Sunday, March 31, 2024

Lessons from sports psychology research


Scientists are probing the head games that influence athletic performance, from coaching to coping with pressure

Since the early years of this century, it has been commonplace for computerized analyses of athletic statistics to guide a baseball manager’s choice of pinch hitter, a football coach’s decision to punt or pass, or a basketball team’s debate over whether to trade a star player for a draft pick.

But many sports experts who actually watch the games know that the secret to success is not solely in computer databases, but also inside the players’ heads. So perhaps psychologists can offer as much insight into athletic achievement as statistics gurus do.

Sports psychology has, after all, been around a lot longer than computer analytics. Psychological studies of sports appeared as early as the late 19th century. During the 1970s and ’80s, sports psychology became a fertile research field. And within the last decade or so, sports psychology research has exploded, as scientists have explored the nuances of everything from the pursuit of perfection to the harms of abusive coaching.

“Sport pervades cultures, continents, and indeed many facets of daily life,” write Mark Beauchamp, Alan Kingstone and Nikos Ntoumanis, authors of an overview of sports psychology research in the 2023 Annual Review of Psychology.

Their review surveys findings from nearly 150 papers investigating various psychological influences on athletic performance and success. “This body of work sheds light on the diverse ways in which psychological processes contribute to athletic strivings,” the authors write. Such research has the potential not only to enhance athletic performance, they say, but also to provide insights into psychological influences on success in other realms, from education to the military. Psychological knowledge can aid competitive performance under pressure, help evaluate the benefit of pursuing perfection and assess the pluses and minuses of high self-confidence.

Confidence and choking

In sports, high self-confidence (technical term: elevated self-efficacy belief) is generally considered to be a plus. As baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan once said, “You have to have a lot of confidence to be successful in this game.” Many a baseball manager would agree that a batter who lacks confidence against a given pitcher is unlikely to get to first base.

Various studies suggest that self-talk can increase confidence, enhance focus, control emotions and initiate effective actions.

And in fact, a lot of psychological research actually supports that view, suggesting that encouraging self-confidence is a beneficial strategy. Yet while confident athletes do seem to perform better than those afflicted with self-doubt, some studies hint that for a given player, excessive confidence can be detrimental. Artificially inflated confidence, unchecked by honest feedback, may cause players to “fail to allocate sufficient resources based on their overestimated sense of their capabilities,” Beauchamp and colleagues write. In other words, overconfidence may result in underachievement.

Other work shows that high confidence is usually most useful in the most challenging situations (such as attempting a 60-yard field goal), while not helping as much for simpler tasks (like kicking an extra point).

Of course, the ease of kicking either a long field goal or an extra point depends a lot on the stress of the situation. With time running out and the game on the line, a routine play can become an anxiety-inducing trial by fire. Psychological research, Beauchamp and coauthors report, has clearly established that athletes often exhibit “impaired performance under pressure-invoking situations” (technical term: “choking”).

In general, stress impairs not only the guidance of movements but also perceptual ability and decision-making. On the other hand, it’s also true that certain elite athletes perform best under high stress. “There is also insightful evidence that some of the most successful performers actually seek out, and thrive on, anxiety-invoking contexts offered by high-pressure sport,” the authors note. Just ask Michael Jordan or LeBron James.

Many studies have investigated the psychological coping strategies that athletes use to maintain focus and ignore distractions in high-pressure situations. One popular method is a technique known as the “quiet eye.” A basketball player attempting a free throw is typically more likely to make it by maintaining “a longer and steadier gaze” at the basket before shooting, studies have demonstrated.

“In a recent systematic review of interventions designed to alleviate so-called choking, quiet-eye training was identified as being among the most effective approaches,” Beachamp and coauthors write.

Another common stress-coping method is “self-talk,” in which players utter instructional or motivational phrases to themselves in order to boost performance. Saying “I can do it” or “I feel good” can self-motivate a marathon runner, for example. Saying “eye on the ball” might help a baseball batter get a hit.

Researchers have found moderate benefits of self-talk strategies for both novices and experienced athletes, Beauchamp and colleagues report. Various studies suggest that self-talk can increase confidence, enhance focus, control emotions and initiate effective actions.

Moderate performance benefits have also been reported for other techniques for countering stress, such as biofeedback, and possibly meditation and relaxation training.

“It appears that stress regulation interventions represent a promising means of supporting athletes when confronted with performance-related stressors,” Beauchamp and coauthors conclude.

Pursuing athletic perfection

Of course, sports psychology encompasses many other issues besides influencing confidence and coping with pressure. Many athletes set a goal of attaining perfection, for example, but such striving can induce detrimental psychological pressures. One analysis found that athletes pursuing purely personal high standards generally achieved superior performance. But when perfectionism was motivated by fear of criticism from others, performance suffered.

Similarly, while some coaching strategies can aid a player’s performance, several studies have shown that abusive coaching can detract from performance, even for the rest of an athlete’s career.

Beauchamp and his collaborators conclude that a large suite of psychological factors and strategies can aid athletic success. And these factors may well be applicable to other areas of human endeavor where choking can impair performance (say, while performing brain surgery or flying a fighter jet).

But the authors also point out that researchers shouldn’t neglect the need to consider that in sports, performance is also affected by the adversarial nature of competition. A pitcher’s psychological strategies that are effective against most hitters might not fare so well against Shohei Ohtani, for instance.

Besides that, sports psychology studies (much like computer-based analytics) rely on statistics. As Adolphe Quetelet, a pioneer of social statistics, emphasized in the 19th century, statistics do not define any individual — average life expectancy cannot tell you when any given person will die. On the other hand, he noted, no single exceptional case invalidates the general conclusions from sound statistical analysis.

Sports are, in fact, all about the quest of the individual (or a team) to defeat the opposition. Success often requires defying the odds — which is why gambling on athletic events is such a big business. Sports consist of contests between the averages and the exceptions, and neither computer analytics nor psychological science can tell you in advance who is going to win. That’s why they play the games.

Knowable 

Monday, March 25, 2024

An eclipse for everyone – how visually impaired students can ‘get a feel for’ eclipses

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A solar eclipse approaching totality. AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File
Cassandra Runyon, College of Charleston and David Hurd, Pennsylvania Western University

Many people in the U.S. will have an opportunity to witness nearly four minutes of a total solar eclipse on Monday, April 8, 2024, as it moves from southern Texas to Maine. But in the U.S., over 7 million people are blind or visually impaired and may not be able to experience an eclipse the traditional way.

Of course they, like those with sight, will feel colder as the Sun’s light is shaded, and will hear the songs and sounds of birds and insects change as the light dims and brightens. But much of an eclipse is visual.

We are a planetary scientist and an astronomer who, with funding and support from NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, have created and published a set of tactile graphics, or graphics with raised and textured elements, on the 2024 total solar eclipse.

The guide, called “Getting a Feel for Eclipses,” illustrates the paths of the 2017 total, 2023 annular and 2024 total solar eclipses. In a total eclipse, the Moon fully blocks the Sun from Earth view, while during an annular eclipse, a narrow ring of sunlight can be seen encircling the Moon.

The tactile graphics and associated online content detail the specific alignment of the Earth, Moon and Sun under which eclipses occur.

To date, we have distributed almost 11,000 copies of this book to schools for the blind, state and local libraries, the Library of Congress and more.

A map of the US with three curved lines stretching across, indicating the eclipses of 2024, 2023 and 2017.
‘The Getting A Feel for Eclipses’ guide helps blind and visually impaired people learn about the eclipse. NASA SSERVI

Why publish a tactile book on eclipses?

NASA has lots of explanatory material that helps people visualize and understand rare phenomena like eclipses. But for people with visual impairments, maps and images don’t help. For tactile readers, their sense of touch is their vision. That’s where this guide and our other tactile books come in.

Over 65,000 students in the U.S. are blind or visually impaired. After working with several of our students who are totally blind, we wanted to find out how to make events like eclipses as powerful for these students as they are for us. We also wanted to help our students visualize and understand the concept of an eclipse.

These aims resulted in the three tactile graphics, which are physical sheets with textures and raised surfaces that can be interpreted through touch, as well as online content.

The first tactile graphic models the alignment of the Earth, Moon and Sun. The second illustrates the phases of an eclipse as the Moon moves in between the Earth and Sun to full totality, and then out of the way. The third includes a map of the continental U.S. that illustrates the paths of three eclipses: the Aug. 21, 2017, total eclipse, the Oct. 14, 2023, annular eclipse and the Apr. 8, 2024, total eclipse. We used different textures to illustrate these concepts.

Each book includes a QR code on the front cover, outlined by a raised square boundary. The code links to an online guide that leads the user through the content behind the graphics while also providing background information. With the online content, users may opt to print the information in large font or have it read to them by a device.

Although initially created to assist visually impaired audiences, these books are still helpful resources for those with sight. Some students can see but might learn better when able to explore the tactile parts of the guide while listening to the audio. Often it’s helpful for students to get the same information presented in different styles, with options to read or have the content information read to them.

A sheet of paper with raised textures labeled Sun, Umbra, Moon and Totality, with three students touching the textures.
Students at Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine explore tactiles 1 and 2. Florida School for the Deaf and Blind

How are the books made?

We hand-make each book starting by identifying which science concepts the user will likely want to know, and which illustrations can support those concepts.

Once identified, the next step is to create a tactile master, or model, which has one or more raised textures that help to define the science concepts. We pick a set of unique textures to use on the master to signify different items, so the Sun feels different than the Earth. This way, the textures of the graphics become part of the story being shared.

For example, in a model of the Sun’s surface, we use Spanish moss to create the dynamic texture of the Sun. In past projects, we’ve used textures like doll hair, sand and differently textured cardboard to illustrate planet features, instruments on spacecraft, fine surface features and more. Then, we add Braille labels for figure titles, key features and specific notes.

A circle filled with moss.
The tactile master – Spanish moss – used for the Sun. Cassandra Runyon

Once we’ve finished making the masters and laying out each page, a small family print shop – McCarty Printing in Erie, Pennsylvania – prints the page titles and key feature labels on Brailon, a type of plastic paper.

Once printed, we place the masters and the Brailon sheets on a thermoform Machine, which heats up the sheets and creates a vacuum that forms the final tactile graphics. Then, we return the pages to McCarty Printing for binding.

Viewing and experiencing the eclipse

Like fully sighted people, people with partial vision should avoid looking directly at the Sun. Instead, everyone should use eclipse glasses. If you don’t have eclipse glasses, you can use an indirect viewing method such as a colander or pinhole projector.

As the eclipse approaches totality, take time to enjoy your surroundings, feel the changes in temperature and light, and note how the animals around you react to the remarkable event using another of your senses – sound.

Cassandra Runyon, Professor of Geology & Environmental Geosciences, College of Charleston and David Hurd, Professor of Geosciences, Pennsylvania Western University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Total solar eclipses, while stunning, can damage your eyes if viewed without the right protection

Solar eclipses don’t come around often, but make sure to view these rare events with eclipse glasses to protect your vision. AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Geoffrey Bradford, West Virginia University

On April 8, 2024, and for the second time in the past decade, people in the U.S. will have an opportunity to view a total solar eclipse. But to do so safely, you’ll need to wear proper protection, or risk eye damage.

Earth is the only planet in our solar system where solar eclipses can occur. During these celestial events, the Moon passes between our planet and the Sun, blocking the Sun and casting a shadow over the Earth. Total eclipses rarely happen multiple times in the same region of a country during one’s lifetime.

The path of totality for this spring’s eclipse, where you can view the total eclipse, will extend over a 100-mile path that crosses through Mexico, Texas, New England and eastern Canada.

Those in the path of totality will have the opportunity to see a total solar eclipse this April.

As excitement for the celestial show grows across the country, hotels in the path of totality have been booked up by eclipse enthusiasts. Museums and schools have planned viewing events, and researchers have developed technology for the visually impaired and those with hearing loss so more people have the opportunity to experience the eclipse.

Seeing an eclipse is a rare and special opportunity, but as an ophthalmologist, I know that looking directly at the Sun, even for a few moments, can severely damage your eyes. With a few easy precautions, eclipse viewers can protect themselves from severe and irreparable eye damage and vision loss.

Safe eclipse viewing

This year’s eclipse will unfold over a 75-minute period, from the moment the Moon starts to partially block the Sun until it completely moves away from it again.

During the partial eclipse period, when the Moon is partly blocking the Sun, you should never look directly at the Sun nor through binoculars, cameras or cellphones. Sunglasses, photographic filters, exposed color film and welding glasses will dim the sunlight, but these items do not prevent eye damage from the Sun’s very intense light rays.

Only solar eclipse glasses with filters designed specifically for observing the partial eclipse are safe to use. They are easily available from a variety of sources, and you can wear them by themselves or over your glasses or contact lenses.

Keep in mind that these safety filters will permit you to view only the eclipse, as they blacken out everything around you but the Sun itself. Before purchasing a pair, make sure your eclipse glasses are approved by the ISO 12312-2 international standard.

Only during its period of totality, the time when the Sun is fully behind the Moon, is it safe to remove your filtered glasses – and then only with caution.

This year, totality will last an unusually long four and a half minutes. If you leave your eclipse glasses on, you will miss seeing the Sun’s bright ring, or corona, behind the Moon. But then, as the Moon moves on, the sky will brighten and you’ll need to put the eclipse glasses back on.

Eyes and light

While the pupils of our eyes naturally constrict to limit bright light, and our eyes have pigments to absorb light, direct sunlight overwhelms these functions. Even viewing the Sun for a few brief moments can cause permanent vision loss.

The Sun emits intense ultraviolet and infrared light, which, while not visible to the human eye, can burn sensitive ocular tissues, such as the cornea and retina.

A diagram of an eye as viewed from the side.
The cornea is the clear front surface of the eye, which lets light in. The retina is the inner lining of the back part of the eye, which sends signals to your brain, allowing you to see. American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus

Corneal damage from sunlight, called solar keratosis, can blur vision and be quite painful. While the cornea can heal itself, it may require several days to get better and lead to lost time at work or school.

Retinal damage, called solar retinopathy, occurs inside the eye. While it isn’t painful, it can be more severe than corneal damage and can dramatically impair vision. Solar retinopathy symptoms include a blind spot in one’s central vision, visual distortions and altered color vision.

In mild cases, these symptoms may go away, but in more severe cases, and even with treatment, they may become permanent.

To both enjoy the eclipse and prevent eye damage, make sure you and your loved ones all view the event with strict proper precautions.The Conversation

Geoffrey Bradford, Professor of Pediatrics and Ophthalmology, West Virginia University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Making sense of many universes

The idea of a multiverse — multiple realms of space differing in basic properties of physics — bugs some scientists. Others find it a real possibility that should not be ignored.

Almost anybody who has ever thought deeply about the universe sooner or later wonders if there is more than one of them. Whether a multiplicity of universes — known as a multiverse — actually exists has been a contentious issue since ancient times. Greek philosophers who believed in atoms, such as Democritus, proposed the existence of an infinite number of universes. But Aristotle disagreed, insisting that there could be only one.

Today a similar debate rages over whether multiple universes exist. In recent decades, advances in cosmology have implied (but not proved) the existence of a multiverse. In particular, a theory called inflation suggests that in the instant after the Big Bang, space inflated rapidly for a brief time and then expanded more slowly, creating the vast bubble of space in which the Earth, sun, Milky Way galaxy and billions of other galaxies reside today. If this inflationary cosmology theory is correct, similar big bangs occurred many times, creating numerous other bubbles of space like our universe.

Properties such as the mass of basic particles and the strength of fundamental forces may differ from bubble to bubble. In that case, the popular goal pursued by many physicists of finding a single theory that prescribes all of nature’s properties may be in vain. Instead, a multiverse may offer various locales, some more hospitable to life than others. Our universe must be a bubble with the right combination of features to create an environment suitable for life, a requirement known as the anthropic principle.

But many scientists object to the idea of the multiverse and the anthropic reasoning it enables. Some even contend that studying the multiverse doesn’t count as science. One physicist who affirms that the multiverse is a proper subject for scientific investigation is John Donoghue of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

As Donoghue points out in the 2016 Annual Review of Nuclear and Particle Science, the Standard Model of Particle Physics — the theory describing the behavior of all of nature’s basic particles and forces — does not specify all of the universe’s properties. Many important features of nature, such as the masses of the particles and strengths of the forces, cannot be calculated from the theory’s equations. Instead they must be measured. It’s possible that in other bubbles, or even in distant realms within our bubble but beyond the reach of our telescopes, those properties might be different.

Maybe some future theory will show why nature is the way it is, Donoghue says, but maybe reality does encompass multiple possibilities. The true theory describing nature might permit many stable “ground states,” corresponding to the different cosmic bubbles or distant realms of space with different physical features. A multiverse of realms with different ground states would support the view that the universe’s habitability can be explained by the anthropic principle — we live in the realm where conditions are suitable — and not by a single theory that specifies the same properties everywhere.

Knowable Magazine quizzed Donoghue about the meaning of the multiverse, the issues surrounding anthropic reasoning and the argument that the idea of a multiverse is not scientific. His answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you explain just what you mean by multiverse?

For me, at least, the multiverse is the idea that physically out there, beyond where we can see, there are portions of the universe that have different properties than we see locally. We know the universe is bigger than we can see. We don’t know how much bigger. So the question is, is it the same everywhere as you go out or is it different?

If there is a multiverse, is the key point not just the existence of different realms, but that they differ in their properties in important ways?

If it’s just the same all the way out, then the multiverse is not relevant. The standard expectation is that aside from random details — like here’s a galaxy, there’s a galaxy, here’s empty space — that it’s more or less uniform everywhere in the greater universe. And that would happen if you have a theory like the Standard Model where there’s basically just one possible way that the model looks. It looks the same everywhere. It couldn’t be different.

Isn’t that what most physicists would hope for?

Probably literally everyone’s hope is that we would someday find a theory and all of a sudden everything would become clear — there would be one unique possibility, it would be tied up, there would be no choice but this was the theory. Everyone would love that.

But the Standard Model does not actually specify all the numbers describing the properties of nature, right?

The structure of the Standard Model is fixed by a symmetry principle. That’s the beautiful part. But within that structure there’s freedom to choose various quantities like the masses of the particles and the charges, and these are the parameters of the theory. These are numbers that are not predicted by the theory. We’ve gone out and we’ve measured them. We would like eventually that those are predicted by some other theory. But that’s the question, whether they are predicted or whether they are in some sense random choices in a multiverse.

The example I use in the paper is the distance from the Earth to the sun. If you were studying the solar system, you’d see various regularities and a symmetry, a spherically symmetrical force. The fact that the force goes like 1 over the radius squared is a consequence of the underlying theory. So you might say, well, I want to predict the radius of the Earth. And Kepler tried to do this and came up with a very nice geometric construction, which almost worked. But now we know that this is not something fundamental — it’s an accident of the history. The same laws that give our solar system with one Earth-to-sun distance will somewhere else give a different solar system with a different distance for the planets. They’re not predictable. So the physics question for us then is, are the parameters like the mass of the electron something that’s fundamentally predictable from some more fundamental theory, or is it the accident of history in our patch of the universe?

How does the possibility of a multiverse affect how we interpret the numbers in the Standard Model?

We’ve come to understand how the Standard Model produces the world. So then you could actually ask the scientific question: What if the numbers in the Standard Model were slightly different? Like the mass of the electron or the charge on the electron. One of the surprises is, if you make very modest changes in these parameters, then the world changes dramatically. Why does the electron have the mass it does? We don’t know. If you make it three times bigger, then all the atoms disappear, so the world is a very, very different place. The electrons get captured onto protons and the protons turn into neutrons, and so you end up with a very strange universe that’s very different from ours. You would not have any chance of having life in such a universe.

Are there other changes in the Standard Model numbers that would have such dramatic effects?

My own contribution here is about the Higgs field [the field that is responsible for the Higgs boson]. It has a much smaller value than its expected range within the Standard Model. But if you change it by a bit, then atoms don’t form and nuclei don’t form — again, the world changes dramatically. My collaborators and I were the ones that pointed that out.

There’s some maybe six or seven of these constraints — parameters of the Standard Model that have to be just so in order to satisfy the need for atoms, the need for stars, planets, et cetera. So about six combinations of the parameters are constrained anthropically.

By “anthropically,” you mean that these parameters are constrained to narrow values in order to have a universe where life can exist. That is an old idea known as the anthropic principle, which has historically been unpopular with many physicists.

Yes, I think almost anybody would prefer to have a well-developed theory that doesn’t have to invoke any anthropic reasoning. But nevertheless it’s possible that these types of theories occur. To not consider them would also be unscientific. So you’re forced into looking at them because we have examples where it would occur.

Historically there’s a lot of resistance to anthropic reasoning, because at least the popular explanations of it seem to get causality backwards. It was sort of saying that we [our existence] determine the parameters of the universe, and that didn’t feel right. The modern version of it, with the multiverse, is more physical in the sense that if you do have these differing domains with different parameters, we would only find ourselves in one that allows atoms and nuclei. So the causality is right. The parameters are such that we can be here. The modern view is more physical.

If there is a multiverse, then doesn’t that change some of the goals of physics, such as the search for a unified theory of everything, and require some sort of anthropic reasoning?

What we can know may depend on things that may end up being out of our reach to explore. The idea that we should be searching for a unified theory that explains all of nature may in fact be the wrong motivation. It’s certainly true that multiverse theories raise the possibility that we will never be able to answer these questions. And that’s disturbing.

Does that mean the multiverse changes some of the questions that physicists should be asking?

We certainly still should be trying to answer “how” questions about how does the W boson decay or the Higgs boson, how does it decay, to try to get our best description of nature. And we have to realize we may not be able to get the ultimate theory because we may not be able to probe enough of the universe to answer certain questions. That’s a discouraging feature. I have to admit when I first heard of anthropic reasoning in physics my stomach sank. It kills some of the things that you’d like to do.

Don’t some people even argue that though a multiverse would seem to justify anthropic reasoning, that approach should still be regarded as not scientific?

It’s one of the things that bothers me about the discussion. Just because you feel bad about the multiverse, and just because some aspects of it are beyond reach for testing, doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. So if it’s worth considering, and looking within the class of multiverse theories to see what it is that we could know, how does it change our motivations? How does it change the questions that we ask? And to say that the multiverse is not science is itself not science. You’re not allowing a particular physical type of theory, a possible physical theory, that you’re throwing out on nonscientific grounds. But it does raise long-term issues about how much we could understand about the ultimate theory when we can just look locally. It’s science, it’s sometimes a frustrating bit of science, but we have to see what ideas become fruitful and what happens.

An important part of investigating the multiverse is finding a theory that includes multiple “ground states.” What does that mean?

The ground state is the state that you get when you take all the energy out of a system. Normally if you take away all the particles, that’s your ground state — all the background fields, the things that permeate space. The ground state is described by the Standard Model. Its ground state tells you exactly what particles will look like when you put them back in; they will have certain masses and certain charges.

You could imagine that there are theories which have more than one ground state, and if you put particles in this state they look one way and if you put particles in another state they look another way — they might have different masses. The multiverse corresponds to the hypothesis that there are very many ground states, lots and lots of them, and in the bigger universe they are realized in different parts of the universe.

Even if a theory of particles and forces can accommodate multiple ground states, don’t you need a method of creating those ground states?

Two features have to happen. You have to have the possibility of multiple ground states, and then you have to have a mechanism to produce them. In our present theories, producing them is easier, because inflationary cosmology has the ability to do this. Finding theories that have enough ground states is a more difficult requirement. But that’s a science question. Is there one, is there two, is there a lot?

Superstring theory encompasses multiple ground states, described as the “string landscape.” Is that an example of the kind of theory that might imply a multiverse?

The string landscape is one of the ways we know that this [multiple ground states] is a physical possibility. You can start counting the number of states in string theory, and you get a very enormous number, 10 to the 500. So we have at least one theory that has this property of having a very large number of ground states. And there could be more. People have tried cooking up other theories that have that possibility also. So it is a physical possibility.

Don’t critics say that neither string theory nor inflationary cosmology has been definitely established?

That’s true of all theories beyond the Standard Model. None of them are established yet. So we can’t really say with any confidence that there is a multiverse. It’s a physical possibility. It may be wrong. But it still may be right.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Several companies are testing brain implants – why is there so much attention swirling around Neuralink? Two professors unpack the ethical issues

Brain-computer interfaces have the potential to transform some people’s lives, but they raise a host of ethical issues, too. Andriy Onufriyenko/Moment via Getty Images
Nancy S. Jecker, University of Washington and Andrew Ko, University of Washington

Putting a computer inside someone’s brain used to feel like the edge of science fiction. Today, it’s a reality. Academic and commercial groups are testing “brain-computer interface” devices to enable people with disabilities to function more independently. Yet Elon Musk’s company, Neuralink, has put this technology front and center in debates about safety, ethics and neuroscience.

In January 2024, Musk announced that Neuralink implanted its first chip in a human subject’s brain. The Conversation reached out to two scholars at the University of Washington School of Medicine – Nancy Jecker, a bioethicst, and Andrew Ko, a neurosurgeon who implants brain chip devices – for their thoughts on the ethics of this new horizon in neuroscience.

How does a brain chip work?

Neuralink’s coin-size device, called N1, is designed to enable patients to carry out actions just by concentrating on them, without moving their bodies.

Subjects in the company’s PRIME study – short for Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface – undergo surgery to place the device in a part of the brain that controls movement. The chip records and processes the brain’s electrical activity, then transmits this data to an external device, such as a phone or computer.

The external device “decodes” the patient’s brain activity, learning to associate certain patterns with the patient’s goal: moving a computer cursor up a screen, for example. Over time, the software can recognize a pattern of neural firing that consistently occurs while the participant is imagining that task, and then execute the task for the person.

Neuralink’s current trial is focused on helping people with paralyzed limbs control computers or smartphones. Brain-computer interfaces, commonly called BCIs, can also be used to control devices such as wheelchairs.

A few companies are testing BCIs. What’s different about Neuralink?

Noninvasive devices positioned on the outside of a person’s head have been used in clinical trials for a long time, but they have not received approval from the Food and Drug Administration for commercial development.

A young woman in a green shirt sits with a wired contraption on her head as four other people look on.
A visitor experiences a BCI system during the 2023 China International Fair for Trade in Services in Beijing. Li Xin/Xinhua via Getty Images

There are other brain-computer devices, like Neuralink’s, that are fully implanted and wireless. However, the N1 implant combines more technologies in a single device: It can target individual neurons, record from thousands of sites in the brain and recharge its small battery wirelessly. These are important advances that could produce better outcomes.

Why is Neuralink drawing criticism?

Neuralink received FDA approval for human trials in May 2023. Musk announced the company’s first human trial on his social media platform, X – formerly Twitter – in January 2024.

Information about the implant, however, is scarce, aside from a brochure aimed at recruiting trial subjects. Neuralink did not register at ClinicalTrials.gov, as is customary, and required by some academic journals.

Some scientists are troubled by this lack of transparency. Sharing information about clinical trials is important because it helps other investigators learn about areas related to their research and can improve patient care. Academic journals can also be biased toward positive results, preventing researchers from learning from unsuccessful experiments.

Fellows at the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank, have warned that Musk’s brand of “science by press release, while increasingly common, is not science.” They advise against relying on someone with a huge financial stake in a research outcome to function as the sole source of information.

When scientific research is funded by government agencies or philanthropic groups, its aim is to promote the public good. Neuralink, on the other hand, embodies a private equity model, which is becoming more common in science. Firms pooling funds from private investors to back science breakthroughs may strive to do good, but they also strive to maximize profits, which can conflict with patients’ best interests.

A phone screen shows a white page that says 'Elon Musk,' positioned below an abstract black design and the word 'NEURALINK.'
Neuralink’s first human implant was announced on Elon Musk’s social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, in January 2024. NurPhoto via Getty Images

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated animal cruelty at Neuralink, according to a Reuters report, after employees accused the company of rushing tests and botching procedures on test animals in a race for results. The agency’s inspection found no breaches, according to a letter from the USDA secretary to lawmakers, which Reuters reviewed. However, the secretary did note an “adverse surgical event” in 2019 that Neuralink had self-reported.

In a separate incident also reported by Reuters, the Department of Transportation fined Neuralink for violating rules about transporting hazardous materials, including a flammable liquid.

What other ethical issues does Neuralink’s trial raise?

When brain-computer interfaces are used to help patients who suffer from disabling conditions function more independently, such as by helping them communicate or move about, this can profoundly improve their quality of life. In particular, it helps people recover a sense of their own agency or autonomy – one of the key tenets of medical ethics.

However well-intentioned, medical interventions can produce unintended consequences. With BCIs, scientists and ethicists are particularly concerned about the potential for identity theft, password hacking and blackmail. Given how the devices access users’ thoughts, there is also the possibility that their autonomy could be manipulated by third parties.

The ethics of medicine requires physicians to help patients, while minimizing potential harm. In addition to errors and privacy risks, scientists worry about potential adverse effects of a completely implanted device like Neuralink, since device components are not easily replaced after implantation.

When considering any invasive medical intervention, patients, providers and developers seek a balance between risk and benefit. At current levels of safety and reliability, the benefit of a permanent implant would have to be large to justify the uncertain risks.

What’s next?

For now, Neuralink’s trials are focused on patients with paralysis. Musk has said his ultimate goal for BCIs, however, is to help humanity – including healthy people – “keep pace” with artificial intelligence.

This raises questions about another core tenet of medical ethics: justice. Some types of supercharged brain-computer synthesis could exacerbate social inequalities if only wealthy citizens have access to enhancements.

What is more immediately concerning, however, is the possibility that the device could be increasingly shown to be helpful for people with disabilities, but become unavailable due to loss of research funding. For patients whose access to a device is tied to a research study, the prospect of losing access after the study ends can be devastating. This raises thorny questions about whether it is ever ethical to provide early access to breakthrough medical interventions prior to their receiving full FDA approval.

Clear ethical and legal guidelines are needed to ensure the benefits that stem from scientific innovations like Neuralink’s brain chip are balanced against patient safety and societal good.The Conversation

Nancy S. Jecker, Professor of Bioethics and Humanities, School of Medicine, University of Washington and Andrew Ko, Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery, School of Medicine, University of Washington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Friday, February 16, 2024

Top science stories of 2023

Twelve standout news events and trends in a tumultuous year

As 2023 rolls to a close, Knowable Magazine has looked back over its articles and canvassed editorial committee members from the 51 academic journals — covering analytical chemistry to vision science — published by Knowable’s parent company, Annual Reviews. From good news to bad, from novel vaccines to insect invaders, this year left us with much to ponder. Here we present 12 newsworthy developments from 2023.

Jabs for hope

Hot on the heels of the Covid-19 vaccine success story (including updated jabs that target Omicron subvariants of the rapidly shifting virus), 2023 saw the greenlighting of several new vital vaccines. Abrysvo and Arexvy, the first vaccines against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a cold-like virus that can be dangerous for the old or the young, are now available in the United States and elsewhere. And the World Health Organization has recommended a second malaria vaccine, R21, following RTS,S in 2021. RTS,S has already been given to nearly 2 million children in Africa; the new vaccine is about half the price.

This double hit against malaria is a “huge win” for kids, says Matthew Laurens, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, who wrote about malaria vaccines in a 2022 opinion article for Knowable. “Like Covid-19, we need multiple malaria vaccines if we’re to succeed in combating this deadly disease.”

Scary smarts

One of the biggest newsmakers of the year was artificial intelligence (AI). San Francisco tech company OpenAI’s conversational bot ChatGPT, first launched in November 2022, was estimated to have more than 100 million monthly users by January 2023. People were simultaneously impressed and appalled by the capacity of AI based on deep learning (a technique inspired by the human brain) to write everything from poetry to class essays and research papers. “In terms of public interest, I have not seen anything like this in my 30-year career,” says Colin Phillips, a psycholinguist at the University of Maryland and co-editor of the Annual Review of Linguistics.

Rapidly improving AI has left governments, scientists and consumers alike wondering how best to harness its abilities and guard against its misuse, including the deepfakes now featuring in scams and propaganda. International leaders agreed to work together to guide the technology at the UK’s AI Safety Summit in November — hoping to get regulations in place before computers grow smarter than people.

Wild weather

News reports of broken heat records are starting to sound like, well, broken records. But 2023 really was a standout: The planet had its hottest year on record. As of October, it was about 1.4 degrees Celsius warmer than the 1850–1900 average, topping the previous greatest above-average heat bumps of about 1.3 degrees C in both 2020 and 2016.

This extreme heat of 2023 resulted from both long-term climate change trends and the year’s El Niño, a natural climate pattern that, overall, tends to make the world warmer. This was the hottest summer since recordkeeping began in 1880, and September was by far the most weirdly warm month ever seen. These trends have been shown to play a role in much of 2023’s wild and destructive weather, from Canada’s wildfires to Libya’s floods. Researchers suspect that the planet will hit a long-term average of 1.5 degrees C warming — a commonly quoted target for maximum warming — sometime in the early 2030s.

Rapidly improving AI has left governments, scientists and consumers alike wondering how best to harness its abilities and guard against its misuse.

“Climate change is no longer about our grandchildren or polar bears — it is here, and now affecting everyone, everywhere on the planet, but especially devastating for the poor,” says Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, an environmental scientist and climate expert at Central European University and vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Ürge-Vorsatz co-penned an editorial calling for action against environmental crises in 2022’s volume of the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, for which she is a committee member.

Everything electric to end emissions

In December, delegates at the United Nations climate change convention discussed the first official inventory of our actions to combat global warming. The “global stocktake” concluded that while the world is making some progress and it will be possible to reach the Paris goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, leaders are going to have to accelerate action to get there.

For now, fossil fuel production remains too high for climate targets. But a Climate Analytics report says that there’s a 70 percent chance that greenhouse gas emissions will fall in 2024, making 2023 the “peak” year. Of course, getting away from fossil fuels means ramping up alternative energy sources. Renewables are soaring — particularly solar, and particularly in China. “Prices fell and penetration increased exceeding all projections,” says Ürge-Vorsatz of renewables. “In the first half of 2023, several countries have produced over three-quarters of their electricity from weather-dependent renewable forms of energy — still often deemed impossible by many experts.” At the December UN meeting, nations pledged to triple the planet’s renewable energy capacity by 2030.

New batteries in development will also help — 2023 saw a lab breakthrough in developing “lithium air” batteries. Meanwhile, researchers note some signs of hope that nuclear fusion might one day be feasible. The National Ignition Facility, an experimental laser-based fusion device at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, has produced slightly more energy than it used a total of four times since December 2022.

Fancy feast

As the world’s population grows, the quest continues for alternative high-protein foods that might mimic the sensory pleasures of meat without the attendant environmental problems from deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and more. One option now on US plates is lab-grown meat, which was approved by regulators in June 2023, making the United States the second country to move “cellular meat” to market. Meanwhile, companies are also pursuing ever-better ways to make high-protein foods out of everything from insects to filamentous fungi to microbes that can convert air and hydrogen into edible food.

“Climate change is no longer about our grandchildren or polar bears — it is here, and now affecting everyone, everywhere on the planet, but especially devastating for the poor.”

Diana Ürge-Vorsatz

It’s exciting to see lab-grown meat finally reach the market, says Julian McClements, a food scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and editor of the Annual Review of Food Science and Technology, who has written about next-generation plant-based foods. Scaling up that tech, he says, “has potential to create a more healthy, sustainable and ethical food supply.” At the same time, many nutrition experts are raising the alarm about ultraprocessed foods, and foods packed with sugars, salts and fats to increase desirability. Another more sustainable and healthier option to the world’s current diet would be to just eat more plants.

Body maps

Efforts to better understand the human body in health and disease got a boost this year with several projects aiming to map out vital organs and improve diversity in medical datasets. “It’s really an exciting time,” says Sarah Teichmann, co-lead of the Human Cell Atlas initiative and a member of the Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics editorial committee.

In June, researchers unveiled a comprehensive atlas of the lung, compiled from studies of 2.4 million cells in 486 people and highlighting cellular features common in cancer and Covid-19. In October, the largest-yet brain atlas was released, including more than 3,000 cell types, some of them new to science. Researchers are also expanding efforts to sequence and study the genomes of ever more people on this planet, hoping to shift medical datasets away from a current, common bias toward men of European descent. In October, a plan was launched to create the largest-yet database of genomes from people of African ancestry. All these efforts “could help lead to global democratization of health care in the future,” says Teichmann.

Ocean waves

For the oceans in 2023, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” says Nancy Knowlton, a marine biologist with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, who wrote about reasons to be optimistic about ocean health in the 2021 Annual Review of Marine Science. On one hand, beleaguered global oceans hit a record high temperature in April and in August (near the tail end of the summer season for the global south and north, respectively), with “seas as hot as a hot tub,” says Knowlton. On the other hand, she says, 2023 saw “major steps being taken to reverse the trajectory of ocean decline.”

“The CRISPR revolution is the fastest advance in biomedicine I have seen. ... This approval is just the first of many gene medicines to come.”

— Donald Kohn


That includes a High Seas Treaty, agreed upon in March after years of effort, to provide more oversight of international waters. The treaty carves out ways to share benefits from genetic resources dug from the deep, and to create marine protected areas far from any national shores. Meanwhile, progress was made on a separate treaty aimed at eliminating plastic pollution — including the single-use plastics that plague marine environments. That treaty, due in 2024, might cap plastic production, better regulate recycling and promote more sustainable, healthier materials — like bioplastics or novel uses of wood.

Insect invaders

The insects in the spotlight this year were bedbugs, which ravaged first Paris (during Fashion Week, no less) and then Asia. But buggy concerns go far beyond this; a raft of far more damaging pests are also on the move, devastating crops and forests around the world. In September, a report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) reported that alien invasives, including insects, are a major factor in 60 percent of species extinctions. But while pests are spreading and making pests of themselves, there’s a parallel problem of insect decline (sometimes called the “insect apocalypse”), though numbers are still scant to document the collapse among our planet’s 5.5 million species of insects.

“Insects are not optional; they are the little things that run the world and if they were to disappear, humans would last but a few months,” says University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy (read his 2023 interview with Knowable). Researchers are investigating new angles for insect conservation, including using genomics to track and assist the creatures’ ability to adapt.

Transplant tech

Lab advances are promising hope for people in need of organ transplants. This year, medical researchers for the first time managed to transplant previously frozen organs: In a landmark study published in June, rats successfully received kidneys that had been cryogenically frozen for 100 days. Researchers also made great strides in exploring medical use of organs from animals: Last year, a 57-year-old man with terminal heart illness survived for two months after receiving a pig heart. In 2023, researchers reported that a monkey survived an amazing two years with a pig kidney, thanks in part to genetic modification.

“Organ transplantation is close to my heart, as some family members have been recipients of kidney transplants,” says Edgar Arriaga, a member of the Annual Review of Analytical Chemistry editorial committee who applies chemistry and engineering to biomedical challenges. The new developments “shine renewed optimism onto many people whose only hope for having a normal life is a functional organ.”

Reaching for stars

India became the fourth country to successfully put a lander on the Moon, to great fanfare. And NASA announced its intended crew for the next planned trip to the Moon (which will be in 2024 at the earliest). The four-person crew includes the first woman, the first person of color and the first non-American to head to the Moon.

Meanwhile, researchers looking far beyond the Moon to the stars now have a better tool in their toolkit: code that, finally, treats stars as the somewhat flattened, rotating, evolving balls that they are, rather than assuming they are perfect spheres. “At long last, this paper comes up with better models,” says Conny Aerts, an astrophysicist at KU Leuven in Belgium and a member of the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics editorial committee. “This is a remarkable achievement of major importance for astrophysics, because almost everyone in our field relies on stellar models.”

Fighting fat

The World Obesity Federation’s 2023 atlas predicts that more than half of the global population will be obese or overweight by 2035 — but new, effective drugs are emerging based on a better understanding of the hormones that control body weight. Many previous weight loss drugs targeted neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine to hit satiety and hunger centers in the brain. A new strategy instead targets the gut hormone GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide 1), with a swath of benefits ranging from appetite suppression to blood sugar control.

New, effective drugs are emerging based on a better understanding of the hormones that control body weight.

The GLP-1-targeting drug Wegovy, approved in 2021, has proved wildly popular for weight loss, and this year a study showed that it could address heart problems in some patients, too. In November, a competitor, Zepbound, was also approved for weight loss in the United States. These developments are expected to lower the price on these expensive, injectable drugs. “This is truly an exciting and propitious time to be caring for individuals with the disease of obesity,” write endocrinologists Ania Jastreboff and Robert Kushner in an article tackling the subject in the Annual Review of Medicine.

Gene editing

In November, the UK medicines regulatory agency became the first in the world to approve a therapy that uses CRISPR gene editing — a revolutionary biotechnology that snips at DNA like a molecular scalpel. The United States followed suit in December. The treatment, called Casgevy, helps people with conditions caused by defective hemoglobin production or function, including sickle cell disease. The therapy is started by taking blood-producing cells out of the bone marrow of patients. The cells are genetically altered in the lab so that they produce fetal rather than adult hemoglobin, then infused back into the patient.

“The CRISPR revolution is the fastest advance in biomedicine I have seen,” says Donald Kohn, a medical geneticist at UCLA and coauthor of a recent overview of gene therapy in the Annual Review of Medicine. “This approval is just the first of many gene medicines to come.” CRISPR therapies are also being developed to tackle cancers, blindness, HIV, diabetes and more.

By Nicola Jones

Saturday, February 10, 2024

What would signal life on another planet?

Astronomers have long debated what kind of chemistry might serve as a bona fide alien biosignature. With the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, those ideas may be put to the test.

In June, astronomers reported a disappointing discovery: The James Webb Space Telescope failed to find a thick atmosphere around the rocky planet TRAPPIST-1 C, an exoplanet in one of the most tantalizing planetary systems in the search for alien life.

The finding follows similar news regarding neighboring planet TRAPPIST-1 B, another planet in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Its dim, red star hosts seven rocky worlds, a few of which are in the habitable zone — at a distance from their star at which liquid water could exist on their surfaces and otherworldly life might thrive.

What it would take to detect that life, if it exists, isn’t a new question. But thanks to the JWST, it’s finally becoming a practical one. In the next few years, the telescope could glimpse the atmospheres of several promising planets orbiting distant stars. Hidden away in the chemistry of those atmospheres may be the first hints of life beyond our solar system. This presents a sticky problem: What qualifies as a true chemical signature of life?

“You’re trying to take very little information about a planet and make a conclusion that is potentially quite profound — changing our view of the whole universe,” says planetary scientist Joshua Krissansen-Totton of the University of Washington.

To detect such a biosignature, scientists must find clever ways to work with the limited information they can glean by observing exoplanets.

Chemicals in context

Even the most powerful telescopes, including the JWST, almost never “see” exoplanets — by and large, astronomers know these distant worlds only by the flickering of their stars.

Instead of viewing planets directly, astronomers train their telescopes on stars and wait for planets to “transit,” or pass between, their sun and the telescope. As a planet transits, a bit of starlight filters through its atmosphere and dims the star at certain wavelengths, depending on the chemicals in the atmosphere. The resulting dips and peaks in the star’s brightness are like a chemical barcode for the transiting planet.

Perhaps the most intuitive way to look for a biosignature in that barcode is to scour it for a gas that was clearly produced by life. For a time scientists thought that oxygen, which is abundant on Earth because of photosynthesis, served as a stand-alone biosignature. But oxygen can arise from other processes: Sunlight could break apart water in the planet’s atmosphere, for example.

And that problem isn’t unique to oxygen — most of the gases that living things produce can also arise without life. So instead of treating single gases as biosignatures in their own right, scientists today tend to consider them in context.

Methane, for instance, can be produced both with and without life. It wouldn’t be a convincing biosignature on its own. But finding methane and oxygen together “would be hugely exciting,” says planetary scientist Robin Wordsworth of Harvard University; it’s very difficult to produce that combination without life. Likewise, work by Krissansen-Totton and colleagues recently showed that finding methane along with the right amounts of other gases, such as carbon dioxide, would be hard to explain without life.

Watching how an exoplanet atmosphere changes over time might also provide valuable context that could strengthen otherwise weak biosignatures. Seasonal variations in the concentration of ozone, for example, could be a fingerprint of life, scientists reported in 2018.

Surprises, not assumptions

Of course, “if you’re looking for individual gases like oxygen or methane, then built into that are assumptions about what type of life is elsewhere,” says Krissansen-Totton. So some scientists are developing agnostic biosignatures that don’t assume alien biochemistry will be anything like Earth’s biochemistry.

One possible agnostic biosignature is an exoplanet atmosphere’s degree of chemical “surprisingness” — what scientists call chemical disequilibrium.

An atmosphere close to equilibrium would be chemically uninteresting, a bit like a closed flask of gas in a laboratory. Of course, no planet is as boring as a lab flask. Chemical reactions in a planet’s atmosphere can be powered by their stars and geological processes like volcanic activity can increase disequilibrium, and thus increase the chemical surprisingness of the atmosphere.

Life can also push planets away from equilibrium. And assuming that alien life produces gases of some kind, they could push a planet’s atmosphere much further from equilibrium than it would be otherwise. Yet disequilibrium alone “is not an unambiguous indicator,” says Krissansen-Totton.

In 2016, he and his colleagues calculated the thermal disequilibrium of the atmosphere of every planet in the solar system and Saturn’s moon Titan. By this measure, the Earth’s atmosphere stood out as extreme — but only if the oceans were built into the calculations. Ignoring its interactions with the ocean, the Earth’s atmosphere is actually closer to equilibrium than the atmosphere of Mars.

Still, even if it might not point to biology, finding an exoplanet atmosphere far from equilibrium would tell astronomers that something interesting is happening, Krissansen-Totton says, something that’s “modifying the atmosphere in a dramatic way that we need to understand.”

David Kinney, a philosopher of science at Yale University, recently worked with biophysicist Chris Kempes of the Santa Fe Institute to develop a new way of detecting possible agnostic biosignatures. It’s a deceptively simple idea: To find life, look for the weirdest planets.

If no assumptions are made about what alien life is like, practically any gas could be a biosignature in the right context. In 2016, MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager and colleagues proposed a list of about 14,000 molecules for consideration as possible biosignatures. Kinney and Kempes developed their assessment method by using that list of compounds, along with methods inspired by machine learning algorithms designed to recognize the odd-image-out in a set. This led to a way to precisely define and score the “weirdness” of a hypothetical exoplanet’s atmosphere compared to a set of other hypothetical atmospheres.

Kinney and Kempes argue that the weirdest atmospheres in a set are the most likely to host life. This rests on a few basic assumptions: Life in the universe is rare, it leaves traces in planetary atmospheres, and it’s hard to mimic those traces without life. Of course, those assumptions might turn out to be false, Kinney says. But “if we want to make no assumptions at all,” he adds, “then I think it’s very hard to make any kind of scientific progress, let alone in the area with such severe uncertainty as this one.”

First, understand non-life

To reduce that uncertainty, scientists will need to be able to confidently rule out non-life explanations for any potential biosignature. That requires a thorough understanding of alien geology and atmospheric chemistry. So instead of focusing on whether a planet is habitable, some scientists argue that studying obviously lifeless planets will bolster the search for alien life.

“There are so many really basic things that I think we need to learn about the planets first before we can even begin to ask the question of habitability,” says Laura Kreidberg of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, coauthor with Wordsworth of an overview of rocky exoplanet astronomy in the 2022 Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

One enormous question is whether the potentially rocky planets that JWST can observe will have atmospheres at all. The only stars whose habitable-zone planets are within the telescope’s reach are red dwarfs, like TRAPPIST-1. These stars have a nasty habit of spewing harsh radiation that many scientists think would inevitably strip away the atmospheres of any habitable planets, which might explain the scant or nonexistent atmospheres of TRAPPIST-1 B and TRAPPIST-1 C.

Red dwarf stars also happen to be the most common in the Milky Way — so if their rocky planets can’t hold on to atmospheres, it would substantially winnow down the number of potentially habitable worlds.

If we can observe enough rocky exoplanets, “we’re going to be in a much, much stronger place to understand what a biosignature means,” says Wordsworth. “One really powerful thing that exoplanets give us is statistics.”

The word “biosignature” may evoke a smoking gun. But, says Krissansen-Totton, “exoplanet life discovery is going to be a gradual accumulation of evidence.”

As that evidence continues to roll in, scientists can begin to test their hypotheses about rocky planets in a rigorous way, and perhaps reevaluate them.

“Astronomy is, at its heart, such a discovery science,” says Kreidberg. “For all of our best-laid plans and frameworks and systems, as soon as we start getting data and observing things, everything turns upside down.”