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Black holes really just ever-growing balls of string, researchers say

Ohio State University

July 26, 2018

Calculations find a flaw in the firewall argument

COLUMBUS – Black holes aren’t surrounded by a burning ring of fire after all, suggests new research.

Some physicists have believed in a “firewall” around the perimeter of a black hole that would incinerate anything sucked into its powerful gravitational pull.

But a team from The Ohio State University has calculated an explanation of what would happen if an electron fell into a typical black hole, with a mass as big as the sun.

“The probability of the electron hitting a photon from the radiation and burning up is negligible, dropping even further if one considers larger black holes known to exist in space,” said Samir Mathur, a professor of physics at Ohio State. The study appears in the Journal of High Energy Physics.

The new study builds on previous work from 2004 led by Mathur that theorized that black holes are basically like giant, messy balls of yarn – “fuzzballs” that gather more and more heft as new objects are sucked in. That theory, Mathur said, resolved the famous black hole “information paradox” outlined by Steven Hawking in 1975. Hawking’s research had concluded that particles entering a black hole can never leave. But that ran counter to the laws of quantum mechanics, creating the paradox.

The firewall argument emerged in 2012, when four physicists from the University of California, Santa Barbara argued that any object like a fuzzball would have to be surrounded by a ring of fire that will burn any object before it could reach the fuzzball’s surface.

“What we’ve shown in this new study is a flaw in the firewall argument,” Mathur said.

Black holes are places in space with such immense gravitational pull that not even light can escape once it’s captured. Their powerful pull condenses any matter black holes draw in. They are invisible, but scientists have established that black holes can range from tiny to huge, estimations that are based on the behavior of stars and gas surrounding the black hole.

After months of mathematical machinations, Mathur and his team arrived at their by-the-numbers explanation to support their theory discounting the firewall. It’s built on string theory, the scientific notion that the universe is composed of subatomic string-like tubes of energy. The belief is rooted in the marriage of quantum mechanics (which concerns itself with the mathematics of subatomic particles) and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Mathur has always counted himself among those scientists who are firewall skeptics.

“The question is ‘Where does the black hole grab you?’ We think that as a person approaches the horizon, the fuzzball surface grows to meet it before it has a chance to reach the hottest part of the radiation, and this is a crucial finding in this new physics paper that invalidates the firewall argument,” he said.

“Once a person falling into the black hole is tangled up in strings, there’s no easy way to decide what he will feel. The firewall argument had seemed like a quick way to prove that something falling through the horizon burns up. But we now see that there cannot be any such quick argument; what happens can only be decided by detailed calculations in string theory,” Mathur said.

Ohio State graduate students Bin Guo and Shaun Hampton also worked on the study.

For more details on the new study, visit http://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~mathur/firewallstory2.pdf

Written by Misti Crane

July 25, 2018

Unisexual salamander evolution: A long, strange trip

Study finds surprisingly long stretches of celibacy

COLUMBUS – The reproductive history of the unisexual, ladies-only salamander species is full of evolutionary surprises.

In a new study, a team of researchers at The Ohio State University traced the animals’ genetic history back 3.4 million years and found some head-scratching details – primarily that they seem to have gone for millions of years without any DNA contributions from male salamanders and still have managed to persist. The research appears in the journal Evolution.

First, a bit about the unisexual Ambystoma salamander: They’re female, and they reproduce mainly through cloning and the occasional theft of another salamander species’ sperm, which the males of sexual species deposit on leaves and twigs and the like. When this happens, it stimulates egg production and the borrowed species’ genetic information is sometimes incorporated into the genome of the unisexual salamanders, a process called kleptogenesis.

Scientists who study these amphibians and their relatives, which are also called mole salamanders, have theorized that the theft of sperm is part of what has kept the unisexuals around so long. If all they ever did was clone themselves, biologists reason, they’d be vulnerable to all kinds of problems that unfold when you don’t mix up the DNA pool and would disappear from the earth fairly quickly.

Going into the study, the Ohio State team figured this sperm-borrowing happened with regularity throughout history, said study co-author H. Lisle Gibbs, a professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology.

But findings revealed that the salamanders rarely dip into the other-species pool for genetic variation.

“This research shows that millions of years went by where they weren’t taking DNA from other species, and then there were short bursts where they did it more frequently,” said Rob Denton, who led the project as an Ohio State graduate student and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Connecticut.

“Surprisingly, it doesn’t look like they’re suffering any ill genetic effects. It’s a mysterious scenario that an animal can avoid sexual reproduction for millions of years and not suffer the consequences of that.”

Using newly available technologies and a novel and complex approach to sequence and evaluate about 100 DNA samples from the salamanders, the Ohio State researchers developed a genetic blueprint for what unfolded in the last 3.4 million years.

“When interbreeding happens, or there are adaptations to new changing environmental conditions, that all gets captured in the patterns of their genetic variation,” Denton said.

Under normal circumstances in nature, one would expect these salamanders to be long-gone, Gibbs said.

“Most asexual lineages blink out after 100,000 years. We think these have been around for 5 million years,” he said.

A puzzling detail that emerged in the study is that the sampling of DNA from other species appears to have increased in frequency in recent times, he said.

“The reasons for this are sort of tantalizing, and make you wonder: Did this happen because of some sort of environmental change or specific interactions with other species? We don’t know those answers but now we have some provocative questions,” Denton said.

He also noted that the evolutionary history of the unisexual salamander is far different from the history of other unisexual species, such as Amazon mollies.

“The mollies live fast and die hard, in less than a year, but these salamanders live slow and for long periods of time, into their 20s and 30s. And they reproduce every few years,” Denton said.

“These salamanders are just sort of plodding through evolutionary time doing strange and surprising things.”

The researchers noted that the study looked only at salamander DNA samples from Ohio and Michigan, so it’s unclear if the same patterns would be seen throughout Eastern North America and Canada, where the unisexual Ambystoma is also common.

Gibbs said it’s possible that this research could inform other areas of study, including plant science, because many plants are – like the unisexual salamanders – polyploid organisms. That means that they have more than two sets of chromosomes.

“If we can find patterns in common with these plants and animals, it would help us understand how these organisms evolve and how the molecular machinery of species with more than two sets of chromosomes works,” Gibbs said.

Ohio State graduate student Ariadna Morales Garcia also worked on the study.

The National Science Foundation supported this research.

Written by Misti Crane


Smart City Revolution Is Underway, Changing Old and New

By Llewellyn King


Cities are getting smarter. It’s happening right now, and it isn’t much short of a revolution.

Whole cities are incorporating the Internet of Things (IoT) into their daily life, changing the way the cities and towns live and breathe. The idea is to improve the quality of life for the billions who now live in cities or will as the relentless urbanization of the world continues.

Some are more advanced than others, but the revolution is afoot across the globe. Experts can’t explicitly say which communities are leading the pack but, as expected, Singapore and Dubai are in the front row, and so are New York and San Antonio.

The goal is to make cities, as old as civilization, more citizen-friendly and more efficient and to ready them for further electrification in transportation — and, one day, for autonomous vehicles.

Clint Vince, chairman of the U.S. Energy Practice of the world’s largest law firm, Dentons, tells me that the firm is so involved with smart cities and communities that it has established a not-for-profit think tank to work on smart city issues within it. He said the think tank has determined 14 “pillars” of the smart city, from obvious ones like transportation, water, electricity and sewage to less obvious city functions like health and recreation.

Vince has represented New Orleans and San Antonio for many years, but he now sounds more like a city visionary than a lawyer. “Take the electric grid: It has to go from a single-direction flow, taking electricity from the point of generation to the point of consumption, to a two-way flow,” he said. “Eventually, it has to have multi-directional flows.”

Vince is talking about the effect of microgrids and dispersed electric generation, such as rooftop solar. One day, this grid flexibility may lead to innovations such as electric cars “lending” electricity to the grid when prices are favorable.

Electricity and smart meters, which are the key to what is known as the smart grid, began the revolution. Now the surge is joined by telephony in connecting, managing and directing the smart city infrastructure, and in trouble shooting it.

Tony Giroti, chairman of the Energy Blockchain Consortium, says smart installations aren’t just for monitoring and metering electricity and water consumption, but also play a prime role in bridging the divide between the old infrastructure and the new information-driven one. Smart city sensors will advise before there is a problem with an old pipe or compressor, so that proactive intervention can avert breakdowns.

Cities such as New York and Washington have underground pipes and wires that are past their prime, but they needn’t pose the threats they used to: The cities can cry out electronically when their physical plant is hurting. The New York Power Authority, a state agency, is credited with a leading role in smart cities, but the rush is on across the country and around the world.

As the information-driven city takes hold, so do questions ranging, for example, from where will autonomous ride-share cars loiter when not booked to where will they park?

I was leaving an interview about the future of cities when I fell over it. Literally. One of those scooters that are now part of the urban transportation mix had been left on the sidewalk. Because of the use of internet technology and GPS, riders can leave them anywhere when they get to their destinations. The scooters are picked up and recharged at night, signaling to the company where they are via GPS.

Creating new, more livable cities is exciting; dealing with the unexpected consequences, as always, is challenging. When no one is looking, I’m going to try one of these scooters. I may be in traction when I write my next column, but don’t worry — it’ll be delivered electronically.


Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His email is llewellynking1@gmail.com. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

Opinion: Is Your Weed Killer Killing You?

By Angela Logomasini


You might think that the popular weed killer known as Roundup is causing cancers around the world thanks to alarming news coverage of pending lawsuits. The first of thousands of such cases has now gone to trial in San Francisco, with the plaintiff claiming that Roundup caused his non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

But don’t panic. While the illnesses in these cases are tragic, it is highly unlikely that they have anything to do with glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Roundup. Rather, opportunistic trial lawyers have latched onto claims about cancer risks, hoping that Monsanto, glyphosate’s manufacturer, will pay them to go away in generous legal settlements.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer decision in 2015 to classify glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” triggered the trial lawyers’ interest in the chemical and also prompted some nations and a number of local governments to ban the product.

Yet IARC’s classification is contradicted by numerous scientific reviews around the world that determined the chemical is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. These include evaluations by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2017 draft risk assessment); the European Food Safety Authority (2015), Health Canada (2017), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (2016), and others. These findings are based on substantial studies related to human exposures as well as rodent tests.

IARC’s classification is largely based on data from a handful of rodent studies that the EPA and other evaluations did not find conclusive. The FAO study, for example, pointed out that rat studies found no association with cancer; only mice that were administered very high doses formed tumors. These mice studies reveal little if anything about risks to humans exposed to very low amounts of the chemical.

Indeed, many chemicals found in a healthy diet — including those that naturally form in fruits and vegetables such as carrots, celery and lettuce — cause tumors in rodents when administered in high doses. These tests simply remind us that the dose makes the poison, while trace exposures to such chemicals pose negligible risk.

IARC’s classification shouldn’t be taken seriously for an even more fundamental reason: the group does not actually assess risk. IARC focuses on determining if a chemical or activity poses a “hazard,” which is just the first step in risk assessment. A hazard assessment simply considers whether at some exposure level and under some circumstance a substance might pose a risk. The next steps consider dose and exposure, and whether actual human exposures are significant enough to matter.

Classifying chemicals based on hazard alone makes no sense since everything in life poses a hazard — it’s how we use something and how we’re exposed to it that matters. Even water can make your brain swell and kill you if you drink excessive amounts. But we don’t classify water as “dangerous” because most people don’t guzzle gallons at a time.

IARC’s hazard-focused approach makes its classifications meaningless and nonsensical. Consider that IARC lists smoking tobacco and plutonium in the same carcinogenic category with wood dust, painting houses, salty fish (Chinese style), and processed meat. Yet, you can’t even begin to compare the theoretical risks associated with eating bologna sandwiches and the actual risks associated with smoking cigarettes, which produces nearly half a millionfatalities annually in the United States.

IARC places glyphosate in a lower-risk category of “probably” carcinogenic, along with a wide range of industrial chemicals as well as diseases such as Malaria and the human papillomavirus type 68, and more mundane things like red meat, being a hairdresser, or “shift working” that disrupts regular sleep hours. Coffee is fine, but don’t drink it too hot, because hot beverages are also “probably carcinogenic,” according to IARC.

IARC’s faulty process is compounded by the fact that its decisions appear tainted by anti-chemical ideologies and conflicts of interest. In the glyphosate case, IARC enlisted an Environmental Defense Fund activist to help as an “adviser.” And that “adviser” cashed in within days after IARC finalized the classification, eventually collecting $160,000 (so far) from trial lawyers who hired him as an “expert” witness in their case.

So, as the headlines about Roundup trickle out, don’t worry if you’ve used or want to use the weed killer again. These cases actually have little to nothing to do about the risk and everything to do about trial lawyers using junk science to cash in on other people’s suffering.


Angela Logomasini is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and specializes in environmental risk, regulation and consumer freedom. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.

Opinion: Technology Can Bring Neighbors Together, but Don’t Forget the Baked Goods

By Kevin Sullivan

The Catalyst, via InsideSources.com

When we moved into our house in Florida in 2011, a neighbor welcomed us to the block by sending over a plate of delicious chocolate chip cookies. We were pleasantly surprised by their old-school act of kindness. Within a day or two, our kids went over to deliver a thank-you note. No one answered, so they left the note on the door.

In the five years we lived there, we never had another interaction with them, and in fact never actually saw the people who sent the cookies.

This lack of contact with the people right down the block is commonplace, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. They show each year that Americans know less and less about their neighbors. The Boston Globe reports that trust levels are down and loneliness is up.

Technology has had a profound effect on the weakening of our community relationships. We no longer need to ask a neighbor for a recommendation for a good house painter, landscaper or plumber. There are apps for that. There is no need to ask a neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar when Amazon Fresh will deliver groceries to your door in a few hours. Our new virtual friends Alexa and Siri provide us with all kinds of information.

Looking for a lost dog? A post on the Nextdoor app in many communities is more efficient than hanging signs on telephone poles or knocking on doors.

According to Joe Cortright of City Observatory, technology has been “a mixed blessing” in our communities. It facilitates networking, which is helpful and efficient, but first television, then the internet, then smartphones, social media, podcasts and streaming services like Netflix “enable people to cocoon themselves in their own audio environments.”

Harvard Public Policy Professor Robert Putnam calls it “individualizing” our leisure time, “thus cracking the traditional social bonds that held society together.”

Even in the age of “social” media, Pew reports, Americans have become more disconnected from one another in many aspects of daily life. Unless you have a dog to walk, you may rarely see your neighbors, much less get to know them.

Joshua Foust, a national security fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says the traditional small-town America social contract has been inverted. Once upon a time we knew our neighbors well while the government and big corporations were “a distant presence that rarely intrudes into daily life.” Today, we are less likely to trust our neighbors while the government and big corporations know everything about us. Another tech-related indication of fear in our neighborhoods is surging sales of smart doorbells and security cameras.

Nextdoor, which has been around since 2011, is a private social network that covers 75 percent of U.S. neighborhoods. It has a reported 4 million posts per day by people using their real names who are verified residents of a defined neighborhood.

Like on all social media platforms, there are some on Nextdoor whose conduct and tone pull people apart. At times the “neighborhood watch” element of Nextdoor can bring out the worst in people. The entertaining Twitter account, @BestofNextdoor, posts some doozies, from 911 being called on a person’s granddaughter who was helpfully retrieving a package off the porch to the vague-but-ominous alert, “Group of young people up to no good.”

Cortright illuminates just how important it is for us to find the right mix of privacy and interpersonal contact with our neighbors. “A divided, disconnected and often balkanized populace is likely to make it more difficult to address and solve national problems. We have less in common, both in the form of a shared base of knowledge and belief about the nature of the challenges we face, and also a weaker sense of mutual interests. Restoring the civic commons may be an essential step to making progress on a wide range of challenges.”

At its best, a platform like Nextdoor can be that civic commons and play a valuable role in bringing people together.

Recently a Lakewood, Colorado, resident named Matt wrote a curious post asking for someone to make him meatloaf and banana cream pie. According to the Nextdoor blog, following quite a bit of chatter on the app, a group of residents organized a meatloaf and banana cream pie contest. More than 100 neighbors — most of whom had never met each other — attended the “Meet Loaf” event held at a local church hall with live music, face painters, games and prizes donated by local businesses.

The solution is clear: We must combine the power of technology with a personal touch.

There are many reasons a Facebook request or LinkedIn invitation is a good next step after the first meeting with a new neighbor. For starters, you don’t have to comb your hair to do it. It’s low-risk, non-invasive, and doesn’t take much time. It may be impersonal, but the goal isn’t necessarily to become best friends — it’s simply to become good neighbors who might one day be able to help each other in a pinch.

To make our communities stronger, the connection is what matters and technology can be used as a helpful supplement to personal interaction. Participating in invitation-only neighborhood Facebook pages, Yahoo Mail lists, and verified Nextdoor groups can all incrementally and comfortably advance relationships and forge a connection with our neighbors.

The chocolate chip cookie diplomacy of our neighbor in Florida didn’t lead to a meaningful connection, but we had a much different experience in November 2017. A week after we moved into a new community in Dallas, a couple moved in next door. Our daughter brought them a spare pumpkin pie (and Cool Whip) we had from Thanksgiving.

Matt and Justin sent over a thank-you note and quickly followed up to connect on Facebook. Soon cell phone numbers were exchanged, we’ve chatted over the backyard fence, stop to chat while out walking, and send occasional texts. They look out for us while we’re out of town.

While we don’t have or need a close personal relationship, we do feel a meaningful connection, which demonstrates that baked goods plus technology is more powerful than baked goods alone.


Kevin Sullivan is senior adviser for external affairs at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. This essay originally appeared in The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute. This is distributed by InsideSources.com.


Staff & Wire Reports