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HomeTechnologyArtificial intelligenceUnderstanding our place in the universe

Understanding our place in the universe

Brian Nord first fell in love with physics when he was an adolescent rising up in Wisconsin. His highschool physics program wasn’t distinctive, and he typically struggled to maintain up with class materials, however these difficulties did nothing to dampen his curiosity within the topic. In addition to the primary curriculum, college students had been inspired to independently examine matters they discovered attention-grabbing, and Nord rapidly developed a fascination with the cosmos. “A touchstone that I often come back to is space,” he says. “The mystery of traveling in it and seeing what’s at the edge.”

Nord was an avid reader of comedian books, and astrophysics appealed to his want to turn out to be part of one thing greater. “There always seemed to be something special about having this kinship with the universe around you,” he recollects. “I always thought it would be cool if I could have that deep connection to physics.”

Nord started to domesticate that connection as an undergraduate at The Johns Hopkins University. After graduating with a BA in physics, he went on to check on the University of Michigan, the place he earned an MS and PhD in the identical subject. By this level, he was already pondering large, however he wished to suppose even greater. This want for a extra complete understanding of the universe led him away from astrophysics and towards the extra expansive subject of cosmology. “Cosmology deals with the whole kit and caboodle, the whole shebang,” he explains. “Our biggest questions are about the origin and the fate of the universe.”

Dark mysteries

Nord was notably desirous about elements of the universe that may’t be noticed by conventional means. Evidence means that darkish matter makes up nearly all of mass within the universe and gives most of its gravity, however its nature largely stays within the realm of speculation and hypothesis. It doesn’t take up, mirror, or emit any sort of electromagnetic radiation, which makes it almost unattainable for scientists to detect. But whereas darkish matter gives gravity to tug the universe collectively, an equally mysterious drive — darkish power — is pulling it aside. “We know even less about dark energy than we do about dark matter,” Nord explains.

For the previous 15 years, Nord has been making an attempt to shut that hole in our data. Part of his work focuses on the statistical modeling of galaxy clusters and their skill to distort and enlarge gentle because it travels by the cosmos. This impact, which is called robust gravitational lensing, is a great tool for detecting the affect of darkish matter on gravity and for measuring how darkish power impacts the growth price of the universe.

After incomes his PhD, Nord remained on the University of Michigan to proceed his analysis as a part of a postdoctoral fellowship. He at the moment holds a place on the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and is a senior member of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics on the University of Chicago. He continues to research questions in regards to the origin and future of the universe, however his newer work has additionally targeted on enhancing the methods by which we make scientific discoveries.

AI powerup

When it involves addressing large questions in regards to the nature of the cosmos, Nord has persistently run into one main drawback: though his mastery of physics can typically make him really feel like a superhero, he’s solely human, and people aren’t good. They make errors, adapt slowly to new data, and take a very long time to get issues accomplished.

The resolution, Nord argues, is to transcend the human, into the realm of algorithms and fashions. As a part of Fermilab’s Artificial Intelligence Project, he spends his days instructing machines find out how to analyze cosmological information, a job for which they’re higher suited than most human scientists. “Artificial intelligence can give us models that are more flexible than what we can create ourselves with pen and paper,” Nord explains. “In a lot of cases, it does better than humans do.”

Nord is continuous this analysis at MIT as a part of the Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Visiting Scholars and Professors Program. Earlier this yr, he joined the Laboratory for Nuclear Science (LNS), with Jesse Thaler within the Department of Physics and Center for Theoretical Physics (CTP) as his school host. Thaler is the director of the National Science Foundation’s Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Fundamental Interactions (IAIFI). Since arriving on campus, Nord has targeted his efforts on exploring the potential of AI to design new scientific experiments and devices. These processes ordinarily take an infinite period of time, he explains, however AI may quickly speed up them. “Could we design the next particle collider or the next telescope in less than five years, instead of 30?” he wonders.

But if Nord has realized something from the comics of his youth, it’s that with nice energy comes nice accountability. AI is an unbelievable scientific asset, but it surely can be used for extra nefarious functions. The similar pc algorithms that would construct the subsequent particle collider additionally underlie issues like facial recognition software program and the danger evaluation instruments that inform sentencing selections in legal court docket. Many of those algorithms are deeply biased in opposition to individuals of coloration. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Nord explains. “Because if [AI] works better for science, it works better for facial recognition. So, I’m working against myself.”

Culture change superpowers

In latest years, Nord has tried to develop strategies to make the applying of AI extra moral, and his work has targeted on the broad intersections between ethics, justice, and scientific discovery. His efforts to fight racism in STEM have established him as a frontrunner within the motion to handle inequities and oppression in tutorial and analysis environments. In June of 2020, he collaborated with members of Particles for Justice — a bunch that boasts MIT professors Daniel Harlow and Tracy Slatyer, in addition to former MLK Visiting Scholar and CTP researcher Chanda Prescod-Weinstein — to create the tutorial Strike for Black Lives. The strike, which emerged as a response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and plenty of others, referred to as on the tutorial group to take a stand in opposition to anti-Black racism.

Nord can also be the co-author of Black Light, a curriculum for studying about Black experiences, and the co-founder of Change Now, which produced an inventory of requires motion to make a extra simply laboratory setting at Fermilab. As the co-founder of Deep Skies, he additionally strives to foster justice-oriented analysis communities freed from conventional hierarchies and oppressive energy buildings. “The basic idea is just humanity over productivity,” he explains.

This work has led Nord to rethink what motivated him to pursue a profession in physics within the first place. When he first found his ardour for the topic as an adolescent, he knew he wished to make use of physics to assist individuals, however he wasn’t certain how. “I was thinking I’d make some technology that will save lives, and I still hope to do that,” he says. “But I think maybe more of my direct impact, at least in this stage of my career, is in trying to change the culture.”

Physics could not have granted Nord flight or X-ray imaginative and prescient — not but, not less than. But over the course of his lengthy profession, he has found a extra substantial energy. “If I can understand the universe,” he says, “maybe that will help me understand myself and my place in the world and our place as humanity.”



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