no choice but to switch it off every time it passed over this deadly patch of sky, and still do today. Not ideal, but it saves the telescope from this mysteriously dangerous part of space.

So what makes the South Atlantic Anomaly so dangerous? It turns out it is all down to the Sun and a crack in Earths armour caused some very bizarre geophysics.

So what does struggling satellites means for us here on Earth? Well, quite a lot really. It could be a sign of something much more deadly, a geomagnetic reversal.

When we picture the Earth’s magnetic field we often think of it as unchanging. It is our eternal armour from deadly solar radiation as well as the guide for our sailors. Even some birds have evolved iron-rich cells in their eyes, enabling them to ‘see’ the magnetic field and navigate the globe. But the magnetic north pole hasn’t always been in the north.

The magnetic poles have flipped repeatedly over the millennia. The field weakens, disappears and then reappears in the opposite direction. We know this because iron-rich lava aligns to the magnetic field and then sets, so we can look at ancient rocks and see what direction magnetic north was when it formed.

We don’t have a complete understanding of how the magnetic field is generated and why it flips. We know that convection currents of iron-rich mantle create the field, but the interactions between these immense systems are complex and hidden from us. What’s more, there are no patterns to the past flipping events, so it is very hard to predict when one will happen.

But, models and simulations show that when the field gets weaker at the beginning of a magnetic flip, it seems to happen in a random area and then grows from there. The poles also start to drift quite dramatically and chaotically. This is worrying because not only does the South Atlantic Anomaly look like the weakening in a simulation, it is also growing, and the North pole is drifting further each year.

… So, it seems at least plausible that the South Atlantic Anomaly is the start of the next geomagnetic flip. If so, it could have enormous consequences for us!

The last time a flip happened was 42,000 years ago, but it was only a temporary event, and the poles returned to their previous locations, this is known as the Laschamps Excursion, and it lasted for about a thousand years. That meant Earth was without its essential protective shield for an awfully long time.

Now, 42,000 years ago is a significant time. This was when Neanderthals died out. We (Homo Sapiens) also started using caves, red ochre body paint, and the global craze of cave painting started. It was also when a lot of ice-age megafauna died out. All of which has been linked to the flipping of the poles during this period. This extinction event and Sapien revolution has been called the Adams Event (after Douglas Adams and the infamous 42).  

This theory suggests that when the poles flipped, the Earth had a thousand years without its protective layer, so the planet was bombarded with radiation. This depleted ozone, increased radiation on the surface, messed with weather patterns and caused abrupt climate change.

Scientist even suggests that this is why we suddenly took to living in caves and using red ochre. We had to hide from the deadly rays of the Sun, and if we ventured out, we needed a powerful suncream, like powdered red ochre. This is why red ochre hand paintings became so widespread around this time.

But these immense changes hit one species particularly hard. Neanderthals were likely red-headed, light-skinned and mostly dwelt in steppes (grassy plains) and woodlands. They probably got sunburnt a lot. Unlike Homo Sapiens, it seems as though Neanderthals didn’t use red ochre much at all! All of this means that cancers would have been a deadly problem for them.

To make all this even worse, the radiation increased the strength of electrical storms, changed the weather patterns and screwed up many ecosystems. So the food that the Neanderthals hunted my have been driven away or gone extinct. It seems Neanderthals died out because they starved to death while being baked by the Sun. Meanwhile, we Homo Sapiens hid from the Sun, used weird sunscreen and adapted to new foods…

These flipping events take hundreds or thousands of years to pass due to the amount of heavy magma that needs to shift to cause a flip (however it is hypothesised it could take as little as a month in extreme circumstances). So we aren’t in any danger of waking up to a new direction for North. But, over the next few decades or hundreds of years, we will see the South Atlantic Anomaly grow and potentially be joined by many other areas of weak magnetism. We may even see some local flips in a few hundred years.

So, it seems at least plausible that the South Atlantic Anomaly is the start of the next geomagnetic flip. If so, it could have enormous consequences for us!

The South Atlantic Anomaly: Earth’s deadly weakness: “Do Failing Satellites Foretell An Imminent Extinction?” From Will Lockett (@welockett).

* Samuel Beckett


As we search for true north, we might send charged birthday greetings to a man whose life work could be at risk if there’s a flip (or an intense solar storm), Elihu Thomson; he was born on this date in 1853. An engineer and inventor, he was instrumental in developing the practical applications of electricity, especially alternating current. He invented electric welding and other important advances in electric lighting and power (among his lifetime total of about 700 patents). Thomson was also a cofounder of the General Electric Company (in 1892, in a merger of his Thomson-Houston Electric Company with the Edison Company.


“Man tends to define in terms of the familiar. But the fundamental truths may not be familiar.”*…

Most of us probably do not need to think too hard to distinguish living things from the “non-living”. A human is alive; a rock is not. Easy!

Scientists and philosophers do not see things quite this clearly. They have spent millennia pondering what it is that makes something alive. Great minds from Aristotle to Carl Sagan have given it some thought – and they still have not come up with a definition that pleases everyone. In a very literal sense, we do not yet have a “meaning” for life.

If anything, the problem of defining life has become even more difficult over the last 100 years or so. Until the 19th Century one prevalent idea was that life is special thanks to the presence of an intangible soul or “vital spark”. This idea has now fallen out of favour in scientific circles. It has since been superseded by more scientific approaches. Nasa, for instance, has described life as “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”.

But Nasa’s is just one of many attempts to pin down all life with a simple description. In fact, over 100 definitions of life have been proposed, with most focusing on a handful of key attributes such as replication and metabolism.

To make matters worse, different kinds of scientist have different ideas about what is truly necessary to define something as alive. While a chemist might say life boils down to certain molecules, a physicist might want to discuss thermodynamics…

A comparative survey of the definitions that currently exist concludes…

To properly define life, we might need to find some aliens.

The irony is that attempts to pin down a definition of life before we discover those aliens might actually make them more difficult to find. What a tragedy it would be if in the 2020s the new Mars rover trundles straight past a Martian, simply because it does not recognise it as being alive.

“The definition can actually hinder the search for novel life,” says [Carol] Cleland. “We need to get away from our current concept, so that we are open to discovering life as we don’t know it.”

It is surprisingly difficult to pin down the difference between living and non-living things: “There are over 100 definitions of ‘life’ and all are wrong.

* Carl Sagan


As we strive for beginner’s mind, we might send exploratory birthday greetings to John Theophilus Desaguliers; he was born on this date in 1683. A natural philosopher, clergyman, and engineer, he is best remembered as the experimental assistant to Isaac Newton, who went on to popularize Newton’s work in public lectures and publications. On the strength of that work, Desaguliers was elected to the Royal Society and ultimately became its curator.

In his own work he coined the terms conductor and insulator. He repeated and extended the work of Stephen Gray in electricity. He proposed a scheme for heating vessels such as salt-boilers by steam instead of fire. And he made inventions of his own (e.g., a planetarium), and material improvements to others’ machines, such as Thomas Savery’s steam engine (by adding a safety valve and using an internal water jet to condense the steam in the displacement chambers) and a ventilator at the House of Commons. 


Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 12, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Electricity is really just organized lightning”*…

A diagram from Galvani’s De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius, 1791.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1818, the young Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with the idea that electricity is a kind of fluid that endows living things with their life force. This obsession leads to tragedy.

Shelley’s view of electricity was, in fact, not an uncommon perspective at the time: just a few decades earlier the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani had shown that a shock of static electricity applied to the legs of a dismembered frog would cause the legs to kick. Galvani concluded that there existed a kind of “animal electric fluid” that was responsible for the animation of living creatures.

In the two hundred years since Frankenstein our view of electricity has certainly evolved, as has our ability to generate and control electric currents. But do we really understand what we’re doing? Do we even know what electricity is?

Physicist Brian Skinner (@gravity_levity) explains “Here’s why we don’t understand what electricity is.”

Pair with “Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science.”

* George Carlin


As we plug in, we might send really fast birthday greetings to Leon Cooper; he was born on this date in 1930. A physicist, he shared the Nobel Prize in 1972 (with John Bardeen and John Robert Schrieffer) for contributing the concept of Cooper electron pairs which forms the basis of the BCS (their initials) theory of superconductivity. He is also one of the the namesakes and co-developers of the BCM theory of synaptic plasticity.

He went on to become a cofounder and co-chairman of Nestor, Inc., a company that applies neural-network systems to complex applications. The company built computer-based adaptive pattern-recognition and risk-assessment systems that could, for example, accurately classify complex patterns in sonar, radar or imaging systems. He also founded and was director of Brown University’s Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, which develops cognitive pharmaceuticals and intelligent systems for electronics, automobiles and communications.

The character “Sheldon Cooper” in Big Bang Theory is partially named for Cooper.


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