Black hole fusion

The Cosmos and the Brain – A great week for science

Yesterday I and thousands of viewers around the world watched live the LIGO press conference on the first gravitational waves detection from a black hole fusion event. Two days before, the Small Mammal Brain Preservation Prize was awarded to the first demonstration that a brain can be preserved for future mind uploading. What a great week for science!

The first gravitational waves were detected from a catastrophic cosmic event very far away. The fusion of two black holes 1.3 billion ago created a spinning black hole of 62 solar masses. Three solar masses are thought to have been converted into energy and released as gravitational waves in a fraction of a second, with a peak power output about 50 times that of the whole visible universe, which reached the Earth from a distance of 1.3 billion light years. The gravitational waves – ripples in the fabric of space-time predicted by the Einstein’s field equations of General Relativity – were detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) by measuring relative displacements smaller than one-ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton.

Those who missed the live press conference can watch a recording on YouTube.

Black hole fusion

The image above is taken from a supercomputer simulation of the system of two orbiting black holes, which follows the dynamics resulting from the Einstein’s equations until the final collision and fusion. The press conference video includes a video of the simulation.

Please see Paul Gilster’s post “Pondering Gravitational Waves” and the comments at Centauri Dreams for details and links. My comments to Paul’s post, edited:

Yesterday I and thousands of viewers around the world watched live the LIGO press conference on gravitational waves detection from black hole fusion event. The young take the Internet for granted but for us oldies the ability to watch live science history in the making is still awesome.

Gravitational waves are no surprise – they are predicted by Einstein’s General Relativity. The importance of the LIGO result is that now we have the technology for gravitational wave astronomy. The measured results match the results of supercomputer solutions of Einstein’s field equations, which confirms the accuracy of both Einstein’s equations and laser interferometry technology for gravitational waves detection. As they said in the press conference, new detection technologies always result in unexpected findings sooner or later.

I’m wondering how many zillions of sentient beings died as a result of the black hole fusion event. (ref. Greg Egan’s “Diaspora“).

This is evidently Nobel Prize material and I wonder who’ll get the Nobel. Gonzalez? Reitze? Weiss? All? I wonder if Kip Thorne has a chance as a LIGO Project co-founder. I am very fond of Thorne’s textbook “Gravitation” and his popular science books “Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy” and “The Science of Interstellar” – a great science book and a much needed bridge between physics and entertainment.

The Brain Preservation Foundation (BPF) announced earlier this week that the Small Mammal Brain Preservation Prize has officially been won. The spectacular result achieved by 21st Century Medicine researchers provides the first demonstration that near-perfect, long-term structural preservation of an intact mammalian brain is achievable.

Rabbit Brain Preservation

In the picture above, Robert McIntyre takes the rabbit brain out of -135oC freezer unit after overnight storage. Brain and block of CPA is completely solid. (Photographed and witnessed by Kenneth Hayworth.)

Preserving the “connectome,” the delicate pattern of neural connections that encodes a person’s memory and identity, could someday in the future permit nanometer-scale scanning of a preserved brain for mind uploading. As I wrote shortly after the first announcement of the Brain Preservation Prize in 2010, brain preservation methods optimized for future nanoscale scanning and mind uploading – “cryonics for uploaders” – could be a good alternative to traditional cryonics for those who consider mind uploading as a viable form of identity preservation.

If the positive results will be confirmed by the large mammal prize, a new “cryonics for uploaders” option for human patients could be ready after some more work. The questions that come to mind are, What can we expect? What could be the timeline? What role will the Brain Preservation Foundation play? What about cryonics providers like Alcor, Cryonics Institute, KryoRus, or new providers?

Ken Hayworth answers: “[M]any people have recently asked me ‘Should cryonics service organizations immediately start offering this new ASC procedure to their ‘patients’?’ My personal answer (speaking for myself, not on behalf of the BPF) has been a steadfast NO.” More in Ken’s thoughtful BPF blog post titled “Opinion: The prize win is a vindication of the idea of cryonics, not of unaccountable cryonics service organizations.”

My reply to Ken:

Ken, congratulations to the Brain Preservation Foundation and 21st Century Medicine, and also to the Max Planck team, for this spectacular result. As you say, “The fact that the ASC procedure has won the brain preservation prize should rightly be seen as a vindication of the central idea of cryonics – the brain’s delicate circuitry underlying memory and personality CAN in fact be preserved indefinitely, potentially serving as a lifesaving bridge to future revival technologies.” I have no doubts that upcoming advances, based on or inspired by the scientific work done for the Brain Preservation Prize, will someday permit establishing operational “cryonics for uploaders” procedures for human patients, based on solid science.

As a scientist, I totally agree that the cautious step by step approach that you recommend is the scientifically correct approach, and I see the danger that “A rush to human application may sound humanitarian, but I believe it will only result in further delaying the eventual, inevitable embracing of cryonics (and other methods of brain preservation) by mainstream science and medicine.”

But as a person I can’t ignore the fact that we are talking of human beings here. For terminal patients with a short life expectancy, even a remote chance is better than no chance. Even more to the point: a relatively young cryonics activist, a friend of mine, died suddenly only a few hours ago. His local friends are fighting against the clock to realize his cryonic preservation dream. I have no power to choose what to do with his brain. But if I had such power, I would choose the best of the available options, even if it doesn’t fully persuade the scientist in me. Why? Because it’s what HE wanted (and I guess I would want the same), doesn’t harm anyone else, and of course it’s no risk to him since the only alternative is permanent death.

I would choose the best of the available options, because I can’t choose the best of the unavailable option. But if a new option, scientifically more solid than those currently on the table, were available, I would choose that.

I am not recommending that the BPF should rush to human applications or short circuit the entire scientific process. Actually, as a BPF advisor, I think yours should be the official position of the BPF. But at the same time I would welcome more adventurous initiatives by other parties, including the existing cryonics organizations, to provide last-chance options to human patients with nothing to lose.

This is essentially equivalent to the issue of clinical trials and lengthy approval processes for new drugs. I think having reputable scientific organizations and official bodies than insist on scientifically rigorous tests of proposed new therapies before making such therapies available to the public at large is good, but at the same time I think the availability of last-chance, not-(yet)-mainstream options to terminal patients, perhaps administered in borderline clinics in unregulated jurisdictions, is also good. Let thousands flowers bloom.

In another BPF blog post titled “Implications of the BPF small mammal brain preservation prize, from the prosaic to the profound” Keith Wiley, the author of “A Taxonomy and Metaphysics of Mind-Uploading,” notes that both the cryogenic method pioneered by Rob McIntyre at 21st Century Medicine (the winner) and especially the room-temperature chemical preservation method pioneered by Shawn Mikula at the Max Planck Institute (which came close to winning), would make future biological revival very difficult and perhaps impossible. “Mind uploading… will be the only option left, speculative or not,” says Wiley.

My reply to Keith:

Great article Keith. I am one of those who tend to accept mind uploading as a conceptually viable means to preserve personal identity (with just one little caveat below) and therefore I look forward to the availability of “cryonics for uploaders” options. To those who don’t like the idea of living as disembodied software in a virtual world, or in the circuitry of a hard metallic robot, I suggest to consider this: mind uploading – which requires first reading the huge amount of connectome data in the preserved brain, and then bringing the data to life in a “me-program” running on a suitable hardware and software system – is likely to be significantly harder than extreme bionics and bio-engineering. Therefore, by the time mind uploading is available, we are very likely to have also the means to grow a biological body and a biological brain similar to the original (or better), and upload the connectome to the new brain. I guess I would prefer to live as pure software, but others will be the option to continue life in a wetware body.

My only caveat: Perhaps Hameroff and Penrose are right, and quantum physics plays a strong fundamental role in how the brain’s wetware generates consciousness. If consciousness depends critically on subtle quantum aspects of our neural circuitry, not present in silicon electronics, then we wouldn’t be able to upload a mind to a silicon computer. If so, we will have to develop alternative substrates that exhibit the key quantum properties found (actually not yet found) in carbon-based biology. That wouldn’t make mind uploading impossible, just harder. But there is the possibility that the new brain preservation technology doesn’t capture the structure of the brain at the (presumably smaller) scale at which the relevant quantum effects operate.

However, the current scientific consensus is that non-quantum physics should be sufficient to model the brain-mind system.

I think the last consideration brings the two developments together. Gravitational wave astronomy could play a role in developing new physics and achieving a better understanding of quantum gravity. We don’t have a complete theory of quantum gravity yet, but such a theory could illuminate aspects of quantum reality that we don’t presently understand, and perhaps a better understanding of quantum reality could open the door to new approaches to mind uploading and identity preservation. Time will tell.

The next Turing Church meeting in Second Life on Sunday, February 14, will feature a discussion of the Brain Preservation Foundation announcement and the prospect of mind uploading. Let’s feel free to discuss gravitational waves as well.

The meeting will be dedicated to the memory of cryonics activist Javier Ruiz, who recently left us. If you read Spanish, see this interview with some cryonicists including Javier published 2011 in the Spanish magazine

Images from LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Brain Preservation Foundation.

  • Giulio Prisco

    See also:

    Alcor Position Statement on Brain Preservation Foundation Prize

    • David Román

      I would put the chances of successfully applying these technologies in our lifetime at close to zero. But I agree with you that’s not all a good reason not to try them. Especially in desperate cases. I always get the impression that the precautionary principle has run amok in the 21st century; what started as a sound response to people getting killed and wounded for no good reason is now turned into extreme risk-aversion in many fields: many people seriously argue nobody should travel to Mars until the technology is developed to bring humans back safe and sound. The fact that millions would volunteer (and have volunteered) to travel on a flimsy private capsule even if death was close to certain is irrelevant to these people. Think of what a famous Italian who crossed the Atlantic aboard a crappy Spanish ship and ended up in the wrong continent would have told these people…

      • Giulio Prisco

        Exactly. Sometimes I think they’ll make sex illegal unless practiced in presence of certified medical staff with government approved emergency care equipment…

        If one wants to risk _his own_ life for a chance at cryonics and revival, albeit remote, and by doing so helps science, who am I to object? Or you, or “society”?

        Terminal patients who would die soon anyway would be happy to trade a few days to help science and get a chance at future indefinite lifespans.