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.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Social media dissociation

I suspect that many of my readers will resonate with my desire to fritter away less time on social media.

I don't mean the actual "social" part of social media.  I have friends whom I seldom if ever get to see, and especially since the pandemic started, visiting online is about my only opportunity.  I greatly value those conversations.  What I'm referring to is the aimless scrolling, looking for new content, any new content.  Trying to find a distraction even though I know that a dozen other things, from listening to some music, to playing with my dogs, to going for a run -- even weeding the garden -- will leave me feeling better.

But -- once again, as I'm sure many of you can attest -- it can be exceedingly hard to say "enough" and close the app.  It was one thing when your connectivity had to be via a desktop or laptop computer; but now that just about all of us (even me, Luddite though I am) are carrying around our social media addiction in our pockets, it's way too easy to say "just a few more minutes" and drop back into the world of scrolling.

One effect I've noticed it's had on me is a shortening of my attention span.  Something has to be absolutely immersive to keep my attention for over five minutes.  Two of my favorite YouTube science channels, the wonderful Veratasium and physicist Sabine Hossenfelder's awesome Science Without the Gobbledygook, have videos that average at about ten to twelve minutes long, and man... sometimes that is a struggle, however fascinating the topic.

I don't like this trend.  I won't say I've ever had the best of focus -- distractions and my wandering mind have been issues since I was in grade school -- but social media have made it considerably worse.  Frequently I think about how addicted I am to scrolling, and it's a real cause of worry.

But then I start scrolling again and forget all about it.

That last bit was the subject of a study from the University of Washington that was presented last month at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.  In, "'I Don’t Even Remember What I Read': How Design Influences Dissociation on Social Media," a team led by Amanda Baughan looked at how social media apps are actually designed to have this exact effect -- and that although we frequently call it an addiction, it is more accurately described as dissociation.

"Dissociation is defined by being completely absorbed in whatever it is you're doing," Baughan said, in an interview with Science Daily.  "But people only realize that they've dissociated in hindsight.  So once you exit dissociation there's sometimes this feeling of: 'How did I get here?'  It's like when people on social media realize: 'Oh my gosh, how did thirty minutes go by?  I just meant to check one notification.'"

Which is spot-on.  Even the title is a bullseye; after a half-hour on Twitter, I'd virtually always be hard-pressed to tell you the content of more than one or two of the tweets I looked at.  The time slips by, and it feels very much like I glance up at the clock, and three hours are gone without my having anything at all to show for it.

It always reminds me of a quote from C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters.  While I (obviously) don't buy into the theology, his analysis of time-wasting by the arch-demon Screwtape is scarily accurate:
As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing Pleasures as temptations.  As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo (for that is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention.  You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do.  You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him.  You can make him do nothing at all for long periods.  You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room.  All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here [in hell], "I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked."

That last line, especially, is a fair knockout, and it kind of makes me suspicious that social media may have been developed down in hell after all.

Baughan, however, says maybe we shouldn't be so hard on ourselves.  "I think people experience a lot of shame around social media use," she said.  "One of the things I like about this framing of 'dissociation' rather than 'addiction' is that it changes the narrative.  Instead of: 'I should be able to have more self-control,' it's more like: 'We all naturally dissociate in many ways throughout our day -- whether it's daydreaming or scrolling through Instagram, we stop paying attention to what's happening around us.'"

Even so, for a lot of us, it gets kind of obsessive at times.  It's worse when I'm anxious or depressed, when I crave a distraction not only from unpleasant external circumstances but from the workings of my own brain.  And it's problematic that when that occurs, the combination of depression and social media create a feedback loop that keeps me from seeking out activities -- which sometimes just means turning off the computer and doing something, anything, different -- that will actually shake me out of my low mood.

But she's right that shaming ourselves isn't productive, either.  Maybe a lot of us could benefit by some moderation in our screen time, but self-flagellation doesn't accomplish anything.  I'm not going to give up on social media entirely -- like I said, without it I would lose touch with too many contacts I value -- but setting myself some stricter time limits is probably a good idea.

And now that you've read this, maybe it's time for you to shut off the device, too.  What are you going to do instead?  I think I'll go for a run.

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Friday, May 27, 2022

Unexplainable malarkey

A regular reader and frequent contributor to Skeptophilia sent me a link yesterday, with the message, "Oooh, look!  Another company has discovered that it can sell bogus woo-woo stuff using your favorite words -- frequency, field, energy, and vibration!"

Regular readers undoubtedly know how pissed off I get when people use scientific words and can't even be bothered to look up the actual definitions.  It's even worse when they use said misused scientific words to rip people off, although clearly some of the responsibility lies with the consumers, because after all, they could also bother to look up the actual definitions if they wanted to -- caveat emptor, and all of that sort of thing.

So, anyway, I clicked the link, and it brought me to a site called "Unexplainable Frequencies."  My first reaction was that I don't see how a frequency can be unexplainable.  I mean, it's either 638.7 Hertz or it isn't.  In any case, even from the title I knew this site was gonna be good for a few faceplants.  Here's the banner headline on the homepage:

LIFE IS FREQUENCY
Everything In Existence Has It's Own Frequency Signature. Every Person, Every Animal, And Every Planet Vibrate At it's Own Rhythm. Pure Direct Frequencies Can Help You Heal, Grow, And Change.

Evidently, one of the things that "Pure Direct Frequencies" doesn't do is to help you to learn the difference between "it's" and "its," and that you Don't Need To Capitalize Every Word To Make Your Point.  But maybe I'm just being picky, here.

Further down the page, we find out that we can purchase mp3s ("hundreds of thousands sold," they tell us, which makes me despair for the human race).  These mp3s contain sound recordings with "frequencies" that supposedly  help us to accomplish things in a variety of areas, including:
  • Manifestation
  • Wealth
  • Visualization
  • Astral Projection
  • Lucid Dreams
  • Spirit Guide
  • Chakra Work
  • Remote Viewing
  • Psychic/ESP
  • Christ Consciousness
  • IQ Increaser
So, I decided to listen to some sound samples.  I picked "IQ Increaser," because heaven knows some days I could use some help in that department.  The description said:
Our custom IQ/ Memory Booster recording is in a category of it’s [sic] own, and is one of our top rated products for good reason.  We begin the session by penetrating your body’s own unique energy field with a low vibrational frequency designed to create feelings of “total knowingness.”  You will begin feeling connected and well rounded within the first few minutes.  You may confuse your new disposition with overconfidence but as you will soon see it’s intended.  Change requires confidence you can’t achieve your desired result unless you believe it’s inevitably going to happen.

We’ll then begin blasting your brain with a frequency directly related to Intelligence.  In fact those with brain functions operating in this range are considered geniuses.  This will help your brains [sic] capacity for learning and understanding complex concepts.  In addition to boosting your intelligence this portion of your session can aid arthritis pain, stop involuntary eye movements, and regulate the pulses in women.

Midway through the recording you will begin reflecting on your session and without realizing it you will be recollecting fine details about the past ten minutes.  We manipulated your brain into a higher memory state through frequency and tone.  You will remember things more easily and think deeper than you ever knew you could.  You’ve only unlocked the ability you’ve always had.

You’ll then begin feeling more in tune to what’s really happening around you and enjoy feelings of enlightenment.  You wont realize its happening but we’ve been channeling vibrations towards your cerebral cortex.  You’ll begin to feel your forehead getting warmer and tingling in your spleen.

Your session concludes with another fortifying frequency associated with the functioning of the cerebral cortex.  We want to encourage your brain to store information more efficiently.  When your session concludes we encourage you to try memory games to test your new found ability.  You will notice a considerable difference between your memory skills before and after use.
All of this sounded pretty hopeful, although I wasn't sure how I felt about having my spleen tingle. Nor is it clear why it only helps women with their pulse.  Maybe guys' hearts are tuned to a different unexplainable frequency, I dunno.  But either way, I figured it was worth the risk.  So I started the clip, and closed my eyes.

The Astral Sleep by Jeroen van Valkenburg (1998) [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Jeroen van Valkenburg artist QS:P170,Q91911584, The Astral Sleep, CC BY 2.0]


After about 45 seconds, I had an amazing experience!  I said, "Huh."  And I stopped the clip.  Listening to "IQ Increaser" is about as interesting as reading a telephone book.  It turned out to be a bunch of slowly shifting electronic keyboard noises that just kind of go on and on.  I experienced no spleen tingles, my forehead is still the same temperature, my cerebral cortex is still un-vibrated and lacking in total knowingness, and my thinking processes seem as fuzzy as ever, although that last one may be because I haven't had my second cup of coffee yet.  I can't imagine listening to this stuff for an hour -- it gives new meaning to the word "monotonous." It sounds like music that was rejected by Music From The Hearts Of Space on the basis of being too ethereal.

The best part of the whole site, however, is the "Testimonials" page.  To listen to these people talk, you'd swear that listening to the keyboard noises caused major life changes, or at least multiple orgasms.  Here are a couple:
"I bought this mp3 to help me visualize and calm my mind's chatter.  I was surprised how quickly my brain winded down and melted away, leaving me in a perfect visualization state.  This recording did what it claimed."

"I been playing this frequency for a few days now in the background when I relax and it certainly does do something weird to my mind.  I will continue to play it regularly."
Myself, I don't think see how your brain melting is a good thing.  But I suppose it had to already be partly melted in order to purchase this malarkey.

But here's my favorite:
"I been listening to the astral projection custom session and I can sometimes feel my body tingling and starting to shift around.  I think I will be traveling the astral plane before I know it.  Thank You Unexplainable Frequencies!"
So, evidently, there are at least a few people who have achieved positive results, although my own personal opinion is that anything they accomplished by listening to "Unexplainable Frequencies" could have been accomplished without them.  Sorry if you're one of the Satisfied Customers, but "Unexplainable Frequencies" is a lot of pseudoscientific horseshit.

Anyhow, that's today's heaping helping of woo-woo.  More people using words about which they obviously don't have the first glimmer of understanding.  I suppose we should look on the bright side, however; I never saw that they used the word "quantum."

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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Monkeying around with the truth

I don't think I'll ever understand the conspiracy theorist mindset.

It's not, mind you, that I think conspiracies never happen.  It's just that the vast majority of them get found out or otherwise fall apart through gossip and sheer ineptitude.  Humans are lousy at keeping secrets -- and the more people are in the know about the secrets, the faster they get found out.  If you don't believe me (hell, maybe I'm one of the conspirators and am trying to fool you -- mwa ha ha etc.), check out this study I wrote about last year that actually showed there's an inverse relationship between the number of people in a conspiracy and how fast it collapses.

Also, if there were a successful conspiracy -- the likelihood of it being figured out by stupid people is fairly low.  Which was my reaction when I read that the recent outbreak of monkeypox is already being branded a left-wing fabrication by people like Arizona State Senator Wendy Rogers, who amongst (many) other things buys into the idiotic claim that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 presidential election, and that the voter fraud that put Joe Biden into office was the work of "seditious Jews."

So it's pretty clear that Wendy Rogers has spent too much time doing sit-ups underneath parked cars.  But being crazy and stupid doesn't, unfortunately, make you quiet, so it came as no surprise to me that she is now saying the following about the monkeypox outbreak:

  • Monkeypox is an invention of the Democrats to compensate for falling approval ratings and to "reestablish tyrannical control" over rights and freedoms.  (Unfortunately for Rogers, monkeypox was discovered in 1958.)
  • The fact that the virus is spreading much faster than monkeypox usually does should make us suspicious about "what Gates, Fauci, and the rest of the so-called 'public health experts' have been up to for the last few years."  (Which ignores the fact that viruses are excellent at evolving to become more transmissible.  Oh, but wait, she doesn't believe in evolution, either.)

Then her followers started yapping along with her, and adding to the foolishness:

  • Monkeypox is a side-effect of the COVID-19 vaccine.  (It's not.)
  • It's a complete fake; the entire outbreak is a hoax.  (It's not.)
  • Okay, maybe it's not a hoax, but it's only spreading in Blacks and gay people.  (It's not.)
  • Just like COVID-19 is the same thing as the flu, monkeypox is the same thing as shingles.  (It's not, and it's fucking not.)

Unfortunately, the last bit was made considerably worse when someone found a photograph on a Mumbai-based website that was labeled as monkeypox, but was actually a photo of a shingles rash that had been taken from the website of the Queensland Health Department.  The Mumbai health website apologized for, and fixed, the error as soon as they found out about it, but by then it was too late.  Honestly, the confusion was understandable; they do look similar, and you probably know that the causative agent in shingles is the chickenpox (varicella) virus, which is in the same genus (Orthopoxvirus) as monkeypox.

Thus the similarity.

But did I mention that they are not the same thing?  

Monkeypox virus [Image is in the Public Domain]

I know whereof I speak; last year, because 2021 wasn't already enough of a shitshow, I got shingles.  It was pretty mild as such things go, but still hurt like hell, giving me the characteristic "electric zaps" of pain.  But -- unlike monkeypox -- I had no fever, no swollen lymph nodes, none of the other warning signs that it was anything but ordinary shingles.

And, most significantly, when I took a week's worth of aciclovir, it went away.  As shingles does.  As monkeypox does not.

But I'm not expecting any of this to convince anyone who isn't already convinced, especially not Wendy Rogers, who appears to have a half-pound of LaffyTaffy where most of us have a brain.  As I've mentioned before, once you've decided everyone's lying to you, you're unreachable.  Anyone who tries is either a dupe or a shill, so What I Already Believed q.e.d.

Or, put another way, you can't logic your way out of a position you didn't logic your way into.

What's most upsetting, though, is how many people immediately jump on the bandwagon with horseshit like this.  Epidemics and outbreaks are scary, I get that.  We live in a big, chaotic, unpredictable world.  But sometimes stuff just happens.  Everything isn't a plot, a conspiracy, wheels within wheels.

But with people like Wendy Rogers, that's not good enough.  Not only does attributing everything bad to some grand conspiracy appeal to her mindset, it also allows her to scapegoat the people she already hated.

For me, I'd rather side with Carl Sagan, as he expressed the philosophy in his wonderful book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Darkness: "For me, it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."

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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Golden years gold medal

You've probably heard the old joke about a man going in for major surgery.  "Doc," he says, right before the anesthetic is administered, "I gotta ask... after this surgery, will I be able to play the piano?"

The surgeon smiles reassuringly and says, "Of course you will."

"Awesome!" the man says.  "I've always wanted to play the piano!"

That's what came to mind when I read an article in Science called, "Will You Keep Winning Races Into Old Age?  Your Cells Hold Clues," by Tess Joosse.  I'm hoping that like the aspiring pianist, old age will put me into the winner's bracket, because since I started running semi-competitively forty years ago, I've yet to win a race.  I train, I run regularly, but I'm still (and probably always will be) a solid middle-of-the-packer.  The closest I've ever come was about three years ago, when I came in third in my age group.

To be scrupulously honest, there were only six people in my age group.  But I'll take my little victories wherever I can get them.

Me last year, about to not cross the finish line first

Be that as it may, I'm still in there trying.  I'm 61, and I know that regular exercise is essential not only for continuing physical health but mental wellbeing.  In fact, on June 8 I'm running in the Ithaca Twilight 5K, a wonderful race down the footpaths along Cayuga Lake, and because I'm recovering from a series of health setbacks I've lowered my sights to simply getting across the finish line without having to be carted over it in a wheelbarrow.

Even though the "will you keep winning?" part of the headline of the article struck me as funny, the research itself is pretty cool.  Russell Hepple, a biologist at the University of Florida, wondered what was going on with people who are still competitive racers even into old age -- such as his father-in-law, who holds the record time for an eighty-year-old in the Boston Marathon.  Hepple and his colleagues did an assay on the muscle tissue of world-class senior athletes and a group of non-athletes, and found no fewer than eight hundred proteins that were produced in amounts that were significantly different between the two groups.  Some were higher in the athletes; others were lower.  But one obvious patterns was that over half of the proteins the study found were ones that are expressed by, or otherwise affect, the mitochondria.

For some reason, the factoid "the mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell" is one that sticks in the minds of just about everyone who has taken high school biology, but the way they work is actually pretty amazing.  Your mitochondria are actually symbiotic single-celled life-forms living inside your cells -- they even have their own DNA -- and they have evolved a complex series of chemical reactions (collectively known as aerobic cellular respiration) to break down glucose and store its energy in a molecule called ATP, which is the direct driver of damn near every process living things do.  The amount of ATP created and the rate at which it's used are in an incredibly tight balance; it's estimated that you produce (and consume/recycle) your body weight in ATP every day, which amounts to ten million ATP molecules per second, per cell.

So it's no surprise that octogenarian racers have better mitochondrial function than the rest of us slobs.  In fact, the study found that 176 of the proteins studied were unique to elite senior athletes; how much of that is because of a lucky combination of genes, and how much is because their continuous training has triggered protein production that in non-athletes tapers off or stops entirely, isn't known.

Also an open question is whether administering one or more of these proteins would boost aerobic exercise capacity in older people who aren't athletes (but would like to be).  Luigi Ferrucci of the National Institute on Aging, who co-authored the study, has proposed trying this in mice and seeing if it does increase endurance and stamina, without any untoward side effects.

In any case, I suspect that no matter what I do, I'll never be a gold medalist.  That's okay with me.  I love running for running's sake, and the race community (at least around here) is super supportive of everyone regardless of their level.  (At a race I was in a while back, a twelve-year-old boy had posted himself just past the finish line, and was high-fiving each runner as they crossed.  When I stumbled my way across, he grinned at me and said, "Well done, Shirtless Tattoo Guy!"  That, to me, encapsulates the spirit of racing in my area.)

But I'll be interested to see where this research leads.  Anything I can do to stave off decline (physical or mental) as I get older is a good thing.  Until then, though, I'll keep running, and keep being okay with finishing in the middle of the pack.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Forensic geology

I've been interested in rocks since I was a kid.  My dad was a rockhound -- more specifically, a lapidary, who made jewelry from such semiprecious stones as turquoise, agate, and jasper.  The high point of my year was our annual trip to Arizona and New Mexico, when we split our time between searching for cool rocks in the canyons and hills of the southwestern desert and pawing through the offerings of the hundreds of rock shops found throughout the region.

Besides the simple beauty of the rocks themselves, it fascinated me to find out that with many rocks, you could figure out how and when they formed.  A lot of the gem-quality rocks and minerals my dad was looking for -- malachite, azurite, and opal amongst them -- are created by slow precipitation of layers of minerals from supersaturated water; others, such as lapis lazuli, rhodonite, and garnets form when metal-bearing rocks are metamorphosed by contact with magma far underground.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Olga Semiletova, Минералы горных пород, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]

Once I found out that the "when" part was also often knowable, through such techniques as radioisotope dating and stratigraphy, it was always with a sense of awe that I held pieces of rock in my hand.  Even around where I live now, where there are few if any of the lovely gem-quality stones you find in the southwest, there's still something kind of mind-boggling about knowing the layers of limestone and shale that form the bedrock here in upstate New York were formed in the warm shallows of a warm ocean during the Devonian Period, on the order of four hundred million years ago.

But if you think that's impressive, wait till you hear about the research out of the University of Johannesburg that was published in the journal Icarus last week.

The research centered around a stone in the desert of western Egypt called Hypatia, given the name by Egyptian geologist Aly Barakat in honor of the brilliant, tragic polymath whose career was cut short when she was brutally murdered by a mob on the orders of Cyril, bishop of Alexandria.  (The aftermath, although infuriating, is typical of the time; Hypatia was largely forgotten, while Cyril went on to be canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.)  The stone, fittingly considering Hypatia's contributions to astronomy, turns out to be extraterrestrial in origin, later falling as a meteorite to the surface of the Earth.

But "extraterrestrial" is a big place, as it were.  Where exactly did it form?  Chemical tests on the rock found that it didn't match the composition of any known asteroid or comet; then, the mystery deepened when it was found to contain nickel phosphide, which has never been found on any solid material tested in the entire Solar System.

Further tests only made the rock seem more anomalous.  Silicon, second only to oxygen as the most common element in the Earth's crust (a little over 28%, to be exact), was almost absent, as were calcium, chromium, and manganese; on the other hand, there was far more iron, sulfur, phosphorus, copper, and vanadium than you'd expect.  The ratios were far off not only from rocks in our Solar System, they didn't match the composition of interstellar dust, either.

The researchers decided to go at it from the other direction.  Instead of trying to find another sample that matched, they looked at what process would create the element ratios that Hypatia has.  And they found only one candidate that matched.

A type 1a supernova.

Type 1a supernovas occur in binary star systems, when one of the stars is relatively low mass (on the order of the Sun) and ends its life as a super-compact white dwarf star.  White dwarf stars have an upper limit on their mass (specifically about 1.4 times the mass of the Sun) called the Chandrasekhar limit, after Nobel Prize winning astronomer Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.  The reason is that at the end of a star's life, when the outward pressure caused by the fusion in the core drops to the point that it can't overcome the inward pull of gravity from the star's mass, it begins to collapse until some other force kicks in to oppose it.  In white dwarf stars, this occurs when the mutual repulsion of electrons in the star's constituent atoms counterbalances the pull of gravity.  In stellar remnants more than 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, electrostatic repulsion isn't powerful enough to halt the collapse.  (The other two possibilities, for progressively higher masses, are neutron stars and black holes.)

In binary stars, when one of the members becomes a white dwarf, the gravitational pull of its extremely compact mass begins to siphon material from its companion.  This (obviously) increases the white dwarf's mass.  Once it passes the Chandrasekhar limit, the white dwarf resumes its collapse.  The temperature of the white dwarf skyrockets, and...

... BOOM.

The whole thing blows itself to smithereens.  Fortunately for us, really; a lot of the elements that make up the Solar System were formed in violent events such as the various kinds of supernovas.  But the models of the relatively rare type 1a (only thought to happen once or twice a century in a typical galaxy of a hundred billion stars) generate a distinct set of elements -- and the percent composition of Hypatia matches the prediction perfectly.

So this chunk of rock in the Egyptian desert was created in the cataclysmic self-destruction of a white dwarf star, probably long before the Solar System even formed.  Since then it's been coursing through interstellar space, eventually colliding with our obscure little planet in the outskirts of the Milky Way.

When I was twelve, holding a piece of billion-year-old limestone from the Grand Canyon, little did I realize how much more amazing such origin stories could get.

I think the real Hypatia would have been fascinated.

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Monday, May 23, 2022

Behind the mirror

I know I've snarked before about the how unbearably goofy the old 1960s television show Lost in Space was, but I have to admit that every once in a (long) while, they nailed it.  And one of the best examples is the first-season episode "The Magic Mirror."

Well, mostly nailed it.  The subplot about how real girls care about makeup and hair and being pretty is more than a little cringe-inducing.  But the overarching story -- about mirrors being portals to a parallel world, and a boy who is trapped behind them because he has no reflection -- is brilliant.  And the other-side-of-the-mirror world he lives in is hauntingly surreal.


I was thinking about this episode because of a paper that appeared in Physical Review Letters last week entitled, "Symmetry of Cosmological Observables, a Mirror World Dark Sector, and the Hubble Constant," by Francis-Yan Cyr-Ravine, Fei Ge, and Lloyd Knox, of the University of New Mexico.  What this paper does is offer a possible solution to the Hubble constant problem -- that the rate of expansion of the universe as predicted by current mathematical models is significantly smaller than the actual measured expansion rate.

What Cyr-Racine, Ge, and Knox propose is that there is an unseen "mirror world" of particles that coexists alongside our own, interacting only through gravity but otherwise invisible to detection.  At first, I thought they might be talking about something like dark matter -- a form of matter that only (very) weakly interacts with ordinary matter -- but it turns out that what they're saying is even weirder.

"This discrepancy is one that many cosmologists have been trying to solve by changing our current cosmological model," Cyr-Racine told Science Daily "The challenge is to do so without ruining the agreement between standard model predictions and many other cosmological phenomena, such as the cosmic microwave background...  Basically, we point out that a lot of the observations we do in cosmology have an inherent symmetry under rescaling the universe as a whole.  This might provide a way to understand why there appears to be a discrepancy between different measurements of the universe's expansion rate.  In practice, this scaling symmetry could only be realized by including a mirror world in the model -- a parallel universe with new particles that are all copies of known particles.  The mirror world idea first arose in the 1990s but has not previously been recognized as a potential solution to the Hubble constant problem.  This might seem crazy at face value, but such mirror worlds have a large physics literature in a completely different context since they can help solve important problem in particle physics.  Our work allows us to link, for the first time, this large literature to an important problem in cosmology."

The word "important" is a bit of an understatement.  The Hubble constant problem is one of the biggest puzzles in physics; why theory and observation are so different on this one critical point, and how to fix the theory without blowing to smithereens everything that the theory does predict correctly.  "It went from two and a half Sigma, to three, and three and a half to four Sigma. By now, we are pretty much at the five-Sigma level," said Cyr-Racine.  "That's the key number which makes this a real problem because you have two measurements of the same thing, which if you have a consistent picture of the universe should just be completely consistent with each other, but they differ by a very statistically significant amount.  That's the premise here, and we've been thinking about what could be causing that and why are these measurements discrepant?  So that's a big problem for cosmology.  We just don't seem to understand what the universe is doing today."

I know that despite my background in science, I can have a pretty wild imagination.  It's an occupational hazard of being a speculative fiction writer.  I hear some new scientific finding, and immediately start putting some weird spin on it that, though it might be interesting, is completely unwarranted by the actual research.  But look at Cyr-Racine's own words: a parallel universe with new particles that are all copies of known particles.  I think I'm to be excused for thinking of "The Magic Mirror" and other science fiction stories about ghostly worlds coexisting, unseen, with our own.

I'm not going to pretend to understand the math behind the Cyr-Racine et al. paper; despite having a B.S. in physics, academic papers in the discipline usually lose me in the first paragraph (if not the abstract).  But it's a fascinating and spooky idea.  I doubt if what's going on has anything to do with surreal worlds behind mirrors and boys who are trapped because they have no reflection, but the reality -- if it bears up under analysis -- isn't a whole lot less weird.

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Saturday, May 21, 2022

A tincture of madness

There's long been a supposed connection between being highly creative and being mentally ill. The list of individuals who were both is a long one.  Ernest Hemingway, Georgia O'Keeffe, Hermann Hesse, Maurice Ravel, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pyotr Ilyich TchaikovskyEdgar Allen Poe, Jackson Pollock, Cole Porter, Vincent van Gogh, and Robert Schumann all suffered from varying degrees of mental problems, most of them from severe depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder.  More than one of these spent the last years of life in a mental institution, and more than one committed suicide.

People who have expressed their creativity in technical fields show the same tendencies.  Physicist Ludwig Boltzmann killed himself; Charles Darwin seems to have had severe agoraphobia, and spent most of the later years of his life in virtual isolation; and the wildly brilliant mathematician Kurt Gödel was a paranoid schizophrenic who became so convinced people were poisoning his food that he finally stopped eating completely and starved to death.

"The only difference between myself and a madman," Salvador Dalí famously quipped, "is that I am not mad."  Two thousand years earlier, the Roman writer Seneca said, "There is no genius without a tincture of madness."


[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Mental illness silhouette, Paget Michael Creelman, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]

Research has supported that there is a fundamental connection between creativity and mental illness.  One of the chief investigators into this link is Fredrik Ullén, of the Karolinska Institutet of Stockholm, who not only showed that creativity correlates with genetic markers for both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but demonstrated a connection between creativity and the dopamine (pleasure/reward) system in the brain -- the same system that is implicated in several forms of mental illness, including schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and tendency to addiction.

Ullén administered a test that was designed to measure a subject's capacity for creative thinking, specifically for developing more than one solution to the same problem or using non-linear solution methods to arrive at an answer. He then analyzed the brain activity of the individuals who scored the highest, and found that across the board, they had lower amounts of dopamine receptors in a part of the brain called the thalamus, one of the main "switchboards" in the higher brain, and responsible for sorting and processing sensory stimuli.

The implication is that creative people don't have as rigid a sorting mechanism as other, less creative people -- that having a built-in deficiency in your relay system may help you to arrive at solutions to problems that others might not have seen.

The connection between the thalamus, creativity, and sorting issues is supported by a different bit of brain research that found that a miswiring of the thalamus is implicated in another bizarre mental disorder, called synesthesia.  In synesthesia, signals from the sensory organs are misrouted to the incorrect interpretive centers in the cerebrum, and an auditory signal (for example) might be received in the visual cortex.  As a result, you would "see sounds." Other senses can be crosswired, however -- the seminal study of the disorder is described in Richard Cytowic's book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes.

Synesthsia is apparently also much more common among the creative.  Alexander Scriabin, the early twentieth century Russian composer, wrote his music as much from how it looked to him as how it sounded.  He describes a sensation of color being overlaid on what he was actually seeing when he heard specific combinations of notes.  The colors were consistent; C# minor, for example, was always green, Eb major always magenta.  And although Alexander Scriabin's synesthesia was perhaps the most intense, he is not the only composer who was synesthetic; the evidence is strong that Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Olivier Messaien also had this same miswiring.

The studies by Ullén and others have now taken the first steps toward connecting these physiological manifestations with the phenomenon of creativity itself.  "Thinking outside the box," Ullén said, "may be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box."

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