Readers respond to "A Man-made Contagion" and Other Articles

Letters to the editor from the February 2012 issue of Scientific American

In “A Man-made Contagion,” by Jeneen Interlandi [Advances], Michael T. Osterholm of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity argues, regarding studies creating mutations that would allow the H5N1 virus to readily spread between humans, that “physicists have been doing ... classified work for 70 years. We have to find a way to do the same in the health sciences, without compromising our safety and security.”

Classified physics work has put the future of our species in question, so not “compromising our safety and security” would require more stringent controls in the health sciences than were applied in the physical ones. Additionally, new life-forms can be created in an inexpensive lab with commercially available ingredients. Nuclear weapons materials are more difficult to obtain.
Martin Hellman
Professor Emeritus, Electrical Engineering
Stanford University

It would be best to destroy the existing mutated virus and place the information on creating it under the same kind of security as hydrogen bomb instructions. Freedom of information groups do not argue that thermonuclear weapons information be released to all; it is beyond foolishness to argue that infinitely more dangerous biological warfare information be made public.  

Previously in biology, the benefits of publicly shared knowledge outweighed the dangers. This is no longer always the case. We have changed the terrain here, and our mind-set must change, too.
David Green
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Is Space Digital?” by Michael Moyer, describes a proposed experiment by Craig Hogan of Fermilab near Batavia, Ill., that claims to test the holographic principle. The article quotes both of us, as theorists who played a central role in the discovery and general formulation of the holographic principle. But it fails to mention that we believe that Hogan’s experiment does not actually test this principle.

The holographic principle asserts a fundamental relation between quantum information and the areas of spacetime’s surfaces. Observation already supports it: no object in the universe is known to violate this relation. In fact, it could be ruled out by experiment: for example, if novel forms of matter were discovered that permitted violations of the holographic bound on information storage.

The principle, however, does not predict the quantum “jitters” that Hogan’s experiment seeks to detect; it predicts their absence. They would conflict with Einstein’s principle of relativity, which is central to the formulation of the holographic principle (and to our understanding of countless previous experimental results).

The holographic framework does make distinctive predictions. For an experiment occupying a region of space of about a meter in radius, it predicts subtle correlations that involve approximately 1070 photons. That is just about enough energy to make a black hole as big as the entire experiment. The length of time that it would take to accumulate the required information from the black hole would be around a quadrillion quadrillion qua­drillion times the age of the universe.

The same is true for a larger or smaller experiment: the distinctive features of the principle always involve enough photons to create a black hole as big as the experiment and an extraordinary length of time to collect the required information. Hogan’s experiment is absurdly far from this regime.
Raphael Bousso
University of California, Berkeley
Leonard Susskind
Stanford University

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