“Up until now we’ve been deaf to gravitational waves, but today we are able to hear them”

The existence of gravitational waves has been confirmed for the first time, after scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected direct evidence of the phenomenon.

“We have detected gravitational waves. We did it!” said David Reitze, laboratory executive director at LIGO, in a press conference watched by tens of thousands from around the world. “I am so pleased to be able to tell you that.”

The cause of these particular gravitational waves was the colliding of two black holes, an incredible occurrence that has also never before been documented.

“These gravitational waves were produced by two colliding black holes that came together and merged to form a single black hole about 1.3 billion years ago,” said Reitze.

“On September 14th 2015, the two LIGO observatories in Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana, recorded a signal at nearly the same time, and the signal had a very specific characteristic – as time went forward, the frequency went up,” he added.

“What was amazing about this signal is that it’s exactly what you would expect – what Einstein’s theory of General Relativity would predict – for two massive objects like black holes merging together.”

A visualisation of the black holes' gravitational waves at the point of merging. The image above shows gravitational waves travelling through space.

A visualisation of the black holes’ gravitational waves at the point of merging. The image above shows gravitational waves travelling through space.

The scientists were able to accurately model the behaviour of the black holes, producing a visualisation that Reitze narrated.

“As they orbit the black holes are getting closer and closer to one another, the orbit is speeding up, and eventually they’re going to merge – the event horizons are going to join: boom, they produce one big black hole,” he said.

“What’s really amazing about this is this is the first time that this kind of a system has ever been seen – a binary black hole merger – and its proof that binary black holes exist in the universe.”

The merging action of these black holes resulted in gravitational waves being ejected outwards, like a ripple when a stone hits water. As the waves can pass through matter, they have continues to travel outwards for 1.3 billion years, until they passed Earth last September, and were detected by LIGO.

“There’s this burst of gravitational waves that travels for 1.3 billion years, it passes through everything, it goes right through matter, right through stars, and it eventually gets to the Earth,” said Reitze.

A visualisation of the two black holes, in the process of merging. Each is just 150km wide, but has a mass 30 times that of the sun. Images courtesy of LIGO.

A visualisation of the two black holes, in the process of merging. Each is just 150km wide, but has a mass 30 times that of the sun. Images courtesy of LIGO.

When the gravitational waves passed through Earth, they stretched and compressed space, which is what LIGO was able to detect. However, this effect is so small that is required exceptionally sensitive detection, which may explain why LIGO is, as Reitze puts it, “the most precise measuring device ever built“.

“The effect we’re trying to measure from these big black holes colliding at half the speed of light is so tiny that it takes something like LIGO to measure it,” he said. “We are trying to measure things basically at 1/1000 the diameter of a proton. That’s the size of the signal that you see on Earth from those events that take place 1.3 billion years away. “

He added that if LIGO were to measure the distance between our sun and the next nearest star, it would be “capable of measuring that to the width of a human hair”. Incredibly, it also allows scientists to listen to the phenomenon.

“What LIGO does is it takes these ripples in spacetime and it records them on a photodetector, and you can actually hear them,” he said. “It’s the first time the universe has spoken to us in gravitational waves; up until now we’ve been deaf to gravitational waves, but today we are able to hear them.”

TfL are making London more accessible with the IoT

Transport for London’s (TfL) head of analytics, Lauren Sager Weinstein, has said that the transport authority has already begun to experiment with the internet of things – and the data it produces – to make passengers journeys easier.

Speaking at the IoT Tech Expo in London, Weinstein gave an account of how TfL had used the data it collects from sensors and its specially designed algorithm to help passengers during the closure of London Bridge.

“One of the things that we did was we found out that London Bridge had to have roadworks, people  could walk and cycle across the bridge, but we couldn’t get a bus across for the duration of the roadworks, so the question for us was could we use our algorithm –  which we worked with a lot of universities on – to understand how to fix the problem,” says Weinstein.

“Before we had the algorithm what we would have done is have people stand with clipboards at either side counting people going by.

Image courtesy of Matthew Black

Image courtesy of Matthew Black

“Instead we took our data and found in 110,000 journeys that passed over the bridge around half could walk over the bridge, inconvenient but we could message them and tell them what to do, and they’d be informed and understand, but for the other half we put on additional bus services because suddenly you’ve going to have to take two buses because the bridge crossing is right in the middle of your journey.

“This is the real benefit of IoT, if you have devices that are collecting information you can use that practically.”

Weinstein said that TfL aim to open up the data they gather to further enhance customers experience of transport in the capital.

“We’ve opened up our data for a number of years and we really champion this, as we think there is value to us, so we allowed the development community to come and use it and provide beneficial applications to our customers.

“It helps us manage our network and services better; yes there is a cost in doing this – there’s a cost to providing the structure and you need to take that into account. You also need to understand your own data sets and make sure you yourself are clear about what your data’s telling you and not telling you.”

Image courtesy of dade72 / Shutterstock.com

Image courtesy of dade72 / Shutterstock.com

As well as helping TfL to map current transport links, Weinstein also believes the data collected and offered by TfL could be used to make London more accessible in future.

“You can look at patterns and can act. You get a huge amount of information from people just tapping in and out, so you can look at patterns and you can see the kind of times it takes people to get places. If you then take that and look at accessibility, you can look at some of the places across London that are less accessible That gives you an understanding of how you plan a city and how it can be operated.”

Aubrey de Grey: Rabbit brain cryopreservation could be a step towards building replacement brains

A new cryopreservation technique that yesterday won the Small Mammal Brain Preservation Prize may be a step towards building exact replacements of our brains, according to renowned biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey.

“I’ve been following [this research] with some care,” said de Grey, chief science officer and co-founder of SENS and an advisor for the UK Cryonics and Cryopreservation Research Network, in an interview today with Factor. “It’s fascinating and extremely valuable work”

Known as Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation, the technique, which was developed by 21st Century Medicine and published in the journal Cryobiology, involves injecting the brain with chemicals to preserve its structure, before freezing it to -135°C.

Aubrey de Grey. Image courtesy of Share Conference.

Aubrey de Grey. Image courtesy of Share Conference.

The technique was demonstrated on a rabbit’s brain, which was successfully thawed with negligible damage – a first in cryonics. However, there is a catch: the brain structure might be very well preserved, but it would be impossible for it to work again.

“Essentially what they did was they decided to explore a happy medium, a kind of compromise between on the one hand the ability to preserve the really microscopic structure of the brain, when taken down to very low temperatures,” explained de Grey.

“What they did was something that does not allow the brain to be warmed up again and have it work, but it does preserve the structure better than we currently can if we want to warm it up and have it work again.”

This may dismay cryonics enthusiasts who are keen for the technology to reach maturity as quickly as possible, however according to de Grey it could lead the research in a very different direction.

An early 3D bioprinter in action, the descendants of which could be used to print a copy of a cryopreserved brain. Image courtesy of the Wyss Institute.

An early 3D bioprinter in action, the descendants of which could be used to print a copy of a cryopreserved brain. Image courtesy of the Wyss Institute.

“The resuscitation of someone who has been cryopreserved may or may not, eventually in the future, be done by warming them up,” he said.

“Eventually people are looking at the possibility of reviving people from cryopreservation by scanning their brain and essentially rebuilding a new brain out of different atoms than the original ones, which has so precisely the same structure that it behaves in the same way, it is for practical purposes the same person. “

The brain scan would effectively create a very complex 3D digital model, which would be made into a replacement brain using an advanced version of the 3D bioprinters being developed today, and presumably be installed into a suitable replacement body. It’s a fascinating, albeit slightly creepy, notion that prompts a lot of questions.

“Of course there are loads of philosophical issues around whether that person really is the same person, and whether this really achieves the goals of cryonics, but some people think it does,” said de Grey.