Category Archives: Nature

We’ve Just Developed a Portable Cloaking Device 

If you’re a non-magical being, you might think your chances of becoming invisible are slim to nil. But don’t jump to conclusions just yet: Researchers are now claiming to have developed a portable system that can make small objects, like your keys or pet lizard, disappear from sight.

Top image: Conceptual model of an invisibility cloak in which lightwaves travel around the object, via Wikimedia

The key to real life invisibility lies in clever optical tricks that bend light around an object, shielding it from detection. In principle, such technology has only been demonstrated for very tiny objects, but now, a group of researchers from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology say they’ve developed a scaled-up system that can be ported around and used for classroom demonstrations.

The problem researchers typically run into when they try to bend light around an object lies in compensating for the extra distance the light must travel. Since they can’t very well increase the speed of light in air, the KIT team has developed a silicon-based organic polymer (PDMS), that, doped with titanium dioxide nanoparticles, scatters light waves to slow them down. Once slowed, the light can be sped up again to make up for the longer path around the veiled object.

We've Just Developed a Portable Cloaking Device 

In a diffusive light-scattering medium, light moves on random paths. A normal object casts a shadow, an object with an invisibility cloak does not. Image Credit: R. Schittny, KIT

When the KIT researchers want to cloak an object, they place it inside a hollow metal cylinder coated with acrylic paint, which diffusely reflects light. That metal tube is then embedded inside a light-scattering PDMS block. If the time it takes light to travel through the block is just the right proportion of the time it takes light to travel through the cloak, the cloak becomes invisible. Or so the researchers say—the first actual demonstration of this technology will take place on May 13th, according to a press release.

While it’s a far cry from a cloak you can actually don—unless you fancy walking around inside a giant metal tube inside a giant block of silicon—this proof-of-concept could, one day, lead to more sophisticated materials that are wearable. In the meanwhile, a simple device that can make cellphone-sized objects disappear from sight sounds like the start of any number of excellent pranks.

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12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

We humans are doing a bang-up job of messing up our home planet. But who’s to say we can’t go on to screw things up elsewhere? Here, not listed in any particular order, are 12 unintentional ways we could do some serious damage to our Solar System, too.

Wild speculation ahead…

Above: We could cause some serious damage with a Shkadov Thruster (see #7). Credit: L. Blaszkiewicz/CC.

1) A Particle Accelerator Disaster

By accidentally unleashing exotic forms of matter from particle accelerators, we run the risk of annihilating the entire solar system.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

Prior to the construction of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, some scientists worried that collisions created by the highly energetic accelerator might spawn such nasties like vacuum bubbles, magnetic monopoles, microscopic black holes, or strangelets (a.k.a. “strange matter” — a hypothetical form of matter similar to conventional nuclei, but also containing many of the heavier strange quarks). These concerns were condemned by the scientific community as “rubbish” and nothing more than rumors spread by “unqualified people seeking sensation or publicity.” Moreover, a 2011 report published by the LHC Safety Assessment Group concluded that the collisions presented no danger.

Anders Sandberg, a research fellow who works out of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, agrees that a particle accelerator disaster is unlikely, but warns that if strangelets were to be somehow unleashed, “it would be bad.” As he explained to io9:

Converting even a planet like Mars to strange matter would release a fraction of the rest mass as radiation (plus perhaps splatter strangelets). Assuming a conversion acting on a hour timescale and releasing just 0.1% as radiation gives a mean luminosity of 1.59*10^34 W, or about 42 million times the sun. Most of which would be hard gamma rays.

Ouch. Obviously, the LHC is incapable of producing strange matter, but perhaps some future experiment, either on Earth or in space, could produce the stuff. It’s hypothesized, for example, that strange matter exists at high pressure inside neutron stars. Should we artificially create those conditions, it could end the show real quick. (Image credit: The Core.)

2) A Stellar Engineering Project Gone Horribly Wrong

We could also wreck the Solar System by severely damaging or altering the Sun during a stellar engineering project, or by screwing up planetary dynamics in the process.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

Some futurists speculate that future humans (or our posthuman descendants) may choose to embark upon any number of stellar engineering projects, including stellar husbandry. Writing in Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience, David Criswell from the University of Houston described stellar husbandry as the effort to control the evolution and properties of stars, including attempts to prolong their lifespans, extract material, or create new stars. To make a star burn less rapidly, and thus last longer, future stellar engineers would work to remove its excess mass (big stars expend fuel faster).

But the potential for a catastrophe is significant. Like plans to engage in geoengineering projects here on Earth, stellar engineering projects could result in any number of unforeseen consequences, or instigate uncontrollable cascade effects. For example, efforts to remove the Sun’s mass could create bizarre and dangerous flaring effects, or result in a life-threatening decrease in luminosity. It could also have a pronounced effect on planetary orbits. ( Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC)

3) A Failed Attempt to Stellify Jupiter

Some thought has been given to the prospect of turning Jupiter into a kind of artificial star. But in the attempt to do so, we could destroy Jupiter itself and wipe out life on Earth.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

Jupiter transforming into the Lucifer star in 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

Writing in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, astrophysicist Martyn Fogg proposed that we stellify Jupiter as a first step to terraforming the Galilean satellites. To do so, future humans would seed Jupiter with a tiny primordial black hole. The black hole would have to engineered perfectly so that it not fall outside the bounds of the Eddington limit (an equilibrium point between the outward force of radiation and the inward force of gravity). According to Fogg, this would produce “energy sufficient to create effective temperatures on Europa and Ganymede that would be similar to the values on Earth and Mars, respectively.”

Lovely, except for what would happen if things go askew. As Sandberg told io9, it would work fine at first — but the black hole could grow and eventually absorb Jupiter in a burst of radiation that would sterilize the entire Solar System. With life extinguished and Jupiter sucked up into a black hole, our neighborhood would be a complete mess.

4) Screwing Up the Orbital Dynamics of the Planets

Should we start to mess around with the location and mass of planets or other celestial bodies, we run the risk of upsetting the Solar System’s delicate orbital balance.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

Indeed, the orbital dynamics in our Solar System are surprisingly fragile. It has been estimated than even the slightest perturbation could result in chaotic and even potentially dangerous orbital motions. The reason for this is that planets are subject to resonances, which is what happens when any two periods assume a simple numerical ratio (e.g., Neptune and Pluto are in a 3:2 orbital resonance, as Pluto completes two orbits for every three orbits of Neptune).

The result is that two orbiting bodies can influence each other even when they’re quite distant. Regular close encounters can result in the smaller object getting destabilized and cleared right out of its original orbit — and even the Solar System altogether!

Looking to the future, such chaotic resonances could happen naturally, or we could instigate them by fidgeting around with the Sun and planets. As already noted, there’s the potential for stellar engineering. The prospect of moving Mars into the habitable zone, which could be done by decaying its orbit with asteroids, could likewise upset the orbital balance. Alternately, if we build a Dyson Sphere using material extracted from Mercury and/or Venus, we could alter orbital dynamics in a very profound and dangerous way. It could result in Mercury (or what’s left of it) being tossed from the Solar System, or Earth having an uncomfortably close encounter — or even a collision — with a large object like Mars. (Illustration: Hagai Perets.)

(5) The Reckless Maneuvering of a Warp Drive

A spaceship driven by a warp drive would be awesome, no doubt, but it would also be incredibly dangerous. Any object, like a planet, at the destination point would be subject to massive expenditures of energy.

Also known as an Alcubierre engine, a warp drive could someday work by generating a bubble of negative energy around it. By expanding space and time behind the ship, while squeezing space in front of it, a ship could be pushed to velocities not limited by the speed of light.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

Regrettably, however, this energy bubble has the potential to do some serious damage. Back in 2012, a research team crunched the numbers to see what kind of damage an FTL drive of this nature could inflict. Writing in Universe Today, Jason Major explains:

Space is not just an empty void between point A and point B… rather, it’s full of particles that have mass (as well as some that do not.) What the research team…has found is that these particles can get “swept up” into the warp bubble and focused into regions before and behind the ship, as well as within the warp bubble itself.

When the Alcubierre-driven ship decelerates from superluminal speed, the particles its bubble has gathered are released in energetic outbursts. In the case of forward-facing particles the outburst can be very energetic — enough to destroy anyone at the destination directly in front of the ship.

“Any people at the destination,” the team’s paper concludes, “would be gamma ray and high energy particle blasted into oblivion due to the extreme blueshifts for [forward] region particles.”

The researchers added that, even for short journeys, the energy released is so large “you would completely obliterate anything in front of you.” And by anything, that could be an entire planet. Moreover, because the amount of energy is dependent on the length of the journey, there is potentially no limit to its intensity. An incoming warp ship could do considerably more damage than just wreck a planet. ( Image: Mark Rademaker.)

6) An Artificial Wormhole Accident

Using wormholes to sidestep the constraints of interstellar space travel sounds great in theory, but we’ll need to be extra careful when tearing a hole in the space-time continuum.

Back in 2005, Iranian nuclear physicist Mohammad Mansouryar outlined a scheme for creating a traversable wormhole. By producing enough amounts of effective exotic matter, he theorized that we could theoretically pierce a hole through the cosmological fabric of space-time and create a shortcut for spacecraft.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System4

Mansouryar’s paper is opaque, and it’s not immediately clear if he’s onto something, but as Anders Sandberg pointed out to io9, the negative consequences could be severe:

First, wormhole throats need mass-energy (possibly negative) on the scale of a black hole of the same size. Second, making time loops may cause virtual particles to become real and break down the wormhole in an energy cascade. Likely bad for the neighborhood. And besides, dump one end in the Sun and another elsewhere (a laStephen Baxter’s Ring), and you might drain the Sun and/or irradiate the solar system if it is large enough.

Yes, killing the Sun is bad. And by irradiation we’re once again talking about the complete sterilization of the Solar System.

7) A Catastrophic Shkadov Thruster Navigational Error

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

Should we choose to relocate our Solar System in the far future, we run the risk of destroying it completely.

In 1987, Russian Physicist Leonid Shkadov proposed a megastructure concept, since dubbed the Shkadov Thruster, that could literally move our solar system and all that’s within it to a neighboring star system. In the future, this would allow us to reject our older, dying star in favor of a younger version.

Writing in Popular Mechanics, Adam Hadhazy explains how it works:

The Shkadov Thruster setup is simple (in theory): It’s just a colossal, arc-shaped mirror, with the concave side facing the sun. Builders would place the mirror at an arbitrary distance where gravitational attraction from the sun is balanced out by the outward pressure of its radiation. The mirror thus becomes a stable, static satellite in equilibrium between gravity’s tug and sunlight’s push.

Solar radiation reflects off the mirror’s inner, curved surface back toward the sun, effectively pushing our star with its own sunlight—the reflected energy produces a tiny net thrust. Voilà, a Shkadov Thruster, and humanity is ready to hit the galactic trail.

What could go wrong, right? Clearly, lots. We could miscalculate and scatter the Solar System to the cosmos, or even smash directly into the other star.

Which brings up an interesting point: If we develop the capacity to move between stars, we should also be able to figure out how to manipulate or influence the plethora of small objects located in the outer reaches of the solar system. We’re definitely going to have to careful here. As Sandberg warns, “Ah, destabilizing the Kuiper belt or Oort cloud: whoops, we got zillions of comets slamming into everything!” ( Image credit: Steve Bowers.)

8) Attracting Evil Aliens

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

If the advocates of Active SETI have their way, we could soon be transmitting messages to space in the hopes of alerting aliens to our presence. You know, because all aliens must be nice. (Image credit: Mars Attacks.)

9) The Return of Mutated von Neumann Probes

Say we send out a fleet of exponentially self-replicating von Neumann probes to colonize the Galaxy. Assuming they’re programmed very, very poorly, or somebody deliberately creates an evolvable probe, they could mutate over time and transform into something quite malevolent.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System5

Eventually, our clever little space-faring devices could come back to haunt us by ripping our Solar System to shreds, or by sucking up resources and pushing valuable life out of existence. (Image: Babylon 5.)

10) An Interplanetary Grey Goo Disaster

Somewhat similar to self-replicating space probes, there’s also the potential for something much smaller, yet equally as dangerous: exponentially replicating nanobots. A grey goo disaster, where an uncontrollable swarm of nanobots or macrobots consume all planetary resources to create more copies of itself, need not be confined to planet Earth. Such a swarm could hitch a ride aboard an escaping spaceship or planetary fragment, or even originate in space as part of some megastructure project. Once unleashed in the Solar System, it would quickly turn everything into mush.

11) An Artificial Superintelligence Run Amok

One of the dangers of creating artificial superintelligence is that it has the potential to do much more than just snuff out life on Earth; it could spread out into the Solar System — and even potentially beyond.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

The oft-cited paperclip scenario, in which a poorly programmed ASI converts the entire planet into paperclips, conveys the urgency of the problem. Should an out-of-control ASI emerge, it’s obviously not going to produce paperclips ad nauseam, but it could do something else, like produce an endless supply of computer processors or turn all available matter into useable computronium. An ASI may even devise a meta-ethical imperative it feels it must enforce across the entire Galaxy. (Image credit: Stevebidmead/Pixabay/CC.)

12) Making the Solar System Meaningless

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

Which we would do by going extinct.

If You Touch This Plant It Will Make You Vomit In Pure Agony

​If You Touch This Plant It Will Make You Vomit In Pure Agony

The Gympie Gympie is an Australian plant with spindly stems and heart-shaped light green leaves. Brushing your hand against it can make you throw up from the pain. Using it as toilet paper has made people shoot themselves. This plant will ruin you.

The Gympie Gympie: Endangered or Endangering?

The Gympie Gympie has broad, flat leaves that rise on a series of surprisingly delicate stems. It can grow to be only a few feet tall. Botanists believe that its fast growth rate and wide leaves make it ideal for the small, sunlit gaps in the otherwise thick canopy of a forest. Its habitat is limited to a few patches of lowland rainforest around Queensland in Australia. Rainforests are shrinking, the climate is changing, and the Gympie has recently become an endangered plant.

Many would say that endangering the Gympie Gympie is a job well begun. This innocuous-looking greenery is one of the most feared plants in the world. Its sting is so agonizing that a slight brush to the hand from one of the leaves can make a person throw up from the pain.

Not that the leaves are the only dangerous part. Only the roots of the Gympie are free of the fine hairs that lodge in the skin and deliver the sting. Every subsequent moment of pressure on the hairs causes them to put out more poison into the skin. The pain feels like fire, and it lasts. As long as the hairs are embedded in the skin, the pain keeps coming. Stings from the Gympie cause the lymphatic system to go into overdrive. A person’s throat, armpits, and groin swell up and ladle on the pain as the lymph nodes expand.

Just being around the Gympie hurts. It sheds its hairs continuously. Scientists believe that the stinging hairs keep the ground clear so it can take advantage of those sunny gaps in the canopy. Botanists working in the field go into sneezing fits and get nose bleeds from standing near the plant. Botanists who handle hundred-year-old specimens of Gympie still get stung.

​If You Touch This Plant It Will Make You Vomit In Pure AgonyTales of the Killer Plant

Through the years, a few people have had extensive encounters with the plant. One man, who fell into a bush during World War II, was strapped to a hospital gurney, screaming, for three weeks. Another got hit in the chest in the late 1990s. For two years, his chest hurt every time he took a cold shower.

There are plenty of horror stories, one of which is more horrible than the rest, despite no one getting hurt. As the Gympie’s fame spread, the military became interested in the tree. In the late 1960s, the British Army had people send them samples of the stinging tree for use as a chemical weapon. Nothing has been heard since then. (We assume everyone who was even casually involved with the project died and they had to dynamite the facility.)

The Gympie Gympie’s Future

No one wants this plant in their back yard, along their hiking trail, or, ideally, on their planet. This might account for why the Gympie Gympie is vanishing. Another reason, astonishingly, might be food. The plant produces edible fruit, though the fruit has been called both “warty” and “bland.” That’s a sad reward for nerves of steel, which is what it takes to eat the purplish berries. First, the harvester has to dress up in a full coverall suit, including a plastic face-mask because the plant can irritate the eyes (one person compared it to having acid poured on his eyes). The harvester will then knock the fruit off the tree with a stick. The fruit has to be denuded of needles by being rubbed in layers and layers of cloth, which presumably can never be used again. Then comes the nasty part. Because the needles are so fine, they can’t all be seen, so “A final rubbing with bare hands will detect any stinging hairs left before eating.” Hurrah.

Those who run into the Gympie in the wild generally get treated with pain killers, but the stingers are both too fine and too numerous to be picked out by hand – particularly by someone screaming in pain. To get the needles out, people put the sticky parts of bandages, or home waxing strips, on their stings, and yank out the stingers the way they would real hairs.

Perhaps the Gympie Gympie knows how close it is to being wiped out. In 2014, two different trees have been found with all the parts seemingly intact, but with no toxin in the silica hairs on the leaves. Although no one is entirely sure what causes the overwhelming sting, scientists believe that it’s a peptide called moroidin. Remove that one component, and the plant’s ability to cause pain is gone. Exactly why the plant would lay down its arms is unknown, but perhaps one day it will only be an agonizing legend.

[Source: Threatened Species, Dendocnide Moroides, Australian Journal of Botany, Australian Geographic, Is It Edible, Gympie-Gympie Losing It Sting?]

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