Science Bytes

Science Bytes


It was the era of the Cold War and the Space Race. NASA was not even two years old. Sputnik (the first artificial satellite to be put into Earth’s orbit), not even three. Kennedy was also a year away from announcing America’s commitment to putting a man on the moon. It was then, in 1960, that the term “Cyborg” was first used by a pair of scientists, Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, who ideated that instead of adapting the environment to ourselves, we adapted ourselves to the environment. For which, they reasoned, one would need a cybernetic feedback system to maintain homeostasis unconsciously. These systems need to become a part of the organism. A cybernetic organism or a Cyborg.

Cyborg is short for cybernetic organism. It refers to a being with both, biological and artificial (electronic, mechanical or robotic) parts. The key notion here is non-hereditary adaptation. Technological interventions that changes the course of biological existence. Brains jacked into computers, bodies invaded by technology, limbs and organs amputated and replaced by machines until the resulting creature is barely recognizable as human.

Few argue that we are all and have always been cyborgs, hybrid entities that combine biology, culture, and technology into a single blurry unit. There has never been a moment when we did not integrate with tools. We are embraced and enveloped by the technosphere and even if we try to escape and smash the system, we find we are part of it. Polyester shirts, Glasses, Baseball bat, Shoes these are entities wholly dependent on non-hereditary adaptation to survive in their environments. Visions of cyborgs are all about the relationship of technology to the body.

Fictional cyborgs may be represented as visibly mechanical (e.g. the Cybermen of the Daleks in the Doctor Who franchise or The Borg from Star Trek); or as almost indistinguishable from humans (e.g. body-terror of the Terminators from the Terminator films, the “Human” Cylons from the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica, the body-tragedy of Robocop, a person that should be dead, kept alive and made more powerful by technology etc.)

Generally, the term “cyborg” is used to refer to a human with bionic, or robotic, implants. In current prosthetic applications, the C-Leg system developed by Otto Bock HealthCare is used to replace a human leg that has been amputated because of injury or illness. Additionally, cochlear implants and magnetic implants which provide people with a sense, that they would not otherwise have had, can be thought of as creating cyborgs.

Retinal implants are another form of cyborgization in medicine. In vision science, direct brain implants have been used to treat non-congenital (acquired) blindness. The scientist and private researcher William Dobelle was among the first few who developed brain implants. His first prototype was implanted into “Jerry”, a man blinded in adulthood, in 1978. A single-array brain-computer interface (BCI) containing 68 electrodes was implanted onto Jerry’s visual cortex and succeeded in producing phosphenes, the sensation of seeing light. In 2004, under the heading Bridging the Island of the Colourblind Project, a British and completely color-blind artist, Neil Harbisson, started wearing an eyeborg on his head in order to hear colors.

In 2010, the Cyborg Foundation, based in Mataró (Barcelona), became the world’s first international organization dedicated to help humans become cyborgs. The foundation was created by cyborg Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas. The foundation’s main aims are to extend human senses and abilities by creating and applying cybernetic extensions to the body, to promote the use of cybernetics in cultural events and to defend cyborg rights.

So when you think about cyborgs, don’t think about total loss of self, bodies encroached and erased by technology, humanity swallowed whole. Think about off-loaded memories, of constantly renewed enhancement and new abilities. We are shaped by the technologies because in integrating them, they become us.


Higgs Boson: “God Particle”


The Higgs boson or Higgs particle is a proposed elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics. The Higgs boson is named after Peter Higgs (who, along with others, proposed the mechanism that suggested such a particle in 1964) and an Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose (whose study changed the way Particle Physics has been studied ever since). Bose was a part of the golden troika of Indian physicists (that included CV Raman and Meghnad Saha) whose works have left permanent impressions on the study of fundamental physics.

The relativistic model proposed by three groups of physicists that included Peter Higgs in 1964 held the Higgs boson to have a large mass which is why a huge collider-accelerator has been used at CERN to study it. One of the primary goals of the Large Hadron Collider (“LHC”) at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland—one of the most complicated scientific instruments ever built—was to test the existence of the Higgs boson and measure its properties which would allow physicists to confirm this cornerstone of modern theory.

Because of its role in producing a fundamental property of elementary particles, the Higgs boson has been referred to as the “God particle” in popular culture, although virtually all scientists regard this as a hyperbole. According to the Standard Model, the Higgs particle is a boson, a type of particle that allows multiple identical particles to exist in the same place in the same quantum state. It has no intrinsic spin, no electric charge, and no colour charge. It is also very unstable, decaying into other particles almost immediately after its creation.

More than 50 years ago Peter Higgs and five other theoretical physicists proposed that an invisible field lying across the Universe gives particles their mass, allowing them to clump together to form stars and planets.

What is the Higgs boson and the Higgs field?

The Higgs field has been described as a kind of cosmic “treacle” spread through the universe.

According to Prof Higgs’s 1964 theory, the field interacts with the tiny particles that make up atoms, and weighs them down so that they do not simply whizz around space at the speed of light.

But in the half-century following the theory, produced independently by the six scientists within a few months of each other, nobody has been able to prove that the Higgs Field really exists. Prof Higgs predicted that the field would have a signature particle, a massive boson.

What would the world be like without the Higgs boson?

According to the Standard Model theory, it would not be recognisable. Without something to give mass to the basic building blocks of matter, everything would behave as light does, floating freely and not combining with other particles. Ordinary matter, as we know it, would not exist.

How long has the search gone on?

Scientists have been looking for the Higgs since the 1960s, but the search began in earnest more than 20 years ago with early experiments at CERN in Europe and Fermilab in the US.

Does finding the Higgs boson mark the end of the search?

It’s just the end of the beginning. Confirming the existence of the Higgs would only be the start of a new era of particle physics as scientists focus on understanding how it works and look for unexpected phenomena.

How does one find a Higgs boson?

To find the particle and characterise it, scientists must first try to create it by smashing beams of protons together inside the Large Hadron Collider at close to the speed of light and analysing the debris.

By doing so they will essentially be recreating a very small model of the state of the Universe as it was in the first trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.

Some of the fragments released by the collision should in theory be Higgs Bosons, although they will instantly deteriorate into even smaller, more stable subatomic particles.

Like other heavy particles, the Higgs decays into lighter particles, which then decay into even lighter ones. The process can follow a certain number of paths, which depend on the particle’s mass.

Physicists compare the decay paths they observe after a particle collision to predicted decay paths simulated with computers. When a match is found, it suggests that the observed particle is the one being searched for.

How is the Higgs boson related to the Big Bang?

About 13.7 billion years ago, the Big Bang gave birth to the universe and caused an outburst of massless particles and radiation energy. Scientists think that fractions of a second later, part of the radiation energy congealed into the Higgs field.

When the universe began to cool, particles acquired mass from the Higgs field, slowed down and began to bunch up to form composite particles and, eventually, atoms.

Conditions present a billionth of a second after the Big Bang are recreated in the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator near Geneva.

How did the Higgs boson get the nickname “the God particle”?

A Nobel laureate physicist from Fermilab called Leon Lederman wrote a book in the early 1990s about the search for the Higgs boson. His publishers coined the name as a marketable title for the book, but it’s disliked by many scientists.