Chemists May Have Found the ‘Missing Link’ to the First Life on Earth

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Chemists May Have Found the ‘Missing Link’ to the First Life on Earth

  • Chemists May Have Found the 'Missing Link' to the First Life on Earth
 Credit: agsandrew/Shutterstock

Four billion years ago, Earth was covered in a watery sludge swarming with primordial molecules, gases, and minerals — nothing that biologists would recognize as alive. Then somehow, out of that prebiotic stew emerged the first critical building blocks — proteins, sugars, amino acids, cell walls — that would combine over the next billion years to form the first specks of life on the planet.

A subset of chemists have devoted their careers to puzzling out the early chemical and environmental conditions that gave rise to the origins of life. With scant clues from the geological record, they synthesize simple molecules that may have existed billions of years ago and test if these ancient enzymes had the skills to turn prebiotic raw material into the stuff of life.

A team of such chemists from the Scripps Research Institute reportedNov. 6 in the journal Nature Chemistry that they identified a single, primitive enzyme that could have reacted with early Earth catalysts to produce some of the key precursors to life: the short chains of amino acids that power cells, the lipids that form cell walls, and the strands of nucleotides that store genetic information.

Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy is an associate professor of chemistry at Scripps and lead author of the origins of life paper. For a number of years, his lab has been experimenting with a synthetic enzyme called diamidophosphate (DAP) that’s been shown to drive a critical chemical process called phosphorylation. Without phosphorylation — which is simply the process of adding a phosphate molecule to another molecule — life wouldn’t exist.

“If you look at life today, and how it probably was at least three billion years ago, it was based on a lot of phosphorylation chemistry,” Krishnamurthy told Seeker. “Your RNA, DNA, and a lot of your biomolecules are phosphorylated. So are sugars, amino acids, and proteins.”

The enzymes that trigger phosphorylation are called kinases. They use phosphorylation to send signals instructing cells to divide, to make more of one protein than another, to tell DNA strands to separate, or RNA to form. DAP may have been one of the first primordial kinases to get the phosphorylation ball rolling, Krishnamurthy believed.

To test his theory, Krishnamurthy and his colleagues simulated early Earth conditions in the lab, using both a water base and a muddy paste set to varying pH levels. They combined DAP with different concentrations of magnesium, zinc, and a compound called imidazole that acted as a catalyst to speed the reactions, which still took weeks or sometimes months to complete.

For DAP to pass the test, it had to successfully trigger phosphorylation events that resulted in simple nucleotides, peptides, and cell wall structures under similar conditions. Past candidates for origin-of-life enzymes could only phosphorylate certain structures under wildly different chemical and environmental conditions. DAP, Krishnamurthy found, could do it all, phosphorylating the four nucleoside building blocks of RNA, then short RNA-like strands, then fatty acids, lipids, and peptide chains.

Does that mean that DAP is the pixie dust that transformed random matter into life? Not quite, said Krishnamurthy.

“The best we can do is try to demonstrate that simple chemicals under the right conditions could give rise to further chemistry which may lead to life-like behavior. We can’t make a claim that this is the way that life formed on the early Earth.”

RELATED: Life on Earth May Have Started With a Cosmic Splash

For one thing, Krishnamurthy has no proof that DAP even existed four billion years ago. He synthesized the molecule in his lab as a way to solve one of the fundamental challenges to phosphorylating in wet, early Earth conditions. For most phosphorylation reactions to work, they need to remove a molecule of water in the process.

“How do you remove water from a molecule when you are surrounded by a pool of water?” asked Krishnamurthy. “That’s thermodynamically an uphill task.”

DAP gets around that problem by removing a molecule of ammonia instead of water.

Krishnamurthy is working with geochemists to identify potential sources of DAP in the distant geological past. Phosphate-rich lava flows may have reacted with ammonia in the air to create DAP, or it could have been leached out of phosphate-containing minerals. Or maybe it even arrived on the back of a meteorite forged by a far-off star.

One thing is clear, without DAP or something like it, Earth might still be a lifeless mud puddle.

Originally published on Seeker.


This Week’s Strangest Science News

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This Week’s Strangest Science News

Partner Series

At Live Science, we delve into science news from around the world every day — and some of those stories can get a little weird. Here are some of the strangest science news articles from this week.

A mosquito foot magnified 800 times under a scanning electron microscope.

A mosquito foot magnified 800 times under a scanning electron microscope.

Credit: Steve Gschmeissner/RPS

This bizarre image of a mosquito foot sent Reddit into a frenzy as users gave it tens of thousands of upvotes. A bit a digging revealed that this photo — made with a scanning electron microscope by photographer Steve Gschmeissner — shows the end of a mosquito’s leg, including a claw, scales and the pulvillus, a pad with adhesive hairs. [Read more about the magnified mosquito foot]

Sheep can recognize celebrities? Ewe gotta be kidding.

Sheep can recognize celebrities? Ewe gotta be kidding.

Credit: Live Science; Shutterstock

Sheep can identify a person merely by looking at a photo, new research finds. Scientists showed sheep photos of famous people, including actress Emma Watson and former U.S. President Barack Obama. When given the choice between a stranger’s photo and a photo of the celebrity, the sheep chose the celebrity almost 80 percent of the time, even when the photo was taken from a different angle. [Read more about the smart sheep]

On Oct. 22, 2017, 245 people broke a record by "rope jumping" off a bridge in Hortolandia, Brazil.

On Oct. 22, 2017, 245 people broke a record by “rope jumping” off a bridge in Hortolandia, Brazil.

Credit: Paulo Whitaker/Reuters/Newscom

A group of 245 daredevils jumped off a bridge in Brazil and lived to tell the tale, thanks to a keen understanding of physics. The record-setting jump was made possible with a system of ropes, experts told Live Science. After the jump, the daredevils swung like pendulums from the bridge. [Read more about the incredible jump]

This artist's illustration depicts a hypothetical dust ring orbiting KIC 8462852, also known as Boyajian's Star or Tabby's Star.

This artist’s illustration depicts a hypothetical dust ring orbiting KIC 8462852, also known as Boyajian’s Star or Tabby’s Star.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If an alien megastructure were the cause of the odd blinking seen from “Boyajian’s Star” (also known as “Tabby’s Star”), it would have to be massive enough to block the star’s light in a noticeable way. In other words, it would have to be on the order of five times the sun’s radius, and larger than the star, known as KIC 8462852, itself. [Read more about the size of the possible alien megastructure]

We’ve all heard of crash test dummies. But what about Robutt: the robot butt that tests car seats? Ford engineers estimate that people sit down on their car seats about 25,000 in a 10-year period. Robutt is now testing the Ford Fiesta to ensure these seats stay durable despite heavy use. [Read more about Robutt, the robot butt]

A female bonobo embraces a newcomer on her first day in a new group.

Credit: Courtesy of Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary

Bonobo monkeys didn’t earn the nickname “hippie chimps” for nothing. New observations show that they help unfamiliar bonobos get a food reward, even when they didn’t receive a reward themselves. The monkeys also help strangers, regardless of whether the unknown bonobo asked for help in the first place. [Read more about these helpful monkeys]

The Greek sealstone's small size, along with the veining on the stone, meant that many of the tiny details could be seen only using photomicroscopy.

The Greek sealstone’s small size, along with the veining on the stone, meant that many of the tiny details could be seen only using photomicroscopy.

Credit: Courtesy of The Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati

Researchers found a real treasure: an intricately carved gemstone in an ancient Greek tomb. The gemstone carving depicts a warrior standing over the body of a slain enemy, plunging his sword into another soldier’s neck. [Read more about the gemstone discovery]

Want more weird science news and discoveries? Check out these and other “Strange News” stories on Live Science!

Scientists Just Made the First Super-Secure Quantum Video Call

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Scientists Just Made the First Super-Secure Quantum Video Call

Image: Screenshot/Youtube

A “quantum satellite” sounds at home in the James Bond franchise, but there really is a satellite named Micius with some truly quantum assignments. In this case, it helped the president of the Chinese Academy of Science make a video call. A quantum-safe video call.

The Micius satellite has made the news several times this year, thanks to its role in some crazy-sounding science like setting quantum teleportation andentanglement records. The satellite is doing some potentially important, real-life work, however, allowing the Chinese government to set up more secure communications lines with the help of quantum mechanics. Now, the Chinese Academy of Sciences reports the first quantum-safe video call between its president, Chunli Bai, and President Anton Zeilinger of the Austria Academy of Sciences in Vienna.

Essentially what’s going on to make this super safe call happen is rooted in the laws of quantum mechanics, entanglement, and superposition. Individual particles act as both specks and waves simultaneously, with a list of possible properties. If you make these particles interact with one another, the mathematics of quantum mechanics requires that you describe them using the same equation—even if you separate them over large distances. If you entangle a pair of light particles and separate them, measuring one automatically implies what the other one should be.

This is often described as “spooky action at a distance,” but it’s not really that spooky, especially considering how it was used here: to share encryption keys to ensure no one was eavesdropping on the call. Entangling photons over a long distance means that you share a link—but if there’s an eavesdropper on the communications line, then the laws of quantum mechanics causes these particles to lose their spooky connection. The scientists use this link to set up a secure line.

Basically, Micius sends entangled photons to two stations, one in Austria and the other into China, encoded with specific polarizations (the direction of the light wave’s wobble) as the security check. The scientists make measurements of the polarizations and then send back their measurement information, which the satellite reviews to ensure that there hasn’t been a collapse of the entanglement. It then creates the security keys, which the stations can use to encrypt and decrypt the data contained in the video call, according to an Austrian Academy of Sciences press release.

It’s sort of a single-use pad deal solely for the data in the video call, but generated via quantum mechanics.

So, again, no teleporting and nothing that crazy if you think about it, but the move is an important one symbolically. These quantum key distribution systems are meant to be unhackable if done right—though of course, there’s worry one could still find a way to hack such communications.

Anyway, the Micius satellite continues to plow ahead—and it might not be too long before you are sending journalists government document links with a quantum key.

[Austrian Academy of Sciences]

What the Hell Is a Quantum Computer and How Excited Should I Be?

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What the Hell Is a Quantum Computer and How Excited Should I Be?

Image: liquidtransistorresonancyvalley by artist Brenna Murphy. Used with permission.

They will never sit on your desk, and they will most certainly never fit in your pocket. Today, they’re fragile, and need to be kept at temperatures close to absolute zero. Quantum computers aren’t much like the desktop PCs we’re all so familiar with—they’re a whole new kind of machine, capable of calculations so complex, it’s like upgrading from black-and-white to a full color spectrum.

Lately, you’ve been hearing a lot about quantum computing. There are news stories about how it “could change the world” and “open new dimensions.”Universities are hyping up their quantum microchip prototypes,demonstrations of quantum mechanical ideas in silicon, and other devices andtheories. But come on, how does it work? What does it do? Who’s doing it? And, most importantly, why should you care?

Despite what you’ve heard, right now, quantum computing is more or less in the era that classical computing was in the ‘50s, when room-sized hulks ran on vacuum tubes. But it could revolutionize computing. Potentially. Maybe.

Before you learn what a quantum computer is and why it matters, let’s break down the mathematical theory of quantum mechanics. It may sound esoteric, but the rules of quantum mechanics govern the very nature of the particles that make up our universe, including those of your electronics and gadgets.

When one thing is two things at the same time

In our universe, we are used to a thing being one thing. A coin, for example, can be heads, or it can be tails. But if the coin followed the rules of quantum mechanics, the coin would be flipping midair. So until it lands and we look at it, we don’t know if it’s heads or tails. Effectively, it’s both heads and tails at the same time.

We do know one thing about this coin. There is a probability for the flipping coin to be either heads or tails. So the coin isn’t heads, it’s not tails, it’s—for example—the probability of 20% heads and 80% tails. Scientifically speaking, how can a physical thing be like this? How do we even begin describe it?

The most mind-boggling part of quantum mechanics is that for some reason, particles like electrons seem to act like waves, and light waves like particles. Particles have a wavelength. The most basic experiment demonstrating this fact is the double slit experiment:

If you put a pair of parallel slits in a partition between a beam of particles and a wall, and put a detector on the wall to see what happens, a strange pattern of stripes appear. It’s called an interference pattern.

Image: Fu-Kwun Hwang and Francisco Esquembre

Like waves, the particles-waves that travel through one slit interfere with those that travel through the other slit. If the peak of the wave aligns with a trough, the particles cancel out and nothing shows up. If the peak aligns with another peak, the signal in the detector would be even brighter. (This interference pattern still exists even if you only send one electron at a time.)

If we were to describe one of these wave-like particles (before they hit the wall) as a mathematical equation, it would look like the mathematical equation describing our coin (before it hits the ground and lands on heads or tails).

These equations can look kind of scary, like this:

But all you need to know is that this equation lists the particle’s definite properties but doesn’t say which one you’ll get. (We don’t know that yet.) You can use this equation to find the probabilities of some of the particle’s properties.

And because this math involves complex numbers—those containing the square root of -1, or i—it doesn’t just describe the probability of a coin being heads or tails, it describes an advanced probability, which could include the way the face of the coin will be rotated.

From all this crazy math, we get a couple of crazy things. There’s superposition—the midair coin being heads and tails at the same time. There’s interference—probability waves overlapping and cancelling each other out. And there’s entanglement, which is like if we tied a bunch of coins together, changing the probability of certain outcomes because they’re, well, entangled now. These three crazy things are exploited by quantum computers to make whole new kinds of algorithms.

How a quantum computer works

“In some sense we’ve been doing the same thing for 60 years. The rules we use to compute have not changed—we’re stuck with bits and bytes and logic operations,” Martin Laforest, Senior Manager of Scientific Outreach at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in Canada, tells Gizmodo. But that is all about to change. “Quantum computers turn the rules of computers on their heads.”

Traditional computers do their computation using bits, which can be stored as electrical charges in processors or even tiny pits drilled into CDs. A bit only has two choices, which we represent as one and zero. Anything with two choices you can pick from is a bit. All computing is done via setting and relating bits, with operations like “if this bit is a zero and this bit is a one, make this third bit a one, otherwise make it a zero,” and so on and so forth.

The qubit, short for quantum bit, is like a regular bit, but it’s both a zero and a one at the same time (before you look at it). It’s that coin flipping in midair. A quantum computer is like flipping multiple coins at the same time—except while these coins are flipping, they obey the wacky rules of superposition, interference and entanglement.

The quantum computer first bestows the qubits with this quantum mechanical version of probability of what will happen once you actually peep the qubit. (Once you peep the mysterious qubit though, it stops being mysterious and becomes a defined bit.) Quantum mechanical computations are made by preparing the qubits (or adding weights to a coin before you flip it to manipulate the probability of the outcome), then interacting them together (or flipping a bunch of entangled coins at once) and then measuring them (which causes the coins to stop flipping and produces the final value). If done properly, all of this mid-air interaction should result in a best answer (the value) to whatever question you’ve asked the computer.

Quantum computing is special. As we said before, because its math uses complex numbers, it computes a special version of probabilities—not just heads vs. tails but also the orientation of the coin. So as you throw these coins up in the air, they bump into each other with their different sides and orientations, and some of this bumping changes the probability of the side revealed by the outcome. Sometimes they bump into each other and cancel each other out, making certain outcomes less likely. Sometimes they push each other along, making certain outcomes more likely. All this is interference behavior.

“The idea with a quantum computer is that you take this phenomenon and exploit it on a massive scale,” said Scott Aaronson, theoretical computer scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. “The idea is to choreograph a pattern of interference” so that everything cancels out except for the answer you were looking for. You want the coins to interfere in the air.

To the observer, the answer just looks like the output of regular bits. The quantum mechanics happens in the background.

What you can do with it, from chemistry to encryption

It was famous physicist Richard Feynman who’s credited as dreaming up the first quantum computer in a 1982 paper—a computer that could use quantum mechanics to solve certain problems. But it was like first coming up with a new way of notating music, but no instrument to play it on and no compositions written. It wasn’t until mathematicians began devising algorithms for this computer to use that it became a more reasonable dream to pursue. Theorists wrote the compositions (the algorithms), while physicists worked on building the instruments (the physical quantum computers).

But okay, now you just have these weird quantum bits whose output you can’t guess beforehand. Now you have to figure out how you can use them. Today, there are several places where researchers think using a quantum computer could solve certain problems better than a classical computer.

Most obviously, you can use these quantum bits to create simulations of other things that follow the crazy rules of quantum mechanics: namely, atoms and molecules. Scientists can use qubits to model entire molecules and their interactions. This could help drug companies devise new medicines, or create new materials with desired properties, before ever setting a foot into a lab.

The caffeine molecule.

Scientists have already been able to model these molecules using classical computing, but quantum mechanics offers a huge speedup. Fully representing the behavior of the caffeine molecule, including the relevant quantum mechanical rules of its individual particles, might take 160 qubits, explained Robert Sutor, vice president of Cognitive, Blockchain, and Quantum Solutions at IBM. Doing so with a classical computer to that level of detail would require around the same number of bits (10^48) as there are atoms on planet Earth (between 10^49 and 10^50).

IBM has already modeled the far lighter beryllium hydride molecule using a six qubit quantum computer. Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory determined all of the energy state of a hydrogen molecule with their own two qubit quantum computer.

There are other algorithms that researchers think might provide some sort of speedup over classical computers. Grover’s algorithm, for example, can help optimize searching. Some are working on using quantum computing in artificial intelligence, or in optimization problems such as “find the biggest mountain in this mountain range” and “find the fastest route between these two points separated by several rivers crossed by several bridges.”

But perhaps the most talked-about quantum computer algorithm is something called Shor’s algorithm, which could change the way almost all our data in encrypted.

Devised by Peter Shor in 1994, its purpose is to factor numbers into primes. I literally mean the factoring you learned in elementary school, the way that you can break 15 into its factors, 3 and 5. Multiplying numbers together is a simple computational task, but breaking big numbers into their factors takes a far longer time. Modern cryptography is based on this knowledge, so lots of your data is, in its most simplified form, encrypted “securely” by converting things into numbers, multiplying them together and associating them with a “key”—instructions on how to factor them. RSA encryption is used almost everywhere, from passwords to banking to your social media. But if a quantum computer can come along that can run Shor’s algorithm and break the encryption, then that old encryption method is no longer secure.

According to everyone I spoke with, breaking RSA encryption is decades away, but scientists are well on their way looking for post-quantum cryptography, new math that can be used for encoding data. The idea is that encryptionbased on these new ideas would be based on mathematics not easier to run with a quantum computer. Meanwhile, other researchers are scrambling to break the popular RSA encryption system with quantum computers before a hacker does.

“I suppose on that level, it’s like the Cold War,” said Stephan Haas, University of Southern California theoretical physicist. “You’re getting nuclear weapons because the other guy is getting nuclear weapons.”

Here’s a physical qubit

Scientists needed transistors, teeny electrical switches, to store bits and make regular computers. Similarly, they need hardware that can store a quantum bit. The key to producing a quantum computer is finding a way to model a quantum system that folks can actually control—actually set the probabilities and orientations of those flipping coins. This can be done with atoms trapped by lasers, photons, and other systems. But at this point, most everyone in the industry who’s presented a quantum computer has done so with superconductors—ultra-cold pieces of specially-fabricated electronics.

They look like teeny microchips. Except these microchips get placed into room-sized refrigerators cooled to temperatures just above absolute zero.

An 8-qubit quantum processor from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs. Photo: Ryan Mandelbaum/Gizmodo.

These superconducting qubits stay quantum for a long time while performing quantum computing operations, explained Irfan Sidiqqi from the University of California, Berkeley. He said that other types of systems can stay quantum for longer, but are slower.

There are three kinds of qubits made from these electronics. They’re called flux, charge, and phase qubits, differing by the specifics of their constructions and their physical properties. All of them rely on something called a Josephson junction in order to work.

A Josephson junction is a tiny piece of non-superconducting insulator placed between the superconducting wires, places where electrons travel without any resistance and begin to show off obvious quantum effects in larger systems. Manipulating the current through the wires allows physicists to set up qubits in these systems. As of today, these systems are very fragile. They fall apart into classical bits through any sorts of noise. And every additional qubit adds more complexity. The biggest quantum computers today have less than 20 qubits, with an exception, the D-Wave computer, whose 2,000 qubits operate on a separate, more specific principle that we’ll dig into later.

Actually performing calculations with these qubits can be a challenge. Regular computers have error correction, or built-in redundancies, places where multiple bits perform the same function in case one of them fail. For quantum computers to do this, they need to have extra qubits built into their system specifically to check errors. But the nature of quantum mechanics makesactually doing this error correction more difficult than it does in classical computers. It could take around two thousand physical qubits working in tandem, in fact, to create one reliable “error-corrected” qubit resistant to messing up. But we’re getting closer. “There’s a lot of healthy progress that wouldn’t have been imaginable two years ago,” said Debbie Leung on the faculty at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.

“A quantum computer will always have errors,” said Laforest. Thankfully, modeling molecules doesn’t need quite the same level of accuracy, said Siddiqi, which is why researchers have plowed forward with these types of simulations in few-qubit systems.

Better qubits and further research continue to bring us closer to the threshold where we can construct few-qubit processors. “Now we’re at the junction where the theoretical demand versus the reality of experiments are converging together,” said Laforest.

Who’s doing it

Universities, national labs, and companies like IBM, Google, Microsoft and Intel are pursuing qubits set-ups in logic circuits similar to regular bits, all with less than 20 qubits so far. Companies are simultaneously simulating quantum computers with classical computers, but around 50 qubits is seen as the limit—IBM recently simulated 56 qubits, which took 4.5 terabytes of memory in a classical computer.

Each company we spoke to has a slightly different approach to developing their superconducting machines. Sutor from IBM told Gizmodo the company is taking a long-term approach, hoping to one day release a general-purpose quantum computer that classical computers rely on, when needed, through the cloud. Intel has just entered the race with their 17-qubit processor released in October. Microsoft showed off their consumer-facing software suite to Gizmodo, and described a similar long-term goal for quantum computing involving scalable hardware.

Rumors are swelling that before the end of this year, Google will unleash a quantum computer that will achieve “quantum supremacy” with 49 or 50 qubits. Quantum supremacy simply means finding one single algorithm for which a quantum computer always win, and for which a classical workaround can’t be found to solve the same problem. This is just one milestone, though.

“It will probably be a contrived task, something not classically important,” said Aaronson. Still, he said, “I think at that point it raises the stakes for the skeptics, for the people who have said and continue to say that it’s a pipe dream.” The other companies seemed to agree and stressed their long-term goals for quantum computing. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

While 2017 seems to be a year amidst a sort-of quantum boom, everyone I spoke to was realistic about just how far from a consumer-facing product quantum computing is. “Looking at 2020, 2021 we’ll start seeing the advantage for real users, corporations, and scientific research,” Sutor said.

But one controversial company, D-wave, is instead doing a different kind of quantum computing called adiabatic quantum computing. Rather than just a dozen to a few dozen qubits, they’ve announced a computer with 2,000. And rather than rely on quantum logic circuits like the rest of the pack, their computer solves one type of problem—optimization problems, like finding the best solution from a range of okay solutions, or finding the best taxi route from point A to point B staying as far as possible from other taxis. These kind of problems are potentially useful in finance.

Unlike the competitors, D-wave doesn’t need its qubits to be error-corrected. Instead, it overcomes the error correction by running the algorithm many times per second. “Is it a general purpose machine that could run any problem? No,” Bo Ewald, D-Wave’s president, told Gizmodo. “But there aren’t any computers that can run these problems anyway.”

At this point, people agree that D-Wave’s computer is a quantum computer, but are unsure if it’s better than a classical computer for the same problem yet (some of its users report beating classical algorithms, said Ewald). But Ewald just wanted to get quantum computers in front of people now. “If you want to get started with real-world quantum computing today, this is how you do it. NASA, Google, and Los Alamos National Labs have all purchased models or computing space,” said Ewald.

The outlook

Everyone, even Ewald at D-Wave, agrees that we’re far from seeing quantum computers used in everyday life—there’s a lot of excitement but we’re still in the early days. There are hordes of challenges, like error correction. Then comes the related problem of transmitting quantum information between distant computers or storing quantum information long term in memory.

I asked Aaronson whether he thought some startup or some secret effort might come along from out of nowhere and present a super advanced model—he said probably not. “We know who the best scientists are and we’d expect them to be vacuumed up the way physicists were in the Manhattan project,” he said. “I think it remains a very healthy field, but at the same time it’s true that actually building a useful quantum computer is a massive technological undertaking.” You can’t just build one in your garage.

So no, you cannot own a quantum computer now, nor is it likely that you will ever own a quantum computer. It’s more likely that when your classical computer needs quantum help, you won’t notice it working. You may hear about some benefits of quantum computing in the next few years, like biochemical advances, but other advantages could be 20 years down the line. And overall, there’s no proof a quantum computer is any better than a classical computer. Yet.

Astral Projection: Just a Mind Trip

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Astral Projection: Just a Mind Trip

 Astral Projection: Just a Mind Trip
Many people claim to have had some kind of out-of-body experience. However, there’s no evidence that people who think they’ve experienced astral travel have actually gone anywhere.

Credit: rudall30 | Shutterstock

In the 2016 blockbuster “Doctor Strange,” among the titular superhero’s powers (as the “Master of the Mystic Arts”) is astral projection, or the ability to separate his physical body from his spiritual one. This is done in spectacular fashion onscreen, enhanced by cutting-edge computer generated effects featuring an extended fight scene between two people in spirit form. (Of course, fights usually involve physical force such as punches and kicks, so how exactly two immaterial entities could affect each other remains a bit of a mystery.)

Astral projection is fun and fascinating — but is it real?

The idea that humans can leave their bodies during dream states is ancient. Countless people, from New Agers to shamans around the world, believe that it is possible to commune with cosmic intelligence through visions and vivid dreams experienced during astral projection, also known as out-of-body experiences. Surveys suggest that between 8 and 20 percent of people claim to have had something like an out-of-body experience at some point in their lives — a sensation of the consciousness, spirit, or “astral body” leaving the physical body. While most experiences occur during sleep or under hypnosis, some people claim to do it while merely relaxing.

Though originally a private, quasi-religious meditative practice it has — like many New Age beliefs — been commercialized. Astral travel can be big business, and there are many books, seminars, DVDs and other materials that promise to teach students how to leave their physical bodies and access other dimensions. Do they work? Who knows?

It may be a profound experience, but the fundamental problem is that there’s really no way to scientifically measure whether or not a person’s spirit “leaves” or “enters” the body. The simplest and best explanation for out-of-body experiences is that the person is merely fantasizing and dreaming. Because there is no scientific evidence that consciousness can exist outside of the brain, astral projection is rejected by scientists.

Why hasn’t astral projection been proven scientifically? Some claim it’s because mainstream scientists are closed-minded and refuse to even look at evidence that doesn’t fit their narrow worldview. However, in science those who disprove dominant theories are rewarded, not punished. Proving the existence of psychic powers, astral projection or alternative dimensions would earn the dissenting scientists a place in the history books, if not a Nobel Prize.

Scientifically testing the validity of astral travel should be quite simple; for example, you might hide 10 unknown objects at different locations and then ask a person to project their consciousness to each place and describe exactly what’s there. Either the descriptions match or they don’t.

We need not resort to such artificial tests, since the real world provides countless opportunities for astral projection to be demonstrated beyond any doubt. If proven, astral travel would be incredibly useful to the world. There would be no need to send humans into very dangerous conditions — such as nuclear disasters — to determine what the situation is. People whose consciousnesses can fly and move through walls would save lives during natural disasters such as earthquakes, easily moving through rubble and collapsed buildings to locate survivors and direct rescue workers to them. Astral projectors, like psychics, would be invaluable to police during mass shooting and hostage situations, describing exactly how many suspects there are, where in the building they can be found, and other crucial details. The absence of these individuals during life-or-death situations is revealing.

Practitioners of astral travel insist that the experience must be real because it seems so vivid, and because some of the experiences are similar, even for people from different cultures. But it’s not surprising that many people who try astral projection have similar experiences — after all, that’s what the term “guided imagery” is: when an authority (such as a psychologist or astral travel teacher) tells a person what they should expect from the experience.

According to researcher Susan Blackmore, author of “Beyond the Body: An Investigation of Out-of-the-Body Experiences,” people who experience astral travel “have been found to score higher on measures of hypnotizability and, in several surveys, on measures of absorption, [a] measure of a person’s ability to pay complete attention to something and to become immersed in it, even if it is not real, like a film, play, or imagined event.” Out-of-body experiencers are more imaginative, suggestible, and fantasy-prone than average, though have low levels of drug and alcohol use, and no obvious signs of psychopathology or mental illness. [Related: Out-of-Body Hallucinations Linked to Brain Glitch]

Though astral projection practitioners insist their experiences are real, their evidence is all anecdotal — just as a person who takes peyote or LSD may be truly convinced that they interacted with God, dead people, or angels while in their altered state. Astral projection is an entertaining and harmless pastime that can seem profound, and in some cases even life-changing. But there’s no evidence that out-of-body-experiences happen outside the body instead of inside the brain. Until the existence of an astral plane can be proven — and made accessible — there’s always the continuing adventures of the Sorcerer Supreme.

The Most Interesting Science News Articles of the Week

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The Most Interesting Science News Articles of the Week

Each week we uncover the most interesting and informative articles from around the world, here are 10 of the coolest stories in science this week.

The Veil Nebula as seen by Hubble. Because it looks cool.

The Veil Nebula as seen by Hubble. Because it looks cool.

Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

The universe shouldn’t exist, according to new ultra-precise measurements of anti-protons.

This physics conundrum focuses on the idea that all particles have their antimatter twin with the same quantum numbers, only the exact opposite. Protons have anti-protons, electrons have positrons, neutrinos have anti-neutrinos etc.; a beautiful example of symmetry in the quantum world. [Read more about the universe.]

President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline in a limousine in Dallas shortly before his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. (Texas Gov. John Connally adjusts his tie in the foreground.)

President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline in a limousine in Dallas shortly before his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. (Texas Gov. John Connally adjusts his tie in the foreground.)

Credit: Getty Images

In a long-awaited declassification of files related to the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, President Donald Trump said this afternoon that he was releasing to the public 2,800 documents, while holding back others due to national security concerns. [Read more about the files.]

Jupiter's moon Europa, which harbors an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell.

Jupiter’s moon Europa, which harbors an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

E.T. may be out there, silently swimming in frigid oceans beneath miles and miles of ice.

Last week, planetary scientist Alan Stern offered: Maybe intelligent life is widespread throughout the galaxy but most of it lives in deep, dark subsurface oceans that are cut off from the rest of the cosmos. [Read more about the possibilities.]

Gal Wiener, owner and manager of the Winner's auction house in Jerusalem, holds two notes, including one on happiness, written by Albert Einstein in November 1922. Both notes were written in German on stationary from the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

Gal Wiener, owner and manager of the Winner’s auction house in Jerusalem, holds two notes, including one on happiness, written by Albert Einstein in November 1922. Both notes were written in German on stationary from the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

Credit: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty

Two advice-filled notes Albert Einstein wrote to a bellboy in Japan 95 years ago, including one that advocated for “a calm and modest life,” fetched more than $1.5 million at an auction on Tuesday (Oct. 24).

A bidding war for the letter lasted 25 minutes, and ended with an anonymous buyer purchasing it for $1,560,000, a price that includes an additional charge known as the buyer’s premium. [Read more about the formula.]

A tiny repaired hole on the painting revealed it to be the lost Thomas Couture artwork. A conservationist of that painting had made a note of the hole.

A tiny repaired hole on the painting revealed it to be the lost Thomas Couture artwork. A conservationist of that painting had made a note of the hole.

Credit: Courtesy of the German Lost Art Foundation

A painting the Nazis looted from a Jewish leader of the French Resistance during World War II has been identified, German authorities announced yesterday (Oct. 25).

The Couture painting had been confiscated in 2012 when German authorities discovered a possible trove of Nazi-looted art in the Munich apartment of collector Cornelius Gurlitt. But it was not connected with a specific victim of Nazi artwork looting until now. [Read more about the work of art.]

A scan of the astrolabe revealed etchings on it.

A scan of the astrolabe revealed etchings on it.

Credit: University of Warwick

More than 500 years ago, a fierce storm sank a ship carrying the earliest known marine astrolabe — a device that helped sailors navigate at sea, new research finds.

The marine astrolabe likely dates to between 1495 and 1500, and was aboard a ship known as the Esmeralda, which sank in 1503. The Esmeralda was part of a fleet led by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the first known person to sail directly from Europe to India. [Read more about the tool.]

A cross section of the ancient tree. Each of the black dots has its own tree ring series, unlike modern trees, which usually have just one tree ring series in their trunks.

A cross section of the ancient tree. Each of the black dots has its own tree ring series, unlike modern trees, which usually have just one tree ring series in their trunks.

Credit: Xu and Berry, 2017

Earth’s first trees had hundreds of tree-like structures within them, making them exceedingly more intricate than the insides of modern trees, a new study finds. [Read more about the first trees.]

An Italian woman has a rare condition that causes her to sweat blood. On the left, an image of the woman's face during a bleeding episode. On the right, an image of the woman's skin under a microscope, which showed normal tissue.
An Italian woman has a rare condition that causes her to sweat blood. On the left, an image of the woman’s face during a bleeding episode. On the right, an image of the woman’s skin under a microscope, which showed normal tissue.

Credit: Reprinted with permission from CMAJ

A young woman in Italy has a rare and mysterious condition that causes her to sweat blood, according to a new report of her case. [Read more about the condition.]

A samurai unsheathes his traditional katana in this stock image.

A samurai unsheathes his traditional katana in this stock image.

Credit: zummolo/Shutterstock

What should you name a baby samurai? What food should a samurai bring to a battle? What is a samurai’s most treasured possession? A newly translated 450-year-old book supposedly written by a renowned samurai provides answers to these and many other questions about the Japanese swordsmen.

The rules also highlight the importance of archery, even suggesting that the best name for a baby born into the samurai class is “Yumi,” which means “bow.” [Read more about the book.]

Whoever said chemistry is boring hasn’t seen YouTube user Amazing Timelapse’s video showing a calculator melting into a surreal shape, reminiscent of a Salvador Dalí painting. Surprisingly, the calculator isn’t melting at all, or even being heated.

Plastics are different. The long carbon chains aren’t polar — they don’t have the same positive and negative sides. So water just bounces off the molecules and doesn’t separate them from their fellows. [Read more about the vapors.]

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Amazing Images: The Best Science Photos of the Week

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Amazing Images: The Best Science Photos of the Week

 Each week we find the most interesting and informative articles we can and along the way we uncover amazing and cool images. Here you’ll discover 10 incredible photos and the stories behind them.

Checkin’ things out:

A great white shark left scientists “buzzing” after it grabbed a baited underwater research camera and dragged it to the surface — not once, but three times, according to researchers at Massey University in New Zealand.

[Full Story: Crunch! Curious Great White Shark Snags Underwater Camera]

Strange behavior:

Nest-building wasps in Malaysia were recently captured “blowing bubbles,” expelling tiny droplets of water that they absorbed from their damp nests.

[Full Story: Incredible Image of Bubble-Blowing Wasp Has a Scientific Explanation]

Saving a life:

A rescued bear with an enormous tongue gets surgery in Myanmar.

[Full Story: Unbearable: An Enormously Swollen Tongue Was Destroying a Bear’s Life]

Ancient rarity:

An old sketch reveals a rare solar phenomenon.

[Full Story: Teen Astronomer’s 1886 Sketch Reveals Rare White Solar Flare]

Frightening moth:

Male <i>Creatonotos gangis</i> moths have hairy scent organs that release pheromones during courtship.
Male Creatonotos gangis moths have hairy scent organs that release pheromones during courtship.

Credit: Alamy

A moth that looks like it crawled out of a shadowy underworld is freaking out Facebook users, including some who are wondering whether the creature in the post is even real.

[Full Story: What on Earth? Freaky Moth with Hairy ‘Butt Appendages’ Stuns Facebook]

Odd source:

More than 1,000 years ago, a woman living in the British Isles became horribly disfigured after catching leprosy from an unlikely source: a squirrel, according to a new study.

[Full Story: How a Squirrel May Have Infected a Medieval Woman with Leprosy]

A winter home:

Scientists spotted this huge jellyfish (<em>Chrysaora melanaster</em>) dragging a crustacean with one of its tentacles under the sea ice covering the Chukchi Sea off the north coast of Alaska.
Scientists spotted this huge jellyfish (Chrysaora melanaster) dragging a crustacean with one of its tentacles under the sea ice covering the Chukchi Sea off the north coast of Alaska.

Credit: Andrew Juhl and Craig Aumack

Surprisingly, adult jellyfish survive the winter under the Arctic’s thick sea ice.

[Full Story: Rare Footage Captures Giant Jellyfish Living Under Arctic Ice]

Weather changes:

In winter, something happens to the skulls of adult red-toothed shrews that is exceedingly rare among vertebrates.

[Full Story: Shrews’ Heads (and Brains) Shrink As Seasons Change]

Rules? What Rules?

In cognition tests, clever raccoons demonstrated that they would not hesitate to bend the rules to get their rewards.

[Full Story: Raccoons Ace Cognition Test (But Sometimes They Cheat)]

Hiding in plain sight:

A “masked” dinosaur that lived 130 million years ago was a master at disguise who could hide even in broad daylight from its predators, relatives of the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex, a new study finds.

[Full Story: Dinosaur with Raccoon-Like Mask Hid in Broad Daylight]