Birds, bees and the nature of space

Ever wonder what theoretical physicists actually do? In honor of the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, ReAction is sitting down with theoretical physicists at Brandeis to find out.

Theoretical physics is a lot like sex, Nobelist Richard Feynman once quipped. “Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”

The prevailing stereotype outside — and inside — the sciences is that theoretical physicists have their gaze firmly fixed on their navels and play in a sandbox of their own creation.

It’s time to throw that stereotype out the window (and note how it falls to Earth with constant acceleration. Thanks, theoretical physics!)

Sure, theoretical physics can get weird, and some theories are pretty far out, but inquiry is always driven by a hunger to understand the universe fundamentally.

Consider Brandeis’ High Energy and Gravitational Theory Group.

These physicists research bizarre principles like holography, which postulates that all the information in the universe is stored on a two-dimensional surface, and we are mere projections of that information. And then there’s quantum entanglement, which even Einstein called “spooky.”

But at the core of the group’s research is a simple question: What is space?

Einstein described the way space is connected to time and how it interacts with mass. But he never theorized what space is, how it’s formed or what it’s made of.

Einstein's general relativity reimagined gravity not as force, as Newton described it, but as space curved by matter, through which matter travels.
General relativity reimagined gravity not as force, as Newton described it, but as space curved by matter. Courtesy/NASA

“Since Einstein, our questions have gotten bigger and deeper,” says Matthew Headrick, assistant professor of physics. “We want to figure out the nature of space.”

The answer lies somewhere between two pillars of modern theoretical physics — general relativity ( GR, which describes gravity) and quantum field theory ( QFT, which describes, among other things, particle physics). These fundamental theories describe two very different aspects of our universe and are written in different mathematical languages.

Watch this video for an overview of QFT and GR

“Shockingly, in certain cases, theorists have discovered that these two very different theories are actually secretly the same,” Headrick says. “Between GR and QFT, there is some kind of one-to-one map. We know some of the shared points but we’re still in the dark about many others.”

This one-to-one map is holography and it represents GR, which lives in ordinary three-dimensional space, by a QFT living on a two-dimensional surface — just like a hologram.

Essentially, Headrick and other theoretical physicists are building a Rosetta Stone —a bilingual dictionary of sorts — using holography, general relativity and quantum field theory. This translational tool will expose how GR and QFT are connected to each other and how to build a new language that obeys the properties of both GR and QFT.

Word by word, Headrick and his colleagues are testing and building a framework of conjectures.

“If you have confidence that a conjecture obeys the properties it needs to obey, you can enter it into the dictionary,” Headrick says. “Each small entry tells us something more about space.”

One conjecture Brandeis theorists pioneered has to do with the relationship between the geometry of space and the quantum information it contains.

Mathematically, certain areas in curved space contain minimal surfaces — a surface that minimizes its area. Dip a wand into soapy water and the soap film will stretch perfectly flat across the shape of the wand. This is a minimal surface.

Bubble Wand

“If the area of that soap film is expressed in fundamental units, it tells us about the quantum entanglement in the QFT,” says Headrick.

In other words, Headrick and his colleagues use the mathematical language of general relativity — geometry — to extrapolate a quantum property. That calculation, in turn, provides new information about how the two languages are interconnected.

That idea also provides a clue to the nature of space.

“It suggests that, fundamentally, the space that we live in and take for granted is stitched together out of quantum entanglement,” Headrick says.

Watch this video for an overview of entanglement

The next step is to figure out why.

The answers to these and other questions will, with any luck, give researchers the words and syntax to compose a theory of gravity in the language of quantum mechanics. It’s the Holy Grail of modern theoretical physics: a theory of quantum gravity.

But what does this have to do with reality? Richard Feynman may not have cared about the practical results of theoretical physics, but some do.

Be patient, Headrick says.

It took Einstein 10 years to develop general relativity, and it took physicists another 40 years to understand the black holes it predicted. Now, 100 years after the theory’s publication, relativity is ubiquitous in our daily lives. Without an understanding of it, for example, we wouldn’t have GPS.

But more important than the inventions a theory spurs, is the knowledge a theory advances, Headrick says.

“Einstein, Feynman and others profoundly changed our understanding of nature,” he says.

And that’s why theoretical physicists do it.


Special thanks to Cesar Agón for helping in the development of this story. 

We Are Brandeis Science: Bethany Christmann

There is no rule that says scientists have to look or act a certain way. Scientists can be funny and outgoing, athletic and artistic. They come from all different backgrounds and have all different interests. At Brandeis, our scientists are as diverse as the groundbreaking research they engage in. This on-going series is inspired by This is What a Scientist Looks Like

This post was written by Bethany Christmann, a PhD student in Professor Leslie Griffith’s lab.

Tiny discoveries, big excitement

Where are you from?

I’m from Smithfield, Va., a small town whose biggest employer runs a pork processing plant. If you ever see Smithfield bacon in the grocery store, it’s likely from my hometown!

Bethany Christmann as a GCaMP fluorescent sensor for Halloween.
Bethany Christmann as a GCaMP fluorescent sensor for Halloween.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Growing up, I was really indecisive. I wanted to be a writer, an architect, an astronomer, even a princess. I finally settled on meteorology in high school and chose a college with a great meteorology program. About a year into the program, though, I began to think I might have been wrong yet again. I took a neuroscience class the next semester, and found it fascinating. I had never been so excited about a field before, and my indecision vanished.

What do you research?

I’m researching the link between sleep and memory in fruit flies. It’s been known for a long time that sleep is important for storing long-term memories, but exactly how these are linked in the brain isn’t well understood. A colleague and I recently found that memory neurons are actively involved in sleep. This means that sleep doesn’t just support memory; they’re anatomically linked in the brain.

How do you define discovery and how does it make you feel?

Some days, after a long and successful experiment, I’ll realize that I’ve just uncovered a fact that no one else knows. Until I tell someone else, I’m the only one in the world to know this particular fact. These kinds of tiny discoveries are exciting, and I want to share them with everyone I know. It’s okay that it’s no longer my little secret, because I’ll discover another one in a few days.

What is one, non-career related goal?

Outside of the lab, one of my goals is to become fluent in German. My husband is from Germany, and I would love to be able to engage with his friends and family and get to know them better. They are great people, and I want to keep improving and make them proud.

Focus on Faculty: Isaac Krauss wins Strage Award

Isaac Krauss, assistant professor of chemistry, will receive the 15th Annual Alberta Gotthardt and Henry Strage Award for Aspiring Young Science Faculty.

Isaac Krauss, photo by Mike Lovett
Isaac Krauss, photo by Mike Lovett

“Isaac has been recognized as one of the up and coming scientists in the field of chemical glycobiology,” says professor John F. Wardle, head of the Division of Science and chair of the Strage Award Selection Committee.

The Strage Award is presented annually to a distinguished junior faculty member in the Life Sciences.  Alberta Gotthardt ‘56 and Henry Strage of London, England, created the award for researchers who have not yet received tenure but have made outstanding scientific contributions in the early stages of their independent research programs.

Previous winners include chemistry professor Christine Thomas and physics professor Michael Hagan.

Krauss and his lab are researching possible HIV vaccines, using directed evolution to create antigenic mimics of the virus.

His work has been highlighted in Chemical & Engineering News  and reviewed in Nature Chemical Biology and Current Opinion in Chemical Biology. He received the 2013 National Science Foundation CAREER Award and the 2012 Thieme Chemistry Journal Award.

The award will be presented on Wednesday, April 15 in Gerstenzang 123 at 2:00 PM. Krauss will deliver a lecture entitled: “Glycocluster Evolution: Combining Organic Synthesis and Directed Evolution to Design Carbohydrate Cluster HIV Vaccine Candidates.”

Watch the video to learn more about Isaac Krauss’ work.

We Are Brandeis Science: Hannah Herde

There is no rule that says scientists have to look or act a certain way. Scientists can be funny and outgoing, athletic and artistic. They come from all different backgrounds and have all different interests. Who are the people behind the groundbreaking research at Brandeis University? We Are Brandeis Science aims to find out. This on-going series is inspired by This is What a Scientist Looks Like

This post was written by physics PhD candidate Hannah Herde.

 A mind-blowing mystery

 Where are you from?

That’s a complicated question. I was born in Washington, D.C. but lived in New Canaan, Conn., for most of my life. My family moved to London during my middle school years, where Britain’s dedication to science education certainly helped me to develop my passion.

What do you research?

Herde in front of the Globe of Science at CERN
Herde in front of the Globe of Science at CERN

I work with physics professor Gabriella Sciolla on the search for dark matter, one of the greatest mysteries of the universe. As it turns out, dark matter accounts for 85 percent of the mass of the universe — which blows my mind. I would very much like to find out what most of the universe is made of, and how these materials interact with the matter out of which you and I, the stars, and everything else we perceive, is made.

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was 8 years old, I wanted to be an oceanographer — I wanted more than anything else to probe the fathoms of the sea. That was my dream for nearly a decade and during high school, I worked more than 300 hours at The Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Conn. Through my experience there, I learned that I wanted to understand more than just what is out there — I wanted to understand how everything works and why it came to be that way. As I continued my education, I came to feel that those questions were best answered through physics.

What got you into science?

Dirt. Good old-fashioned digging in the dirt. I was very fortunate growing up — my parents made sure that my three siblings and I always had a yard in which to play. Pill bugs, rocks, flowers, frogs — just about anything I could find in the yard rapidly transformed into an experiment.

What’s the coolest place you’ve ever been?

CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, 150 meters underground at the ATLAS detector. It is enormous!

Guest post: We need a super agenda to tackle superbugs

This article was written by Moaven Razavi, Senior Research Associate in the Schneider Institutes for Health Policy at the Heller School of Brandeis University.  It was originally published on Heller News

Drug resistant infections are turning into the biggest challenge that modern health systems will face in the near future. Statistics and estimates are breathtaking: by 2050, such infections are estimated to kill 10 million people per year. To put it in context, this is higher than the current global burden of cancer.

Today, there are 700,000 cases of drug resistant infections annually— and this is not just a problem for developing nations. In Europe and the U.S., these infections are already killing more than 50,000 people each year. If our response remains status quo, we would see the death toll rise more than 10 times by 2050, and the economic cost would spiral to $100 trillion.

The true gravity of the threat is being seriously examined in Europe. In July 2014, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that we are in danger of being “cast back into the dark ages of medicine” if we fail to act, and announced an internationally focused review to address the problem. The taskforce was charged with developing a package of actionable recommendations in response to antimicrobial resistance (AMR) by the summer of 2016.

In the United States, however, the reaction to the problem has been sporadic and limited in scope. In January 2015, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) reintroduced legislation to accelerate the approval of new antibiotics to address drug-resistant “superbugs.” The bill, known as the PATH Act, would allow the FDA to expedite approval processes for novel medications.

While the U.S. Senate bill is tied to the threat that AMR poses to U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the biggest risk is to senior citizens due to two major factors: the need for more invasive surgeries such as major joint replacements and heart surgeries, and the weakened immune system due to aging. The elevated risk level due to AMR poses a serious challenge to solvency of the Medicare program.

Even though the threat to the Medicare population is looming, the extent of the problem is not well assessed. Globally, the reliable estimates are scarce, and there is considerable variation in the patterns of AMR. However, drug resistant infections are a problem that should concern every country regardless of geography or income. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s Antimicrobial Resistance Interactive Database, in 2013, 15 European countries saw more than 10 percent of their bloodstream Staphylococcus aureus infections caused by methicillin-resistant strains (MRSA), with several of these countries seeing resistance rates closer to 50 percent.

Recognizing the severity of this issue, I joined several of my colleagues from the Institute on Healthcare Systems in investigating just how severely AMR is threatening the Medicare population. The study, which was funded by GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals (GSK), focused on Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus), which is by far the most dangerous superbug. We examined the incidence of S. aureus infections following 219,958 major surgical procedures for a representative 5 percent sample of Medicare beneficiaries from 2004 to 2007.

We found that 0.3 percent of these patients had S. aureus infections immediately following their surgical procedures, while 1.7 percent were hospitalized with S. aureus infections within 60 days and 2.3 percent were hospitalized with S. aureus infections within 180 days. S. aureus infections within 180 days were most prevalent following gastric or esophageal surgery, with 5.9 percent of patients affected, followed by hip surgery (2.3 percent), and coronary artery bypass graft surgery (1.9 percent).

Of patients hospitalized with a major infection during the first 180 days after surgery, 15 percent of those infections were due to S. aureus, 18 percent were other documented organisms, and no specific organism was reported in 67 percent. We also found that infections prolonged the length of hospitalization by 130 percent, and S. aureus infection was associated with a 42 percent excess risk of mortality.

Due to incomplete documentation of organisms in Medicare claims, these statistics may underestimate the true magnitude of S. aureus infection; nevertheless, this study found a higher rate of S. aureus infections than previous investigations.

I believe that tackling the superbug crisis requires a super-agenda—one that involves both public and private stakeholders who are informed by solid research in a timely manner. Such an agenda should not only include promotion of research and investment in new drugs and treatment modalities, but also prevention measures in all domains. The role of Medicare and commercial payers is also critical and can be incorporated through payment reforms, value based purchasing efforts, and introduction of relevant re-admission and complication quality indicators.

Moaven Razavi is the lead author of the study, Postoperative Staphylococcus aureus Infections in Medicare Beneficiaries, which was published in the November 2014 edition of PLoS ONE. Other researchers include Donald S. Shepard and William B. Stason from Heller, and Jose A. Suaya form GlaxoSmithKline.