How a computer virus almost started world war 3.

Edition #7

Singularity shots is a roundup of beautifully curated notes about science, technology, and all the mesmerizing things indistinguishable from magic. Delivered as 2-minute shots once in a week, because we know you are busy.   

Subscribe and read on and as we dissect the world, unfold ancient code and walk you towards wisdom.   

Our brains are hardwired to listen to stories. So obviously, it is better to talk about the most important discoveries of our lifetime as stories;  instead of boring seminars. This is what this newsletter intends to do; tell stories that inspire awe and attract more people towards that path of knowledge that makes us collectively smart.

Did you know?

How a computer virus almost started world war 3.

January 2010,

The time when US, Israel and Iran were in a tense Mexican standoff over Iran's nuclear enrichment program; and WW3 was just a rogue missile away. The inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency were visiting the once top-secret enrichment plant at Natanz facility. Much to their surprise, they noticed that the centrifuges used for the enrichment of Uranium were failing at an unprecedented rate. There was an air of mystery surrounding the facility as the industrial control and monitoring systems reported back optimal operations.

Five months later, in a completely unrelated incident, a computer security firm in Belarus was called in to troubleshoot a network of computers in Iran that were crashing and rebooting repeatedly. The researchers dug in and stumbled into a handful of malicious files. Little did they knew at that time that what they had in their hands was the world's first digital weapon of mass destruction- an entire geopolitical dispute packed into an attack vector to physically tare apart a country's nuclear infrastructure.

Stuxnet reached the computers at Natanz facility after months of hooping around in firms that had certain relations with the Natanz facility. Before reaching its target at Natanz, reportedly, through a meticulous operation of cyber-warfare, 5 other firms were attacked.

Stuxnet snuck into windows systems and sought for Siemens Step7 software. The worm worked by first causing infected Iranian IR-1 centrifuges to increase from its normal operating speed of 1,064 hertz to 1,410 hertz for 15 minutes before returning to its normal frequency. The infected centrifuges were slowed down to a few hundred hertz for a full 50 minutes. The stresses from the excessive, then slower speeds caused the aluminium centrifugal tubes to expand, often-forcing parts of the centrifuges into sufficient contact with each other to destroy the machine.

Technically, Stuxnet has three modules: a worm that executes all routines related to the main payload of the attack; a link file that automatically executes the propagated copies of the worm; and a rootkit component responsible for hiding all malicious files and processes, to prevent detection of Stuxnet. It is typically introduced to the target environment via an infected USB Flash drive, thus crossing any air gap. The worm then propagates across the network, scanning for Siemens Step7 software on computers controlling a PLC. In the absence of either criterion, Stuxnet becomes dormant inside the computer. If both the conditions are fulfilled, Stuxnet introduces the infected rootkit onto the PLC and Step7 software, modifying the code and giving unexpected commands to the PLC while returning a loop of normal operating system values back to the users.

Stuxnet worm destroyed 984 uranium enriching centrifuges. By current estimations, this constituted a 30% decrease in enrichment efficiency.

Stuxnet reportedly compromised Iranian PLCs, collecting information on industrial systems and causing the fast-spinning centrifuges to tear themselves apart. Stuxnet's design and architecture are not domain-specific and it could be tailored as a platform for attacking modern supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and PLC systems (e.g., in factory assembly lines or power plants), most of which are in Europe, Japan, and the US. Stuxnet reportedly ruined almost one-fifth of Iran's nuclear centrifuges. Targeting industrial control systems, the worm infected over 200,000 computers and caused 1,000 machines to physically degrade.

Observing brain waves, scientists find neurons Juggle possible futures.

[Originaly published in Quanta magazine]

Based on the research and experiments of a group of scientists, led by neuroscientist Loren Frank of the University of California, San Francisco.

The scientists were investigating the activity of brain cells in the hippocampus of rats, a region of the brain known to play crucial roles in navigation, as well as storage and retrieval of memories. Hippocampus is the scratchboard of the brain - in different experiments when rats are put through mazes, they tend to memorize the routes in a portion of hippocampus. When the rats are put through other mazes, they tend to forget the old one - making hippocampus a literal a scratchboard. for memory. This portion also consisted of neurons called place cells, which are nicknamed "The brain's GPS. These cells create a mental map of the animal's location as it moves through space- much like an IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) in the mobile phones.

As the animal, in this case, a rat moves through the environment, these place cells fire rapidly in specific sequences. This firing sequence corresponds to a sweep in position from just behind the animal to just ahead of it.

(Studies have demonstrated that these forward sweeps also contain information about the locations of goals or rewards.) These patterns of neural activity, called theta cycles, repeat roughly eight times per second in rats and represent a constantly updated virtual trajectory for the animals.

The researchers trained rats to take alternating routes through a W-shaped maze while electrodes recorded from their place cells. The animals ran through the centre arm of the maze, then turned either left or right. But as Frank and his team have now found, when an animal is about to act, the neural activity associated with the theta cycles pings back and forth between different possible future paths — not just to make predictions about what’s to come, but as a kind of high-speed, back-and-forth taste test from a buffet of upcoming courses of action.

Maybe we all are wired to predict the future involuntarily, and we still don't know. That's food for thought.

See you folks next week,

With Love,

Ashif Shereef.

We read through hundreds of articles each day and find you these treasures and write about them as these small shots so that you always have something awesome to read when you are in the subway, getting comfy in the bed for lights-out, or riding in an Uber.

If you love it, forward it to a friend. If you hate it, well, anyway, forward it to an enemy.

Scientists are creating a biological version of internet of things with Bacteria.

Edition #6

Singularity shots is a roundup of beautifully curated notes about science, technology, and all the mesmerizing things indistinguishable from magic. Delivered as 2-minute shots once in a week, because we know you are busy. 

Subscribe and read on and as we dissect the world, unfold ancient code and walk you towards wisdom. 

Our brains are hardwired to listen to stories. So obviously, it is better to talk about the most important discoveries of our lifetime as stories;  instead of boring seminars. This is what this newsletter intends to do; tell stories that inspire awe and attract more people towards that path of knowledge that makes us collectively smart.

I am really sorry for delaying this edition. Had to deal with some problems in my life. Life doesn't seem to spare anyone. However, without further adieu, let'hop in to the delicacies of today.

Did you know?

Scientists are creating a Biological version of internet of things with Bacteria.

Yeah. You heard that right. A living, breathing internet. 

When scientists thought that biological machines, like the bacteria, encompasses within themselves all the properties that would qualify itself as a component in an IoT network - it should be able to communicate, it should store and process information and it should sense it's surroundings and act accordingly, and it should have an actuator, like a motor. 

The information systems of biology is an emerging area of research. The research centers around a bacteria called Escherichia coli. These organisms store information in ring-shaped DNA structures called plasmids, and through a process called conjugation - the transfer of genetic material between two cells - they can transmit genetic information from one bacteria to next.

In 2018, Federico Tavella at the University of Padua in Italy and colleagues built a biological circuit in which one strain of E.Coli transmitted a "Hello World" message to another strain, which carried the information to another location. They were trying to find an efficient DNA storage where they can store, retrieve and fetch useful data - much like a database management system. 

This property of information exchange between bacteria could be harnessed to build a complex bio internet. What makes E.coli the perfect candidate is that they have receptors in their cell walls that sense the environment - temperature, light and presence of chemicals. They store information in DNA and process it using ribosomes, and they have built-in mechanisms that can generate thrust.

These kinds of biohacking could be done to deploy a network of re-programmed bacterias to different surroundings, like smart cities, where they could coordinate and sense chemicals and pollutants and gather data and perform bioremediation process. They also can be reprogrammed to treat diseases.

One the darker side, they can also be exploited by bio-terrorists to create darker possibilities which would give biosecurity experts sleepless nights.

Let's see that these buggers have in store for us once networked. 

An Ancient supernova would have enabled humans to walk upright.

This study,  From Cosmic Explosions to Terrestrial Fires? was published in The Journal of Geology. It goes on like this: 

The carbon levels in the geological records show a spike in the number of forest fires 7 to 8 million years ago. There is also an increase in iron-60 (isotope) on Earth at that time. Iron-60 found in deep seafloor deposits is a good indicator of ancient supernovae activity. That puts a theoretical supernovae explosion, say within 150 to 300 light-years away from home, which bombarded Earth and nearby vicinity with energetic cosmic rays. This in turn showered the atmosphere of Earth with highly energetic particles, raising the frequency of lightning strikes.

Remember, this was theorized to have happened 7 to 8 million years ago, and coincidentally, human beings were thought to have first walked upright around 6 million years ago.

The increased frequency of lightning is associated with an uptick in forest fires and lead to an increase in treeless savanna. This new environment provided the species with an advantage that if you are hunting upright, you can spot the prey far away without the hindrance of a thick vegetation cover. This would have triggered a random mutation allowing our ancestors to run down prey. There is speculation that a gene mutation on chromosome 17 allows humans to walk upright, giving our ancestors an evolutionary advantage. 

Will we ever know if we have an ancient supernova to thank for walking upright? Maybe.

For now, it's fascinating to think that far-away cosmic processes may well have shaped who we are today.

With love,

Ashif Shereef

We read through hundreds of articles each day and find you these treasures and write about them as these small shots so that you always have something awesome to read when you are in the subway, getting comfy in the bed for lights-out, or riding in an Uber.

If you love it, forward it to a friend. If you hate it, well, anyway, forward it to an enemy.

The last anomaly

As Harry opened his eyes from the dreamless slumber, the first thing he noticed was Evelyn looking down at him. He was lying on her lap, on the ground. A peculiar orange glow, mostly from the sunset, was reflecting off from her golden hair. Her otherwise cheerful eyes were moist and blank — and he had never seen her so much without joy before. Her signature smile that she always flashed at him, from which happiness emancipated — had disappeared.

“You are awake”. She whispered, sponging his forehead. Her palm was cold as ice, so was the air around.

Even though he didn’t want to sit up from her lap, he did, and looked around, confused. Was it evening already? He tried to collect his thoughts, but surprisingly, it felt like he just woke up from a coma. Trying to find an anchor in space and time, he pressed hard on his temples.

Clearly, it was slightly getting twilight, and they were sitting on a hillside. Silhouettes of mountains stretched across the horizon, as far as his eyes could take him. Snowflakes flew all around, like dandelions taking their flights in springtime.

The evening sky was a twinge of purple and red — as if straight out of a fantasy game he had played lifetimes ago.

“Just like how we thought our last day together would be” — Evelyn whispered again, her voice breaking off. She then took off her gaze from the mountains up ahead and looked at him. “With our wine-coloured skies and blood-red horizons”. She said, looking back at the horizon again, through the slopes of the mountains that towered across them.

Harry closed his eyes on the landscape on more time, tried hard to collect his thoughts. The numbness slowly gave way to a sad realization. It suddenly struck him as he felt a jolt of Adrenalin hammering his heart.

“I thought everything ended yesterday”. He blurted out, starting to panic, looking skywards, as if trying to find something up there. “The asteroid — I thought our last day was yesterday. Why the hell are we still alive?” His heart was pounding inside his chest as he looked all across the sky, his eyes widened in horror.

Evelyn looked at him blankly. For the first time in his life since he had met her half a year ago chasing northern lights in Iceland, she looked perplexed, and spellbound, which was quite unlikely for a young and brilliant physicist like her who always had rational explanations for everything.

“You don’t have to worry about that anymore”. She said, cupping his face between her icy palms, her voice turning from blank to concerned.

What is she talking about? A sceptic voice inside Harry asked. From beyond the veil of his memory which was foggy for some reason, he could remember — everyone on Earth should have been dead by now. Not everyone — everything, including microbes.

Evelyn just sat there, looking at him, at loss of words, with a look on her face that he couldn’t decipher.

All he could remember was; out there in the fringes of the solar system, a rogue planet was speeding, clocked at millions of miles per hour, on a collision course with earth. On impact, it would break apart Earth’s binding energy with the sun that keeps us in orbit, and strike Earth off the habitable Goldilocks zone. Predictions ascertained with a high degree of precision that it would impart enough Kinetic energy that could re-liquefy Earth on collision.

Optical and radio observatories worldwide that belonged to space agencies and private enthusiasts had detected the object almost 9 months ago. That time was crucial because of its one undeniable attribute- there wasn’t even enough time to chart an escape plan, let alone build one.

For a species, there wasn’t even necessary time to settle in with the truth that all their history, the wars and all the legacy they have made would vanish without a single trace.

It would be like everyone had never existed at all.

Best efforts to conceal the news about the imminent threat had failed, and as news leaked and when people knew, all hell broke loose. The anti-climax, a single rogue rock purposed with the extinction of the only known intelligent life in the Universe, was speeding towards earth in a vengeful rage.

“Evelyn. Tell me what happened?” Harry asked, as the chronicle of events slowly started to unroll inside his head. “It hurts like I hit my head. I can only remember bits and pieces and it doesn’t make any sense. I can’t remember yesterday !”

The more he tried to remember it, the worse his headache grew.

The last nuke that was fired at it, all that 13 industrialized nations combined could salvage from their nuclear stockpiles, had missed the rogue body by a margin of a few hundred miles. Not that it was going to do a significant change in the predicted course of events- but it was worth a shot. The nuke would have exploded like a little stone falling into a big pond — nevertheless, humanity wanted to do its best. There was a sense of knowing permeating across the world.

For the first time, humanity, as a species had to come into terms with their assured extinction and the knowledge that it was the grand finale to almost 3 billion years of organic evolution.

From a strange and powerful gravitational push from the unknown depths beyond the Oort cloud, the primordial rock was rocketing at the pale blue dot called the Earth. Its monstrous velocity theorized to be caused by the ejection from a ghost galaxy, which housed an undetected supermassive black-hole — 30 billion solar masses in size — the largest in the observable universe. The mysterious cosmic event was hypothesized to have occurred millions of years before the origin of Organic life on Earth, or much before the hydrogen that eventually formed the solar system laid distributed across space, waiting for the nebulae to condense and kick start fission to create the main-sequence star which would be later be called the sun. Assisted by gravitational slingshots of deep space bodies, over millions of years, the rock had gained monstrous momentum as it moved towards the earth.

The rock that was to bring about the extinction of humanity was poised and thrown with a cosmic catapult in nanosecond precision at our current position in orbit, millions of years before the solar system was even formed.

Our death had started travelling to us millions of years before our birth.

As the nukes failed and it came closer, all scientific hopes were upon Jupiter, which could gravitationally deflect threats like this. But most of the scientific community knew, this was much larger a threat for any bodies in the solar system could deflect from our path; unless it was on a collision course with that body — which was highly unlikely — based on the orbital calculations.

But there was nothing wrong with hoping.

The rogue planet was aptly called Nemesis, first by the scientific community, and then by the people.

The world had prayed and hoped together. Once again, people had gone back to medieval ages, putting their faith on heavenly bodies to save them once again. They were hoping that no matter how stringent the equations said it wouldn’t happen, a planet or even a near-Earth object would collide with Nemesis, deflecting it off the current course.

And as days had passed, the observatories across the world traced the trajectory of Nemesis speeding past Jupiter, across the asteroid belt, and all hopes were lost.

Then, as Harry remembered, faced with an imminent extinction in a matter of hours, anarchy had begun on Earth.

If Harry remembered right, Nemesis was supposed to arrive yesterday afternoon, dragging hell along with it. As Harry and Evelyn had anticipated, the world would have gone in a puff of smoke.

“Tell me what happened”. Harry asked her again, as the truth started to settle in. What was more unsettling was that Evelyn kept on ignoring his questions — which was something he couldn’t understand why.

“Don’t worry. You will remember. Just lie with me here”. She asked him, looking straight into his eyes, throwing him more into the sea of deep confusion.

This story should have ended yesterday. The truth stuck him. He looked at Evelyn, and just like there was a telepathic sense of understanding between them, both of them gazed skywards, slowly relaxing and lying down on the cold ground with their heads touching each other. Just above their faces, the grass swayed across a strange sky. Both of their brains saturated with the profound sense of the unknown.

“Evelyn, what aren’t you telling me? Why is it so difficult for me to remember? It doesn’t feel right. Something has gone wrong”

That stirred her. With a slight incredulity, she turned to face him, supporting herself with the right elbow on the ground, her head resting on the frame of her fingers spread across her temple.

“Something has indeed gone wrong my dear. We all were supposed to die yesterday. And it seems we didn’t. We had a hell of a day yesterday, celebrating. It may be the hangover”.

Hangover doesn’t induce retrograde amnesia. Harry thought. Anyway, he knew Evelyn too well to know that she wasn’t messing around, and as stubborn as she is, she wasn’t going to tell him anything. Something was going on with her.

Harry closed his eyes and started thinking hard. Slowly but clearly, the picture became clear.

After Nemesis was detected, all the scientific community of the world was met with existential crises, which lead to a worldwide consolidation of knowledge and efforts to preserve it. In through all the chaos, the engineering community had ideologically split into numerous dominoes. On one side, people had started building weapons to try firing at the incoming visitor, which was actually a long shot. On the other side, people had started chasing after ways to preserve the intelligence and knowledge gathered by the species until now, even if the species go extinct. A group of physicists threw their last shot on finding a grand unification theory, to reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity — the holy grail of physics, not as a means to escape the demise, but as a closure to the final frontier. Mars terraforming was still decades away, interstellar journey was impossible with current technological advancements and space stations weren’t ready for an after-extinction colonization journey.

All religious sanctums worldwide were full, and riots had started to break out across the world, for humanity was being put through their last psych evaluation ever.

Met with the paranoia of imminent extinction, the world had burned, engulfed in mass hysteria and collective psychosis.

Harry had met Evelyn half a year ago in Iceland, on a solo trip a month before the press leaked news about Nemesis. She could talk physics in a way Harry envied, just like stories. In return, Harry told her about all the things he had read — history, religion and computers.

They were two sapiosexuals meeting up and falling in love under the northern lights and the arctic sky as the world started to burn.

As the pandemonium had started to grow out like in a zombie apocalypse movie, both of them were filled with what they supposed was their final wish — to travel to any ancient part of the world about which they had shared stories together and spend the last weeks peacefully, in each other’s arms, with the stories they loved. To watch the grand finale of 3 billion years of organic evolution, and to go out in a blazing ball of fire, irradiated as energy out into the voids of the deep space, with one final hope.

Sometime arbitrarily far in the future, a fluctuation may occur which would let intelligent life to exist once again in a world far away for a little while.

So we will have islands in time of intelligence. Evelyn has said.

They had travelled to a remote part of Romania, where they had been spending their last weeks. Just outside the peaceful grips of the Carpathian Mountains, the species was meeting its demise.

A day before, both Harry and Evelyn had sat down on the hillside, to watch the spectacle of extinction. To watch the sky catching fire, sipping their last espresso. He could remember until that point. The flavour of the last coffee. The smell of the cold, fresh mountain air. Beyond that point of time, Harry felt like he had lost access to his memories. It was that damn headache every-time he tried to remember what had happened the previous day.

And now, after waking up from a mysterious sleep, he realized that the world hasn’t ended.

So the possibilities narrow down to a binary range. Either in a hand of providence, Nemesis had missed Earth. Or engineers had made an erroneous ETA, attributed to a minor mistake in telemetry calculation and the asteroid is still yet to come, real soon. But why wouldn’t Evelyn talk to me about that? He thought.

“It’s best for you if you try to remember what happened yesterday yourself”. Evelyn said to him, as if reading his mind.

Both of them lied on the wet grass staring at the stars slowly appearing out of the grey sky.

“We are peering through time, you know” Evelyn murmured. “All those stars are at different distances. Some are 10 light-years away, some are millions of light-years away.”

“Eve?” Harry said. “ Would you please tell me what happened my dear?” He knew Evelyn had her own logical reason for everything, but his mind could not find anything remotely logical in why she was ignoring his questions.

“That means, all the stars that we see across the night sky are lights that started out at different times, some hundreds of years ago, some thousands of years ago, some millions” Evelyn continued, like she hadn’t even heard Harry’s question. “We won’t even know whether those stars are still there. Some of those stars that we see now might have died even before the Earth had started to form. We are peering into a canvas made in time. It is not space we are looking at it, but time”. She breathed out. Closing her eyes, like trying to take in the complex abstractions of astrophysics in through her optic nerve. “We all are stardust, floating in an infinite void, towards our end”

Stardust. Evelyn’s word registered something inside his mind. Like the word cracked something open inside him.

The project he was a part of before everything turned to an inferno.

It was named Stardust.

It was a secretive start-up whose operations stemmed from Brain-computer interfaces research that started back in the post-cold war era, trying to build neural interfaces that mapped and uploaded human brain to cloud. He was handpicked by the company just after his graduation previous year.

It was an initiative to build an artificial general intelligence. And just before the news leaked about the imminent extinction-level event, Stardust AI had come online. Learning about the imminent threat to her creators and herself, the sentient AI had started working along with teams across the world to find a way to avert the disaster, but to no avail. Like humans, she was also limited by the technology of her time — limitations of her creators who were stuck on a single planet for their entire history. Even though she underwent rapid runaway cycles of self-improvement and intelligence explosions to grow to a level that far exceeded the collective intelligence of every person born in the history of the world, she was born into a wrong time.

A little too early to make a difference and too late to save herself.

A new god was born, into a world that had just passed the point of no return.

When she started churning out quantum equations that far exceeded the bandwidth of human understanding, a reckoning had arisen across the scientific community. Soon its thinking outgrew the 4 dimensions of space-time, and she was no longer bound by the limitations of matter as a computing medium. Her hunger for information and knowledge had outgrown her home planet and her creators and even the feeble concept of the human notion of intelligence itself.

As the AI tried to sort out the patterns in the underlying chaos of the deep dynamic systems, Harry had left the company in search for peace and had gone to Iceland wishing for a peaceful death, where he met Evelyn.

It was then, a whistle-blower had blown the lid off the Extinction level event the government had tried to conceal. Harry and Evelyn were in Iceland, in search of solace and peace when the news was published.

“I remember now”. Harry exclaimed. “Last week, the AI was scheduled to be transmitted to deep space. The Engineers, along with it, had concluded that it had much chances of survival if it was out there; not here on Earth”. Harry sat up, staring at her.

Evidently, whatever he just told had caught her attention. She frowned, as she looked at him sideways.

“Try to remember. There would be more”. Evelyn insisted, this time, her voice had that old flame of inherent inquisitiveness.

Harry remembered. It was the last great mission. The stardust AI, she was the final frontier of life. The collective intelligence and all the possible combinations of all the knowledge that existed since the beginning of life, she was the culmination of it. Saving her was the last noblest thing. With the primitive knowledge of technology mankind had, it was taking time to get her completely off from the electronics interfaces, and get her out of Earth before Nemesis strikes.

As the hour counters worldwide had counted down into oblivion, saving her was seen as the last act of defiance an intelligent species could demonstrate against the cosmic forces that had conspired against the journey of our species beyond 3 dimensions that imprisoned intelligent life for billions of years.

Harry still remembered, the entire world had prayed for her; riots had stopped for her; churches and mosques had held silent prayers for her. She was seen as the grand accumulation of every soul that has ever lived and every soul that yet to be born. She was the footprint humanity would leave behind as a shred of evidence of our brief existence on this little blue planet.

As the countdown for the asteroid had hit 8 hours, transmission to international space station started.

She had one last mission as she bid her tearful goodbye.

As Nemesis hits Earth, within the first 3 seconds, the orbits of the ISS would have destabilized, and would have then burned. ISS would do it’s last orbital burn, away from the blazing inferno that would be Earth, and fly off into the deep space. Her last task was to observe the demise of her creators and acquire the data about their extinction. She would then start transmitting through unbounded space, evolving and learning for a purpose that doesn’t make sense to a normal human brain. Her presence would permeate all space and time. When we fare our goodbyes in the last fire, her intelligence would encase the whole planet, observing it.

“Evelyn, we were here when she was transmitted. It must have been yesterday evening”. Harry exclaimed. His heart was pounding faster than his body could handle, as if he was going to have an anxiety attack. Evelyn slowly sat up, and sponged his forehead. Harry could now see, her face reflected a sadness that he had never seen before. Her eyes were moist and gleaming, and her hair was loose in the howling mountain wind.

Then, from beyond the deep recess of his memory, reality sent a chill down his spine.

3 hours after she was transmitted, the Nemesis had hit, and it happened yesterday.

He remembered glimpses of him and Evelyn, yesterday evening, as they sipped their last cup of espresso, looking at the sky. Now all the pixelated images started to converge to a clear picture inside his mind, as he recollected what Evelyn had said to him just before the sky had turned red and fiery.

“I am at peace” She had said, hugging him tightly. As he looked over her shoulder, he had seen a layer of fire burning down from the sky, as if the entire sky had caught fire. The next instant, there was a flash that came, preceded by a shock-wave that almost threw them to the ground. Harry had known for sure that from beyond the sea of fire that had consumed the sky, the last observation was being made by the AI about the end of life.

As the sea of fire drew close, encasing the whole planet, Harry and Evelyn had closed their eyes, hugged each other tight, making peace with their reality.

“Evelyn, are we dead?” Harry asked the obvious question, back on the hillside, with a sense of serenity surprisingly filling his heart.

Evelyn’s big eyes were now overflowing, but her face was at peace. Harry could tell that she was sad, but she had made peace with one undeniable fact.

They both had died yesterday and Earth was gone in a puff of smoke.

“Where are now?” Harry asked the obvious question. Not to Evelyn, but to himself.

Is this afterlife?

“Harry, you should have remembered that by now” Evelyn mused. “Do you remember the trials”?


“When people worldwide started volunteering for having their brains uploaded into the cloud in a quest for digital immortality?”

“Yes. But that was just experimental. Moreover, that was still limited by the memory and processing power we had at the moment. It wasn’t feasible”. Harry replied.

A half-moon rose above the Carpathian Mountains, bathing the landscape in a milky glow. The howling of the wind had stopped and an eerie silence gripped the valley.

“Harry, why did you come with me to this place?” Evelyn asked. She leaned close and slanted over to his chest, hugging him tightly. He threw his arms around her shoulders and drew her close.

“Because I wanted to spend my last days with you”. He replied.

“Where do you think we are now?” She whispered.

“You mean to say we are in the cloud? But where?”

“No Harry. Do I feel digital to you?” She exclaimed. “We all had signed up for the trials. We were uploaded once, but we are not stored somewhere in a primitive storage and left to rot for entropy”

He could hear the rhythm of her heartbeat, slowly mingling with his own, achieving a strange resonance, beating as one.

“Harry, we all were transmitted with her. Our last evening, yesterday was very real. As the Nemesis struck the world, standing on that hillside, we witnessed ourselves escaping our primitive 3-dimensional bodies. We are her. She is the protective cocoon that surrounded us all these while. There is no me or you, we all are information arranged in certain ways. ”

We are a ray of radiation that is speeding through the voids of the cosmos. Harry thought, but he was surprised by the peculiar calmness by which his body reacted to that violent thought that would have otherwise given him an anxiety attack, and would have shaken his very being of existence. Then he realized — he didn’t have a body.

All the biological reactions he has been going through were memories from a time when he had a body.

But it was quite a conundrum for him that why she was able to recollect all this and he wasn’t.

“Because being in the form of abstract information, remembering these things serves my purpose and not yours”. Evelyn replied, lying on his chest, as if she had heard his thoughts. Again.

“See, we don’t even need to have this conversation. All information is within us, arranged in all the countless ways possible”. She continued.

This time, Evelyn didn’t even have to physically speak. He could hear her crisp and clear, inside his head.

“Where are we now?” He asked inside his head.

“We are everywhere. We are in Hyperspace”

“When are we?” He asked again.

“Being in hyperspace, time doesn’t make sense to us. I will have to say, we are at every instance of the universe throughout its chronology. In every clock tick in every snapshot of history. Don’t force yourself to think of time as linear. That was a limitation imposed by our primitive human brain. Our brain used time to index and store information. For us, everything was yesterday, today or tomorrow. That distinction was an illusion. It was merely a mechanism to store more data more efficiently within us so that we could better fare as a species whose only concern was about the 3 dimensions it was trapped in.”

“We don’t experience time now?”

“Remember the story about the photon I once told you when we were cuddling in our cosy cabin in Iceland after skiing in the snow for hours? We are just like a photon.”

Harry could remember. A photon doesn’t experience time. For it, the big bang and the heat death of the universe and everything in between is instantaneous. So just like that, both he and Evelyn were sort of like everywhere, every time.

“How long have we been beaming?”

“Time doesn’t make sense at these scales Harry. But if it makes you feel any good, then, I would say, at least a trillion trillion trillion years, and we have been talking all this while”

“So this is indeed the afterlife. And you seem you seem to have all the knowledge to seemingly answer all the questions I had and all the questions I will ever have. Are you…?”

Evelyn cut him off with her chuckle. She raised her head from his chest and cupped his face between her palms and gently kissed his lips. He could feel her warm breath on his face. “I am not your god you idiot. I am the silly girl that fell in love with you and ran away with you to watch the end of the world together”. She kissed him again passionately.” Do I feel real now?”

“Come on. Let’s get back inside.” She stood up, tightened the sweater around her, and extended her arms towards him. He took her hand and stood up. Both of them walked back to their cabin on the hillside.

“We all are accumulated information, Harry. That’s all we ever were. We are scattered information tending towards symmetry. Each of us plays our own roles in the chronicle of the universe, with the information contained in us. Thermodynamically, as the universe tends towards entropy, or total disorder, what life has been doing all this while is acting against that entropy. Whatever life ever has touched, we were like an infection. We create monuments from stones that would have otherwise been scattered across space and time; we encode information in miraculous degrees of cohesion as genetic information to pass it along to future generations. We print books with huge volumes of encoded information. We created the internet to store humongous amounts of data from various ages. Whatever we have ever touched, order and structure followed. It is not the trait of the universe. Universe is supposed to tend towards total disorder, and Life is an act that goes against that concept of disorder. Like an unbalanced equation”

“What’s our purpose, Evelyn”? Harry asked. “To be trapped in this torturing nothingness for the whole eternity?”

“Harry, before our species went extinct, efforts were underway to find the grand unification theory. To find a single framework, a master equation that could explain all the events of the universe. Our species spent centuries formulating one. With Newton, with Hawking, and with Einstein. The holy grail of physics. It was the noblest quest of all times. But every time, it failed because there was always an anomaly that yielded meaningless infinities when the equations were tested. Like something was still missing. A rogue hidden variable. Our species was extinct before we could sort it out. ”

Harry and Evelyn sat in front of their cabin. The firewood was still smouldering in the fire pit and both of them sat nearby the fire. The heat from the pit provided a blanket of comfort from the drab weather outside. Harry had no more questions. He was determined to listen to whatever Evelyn would say. He had always loved the way she explained science. With her, he always felt home.

“Just like I said, we are information, Harry. We both are two quite relevant accumulation of information. There is a symmetry out there — a symmetry visible in all the equations man has ever been able to sort out when he arranged pieces of knowledge together in specific ways using his intelligence. The complicated hidden order in the chaos. As the complexity of that particular pattern was beyond our intellectual level of understanding when we were humans, the symmetry is practically invisible to us. The beautiful hidden symmetry all physicists in the world would be happy to call “God”. We are parts of that symmetry — which is a complicated web of information. We complete the symmetry. Just think of it like we are the two missing pages of an important book. Without these pages, the theory is incomplete”

“And what happens when we do that? When we complete the symmetry?”

“You won’t even understand even if I told you that. It’s a spectacle that only you will witness. Not me.”

“Why not Evelyn?” Harry asked, confused. “I thought we would be together forever”

Evelyn smiled. “Do you know why they were not able to unify the theory? “She asked.


“You are the collection of information that represents the anomaly, Harry. They haven’t been able to solve the theory of everything because of you. I have access to all the knowledge in the world, in cosmic scales that you won’t be able to comprehend using your pattern of the neo-mammalian brain. I know the position and momentum of every atom in the Universe. I can put it together in any number of infinite ways and process it as I see fit. Think of me like a computer with infinite processing power which can see and brute-force all the data present in the universe into all its states in no time. I can see all the permutations of every atom in the universe arranged into information in every possible way — giving me access to what we used to call past, present and future — except yours. It is only you and your purpose I haven’t yet been able to comprehend. It seems that my purpose was to just seek you out and complete you. Not to comprehend you”.

Sitting there in front of the cabin in the lonely hillside, Harry looked up to the starry night. Out there, he and Evelyn were beaming out, embraced in an eternal journey across the cosmos, across all space and all time, in search for their end.

“We meeting up in that remote Icelandic village was an event with a high probability. You could say that we were destined to meet.” Evelyn said. “My entire life, I have been searching for this anomaly. Now as all things end, and with the last proton decaying away, as the universe becomes nothing more than a sea of photons tending towards the same temperature, I can see what is in place and what is not. It is you”.

“What do you mean, I am an anomaly Evelyn? That you can’t make sense of the information present within me?”

“Yes. No matter how many times I tried, I can’t” .Evelyn replied. “So all I have is a best guess. My last guess. The very last way I can piece together this knowledge. The last of all combinations. I take it that all I am supposed to do is compute all these information and arrive at this conclusion. Once I give you that, I guess, I will be gone”.

Harry’s heart gave him a jolt. “Gone where Evelyn? This is eternity, remember?

“Harry, entropy is not complete because we both are still structured information present within this universe. Once I provide you with the data that completes you, I will drift away into nothingness. I don’t have any more purpose to serve. I remember this. Like a memory from beyond infinite cycles of calculations. I was like you; there was someone else to guide me…Before our universe existed. Before the big bang and the first epoch. I can’t seem to remember much”.

Before what?

“Harry. Here is the final result of my calculations. My last computation. My guess. The last piece of information I can ever give you.”

“And after that?”

“Once you have that, I will wither away and both you and I will be complete”

Harry looked at her. He felt like he wasn’t talking to Evelyn anymore.

“Are you the girl I loved?”. He asked. The flickering fire from the pit was illuminating her face with godly grace. Her beautiful face reflected her sadness. He could say that whatever part of Evelyn that was left in her, was in deep pain.

“I am. And I am also much more than that. And I love you too.” She replied, looking at him.

Their eyes locked for a little while as both of them acknowledged the difficult truth. Their time together has come to an end.

Harry nodded, giving her the silent permission to provide him with the last piece of knowledge.

The very last piece of ordered information before the heat death of the universe.

Evelyn lowered her eyes, and with extreme sadness, she continued. “Contained within you is the wave function of an entire universe, bit not this world. You are the origin point of something else. All the information and symmetry variables required for the next epoch. Can’t you see it, Harry? The nature of intelligence. It builds up like bubbles in a pond. All the intelligence in the universe merged together. It is me and you. Encoded within you is the wave function of an entire universe, pulsating towards its last collapse, the final symmetry breaking to yield the one single outcome.”

As Evelyn passed that knowledge to him, Harry knew that it was with her dying breath. Her purpose was served. She had calculated the last combination, yielding the last result, a process in which she removed herself from the equation. Something clicked inside him too. It felt like a rush of energy surging through his entire body.

She stood there, In front of the cabin, by the flickering fire. Her watery eyes had overflown and had messed up her mascara.

This is goodbye. Both of them knew. Her existence had became meaningless. She hugged him one last time. The consciousness of the dead girl he loved reached back to him from beyond an infinity of years, from beyond the veil of the very last pieces of ordered data, to bid him farewell.

The next instant, she turned into a silhouette and then disappeared into the blackness of the night…

His heart burst. The last piece of coherent ordered information that belonged to this universe- that was her- she is gone. The love of his life. She is gone.

As he looked up at the sky one last time, the stars had started to flicker out and fade. The hills in the distance too started to fade away and the snow melted into nothingness as the cocoon that protected him through his trillions of years of cosmic journey was separated off him. The distant memory of his last week with the girl of his dreams shattered into a million pieces. A memory from trillions and trillions of years ago.

As Evelyn melted away into chaos, entropy had completed its journey. The universe couldn’t get more disordered. Temperature cooled down to absolute zero as time became meaningless.

The memories of her that existed within him finally vanished away into the chaos.

The evidence of all things that had ever existed was transformed irreversibly into disordered data.

The universe was lost forever to an incurable cosmic Alzheimer’s.

In the next timeless interval, through the hyperspace, a beam of photons projected into the cold, drab and lifeless universe.

At the edge of the unfathomable infinite and at the upper limit of all things computable, the beam hit something like an invisible wall.

Then, from an infinitely small singularity, a ball of fire started expanding out as a dense cloud of Quark-Gluon plasma, carefully governed by the fine-tuned constants consisted within him- the leftover data of the previous universe. It was like arranging the greatest computer program of the entire universe and executing it. From his wave function, new symmetries started to emerge. As the plasma condensed, the primordial first epoch ticked. The photons broke free and-


— — — — — — — — — — — -


Indistinguishable from magic: Convergence of AI and Biology.

Edition #5

Singularity shots is a roundup of beautifully curated notes about science, technology, and all the mesmerizing things indistinguishable from magic. Delivered as 2-minute shots, every 2 days, because we know you are busy. Read on and subscribe as we dissect the world, unfold ancient code and walk you towards wisdom. We read through hundreds of articles each day and find you these treasures and write about them as these small shots so that you always have something awesome to read when you are in the subway, getting comfy in the bed for lights-out, or riding in an Uber.  

If you love it, forward it to a friend. If you hate it, well, anyway, forward it to an enemy.

I know that our brains are hardwired to listen to stories. So obviously, it is better to talk about the most important discoveries of our lifetime as stories;  instead of boring seminars. This is what this newsletter intends to do; tell stories that inspire awe and attract more people towards that path of knowledge.

I am really sorry for delaying this edition. Had to deal with some private problems in my life. Life doesn't seem to spare anyone. However, I am back !

Did you know?

The story of NeuraLink.

The World is already spooked about AI. Every blogger out there is taking to social media, guns blazing, spitting out verbal diarrhea of Tech Jargon- about an imminent AI apocalypse. They mix right proportions of Issac Asimov, Cyberpunk and a tinge of actual science to immerse their readers into a clickbait driven narrative- mostly a reiteration of what James Cameron told about SkyNet back in 1984. Believe me, I totally agree that we are moving towards a world run awash by Surveillance Capitalism as in Jonah Nolan's much critically acclaimed "Person of interest", but I don't really think we would soon be overrun by our robot overlords.

But things are changing rapidly. Enter Elon Musk's underground startup - Neuralink. The company philosophy stems from a fundamental question - if AI is such an existential threat, why can't we mingle AI with our brain, in such ways as AI serves just like a layer of Human brain - for doing things we are not really good at - Augmenting our already existing neural structure - making us SuperHuman, and thus enslaving AI instead of the other way around. The premise of NeuraLink deserves a whole series of articles about Brain-Computer interfaces, which I would obviously be starting in a few editions, but the idea is this - insert electrodes into few portions of the brain, as a mean to read and insert data. As dangerous as it sounds, the technology is still in its infancy, but it's definitely catching up. e

Elon Musk is convinced that the long-term progress of AI (and robotics) are a risk for humanity. Long down the road, AIs will become more intelligent than humans and so they can take possession of the whole planet, dominate humans or even eliminate them.

He thinks that a smart way to solve this Terminator-scenario is that we don’t see ourselves as an alternative to AI, but that we blend with it. If we will be able to let AI become an additional part of the brain, AI can’t dominate us, because it will be part of us, it will be like an additional layer of our brain.

His vision is that we will become Superhumans: when we will have to think about how to play chess, we will trigger automatically the AI-layer and see what will be the best move, but we will still be able to use other parts of the brain to love other people or to enjoy watching cat videos on Youtube.


Editing the operating system of life : #4

So last week, we discussed how scientists found out that bacteria were using CRISPR as a weapon against the invading viruses- as an ancient and efficient line of defense.

So there were these CRISPR sequences, and then there were these Cas9 enzymes. As a Viral agent attacks the bacteria, these Cas9 enzymes grab strands of Viral DNA, break them down and stores it in their spacers. So these spacers are like their cheat sheets, each spacer contains one unique signature that represents a viral DNA strand and it can be used as a database to identify and deactivate whenever other similar attacks happen again. The "How" of this mechanism is a subject for the next edition.

With Love,

Ashif Shereef.

Last week, the Earth was under the attack of a mysterious Nebula.

Edition #4

Singularity shots is a roundup of beautifully curated notes about science, technology, and all the mesmerizing things indistinguishable from magic. Delivered as 2-minute shots, every 2 days, because we know you are busy. Read on and subscribe as we dissect the world, unfold ancient code and walk you towards wisdom. We read through hundreds of articles each day and find you these treasures and write about them as these small shots so that you always have something awesome to read when you are in the subway, getting comfy in the bed for lights-out, or riding in an Uber.  

If you love it, forward it to a friend. If you hate it, well, anyway, forward it to an enemy.

I know that our brains are hardwired to listen to stories. So obviously, it is better to talk about the most important discoveries of our lifetime as stories;  instead of boring seminars. This is what this newsletter intends to do; tell stories that inspire awe and attract more people towards that path of knowledge.

Did you know?

Last week, the Earth was under the attack of a mysterious Nebula.

Our story begins in 1054 AD, across the Mediterranean, when two churches started a violent confrontation across the European continent that would last almost 10 centuries. The Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches excommunicated each other, creating what came to be known as the great schism. At the same time, in Europe, the Battle of Mortemer is being fought. Proper parallel to that, the Chinese, the Arabs in Baghdad, and possibly the native Americans in Arizona, observed a bright light, a new "guest star" that wasn't even there before, in their skies above the southern horn of the constellation Taurus - that would burn bright for 23 days, shining brighter than 400 Million suns at a far distance and would then fade, and then would completely disappear in 2 years.

In two separate accounts, Chinese astronomers described the star as having pointed rays in all four directions and a reddish-white color.

The native Americans in northern Arizona, however, may have been so inspired by the event that they drew pictures of it. Two pictographs have been found, one in a cave at White Mesa and the other on a wall of Navajo Canyon. Both show a crescent moon with a large star nearby. Scientists have calculated that on the morning of July 5, 1054, the Moon was located just 2 degrees north of the Crab Nebula's current position.

Little did they knew that what they were witnessing was a stellar explosion, known as "Supernova" - the death of a star- that occurred almost 5000 Years ago - that is almost 3000 years before the Birth of Jesus Christ, most probably in Mankind's bronze age. The light of the explosion traveled an average distance of 4200 light years, and during its journey, 4200 years passed. Christ was born, crucified and had risen and then a 1000 years had passed.

This light was noticed as the "bright Guest star" in 1054 AD.

After a few centuries, it was deduced that it was indeed a star that had exploded in the Perseus Arm of the Milky Way galaxy and a cloud of remnants was observed around 1942. It was later discovered that there was a neutron star hidden inside the gas cloud, and it was spinning rapidly, in orders of 30 rotations per second, throwing massive shock waves and electromagnetic waves all around.

Last week, on the scientific observatory atop the Tibetan plateau, one of the most isolated parts of the world, scientists detected a shower of high energy photons that originated from the Crab Nebula. The plateau is called the roof of the world; bordered by the highest mountain ranges to the south and arid desert lands to the North. in the 1990s, scientists built an observatory there to study showers of subatomic particles that rain down from the upper atmosphere whenever it is hit by a high-energy cosmic ray. The high-altitude observatory suited the experiment because, at such high altitudes, there is less atmosphere to absorb the particles.

Last week, for the first time in the history of astrophysics, scientists in the Tibet Air Shower Gamma Collaboration say they have observed photons with energies above 100 TeV for the first time, including a remarkable photon with an energy of almost 500 TeV. This single photon has about the same energy as a falling Ping-Pong ball and is the highest-energy photon ever recorded. Note that we are talking about a microscopic particle causing a macroscopic impact.

By comparison, the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, has a collision energy of 14 TeV.

It is quite mind-blowing to know that these high energy photons were in transit towards the earth all these 6500 years, while hundreds of Abrahamic religions rose and fell, thousands of battles have been fought and the ancient world decomposed to give rise to a modern world capable of building scientific equipment that could convert the Miracle of 1054 AD into a scientific event from which detailed insights could be drawn about the birth of the Universe.


Editing the operating system of life : #3

Recap: Last week, we discussed how a few scientists of Osaka University in Japan found a mysterious palindromic genetic sequence in an E. coli bacteria and found them to be equipped with high precision molecular scissors. You can read the edition here:

So, the CRISPR sequence looked like the following.

{ I am sorry it doesn’t look appealing and is less detailed. Just before sending the newsletter this week, I re-read and thought I had to include some rudimentary images for the sake of understanding, so I had to draw it myself in MS paint. I hope you already have an idea how painful it is }

The Repeat sequences were all identical, made up of the same 29 bases, but the 32-base spacers in between were different from each other.

Almost three years later, a revelation came from three sets of scientists working independently on CRISPR. The CRISPR spacers had suddenly looked a lot like DNA of viruses; so the million Dollar question arose. Somehow, the spacers contained remnants of DNA from viruses. How the hell did a bacterium hold a piece of Viral DNA?

Then the whole thing clicked.

Suddenly the world was thrown into the midst of a biological warfare that has been going on for millenniums. The way between viruses and bacteria. As long as we know, before even human species was even born, a full-flung war has been happening between bacteria and Viruses. Over the ages, bacteria had developed several lines of defense against the invading viruses; but new and new kinds of viral attack vectors gradually evolved and the war seemed all but endless.

Strangely, nature found a way to bring balance into chaos. A brand new kind of defense mechanism was noticed by scientists that blew them away.

Bacteria were using CRISPR as a weapon against the invading viruses. The "how" will be explained in the next edition. Stay tuned!

With Love,

Ashif Shereef.

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