Tee time: at some point the universe blew up in size from subatomic to golf ball size. Photo: Getty
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Making ripples: another Big Bang theory bites the dust

In March, the team of astronomers working on the Bicep2 telescope announced that they had seen ripples caused by the universe’s inflation. 

The internet can be treacherous to scientists. Anyone can visit the New York Times site, for instance, and remind themselves of the 18 March front-page story “Space ripples reveal Big Bang’s smoking gun”. Now it turns out that, much to the researchers’ embarrassment, the gun misfired.

After its presentation to the world, the team behind what was hailed in various places as “the discovery of the century” submitted their research to a journal, which commissioned independent reviews of the work. The result? A big downgrade. Maybe analysing results using data lifted from a keynote presentation slide posted on the web wasn’t such a great idea.

Before we get into the messy details, here’s a quick recap. Our best theory about the history of the universe doesn’t work unless we shoehorn in a period of “inflation”. During this fraction of a second, the universe blew up in size (for reasons no one knows) from subatomic to golf ball size. This violent expansion would have caused ripples in space and time – known as gravitational waves – leaving an imprint on the cosmic microwave background, the radiation that exists everywhere in the universe.

In March, the team of astronomers working on the Bicep2 telescope announced that they had seen those ripples. The story made the front page of most leading newspapers and physics chat turned to discussing exactly who would be collecting the Nobel Prize. Not any more: those ripples may have been due to nothing but cosmic dust.

The universe is filled with the remnants of exploded stars and other debris. Dust clouds distort the patterns in cosmic radiation in much the same way as inflation’s gravitational waves would. So, if you want to be sure that what you have seen is due to inflation, and not dust, you need to know how much dust is out there.

But we don’t, not really. The Bicep team didn’t, which is why it turned to data captured by a competing team. The European Space Agency’s Planck telescope data hadn’t been published when Bicep’s astronomers were doing their analysis, but it had been presented at a conference. Planck researchers posted their presentation online. Bicep found it and used it to make its initial estimate of how much the gravitational wave signal was due to dust and how much could be attributed to inflation. Unfortunately, that is also why the team has now been forced to backpedal.

Unsurprisingly, the data from the slide wasn’t good enough to make it into a peer-reviewed publication. It is possible that later this year, when more data comes in from Planck and other telescopes, we’ll be in a better position to say whether we really have evidence for inflation theory. For now, we don’t know.

That leaves plenty of time for finger-pointing. Andrei Linde, one of the architects of inflation theory, told New Scientist he hadn’t liked the way the media had hailed the results as a smoking gun. He said the Bicep scientists “maybe . . . were a bit overoptimistic, and claiming the discovery of gravitational waves may have been premature” – but he’s hardly in a position to criticise.

In March, Linde told a New York Times reporter he was “still hyperventilating” days after the announcement. Embedded in the story is a film clip of him toasting the news with champagne. It was posted online by a Bicep team member, and has been viewed a somewhat embarrassing 2.8 million times.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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Understanding anxiety – my inside view of a debilitating disorder and how to control it

Following a number of recent anxiety attacks, I set out to learn why this happens to me.

As I stepped out of the office one evening after a routine day at work, I found myself glued to the floor. Legs bolted, knees quivering, heart racing – I was cemented into the ground by something paralysing.

I had to work out what was happening, and fast. Was a looming deadline holding me back from leaving? Was an unread message on my phone stopping me in my tracks? Perhaps fatigue had set me on edge. Or that passerby with an unsettling stare caught me off-guard. Maybe it was something more surreal; maybe a sense of dread had taken over, as I started to perceive each onlooker as a potential source of fear. Whether it was all of those things or none of those things, I eventually realised that the sticky situation I had found myself in was the onset of an anxiety attack.

Anxiety is a disorder of varying forms. People may be affected by generalised anxiety disorder – characterised by excessive worrying (often without an identifiable trigger), a specific phobia or panic disorder, in which terror can overwhelm a person without warning. The sufferer experiences physical and mental symptoms of distress that include a feeling of restlessness, shortness of breath, and agitation, exacerbated by the uncontrollable spiralling of their thoughts, which can often be self-deprecating and debilitating.

I had been in this situation before. The rising tension makes for an overwhelming and often paranoid experience, but my awareness of the fact that I was indeed having an anxiety attack was enough to know that this feeling wouldn’t persist for an indefinite amount of time; it would eventually pass, as all anxiety attacks do.

After roughly half an hour of concentrated breathing, conscious changes in thought patterns and eventually moving to a quieter spot, I had managed to calm down.

Though I had managed my anxiety attacks before via similar means, I was curious to know – what exactly was happening during my attacks? What can specifically be done while they’re happening? And could the panic and jitters of anxiety ever be beneficial?

The biology of an anxiety attack

The biological basis of an anxiety attack is tied to the actions of the body’s autonomic nervous system – a division of our nervous system that, without conscious control, regulates our bodily organs and systems.

When stimulated, the autonomic nervous system kicks into gear, causing the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream. And that’s when things flare up.

Pulses of adrenaline are produced in response to a stimulus  one that causes the body to kick into a defensive fight-or-flight mode. With anxiety, these stressful stimuli include excessive thoughts, heightened worries, trauma triggers and objects posing as threats. Even subconscious phenomena have been proposed as provokers; it is known that sufferers may wake up from a night’s sleep in a bout of panic. The stimuli add to the existing level of distress, making a person’s breath shallower, often inducing profuse sweating, and initiating a dark foreboding, all in the space of a moment.

Combating anxiety

According to the NHS, there are a number of techniques that can be employed to manage the distressing symptoms of an attack. Staying in a fixed spot, deep breathing and actively issuing a challenge in your mind to the fears on which you may be fixating are crucial things to do in the immediate stages. I wasn’t sure whether in my latest case I had done this instinctively or out of habit from past struggles. Either way, the methods were relieving.

The end of an attack is reached through an eventual depletion of adrenaline, which tells the body that it no longer needs to be on high alert. It brings with it tiredness but a welcome passing of the crisis. However, without a longer-term, pragmatic approach to tackling the disorder, it’s almost certain that an individual will face another intense period of anxiousness. So how should anxiety sufferers manage the issue over a longer period of time?

This is where therapy can be an extremely useful form of intervention. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the most common form of therapy for the disorder, with research demonstrating its effectiveness in treating the closely related disorders under the umbrella of anxiety. CBT focuses on a reconfiguring of thought patterns, shifting perceptions and a redefining of negative sources of fear.

Recently, I spoke to David Potts, a CBT therapist, to discuss how therapy can be of benefit. He said: “In therapy we'd work on specifics. It would involve telling yourself what the triggers are. Often people have very negative views about what's happening to them [during an attack]; they'll think I'm having a heart attack or I'm going to die and those kinds of thoughts form a vicious cycle and the panic gets worse.”

According to Potts, being attuned to the occurrence of an anxiety attack is essential in taking active steps to overcome it. It can facilitate the process of calming down, allowing the person in the midst of an attack to separate the thoughts in their mind from the reality of a particular situation.

Therapy can also offer an individualised approach to understanding a person’s anxiety. Potts told me: “Often, from a therapy perspective, we are considering what’s happening to them [the patient] in their lives that lead them to be more anxious than other people. It could include things they’ve experienced in childhood, it could be ways that families are, or it could involve ways that they’ve learnt to manage different emotions.”

Beyond therapy, medication is available to aid anxiety. Appropriate to a disorder that can affect people in various ways, there are different types of medication. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common form of medication. SSRIs are antidepressants that seek to increase levels of serotonin in our brains – a neurotransmitter thought to be central to the maintenance of mood. Other drugs available (in case of side effects from SSRIs) include serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), pregabalin and benzodiazepines. Though alleviating, medication is something that should supplement forms of therapy, as the pills themselves won’t solve the social triggers and problems that cause anxiety.

As people have increasingly moved towards holistic lifestyles, emphasis on exercise and dietary intake has been elevated. Eating healthier has been linked to reduced symptoms of anxiety, while exercise has been proven to reduce levels of stress in the long run. Reduced stress equates to a reduced risk of an anxiety attack.

Changes to the brain from exercise have been documented too. Researchers at Princeton University found that physical exercise generates excitable new brain cells in the hippocampus – an area of the brain involved in emotional responses. Though the excitability of the neurons would generally be unfavourable (priming the brain for anxiety), researchers found that the impact of exercise was one which had a calming effect, as the exercise was able to switch off the newly-generated, excitable neurons at times when they weren’t required.

When just a ten-minute walk has been shown to offer benefit, there seems to be very little to oppose the implementation of exercise as a form of therapy for anxiety.

Living with anxiety

Perhaps surprisingly, anxiety can be harnessed as a tool of empowerment for some. When it occurs at a smaller scale, it can serve as an informative warning against stressors, and help an individual focus and pinpoint their attention.

As a sufferer, acknowledgement of anxiety seems to be the key to unlocking the resources that can dull its impact. With carefully paid attention, responsibility and mindfulness, the waves of anxiety threatening to drench you can be reduced to smaller, more manageable ebbs and flows.