When we recently saw that amazing video of Boston Dynamics' new Atlas robot being tested to the max, most of us felt empathy for them being 'bullied'. For those that were wondering what the Atlas was actually thinking during testing, the above video may clear things up...
When it comes to humility, science can dish it out with a big spoon: we've often heard of the inconsequential nature of human beings compared to the size of the cosmos (and in fiction, Douglas Adams riffed on this idea in coming up with the Total Perspective Vortex in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).
While there's plenty of criticism that could be directed at this idea - that physical size is the be-all and end-all of importance (vs intelligence, imagination, purpose etc) - an interesting aside is the fact that, while our bodies seem like specks of dust, they contain systems that are cosmic in size.
One such example is human DNA: our body contains approximately five trillion cells, with 'long' strands of DNA immaculately folded into the tiny space within the cell walls. If you were to take all the DNA in just one person, straighten it out and put it end to end, it could stretch from the Sun to beyond the heliosphere (which some use as the demarcation of the 'edge' of our Solar System). Or to put it another way, the DNA molecules in your body could be stretched out to cover the distance from the Earth to Jupiter and back, ten times over.
But perhaps an even more amazing aspect is the way in which this massive length of DNA molecules is compacted within our tiny cells - it needs to be folded via biological origami in specific ways, so that our genes can work together in different ways.
If you have a gene it is often controlled - like, turned on or off - by another piece of DNA, that can be located very, very far apart from this gene. The chromosome is folded in such a way that the switch which turns the gene on or off is actually touching the gene. So all the DNA in between is looped.
These amazing aspects of DNA are discussed in the fascinating science short below, presented by the esteemed science writer Carl Zimmer:
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Maybe it's the Toxoplasmosis gondii talking, but humans love cats. The feeling is mutual since, according to Carlos Driscoll of the University of Oxford, cats domesticated themselves 12,000 years ago in hopes of mooching off unsuspecting Homo sapiens.  Charmed by their inscrutible personalities, we talk back to our feline companions by imitating their vocalisations. Arabs greet kitties with "mawa", the Japanese famously intone "nyan", French and Germans say "miaou" and "miau" respectively. Are these different onomatopoeias representative of human dialects, or are cats of faraway lands influenced by their humans's language?
Cat language is not such a silly prospect to consider. Last year scientists claimed a group of chimpanzees altered their vocalizations after being moved from a Dutch safari park to the Edinburgh Zoo, suggesting they have accents.  Less contentious are the accents of whales, evinced by a study published in the Royal Society Open Science illustrating how whalesong differs between populations of these magnificent beasts.  So why not cats?
Susanne Schötz from Lund University in Sweden is spearheading this maverick study. She told Josh Hrala at Science Alert, "We know that cats vary the melody of their sounds extensively, but we do not know how to interpret this variation. We will record vocalisations of about 30 to 50 cats in different situations - e.g. when they want access to desired locations, when they are content, friendly, happy, hungry, annoyed or even angry - and try to identify any differences in their phonetic patterns. We want to find out to what extent domestic cats are influenced by the language and dialect that humans use to speak to them, because it seems that cats use slightly different dialects in the sounds they produce".
It's going to be a long five years 'til the results are published.
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- Why Do Cats Hang Around Us? (Hint: They Can't Open Cans) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/con...
- Debate over chimpanzee 'accent' study - http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environm...
- Individual, unit and vocal clan level identity cues in sperm whale codas - http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/c...
Of the many questions that vex humanity, there is one above all others. It’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves since we realised we could ask ourselves questions. There are a lot of people who think they know the answer, even though there are almost more answers than there are people. Even so, we officially don’t know which of those many answers is the truth.
The question is; where did life come from?
If we gloss over the various theological discussions such a question evokes – if only because we haven’t got that kind of time – we still end up with an encyclopedia volume’s worth of theories, hypotheses, suppositions, and crackpot ideas. Primordial soup, panspermia and pseudo-panspermia, deep-hot-biosphere, the clay hypothesis, and several more. All of those ideas and those unlisted are encompassed under a single term: abiogenesis – which is the idea that life can spontaneously manifest out of non-living components. You might also hear the term biopoiesis tossed about in this conversation, which is just a more specific reference to the three stages of the development of life. But these fancy scientific words are such a small part of the question, it’s unfortunate so many people get hung up on them.
It’s important to understand that none of those theories are correct though. Or, well…we still don’t know which, if any of them, is correct. The front runner in this race is the chemical evolution theory of life, which is a reformed version of the primordial soup idea. Its basic tenets have been proven in laboratory, but just because life can arise in that way, doesn’t mean it did (at least on Earth). The scientific community is still working to bring us an answer, but until we invent time travel, it’s possible we’ll never know for sure.
Of course, what we know about how life began pales in comparison to what we know about when it began on Earth.
Some time ago, I brought you discussion on the likelihood that life has developed elsewhere in the galaxy, and the ways in which we speculate about how much of that life might exist. You’re probably familiar with the Drake Equation, which provides a way of mathematically calculating how many times life should have sprung up in our galaxy, and how many times out of that pool such live might reach a point of intelligent civilisation. It depends on several variables, most of which we have to guess at, but current estimates claim that there should be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 10,000 alien civilizations in the Milky Way.
The problem is (or one of the problems is) we’ve yet to find evidence of such life. And as disappointing as that is, it actually shouldn’t be surprising. As science-fiction author Douglas Adams once wrote:
“Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.”
As I pointed out in previous discussion though, there are other considerations, such as Moore’s Law.
Moore’s Law, which is usually applied to the development of computer hardware, has been used by some to suggest that life on Earth is actually older than Earth itself. It’s an interesting idea – though it’s little more than a thought experiment – but it seems like some new developments are starting to back up those conclusions.
The main way scientists test and study the age of life on Earth is by breaking apart really old rocks and analysing the elements they find inside. Certain chemical compounds are to be expected inside rocks, of any age; silica, iron (and other metals), some acids, oxygen, helium…the usual. But sometimes, trapped inside those rocks are compounds that are unexpected, chemicals that are unique to life, such as graphite. Graphite is pure carbon, which is the key component of all life on Earth, and when you find it inside rocks, it’s a sure sign that life existed when that rock was formed. Deductive reasoning at its finest.
Using the above process of elimination, the standard model of biopoiesis tells us that life began on Earth between 3.5-3.83 billion years ago. That number sits well with most scientists mainly because the period of time between 3.8-4.1 billion years ago is largely thought to have been so volatile – it’s known as the heavy bombardment period because of the massive and cataclysmic cosmic impacts that occurred during that time – that the development of life would have been impossible prior to it.
However, new results published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences in September have thrown that bit of accepted wisdom right out the window. Geochemist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author of the paper, Mark Harrison, explains that he and his team found strong evidence that life began more than 250 million years earlier than previously thought. Analysing some 10,000 zircon fragments from rocks found throughout Western Australia, Harrison found what appeared to be graphite inclusions embedded in 79 zircons (zircons are like diamonds; very hard, and can form around elements from their environment). One of those tiny flecks has been confirmed as graphite, and through radiometric dating, that particular zircon is believed to be 4.1 billion years old.
Harris admits that this finding would have been heretical 25 years ago, but their conclusions are compelling. As seems to be a trend in biopoiesis research, the age of life on Earth just keeps getting older and older. This new information not only suggests an earlier birthdate, but it also says some things about just how resilient life is; it either survived the incredible heat and radiation associated with the heavy bombardment period, or it sprung back up again immediately after. Both of those possibilities are astounding. Not only would the survival of early life through such planetary upheaval be impressive, but the alternative means that genesis happened twice, within a period 300 million years. If that were the case, it suggests that life can form very quickly given the right conditions, lending even more weight to the idea that we should be surrounded by it in the universe.
Earth is a relatively young planet at 4.543 billion years, there are much older just in the Milky Way. If we’ve had four billion years to get where we are, what of others who’ve had five? Eight? Ten?
“The universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking that it’s pretty damn complicated to begin with.”
 Elizabeth A. Bell, Patrick Boehnke, T. Mark Harrison, and Wendy L. Mao. Potentially biogenic carbon preserved in a 4.1 billion-year-old zircon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112 no. 47, 14518–14521, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1517557112. September 4, 2015.
Over the years Planck's Principle's been popularized by scientists with respectable credentials who can't get peer-reviewed, even if they put nudies of Jennifer Lawrence in their appendices. It's cold comfort believing The Man's keeping them down and stalling scientific progress, but is that the case?
Over at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a new paper suggests the answer is a resounding yes. But like all topics muddied up with human emotions and foibles, the conclusion is hardly cut-and-dried.
Pierre Azoulay, Christian Fons-Rosen, and Joshua Graff Ziven chose to study the field of academic life sciences. Tons of discoveries have been made over past decades, opening up new frontiers, creating many specialists for those new fields, illustrating a microcosm representative of the whole of science. Drawing upon the vast PubMed database, Azoulay and company determined who were the superstars in a particular field based on their professional achievements and papers. Out of more than 12,000 star scientists, they identified 452 who died suddenly. Their former collaborators, left in a lurch, pretty much stopped publishing at the rate when they were riding their deceased guru's coattails. After all former colleagues would be wary of anyone finding out they hardly did any of the heavy lifting, which is where outsiders come in.
With big shoes to fill, newcomers take the deaths as an opportunity to submit more papers to bridge the gap. Then things get kinda Orwellian:
Our results indicate that these additional contributions by non-collaborators are disproportionately likely to be highly cited and to represent their authors' first foray into the extinct star's subfield. They also are less likely to cite previous research in the field, and especially less likely to cite the deceased star's work at all. Though not necessarily younger on average, these scientists are also less likely to be part of the scientific elite at the time of the star's death.
One of the biggest hurdles outsiders face is being accepted socially and intellectually. In the former case colleagues only review each others manuscripts, collaborating within their own clique. In the latter there's an echo chamber with peers agreeing upon approaches, methodologies, and questions pertinent to their line of inquiry, rather than entertaining new ideas. It's basic schoolyard politics where kids won't let anyone join their club unless they're deemed smart or cool enough.
As for the specter of conspiracy, the paper's authors discovered a mere handful of the 452 deceased researchers were in a position of power in regards to new research. Only three subjects sat on panels determining the merits of grant applications, and another three were journal editors before their death. It's more likely they were murdered by frustrated peers, rather than actively suppressing fresh science.
This isn't the last word on the subject, since this paper raises still more questions.
What is the fate of the fields that these new entrants departed? Do they decay, or instead "merge" with those whose star departed prematurely? Given a finite supply of scientists and the adjustment costs involved in switching scientific focus, one would expect some other field to contract on the margin in the wake of superstar extinction. Is this marginal field more novel, or already established?
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Thanks to David Pecotić and Grail-Seeker for sharing this paper!
Global warming is a huge concern. Average temperatures have risen an average of 2° Celsius across the globe, sparking concerns over the fate of our biosphere. These changes are nothing compared to the catastrophe a few billion years in our future. Our sun, a yellow G-class star, is most likely going to evolve into a red giant with a diameter greater than Earth's orbit. If we're still around, our successors will be nostalgic for the good old days of the 21st century.
Enter Gregory Laughlin, planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, who formulated a solution to prevent Earth's destruction. With help from D.G. Korycansky and Fred Adams, they outlined a plan to nudge Earth out of her orbit with asteroid flybys over the course of millennia. What Greg couldn't model was mainstream media's outrageous reaction to, and twisting of the science behind Astronomical Engineering: A Strategy For Modifying Planetary Orbits. The media's ridiculously short attention span is just the icing on the cake.
On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog as the saying goes. But the next time you come online, there's a chance your chat buddy could be a chimpanzee. Musician Peter Gabriel has always been keen on sharing the internet with other species. He's joining forces with Vint Cerf and Neil Gershenfeld to bring our primate cousins online.
If the experiment goes ahead – a spokesperson for Monkey World said the plans were still at a very early stage and wouldn’t comment further – the hope is to see if chimpanzees could learn to use videoconferencing to communicate with each other. “The idea is to extend a big video network that already exists in labs at [MIT] so that different species including our own have a chance to communicate,” said Gabriel. “I am also interested in how they would use the internet to communicate.” After that, he would be looking at how they could communicate with us.
Of particular interest is if this will encourage chimps to ask existential questions. Apes taught human sign language know words like "who", "what", and "where" but, from Joseph Jordania's Who Asked The First Question?:
Nevertheless, according to the accounts of the experiment authors, apes do not ask questions. Wonderful examples of conversations with their human teachers have been recorded and published (Terrace, 1980; Gardner & Gardner 1975, 1984; Premack, 1976; Rumbaugh, 1977; Rumbaugh & Gill, 1977; Patterson & Linden, 1981). Analysis of their conversations shows that in human-primate conversations questions are asked by the humans only. The same can be said about the question words: apes understand them and give appropriate responses, but amazingly they themselves do not use question words in conversations with their human teachers.
On the bright side, the internet's love of cats crosses species boundaries evinced by Koko the Gorilla and her pets. Monkeys also love selfies. Our times get exponentially more interesting with each passing moment.
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One of the most famous quantum physics experiments is the double-slit experiment. It's a simple experiment proving light behaves as a wave and a particle at the same time. You don't need a fancy set-up to try this at home, as Thomas Young performed a version of the double-slit experiment back in 1801. To be brief, a light source shines on a surface with two slits in front of a wall. The light creates an interference pattern of bright and dark spots since the photons are going through both openings at the same time, acting like a wave. Should one measure the light, in hopes of catching it acting like a wave, light then changes its mind acting like a particle by going through one slit at a time.
If the light "knows" when it's being measured, John Archibald Wheeler proposed it could be "fooled".
He suggested that the actual point of measurement at which you spy on the path taken by the light could be set up after the light has already passed through the slits but before it arrives at the detector—so the light could not know as it moved through the experiment whether it would be observed or not. Such experiments have since been carried out in quantum laboratories and it turns out that, even then, light could not be fooled. The observer’s later choice of what measurements to make determines whether the photon took one path or two at an earlier point in the test. In other words, the observer seems to have changed what has happened in the past.
Wheeler's delayed choice thought experiment utilizing some of the biggest, and most distant, objects in space. Gravitational lensing is when a large object with a strong gravitational field bends light from an object, creating the illusion of there being two. His delayed-choice experiment would use a quasar's light bent by a galaxy's gravitational field.
Now Dr. Laurance Doyle at the SETI Institute, and a few of his colleagues, are hoping to turn Wheeler's thought experiment into reality. They're scaling it down, and making it a bit more practical. Their plan is to ping Jupiter's moons Ganymede and Europa with radar when they're at nearly the same distance from Earth on the other side of the sun. As the radar propagates the 628 million kilometers between us and Jupiter, the beam will spread like a flashlight enabling it to hit both moons at the same time. When the signal bounces back at Earth, Doyle and co. will recombine the beams to see if there's an interference pattern or not. The interesting part is our sun's gravity could warp the beams, delaying them and allowing astronomers to see the path the radar took.
What they hope to discover is the nature of time.
If you’d asked Einstein, he would have told you that time is another dimension, much like the three dimensions of space. Together they knit together to create a spacetime fabric that pervades the universe. This notion of time as a dynamic, flexible dimension forms the basis of his immensely successful general theory of relativity, which explains how gravity manifests on cosmic scales as matter warps spacetime. On the other hand, however, the equally celebrated theory of quantum mechanics, which governs the nanoscale behavior of atoms and subatomic particles, says that time is unaffected by the presence of matter, serving as an absolute background reference clock against which motion can be measured.
One fly in the ointment is how precisely the scientists can measure any time difference. They could set up the experiment so the difference is so large, there will still be an interference pattern. The next time Earth, Jupiter, and its moons are in the correct alignment is 2017. Fingers crossed they're able to pull this off!
Roger Shawyer's "impossible" stardrive continues inching its way towards reality. The EmDrive is a RF resonant cavity thruster using microwaves, rather than reaction mass like liquid oxygen, to move. Keep in mind this isn't a warp engine since it doesn't bend spacetime. Yet the EmDrive has the potential to go faster than current technology, getting astronauts to Pluto in 18 months compared to New Horizons's nine year journey, opening up the cosmos to humanity.
What makes this gadget "impossible" is its apparent violation of Newton's Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Best analogy for the EmDrive's counterintuitive mechanism is a person in a car pushing the steering wheel and the vehicle moves forward. Conventionally, a driver can only move the vehicle by pushing the back bumper. Shawyer insists no physical laws are violated by the EmDrive. The thrust happens because the microwaves have a group velocity greater in one direction when Einstein's relativity is taken into account. A pretty neat trick.
But with extraordinary claims, there's extraordinary skepticism. At first, skeptics claimed the source of the thrust was thermal convection from air heated by the microwaves. Paul March at Eagleworks put the kibosh on that, testing the EmDrive in a hard vacuum and still saw thrust. More recently skeptics suggest investigators are measuring the Lorentz force, a force exerted by a magnetic field on a moving electric charge, rather than thrust from the microwaves. Lorentz interactions are the principle behind loudspeakers, railguns, and particle accelerators. On Halloween Paul posted they've tested the EmDrive again, taking those interactions into account, and the anomalous thrust signals remain. Except he can't show us 'til the peer-reviewed paper's published. He does drop a few hints about how Eagleworks compensated for this complication.
I will tell you that we first built and installed a 2nd generation, closed face magnetic damper that reduced the stray magnetic fields in the vacuum chamber by at least an order of magnitude and any Lorentz force interactions it could produce. I also changed up the torque pendulum's grounding wire scheme and single point ground location to minimize ground loop current interactions with the remaining stray magnetic fields and unbalanced dc currents from the RF amplifier when its turned on. This reduced the Lorentz force interaction to less than 2 micro-Newton (uN) for the dummy load test. Finally we rebuilt the copper frustum test article so that it is now fully integrated with the RF VCO, PLL, 100W RF amp, dual directional coupler, 3-stub tuner and connecting coax cables, then mounted this integrated test article at the opposite end of the torque pendulum, as far away as possible from the 2nd generation magnetic damper where only the required counterbalance weights now reside. Current null testing with both the 50 ohm dummy load and with the integrated test article rotated 90 degrees with respect to the TP sensitive axis now show less than one uN of Lorentz forces on the TP due to dc magnetic interactions with the local environment even when drawing the maximum RF amp dc current of 12 amps.
In the meantime there are quite a few makers building their own EmDrives at home. All one needs is a truncated cone of copper, a 2.45 Ghz magnetron from a typical microwave oven, wires and a source of electricity. Over on YouTube, iulian207 has been showing the world his adventures testing a homebrew EmDrive. By no means are his experiments happening under the same, strict conditions one could expect of NASA, but the results are provocative.
Should someone have the moxie, the cash, and the EmDrive's physics are sound, we might be on the brink of a grand diaspora. A democratization of the plutocratic exit strategy where no human's left behind. Science fiction has explored these scenarios in the past. Take Orion's Arm, a collaborative, science fiction worldbuilding project and its entry on backyarders. In the 22nd and 23rd centuries, the little people gained access to tech that used to be the domain of governments and megacorporations. They cobbled together starships, flinging themselves into the dark hoping to find fame, fortune, freedom, or just a little peace and quiet. Closer to our own timeline is Jerry Oltion's The Getaway Special. It's a fun little novel about a scientist sharing his blueprints for a hyperdrive on the internet, enabling anyone with a septic tank, oxygen, and some electrical knowhow to chill out on an alien planet for the weekend.
We are living in interesting times.
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"Are we alone?"
Quite possibly the biggest question posed by eusocial primates. The need to know encouraged our forebears to climb down from the treetops. To brave the savannahs in hopes of sighting distant forests, or making meaningful contact with other clever apes. Over the millennia humans crossed oceans to new lands in hopes of deepening their gene pool, or their pockets. Unlike Alexander the Great, we do not weep when we see the breadth of our domain, knowing there are no more worlds to conquer. Instead we turn our gaze to the stars in hopes of expanding our real estate portfolio, and perk our ears heavenward to eavesdrop on aliens.
More esoterically, cosmologists and mathematicians propose the existence of parallel universes. If it happens we are the sole inhabitants in this dimension, maybe one day we can ping nearby branes of other universes, and hear what our parallel peers have to say about the human condition. The math seems to bear out the many-worlds interpretation, but where's the evidence?
Back in 2010, Stephen Feeney and pals performed the first observational tests of eternal inflation. They combed WMAP's 7-year survey of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) for evidence of cosmic collisions. Their theory predicts our universe exists inside a single bubble within an expanding multiverse. Other universes exist within their own bubbles, sometimes 'bruising' ours. Bringing us to Roger Penrose and Vahe Gurzadyan detecting concentric circles in the CMB. These patterns could be indicative of a cyclical universe, with each incarnation ending with a big bang. The subsequent universe contains each of the previous universes, presenting a cosmological model akin to a Matryoshka doll. Feeney did note with the volume of data from WMAP, "[I]t is rather easy to find all sorts of statistically unlikely properties in a large dataset like the CMB."
More observations would be needed to support these theories. WMAP's successor, the Planck observatory, was up to the task. More sensitive than its predecessor, Planck left behind reams of data after its decomissioning in 2013. Ranga-Ram Chary took it upon himself to renew the search. His Spectral Variations of the Sky: Constraints on Alternate Universes describes bright anomalies in the CMB, possibly from our universe bumping into others. Chary's method was to subtract the CMB, dust, gas, and stars from Planck's data which should've left nothing but random noise. At the frequency of 143 GHz he found some parts of the sky were significantly brighter than others, proposing they're evidence of those bumps. With such outlandish claims, there's a high burden of proof to support them. Chary proposes two explanations outside of alternate universes. He suggests the bright spots may be carbon monoxide in the foreground interstellar medium (ISM) from stellar nurseries. Something similar happened with BICEP2's data when scientists crowed about last year's detection of gravity waves. Instead, those waves turned up being dust in the ISM. Ranga-Ram goes on to say carbon monoxide in the ISM is highly unlikely, since the lines aren't as strong as they ought to be. Therefore a multiverse is a distinct possibility. At least 'til NASA's Primordial Inflation Explorer, or PIXIE, launches in 2016 to disprove these theories.
Bringing us back to Feeney's eternal inflation model. Once inflation starts it doesn't stop, producing smaller pocket universes within the multiverse. Most of these bubbles would have their own physics and composition, some tearing themselves apart in the blink of an eye. Others would be more or less indistinguishable from our own. Some, like Edward Harrison and John Gribbin, posit this is evidence of why our universe is so stable.
[Harrison] says that there are three possible answers. First, that God designed it, though he argues that this answer precludes further rational inquiry. Second, the anthropic principle, but he finds this unsatisfactory. His third answer is that our Universe was created by life of superior intelligence existing in another physical universe. How does he arrive at that conclusion? First, he picks up on the above suggestions of black holes as the birthplaces of new universes. Second, he argues that due to the rapid evolution of intelligence (which we currently see in humanity) there is every reason to expect that a time will come when we will be able to design and create our own universes. Thus, the fine tuning of this Universe is to be explained as an engineering project of superior beings. They have created this Universe out of a black hole. He calls it a 'natural creation theory', and claims that it also explains why the Universe is intelligible to us. It is created by minds similar to our own, who designed it to be that way. cite
What if all those brief-lived universes are failed experiments? The product of graduate students pursuing their masters or doctorates, conjuring up each universe like a game of SimCity just to see what works. Or beings from another universe planning the ultimate exit strategy, abandoning their universe for another. Take Marvel's Galactus. Formerly known as Galan of Taa, his universe collapsed on itself. In the ensuing big bang, he was reborn as Galactus: Devourer of Worlds. In Stephen Baxter's novel Ring, an alien race called the Xeelee hopes to escape the heat death of the universe via the Great Attractor. It's the ultimate big dumb object, created by the Xeelee using cosmic strings as an escape hatch to other universes where physical laws aren't so familiar.
The possibilities are, literally, endless.