Mysteries, speculations, & potential game changers in science - items thread#1

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The mystery of India's plummeting COVID-19 cases

INTRO: Last September, India was confirming nearly 100,000 new coronavirus cases a day. It was on track to overtake the United States to become the country with the highest reported COVID-19 caseload in the world. Hospitals were full. The Indian economy nosedived into an unprecedented recession.

But four months later, India's coronavirus numbers have plummeted. Late last month, on Jan. 26, the country's Health Ministry confirmed a record low of about 9,100 new daily cases — in a country of nearly 1.4 billion people. It was India's lowest daily tally in eight months. On Monday, India confirmed about 11,000 cases.

"It's not that India is testing less or things are going underreported," says Jishnu Das, a health economist at Georgetown University. "It's been rising, rising — and now suddenly, it's vanished! I mean, hospital ICU utilization has gone down. Every indicator says the numbers are down."

Scientists say it's a mystery. They're probing why India's coronavirus numbers have declined so dramatically — and so suddenly, in September and October, months before any vaccinations began. They're trying to figure out what Indians may be doing right and how to mimic that in other countries that are still suffering... (MORE - details)
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Physicist designs magnetic thrust engine that could rocket us to the Red Planet

EXCERPT: Ion thrusters, once the standard mode of acceleration for imaginative sci-fi authors and now the preferred positioning engine for NASA scientists and engineers in their satellites, might have greater endurance and are a lot cheaper to operate but generate a minuscule amount of thrust for acceleration purposes. This isn't exactly a viable option for a trip to the Red Planet where hundreds of tons of spacecraft are being moved across the heavens.

Ebrahimi's Princeton team has developed a new concept that involves utilizing the same basic cosmic mechanism that helps shove solar flares outward from our Sun. These violent eruptions are comprised of charged atoms and particles known as plasma, which are imprisoned inside intense magnetic fields. Their findings were published in the online research site, Journal of Plasma Physics.

To harness this dynamic energy into an effective propulsion system, Ebrahimi is targeting a type of interaction called magnetic reconnection, which is where magnetic fields in highly charged plasma environments automatically restructure themselves to converge, separate, and re-converge.

The consequences of this cyclical reaction is an impressive powerhouse of kinetic energy, thermal energy, and particle acceleration. This phenomenon is not limited to stars, but also occurs within our planet's atmosphere and Tokamak fusion reactors, such as PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment.

This innovative thruster produces movement by ejecting both plasma particles and magnetic bubbles known as plasmoids, which increase power to the propulsion.

"Long-distance travel takes months or years because the specific impulse of chemical rocket engines is very low, so the craft takes a while to get up to speed," Ebrahimi explains. "But if we make thrusters based on magnetic reconnection, then we could conceivably complete long-distance missions in a shorter period of time. While other thrusters require heavy gas, made of atoms like xenon, in this concept you can use any type of gas you want." (MORE - details)
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A rebel physicist has an elegant solution to a quantum mystery

EXCERPTS: . . . In these situations, a glaring problem comes into focus: general relativity and quantum mechanics appear to be completely incompatible. The smooth, continuous universe general relativity describes conflicts with the discrete, chunky one of quantum physics. When you bring their equations together you get nonsense.

To try to reconcile them, physicists generally assume that quantum mechanics is more or less the true description of nature and then tinker with relativity to get it to match up. [...] it has ... left physicists frustrated, unable to match juggernaut equations to reality. Andrzej Dragan comes at this problem from a different angle, attempting to describe nature through the lens of relativity.

Decades before he first started pondering the connections between the quantum world and relativity, a link between special relativity (Einstein’s first theory describing space and time before he added acceleration in his general theory of relativity) and quantum mechanics was already well established. In fact, quantum field theory [...] unites quantum mechanics and special relativity. But it does it in a way that regards them as two independent and distinct pieces of a wider puzzle.

Dragan felt that this connection must run deeper: “It's more than just being part of quantum field theory, more profound,” he says. “It's almost as if quantum theory does exactly what relativity allows and not a bit more.”

[...] Because there is no physical evidence that anything can travel faster than the speed of light, the faster-than-light solutions are always thrown away. But, mathematically, these solutions are still valid. So Dragan thought, why not keep the faster-than-light solutions and see what happens? When he did, he uncovered a world that would look more familiar to quantum theorists.

[...] Dragan had shown that in a world ruled by special relativity, counterintuitive quantum effects don’t have to be accepted as fundamental. In other words, by including the wacky ‘unphysical’ parts of special relativity’s equations, patently random and distinctly quantum-like phenomena emerge naturally.

[...] in 2010, he received an email from Artur Ekert that would bring him right back to his musings on relativity and quantum mechanics. Ekert was and is a leading figure in quantum information and pioneer of quantum cryptography ... When Dragan finally shared his ideas on how quantum randomness might emerge from special relativity, Ekert was keen to get involved. “I thought it was beautiful,” he says. Up to then, Dragan had only explored his ideas in a toy world with one space dimension and time. Ekert encouraged and assisted Dragan to go further, and see if it still worked in the real world of four-dimensional spacetime.

[...] the paper passed through its first test with the journal’s academic reviewers unscathed. And though it went viral upon publication in 2020 and has amassed over 30,000 downloads and counting – by far the most out of all the papers published last year in the journal – the duo had (and still have) a fight on their hands to be taken seriously by the court of scientific opinion.

One physicist [...] was immediately attracted to Dragan and Ekert’s ideas ... Yet for every Vedral open to hearing out unorthodox ideas, there are many others who are suspicious of any approach that doesn’t place quantum physics front and centre. Not only are crackpots with wild unphysical concepts rife in this area of physics, but deeply rooted in the community is the idea that the mind-bending elements in quantum physics simply cannot be explained any further. They just are.

Critics from this camp question both the assumptions and methods used by the Polish pair to come to their conclusions. main criticism was that faster-than-light matter would be unstable and therefore unphysical...

[...] Often though, these criticisms boil down to two points: that no one has ever detected anything racing beyond light speed, and that if anything did travel that fast, time travel is possible. [...] Dragan and Ekert argue that these critics miss the point. “We're not saying there are any objects that travel faster than light; there might be, but that doesn't enter our arguments,” Ekert says. “What we are saying is that you can look on the world from a perspective that is beyond light speed.”

From this faster-than-light vantage point, you can swap the order of cause and effect. This is a key result because the underlying physics must remain the same regardless of whether you’re watching events unfold above or below the cosmic speed limit. And if this is true, the pair argue that the order of events no longer plays a fundamental role in the theory.

Dragan says all of this means that there are no paradoxes to answer for at all. “If you look at it carefully, you find that the rules of causality are changed. But they are not completely destroyed, they are modified in precisely the way quantum theory tells us.”

Both Dragan and Ekert admit that the paper is far from the end of the story, and that they don’t know whether they will be able to truly derive quantum theory from special relativity. But, if they can, it will transform the way researchers approach reconciling special relativity’s big brother, general relativity, with quantum mechanics. “If you convince me that quantum mechanics follows from relativity, then maybe I should reconsider what the fundamental entities are in my theory,” Vedral says. “And maybe the road to a quantum version of general relativity is very different.” (MORE - details)

RELATED: Transactional interpretation of QM (John G. Cramer) ..... Retrocausality in Quantum Mechanics

Andrzej Dragan's night job as a photographer:
Syne Offline
I never understand why people always think one or the other has to be more fundamental, between relativity and quantum physics. It's far more likely that something more fundamental explains both. Personally, I think that something is simply a better understanding of time, as that is the mediator of both. Where time is "flexible" in general relativity, it's absolute in quantum theory. That may seem contrary, but spacetime events are absolute and quantum behavior doesn't require appreciable space. Even though the results of entanglement can occur over a large distance, the particles behave as if there's no intervening space. The particles essentially do not "see" the space, making their absolute time equivalent to absolute spacetime events. But since we can observe space, we see the independent effects on a malleable space and time.
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Russia's 'Dead Mountain' conspiracy theory may have been solved with an avalanche

In January 1959, a group of nine young hikers — seven men and two women — trudged through Russia's snowy Ural Mountains toward a peak locally known as "Dead Mountain." [...] It took nearly a month for investigators to find all nine bodies scattered amid the snow, trees and ravines of Dead Mountain. ... Their tent, half-buried in the snow and apparently slashed open from the inside, still held some of the hikers' neatly-folded clothes and half-eaten provisions.

All nine hikers had died of hypothermia after being cast into the cold "under the influence of a compelling natural force," a Russian investigation concluded at the time. But the specifics of the "compelling" force behind the now-infamous "Dyatlov Pass incident" ... have long remained a mystery, and given rise to one of the most enduring conspiracy theories in modern Russian history.

Everything from aliens to abominable snowmen have been implicated in the mystery [...] (The Atlantic's Alec Luhn has summarized some of the most peculiar theories.) But now, a study published [...] in the Nature journal Communications Earth & Environment provides the first scientific evidence behind a much more banal hypothesis: A small avalanche, triggered under unusual conditions, pummeled the hikers as they slept, then forced them to flee their tent into the cold, dark night.

"We do not claim to have solved the Dyatlov Pass mystery, as no one survived to tell the story," lead study author Johan Gaume [...] told Live Science. "But we show the plausibility of the avalanche hypothesis [for the first time]." (MORE - details)

Brain’s ‘Background Noise’ May Hold Clues to Persistent Mysteries

EXCERPT: Janna Lendner is one of a growing number of neuroscientists energized by the idea that noise in the brain’s electrical activity could hold new clues to its inner workings. What was once seen as the neurological equivalent of annoying television static may have profound implications for how scientists study the brain.

Skeptics used to tell the neuroscientist Bradley Voytek that there was nothing worth studying in these noisy features of brain activity. But his own studies of changes in electrical noise as people age, as well as previous literature on statistical trends in irregular brain activity, convinced him that they were missing something. So he spent years working on a way to help scientists rethink their data.

“It’s insufficient to go up in front of a group of scientists and say, ‘Hey, I think we’ve been doing things wrong,’” said Voytek, an associate professor of cognitive science and data science at the University of California, San Diego. “You’ve got to give them a new tool to do things” differently or better.

In collaboration with neuroscientists at UC San Diego and Berkeley, Voytek developed software that isolates regular oscillations — like alpha waves, which are studied heavily in both sleeping and waking subjects — hiding in the aperiodic parts of brain activity. This gives neuroscientists a new tool to dissect both the regular waves and the aperiodic activity in order to disentangle their roles in behavior, cognition and disease... (MORE - details)

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