Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Stonehenge revisited

If you're into paranormal research, the word "Stonehenge" is enough to make you shudder.

It's not that it's not an impressive monument, historically important, and culturally unique.  It's definitely all of those things.  It's just that the strangeness of the structure, out there on the bleak Salisbury Plains, invites woo-woo speculation and just plain blather like no other.

With the possible exception of the Pyramids, of course.  Google "secrets of the Pyramids" if you don't believe me, but only click on the links if you have a high tolerance for nonsense.  You have been warned.

Anyhow, whenever I see sites that say "mysteries of Stonehenge decoded!" I always roll my eyes a bit.  But as I've commented more than once, rejecting claims out of hand is just as lazy as accepting them out of hand; cynicism is no better than gullibility, and both are excuses not to think.  So I got my comeuppance at the hands of the Brussels Times with an article called "Belgian Archaeologist Discloses Mysteries of Stonehenge," which turns out not only to be completely legitimate, but truly fascinating.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Wigulf~commonswiki, Stonehenge, CC BY-SA 3.0]

The article is about archaeologist Christophe Snoeck, of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, who has been working on the archaeology of Stonehenge since he was a graduate student at Oxford.  He's studying the remains of individuals who were cremated at the site, and his analysis of the bone fragments (and the genetic makeup thereof) has shown that they were not part of the native population of Wessex, but seem to have come along with the stones themselves -- which have been known for years to have come from quite a distance, the Preseli Mountains of western Wales.

"By working directly on the human remains found at the site we hoped to gain insight, not on the origin of the stones, but on the origin of those using the site and being buried there," Snoeck said.  "Most research on Stonehenge focused on the stones.  Little was known about the humans buried at the site.  This is mostly due to the fact that they were cremated and only small cremated bone fragments remained.  It is only very recently that new methods have been developed to study cremated human remains."

Snoeck's research gives us a lens into a pre-literate people (or at least one for whom we have no written records), who have therefore been essentially silent for millennia.  Despite what you hear from aficionados of pagan religions, there is almost nothing known about the culture of the early Celts.  Most of the druidic trappings are the results of the 19th-century "Celtic revival" that mysticized -- invented, really -- a religion for these mysterious people.  The little real data we have comes from contemporary accounts; but those writings (such as descriptions by the invading Romans) are not only unflattering, but are almost certain to be largely incorrect, if you judge by other examples of conquerors describing the conquerees.

"By gathering more information about [the early Celts]," Snoeck says, "we can start to understand the place of such sites in the wider landscape and how they shaped societies and beliefs through time and space.  We were very excited to see that not all individuals lived near the site and that many actually moved over quite large distances to come to Stonehenge...  [U]nderstanding how people and societies changed trough time and space helps us understand current societies and how they might change and interact."

So it's nice that we have someone researching the site with a serious eye toward gathering scientifically-relevant data.  Heaven knows there's enough silliness out there on the topic.  It'll be fascinating to see what Snoeck and other archaeologists uncover about Stonehenge's builders, and other related sites such as the dolmens in Brittany.  All of it will give us a window into a long-dead people, whose knowledge, language, and culture vanished beneath the sands of time over two thousand years ago.

****************************

In August of 1883, one of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history (literally) obliterated an island in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra.

The island was Krakatoa (now known by its more correct spelling of "Krakatau").  The magnitude of the explosion is nearly incomprehensible.  It generated a sound estimated at 310 decibels, loud enough to be heard five thousand kilometers away (sailors forty kilometers away suffered ruptured eardrums).  Rafts of volcanic pumice, some of which contained human skeletons, washed up in East Africa after making their way across the entire Indian Ocean.  Thirty-six thousand people died, many of whom were not killed by the eruption itself but by the horrifying tsunamis that resulted, in some places measuring over forty meters above sea level.

Simon Winchester, a British journalist and author, wrote a book about the lead-up to that fateful day in summer of 1883.  It is as lucid and fascinating as his other books, which include A Crack at the Edge of the World (about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake), The Map that Changed the World (a brilliant look at the man who created the first accurate geological map of England), and The Surgeon of Crowthorne (the biographies of the two men who created the Oxford English Dictionary -- one of whom was in a prison for the criminally insane).

So if you're a fan of excellent historical and science writing, or (like me) fascinated with volcanoes, earthquakes, and plate tectonics, you definitely need to read Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.  It will give you a healthy respect for the powerful forces that create the topography of our planet -- some of which wield destructive power greater than anything we can imagine.





Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Roswell redux

Sometimes, I swear the universe is listening to me.

In my post yesterday, a story about the "Falcon Creek Incident" in Manitoba, I mentioned that the story was a lot more credible than Roswell.  So it is only fitting that less than an hour after I hit "publish," I found that Jocelyne LeBlanc over at Mysterious Universe had just posted a story...

... that UFOlogists are reopening the Roswell case.

My first thought was that I've read a lot of accounts by UFOlogists, and my impression was that the Roswell case was not, and in fact never will be, closed.  You've all seen the famous "alien autopsy" video, which was sold to television stations in thirty-three different countries by a guy named Ray Santilli (who said he had gotten the film from an anonymous military officer), but what you may not know is that a filmmaker named Spyros Melaris admitted that he and Santilli had faked the entire thing.

All this got from the UFO enthusiasts was a wiggle of the eyebrow that says, "of course you know that if someone admits it's a hoax, it has to mean that they've been threatened by the Men in Black."  In other words, evidence against something is actually evidence for it, if you squinch your eyes up and look at it sideways.

My visit to Roswell.  I'd tell you more, but I've been sworn to secrecy.

But you should prepare yourself for the whole thing rising from its shallow grave, ready to swallow the brains of True Believers everywhere, because there's just been a claim of a 2001 "leaked memo" involving physicists Kit Green and Eric Davis, and aerospace tycoon Robert Bigelow, and the memo says the autopsy video was real.

Green supposedly was briefed three times on the subject of the crash and the video, and was shown photos back in 1988 of the alien cadaver taken at the crash site.  The memo concludes, "The Alien Autopsy film/video is real, the alien cadaver is real, and the cadaver seen in the film/video is the same as the photos Kit saw at the 1987/88 Pentagon briefing."

Better yet, Bigelow et al. claim there are still tissue samples from the alien being held at the Walter Reed-Armed Forces Institute for Pathology Medical Museum, located in Washington, D.C.

But I haven't told you how all of this stuff became public:

Linda Moulton Howe.

As soon as I saw this name, my eyes rolled back so far I could see my own brainstem.  Howe is one of the "ancient alien astronauts" loons, a protégé of Erich von Däniken, about whom RationalWiki has the following to say:
Howe's gullibility and deceptive "reports" have caused even staunch Ufologists to give her extremely low marks for credibility... She occasionally asks real scientists for opinions on these matters, but then promptly dismisses or rationalises them away.
In fact, the site UFOWatchdog.com is even more unequivocal:
Someone once summed up Howe very well with two words: ' Media entrepreneur '.  While having been a major player in the cattle mutilation mystery, Howe's credibility has gone way downhill as she sensationalizes everything from mundane animal deaths to promoting Brazilian UFO fraud Urandir Oliveira and the Aztec UFO Crash Hoax while selling alien books, videos and lectures.  Howe dabbles in all things strange including Bigfoot, crop circles, alien abductions, and UFOs.  Howe also sits on the board of advisors to the Roswell UFO Museum along with the likes of Don Schmitt.  See Howe's site, which she actually charges a subscription for in order to access some stories.  Also see Howe turning an explained animal death into an encounter with Bigfoot.  A leap not even Bigfoot itself could make.
So yeah.  There's that.  I know I was pretty charitable with the Falcon Lake Incident yesterday, but this one is just making me heave a heavy sigh of frustration.  No one would be happier than me if alien intelligence did turn out to be real; in fact, it might even make me feel better about the lack of intelligence I so often see down here on Earth.  But much as (in Fox Mulder's words) I Want To Believe, this one's just not doing it for me.

****************************

In August of 1883, one of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history (literally) obliterated an island in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra.

The island was Krakatoa (now known by its more correct spelling of "Krakatau").  The magnitude of the explosion is nearly incomprehensible.  It generated a sound estimated at 310 decibels, loud enough to be heard five thousand kilometers away (sailors forty kilometers away suffered ruptured eardrums).  Rafts of volcanic pumice, some of which contained human skeletons, washed up in East Africa after making their way across the entire Indian Ocean.  Thirty-six thousand people died, many of whom were not killed by the eruption itself but by the horrifying tsunamis that resulted, in some places measuring over forty meters above sea level.

Simon Winchester, a British journalist and author, wrote a book about the lead-up to that fateful day in summer of 1883.  It is as lucid and fascinating as his other books, which include A Crack at the Edge of the World (about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake), The Map that Changed the World (a brilliant look at the man who created the first accurate geological map of England), and The Surgeon of Crowthorne (the biographies of the two men who created the Oxford English Dictionary -- one of whom was in a prison for the criminally insane).

So if you're a fan of excellent historical and science writing, or (like me) fascinated with volcanoes, earthquakes, and plate tectonics, you definitely need to read Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.  It will give you a healthy respect for the powerful forces that create the topography of our planet -- some of which wield destructive power greater than anything we can imagine.





Monday, July 15, 2019

UFOs at Falcon Lake

My friend and fellow writer Andrew Butters (whose blog Potato Chip Math is a must-read) has been the source of a good many topics for posts here at Skeptophilia, so when I get an email from him saying "You gotta check this out," I know I'm in for something good.

A couple of days ago, Andrew sent me a link about something (that even with my perpetual digging for ideas) I'd never heard of -- the "Falcon Lake Incident."  The article is plenty eye-opening, and credibility-wise, this one beats Roswell hands-down.

Without stealing the author's thunder (the article appears over at CBC and was written by Darren Bernhardt, and you should all read the original), here are the bare bones of the story.

In May 1967, an industrial mechanic and amateur geologist named Stefan Michalak went into the wilderness about 150 kilometers east of Winnipeg, searching for seams of silver and quartz.  He had along with him (fortuitously, as it turned out) a set of welders' goggles that he used as eye protection while he was hammering at rocks.

He was near a place called Falcon Lake when he was startled by a sudden commotion that turned out to be a flock of geese taking off from the water en masse.  When he went down to the water's edge, he found out why; there were two "cigar-shaped" UFOs hovering over the water.

One descended and landed on a rock nearby, while the other soared off and disappeared.  He made a quick sketch of the object:


After making the sketch, he approached it, noting that the air around it was warm and smelled of sulfur.  That's when he noticed the open door on the craft's underside.

He made his way closer, and heard voices from within.  He called out to them in English, then in his native Polish -- then in Russian and German.

No response.

So he went aboard, pulling on his welding goggles to shield his eyes from the brightness of the interior.

They couldn't, however, protect him from the heat.  Once inside, he touched a panel that burned his glove.  After a few moments on the craft -- during which he didn't see anyone, human or otherwise -- he was suddenly hit in the middle of the chest with a blast of air from a grille in the wall, and he stumbled his way back out of the door.  Shortly afterward, the ship began to turn in a counterclockwise direction and took off, disappearing into the sky.

Michalak wandered, disoriented and in pain, finally finding his way back to Winnipeg, where he was treated for burns on his chest in a pattern of a grid of circles.  He was ill for weeks afterward -- but never varied from his story up to his death in 1999 at age 83.

So that's the claim.  There are a few things to me that are in favor of this being a legitimate story (as opposed to a hoax or an outright lie):
  • Michalak never claimed it was an extraterrestrial craft, and never saw any aliens (or inhabitants of any kind) while on the craft.  He thought it was probably a secret military aircraft -- although it doesn't sound like any technology I've ever heard about that was available in 1951.
  • Investigators were sent to the site, and found a fifteen-foot circular burn mark where Michalak said the craft had landed.  Further investigation found metal -- that turned out to be radioactive -- melted into seams of rock at the site.
  • Psychologists evaluated Michalak after the incident, and not only did the man adhere to his story in every detail, the doctors found him to be pragmatic and honest.
I do have one question, though, that jumped out at me the first time I read the article:  Who uses welding goggles to protect their eyes while hammering rocks?

The purpose of welding goggles is to shield your eyes from bright light that could damage your retinas, and as such they have (very) dark lenses -- so dark that they're almost impossible to see through in ordinary light.  Any amateur geologist on a trek would simply bring along a pair of lightweight safety glasses, not a heavy welding headset that you couldn't see through anyhow.  And given that Michalak was an industrial mechanic, it's not something he'd be likely to mix up -- nor bring along on a hike "just in case."

I would think that it was something the author of the article got wrong, but he's included a photograph of Michalak wearing the goggles in question.  And you can see his eyes.  In the photograph is what looks like a hinged additional frame that probably holds the dark lenses -- the clear glass shown would be no protection at all from an arc welder -- but it still raises the question of why he brought along something that clunky in the first place.  I've done a great deal of back-country camping, and the one cardinal rule is: lighten the load wherever possible, because you're going to be carrying the lot of it on your back for a long while.

So that's peculiar.  Not a fatal flaw, exactly; it could be that the welders' goggles were all he owned, so he brought them along even though they were heavy.  It just struck me as odd.

But that's a small point.  The story has an appealing open-endedness to it; no one ever explained what had happened, there's ample evidence (including a piece of metal now owned by Michalak's son, which is still radioactive), and the man himself seems like about as credible a witness as you could hope for.

If you're interested in reading more, go to the article, which is outstanding, and you'll find information on a newly-released book about the incident, written by Stan Michalak, Stefan's son, and Canadian UFO researcher Chris Rutkowski.  It sounds worth a read.  I'm definitely going to order it, and looking forward to seeing what they have to say -- and what the readers of Skeptophilia think about the whole incident.

****************************

In August of 1883, one of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history (literally) obliterated an island in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra.

The island was Krakatoa (now known by its more correct spelling of "Krakatau").  The magnitude of the explosion is nearly incomprehensible.  It generated a sound estimated at 310 decibels, loud enough to be heard five thousand kilometers away (sailors forty kilometers away suffered ruptured eardrums).  Rafts of volcanic pumice, some of which contained human skeletons, washed up in East Africa after making their way across the entire Indian Ocean.  Thirty-six thousand people died, many of whom were not killed by the eruption itself but by the horrifying tsunamis that resulted, in some places measuring over forty meters above sea level.

Simon Winchester, a British journalist and author, wrote a book about the lead-up to that fateful day in summer of 1883.  It is as lucid and fascinating as his other books, which include A Crack at the Edge of the World (about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake), The Map that Changed the World (a brilliant look at the man who created the first accurate geological map of England), and The Surgeon of Crowthorne (the biographies of the two men who created the Oxford English Dictionary -- one of whom was in a prison for the criminally insane).

So if you're a fan of excellent historical and science writing, or (like me) fascinated with volcanoes, earthquakes, and plate tectonics, you definitely need to read Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.  It will give you a healthy respect for the powerful forces that create the topography of our planet -- some of which wield destructive power greater than anything we can imagine.





Saturday, July 13, 2019

History by proxy

In a new study from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we learn something simultaneously fascinating and a little alarming; humanity's fingerprint on the globe is so clear that it can even track our wars, famines, and plagues -- back twenty-five centuries or more.

The whole thing was done using proxy records, which involve using indirect sources of evidence about the past to infer what conditions were like.  A commonly-used one is using the constituents of air bubbles in amber and ice to make inferences about the global average air temperature at the time -- a technique that shows good agreement with the measurements of the same variable using other methods.

Here, in a team effort from the Desert Research Institute, the University of Oxford, the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, the University of Copenhagen, the University of Rochester, and the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, researchers studied ice cores from thirteen different locations in the polar northern hemisphere, and found that the levels of one contaminant in the ice -- lead -- was enough to parallel all of the major plagues and wars that occurred in Europe and northern Asia back to 800 B.C. E.

What they found is that lead concentrations in the ice rose when things were quiet and prosperous, probably due to an expansion of smelting operations for items like lead seams for stained-glass windows and impurities in silver ore processing.  The signature of wars was clear, but the signature from plagues was blatantly obvious; the years following the Plague of Justinian (541-542 C.E.) and the two spikes of the Black Death (1349-1352 and 1620-1666 C.E.) were two of the lowest points on the graph.

"Sustained increases in lead pollution during the Early and High Middle Ages (about 800 to 1300 CE), for example, indicate widespread economic growth, particularly in central Europe as new mining areas were discovered in places like the German Harz and Erzgebirge Mountains," said study lead author Joseph McConnell of the Desert Research Institute.  "Lead pollution in the ice core records declined during the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (about 1300 and 1680 C.E.) when plague devastated those regions, however, indicating that economic activity stalled."

Silver smelting plant in Katowice, Poland, ca. 1910 [Image is in the Public Domain]

The authors write:
Lead pollution in Arctic ice reflects midlatitude emissions from ancient lead–silver mining and smelting.  The few reported measurements have been extrapolated to infer the performance of ancient economies, including comparisons of economic productivity and growth during the Roman Republican and Imperial periods.  These studies were based on sparse sampling and inaccurate dating, limiting understanding of trends and specific linkages.  Here we show, using a precisely dated record of estimated lead emissions between 1100 BCE and 800 CE derived from subannually resolved measurements in Greenland ice and detailed atmospheric transport modeling, that annual European lead emissions closely varied with historical events, including imperial expansion, wars, and major plagues.  Emissions rose coeval with Phoenician expansion, accelerated during expanded Carthaginian and Roman mining primarily in the Iberian Peninsula, and reached a maximum under the Roman Empire.  Emissions fluctuated synchronously with wars and political instability particularly during the Roman Republic, and plunged coincident with two major plagues in the second and third centuries, remaining low for >500 years.  Bullion in silver coinage declined in parallel, reflecting the importance of lead–silver mining in ancient economies.  Our results indicate sustained economic growth during the first two centuries of the Roman Empire, terminated by the second-century Antonine plague.
Of course, there's nowhere in the ice cores that has as high a level of lead contamination as recently-deposited ice does.  "We found an overall 250 to 300-fold increase in Arctic lead pollution from the start of the Middle Ages in 500 CE to 1970s," said Nathan Chellman, a doctoral student at the Desert Research Institute, and co-author on the study.  "Since the passage of pollution abatement policies, including the 1970 Clean Air Act in the United States, lead pollution in Arctic ice has declined more than 80 percent.  Still, lead levels are about 60 times higher today than they were at the beginning of the Middle Ages."

As an aside, the Trump administration has steadily rolled back regulations requiring industry to conform to reasonable pollution standards, including allowable levels of air pollution.  So look for the contaminants in ice -- and in your lungs -- to spiral upward once again.

But hey, it means the economy's good, so nothing to worry about, right?

Of course right.

So as I've pointed out (repeatedly), what we are doing does have a measurable, quantifiable effect on the environment, and studies like McConnell et al. should be a significant wake-up call.  And as I've also pointed out, it probably won't.  It's all too easy for people to say, "Meh, what do I care about a little lead in Arctic ice?  So it bothers a few seals and polar bears.  Too bad for them."  And continue with our throw-away, gas-guzzling, conspicuous-consumption lifestyles.

It's cold comfort knowing that when the aliens come here in a thousand years to find out why the Earth is barren, they'll be able to figure it out by looking at the traces we left behind in the ice, soils, rocks, and air.

**************************************

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is pure fun for anyone who (like me) appreciates both plants and an occasional nice cocktail -- The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart.  Most of the things we drink (both alcohol-containing and not) come from plants, and Stewart takes a look at some of the plants that have provided us with bar staples -- from the obvious, like grapes (wine), barley (beer), and agave (tequila), to the obscure, like gentian (angostura bitters) and hyssop (Bénédictine).

It's not a scientific tome, more a bit of light reading for anyone who wants to know more about what they're imbibing.  So learn a little about what's behind the bar -- and along the way, a little history and botany as well.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Friday, July 12, 2019

Noises in the basement

A couple of days ago, I was sent a link by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia with the message, "Thought you'd be interested... what do you think of this?"

The link was to a story on Wales Online, about a couple in the town of Ammonford who claims that they've been driven from their house by the sounds of ghostly screams, talking, and banging -- all coming from underneath their basement.

The couple, Christine and Alan Tait, are now living in their camper van because they're afraid to stay in their house.  "It was like a flushing noise that I heard first," Christine Tait said.  "I told Alan about it and that I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.  He left his phone in the bathroom with the recorder on to try to pick up the source of the noise, and then we could hear a machine running.  We started to record all over the house, and we picked up the sounds of chains, a motorbike starting, and people screaming."

Since then, Alan Tait said, they have heard "a woman screaming, sexual sounds, dogs barking, a printing press running, a motorbike, a car horn honking and what sounds like a police siren," all from beneath their house, which stands on a quiet alleyway.

Haunted House by Hayashiya Shozo, early 1800s [Image is in the Public Domain]

On the link is a recording made my Alan Tait that has some of the sounds he claims he captured by dropping a microphone down a 1.5 meter shaft he dug in his basement.  They're pretty creepy, I'll say that -- although, in context, not really much worse than you'd hear in a busy city (and we have only the word of the article's author, Robert Harries, about how quiet the neighborhood is).

So the people at Wales Online sent a team into the house, after Alan Tait said he'd let them go as long as they were aware that he wasn't responsible for anything that happened to them.  They brought in recording equipment, stayed there for hours, and what happened was...

... nothing.  The only thing the recording equipment picked up was the team themselves, moving around as they packed up to leave.

So it sounds a little fishy to me.  I'm always pretty dubious about evil spirits that magically vanish whenever anyone shows up with a skeptical attitude.  I'm reminded of what the character MacPhee says in That Hideous Strength, by C. S. Lewis: "If anything wants Andrew MacPhee to believe in its existence, I’ll be obliged if it will present itself in full daylight, with a sufficient number of witnesses present, and not get shy if you hold up a camera or a thermometer."

There's also the problem that (despite Wales Online's mention of sending out a team to investigate) the whole thing has a sensationalized tabloid feel about it.  I don't know what Wales Online's reliability is, but on a glance it reminds me of trash like The Daily Mail Fail.

Last, my spidey-senses were definitely alerted by the end of the article, where we find out that Alan and Christine Tait were "not prepared to say where in the UK they currently reside and did not want pictures of themselves published in the press," presumably to protect their privacy -- after giving out their names, ages (62), publishing photographs of their house, and stating that they were "travelling around the country handing out posters and fliers about what we think is going on."

So to me, it sounds like a publicity stunt, although (as a dedicated home-body) I have a hard time imagining wanting publicity to the point that you're willing to abandon your house and live out of a camper van.

But that's just me.

So to the reader who sent the link: thanks, but I'm generally unimpressed.  I guess that was a predictable response, but even so, this is one that doesn't add up to me.  Until I start hearing screams, banging, and "sexual sounds" from underneath my own basement, I'm not buying it.

**************************************

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is pure fun for anyone who (like me) appreciates both plants and an occasional nice cocktail -- The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart.  Most of the things we drink (both alcohol-containing and not) come from plants, and Stewart takes a look at some of the plants that have provided us with bar staples -- from the obvious, like grapes (wine), barley (beer), and agave (tequila), to the obscure, like gentian (angostura bitters) and hyssop (Bénédictine).

It's not a scientific tome, more a bit of light reading for anyone who wants to know more about what they're imbibing.  So learn a little about what's behind the bar -- and along the way, a little history and botany as well.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Thursday, July 11, 2019

Revising Hubble

If I had to pick the most paradigm-changing discovery of the twentieth century, a strong contender would be the discovery of red shift by astronomer Edwin Hubble.

What Hubble found was that when he analyzed the spectral lines from stars in distant galaxies, the lines -- representing wavelengths of light emitted by elements in the stars' atmospheres -- had slid toward the red (longer-wavelength) end of the spectrum.  Hubble realized that this meant that the galaxies were receding from us at fantastic speeds, resulting in a Doppler shift of the light coming from them.

What was most startling, though, is that the further away a galaxy was, the faster it was moving.  This observation led directly to the theory of the Big Bang, that originally all matter in the universe was coalesced into a single point, then -- for reasons still unclear -- began to expand outward at a rate that defies comprehension.

There's a simple quantity (well, simple to define, anyhow) that describes the relationship that Hubble discovered.  It's called the Hubble constant, and is defined at the ratio between the velocity of a galaxy and its distance from us.  The relationship seems to be linear (meaning the constant isn't itself dependent upon distance), but the exact value has proven extremely difficult to determine.  Measurements have varied between 50 and 500 kilometers per second per megaparsec, which is a hell of a range for something that's supposed to be a constant.

And the problem is, the value has varied depending on how it's calculated.  Measurements based upon the cosmic microwave background radiation give one range of values; measurements using Type 1A supernovae (a commonly-used "standard candle" for calculating the distances to galaxies) give a different range.

Enter Kenta Hotokezaka of Princeton University, who has decided to tackle this problem head-on.  “The Hubble constant is one of the most fundamental pieces of information that describes the state of the universe in the past, present and future," Hotokezaka said in a press release.  "So we’d like to know what its value is...  either one of [the accepted calculations of the constant] is incorrect, or the models of the physics which underpin them are wrong.  We’d like to know what is really happening in the universe, so we need a third, independent check."

Hotokezaka and his team have found the check they were looking for in the collision of two neutron stars in a distant galaxy.  The measurements made of the gravitational waves emitted by this collision were so precise it kind of boggles the mind.  Adam Deller, of Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, who co-authored the paper, said, "The resolution of the radio images we made was so high, if it was an optical camera, it could see individual hairs on someone’s head 3 miles away."

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons ESA, Colliding neutron stars ESA385307, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO]

Using this information, the researchers were able to narrow in on the Hubble constant -- reducing the uncertainty to between 65.3 and 75.6 kilometers per second per megaparsec.

Quite an improvement over 50 to 500, isn't it?

"This is the first time that astronomers have been able to measure the Hubble constant by using a joint analysis of a gravitational-wave signals and radio images,"  Hotokezaka said about the accomplishment of his team.  "It is remarkable that only a single merger event allows us to measure the Hubble constant with a high precision — and this approach relies neither on the cosmological model (Planck) nor the cosmic-distance ladder (Type Ia)."

I'm constantly astonished by what we can learn of our universe as we sit here, stuck on this little ball of spinning rock around an average star in one arm of an average galaxy.  It's a considerable credit to our ingenuity, persistence, and creativity, isn't it?  From our vantage point, we're able to gain an understanding of the behavior of the most distant objects in the universe -- and from that, deduce how everything began.

**************************************

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is pure fun for anyone who (like me) appreciates both plants and an occasional nice cocktail -- The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart.  Most of the things we drink (both alcohol-containing and not) come from plants, and Stewart takes a look at some of the plants that have provided us with bar staples -- from the obvious, like grapes (wine), barley (beer), and agave (tequila), to the obscure, like gentian (angostura bitters) and hyssop (Bénédictine).

It's not a scientific tome, more a bit of light reading for anyone who wants to know more about what they're imbibing.  So learn a little about what's behind the bar -- and along the way, a little history and botany as well.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Rising tide

The current administration's approach to facts they don't like seems to have three parts:
  1. Lie about them.
  2. Get all the members of your administration, and any other cronies you can convince, to avoid mentioning them.
  3. If the facts come out anyway, blame "Fake News."
If you needed any further proof of this, all you have to do is to look at the recent news release from the United States Geological Survey regarding improving infrastructure on the California coast.  The news release was based on a paper published earlier this year in the journal Scientific Reports, and focused on methodology -- ways to mitigate flood damage and damage from mudslides, for example.

The problem is, if you read the paper itself, you'll see that the press release neglected mention of the study's major conclusion -- that California is in dire danger of catastrophic flooding, with property damage in the hundreds of billions of dollars -- and that the cause is anthropogenic climate change.

Worse still, it wasn't a simple omission.  An earlier version of the press release included facts and figures from the study, including the alarming conclusion that between three and seven times more people and businesses will be at risk than estimated in earlier projections, but the Trump administration "sanitized" the press release by removing every single reference to climate change, and making it sound like the entire study was about thinking ahead and shoring everything up and making everyone safe.

"It's been made clear to us that we're not supposed to use climate change in press releases anymore," one federal researcher said, under conditions of anonymity for fear of reprisal.  "They will not be authorized."

The problem goes all the way to the top.  James Reilly, director of the USGS, authorized the scrubbing of the press release, despite his statement at his 2018 confirmation hearing that he was "fully committed to scientific integrity."

Which, at this point, appears to have been a blatant lie.

Flooding on Assateague Island, Virginia [Image is in the Public Domain]

Trump has been (rightly) criticized for his blatant disregard for scientific research and his overturning of dozens of environmental protections -- loosening standards for pollution, removing corporate oversight, making it more difficult for industry to be sued for cleanup.  Despite this, in a rant earlier this week that was bizarre even by his standards, Trump portrayed himself as an environmental leader, skewing facts (such as his claim that the United States has been a leader in reduction of carbon emissions, when in fact we're the second highest in the world) and rambling on with nearly incoherent bits like this:
You don't have to have any forest fires.  It's interesting.  I spoke to certain countries, and they said, "Sir, we're a forest nation."  I never thought of a country -- well-known countries; "we're a forest nation."  I never heard of the term "forest nation."  They live in forests.  And they don't have problems...  Remember, management.  It's called forest management.  So it's a very important term.  When I went to California, they sort of scoffed at me for the first two weeks and maybe three weeks and not so much four weeks, and after about five weeks they said, "You know, he's right.  He's right."
It's almost a guarantee that if Donald Trump said "I was told..." the next thing that comes out of his mouth will be a lie.  And for what it's worth, elected officials and policy leaders in California have all denied (some of them, after laughing uproariously) that they agreed with anything Trump said about environmental policy.

Remember, this is the guy who said that Finland avoids forest fires because they spend a lot of time raking.

For fuck's sake.

"Don't trust what the government says" has become almost a cliché regarding every resistance movement ever organized, but in this case, it seems like it's not an overgeneralization.  This administration has made a policy of deceit, coverup, corruption, and subterfuge that makes Watergate and Teapot Dome look like kids staging a play for their parents.  The problem here is that in this case, what they're lying about is the long-term habitability of the planet.

Which moves this whole issue from "immoral" to "unconscionable."

**************************************

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is pure fun for anyone who (like me) appreciates both plants and an occasional nice cocktail -- The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart.  Most of the things we drink (both alcohol-containing and not) come from plants, and Stewart takes a look at some of the plants that have provided us with bar staples -- from the obvious, like grapes (wine), barley (beer), and agave (tequila), to the obscure, like gentian (angostura bitters) and hyssop (Bénédictine).

It's not a scientific tome, more a bit of light reading for anyone who wants to know more about what they're imbibing.  So learn a little about what's behind the bar -- and along the way, a little history and botany as well.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]