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.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

New life

New from the "Don't You People Even Watch Science Fiction Movies?" department, we have: bioengineers at Cornell University recently created a DNA-based material that has three of the main characteristics of life -- metabolism, self-assembly, and organization.

Oh, and they pitted different versions of the material against each other, and triggered two more: competition and evolution.

The research was published last week in Science: Robotics, in a paper called, "Dynamic DNA Material With Emergent Locomotion Behavior Powered by Artificial Metabolism," authored by a team led by Cornell bioengineer Shogo Hamada.  Working with substances they call DASH (DNA-based Assembly and Synthesis of Hierarchical) materials, they ended up creating something so close to a living thing that even the most ardent life-is-unique-and-unquantifiable proponents are sitting up and taking notice.

What they did is start with 55-nucleotide pair DNA fragments, which were then injected into a machine that provided raw materials (free nucleotides) and a source of energy.  The DNA fragments began to extend, adding new bases to the front end while slowly losing them from the back end, so the entire fragment crept along.  The addition process was faster than the degradation, so eventually there were fragments a few millimeters long -- corresponding to tens of thousands of base pairs.

"The designs are still primitive, but they showed a new route to create dynamic machines from biomolecules. We are at a first step of building lifelike robots by artificial metabolism," said Shogo Hamada, who led the research.  "Even from a simple design, we were able to create sophisticated behaviors like racing. Artificial metabolism could open a new frontier in robotics."

The fragments then began to compete against each other in terms of speed and growth rate, something that has never been seen before in an artificially-created DNA-based material.  "Everything from its ability to move and compete, all those processes are self-contained," said study co-author Dan Luo.  "There’s no external interference.  Life began billions of years from perhaps just a few kinds of molecules.  This might be the same...  [T]he use of DNA gives the whole system a self-evolutionary possibility.  This is huge."

The researchers are currently trying to design ways to have the DNA fragments move toward sources of light, warmth, or sources of nutrients, and away from dangers, not to mention ways to speed up the process to create new generations within seconds.  "We are introducing a brand-new, lifelike material concept powered by its very own artificial metabolism," Luo said.  "We are not making something that’s alive, but we are creating materials that are much more lifelike than have ever been seen before."

Hamada added, "Ultimately, the system may lead to lifelike self-reproducing machines."

Okay, now, just hang on a moment.

I'm not really buying Luo's comment that they're "not making something that's alive," because we don't really have a good working definition of life to start with.  Viruses, commonly referred to as "alive," have no metabolism, are not made of cells, do not respond, and outside of the host do not use energy.  Honestly, they're more like self-replicating chemicals than they are living things.  Then there's the life characteristic "has a limited life span," which doesn't seem to apply to some plants (such as the essentially immortal bristlecone pines) and cancer cell lines (such as the famous HeLa cells).  There's a lot of speculation on whether life even has to be carbon-based -- speculation that's been around for a long time (remember the original Star Trek episode "The Devil in the Dark," about a silicon-based life form that has hydrofluoric acid instead of water as the solvent in its blood?).


So don't tell me the new Cornell DASH-material isn't alive because it's missing a couple of characteristics of life from the canonical list.  The number of naturally-occurring exceptions is long enough.

And I'm right up there with the folks who think this is amazingly cool -- my background is in evolutionary genetics, after all -- but for cryin' in the sink, doesn't this concern anyone?  Especially if you design DASH-materials that avoid danger and seek out sources of nutrients?  Because I can think of one really great source of nutrients they'd probably be attracted to:

They're called "us."

And the problem is, we don't set up a good immune response to DNA fragments.  Up till now, this has been a good thing; we take in DNA fragments in our food every time we eat.  If you eat a carrot, you're swallowing carrot DNA.  If you eat a steak, you're swallowing cow DNA.  If you eat Slim Jims, you're swallowing...

... well, the DNA of some kind of organism.  I think.  Who the hell knows what those things are made of, anyhow?

But my point is, you have one shot at breaking these foreign DNA strands down into their component nucleotides, and that's using the nuclease enzymes in your small intestine.  If they get past that...

Cf. my earlier comment about the new artificial DNA fragments learning how to "avoid danger."

Okay, maybe I'm being alarmist, here.  But -- and I mean this with all due affection -- humans have a really good track record of fucking things up royally, sometimes out of the best of intentions.  So I'm not sure that creating a self-replicating, competitive life form that can evolve to become more efficient at seeking out sources of nutrients is really all that great an idea.

But that's not gonna stop 'em.

Oh, and did I mention that I live ten miles from Cornell University?  At least I'll be amongst the first people to get devoured, and won't have to sit around wondering when the DASH-monsters will arrive.

But I'm gonna try not to worry about it.  After all, we've got enough other things to worry about, such as climate change, the threat of war, and whether today'll be the day Donald Trump decides to open the Seventh Seal of the Apocalypse.

Maybe that's what Michele Bachmann meant by saying Trump was "highly biblical."

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

Monday's post, about the institutionalized sexism in scientific research, prompted me to decide that this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is Evelyn Fox Keller's brilliant biography of Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism.

McClintock worked for years to prove her claim that bits of genetic material that she called transposons or transposable elements could move around in the genome, with the result of switching on or switching off genes.  Her research was largely ignored, mostly because of the attitudes toward female scientists back in the 1940s and 1950s, the decades during which she discovered transposition.  Her male colleagues laughingly labeled her claim "jumping genes" and forthwith forgot all about it.

Undeterred, McClintock kept at it, finally amassing such a mountain of evidence that she couldn't be ignored.  Other scientists, some willingly and some begrudgingly, replicated her experiments, and support finally fell in line behind her.  She was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine -- and remains to this day the only woman who has received an unshared Nobel in that category.

Her biography is simultaneously infuriating and uplifting, but in the end, the uplift wins -- her work demonstrates the power of perseverance and the delightful outcome of the protagonist winning in the end.  Keller's look at McClintock's life and personal struggles, and ultimate triumph, is a must-read for anyone interested in science -- or the role that sexism has played in scientific research.

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





Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Lying to our faces

Why are humans so prone to falling for complete bunk?

I ask this question because of two rather distressing studies that I ran into a while back, but which (understandably, when you see what they're about) didn't get much press.  Both of them should make all of us sit up and take notice.

In the first, a group of medical researchers led by Christina Korownyk of the University of Alberta studied over 400 recommendations (each) made on The Dr. Oz Show and The Doctors, medical talk shows in which advice is liberally dispensed to listeners on various health issues.  The recommendations came from forty episodes from each show, and both the episodes and the recommendations were chosen at random.

The recommendations were then evaluated by a team of medical scientists, who looked at the quality of actual research evidence that supported each. It was found that under half of Dr. Oz's claims had evidential support -- and 15% were contradicted outright by the research.  The Doctors did a little better, but still only had a 63% support from the available evidence.

In the second study, an independent non-partisan group called PunditFact evaluated statements on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN for veracity, placing them in the categories of "True," "Mostly True," "Half True," "Mostly False," "False," and "Pants On Fire."  The latter category was reserved for statements that were so completely out of skew with the facts that they would have put Pinocchio to shame.

Fox News scored the worst, with only 18% of statements in the "True" or "Mostly True" categories.   60% of the statements on Fox were in the lowest three categories.  But before my readers who are on the liberal side of things start crowing with delight, allow me to point out that MSNBC doesn't win any awards for truth-telling, either.  They scored only 31% in the top two categories, and 48% in the lowest three.

Even CNN, which had the best scores, still only had 60% of their statements in the "True" or "Mostly True" categories!


Pretty discouraging stuff. Because far too many people take as gospel the statements heard on these sad examples of media, unquestioningly accepting what they hear as fact.

I think the reason is that so many of us are uncomfortable questioning our baseline assumptions.  If we already believe that liberals are going to lead the United States into ruination, then (1) we'll naturally gravitate toward Fox News, and (2) we'll hear lots of what we already thought was true, and have the lovely experience of feeling like we're right about everything.  Likewise the liberals who think that the Republicans are evil incarnate, and who therefore land right in happy MSNBC fantasy land.

And as the first study shows, this isn't confined to politics.  When Dr. Oz says, "Carb-load your plate at breakfast because it's heart-healthy" (a claim roundly contradicted by the evidence), the listeners who love waffles with lots of maple syrup are likely to say, "Hell yeah!"

What's worse is that when we're shown statements contradictory to our preconceived beliefs, we're likely not even to remember them.  About ten years ago, two of my students did a project in my class where they had subjects self-identify as liberal, conservative, or moderate, and then presented them with an article they'd written containing statistics on the petroleum industry.  The article was carefully written so that half of the data supported a conservative viewpoint (things like "government subsidies for oil companies keep gasoline prices low, encouraging business") and half supported more liberal stances (such as "the increasing reliance on fossil fuels has been shown to be linked with climate change").  After reading the article, each test subject was given a test to see which facts they remembered from it.

Conservatives were more likely to remember the conservative claims, liberals the liberal claims.  It's almost as if we don't just disagree with the opposite viewpoint; on some level we can't even quite bring ourselves to believe it exists.

It's a troubling finding.  This blind spot seems to be firmly wired into our brain, again bringing up the reluctance that all of us have in considering that we might be wrong about something.

The only way out, of course, is through training our brains to suspend judgment until we've found out the facts.  The rush to come to a conclusion -- especially when the conclusion is in line with what we already believed -- is a dangerous path.  All the more highlighting that we need to be teaching critical thinking and smart media literacy in public schools.

And we need to turn off the mainstream media.  It's not that one side or the other is skewed; it's all bad.

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

Monday's post, about the institutionalized sexism in scientific research, prompted me to decide that this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is Evelyn Fox Keller's brilliant biography of Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism.

McClintock worked for years to prove her claim that bits of genetic material that she called transposons or transposable elements could move around in the genome, with the result of switching on or switching off genes.  Her research was largely ignored, mostly because of the attitudes toward female scientists back in the 1940s and 1950s, the decades during which she discovered transposition.  Her male colleagues laughingly labeled her claim "jumping genes" and forthwith forgot all about it.

Undeterred, McClintock kept at it, finally amassing such a mountain of evidence that she couldn't be ignored.  Other scientists, some willingly and some begrudgingly, replicated her experiments, and support finally fell in line behind her.  She was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine -- and remains to this day the only woman who has received an unshared Nobel in that category.

Her biography is simultaneously infuriating and uplifting, but in the end, the uplift wins -- her work demonstrates the power of perseverance and the delightful outcome of the protagonist winning in the end.  Keller's look at McClintock's life and personal struggles, and ultimate triumph, is a must-read for anyone interested in science -- or the role that sexism has played in scientific research.

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





Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Requiem for a cathedral

As I sit in my office writing this, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris is burning.

It's hard for me to describe what I am feeling.  Mostly, it's a deep, deep grief that something beautiful, something irreplaceable, is gone forever.  It was a place of devotion, a building that had been lovingly cared for and added to for almost nine hundred years, an iconic symbol of the city of Paris.

And now it's gone.

I know that loss is part of the human condition, but this is a big one.  It appears that there isn't even anyone to blame, to take our minds off the grief, as there was with 9/11; the best guess anyone has right now of the cause is an accident during renovation.  That one blunder could deprive the world of something this grand is mind-boggling, but that's what seems to have happened as of the time I'm writing this.

[Image is licensed under the Creative Commons Diego Delso creator QS:P170,Q28147777, Paris Notre-Dame cathedral interior nave east 01d, CC BY 3.0]

This sense of grief at the destruction of something beautiful has been with me for a long, long time.  My first contact with it happened when I was little -- probably not more than four years old -- and my mom, who was a devoted gardener, presented me with a little packet of forget-me-not seeds.  I was so excited I had to open it and pour them into my hand, and in the process stumbled walking across the yard and dropped them into the grass.  I don't recall what my mother did other than saying "so much for that."  What I do remember is crying inconsolably that something that could have been beautiful was lost.  Every time I've been confronted by loss since then, I remember that little packet of seeds and how final and irrevocable it seemed, how nothing I could ever do would change what had happened, would ever make it all right again, world without end, amen.

And it always launches us into the if-only trap, doesn't it?  When a chance set of circumstances led to the death of our beloved border collie Doolin a few years ago, I spent the next weeks trying to parse what we could have changed had we only seen ahead.  Tiny differences -- waiting two minutes, leaving our house through a different door, taking a different path into our yard -- any one of those would have meant that she and that speeding car would not have been at the same place at the same time.

But we're not prescient, and all of those tiny events only add up in retrospect.

Every time something irrevocable occurs, from the minor to the overwhelming, I can't help thinking if only something could have been done differently.  If only someone hadn't blundered, hadn't had a moment of carelessness, had been paying more attention.

And each time, I am brought to the reality that the if-onlys are pointless.  It's done, it's over, it will never be again.

It's the scale of this one that's so horrible.  Consider the love and wonder of the millions of tourists who visited Notre Dame; the ones (like myself) who wanted to go, always intended to go, but never did; the thousands who devoted their time, effort, and money to the upkeep and renovation of the structure; the countless devout Catholics who considered this a central icon of their deeply-held faith; and you have a glimmer of understanding of what people are feeling right now.

I keep going back to the news stories, watching the videos as if to make sure I've understood right, that Notre Dame is really gone.  A part of me still can't quite believe it.

Of course, I still mourn the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria, so it may be a while before this wound heals.

Firefighters are still trying to save what they can, but the last word I heard was that even the vault might be in jeopardy.  Realistically, I don't see how anything but the stone framework will remain standing, and probably not even all of that.  And if they rebuild it, then what?  What they create might well be beautiful and awe-inspiring, as the 9/11 memorial and the new World Trade Center are, but it won't be what it was.  That will only exist in our remembrance -- and in our art, photography, and writing, which (after all) are our species's collective memory.

I'm not sure what else to say.  It still seems surreal, a blow to our false confidence that the world will always remain as it is.  I will be processing this for a long time, I think.  But for now, I'm going to go look at some photographs of a treasure that is now lost forever.

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

Monday's post, about the institutionalized sexism in scientific research, prompted me to decide that this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is Evelyn Fox Keller's brilliant biography of Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism.

McClintock worked for years to prove her claim that bits of genetic material that she called transposons or transposable elements could move around in the genome, with the result of switching on or switching off genes.  Her research was largely ignored, mostly because of the attitudes toward female scientists back in the 1940s and 1950s, the decades during which she discovered transposition.  Her male colleagues laughingly labeled her claim "jumping genes" and forthwith forgot all about it.

Undeterred, McClintock kept at it, finally amassing such a mountain of evidence that she couldn't be ignored.  Other scientists, some willingly and some begrudgingly, replicated her experiments, and support finally fell in line behind her.  She was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine -- and remains to this day the only woman who has received an unshared Nobel in that category.

Her biography is simultaneously infuriating and uplifting, but in the end, the uplift wins -- her work demonstrates the power of perseverance and the delightful outcome of the protagonist winning in the end.  Keller's look at McClintock's life and personal struggles, and ultimate triumph, is a must-read for anyone interested in science -- or the role that sexism has played in scientific research.

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





Monday, April 15, 2019

Defeating the trolls

I'm a firm believer in the idea that most people, most of the time, are trying as hard as they can to do the right thing.

Yes, we often differ about what that right thing is.  Yes, sometimes we try and fail.  But my point is, we are usually working to do the best we can for ourselves and our loved ones.

But.

There is a minority of people who, to put it bluntly, are assholes.  These are the people who can't stand it if others get recognition, are furious when their pet ideas turn out to be wrong, or are simply spiteful and nasty.  And that ugly minority can, unfortunately, be extremely loud at times.

Look at what happened last week to Dr. Katie Bouman, the astrophysicist who spearheaded the project to generate the world's first actual photograph of a black hole.

You'd think that anyone with a scientific bent would have been thrilled, both for her and because of the extraordinary image she helped create.  And honestly, most of us were.  But there was a handful of trolls who couldn't stand the fact that she was getting accolades for her work -- and that she showed great modesty in highlighting the work of the rest of her team.

"No one algorithm or person made this image," Dr. Bouman wrote.  "It required the amazing talent of a team of scientists from around the globe and years of hard work to develop the instrument, data processing, imaging methods, and analysis techniques that were necessary to pull off this seemingly impossible feat.  It has been truly an honor, and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with you all."

So said trolls decided that this was Dr. Bouman's way of admitting she really hadn't had much to do with the research, and set out to destroy her reputation.

Fake Twitter accounts and YouTube channels started popping up, all with the aim of casting doubt on her role in the project.  Many of them focused on her colleague Andrew Chael, who it was implied had done nearly all the research, which was then swiped by Bouman.  Chael himself was having none of it; he posted on Twitter a complete disavowal of the claim, and a demand that the attacks on Dr. Bouman stop.


The trolls then created a fake account in Chael's name and accelerated the nastiness.

Nota bene: if your opinion about something is on such shaky ground that in order to get people to believe it, you have to create a fake Twitter account, impersonate someone else, and then lie outright, you might want to consider whether you're right in the first place.

Twitter, to its credit (a credit that it must be said it often doesn't deserve), pulled the fake accounts as fast as it could, but not before there were thousands of people who had followed them, and tens of thousands of times that the false messages had been retweeted.  As with most false claims, it's damn hard to fix the damage once the claim is out there, regardless of how many times it's debunked, retracted, or deleted.  Witness the ongoing anti-vaxx idiocy, due largely to Andrew Wakefield, whose "studies" were withdrawn and whose work has been shown to be worthless.  Witness "chemtrails," whose genesis was due to a misquoted number on a Louisiana news broadcast.  Witness the ten thousand (literally) public lies Donald Trump has uttered in the last three years.

Undoing all that would be about as easy as putting toothpaste back into a tube.

As far as why anyone would be such a complete dick as to attack Dr. Bouman, most people are attributing it to sexism -- that the trolls couldn't believe that a woman had made such an achievement, and set out to prove that she'd relied on her male colleagues and then stole their glory.  Sadly, this explanation for the trolls' behavior is entirely plausible.  Despite considerable advances, it's still difficult for women to succeed in science.  Consider the 2017 study that showed teams led by women only receive 7% of the total grant money allocations, and a team led by a woman receives on average 40% of the money that a similar project receives if led by a man.  These figures are appalling, even if you take into account that only 17% of working scientists in physics and engineering are female -- the fields with the lowest diversity.

Which is itself appalling.

So this disgusting episode is yet another reason to be careful about what you believe online.  Double, triple, quadruple-check your sources before you pass along links.  That is especially true if the link supports something you're already inclined to believe; we all fall prey to confirmation bias.

Despite all this, I still think that humanity is, in the majority, good.  But being good means you speak up against the ugly minority who are determined to attack, demean, and degrade others.  Defeating the trolls takes an effort by all of us.  To paraphrase Edmund Burke (the paraphrase is to remove the sexist verbiage, the irony of which does not escape me): "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the good do nothing."

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

Monday's post, about the institutionalized sexism in scientific research, prompted me to decide that this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is Evelyn Fox Keller's brilliant biography of Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism.

McClintock worked for years to prove her claim that bits of genetic material that she called transposons or transposable elements could move around in the genome, with the result of switching on or switching off genes.  Her research was largely ignored, mostly because of the attitudes toward female scientists back in the 1940s and 1950s, the decades during which she discovered transposition.  Her male colleagues laughingly labeled her claim "jumping genes" and forthwith forgot all about it.

Undeterred, McClintock kept at it, finally amassing such a mountain of evidence that she couldn't be ignored.  Other scientists, some willingly and some begrudgingly, replicated her experiments, and support finally fell in line behind her.  She was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine -- and remains to this day the only woman who has received an unshared Nobel in that category.

Her biography is simultaneously infuriating and uplifting, but in the end, the uplift wins -- her work demonstrates the power of perseverance and the delightful outcome of the protagonist winning in the end.  Keller's look at McClintock's life and personal struggles, and ultimate triumph, is a must-read for anyone interested in science -- or the role that sexism has played in scientific research.

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





Saturday, April 13, 2019

An avalanche of fire

One of the most utterly terrifying phenomena on Earth is called a pyroclastic flow.

Pyroclastic flows are explosive eruptions of volcanoes that release not molten rock, but finely pulverized debris and hot gases that then flow downhill at an astonishing rate -- in some cases, forming a cloud at a temperature of 1000 C moving at an almost unimaginable 700 kilometers per hour.  Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed by pyroclastic flows from Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 C.E., which killed everyone in their path and buried the cities under layers of ash, where they remained for centuries until being unearthed by archaeologists.

If you're not too prone to freak-out over such things, I strongly recommend this ten-minute animation that recreates the destruction of Pompeii:


More recently, a 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée on the island of Martinique triggered a pyroclastic flow that obliterated the city of Saint Pierre, killing 30,000 people in an estimated five minutes.  There were only three survivors -- Louis-Auguste Cyparis, who was lucky enough to be in an underground dungeon; Léon Compère-Léandre, who lived on the edge of town and still suffered severe burns; and Havivra Da Ifrile, who was on the beach when the eruption started and had the presence of mind to jump in a rowboat, where she was later found, unconscious and adrift, three kilometers offshore.

Saint Pierre before the eruption...


... and after:

[Images are in the Public Domain]

What has long been a mystery to volcanologists is how pyroclastic flows achieve the speeds they do, which, after all, is the key to their deadliness.  Lava flows, while they can do tremendous damage to houses and land, rarely cause loss of life because they can almost always be outrun (or in some cases, outwalked).  The fastest pyroclastic flows, on the other hand, are moving so rapidly that even if you had warning, you couldn't move quickly enough to escape.

But a paper last week in Nature describes how a team from three universities in New Zealand (Massey University, the University of Auckland, and the University of Otago) and one in the United States (the University of Oregon) created a model of pyroclastic flows, and found that the reason they travel so quickly is basically the principle of air hockey -- the cloud is suspended on a cushion of superheated air, reducing the friction to nearly zero.

In "Generation of Air Lubrication Within Pyroclastic Density Currents," by Gert Lube, Eric C. P. Breard, Jim Jones, Luke Fullard, Josef Dufek, Shane J. Cronin, and Ting Wang, we find out about a series of experiments that are not only cool but must have been extremely fun to carry out.  They built a twelve-meter-long chute, mined some volcanic particles (deposited in the 232 C.E. eruption of New Zealand's Mount Taupo), heated it up to 130 C, and sent 1000 kilograms of it at a time barreling down the chute, all the while filming it with an ultrafast camera.

As Michelle Starr, writing for Science Alert, describes the results:
[W]ithin the flow there were extremely high shear rates - the rate at which layers in a fluid flow past each other.  When shear increases, so does air pressure; and when shear rates are at their highest, that pressure produces a cushion of air just above the ground, pushing particles away from each other, with denser volcanic dust layers sliding over the top of it.
The result is that the flow keeps moving downhill at higher and higher rates until it hits an obstacle, dissipates, or cools enough that the effect diminishes and the particles slow down.

This makes me glad I live in such a benign part of the world.  Here in upstate New York, the worst we have to worry about is the occasional snowstorm, and the fact that the summers are distressingly short.  (This year, summer is scheduled for the second Thursday in July.)  But compared to living near an active volcano, or a hurricane zone, or Tornado Alley, or near a seismic fault line -- I'd say we're pretty damn fortunate.

But of all the natural disasters the Earth is capable of creating, I don't think there's anything quite as terrifying as these avalanches of fire -- unpredictable, lightning-fast, and capable of destroying everything in their path.  Compared to that, I'd choose our long, cold winters in half a heartbeat.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun one; Atlas Obscura by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton.  The book is based upon a website of the same name that looks at curious, beautiful, bizarre, frightening, or fascinating places in the world -- the sorts of off-the-beaten-path destinations that you might pass by without ever knowing they exist.  (Recent entries are an astronomical observatory in Zweibrücken, Germany that has been painted to look like R2-D2; the town of Story, Indiana that is for sale for a cool $3.8 million; and the Michelin-rated kitchen run by Lewis Georgiades -- at the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Research Station, which only gets a food delivery once a year.)

This book collects the best of the Atlas Obscura sites, organizes them by continent, and tells you about their history.  It's a must-read for anyone who likes to travel -- preferably before you plan your next vacation.

(If you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!)






Friday, April 12, 2019

The black heart of M87

It's awfully easy to get discouraged lately.

The news seems to go from bad to worse every day.  Government corruption, terrorist attacks both here and overseas, every other news story a testament of the amazing ability of Homo sapiens to treat each other horribly.

So when we have a triumph, we should celebrate it.  Because as Max Ehrmann put it, in his classic poem "Desiderata:" "Many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism...  With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world."

We got a lovely example of that a couple of days ago, with the revelation that scientists had amassed enough data from the Event Horizon Telescope project to produce the first-ever photograph of a black hole.  It's at the heart of the massive elliptical galaxy M87, in the constellation of Virgo, and is about 54 million light years away.  With no further ado, here's the photo:


I think the left-hand one -- with less magnification -- is even more amazing, because it shows the black hole in context with its surroundings.  It looks more "real."  But in either case, they're stunning.  The glow comes from matter being sucked into the black hole, being heated up to the point of producing x-rays as a sort of electromagnetic death scream before dropping forever beyond the event horizon.  For the very first time, we're seeing an actual image of one of the most bizarre phenomena in nature -- an object so massive that it warps space into a closed curve, so that even light can't escape.

But even this isn't my favorite image that has come out of this study.

This is:


This is Katie Bouman, the MIT postdoc (soon to be starting as an assistant professor at CalTech) whose algorithm made the black hole image a reality.  Bouman responded to her sudden fame with modesty.  "No one of us could've done it alone," she said.  "It came together because of lots of different people from many backgrounds."

Which may well be, but no one is questioning her pivotal role in this groundbreaking achievement.  And what I love about the photograph above is that it perfectly captures the joy of doing science -- what Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman called "the pleasure of finding things out."  We now have a window into a piece of the universe that was invisible to us before, and that ineffable feeling is clearly captured in her expression.

There have already been six papers written about this accomplishment, and that's only the beginning.  I find myself wondering what other obscure and fascinating astronomical phenomena Bouman's algorithm could be used to photograph -- and what we might learn from seeing them for real for the first time.  I also wonder what effect that will have on us ordinary laypeople.  The physicists may be comfortable living in the world of their mathematical models (I heard one physicist friend say, "The models are the reality; everything else is just pretty pictures"), but the rest of us need to be more grounded in order to understand.  So what if we were to see more than an artist's conception of things like pulsars, quasars, gamma-ray bursters, type 1-A supernovae?

Kind of a surfeit of wonder, that would be.  But what a way to be overwhelmed, yes?

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun one; Atlas Obscura by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton.  The book is based upon a website of the same name that looks at curious, beautiful, bizarre, frightening, or fascinating places in the world -- the sorts of off-the-beaten-path destinations that you might pass by without ever knowing they exist.  (Recent entries are an astronomical observatory in Zweibrücken, Germany that has been painted to look like R2-D2; the town of Story, Indiana that is for sale for a cool $3.8 million; and the Michelin-rated kitchen run by Lewis Georgiades -- at the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Research Station, which only gets a food delivery once a year.)

This book collects the best of the Atlas Obscura sites, organizes them by continent, and tells you about their history.  It's a must-read for anyone who likes to travel -- preferably before you plan your next vacation.

(If you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!)






Thursday, April 11, 2019

The dangers of pseudoarchaeology

One of my ongoing peeves is that so many people put more faith in popular media claims than in what the scientists themselves are saying.

This can take many forms.  We have the straw-man approach, usually done with some agenda in mind, where someone will completely mischaracterize the science in order to convince people of a particular claim, and for some reason said people never think to find out what the scientists actually have to say on the matter.  (One example that especially sets my teeth on edge is the young-Earth creationists who say that the Big Bang model means "nothing exploded and created everything" and forthwith dismiss it as nonsense.)

An even more common form this takes is the current passion many people have for shows like Monster Quest and Ancient Aliens and Ghost Hunters, which aim to convince viewers that there is strong evidence for claims when there is actually little or none at all.  This kind of thing is remarkably hard to fight; when you have a charismatic figure who is trying to convince you that the Norse gods were actually superpowerful extraterrestrial visitors, and supporting that claim with evidence that is cherry-picked at best and entirely fabricated at worst, non-scientists can be suckered remarkably easily.

But "hard to fight" doesn't mean "give up," at least to archaeologist David Anderson of Radford University (Virginia).  Because he has absolutely had it with goofy claims that misrepresent the actual evidence, and is publicly calling out the people who do it.

Anderson's quest started in February, when a claim was made on The Joe Rogan Experience that a famous piece of Mayan art, from the sarcophagus of Mayan King K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, who died in 683 C.E., showed him ascending into the skies in a spaceship:


It's one of the favorite pieces of evidence from the "Ancient Aliens" crowd.  But the problem is, it's wrong -- not only from the standpoint that there almost certainly were no "Ancient Aliens."  They evidently never bothered to ask an actual expert in Mayan archaeology, because that's not even what the art is trying to depict. Anderson was infuriated enough that he responded to Rogan in a tweet: "Dear @joerogan… [the piece of Mayan art you mentioned] depicts [Pakal] falling into the underworld at the moment of his death."  The "rocket" beneath the king's body, Anderson explains, is a depiction of the underworld, and the rest of the "spaceship" is a "world tree" -- a common image in Mayan art, not to mention art from other cultures.

Rogan, to his credit, thanked Anderson for the correction, but some of his fans weren't so thrilled, and railed against Anderson as being a "mainstream archaeologist" (because that's bad, apparently) who was actively trying to suppress the truth about ancient aliens for some reason.  Anderson, for his part, is adamant that archaeologists and other scientists need to be better at calling out pseudoscience and the people who are promoting it.  He cites a study done at Chapman University (California) showing that 57% of Americans polled in 2018 believe in Atlantis (up from 40% in 2016) and 41% believe that aliens visited the Earth in antiquity and made contact with early human civilizations (up from 27%).

Anderson says, and I agree, that this is a serious problem, not only because of how high the raw numbers are, but because of the trend.  I know it's not really a scientist's job to make sure the public understands his/her research, but given the amount of bullshit out there (not to mention the general anti-science bent of the current administration), it's increasingly important.

You may wonder why I'm so passionate about this, and be thinking, "Okay, I see the problem with people doubting climate science, but what's the harm of people believing in ancient aliens?  It's harmless."  Which is true, up to a point.  But the problem is, once you've decided that evidence -- and the amount and quality thereof -- is no longer the sine qua non for support of a claim, you've gone onto some seriously thin ice.  Taking a leap into pseudoscience in one realm makes it all that much easier to jump into other unsupported craziness.  Consider, for example, the study that came out of the University of Queensland that found a strong correlation between being an anti-vaxxer and accepting conspiracy theories such as the ones surrounding the JFK assassination.

So learning some science and critical thinking are insulation against being suckered by counterfactual nonsense of all kinds.  Which is why yes, I do care that people are making false claims about a piece of Mayan artwork... and so should you.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun one; Atlas Obscura by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton.  The book is based upon a website of the same name that looks at curious, beautiful, bizarre, frightening, or fascinating places in the world -- the sorts of off-the-beaten-path destinations that you might pass by without ever knowing they exist.  (Recent entries are an astronomical observatory in Zweibrücken, Germany that has been painted to look like R2-D2; the town of Story, Indiana that is for sale for a cool $3.8 million; and the Michelin-rated kitchen run by Lewis Georgiades -- at the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Research Station, which only gets a food delivery once a year.)

This book collects the best of the Atlas Obscura sites, organizes them by continent, and tells you about their history.  It's a must-read for anyone who likes to travel -- preferably before you plan your next vacation.

(If you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!)