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, August 8, 2020

Font of creativity

I'm undecided as to whether writers' block is a real thing.

I know there are times I find it difficult to write.  Not only my fiction writing -- which, as a purely creative endeavor, might be subject to more mystical forces of inspiration and imagination -- but even my work here at Skeptophilia.  Sometimes the daily blog post is easy and quick, and other times it's an uphill slog at best.

But the term writers' block implies that it's near impossible to get a word on the page, and I kind of doubt that actually happens.  Writing, like anything, takes diligence, dedication, and a decent work ethic.  Doing it well is like any other skill, requiring effort and practice.  Your first efforts probably won't be very good, but you wouldn't expect to sit down at a piano for the first time and play a Bach partita flawlessly.  Why should creative writing be any different?

As Stephen King put it -- vividly if graphically -- in his tour de force analysis of horror fiction, Danse Macabre, "Discipline and constant work are the whetstones upon which the dull knife of talent is honed until it becomes sharp enough, hopefully, to cut through even the toughest meat and gristle."

So the way to write is to sit your ass down and write.  I'm saying this to myself as much as I am to anyone else; I just started a new (and ridiculously ambitious) new work-in-progress yesterday, the first in a post-apocalyptic trilogy that will eventually span a thousand years.  (As my dad used to say about me, "He likes to test the depth of a river with both feet.")  And I know about myself that I tend to get overwhelmed and go into major avoidance-mode sometimes.  Fortunately, I'm lucky enough to have a supportive group of author friends who are perfectly happy to hold my feet to the fire when I'm looking for a distraction, any distraction, rather than opening up my document and getting to work.

Because it is work, as Stephen King points out.  The idea of writers effortlessly pouring words onto the page is a myth.


But it's a remarkably persistent one, because people always want an easy solution.  Which is why a claim has been circulating for the past few months that the way to break through writers' block is to switch fonts on your computer.

Unfortunately, the font you're supposed to switch to is...

... Comic Sans.

Yes, Comic Sans, that much-derided loopy font that tend to make one think unwillingly of the comic strip Garfield.  The idea is that Comic Sans is "easy on the eyes" and "playful," and this decreases the stress of coming up with quality plot, characters, narrative, and dialogue.  A writer in Medium who goes by the moniker "Ms. Lola" tried it out, and she describes her experience thusly:
Seeing one’s own work stripped of pretension down to its most basic level, language wearing children’s clothes, is a powerful thing.  By the second or third day of writing in Comic Sans, I found myself feeling freer than ever to make silly mistakes, take risks, and explore stranger territories. 
In result, the word count of my novel has doubled in the past week. 
There is no magical solution to writer’s block, but sometimes even the smallest changes of habit can remind us of our own meek position as artists.
Far be it from me to criticize anyone else's life hack; we all have our personal mental gymnastics we employ to keep ourselves going with challenging tasks.  For me, I'm dubious it would work.  I went to the three pages I wrote on my new book yesterday, and altered the font to Comic Sans just to see what it would look like, and my feeling was: it looks ridiculous.  The story I started on yesterday is supposed to be tense, dark, and dramatic, and written in Comic Sans, you keep waiting for the main character to have a hair's-breadth escape from the Bad Guys just in time to get home and feed his overweight cat some lasagna.

So I switched back to serious, no-nonsense Times New Roman.

It's a little like the claim I looked at a couple of months ago, where some researchers in Australia claimed to have found a font that improves reading retention.  (They called it "Sans Forgetica.")  Sadly, subsequent studies found that it was both annoying and unhelpful, so it actually had the opposite effect from what a teacher of literature would want.  And while I wasn't able to find any legitimate research about the effect of Comic Sans -- I don't know how you'd measure writers' block in any case -- I strongly suspect the same is true here.  While the novelty combined with the placebo effect might help some writers increase their output for a while, I'm dubious that there's anything more than that going on.

It's a little like the famous exchange between the mathematician Euclid and his pupil, King Ptolemy.  When the latter asked his teacher if there was no easier way to understand the mathematical concept they were working on, Euclid responded, "μὴ εἰ̃ναι βασιλικὴν ἀτραπὸν ἐπὶ γεωμετρίαν" -- "There is no royal shortcut to geometry."

There's no royal shortcut to creative writing, either, more's the pity.  And with that, I need to sit my ass down and work on my new story.  Dark, harrowing post-apocalyptic tales don't write themselves, even if you use a goofy-looking font.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun and amusing discussion of a very ominous topic; how the universe will end.

In The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) astrophysicist Katie Mack takes us through all the known possibilities -- a "Big Crunch" (the Big Bang in reverse), the cheerfully-named "Heat Death" (the material of the universe spread out at uniform density and a uniform temperature of only a few degrees above absolute zero), the terrifying -- but fortunately extremely unlikely -- Vacuum Decay (where the universe tears itself apart from the inside out), and others even wilder.

The cool thing is that all of it is scientifically sound.  Mack is a brilliant theoretical astrophysicist, and her explanations take cutting-edge research and bring it to a level a layperson can understand.  And along the way, her humor shines through, bringing a touch of lightness and upbeat positivity to a subject that will take the reader to the edges of the known universe and the end of time.

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




Friday, August 7, 2020

The lure of nature

I didn't have an easy childhood.  There were a lot of reasons for this, some stemming from my own issues and some completely outside my control.  But one happy constant in my life, and the high point of every year, was that in the summer my dad and I would go on a three-week car trip to Arizona and New Mexico.

The reason for this was that my dad was an avid rockhound.  Not only did he simply like rocks, he was a talented lapidary -- he had the diamond-edged saws and grinding wheels and all the other equipment to turn agates and jaspers and turquoise into beautiful jewelry.  Our summer expeditions resulted in the car coming back weighing twice as much as it did going out, because the trunk was full of boxes of fist-sized chunks of brightly-colored rocks we'd found while hiking in the canyons.

I loved these trips.  My dad was an interesting guy but not very talkative -- a trait I definitely inherited myself -- so it left me lots of space to wander my own interior world while messing about outdoors.  I liked rocks myself, but my favorite things about the desert were the blue skies and clear air, the stark, pristine beauty of the cliffs and mesas, the weird and wonderful cacti, and -- most of all -- the absolute silence.  Where I grew up, in southern Louisiana, was at the time a quiet, not-quite-suburban neighborhood not on the direct path to anywhere, but even so I was never far away from traffic noise.  In the canyons of southeastern Arizona, however, there was literally no sound but the sighing of the wind, and sometimes the distant call of a hawk.  The rumble of a distant thunderstorm or the howling of a coyote at night sounded otherworldly.  It was a strange, beautiful, harsh, magical place, and I swore as a child one day I'd live in Arizona permanently.  It never happened, but over the years I've been back several times to visit some of my favorite childhood haunts, and the southwestern desert still has an attraction for me that borders on the spiritual.


The reason this comes up is a study that appeared this week in The Journal of Environmental Education called, "How Combinations of Recreational Activities Predict Connection to Nature Among Youth," by Rachel Szczytko (Pisces Foundation), Kathryn Tate Stevenson and Markus Nils Peterson (North Carolina State University), and Howard Bondell (University of Melbourne).  The team of researchers looked into what activities were most likely to lead to kids feeling a lifelong connection to the outdoors, and they found that social activities -- family camping trips, Girl or Boy Scouts, programs like 4-H and Primitive Pursuits -- were good, but far better were activities outdoors that were solitary.  Give a kid time to explore outside on his/her own -- whether in the context of an activity like hunting or fishing, or just for the hell of it -- and (s)he's likely to form a permanent bond to nature.

"We saw that there were different combinations of specific activities that could build a strong connection to nature; but a key starting point was being outside, in a more solitary activity," said study co-author Kathryn Tate Stevenson, in a press release from North Carolina State University.  "Maybe we need more programming to allow children to be more contemplative in nature, or opportunities to establish a personal connection.  That could be silent sits, or it could be activities where children are looking or observing on their own.  It could mean sending kids to the outdoors to make observations on their own.  It doesn’t mean kids should be unsupervised, but adults could consider stepping back and letting kids explore on their own."

My dad certainly did that.  I got good instruction on safety -- always carry water and food, wear sturdy hiking boots, don't stint on the suntan lotion (a rule that had to be reinforced daily, given that as a kid I was kind of the half-naked savage type), stay on established trails, and so on.  I already had a healthy respect for wildlife, having grown up in a place that had water moccasins and copperheads galore, so I kept a good lookout for rattlesnakes and scorpions and the like.  As a result, I never got lost or injured, and spent many a happy hour exploring the desert, fostering a love for the outdoors that I still enjoy.

And we need more people growing up with a love of the natural world, given how much our current activities are imperiling it.  "There are all kinds of benefits from building connections to nature and spending time outside," Stevenson said.  "One of the benefits we’re highlighting is that children who have a strong connection to nature are more likely to want to take care of the environment in the future."

It certainly did that for me.  I never got to live in the desert, as I wanted as a child, but instead made my home in one of the most beautiful places on Earth -- the lake country of upstate New York, where I have 3.5 acres of woods and fields, a nice pond (suitable for skinnydipping), and if that's not enough, I'm five miles from a National Forest with miles of trails for running, hiking, and cross-country skiing.

Which is, to me, a recipe for bliss.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun and amusing discussion of a very ominous topic; how the universe will end.

In The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) astrophysicist Katie Mack takes us through all the known possibilities -- a "Big Crunch" (the Big Bang in reverse), the cheerfully-named "Heat Death" (the material of the universe spread out at uniform density and a uniform temperature of only a few degrees above absolute zero), the terrifying -- but fortunately extremely unlikely -- Vacuum Decay (where the universe tears itself apart from the inside out), and others even wilder.

The cool thing is that all of it is scientifically sound.  Mack is a brilliant theoretical astrophysicist, and her explanations take cutting-edge research and bring it to a level a layperson can understand.  And along the way, her humor shines through, bringing a touch of lightness and upbeat positivity to a subject that will take the reader to the edges of the known universe and the end of time.

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




Thursday, August 6, 2020

The legend of 50 Berkeley Square

Sometimes, with folk tales, you can pinpoint exactly when a legend entered the public awareness.  Someone writes and publishes a story in one of those "True Weird Tales" books or magazines; a report of a haunting makes the local news or newspaper; or, more recently, someone makes a claim in a blog, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Such, for example, is the famous story of the tumbling coffins of Barbados, about which there seems to be zero hard documentary evidence -- but which first appeared (as a true tale) in James Alexander's Transatlantic Sketches, and has been a standard in the ghost story repertoire ever since.  Likewise, the story of Lord Dufferin and the doomed elevator operator has a very certain provenance -- Lord Dufferin himself, who enjoyed nothing more than terrifying the absolute shit out of his house guests by telling the story over glasses of cognac late at night.

One of the scariest ghost stories, though, seems to have been built by accretion, and has no certain date of origin.  It's the tale of the "most haunted house in London" -- Number 50 Berkeley Square.


[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Metro Centric, Sophie Snyder Berkeley Square, CC BY 2.0]

The house itself is a four-story structure, built in the late eighteenth century, that looks innocent enough from the outside.  Until 1827 it was the home of British Prime Minister George Canning, which certainly gives it some historical gravitas right from the outset.  But gradually the ownership descended down the socioeconomic scale, and in the late 1800s it had fallen into disrepair.

At some point during that interval, it got the reputation for being haunted.  Apparently, it's the upper floor that is said to be the worst; some say it's occupied by the spirit of a young woman who committed suicide by throwing herself from one of the upper windows, others that it's haunted by the ghost of a young man whose family had locked him in the attic by himself, feeding him through a slot in the door until he went mad and finally died.  Whatever the truth of the non-paranormal aspects -- the suicide of the young woman, or the madness and death of the unfortunate young man -- it's clear that neighbors viewed the house askance during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.  And that's when the legends really took off.

The earliest definite account of haunting comes from George, Baron Lyttelton, who spent the night in the attic in 1872 after being dared to do so by a friend.  He saw (he said) an apparition that appeared to him as a brown mist and that "generated a feeling of absolute terror."  He shot at it, to no apparent effect, and the next morning found the shotgun shell but no other trace of what he'd fired at.  Lyttelton himself committed suicide four years later by throwing himself down the stairs of his London home -- some say, because he never recovered from the fright he'd received that night.

In 1879, Mayfair ran a story about the place, recounting the then-deceased Baron Lyttelton's encounter, and also describing the experience of a maid who'd been sent up to the attic to clean it, and had gone mad.  She died shortly afterward in an asylum, prompting another skeptic, one Sir Robert Warboys -- a "notorious rake, libertine, and scoffer" -- to spend the night, saying that he could handle anything that cared to show up.  The owner of the house elected to stay downstairs, but they rigged up a bell so that Warboys could summon help if anything happened.  Around midnight, the owner was awakened by the bell ringing furiously, followed by the sound of a pistol shot.  According to one account:
The landlord raced upstairs and found Sir Robert sitting on the floor in the corner of the room with a smoking pistol in his hand.  The young man had evidently died from traumatic shock, for his eyes were bulged, and his lips were curled from his clenched teeth.  The landlord followed the line of sight from the dead man's terrible gaze and traced it to a single bullet hole in the opposite wall.  He quickly deduced that Warboys had fired at the 'Thing', to no avail.
The house was (according to the legend) left unoccupied thereafter because no one could be found who was willing to rent it.  This is why it was empty when two sailors on shore leave from Portsmouth Harbor, Edward Blunden and Robert Martin, decided to stay there one foggy night when they could find no rooms to rent.  They were awakened in the wee hours by a misty "something" that tried to strangle Martin -- beside himself with fright, he fled, thinking his buddy was right behind him.  He wasn't.  When he went back into the house the following morning, accompanied by police, he found the unfortunate Blunden -- with his neck broken.

What's interesting about all of this is that after the Mayfair story, the whole thing kind of died down.  It's still called "the most haunted house in London," and figures prominently on London ghost tours, but it was purchased in 1937 by Maggs Brothers Antiquarian Book Dealers and has shown no sign since that time of any paranormal occurrences.  And it's been pointed out that the story The Haunted and the Haunters by Edward Bulwer-Lytton -- published in 1859, right around the time the rumors of the haunting started -- bears an uncanny resemblance to the tale of 50 Berkeley Square, especially the account of the unstable Baron Lyttelton.

Sad to say for aficionados of "true ghost stories," the likeliest explanation is that the entire thing was spun from whole cloth.  There's no evidence that any of the paranormal stuff ever happened.  In fact, "Sir Robert Warboys" doesn't seem to exist except in connection to the haunted attic; if there is a mention of him anywhere except in accounts of his death at the hands of the misty "Thing," I haven't been able to find it.  As far as "two sailors from Portsmouth," that has about as much factual reliability as "I heard the story from my aunt who said her best friend in high school's mother's second cousin saw it with her very own eyes."  And Lyttelton, as I've said, doesn't seem like he was exactly the most mentally stable of individuals to start with.

But I have to admit, it's a hell of a scary tale.  Part of what makes it as terrifying as it is is the fact that you never see the phantom's face.  As Stephen King points out, in his outstanding analysis of horror fiction Danse Macabre, there are times when not seeing what's behind the door is way worse than opening the door and finding out what's actually there.  So even though I'm not buying that the place is haunted, it does make for a great story -- and 50 Berkeley Square will definitely be on my itinerary when I have an opportunity to visit London.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun and amusing discussion of a very ominous topic; how the universe will end.

In The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) astrophysicist Katie Mack takes us through all the known possibilities -- a "Big Crunch" (the Big Bang in reverse), the cheerfully-named "Heat Death" (the material of the universe spread out at uniform density and a uniform temperature of only a few degrees above absolute zero), the terrifying -- but fortunately extremely unlikely -- Vacuum Decay (where the universe tears itself apart from the inside out), and others even wilder.

The cool thing is that all of it is scientifically sound.  Mack is a brilliant theoretical astrophysicist, and her explanations take cutting-edge research and bring it to a level a layperson can understand.  And along the way, her humor shines through, bringing a touch of lightness and upbeat positivity to a subject that will take the reader to the edges of the known universe and the end of time.

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




Wednesday, August 5, 2020

An alpine gem in China

In order to produce new species -- so goes the evolutionary model -- you need two things: isolation (splitting off the population that will eventually become the new species from the parent population) and selection (environmental conditions that favor different traits in the splinter population than the ones favoring the parent population).  Given those two, and sufficient time, sooner or later you'll have two (or more) separate species.

The classic example of this, of course, is the group of birds called "Darwin's finches," that evolved from a parent population of tanagers from mainland South America (their closest relative is the Dull-colored Grassquit of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru) something on the order of two million years ago.  Once arrived in the islands, they thereafter fragmented to fill the available niches in a process that has been nicknamed adaptive radiation.

So split off a population and give it some new conditions to contend with, and you'll end up with new species.  Which is what happened to a whole ecosystem's worth of species thirty million years ago -- leading to one of the most biodiverse spots on Earth.

New research into the genetics of the dozens of unique species in the Hengduan Mountains and Qinghai Plateau of western China has given us a fascinating lens into this process.  In "Ancient Orogenic and Monsoon-Driven Assembly of the World’s Richest Temperate Alpine Flora," by Wen-Na Ding, Robert Spicer, and Yao-Wu Xing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Richard Ree of Chicago's Field Museum, we read about a biotic province created by mountain building that not only raised the elevation (and thus lowered the average temperature), but altered wind currents to create monsoons -- and isolated the populations trapped there from their relatives on the other side of the mountain range.

"The theory is, if you increase the ruggedness of a landscape, you're more likely to have populations restricted in their movement because it's harder to cross a deeper valley than a shallow valley," said study co-author Richard Ree, in an interview with Science Daily.  "So any time you start increasing the patchiness and barriers between populations, you expect evolution to accelerate...  The combined effect of mountain-building and monsoons was like pouring jet fuel onto this flame of species origination.  The monsoon wasn't simply giving more water for plants to grow, it had this huge role in creating a more rugged topography.  It caused erosion, resulting in deeper valleys and more incised mountain ranges."

This all started back in the Oligocene Epoch, thirty million years ago, and the area has been pretty well isolated ever since.  The result is plants like the Himalayan lantern (Agapetes lacei):


.... which you wouldn't guess is a relative of rhododendrons and azaleas; the alpine monkshood (Aconitum gymnandrum):


... the gorgeous little Paraquilegia microphyllum:


... and literally hundreds of others, species found there and nowhere else on Earth.

The remoteness and general inaccessibility of the area has limited the human impact (fortunately), but scientists are rightly concerned with the effects that climate change will have on these subalpine valleys and plateaus.  Even if we're not directly damaging the ecosystem, our actions elsewhere imperil it, just as our out-of-control fossil fuel use has led to the thawing of the Arctic and the threat of ice sheet collapse in Antarctica -- the latter of which recent research has suggested could add three meters to the average sea level over a very short period, with catastrophic consequences.

But for now, let's just focus on this pristine gem of an ecosystem, and marvel at the processes that created it.  Once again, we see the truth of Darwin's words, with which he ended The Origin of Species: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun and amusing discussion of a very ominous topic; how the universe will end.

In The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) astrophysicist Katie Mack takes us through all the known possibilities -- a "Big Crunch" (the Big Bang in reverse), the cheerfully-named "Heat Death" (the material of the universe spread out at uniform density and a uniform temperature of only a few degrees above absolute zero), the terrifying -- but fortunately extremely unlikely -- Vacuum Decay (where the universe tears itself apart from the inside out), and others even wilder.

The cool thing is that all of it is scientifically sound.  Mack is a brilliant theoretical astrophysicist, and her explanations take cutting-edge research and bring it to a level a layperson can understand.  And along the way, her humor shines through, bringing a touch of lightness and upbeat positivity to a subject that will take the reader to the edges of the known universe and the end of time.

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




Monday, August 3, 2020

The writing brain

As a writer of fiction, I have wondered for years where creative ideas come from.  Certainly a great many of the plots I've written have seemed to spring fully-wrought from my brain (although as any writer will tell you, generating an idea is one thing, and seeing it to fruition quite another).

What has always struck me as odd about all of this is how... unconscious it all feels.  Oh, there's a good bit of front-of-the-brain cognition that goes into it -- background knowledge, visualization of setting, and sequencing, not to mention the good old-fashioned ability to construct solid prose.  But at its base, there's always seemed to me something mysterious about creativity, something ineffable and (dare I say it?) spiritual.  It is no surprise, even to me, that many have ascribed the source of creativity to divine inspiration or, at least, to a collective unconscious.

Take, for example, the origin of the novel I just completed two weeks ago (well, the first draft, anyhow).  Descent into Ulthoa is a dark, Lovecraftian piece about a haunted forest and a man obsessed with finding out what happened to his identical twin brother, who vanished ten years earlier on a hiking trip, but the inspiration for it seemed to come out of nowhere.  In fact, at the time, I wasn't even thinking about writing at all -- but was suddenly hit by a vivid, powerful image that seemed to beg for a story.  (If you want to read more about my experience of having that idea wallop me over the head, I did a post about it over at my fiction blog last August.)

So something is going on neurologically when stuff like this happens, but what?  Martin Lotze, a neuroscientist at the University of Griefswald (Germany), has taken the first steps toward understanding what is happening in the brains of creative writers -- and the results that he and his team have uncovered are fascinating.

One of the difficulties in studying the creative process is that during any exercise of creativity, the individual generally has to be free to move around.  Writing, especially, would be hard to do in a fMRI machine, where your head has to be perfectly still, and your typical writing device, a laptop, would be first wiped clean and then flung across the room by the electromagnets.  But Lotze and his team rigged up a setup wherein subjects could lie flat, with their heads encased in the fMRI tube, and have their arms supported so that they could write with the tried-and-true paper-and-pencil method, using a set of mirrors to see what they were doing.

[Image courtesy of Martin Lotze and the University of Griefswald]

Each subject was given a minute to brainstorm, and then two minutes to write.  While all of the subjects activated their visual centers and hippocampus (a part of the brain involved in memory and spatial navigation) during the process, there was a striking difference between veteran and novice writers.  Novice writers tended to activate their visual centers first; brainstorming, for them, started with thinking of images.  Veteran writers, on the other hand, started with their speech production centers.

"I think both groups are using different strategies,” Lotze said.  "It’s possible that the novices are watching their stories like a film inside their heads, while the writers are narrating it with an inner voice."

The other contrast between veterans and novices was in the level of activity of the caudate nucleus, a part of the brain involved in the coordination of activities as we become more skilled.  The higher the level of activity in the caudate nucleus, the more fluent we have become at it, and the less conscious effort it takes -- leading to the conclusion (no surprise to anyone who is a serious writer) that writing, just like anything, becomes better and easier the more you do it.  Becoming an excellent writer, like becoming a concert pianist or a star athlete, requires practice.

All of this is also interesting from the standpoint of artificial intelligence -- because if you don't buy the Divine Inspiration or Collective Unconscious Models, or something like them (which I don't), then any kind of creative activity is simply the result of patterns of neural firings -- and therefore theoretically should be able to be emulated by a computer.  I say "theoretically," because our current knowledge of AI is in its most rudimentary stages.  (As a friend of mine put it, "True AI is ten years in the future, and always will be.")  But just knowing what is happening in the brains of writers is the first step toward both understanding it, and perhaps generating a machine that is capable of true creativity.

All of that, of course is far in the future (maybe even more than ten years), and Lotze himself is well aware that this is hardly the end of the story.  As for me, I find the whole thing fascinating, and a little humbling -- that something so sophisticated is going on in my skull when I think up a scene in a story.  It brings to mind something one of my neurology students once said, after a lecture on the workings of the brain: "My brain is so much smarter than me, I don't know how I manage to think at all!"

Indeed.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun and amusing discussion of a very ominous topic; how the universe will end.

In The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) astrophysicist Katie Mack takes us through all the known possibilities -- a "Big Crunch" (the Big Bang in reverse), the cheerfully-named "Heat Death" (the material of the universe spread out at uniform density and a uniform temperature of only a few degrees above absolute zero), the terrifying -- but fortunately extremely unlikely -- Vacuum Decay (where the universe tears itself apart from the inside out), and others even wilder.

The cool thing is that all of it is scientifically sound.  Mack is a brilliant theoretical astrophysicist, and her explanations take cutting-edge research and bring it to a level a layperson can understand.  And along the way, her humor shines through, bringing a touch of lightness and upbeat positivity to a subject that will take the reader to the edges of the known universe and the end of time.

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




Secrets of the pyramids

What is it with people thinking that pyramids are magical?

I knew a woman a long time ago who was so convinced there was something special about a square and four equilateral triangles that she built one by hot-gluing together some dowels. Then she'd store her apples and bananas under it, and told everyone how much longer they stayed unspoiled than if the fruit was just sitting on her counter.  She'd also resharpen her dull razor blades by putting them under the pyramid, and last I heard, was trying to construct one big enough to sleep under, because it's supposed to make you sleep better and also boost your sex drive.

And lo, over at the the site Life Positive, we find out why this is:
Likewise, do we know that most of our body related ailments are not even body related?  There is nothing wrong in saying that medical treatment cures your body and mind.  But, we also have to understand that it's not only our 'body' and 'mind' which needs all the attention and cure.  Above all, it is the in-depth aspect to be taken care of, is our "Soul." 
Physical Body of an average human being accounts for 0.01% of the total energy.  Mind accounts for 0.99% of the total energy. Most noteworthy, 'Soul' alone is liable for 99% of the total energy of the human being...  A few scientists have discovered that pyramids have energy properties that help in healing many types of diseases.  There is a special property of a pyramid.  It deflects any type of cosmic rays that are falling on its apex.
These deflected rays combine with earth’s gravitational force and form a new and powerful bioenergy field.  Pyramids deflect all the rays falling on its apex without affecting the centre and this indicates that it is safe at the centre surround by bioenergy field.  Pyramids have a good ionization effect and so they enhance oxygen intake in the body and improve our concentration.
A few responses to this bit:
  • 0.99% and 99% are not the same thing.
  • There is no such thing as a "bioenergy field."  The term "field" is precisely defined in physics, and trust me, what these people are talking about ain't it.
  • "Ionization" means turning neutral atoms into ions -- charged particles -- by moving around electrons.  There's no such thing as "good ionization" except insofar as some ions (like the O2- superoxide ion) are damaging to living tissue, so I suppose a "good ion" is one that doesn't do that.  What this has to do with pyramids is anyone's guess.
  • I suspect that the whole cosmic-ray-deflection business is a wild misinterpretation of some real research that was published back in 2018, wherein it was found that pyramidal structures could act as resonators for radio waves.  As soon as I saw this paper I did a facepalm, because I knew this would be further incentive for the woo-woos to claim that there was something supernatural going on here.  In fact, resonance isn't anything New-Age-y; it occurs when an object has the capacity to reflect waves in such a way as to reinforce them and create a "standing wave," such as the vibration of a guitar string.  This only occurs at certain frequencies -- which is why a plucked guitar string can only produce one particular note -- and explains such phenomena as the enormous tides in the Bay of Fundy and the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
Despite these and other objections the whole pyramid-power thing has gotten so much traction that it actually made Mythbusters.  They tested a bunch of these claims, with a certified pyramid made to the exact proportions of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and to no one's particular surprise, none of the claims turned out to be true.

Which makes you wonder why sites like The Secret Power of the Pyramidal Shape still pop up.  This one was sent to me by three different loyal readers of Skeptophilia, and it's quite a read.  The thing I found the most amusing about it was that it had in-source citations, so it looks a little like an academic paper, but when you check the "Sources Cited" you find out that three of them come from the aforementioned Life Positive article; one comes from a man named David Wilcock, who claims to be the reincarnation of Edgar Cayce; and one of them comes from the phenomenally loony site Above Top Secret.

Not exactly a bibliography that would inspire confidence.

The article itself is worth reading, though, because it has some fairly surreal passages.  Take, for example, this:
The best passive torsion generators are formed by cones or pyramidal shapes built according to the “phi” ratio of 1 to 0.618 and it can, therefore, be said the pyramid shape has the power to harness torsional energy because torsion waves are phi-spirals and for this reason a pyramid will hold positive energy and deflects negative energy wavelengths and therefore inhibit natural decay.
Sure!  Right!  What?

I mean, about the only things that was doing spirals were my eyes after reading that passage.  Torsional energy is well understood by physicists, and has nothing to do with "phi."  But it's unsurprising that it comes up, honestly.  "Phi" is, of course, the Golden Section, about which much mystical nonsense has been written.  It's a pretty cool number, no question about it, and crops up with great regularity in nature; but it doesn't repel "negative energy wavelengths."

Whatever those are.

We also have some lunar lunacy added to the mix:
Parr has... found that the width of the energy containment bubble or orb expands and contracts with the phases of the moon.  This suggests again that the spherical orb on the outside of the pyramid is a static torsion field that gathers around the pyramid and is strengthened by absorbing other dynamic torsion fields.
It was also, apparently, found that a pyramid's "energy field" oscillates at 500 to 1000 hertz.  Should be easy to measure such a phenomenon, right?  I mean, physicists do this sort of thing.  But then we read, "...it was found that every now and then Pyramids quit responding to recordings and measurements."

Convenient, that.

Then we get a photograph of a Mayan pyramid shooting a beam of light up into the air.  Proof, right?  Here's the photograph:


This struck me as especially amusing, because I did a piece on this photograph way back in 2012 when it first started making the rounds of the interwebz, and included an analysis by Jonathon Hill, digital image analyst for the Mars Space Flight Facility at Arizona State University.  Hill noticed something odd about the "energy beam" -- that it was perfectly vertical with respect to the image orientation.  Not a single pixel's variation along its entire length on either side, which is pretty odd if it's a natural (or even a supernatural) phenomenon.  (But easily explainable if it's a digital image artifact.)

But maybe pyramids make these sorts of exactly coherent beams of biocosmic resonant wavelength positive energy vibrations.

Oh, and "quantum." Don't forget "quantum."

So even despite Mythbusters and other round debunkings, and the complete lack of scientifically admissible evidence, "pyramid power" is still out there.  I have to admit there is something kind of special about these archeological sites; I remember being awed by visiting the Jaguar Temple, a Mayan pyramid in Belize.  My sons and I climbed to the top, and it was pretty cool, although we didn't experience any surge of harmonic resonance energies (mostly what I remember is looking down the stairs and thinking "Good lord that is A LONG WAY DOWN").

So don't waste your time putting your fruit under a pyramid.  There's another magical device that is much better at keeping fruit fresh.

It's called a "refrigerator."

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun and amusing discussion of a very ominous topic; how the universe will end.

In The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) astrophysicist Katie Mack takes us through all the known possibilities -- a "Big Crunch" (the Big Bang in reverse), the cheerfully-named "Heat Death" (the material of the universe spread out at uniform density and a uniform temperature of only a few degrees above absolute zero), the terrifying -- but fortunately extremely unlikely -- Vacuum Decay (where the universe tears itself apart from the inside out), and others even wilder.

The cool thing is that all of it is scientifically sound.  Mack is a brilliant theoretical astrophysicist, and her explanations take cutting-edge research and bring it to a level a layperson can understand.  And along the way, her humor shines through, bringing a touch of lightness and upbeat positivity to a subject that will take the reader to the edges of the known universe and the end of time.

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




Saturday, August 1, 2020

Death in the seas

It's amazing what scientists sometimes miss.

This is not meant to be any kind of indictment of scientists, or science in general.  It's just part of the game, honestly; sometimes it takes a while for the evidence to be uncovered, while sometimes previous theories act as blinders -- such as the long-held idea of the Earth's geology being driven by geosynclines, huge downward folds in the Earth's crust, that were supposed to explain both sedimentary rock strata and orogeny (mountain-forming).  Never mind that no one could quite explain why geosynclines occurred; most of it seemed to be hand-waving talk about masses of eroded sediments causing blocks of crust to fault and tilt like a teeter-totter.  Despite there being no plausible mechanism, this idea was so entrenched in the scientific minds of the nineteenth and early twentieth century that even as the evidence for plate tectonics accrued, most geologists dismissed it as fancy -- until the discovery of the magnetic stripes on either side of the Mid-Atlantic Rift Zone proved plate tectonics beyond any question.

But like I said, sometimes the problem is that the evidence takes a while to come together.  For example, consider the paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution that appeared a while back, called, "The Pliocene Marine Megafauna Extinction and Its Impact on Functional Diversity," by a team led by Catalina Pimiento of the University of Zürich.  In it, the researchers describe an enormous mass extinction that happened between two and three million years ago -- pretty close to recent, in geological terms -- and which scientists had previously been almost entirely unaware.

Mass extinctions leave a huge footprint in the geological record.  Not only does biodiversity drop dramatically from one stratum to the one immediately above it, but the drastic differences in the sorts of species you find on either side -- who were the winners and losers -- is usually an obvious marker that something enormous has happened.

Paleontologists have identified what they call the Big Five:
All of these have been well-established for over a century, although convincing explanations for the cause of each is still a subject of heated discussion.  But the much more recent extinction that was the subject of the Pimiento et al. paper, which occurred at the boundary between the Pliocene and Pleistocene Epoch, was overlooked despite its magnitude.

The authors write:
The end of the Pliocene marked the beginning of a period of great climatic variability and sea-level oscillations.  Here, based on a new analysis of the fossil record, we identify a previously unrecognized extinction event among marine megafauna (mammals, seabirds, turtles and sharks) during this time, with extinction rates three times higher than in the rest of the Cenozoic, and with 36% of Pliocene genera failing to survive into the Pleistocene.  To gauge the potential consequences of this event for ecosystem functioning, we evaluate its impacts on functional diversity, focusing on the 86% of the megafauna genera that are associated with coastal habitats.  Seven (14%) coastal functional entities (unique trait combinations) disappeared, along with 17% of functional richness (volume of the functional space). 
A loss of 36% of the marine genera is huge.  Especially when you consider that some of the vanished species weren't exactly tiny obscure sea bugs.  One of the victims was Carcharodon megalodon, the largest shark species known, which reached a length of fifteen meters from tip to tail and weighed upward of fifty metric tons.  What seems to have hidden this event from view is that it mainly impacted marine organisms, whose remains may well have been fossilized, but most of which are still underwater (there hasn't been that much large-scale geological shift in two million years, so most Pliocene-age rocks are pretty much still sitting where they formed).

[Image is in the Public Domain]

But this research also uncovered an interesting pattern in the extinction.  Warm-blooded animals were hit way harder than cold-blooded ones; consider that the event wiped out 55% of marine mammals and 35% of marine birds, but only 9% of sharks.  (For some reason, sea turtles also took a huge hit; 43% of the known species of Pliocene sea turtles were wiped out.)

The surmise by the scientists is that the Pliocene-Pleistocene Extinction was caused by large-scale sea level fluctuations altering oceanic current patterns and eradicating coastal habitat.  Climate change today seems to be aiming toward a similar target.  "This study shows that marine megafauna were far more vulnerable to global environmental changes in the recent geological past than had previously been assumed," said study lead author Catalina Pimiento.  "This also points to a present-day parallel: Nowadays, large marine species such as whales or seals are also highly vulnerable to human influences."

So here we have another cautionary tale, if we needed one.  Once again, marine mammals are at risk, but this time it's human activity that's driving the change.  Polar bears -- sometimes referred to as the "poster child for climate change" -- are likely to be extinct by 2100 if we stay on the trajectory we're on.

You have to wonder what future paleontologists will make of our age.  Will the sedimentary rocks forming today tell the story of a sudden, drastic decrease in biodiversity?  Will there be any way to tell what caused it?  Who will be the winners -- and who the losers?

And most frightening of all, will we still be around to consider the question?

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Being in the middle of a pandemic, we're constantly being urged to wash our hands and/or use hand sanitizer.  It's not a bad idea, of course; multiple studies have shown that communicable diseases spread far less readily if people take the simple precaution of a thirty-second hand-washing with soap.

But as a culture, we're pretty obsessed with cleanliness.  Consider how many commercial products -- soaps, shampoos, body washes, and so on -- are dedicated solely to cleaning our skin.  Then there are all the products intended to return back to our skin and hair what the first set of products removed; the whole range of conditioners, softeners, lotions, and oils.

How much of this is necessary, or even beneficial?  That's the topic of the new book Clean: The New Science of Skin by doctor and journalist James Hamblin, who considers all of this and more -- the role of hyper-cleanliness in allergies, asthma, and eczema, and fascinating and recently-discovered information about our skin microbiome, the bacteria that colonize our skin and which are actually beneficial to our overall health.  Along the way, he questions things a lot of us take for granted... such as whether we should be showering daily.

It's a fascinating read, and looks at the question from a data-based, scientific standpoint.  Hamblin has put together the most recent evidence on how we should treat the surfaces of our own bodies -- and asks questions that are sure to generate a wealth of discussion.

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