Ex­plor­ing the fi­nal fron­tier: Meet the Scots sci­en­tist hunt­ing for the rip­ple in the space­time con­tin­uum


Sunday Herald - - NEWS - BY PETER SWIN­DON

IT may sound like some­thing out of a science fic­tion plot, but Scot­land’s chief sci­en­tific ad­viser is cur­rently hunt­ing for rip­ples in the fab­ric of the space­time con­tin­uum.

Pro­fes­sor Sheila Rowan’s team re­cently dis­cov­ered a burst of grav­i­ta­tional waves cre­ated by two black holes col­lid­ing which caused the en­tire uni­verse to shud­der. The rip­ple in space­time be­gan 1.8 bil­lion years ago and orig­i­nated so far away that it wasn’t picked up un­til Au­gust.

Her team, based at labs at the Univer­sity of Glas­gow, is now try­ing to zero in on the pre­cise lo­ca­tion of the cat­a­clysmic event so they can learn more about how our uni­verse came into be­ing. Rowan is the chief sci­en­tific ad­viser (CSA) for Scot­land, pro­vid­ing ex­pert ad­vice to the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment to help in­form pol­i­cy­mak­ing.

The 47-year-old from Dum­fries also leads the Univer­sity of Glas­gow’s In­sti­tute for Grav­i­ta­tional Re­search, which is in part­ner­ship with the Laser In­ter­fer­om­e­ter Grav­i­ta­tional-Wave Ob­ser­va­tory (LIGO), a large-scale physics ex­per­i­ment and ob­ser­va­tory set up to de­tect cos­mic grav­i­ta­tional waves.

Rowan said: “We helped de­sign and build the in­stru­ments and, of course, very ex­cit­ingly got those sig­nals, de­tected them, an­a­lysed them and started to work out what’s pro­duc­ing them out in the cos­mos.”

The lat­est rip­ple to be dis­cov­ered was cre­ated when two black holes with masses of about 31 and 25 times the mass of the sun com­bined to pro­duce a newly spin­ning black hole with about 53 times the mass of the sun.

Rowan said: “Grav­i­ta­tional waves cause the uni­verse to shud­der just a lit­tle bit. They send a rip­ple through all of us.” It was the fourth grav­i­ta­tional wave to be picked up by the project. Last week, the No­bel prize for physics was awarded to three Amer­i­can physi­cists who first found rip­ples in the fab­ric of space­time in 2015.

Grav­i­ta­tional waves – os­cil­la­tions in the fab­ric of space­time, mov­ing at the speed of light and caused by the ac­cel­er­a­tion of mas­sive ob­jects – were first pre­dicted by Al­bert Ein­stein a cen­tury ago in his The­ory of Gen­eral Rel­a­tiv­ity.

They carry unique in­for­ma­tion about the ori­gins of our uni­verse and study­ing them pro­vides im­por­tant in­sights into black holes, su­per­novae, gamma-ray bursts, and neu­tron stars. The lat­est wave was the first to be picked up by Europe’s sole de­tec­tor in Italy. Known as Virgo, the de­tec­tor uses so­phis­ti­cated laser in­ter­fer­om­e­try tech­niques to mea­sure the ex­tremely weak dis­tor­tion of space­time.

Rowan ex­plained: “We do it with light. We take light from a laser, send out light waves along two very long arms, re­flect them back, and use the wave length of that light ef­fec­tively to mea­sure the length of those arms and how much they might be stretched and squashed as a grav­i­ta­tional wave passed by, and, ef­fec­tively how much that grav­i­ta­tional wave shakes mir­rors we’ve placed sev­eral kilo­me­tres apart.”

There are just three de­tec­tors world­wide – Virgo in Italy and the LIGO de­tec­tors in the USA. Rowan hopes that a fourth un­der con­struc­tion in Ja­pan will of­fer even more in­for­ma­tion about the ori­gins of grav­i­ta­tional waves.

Rowan said: “We are re­ally still at the start of a new field of astron­omy and we want to work with our part­ners who have tele­scopes to ask them to look at the point in the sky where our grav­i­ta­tional waves are com­ing from to see what they see, and to do that we need to be able to tell them where to look. As we get more and more de­tec­tors we can pin­point with much bet­ter ac­cu­racy where a sig­nal came from.”

SINCE Blade Run­ner was re­leased in 1982 some of its science fic­tion won­ders – from com­put­ers in cars to gi­ant tele­vi­sual bill­boards – have be­come facts of con­tem­po­rary life. Like the best science fic­tion films it an­tic­i­pated many of the tech de­vel­op­ments to come. In the week of the re­lease of Blade Run­ner 2049 we look at some of our most in­flu­en­tial science fic­tion movies, and ask: are we al­most there? How close are we to a world of sex bots, Mar­tian colonies, time-travel tech­nol­ogy or geno­ci­dal cy­borgs? When will the repli­cants fi­nally be with us?

BLADE RUN­NER 2049 Are repli­cants al­most with us?

THE idea of the repli­cant, a crea­ture that looks hu­man but is ei­ther ma­chine or bio­engi­neered, has haunted us for decades. Ri­d­ley Scott’s orig­i­nal Blade Run­ner seared it into our vis­ual imag­i­na­tion, but even before that the pub­li­ca­tion of Philip K Dick’s Do An­droids Dream Of Elec­tric Sheep, on which the film was based, had us snared. It is now al­most 2019, the year in which the first Blade Run­ner is set, and so far it seems we are not yet close to hav­ing repli­cants liv­ing among us ... or are we?

First of all what is a repli­cant? Is it a clone? A cy­borg? A bioma­chine? Direc­tor of the new Blade Run­ner 2049, De­nis Vil­leneuve, has de­scribed them as “syn­thetic hu­mans” which are “not very far from hu­mans”. What is clear from the orig­i­nal film is that they are some kind of biorobotic form. Let’s for a mo­ment as­sume they are more like ro­bots than clones and, in­deed, in the orig­i­nal Philip K Dick ac­count they are ex­plic­itly rogue an­droids. Okay, with that set­tled, how close are we to cre­at­ing an an­droid? Sethu Vi­jayaku­mar, pro­fes­sor of ro­bot­ics at the Univer­sity of Ed­in­burgh, ob­serves that there are two el­e­ments to this. One is cre­at­ing a ma­chine that has a hu­man-like form. The other is de­vel­op­ing the ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. The for­mer is de­vel­op­ing, he says, “at pace” – the lat­ter is prov­ing more of a chal­lenge. AI’s abil­ity to recog­nise so­cial cues and in­ten­tions is still far from so­phis­ti­cated enough. “AI needs to make a huge leap in terms of un­der­stand­ing be­hav­iour and pre­dict­ing be­hav­iour,” he says. Vi­jayaku­mar is cur­rently work­ing on a project with the Nasa Valkyrie ro­bot which is de­signed to de­velop soft­ware around what he de­scribes as “shared au­ton­o­mous be­hav­iour”. Here, the ro­bot must ex­e­cute tasks – un­der hu­man or com­puter or­ders – but has to work out the fine-tun­ing of how to move around to ex­e­cute it. Ef­fec­tively to do what our sub­con­scious minds might do un­der con­scious com­mand.

An­droids also tend to have a num­ber of dif­fer­ent func­tions in sci-fi. One is to be our ro­bot slaves, to do both our un­wanted (and some­times our wanted) jobs. Al­ready, in 2017, ro­bots and com­put­ers have taken over many of our ac­tiv­i­ties and, year on year, sci­en­tists are de­vel­op­ing new ways for them to re­place hu­man labour. Soon, fu­tur­ists prom­ise, ro­bots will be our car­ers, our nurses, our teach­ers. There are even some al­ready in cre­ation that can pro­vide us with sex. While not as so­phis­ti­cated as Blade Run­ner’s Pris, played by Daryl Han­nah, left, their de­vel­op­ment is ac­cel­er­at­ing.

Abyss, for in­stance, hith­erto a man­u­fac­turer of sil­i­cone sex dolls, is now cre­at­ing com­pan­ions with AI and an­i­ma­tron­ics. But how do we de­fine con­sent when these ma­chines are pro­grammed to say “yes”? And what im­pact will they have on hu­man re­la­tions?

We are a long way from cre­at­ing the per­fect repli­cant. But per­haps that’s not the main thrust of cur­rent AI. As Vi­jayaku­mar points out, it may be that the big­gest strand in AI de­vel­op­ment is not about cre­at­ing ro­bots in our like­ness, but about in­te­grat­ing them into the ar­chi­tec­ture of our lives, our homes, our cars, our bod­ies. “It’s not ‘Here’s an R2D2’. It’s a whole ecosys­tem,” he puts it.

Soon, fu­tur­ists prom­ise, ro­bots will be our car­ers, our nurses, our teach­ers

THE MAR­TIAN How soon will we have gar­dens on Mars?

THE year in which Ri­d­ley Scott’s The Mar­tian is set, 2035, doesn’t now seem an en­tirely un­rea­son­able bet for a date by which we might be vis­it­ing, if not colonis­ing Mars. At least, not if the state­ments of Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, are any­thing to go by. Last month, Musk an­nounced he planned to get peo­ple to the Red Planet within seven years – and with the help of a ve­hi­cle called the BFR (Big F**ing Rocket). The race to Mars is on and the real thrust is com­ing from pri­vate com­pa­nies, tech bil­lion­aires like Musk and Ama­zon founder Jeff Be­zos whose Blue Ori­gin com­pany is also de­vel­op­ing space tech­nol­ogy.

But what of the potato-growing that sus­tained Matt Da­mon through his stint on Mars in Scott’s film? They, too, are be­ing de­vel­oped. Nasa ear­lier this year an­nounced it was send­ing a space gar­den, known as the Ad­vanced Plant Habi­tat, on board the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, and the Euro­pean Space Agency is in­volved in sim­i­lar projects. Christophe Lasseur, a sci­en­tist work­ing for the ESA, de­scribed how its space gar­dens form part of a wider re­cy­cling sys­tem aimed at re­duc­ing the biomass sent up into space.

At the heart of the project, cur­rently, is the hum­ble potato. Why? “The main rea­son is that they bring a lot of en­ergy for the crew. Growing let­tuce is nice. But the nu­tri­tion value is very lim­ited.”

PAS­SEN­GERS How close are we to de­vel­op­ing sus­pended an­i­ma­tion?

WE all know the drill. If you’re go­ing to send some­one a vast dis­tance across the uni­verse on a jour­ney that will last many years, you’ve got to put them into shiny, glass-fronted pods where they will sleep in sus­pended an­i­ma­tion (un­til some­thing ter­ri­ble hap­pens, of course). That’s the way things go in movies like the re­cent Pas­sen­gers, star­ring Jen­nifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt.

But is the idea of put­ting peo­ple into some sort of long-term, cryo-sleep cred­i­ble? It seems so. And there’s a strong de­sire to make it hap­pen – prin­ci­pally be­cause it would re­duce con­sump­tion of wa­ter and food, by, as one Nasa study cal­cu­lated, around 70 per cent.

Sci­en­tists be­lieve that a form of hi­ber­na­tion may in­deed be made to work. Among those ex­plor­ing it is USbased de­vel­oper SpaceWorks, which with fund­ing from Nasa is tak­ing the tech­nique of “in­duced hy­pother­mia”, used in pa­tients who have suf­fered heart at­tack or brain trauma to re­duce me­tab­o­lism, to cre­ate a kind of hi­ber­na­tion. But, so far, as­tro­nauts could not be put to sleep for years – they would just have a space nap for a cou­ple of weeks.

LOOPER Will we travel back in time?

“TIME travel,” says Joe Sim­mons in the 2012 time-travel as­sas­sin movie Looper, “has not yet been in­vented. But 30 years from now, it will have been.” It’s the dream that prompted some of the ear­li­est sci-fi – the HG Wells clas­sic tale The Time Ma­chine, for in­stance – and still fu­els count­less fic­tion but time travel is a tech­nol­ogy most sci­en­tists dis­count all to­gether. Back in the 1990s there was a brief flicker of ex­cite­ment when a physi­cist called J Richard Gott pro­duced cal­cu­la­tions that sug­gested time travel into the past might be pos­si­ble. How­ever, Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy physi­cist Ed­ward Farhi then came along and crunched the fig­ures, imag­in­ing he had in­fi­nite tech­nol­ogy and re­sources avail­able to warp 2-D space­time, and found it en­tirely un­re­al­is­able.

“Ein­stein’s the­ory of gen­eral rel­a­tiv­ity seems to con­spire to end the uni­verse before you’re able to travel back in time and kill your grand­fa­ther before your par­ents were born,” he said. “This con­vinced me that trav­el­ling back in time is not pos­si­ble.”

EX MACHINA Will AI su­per­sede us?

IN Alex Gar­land’s 2015 sci-fi movie Ex Machina, Nathan Bate­man ru­mi­nates: “One day the AIs are go­ing to look back on us the same way we look at fos­sil skele­tons on the plains of Africa.”

The idea that the ma­chines will one day su­per­sede us has been a key ter­ror haunt­ing science fic­tion for decades. Among the films that have been most re­spon­si­ble for put­ting the fear into us have been James Cameron’s Ter­mi­na­tor movies de­liv­er­ing, as they did, Skynet’s syn­thetic in­tel­li­gent ma­chine net­work of un­stop­pable cy­borgs.

Back when The Ter­mi­na­tor was re­leased in 1984 we were a long way from en­gi­neer­ing that kind of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence but now, in an age when a com­puter Deep Blue can beat Garry Kas­parov at chess, the pos­si­bil­ity looms ever closer. Hence some of our big­gest thinkers and tech en­trepreneurs are wor­ry­ing about it. Among them is Stephen Hawk­ing, as well as SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who has warned that AI is a “fun­da­men­tal risk to the ex­is­tence of hu­man civil­i­sa­tion”.

The mo­ment when AI be­comes as so­phis­ti­cated as hu­man in­tel­li­gence is of­ten called “the sin­gu­lar­ity”. How­ever, Toby Walsh, pro­fes­sor of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence at the Univer­sity of New South Wales, has pointed out that most of the peo­ple who be­lieve in “the sin­gu­lar­ity” do not ac­tu­ally work in the field of AI. Walsh said: “We don’t have to fear that the ma­chines are go­ing to take over any time soon. But it will widen in­equal­ity. It will put some peo­ple out of work. It will cor­rode po­lit­i­cal de­bate.”


SpaceX, the com­mer­cial space trans­port com­pany, was due to launch the lat­est pri­vately-owned com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lites into or­bit from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Cen­tre in Florida last night at 11pm, as the Sun­day Her­ald went to press. The SES 11/EchoS­tar 105 satel­lite, made by Air­bus De­fense and Space, ar­rived at Cape Canaveral from a fac­tory in Toulouse, France, last month. It will sup­port video dis­tri­bu­tion and TV broad­casts over North Amer­ica dur­ing its mis­sion. The satel­lite was last night head­ing to­ward geo­sta­tion­ary or­bit more than 22,000 miles over the equa­tor at 105 de­grees west lon­gi­tude. SES 11/EchoS­tar 105 was orig­i­nally due to be launched on Oc­to­ber 2 but was de­layed in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Irma. The satel­lite was sent up in a Fal­con 9 rocket by SpaceX, the Amer­i­can aerospace man­u­fac­turer founded in 2002 by bil­lion­aire Elon Musk. It was the 14th Fal­con 9 flight of the year – mark­ing a record pace of launch ac­tiv­ity for SpaceX, and the 42nd launch of a Fal­con 9 rocket over­all.


The Euro­pean Space Agency will hold its an­nual open day to­day at the Euro­pean Space Re­search and Tech­nol­ogy Cen­tre (ESTEC) in the Nether­lands, where space mis­sions are first de­signed, then guided through de­vel­op­ment and fi­nally tested for or­bital readi­ness. Visi­tors will meet as­tro­nauts Michael Foale of the UK, Dirk Fri­mout of Bel­gium, Ulf Mer­bold and Ernst Messer­schmid of Ger­many, Du­mitru Prunariu of Ro­ma­nia, An­dré Kuipers of the Nether­lands and JeanJac­ques Favier and Claudie Haign­eré of France. The sev­enth an­nu­ala open day will also in­clude a rare public walk­through of theth Euro­pean Space Agency’s Test Cen­tre, where satel­lites are sub­jected to sim­u­lated launch and or­bital con­di­tions. Visi­tors will be able to see the Phenix ther­mal vac­uum cham­ber, which ex­poses satel­lites to sus­tained vac­uum and tem­per­a­ture ex­tremes for days or weeks at a time, the Large Euro­pean Acous­tic Fa­cil­ity, which blasts satel­lites with the equiv­a­lent sound pres­sure ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing a rocket launch, and the Hertz ra­dio-fre­quency test cham­ber, which sim­u­lates the bound­less realm of space to test ra­dio sys­tems as if they are al­ready op­er­at­ing in or­bit.


SpaceX oper­a­tions con­tinue apace with its sec­ond launch in as many days when an­other Fal­con 9 will blast Irid­ium Com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lites into the at­mos­phere. Irid­ium op­er­ates a satel­lite con­stel­la­tion used for world­wide voice and data com­mu­ni­ca­tion from hand-held satel­lite phones and other trans­ceiver units. The unique net­work cov­ers the en­tire sur­face of Earth, in­clud­ing poles, oceans and air­ways.

Mon­day’s launch will see the third set of 10 new-gen­er­a­tion space­craft for Irid­ium’s net­work blasted into or­bit. Lift-off of the Irid­ium satel­lites, each weigh­ing around 1,896 pounds fully fu­elled, from Space Launch Com­plex 4-East at Van­den­berg Air Force Base in Cal­i­for­nia is sched­uled for 12:37 GMT. The Irid­ium flight had pre­vi­ous tar­get launch dates of Septem­ber 30 and Oc­to­ber 4 but SpaceX re­quested de­lays to al­low ad­di­tional time for rocket pro­cess­ing.


Eurockot is ex­pected to launch the Sen­tinel 5 Earth Ob­ser­va­tion satel­lite for the Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA) and the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion on Fri­day from Ple­setsk Cos­mod­rome, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Rus­sia. Part of the Coper­ni­cus Earth Ob­ser­va­tion Pro­gramme, the space­craft will make global maps of gases and par­ti­cles in the at­mos­phere to track pol­lu­tion and cli­mate change. The Coper­ni­cus project has launched sev­eral satel­lites which col­lect vast amounts of global data to help ser­vice providers, public au­thor­i­ties and other in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions im­prove the qual­ity of life for the cit­i­zens of Europe. Coper­ni­cus also col­lects in­for­ma­tion from in situ sys­tems such as ground sta­tions, which de­liver data ac­quired by a mul­ti­tude of sen­sors on the ground, at sea or in the air. The in­for­ma­tion ser­vices pro­vided by Coper­ni­cus are freely and openly ac­ces­si­ble to its users.


The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment will launch its In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion re­sup­ply mis­sion from Baikonur Cos­mod­rome in Kaza­khstan on Thurs­day. The 68th Progress cargo de­liv­ery ship will be aboard a Soyuz rocket. Af­ter re­mov­ing the cargo, the space sta­tion crew fills Progress with up to 3,748 lbs (1,700 kg) of waste and sends it to burn up in the at­mos­phere. When the cargo ship is on its way to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion it may well be within sight of a small as­ter­oid set to hur­tle past Earth on Thurs­day. The space rock called 2012 TC4 is ex­pected to miss our planet by 27,000 miles. While it is vis­i­ble, sci­en­tists will study the ob­ject thought to be be­tween 15 and 30 me­tres across.


As­tro­nauts Scott Tin­gle of Nasa, An­ton Shkaplerov of the Rus­sian Fed­eral Space Agency (Roscos­mos) and Nor­ishege Kanai of Ja­pan Aerospace Ex­plo­ration Agency (Jaxa) will be feted at John­son Space Cen­tre in Hous­ton, Texas. The three as­tro­nauts will head to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion on De­cem­ber 17, launch­ing from Baikonur Cos­mod­rome in Kaza­khstan. Nasa will also re­veal deep space ex­plo­ration plans in New Or­leans, Louisiana, on Wed­nes­day. When com­pleted the Space Launch Sys­tem will be the most pow­er­ful rocket ever built, and is in­tended to be used for a manned mis­sion to Mars. On the same day ex­per­i­men­tal philoso­pher Jonathon Keats and space ar­chae­ol­o­gist Alice Gor­man will re­veal their “wel­come mat” for aliens in Los Angeles. It fea­tures a de­sign in­tended to in­form in­tel­li­gent ex­trater­res­trial life forms that hu­mans are pleased to meet them. The mat’s ab­stract, geo­met­ric pat­tern is de­signed to be wel­com­ing to all pos­si­ble cul­tures and life-forms. A pro­to­type of the mat was un­veiled at the In­ter­na­tional Astro­nau­ti­cal Congress In Septem­ber.

Pro­fes­sor Sheila Rowan, above, whose team dis­cov­ered a burst of grav­i­ta­tional waves cre­ated by two black holes, left

Hol­ly­wood has re­cently en­vi­sioned many dif­fer­ing vi­sions of the future in movies such as, clock­wise from top, Ex Machina, Looper, Pas­sen­gers and The Mar­tian

Pho­to­graph: SpaceX/PA Wire

SpaceX, the firm founded by bil­lion­aire Elon Musk, aims to es­tab­lish a hu­man civil­i­sa­tion on Mars by the 2030s

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