Exploring the final frontier: Meet the Scots scientist hunting for the ripple in the spacetime continuum
AS THE CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED BLADE RUNNER 2049 HITS CINEMA SCREENS, VICKY ALLAN FINDS OUT IF A WORLD OF CYBORGS, SUSPENDED ANIMATION AND SPACE TRAVEL IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER ...
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
SpaceX, the firm founded by billionaire Elon Musk, aims to establish a human civilisation on Mars by the 2030s