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, September 20, 2018

The king of the hoaxers

In general, I really dislike hoaxers.

They make a skeptic's job so much harder.  It's bad enough dealing with the implicit biases in human perception, our occasional failures in logic, and the sheer contrariness of nature.  When people deliberately set out to mislead, confuse, or lie outright, it adds a whole new level of difficulty and frustration to the enterprise.

Still, there are times that there are hoaxers whose ingenuity I can't help but admire.  Such a man was Alan Abel, who died last week at the age of 94.

Well, at least I think he did.  Abel faked his own death in 1980, using over a dozen accomplices -- one acting as his grieving widow, another as the undertaker, others as family friends -- and the hoax was good enough that the New York Times ran his obituary, and had to publish a retraction when Abel rose from the grave and gave a news conference.

This time, his death was confirmed by the Regional Hospice and Palliative Care facility in Abel's home town of Southbury, Connecticut.  Which, I have to admit, would be an unlikely group of people to participate in a hoax about someone dying.

Abel's successful hoaxes make a long, hilarious, and amazingly creative list.  Here are a few:
  • The creation of the Society for Indecency of Naked Animals, which proposed clothing all domestic animals to hide their naughty bits.  Supposedly Abel got the idea when he was driving somewhere and had to stop his car to wait for a cow and a bull in the middle of the road to finish having sex, and he thought he could convince people that this kind of behavior would be less likely to happen if the animals weren't running around naked all the time.  Apparently, there were a number of people who thought it was serious, and joined the society -- a group of them even picketed the White House in 1963 to try to get Jackie Kennedy to put pants on her horses.  (The slogan was "A nude horse is a rude horse.")
  • He created a fake presidential candidate in 1964, a retired Jewish grandma from the Bronx named Yetta Bronstein.  Her platform included such points as fluoridation, having national bingo tournaments, and dispensing truth serum into congressional drinking fountains.  Her motto was "Vote for Yetta and things will get betta," which when added to the Nude Horse slogan from SINA, leads me to believe that Abel may have been good at hoaxes, but he was freakin' brilliant at coming up with mottos.
  • The creation of Omar's School for Beggars, which was supposed to educate people in techniques of better panhandling.  In the publicity photographs, Abel himself (wearing a hoodie) posed as Omar, and his friends posed as the students.  As wacky as this one is, it took in not only New York magazine, but the Miami Herald.
  • A coed musical quartet that always performed wearing only pants.  Apparently Frank Sinatra thought this was a cool idea, and tried to book a recording session with them, only to find out the Topless String Quartet didn't exist.
  • The Ku Klux Klan Symphony Orchestra, which -- no lie -- David Duke accepted an invitation to conduct.
  • Females for Felons, a group of selfless women who devoted themselves to having sex with the incarcerated.
  • Euthanasia Cruises, which catered to people who "want to expire in luxury."
  • Posing as a former White House staffer, Abel had a lot of people convinced that he had located the lost/erased eighteen minutes of the Watergate tapes.  
  • A 1971 documentary -- completely made up, using actors as "scientists" -- called, "Is There Sex After Death?"
And that's just scratching the surface.  What's amazing is that he never got publicized as a hoaxer.  You'd think, after one or two, people wouldn't believe anything the guy was involved in, but he bamboozled everyone time after time.  Part of it was sheer craftiness; he was always careful to keep his name and face out of the spotlight.  But part of it was that he was really good at playing into tendencies that are strong motivators -- outrage, prurient interest, curiosity (morbid or not), and a simple desire to see the powers-that-be getting a good shaking-up.

An illustration from one of Abel's fliers for the Society for Indecency of Naked Animals

The fact is, he more or less got away with it his whole life.  (He did, however, one time quip that Walter Cronkite hated him more than he did Fidel Castro.)

The world has lost a funny guy who, even if he was engaged in an activity I generally find obnoxious, I have to give some credit.  He certainly was good at what he did.  So let's raise our glasses to Alan Abel, who went on to the Great Beyond last week, where -- one can only hope -- there will be Topless String Quartets and heaven-wide bingo tournaments, not to mention sex after death.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun one.  If you've never read anything by Mary Roach, you don't know what you're missing.  She investigates various human phenomena -- eating, space travel, sex, death, and war being a few of the ones she's tackled -- and writes about them with an analytical lens and a fantastically light sense of humor.  This week, my recommendation is Spook, in which she looks at the idea of an afterlife, trying to find out if there's anything to it from a scientific perspective.  It's an engaging, and at times laugh-out-loud funny, read.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]




Wednesday, September 19, 2018

DMT and NDEs

No one would be happier than me if it turned out there was an afterlife.

Well, at least some types of afterlife.  The tortured-forever-in-the-fiery-furnace version doesn't appeal much to me, especially given my status as an evil godless heathen.  Reincarnation, in my opinion, would also kind of suck, since it's basically getting sent back to the beginning of the game.  Valhalla would be kind of cool, though.  I could definitely get into swordfighting and quaffing mead.  And some of the ones where you get to relax in fields of flowers, with every need taken care of, also sound good, especially on work days.

The problem is, there's no real evidence of any of them.  Not that you'd expect there'd be; after all, to get to the afterlife you pretty much have to be dead.  And as Michael Shermer put it, it's easy to talk to the dead -- the hard part is getting them to respond.

There are people who claim there's evidence from near-death experiences -- NDEs, in common parlance.  The idea is that people who have had NDEs report back a lot of common features, including the well-known "tunnel of light" and feelings of oneness, bliss, and transcendence.  The argument goes that since what people claim to have experienced is often very similar, there must be something to it -- those people have peeked across the threshold, and come back to tell us about it.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

I've never found that argument terribly convincing.  Since we all have brains (although some of us could stand to use them more frequently), you'd expect that they'd respond similarly under similar circumstances of oxygen deprivation, neural shutdown, and all the other things that happens when a person dies.  And that stance has been bolstered considerably by a study done at Imperial College (London) last month, in which thirteen volunteers were given a chemical called dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and reported back experiences identical to what has been heard from people who have had NDEs.

DMT has become well-known because it is the main psychotropic ingredient in ayahuasca, a plant extract used in the Amazon Basin to induce hallucinations.  DMT interacts with serotonin and dopamine receptors in the brain, and that seems to be the cause of its effects, which include euphoria, visual disturbances, and -- most strikingly -- the sensation of communicating with non-corporeal beings.

What the researchers did with the test subjects in this study is to administer DMT under controlled conditions, and not only monitored their physical and mental states, but asked them for their subjective experiences when they "sobered up."  And there was an amazing similarity between the DMT trips and reports of NDEs.

One test subject described a "tunnel" that she felt impelled to enter, and once she did so, the anxiety she'd felt evaporated completely.  She was "shown" various images, and they all appeared to her to be critical to understanding her life.  "One image I do remember is lots of books flipping open and rainbows zooming out," she said.  "I felt a presence lift my head and tell me to pay attention: 'You came to discover something.'  But it was a juxtaposition because I felt disembodied at the same time. It was a strange paradox...  The normal laws of physics didn't apply.  I was walking around my consciousness in a lucid dream.  Imagine dreaming and things morph and the normal laws of physics don't apply.  I was walking around my consciousness in a lucid dream."

What strikes me about all this is that if it's easy to simulate an NDE by altering your brain chemistry, maybe altering your brain chemistry is what causes an NDE.  As I tell my neuroscience students, if you monkey around with your neurotransmitters, you should expect bizarre things to happen; and, after all, since every experience we have is filtered through our neurotransmitters, it's bound to change your perception of the world.

It doesn't, however, mean that any of it is real.

There's also been a conjecture by more than one neuroscientist that endogenous (self-produced) DMT exists to protect our cells from the effects of oxygen starvation, so it's released in one big shot when our heart stops in a last-ditch effort to keep our brain cells alive.  If that's true, no wonder everyone experiences the same sorts of sensations in an NDE -- and their similarity to a DMT psychedelic trip.

So the DMT experiment is fascinating, but it seems to me not to bolster the case for an afterlife.  It does make me curious about the experience, however.  A friend of mine asked me whether I would take DMT or psilocybin if it was under controlled, safe circumstances, and I knew I wouldn't get arrested.  My answer was, "Absolutely."  The idea of creating the sensation of a transcendent experience sounds pretty appealing even if I don't believe it necessarily reflects any sort of external reality.

And, after all, my other alternative is to wait until I die, which strikes me as being less than optimal given that after having the transcendent experience, I'll be dead.

Kind of a downside, that.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun one.  If you've never read anything by Mary Roach, you don't know what you're missing.  She investigates various human phenomena -- eating, space travel, sex, death, and war being a few of the ones she's tackled -- and writes about them with an analytical lens and a fantastically light sense of humor.  This week, my recommendation is Spook, in which she looks at the idea of an afterlife, trying to find out if there's anything to it from a scientific perspective.  It's an engaging, and at times laugh-out-loud funny, read.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]




Tuesday, September 18, 2018

A hue and cry over sunspots

The argument from ignorance is a curious phenomenon.

The gist is that people take their lack of understanding of some phenomenon, and from that ignorance deduce that their own particular explanation must be the correct one.  Of course, you can't deduce anything from a lack of understanding.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, "If you don't know, that's where your conversation should stop.  You don't then say that it must be anything."

I saw a particularly good example of the argument from ignorance a couple of days ago, with the hoopla that is arising around a mysterious action by the FBI over a solar observatory in New Mexico.  On September 6, the Sunspot Solar Observatory near Alamogordo, a research facility operated by New Mexico State University, was closed without explanation and all of its staff sent home.  The observatory has been closed since then, and all requests for more information have been met with steadfast silence.

Alisdair Davey, a data center scientist at the National Solar Observatory, which works with the SSO, said, "We have absolutely no idea what is going on.  As in truly nothing, which in itself is just weird."

The Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope at the SSO [Image licensed under the Creative Commons uıɐɾ ʞ ʇɐɯɐs from New York City, USA, Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope (5508694434), CC BY-SA 2.0]

What is even more peculiar is that a post office on the grounds of the SSO has also been shut down without explanation.  Rod Spurgeon, a USPS spokesperson, said he didn't think the two were related.  "Whatever’s occurring there has nothing to do with us...  I haven’t heard of anything like [a biohazard or bioterror incident] going on."  Liz Davis, a public information officer at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, concurs.  "There is no criminal activity, which is what Postal Inspection Service would be dealing with," Davis said.

So as of right now, what we have is... nothing.  And there's nothing like nothing to get the conspiracy theorists having multiple orgasms.  This becomes obvious if you peruse prominent conspiracy theory websites, which I did so you won't have to do so and risk valuable brain cells.  Here are just a few of the ideas I've seen, all of which were presented as if they were statements of fact:
  • The SSO sighted the spacecraft of an advanced alien race with which the US government is having dealings, so the whole place was shut down to prevent anyone from finding out more.
  • The SSO intercepted a top-secret communiqué from a top-secret government satellite, and the result is that all of the staff has been rounded up and put under house arrest until they'll sign non-disclosure agreements.
  • Because the SSO isn't far from Roswell, something something something crashed spaceship in 1947 something something.
  • The SSO discovered that a solar flare was on that way that was going to incinerate the Earth, and the powers-that-be didn't want the astronomers telling everyone and causing havoc.  Given that the observatory closed on September 6, and here we all are, un-incinerated, you'd think this one would have been discounted.  Maybe this is a really slow-moving solar flare, I dunno.
  • Some of the scientists at the SSO found out that the secret mission of the facility was using magic tractor beams to mess with the weather, and they had to be silenced.  The argument here, if I can dignify it with the name, is that since HAARP closed down a couple of years ago, the Evil Government Weather Manipulation Program had to be moved elsewhere, and this is the elsewhere to which it had been moved.  The fact that in the last few days we've seen two amazingly powerful killer storms -- Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut -- is displayed as "evidence."  Because powerful hurricanes don't occur every year, or something.
  • The FBI took over the SSO because they're going to modify the station to send out mind-control rays and turn Americans into mindless sheep.  From the fact that 36% of us apparently still support Donald Trump, it appears to be working.
And so on.

What, you may ask, do I think about all this?  Easy: what I think about all this is...

... I don't know.

'cuz that's what you say when you have no information.  I agree with the conspiracy theorists insofar as the FBI's action is rather curious; what earthly reason they could have to take over a remote solar observatory without explanation is beyond me.  It may be that at some point we'll find out why the incident happened, or -- because we're talking about the FBI, here -- we may never know.

Which, of course, will just fuel the conspiracy theorists further.  More nothing?  Yay!  That just proves we're right!

But if we're going to approach this whole thing skeptically, we have to be willing to allow ourselves to remain in ignorance -- indefinitely, if need be.  It's not a comfortable position for a lot of us.  People like to have explanations for things.  Certainty is reassuring.  The universe makes sense, everything has a reason.

To once again quote Tyson, "You can't be a scientist if you're uncomfortable steeped in ignorance.  Because scientists are always at the edge of what is known.  If you're not at the edge, you're not doing science."

In any case, keep an eye on the news, and watch out for stories about spaceships or satellites or weather modification or mind-control rays.  Or, perhaps, some more reasonable explanation of what happened.

The latter is what I'd put my money on.

UPDATE (as of Tuesday morning) -- the SSO has reopened, and while the details are still not entirely clear, authorities are saying that "a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents."

See?  I told you it wasn't aliens.

There's still no information on exactly what kind of threat the suspect posed.  That should settle that, but of course it won't, because the conspiracy theorists will take the lack of details and spin that into a whole new set of claims.  You can't win, which we sort of already knew.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun one.  If you've never read anything by Mary Roach, you don't know what you're missing.  She investigates various human phenomena -- eating, space travel, sex, death, and war being a few of the ones she's tackled -- and writes about them with an analytical lens and a fantastically light sense of humor.  This week, my recommendation is Spook, in which she looks at the idea of an afterlife, trying to find out if there's anything to it from a scientific perspective.  It's an engaging, and at times laugh-out-loud funny, read.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]




Monday, September 17, 2018

The heart of the story

As a fiction writer, I am constantly working to make sure my writing is engaging.  What writers want, after all, is to keep readers turning the page, and when "The End" is reached, for them to go immediately to Amazon and order another.

I'm a "genre writer" -- paranormal/speculative fiction, with occasional forays into science fiction or horror -- and a lot of the writing in that realm is highly plot-driven.  Keep things moving, don't dawdle too much on setting and description, make every page exciting and every chapter ending a cliffhanger.  But some new research out of McMaster University has illustrated something I've always believed -- however plot-dense it is, all stories are, at their heart, character stories.

What the researchers did is hook people up to an fMRI machine, presented them with a brief prompt -- things like, "A fisherman rescues a boy from a freezing lake" -- and asked them to express the story behind the prompt in spoken word, written word, or drawings.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

The results are fascinating.  In each case, and no matter what the prompt, the test subjects' brains responded the same way.  The network called "theory-of-mind" -- which responds to other people's motivations, personalities, beliefs, motives, and actions -- was the primary area that fired during the activity.  In spite of the fact that these characters were entirely fictional, and had not even been considered prior to the assignment of the prompt, the brain responded to their stories as if they were real people.

"We tell stories in conversation each and every day," said Steven Brown, associate professor of psychology, neuroscience, and behavior at McMaster, who was lead author of the study.  "Very much like literary stories, we engage with the characters and are wired to make stories people-oriented...  Aristotle proposed 2,300 years ago that plot is the most important aspect of narrative, and that character is secondary.  Our brain results show that people approach narrative in a strongly character-centered and psychological manner, focused on the mental states of the protagonist of the story."

Which I find absolutely fascinating, and which squares with my experience both as a writer and as a reader.  There have been times I've read books -- won't mention any names, out of courtesy to my fellow authors -- in which I've found the concept intriguing, but I have either not cared about the main characters or else actively disliked them.  And no matter how fascinating the plot, if I don't give a damn about the characters, why would I care enough to read to the end of the book?

I try my hardest to keep this in mind when I'm writing, and especially apropos of the characters who aren't likable.  It's easy enough to form an emotional attachment to the Good Guys, but a pet peeve of mine is Bad Guys who are one-dimensional.  Much as I love The Lord of the Rings, why was Sauron so damned nasty?  Did he actually like living in a wretched wasteland, and palling around with Orcs and Trolls and Giant Spiders and the like?  Did he finish his morning cup of coffee, and immediately look around for someone to torture?

Bad Guys -- even, in the case of Really Bad Guys like Sauron -- have to have some sort of motivation other than just being evil 'cuz they're evil.  In my own books, I had a striking experience with writing a character who is truly awful; Jackson Royce in this summer's release, The Fifth Day.  He is not a nice man.  But along the way (no spoilers intended) you begin to find out why he acts the way he does, and by the end, he's pitiable.  Still not likable, but pitiable.  I had one reader tell me, "Man, you had me hating Jackson and feeling terribly sorry for him at the same time.  I didn't think that was possible."

To me, that says that at least on that level, the story succeeded.

So it's fascinating that neuroscience has given us a first approximation to why we respond this way.  Humans are social primates; we're wired to react to the people around us, to parse their actions as if we could see inside their minds.  In other words, to put ourselves in their place, think whether we would have done the same, and try to ascribe motives to what they've done.

This tendency is so powerful that it activates even in the case of fictional characters.  Which, perhaps, explains why humans have been storytellers as long as there's been an audience of listeners and a campfire to sit around.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun one.  If you've never read anything by Mary Roach, you don't know what you're missing.  She investigates various human phenomena -- eating, space travel, sex, death, and war being a few of the ones she's tackled -- and writes about them with an analytical lens and a fantastically light sense of humor.  This week, my recommendation is Spook, in which she looks at the idea of an afterlife, trying to find out if there's anything to it from a scientific perspective.  It's an engaging, and at times laugh-out-loud funny, read.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]




Saturday, September 15, 2018

The lighter side of science

If you think that scientists are a bunch of dry-as-dust, humorless nerds, all you have to do to realize you were wrong is to read about Thursday evening's gala ceremony.

Called the Ig Nobel Prizes, it's an event that's been taking place at Harvard University annually for the last 28 years.  The idea is to recognize research (and researchers) whose work is probably never going to receive an actual Nobel -- but deserves to be in the spotlight purely for the absurdity and humor value.


This year's recipients:
  • Marc A. Mitchell and David Wartinger, for a study showing that you have a 64% chance of passing a kidney stone if you ride on a rollercoaster.  To do the research, Mitchell and Wartinger took 3D-printed models of human kidneys on the Big Thunder Ride at Walt Disney World.  Twenty times.
  • Japanese gastroenterologists Akira Horiuchi and Yoshiko Nakayama, who wanted to find out if colonoscopies are uncomfortable if administered in a seated position, so they gave one to themselves.  It causes "mild discomfort," apparently.
  • A study by Alethea L. Blackler, Rafael Gomez, Vesna Popovic, and M. Helen Thompson that found people don't read instruction manuals.  (The title of this study bears mention; it's "Life's Too Short to RTFM.")
  • Research by Lindie H. Lianga, Douglas J. Brown, Huiwen Lian, Samuel Hanig, D. Lance Ferris, and Lisa M. Keeping finding that if you have an abusive boss, you'll feel better if you make (and skewer) a voodoo doll in his/her image.
  • A study by Paula M. S. Romão, Adília M. Alarcão, and César A. N. Viana that showed "spit-shines" actually work, by using spit to clean eighteenth-century sculptures.
  • Research by John M. Barry, Bruce Blank, and Michael Boileau to see if you could find out if guys were getting hard-ons while they were asleep by wrapping postage stamps around their penises before bed, and checking the next morning for tears in the perforations.  Turns out you can.
Some of these seem to me to fall into the "you needed to do research to find that out?" category.  Like the reading-the-manual one.  I'm the worst ever about this.  When we get something that needs assembly, my first step is always to yell, "Carol, can you help me with this?"  She's methodical and careful and makes sure I don't use my usual method, which is to jam things together whichever way seems right, a technique that always results in leftover parts and sub-optimal performance.

Also, I'm not at all shocked that skewering a voodoo doll would be highly satisfying.  I'm lucky enough to work for an awesome principal, but I've had bosses who I would have gladly stabbed in effigy.  A pity I didn't know about this sooner.

Oh, and the nocturnal erection study; are there guys who don't get erections while they're asleep?  I thought that was kind of hard-wired.

So to speak.

In any case, the winners each year get invited to a ceremony wherein they're wined and dined and given their cash prize (a $10 trillion bill from Zimbabwe, which is worth a few cents).  They then have to give an acceptance speech, which if it goes over sixty seconds is interrupted by an eight-year-old girl yelling, "Please stop, I'm bored" over and over until they give up.

As is usual with the Ig Nobel Ceremony, good times were had by all and sundry.  The audience is encourage to participate by folding up their programs into paper airplanes and throwing them at the presenters.

So that's this week's hilarity from the world of science.  And if you wanted more evidence of scientists having a great sense of humor, you should definitely check out The Journal of Irreproducible Results, which is the best science journal spoof in the world.

Now, y'all'll have to excuse me.  I'm heading off to the post office.  I seem to be out of stamps.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a charming inquiry into a realm that scares a lot of people -- mathematics.  In The Universe and the Teacup, K. C. Cole investigates the beauty and wonder of that most abstract of disciplines, and even for -- especially for -- non-mathematical types, gives a window into a subject that is too often taught as an arbitrary set of rules for manipulating symbols.  Cole, in a lyrical and not-too-technical way, demonstrates brilliantly the truth of the words of Galileo -- "Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe."





Friday, September 14, 2018

Understanding the code-switchers

I've always been fascinated by bilingualism.

Part of this is that I was raised, more or less, bilingual.  I say "more or less" because it wasn't my parents' intention to raise me speaking both French and English.  French was my mom's first language, and was also the first language of three of my grandparents, but I was always spoken to in English -- I only heard French when my parents and older relatives were talking about things they didn't want me to know about.

Which is a hell of an incentive for a six-year-old to learn a second language.

So I grew up understanding French pretty well, and (after taking four years of French in high school) reading it fluently, but I was rarely if ever expected to speak it.  This is why if someone comes up and starts talking to me in French, my brain goes into complete vapor-lock when I try to figure out what to say in response.

My brain also does this when people speak to me in English, but that's another matter.

Sadly, my French fluency has declined since I moved away from my home state of Louisiana, simply because I don't hear and/or read it any more.  My vocabulary has diminished pretty significantly, something that jumps out at me when I try to read French -- I run into words over and over that are in that obnoxious "I know I used to know this" category.  But I'm sure if I were to spend some time in France, it'd all come back.

What's most interesting about "code-switchers" -- people who can shuttle back and forth between two languages with ease -- is that the fear of some parents, that if they expose their kids to more than one language at a time, they'll confuse them or blend them, appears to be unfounded.  From my own experience, I can say I never had any problem knowing which language (for example) to speak with my only non-French grandparent, my Scottish paternal grandma, who remarked more than once that she couldn't understand how she'd "gotten mixed up in this mob of Frenchmen."  The brain seems somehow to be able to keep the languages separate, and not have a child start speaking in English and switch over to German mid-sentence, or something.


[Image licensed under the Creative Commons M. Adiputra, Globe of language, CC BY-SA 3.0]

This all comes up because of some research that appeared last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Led by New York University neuroscientist Esti Blanco-Elorietta, the team of scientists looked at what was happening in the brains of multilingual people when they switched from one language from another -- and found some pretty odd results.

"A remarkable feature of multilingual individuals is their ability to quickly and accurately switch back and forth between their different languages," Blanco-Elorrieta said.  "Our findings help pinpoint what occurs in the brain in this process—specifically, what neural activity is exclusively associated with disengaging from one language and then engaging with a new one."

Liina Pylkkanen, professor of linguistics and psychology at NYU and a co-author of the study, explained further.  "Specifically, this research unveils for the first time that while disengaging from one language requires some cognitive effort, activating a new language comes relatively cost-free from a neurobiological standpoint."

Using magnetoencephalography, which measures the magnetic field changes (and thus the neuroelectrical activity) in the brain, the researchers were able to establish that once the first language is disengaged, the second one engages with virtually no cognitive effort at all.  Put more simply, when I switch from English to French, disconnecting the "English module" is more energy-expensive than turning on the "French module."

I find this kind of puzzling because English feels so effortless and French feels like a struggle most of the time.  If the Blanco-Elorietta et al. study is correct -- and I'm not doubting it based on my purely anecdotal evidence -- it seems like once I've switched to French, the effort level should drop, but in practice I don't find this is the case.  It may be that this is because I'm not really fluent any more -- I  spend a lot more time trying to remember words, conjugations, and grammar than I did when I was in my twenties.  So it's likely I'm just not a good test case, as someone who is not thoroughly bilingual.

But it's a pretty cool study.  I'd love to know more about language acquisition and production on the brain level -- this science is really in its infancy, and we're finding out new things about this most human of activities all the time.  As for me, I really should sign up for an online refresher class and see if I can recoup some of my lost French.  I know if I put a little effort into it, I could do it.  Vouloir, c'est pouvoir, tu sais?

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a charming inquiry into a realm that scares a lot of people -- mathematics.  In The Universe and the Teacup, K. C. Cole investigates the beauty and wonder of that most abstract of disciplines, and even for -- especially for -- non-mathematical types, gives a window into a subject that is too often taught as an arbitrary set of rules for manipulating symbols.  Cole, in a lyrical and not-too-technical way, demonstrates brilliantly the truth of the words of Galileo -- "Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe."





Thursday, September 13, 2018

Light speed

There's a claim I've now seen three times on social media that claims the ancient Egyptians knew the speed of light.

This is a pretty outlandish claim right from the get-go, as there is no evidence the Egyptians had invented, or even had access to, any kind of advanced technology.  Plus, even with (relatively) modern technology, the first reasonably decent estimate of the speed of light wasn't made until 1676, when Danish astronomer Olaus Roemer used the difference in the timing of the eclipses of the moons of Jupiter when the Earth was moving toward them as compared to when the Earth was moving away from them, and came up with an estimate of 225,300,000 meters per second -- not too shabby given the limited technology of the time (the actual answer is just shy of 300,000,000 meters per second).

But there's something about those ancient Egyptians, isn't there?  There have been "secrets of the Pyramids" claims around for years, mostly of the form that if you take the area of the base of the Pyramid of Khufu in square furlongs and divide it by the height in smoots, and multiply times four, and add King Solomon's shoe size in inches, you get the mass of the Earth in troy ounces.

Okay, I made all that up, because when I read stuff about the "secrets of the Pyramids" it makes me want to take Ockham's razor and slit my wrists with it.  But I was forced to look at the topic at least a little bit when the aforementioned post about the speed of light started popping up on social media, especially when a loyal reader of Skeptophilia said, "You have got to deal with this."

The gist is that the speed of light in meters per second (299,792,458) is the same sequence of numbers as the location of the Pyramid of Khufu (29.9792458 degrees north latitude).  Which, if true, is actually a little weird.  But let's look at it a tad closer, shall we?

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Jerome Bon from Paris, France, Great Pyramid of Giza (2427530661), CC BY 2.0]

29.9792458 degrees of latitude is really specific.  One degree is approximately 111 kilometers, so getting a measurement of location down to seven decimal places is pretty impressive.  That last decimal place -- the ten-millionths place -- corresponds to a distance of 0.0111 meters, or a little over a centimeter.

So are they sure that last digit is an 8?  Measuring the position of the Great Pyramid to the nearest centimeter is a little dicey, given that the Great Pyramid is big (thus the name).  Even if the claim is that they're measuring the position of the top -- which is unclear -- the location of the top has some wiggle room, as it doesn't come to a perfect point.

But if you're just saying "somewhere on the Great Pyramid," there's a lot of wiggle room.  The base of the Pyramid of Khufu is about 230 meters on an edge, so that means that one-centimeter accuracy turns into "somewhere within 23,000 centimeters."

Not so impressive, really.

There's a second problem, however, which is that the second wasn't adopted as a unit of time until the invention of the pendulum clock in 1656.  The meter as a unit of length wasn't proposed until 1668, and was not adopted until 1790.  (And some countries still don't use the metric system.  I'm lookin' at you, fellow Americans.)  So why would the ancient Egyptians have measured the speed of light -- even assuming they could -- in meters per second, and not cubits per sidereal year, or whatever the fuck crazy units of measurement they used?

So as expected, this claim is pretty ridiculous, and not even vaguely plausible if you take it apart logically.  Not that there was any doubt of that.  The bottom line is that the ancient Egyptians were  cool people, and the pyramids are really impressive, but they weren't magical or advanced or (heaven help us) being assisted by aliens.

No matter what you may have learned from the historical documentary Stargate.

Oh, and for the record, I didn't invent the unit of "smoot" for length.  A smoot is 1.70 meters, which was the height of Harvard student Oliver R. Smoot, who in 1958 got drunk with his fraternity buddies and decided to measure the length of Harvard Bridge in Smoot-heights.  It turned out to be 364.4 smoots long, plus or minus the length of Oliver R. Smoot's ear.

And considering they were drunk at the time, it's pretty impressive that they thought of including error bars in their measurement.  Better than the damn Egyptian-speed-of-light people, who couldn't even get their measurement to within plus or minus 230 meters.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a charming inquiry into a realm that scares a lot of people -- mathematics.  In The Universe and the Teacup, K. C. Cole investigates the beauty and wonder of that most abstract of disciplines, and even for -- especially for -- non-mathematical types, gives a window into a subject that is too often taught as an arbitrary set of rules for manipulating symbols.  Cole, in a lyrical and not-too-technical way, demonstrates brilliantly the truth of the words of Galileo -- "Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe."