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, June 12, 2021

A chat with grandma

The controversy and misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines have brought the anti-vaxx movement back into the spotlight, and once again raises the question of why people are more willing to believe folksy anecdote than they are sound scientific research.

Take, for example, an article over at the website Living Whole.  This site bills itself as "a landing spot for all things parenting, common sense, and healthy living," so right away it sent up red flags about veracity.  But the article itself, called "I Was Told To Ask the Older Generation About Vaccines... So I Did," turned out to be a stellar example of anti-science nonsense passed off as gosh-golly-aw-shucks folk wisdom.

In it, we hear about the author's visit to her hundred-year-old great-grandma, who still lives in her own house, bless her heart.  But we're put on notice right away what the author is up to:
I’m not sure why people in my family live so long.  It could be the organic diet, the herbs, or the fact that all of my century-old relatives are unvaccinated.  If my grandmother dies in the near future, it will only be because she’s started eating hot dogs and no one has told her that hot dog is mystery meat.  Do they make a vaccine for that?
Or it could be, you know, genetics.  As in, actual science.  My own grandma's family was remarkably long-lived, with many members living into their 90s, and my Great-Aunt Clara making it to 101.  More on them later.

We then hear about how her great-grandma got chicken pox, mumps, and German measles, and survived 'em all.  So did bunches of the other family members she knew and loved.  The author says;
Mumps, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, and even the flu were rights of passage that almost every child experienced which challenged and groomed the immune system and protected them from more serious diseases as adults.  Deaths from these diseases were rare and only occurred in the really poor children who had other “things” as well.
Oh, you mean like my two great-aunts, Aimée and Anne, who died of measles five days apart, ages 21 and 17, and who were perfectly healthy up to that time?

Hopefully this last-quoted paragraph will shoot down the author's credibility in another respect, though.  How on earth does surviving mumps (for example) "groom your immune system" to fight off other diseases?  Any tenth grader in high school introductory biology could explain to you that this isn't how it works.  Your immune response is highly specific, which is why getting chicken pox only protects you against getting chicken pox again, and will do bugger-all for protecting you against measles.  And sometimes it's even more specific than that; getting the flu once doesn't protect you the next time.  The antibody response is so targeted that you are only protected against that particular flu strain, and if another crops up, you have to get revaccinated -- or get sick.

Then, there's the coup-de-grâce:
In the last decade I have had to explain to my grandmother what Crohn’s disease is, autism, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, ADHD, peanut allergies, and thyroid conditions.  She never saw those health conditions growing up.  “Vaccine preventable diseases” were replaced with “vaccine-induced diseases.”  Can we even compare chicken pox to rheumatoid arthritis?
No.  No, you can't.  Because they have nothing to do with one another.

But you know why great-grandma didn't know about all of those diseases listed?  Because there was no way to diagnose or treat them back then.  Kids with type-1 diabetes simply died.  Same with Crohn's.  (And that one is still difficult to manage, unfortunately.)  Autism has been described in medical literature since at least the 1700s, and thyroid conditions long before that.  So sorry, but this is just idiotic.


[Image licensed under the Creative Commons U.S. Secretary of Defense, COVID-19 vaccination (2020) B, CC BY 2.0]

But let me point out what should be the most obvious thing about all of this, and which seems to have escaped the author entirely: your great-grandma's reminiscences aren't relevant.  Neither is the survival of my own grandmother, and many of her brothers and sisters, into old age.  You know why?  Because it would be a little hard to have a friendly chat with the tens of thousands of people who did die of preventable childhood diseases, like my grandma's brother Clarence (died as an infant of scarlet fever) and sister Flossie (died as a teenager of tuberculosis).  Of course the survivors report surviving.

Because they survived, for fuck's sake.  What did you think she'd tell you?  "I hate to break it to you, dear, but I actually died at age six of diphtheria?"

But that didn't seem to occur to most of the commenters, who had all sorts of positive things to say.  Many said that they weren't going to vaccinate their children, and related their own stories about how their grandparents had survived all sorts of childhood diseases, so q.e.d., apparently.

I'm sorry.  The plural of "anecdote" is not "data."  There is 100% consensus in the medical community (i.e. the people doing the actual research) that vaccines are safe and effective, serious side effects are rare, and that leaving children unvaccinated is dangerous and irresponsible.  You can go all motive-fallacy if you want ("of course the doctors say that, it keeps them in business"), but it doesn't change the facts.

But unfortunately, there seems to be a distinct anti-science bent in the United States at the moment, and a sense that telling stories is somehow more relevant than evaluating the serious research.  Part of it, I think, is laziness; understanding science is hard, while chatting about having tea with great-grandma is easy.

I think it goes deeper than that, however.  We're back to Isaac Asimov's wonderful quote, aren't we?  It seems a fitting place to end.


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

I'm in awe of people who are true masters of their craft.  My son is a professional glassblower, making precision scientific equipment, and watching him do what he does has always seemed to me to be a little like watching a magic show.  On a (much) lower level of skill, I'm an amateur potter, and have a great time exploring different kinds of clays, pigments, stains, and glazes used in making functional pottery.

What amazes me, though, is that crafts like these aren't new.  Glassblowing, pottery-making, blacksmithing, and other such endeavors date back to long before we knew anything about the underlying chemistry and physics; the techniques were developed by a long history of trial and error.

This is the subject of Anna Ploszajski's new book Handmade: A Scientist's Search for Meaning Through Making, in which she visits some of the finest craftspeople in the world -- and looks at what each is doing through the lenses of history and science.  It's a fascinating inquiry into the drive to create, and how we've learned to manipulate the materials around us into tools, technology, and fine art.

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


Friday, June 11, 2021

Flash in the pan

I introduced yesterday's post, about the discovery that a large percentage of the meteorites seem to have come from a single collision event in the distant past, as "a question without an answer."  Today we're going to look at another one; fast radio bursts.

They're pretty much what they sound like; quick, high-energy flashes in the radio region of the electromagnetic spectrum.  What the name doesn't tell you, however, is how quick and high-energy they are.  They have a duration of only a few milliseconds at most; there and gone faster than a camera flash.  And their energy output is enormous -- the average fast radio burst releases as much energy in a few milliseconds as the Sun does in three days.

The trouble with studying these events is that they're over before you can get your radio telescope pointed toward them.  Until recently, there had been no coordinated effort to find fast radio bursts; how can you find them if they come from seemingly random spots in the night sky?  You would have to have the radio telescope pointed in the exactly right direction at exactly the right time in order to know one had even happened.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons ESO/M. Kornmesser, Artist’s impression of a fast radio burst traveling through space and reaching Earth, CC BY 4.0]

This is why the first ones weren't even observed until 2007, and the number recorded in the fourteen years since was quite small.  But it was just announced this week that CHIME, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, has recorded 535 fast radio bursts in the one year of its operation -- quadrupling the total number ever detected.

"Before CHIME, there were less than a hundred total discovered FRBs; now, after one year of observation, we've discovered hundreds more," said study contributor Kaitlyn Shin, a graduate student in MIT's Department of Physics.  "With all these sources, we can really start getting a picture of what FRBs look like as a whole, what astrophysics might be driving these events, and how they can be used to study the universe going forward."

Because that's the problem with fast radio bursts; no known astrophysical process could produce such a sudden, short-duration explosion in the radio region of the spectrum.  More interesting still, the CHIME study showed that they seem to fall into two classes; "one-offs" and "repeaters."  So even if we figure out how they happen, we'll still be left with why some of them happen only once, and others seem to be on some kind of regular cycle.

The most perplexing thing about them, though, is how common they appear to be.  For something that is caused by a completely unknown mechanism, they're pretty much everywhere.  "That's kind of the beautiful thing about this field -- FRBs are really hard to see, but they're not uncommon," said Kiyoshi Masui, another study contributor, and a member of MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.  "If your eyes could see radio flashes the way you can see camera flashes, you would see them all the time if you just looked up."

So there you have it; another as-yet unsolved mystery.  It seems like no matter where we look, there are three new conundrums for every one we solve.  It brings to mind the quote from biologist J. B. S. Haldane: "The universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine."

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

I'm in awe of people who are true masters of their craft.  My son is a professional glassblower, making precision scientific equipment, and watching him do what he does has always seemed to me to be a little like watching a magic show.  On a (much) lower level of skill, I'm an amateur potter, and have a great time exploring different kinds of clays, pigments, stains, and glazes used in making functional pottery.

What amazes me, though, is that crafts like these aren't new.  Glassblowing, pottery-making, blacksmithing, and other such endeavors date back to long before we knew anything about the underlying chemistry and physics; the techniques were developed by a long history of trial and error.

This is the subject of Anna Ploszajski's new book Handmade: A Scientist's Search for Meaning Through Making, in which she visits some of the finest craftspeople in the world -- and looks at what each is doing through the lenses of history and science.  It's a fascinating inquiry into the drive to create, and how we've learned to manipulate the materials around us into tools, technology, and fine art.

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


Thursday, June 10, 2021

Catch a falling star

Today's post is a scientific puzzle that -- so far -- doesn't have an answer.

I'm sure you've all had the lovely experience of seeing meteors in the night sky.  Some of you might even have seen meteor showers, when there can be hundreds of "shooting stars" per hour.  Bright as they are, most meteors are the size of a small pebble; the intense light comes from the heating caused by the friction of passage through the atmosphere.  The speed they're traveling determines how fast they heat up, and that's controlled by the angle with which the meteor intersects with the moving Earth; they can be going anywhere between 11 and 72 kilometers per second.

Sometimes, larger chunks of rock strike the Earth.  Sometimes much larger.  The meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 is estimated to have been around twenty meters in diameter, and to have weighed on the order of 12,000 tons.  The explosion released an energy equivalent of 400 kilotons of TNT, which is about thirty times that released from the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.  

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Alex Alishevskikh, 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor trace, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Big rocks are the exception, of course.  Most meteors are tiny... but there are lots of them.  Honestly, I didn't realize how much meteoritic material hits the Earth.  Given how small most of it is, the vast majority of it goes unnoticed.  But the current estimates are that 44,000 kilograms of meteorites land on the Earth every day.  Most of it lands in the oceans (which, after all, cover seventy percent of the Earth's surface), but the rest of it becomes part of the dust that's floating in the air, and that we give virtually no thought to.

The origin of meteors and meteorites (as they're known once they hit the Earth) has always been thought to be random bits of rocky junk left over from the formation of the Solar System; meteor showers mostly come from the passage of the Earth through the orbital paths of comets.  (Comets, being basically big dirty snowballs, partly evaporate with each passage near the Sun, and any particles of rock embedded in the ice get left behind in a trail corresponding to the comet's orbit.)  Because the origin of meteoritic material was thought to be pretty random, the expectation was that even similar types of meteorites would differ in composition, as they'd come from different sources in the asteroid belt and elsewhere.

Well, turns out that isn't true.  A group of scientists led by Birger Schmitz of Lund University set about to study the only meteorites that hang around for a while in the geological record -- chondrites, or stony meteorites.  (The other main type, iron-nickel meteorites, tend to oxidize pretty rapidly once they hit the Earth, so there aren't any particularly old iron-nickel meteorites known.)  Even the chondrites break down and erode, but there's a part of them -- grains of a mineral called chrome spinel -- that are resistant enough to degradation that they can last a billion years essentially unchanged.

So Schmitz's group decided to look at the commonness of meteoritic chrome spinel crystals in the geological record (which would tell them how meteor strike frequency had changed over time), and the specific composition of the crystals (which would tell them the origins of the grains).

And that's when they got a surprise.

Not only has the flux of meteorites barely changed over the entirety of geological history, the composition of the chrome spinel crystals hasn't changed, either -- leading Schmitz et al. to conclude that the vast majority of meteors come from the same, and as yet unidentified, source.

The authors write:

The meteoritic material falling on Earth is believed to derive from large break-up or cratering events in the asteroid belt.  The flux of extraterrestrial material would then vary in accordance with the timing of such asteroid family-forming events.  In order to validate this, we investigated marine sediments representing 15 timewindows in the Phanerozoic for content of micrometeoritic relict chrome-spinel grains (>32 μm).  We compare these data with the timing of the 15 largest break-up events involving chrome-spinel–bearing asteroids (S- and V-types).  Unexpectedly, our Phanerozoic time windows show a stable flux dominated by ordinary chondrites similar to today’s flux.  Only in the mid-Ordovician, in connection with the breakup of the L-chondrite parent body, do we observe an anomalous micrometeorite regime with a two to three orders-of-magnitude increase in the flux of L-chondritic chrome-spinel grains to Earth.  This corresponds to a one order-of-magnitude excess in the number of impact craters in the mid-Ordovician following the L-chondrite break-up, the only resolvable peak in Phanerozoic cratering rates indicative of an asteroid shower.  We argue that meteorites and small (<1-km-sized) asteroids impacting Earth mainly sample a very small region of orbital space in the asteroid belt.  This selectiveness has been remarkably stable over the past 500 Ma.

So as baffling as it seems, it looks like most of the stony meteors out there come from one source -- probably the collision of two asteroids in the very, very distant past.  This impact created a huge cloud of fragments of different sizes but of relatively uniform composition, and that's the stuff that's been raining down on Earth for the past billion years.

Think about that next time you see a "falling star" on a clear, cloudless night.  You're seeing a relic of a collision that occurred back when the vast majority of living things were single-celled creatures living in the ocean.  That little pebble creating a streak of light across the sky has been floating around in space ever since, finally intersecting Earth's path and burning up in the atmosphere.

Just in time for you to make a wish.

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

I'm in awe of people who are true masters of their craft.  My son is a professional glassblower, making precision scientific equipment, and watching him do what he does has always seemed to me to be a little like watching a magic show.  On a (much) lower level of skill, I'm an amateur potter, and have a great time exploring different kinds of clays, pigments, stains, and glazes used in making functional pottery.

What amazes me, though, is that crafts like these aren't new.  Glassblowing, pottery-making, blacksmithing, and other such endeavors date back to long before we knew anything about the underlying chemistry and physics; the techniques were developed by a long history of trial and error.

This is the subject of Anna Ploszajski's new book Handmade: A Scientist's Search for Meaning Through Making, in which she visits some of the finest craftspeople in the world -- and looks at what each is doing through the lenses of history and science.  It's a fascinating inquiry into the drive to create, and how we've learned to manipulate the materials around us into tools, technology, and fine art.

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


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Creatures from the permafrost

In the episode of The X Files called "Ice," some geophysicists working in northern Alaska bring up a 250,000 year old ice core from what is thought to be a buried meteor crater.  Of course, being The X Files, the ice core contains frozen (but not dead) organisms that are pathogenic to humans.  Like the rabies virus, these pathogens make you violent, so that you'll injure and then infect other hosts; unlike the rabies virus, these are macroscopic, and in fact can be seen moving under the skin of infected individuals.

Mulder and Scully barely escape with their lives, but not before death and destruction is wrought amongst the hapless geophysicists, only one of whom survives.  

To say that show didn't specialize in cheerful endings is a vast understatement.

The reason this rather horrifying episode came to mind is a discovery announced last week by some Russian scientists of organisms brought up from 24,000 year old Siberian permafrost.  To put this into perspective, when these organisms were buried, there were still woolly rhinos, mammoths, and cave bears stalking around the place.  And when the unearthed animals were warmed back up, they cheerfully came back to life and began to reproduce.

Well, maybe not "cheerfully."  It's hard to tell, because these animals are bdelloid rotifers, which are known for having a fairly poor repertoire of facial expressions.  Plus, they reproduce parthenogenetically, meaning that the species is all female, and they produce offspring without having sex.

So there goes another reason they'd be cheerful about the whole thing.

A bdelloid rotifer [Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of photographer Damián Zanetta]

As amazing as it may seem, rotifers are actually true animals, despite their small size.  They have eyespots, a nervous system, a brain (albeit a tiny one), and a complete digestive tract.  Plus, they're right up there with tardigrades for indestructibility.  There are modern bdelloids, and one of the things the scientists want to do is to compare the genomes of the current ones with the ones that were resurrected from the permafrost.  Because they're parthenogenetic, their genomes should only vary because of mutations -- the advantage of sex is that it scrambles the genes every generation, producing greater variation in the population.

Also, it's kind of fun, but that probably is not as significant evolutionarily.

As far as Life Following Art, and the scientists digging around in Siberia releasing some horrific pathogen, I probably should cool my jets.  "The most spectacular implication of the research was that there may be all sorts of animals frozen in the permafrost that could awake as global warming melts the permafrost," said Matthew Cobb, professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, who was not involved in the research.  "[This] doesn’t mean that terrifying things are going to come out and eat us, but it gives scientists the possibility of studying how the rotifer has adapted to resist the bad effects of freezing, and… [the] opportunity to explore the difference between existing species and their predecessors."

But of course, that's what he would say.  Right before we all end up with worms squiggling around under our skin and making us violently insane.

So that's our fascinating but kind of scary scientific discovery for today.  A critter who can go into stasis for 24,000 years, frozen solid, without food, and come back to life as if nothing had happened.  It brings to mind cryogenic stasis of humans -- a staple of space-travel science fiction -- I wonder what we might learn about how bdelloid rotifers can accomplish such an amazing feat of survival.  And it does make me wonder what else is down there, waiting to be brought back to life.  Given the rate the world is warming, and how fast the permafrost is melting, we may find that out all too soon.

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

I'm in awe of people who are true masters of their craft.  My son is a professional glassblower, making precision scientific equipment, and watching him do what he does has always seemed to me to be a little like watching a magic show.  On a (much) lower level of skill, I'm an amateur potter, and have a great time exploring different kinds of clays, pigments, stains, and glazes used in making functional pottery.

What amazes me, though, is that crafts like these aren't new.  Glassblowing, pottery-making, blacksmithing, and other such endeavors date back to long before we knew anything about the underlying chemistry and physics; the techniques were developed by a long history of trial and error.

This is the subject of Anna Ploszajski's new book Handmade: A Scientist's Search for Meaning Through Making, in which she visits some of the finest craftspeople in the world -- and looks at what each is doing through the lenses of history and science.  It's a fascinating inquiry into the drive to create, and how we've learned to manipulate the materials around us into tools, technology, and fine art.

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


Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Statue of limitations

There are days that I really don't understand the human species at all.

Yes, I know I'm one of 'em.  But still.  People can be weird in ways that I find utterly baffling, and this has at times made me wonder if I'm an alien changeling or something.

The latest example of Stupid Human Tricks is courtesy of a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, who sent me a link with a message that basically said, "You gotta see this."  But before I tell you about the article he sent me, I need to tell you about Harold von Braunhut.

Harold von Braunhut was, to put it mildly, an entrepreneur, and reached the peak of his productivity back in the 1970s and 1980s.  His most famous invention/scam was "Sea Monkeys," which -- if you're around my age -- will be immediately familiar, because advertisements for them were everywhere.  Here's von Braunhut's ad:

Tens of thousands of kids sent in their hard-earned dollars, and were dismayed to find that what they were sent were...

... brine shrimp.

For comparison purposes, here is a photograph of actual brine shrimp:

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons michelle jo, Many live brine shrimp, CC BY 3.0]

The first thing you undoubtedly noticed about them is that they look absolutely nothing like the illustration in the advertisement.  They don't have little crowns or human-like faces, they don't have long, shapely legs, and the females (whichever those are?) aren't wearing lipstick.  Plus, if you've ever dealt with brine shrimp -- often used as food animals for saltwater aquariums -- you know that they are not "instant pets... a bowl full of happiness... so eager to please they can even be trained."

But why von Braunhut's name comes up is because of another of his inventions -- if I can dignify them by that term -- the "Invisible Goldfish."  You sent him your money, and he sent you back a cheap plastic goldfish bowl, some fish food, and a handbook.  Add water, and voilà... instant invisible goldfish.  It came along with a guarantee that the fish was indeed invisible -- your money back if you ever saw him.

Now, before you start snickering at how gullible people were back then, consider the fact that just a couple of weeks ago, an Italian artist -- and I am using that word as guardedly as I did calling von Braunhut's scams "inventions" -- named Salvatore Garau just sold a "sculpture" for a cool $18,300, which is even more amazing because the sculpture doesn't exist.

The title of the, um, big blob of nothing is Io Sono, which is Italian for "I Am."  Kind of ironic, because "It Isn't."  Just like with von Braunhut's invisible goldfish, Garau's sculpture comes along with guidelines to set it up -- it must be, he says, in a five-foot-by-five-foot space, free of obstructions.

Oh, and it comes with a certificate of authenticity.  Because you wouldn't want to set up any inauthentic nothing in your house.  Just think how the neighbors would laugh.

Like von Braunhut, who was completely unapologetic about how well his business did, Garau is ridiculously serious about the whole thing, as befits a True Artiste.  And like many True Artistes, he is really good at slinging the arcane, pseudo-profound bullshit.  "The vacuum is nothing more than a space full of energy, and even if we empty it and there is nothing left, according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, that nothing has a weight," he said, in an interview with the Spanish news outlet Diario AS.  "Therefore, it has energy that is condensed and transformed into particles, that is, into us...  When I decide to ‘exhibit’ an immaterial sculpture in a given space, that space will concentrate a certain amount and density of thoughts at a precise point, creating a sculpture that, from my title, will only take the most varied forms."

In fact, that is not even close to what the Heisenberg uncertainty principle says.  Insofar as what Garau said has any meaning at all, he seems to be talking about vacuum energy and virtual particle pair production.  But neither of those has a damn thing to do with invisible statues, and I can nearly guarantee that Garau doesn't much understand these, either.

Most astonishing of all is that this is not the second, but the third time Garau has done this.  He has two other nonexistent sculptures, Buddha in Contemplation and Afrodite Cries.  The first is displayed (so to speak) in the Piazza della Scala in Milan, and the other in front of the New York Stock Exchange.

The latter, by the way, was supported and paid for by the Italian Cultural Institute.

You know, it's not that I don't understand Garau, or, for that matter, von Braunhut.  Once you figure out that you can sell non-existent statues and/or fish, the financial incentive has got to be pretty powerful.  The people I don't understand are the buyers.  Not only did someone buy Garau's non-statue, there was a bidding war that drove it to twice the original asking price.  I shit you not.

That, my friends, is some expensive nothing.

You know, I really think I'm missing the boat, here, working my ass off writing novels.  What I should be doing is selling front and back covers.  On the front cover would be some kind of impressive-sounding name, like The Cosmic Spirit Speaks.  Then on the back, I could have the following:

The ultimate goal of the novelist's voice is to spark the imagination, to create a new world in the mind of the reader.  When we hear that voice, it melds with our being to generate a truly fresh creation, something that did not exist before.  In The Cosmic Spirit Speaks, Bonnet has driven this generative capacity of the author-reader link to its utmost -- a story that is the product of the reader's spirit listening to the still voice of the universe, without needing the intermediary of a plot trying to force that spirit along a particular path.  The reader truly becomes the wellspring of creation.

Which is a fancy way of saying, "You wanna story?  Go write your own fucking story.  Just send me money."

Nah, probably wouldn't work.  I wouldn't last through the first television "meet the author' interview without cracking up.  And you can't sell nonexistent books, statues, or goldfish if you don't take the whole thing -- and yourself -- way too seriously.

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

I'm in awe of people who are true masters of their craft.  My son is a professional glassblower, making precision scientific equipment, and watching him do what he does has always seemed to me to be a little like watching a magic show.  On a (much) lower level of skill, I'm an amateur potter, and have a great time exploring different kinds of clays, pigments, stains, and glazes used in making functional pottery.

What amazes me, though, is that crafts like these aren't new.  Glassblowing, pottery-making, blacksmithing, and other such endeavors date back to long before we knew anything about the underlying chemistry and physics; the techniques were developed by a long history of trial and error.

This is the subject of Anna Ploszajski's new book Handmade: A Scientist's Search for Meaning Through Making, in which she visits some of the finest craftspeople in the world -- and looks at what each is doing through the lenses of history and science.  It's a fascinating inquiry into the drive to create, and how we've learned to manipulate the materials around us into tools, technology, and fine art.

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


Monday, June 7, 2021

Reconsidering Storegga

Ever heard of the Storegga Slide?

It sounds like some bizarre crossover between Scandinavian folk music and a country line dance, but it isn't.  It's an event that took place 8,150 years ago (plus or minus thirty years or so) and is entirely unlike anything we've seen since.

The simplest description is that it was an underwater landslide.  But this thing was bigger than any landslide you've ever heard of.  It took place in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Norway.  For uncertain reasons -- but probably linked to seismic activity along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge -- a 290-kilometer-long piece of continental shelf collapsed, sending an estimated 3,500 cubic kilometers of debris sliding down the continental slope, where it ultimately piled up on the floor of the deep ocean.

What happened next is kind of mind-blowing, but to get how it worked, we have to take a brief digression into biochemistry.

It's thought that the most numerous organisms on Earth are methanogens, a group of bacteria that are kind of everywhere in anaerobic mud (including the sediments of the oceanic abyss).  As you might guess from the name, these bacteria produce methane as a waste product of their metabolism.  If they're living at the bottom of a shallow lake, the methane is in gaseous form and bubbles up when the mud is disturbed, giving it the name "marsh gas." 

But something more interesting happens in the deep ocean.  At the enormous pressures and low temperatures found in the abyss, the methane forms a weird substance called methane clathrate (also known as frozen methane hydrate).  It's a crystalline slush made of a latticework of water and methane.  If you bring it up to the surface -- which, as you'll see, has to be done carefully -- it looks like snow.

But it's flammable.

[Image of methane clathrate is in the Public Domain, courtesy of the United States Geological Service]

So back to the Storegga Slide, wherein an enormous clump of debris went tumbling down the continental slope... and landed in the clathrate-rich mud of the abyssal plain.

Methane clathrate isn't just flammable; it's unstable.  If anything wallops it hard enough, it breaks up the lattice, and the two compounds separate.  The methane turns back into a gas, the water to a liquid. 

Some of you probably have gone scuba diving, and noticed what happens to the air bubbles when you breathe out.  The bubbles rise (duh) but more interestingly, they expand.  The higher you go in the water column, the lower the pressure, and the more the air in the bubble is free to balloon outward.

A lot.  One liter of methane clathrate produces 169 liters of methane gas (at zero degrees Celsius and one atmosphere of pressure).  So when the Storegga Slide crashed into the methane clathrate on the ocean floor, it caused an unknown (but huge) quantity of methane clathrate to fall apart, making it suddenly increase in volume by a factor of 169 -- triggering an explosion that displaced enough water to generate a megatsunami.

This comes up because of a paper last week in the journal Boreas that looked at the effect of the Storegga Slide on nearby land, and found that the tsunami this generated was on the order of thirty meters high.  For comparison purposes, the devastating tsunami generated by the 2011 Japanese earthquake maxed out at a little under ten meters.

The Storegga Slide tsunami was three times higher than that.  It completely inundated what is now northern Scotland.  It's also likely this is what destroyed Doggerland, a broad, marshy land that once connected Great Britain to northern continental Europe.  Doggerland was already in trouble -- at this point, the climate was warming and the seas were rising -- but the Storegga Slide tsunami would have been catastrophic.  Unlike the rugged terrain of Scotland, Doggerland was a featureless flat plain, and the tsunami rolled across it like a bulldozer.  This severed Great Britain from the rest of Europe -- isolating the Mesolithic people there permanently.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Francis Lima, Doggerland3er en, CC BY-SA 4.0]

All this isn't speculation, by the way.  The fact that Doggerland was once dry land (well, dry-ish) was established when a trawler out in the North Sea east of the Wash brought up a barbed antler point that was dated to about ten thousand years ago.  Since that time, lots of other artifacts have been discovered out there on the ocean floor, including prehistoric tools and the bones of mammoths, lions, and other extinct fauna.

And of course, what this makes me think about is how much more methane clathrate there is out there.  "Methane burps" like this one -- although the word "burp" kind of underplays how enormous these are -- release enough methane into the atmosphere to raise the temperature significantly.  In fact, a massive methane clathrate release is thought to be the cause of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum of 55 million years ago, during which the average temperature climbed by between five and eight degrees Celsius, causing widespread extinction and ecosystem disruption.  That "methane burp" at the PETM is thought to have been a hundred times bigger than the Storegga Event.

Ready for the punchline?  The estimates are that the rate we're pumping carbon into the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning is right around the same as the rate that led to the PETM.

So by all means, governmental leaders, continue to ignore the scientists who have been warning you about this for decades.  Business as usual, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

The universe is a dangerous place.  The Storegga Slide and the resultant tsunami happened suddenly and without warning.  Much more commonly, earthquakes and volcanoes can cause tremendous loss of life and property.

But it's a little terrifying to see that what we're doing to our home right now is equivalent to some of the most violent ecological shifts in the geologic record.

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

I'm in awe of people who are true masters of their craft.  My son is a professional glassblower, making precision scientific equipment, and watching him do what he does has always seemed to me to be a little like watching a magic show.  On a (much) lower level of skill, I'm an amateur potter, and have a great time exploring different kinds of clays, pigments, stains, and glazes used in making functional pottery.

What amazes me, though, is that crafts like these aren't new.  Glassblowing, pottery-making, blacksmithing, and other such endeavors date back to long before we knew anything about the underlying chemistry and physics; the techniques were developed by a long history of trial and error.

This is the subject of Anna Ploszajski's new book Handmade: A Scientist's Search for Meaning Through Making, in which she visits some of the finest craftspeople in the world -- and looks at what each is doing through the lenses of history and science.  It's a fascinating inquiry into the drive to create, and how we've learned to manipulate the materials around us into tools, technology, and fine art.

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


Saturday, June 5, 2021

Quantumsquatch

A couple of days ago, I posted a piece claiming that quantum physics (specifically, string theory) proved the existence of the Lovecraftian octopoid god Cthulhu.  Or vice versa, it's a little difficult to tell.  This prompted a loyal reader of Skeptophilia to send me a link to a site along with the message, "Cthulhu isn't the only thing that's going all 'quantum' these days!"  And as proof, he sent me a link he'd run into over at Cryptomundo called...

... "The Quantum Bigfoot Theory."

I wish I were making this up.  Yes, folks, we have a second contender for the most ridiculous claim involving quantum physics.  One Ron Morehead, "an accomplished author with much field experience with the Bigfoot phenomenon," has taken cryptozoology and the whole quantum-vibration nonsense and put it in a blender, and poured out something truly breathtaking.


[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Gnashes30, Pikes peak highway big foot, CC BY-SA 3.0]

He starts out by suggesting that the way us regular old biologists study living creatures may not be the way to approach Bigfoot:
Researchers knock on trees, sound-blast screams and yells, or whoop all over the hillside trying to get the attention of a Bigfoot.  Professional trackers experience track-ways left by these creatures that abruptly end, highly trained dogs will not pick up the scent, or if they do they usually don’t come back.  If what you’re doing doesn’t get the results you want, change what you’re doing…it’s that simple.  Folks who claim to be researchers discount those surreal accounts that don’t fall into their preset paradigm.  Is it time to reach beyond Newtonian rules of classical mechanics, and delve into a science that was established almost 100 years ago by Einstein, Born, Heisenberg and Schrödinger?
Well, there's a reason not to, and that's that the subject of study is Bigfoot, and not Submicroscopicfoot.  Quantum theory explains phenomena that generally are relevant in the world of the very (very) small.  Quantum probabilistic effects get "washed out" on ordinary scales of time and size, just as you can discuss the air pressure inside a balloon without worrying very much about the motion of one specific gas molecule.

So right off, he illustrates that he hasn't the vaguest clue what quantum physics actually is.  But he doesn't let that stop him:
(T)he world of quantum physics has been locked in mathematics.  It’s accepted worldwide by physicists.  We don’t see it, but it’s ever present in our lives.  We get that feeling that something is wrong, the phone rings and Aunt Marybell Sue was in a car wreck.  You have a déjà vu …this has happened before.  Without knowing it, could psychics actually be relating to folks from a quantum level?
Quantum physics is a little weird, but that does not mean "if it's weird, it must be because of quantum physics."  And if Aunt Marybell Sue gets in car wrecks often enough that people are experiencing déjà vu about it, maybe it's time to take away her driver's license.

The real coup de grâce, though, comes at the end of the article. Morehead states:
Is there a race of giants that have inherited the ability to move into the macro-world with quantum physics?...  The remains of giants have been found on earth before.  Most of us know about Greek mythology regarding aliens copulating with human women who then gave birth to a half god-half human, e.g., Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, Hercules, and so on.  They supposedly had great powers and supernatural abilities.  And most of us know of the biblical accounts of the same type of cross-breeding.  If we are to believe there is a core of truth to these stories, could Bigfoot be a diluted remnant of these and have inherited some of their quantum abilities?
It's funny, I've read a great deal of mythology, and I don't recall anything about Zeus being the product of an alien having sex with a human.  You'd think that'd kind of stand out in my memory.  But if we're making shit up, may as well go big or go home, right?

The most inadvertently funny thing about the whole article, though, is when Morehead states that there is no need to defer to posers like Brian Greene and Neil de Grasse Tyson on matters of physics:
You don’t have to be a physicist to understand enough about quantum physics to realize it could very well be our answer to the understanding of how Bigfoot might operate.
Which, in one sentence, sums up the entire woo-woo worldview.  "Don't expect us even to expend the effort of reading the fucking Wikipedia page on quantum physics.  We'll just throw around some terms that are sort of science-y or something, and call it good."

And we won't even go into Morehead's further speculations that Bigfoot might be the descendant of Lucifer and the Nephilim.

So there you have it.  An even dumber claim than Quantum-thulhu.  If there's any crazier woo-woo quantum absurdity out there, like using quantum physics to explain why Tarot cards work, I don't want to know about it.  There's only so much facepalming one person can endure.

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

Astronomer Michio Kaku has a new book out, and he's tackled a doozy of a topic.

One of the thorniest problems in physics over the last hundred years, one which has stymied some of the greatest minds humanity has ever produced, is the quest for finding a Grand Unified Theory.  There are four fundamental forces in nature that we know about; the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity.  The first three can now be modeled by a single set of equations -- called the electroweak theory -- but gravity has staunchly resisted incorporation.

The problem is, the other three forces can be explained by quantum effects, while gravity seems to have little to no effect on the realm of the very small -- and likewise, quantum effects have virtually no impact on the large scales where gravity rules.  Trying to combine the two results in self-contradictions and impossibilities, and even models that seem to eliminate some of the problems -- such as the highly-publicized string theory -- face their own sent of deep issues, such as generating so many possible solutions that an experimental test is practically impossible.

Kaku's new book, The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything describes the history and current status of this seemingly intractable problem, and does so with his characteristic flair and humor.  If you're interesting in finding out about the cutting edge of physic lies, in terms that an intelligent layperson can understand, you'll really enjoy Kaku's book -- and come away with a deeper appreciation for how weird the universe actually is.

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