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?

Photo: Getty
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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.