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What to look out for in 2015

Horizons in research

München, 01/05/2015

From the origin of the Universe to the future of lighting systems: LMU experts gaze into the crystal ball and pinpoint the topics they expect to make headlines in 2015.

This image shows a tiny patch of our expanding Universe. But how did the cosmos get started? Source: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University) and the HUDF09 Team.

What exactly happened in the split second after the Big Bang? The ongoing analysis of data obtained by the Planck Space Telescope may well give us some interesting hints.

How exactly did the Universe come into existence? Why did the barely born Universe undergo an extraordinarily rapid phase of expansion (cosmic inflation) immediately after the Big Bang? How was it possible for stars, planets and galaxies to form in the first place? Experts in the field of cosmology expect that a new analysis of observational data collected by the space telescope Planck will throw new light on these questions. For LMU’s Viatcheslav Mukhanov, a specialist in Theoretical Quantum Cosmology, the results cannot come out soon enough, though he confidently expects that they will convincingly confirm – as an initial analysis in 2013 indicated – predictions derived from his own theory. For Mukhanov has calculated what must have been happening directly after the Big Bang, based on his theory of the role of quantum fluctuations, which also constitutes an essential element of the inflation theory. His idea is that minimal fluctuations in density that arose in initial phase of cosmic expansion acted as seeds for the subsequent build-up of macroscopic variations in energy density, which make it possible to explain the later formation of gaslaxies and ultimately the distribution of matter in the observable Universe today. Everything is incipiently present in the embryonic Universe, says Mukhanov. The Bavarian Academy of Sciences recently awarded its Schelling Prize to Mukhanov. According to the citation, his work “ranks among the greatest achievements in theoretical cosmology in recent decades.” Indeed, “its significance is comparable to that of the prediction of the existence of the Higgs boson in particle physics.”

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YouTube celebrates its 10th birthday in 2015. What impact has the video portal had on the Internet, and will it continue to captivate its many users?

YouTube will soon be 10 years old and, according to its own figures, the site now attracts a billion users every month. Will this rising trend continue? “YouTube is now well established and has attained a very high level of market penetrance. When the top dog is so dominant, displacing him is no easy task. The evidence suggests that moving pictures are playing an ever more prominent role on the Internet, and this trend is likely to continue,” says Christoph Neuberger, Professor at the Institute for Communications Science and Media Research at LMU. In many ways, YouTube is very similar to conventional TV. “Both media offer a diverse range of content and both function primarily as sources of entertainment. However, television is more of an informational medium, while music and humor play a far more prominent role on YouTube. But the crucial difference is that anyone can upload videos onto YouTube – and break into the public sphere.” Political parties and other interest groups also employ this channel to make their views known. This in turn means that the editorial departments of the classical media are, to some degree, losing their traditional role as ‘gatekeepers’ who evaluate information and decide what is relevant to the public.” As revealed by a survey of editorial offices that Neuberger recently carried out, the mass media are responding to this development by uploading content onto YouTube, and they are increasingly including video formats on their own webpages. Nevertheless, Neuberger asserts that YouTube is still ahead of the pack, and not just in terms of its market dominance: “YouTube is also a highly creative source of innovative formats.”

One major goal of the UN’s Millenium Challenge is to achieve significant reductions in levels of hunger and poverty – by the year 2015. Markus Vogt, Professor of Social Ethics at LMU, points to some serious defects in the whole approach.

Will the United Nations achieve their Millennium Goals? “There have been significant successes on the way to the goal of reducing global poverty and hunger by 50%. But, at the same time, one can point to many developments – such as climate change and the increasing incidence of drought, and counterproductive trends in global agricultural policy – that threaten what has been attained. And these negative factors account for the fact that the incidence of hunger globally was actually on the increase for a time,” says Markus Vogt. Vogt holds the Chair of Christian Social Ethics at LMU, and his research focuses on the repercussions of globalization and climate change for human development and welfare. As he sees it, one crucial problem with the Millennium Goals lies in how one measures whether or not they have been reached. How does one measure the degree of reduction in world poverty? “The factor purchasing power is often deceptive, because it ignores the role of bartering and does not adequately take account of home production.” According to UN figures, the number of those who regularly attend school rose by 90% between 2000 and 2012. “But that tells us nothing about the quality of teaching,” Vogt says. “Knowledge imparted by Western experts often doesn’t help much. A good education is one that enhances the potential of the local people.” As part of a project organized by Justitia et Pax, Markus Vogt himself lived for some time with a family in Zambia, a country in which up to 80% of the agricultural land lies unused, although 50% of the population are undernourished. Vogt sees the development of effective strategies to ensure greater equality of opportunity as the major challenge facing his discipline. “That 800 million people don’t have enough to eat and 25% of the world’s population suffers from malnutrition is not an inevitable fact of life. Food and the other basic necessities of life are available in sufficient quantities to satisfy all. The crux of the matter lies in our failure to find culturally compatible development strategies and the lack of democratic control of powerful interests.”

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To draw attention to the need to develop more efficient sources of artificial light, the UN has designated 2015 as the International Year of Light. LMU chemist Wolfgang Schnick has pursued this goal for much of his career – with notable success.

Artificial lighting systems consume enormous amounts of energy. Can researchers come up with economical and energy-efficient light sources, not only for developing countries, but also for the rest of the world? This is one of the issues that prompted the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to designate 2015 as the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies. The importance of light-based technologies, says Wolfgang Schnick, can be gauged from the fact that two of the Nobel Prizes awarded in 2014 went to scientists who had invented new ones – novel types of light microscopy and blue LEDs (light-emitting diodes). “We can now generate brighter light with less energy.” Indeed, Schnick, Professor of Inorganic Solid-State Chemistry at LMU, has been working on the light sources of the future for quite some time. He and his research team have developed innovative materials with which the cold light emitted by blue LEDs can be converted into light of a warmer shade, which broadens their range of applications and makes them more appealing to the consumer. These substances absorb part of the blue light and re-emit it at wavelengths that lie closer to the red end of the visible spectrum. This effect makes it possible for LEDs to produce white light which is warmer in tone than that generated by earlier versions of these devices. “This now brings us very close to the spectral composition of natural sunlight,” says Schnick. Not only that, the optimized LEDs are very energy-efficient. As Schnick points out, the amount of electricity consumed worldwide could be reduced by one-sixth if all conventional light sources were replaced by LEDs. Several of Schnick’s discoveries can now be found in mass-produced light sources, and in 2013 he was among those nominated for the German Future Prize.

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