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.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Views of the block universe

In the beginning of my as-yet unpublished novel In the Midst of Lions, the character of Mary Hansard realizes one day that she can no longer tell apart the past and the future.

She has memories of both -- if you can call a mental picture of something from the future a memory -- and they both carry equal weight in her brain.  She can determine which is which only in the rare cases where she can verify if an event has occurred yet, such as her "memory" that a building in her neighborhood had burned down, when the (intact) building itself is right in front of her.  But in other cases, such as a conversation between her and a friend, she has no way to know whether it has already happened, or will happen in the future.

For Mary, there aren't three classes of events -- past, present, and future.  There are only two: present and not-present.  A good chunk of the first part of the book is an exploration of how that would affect someone psychologically.  (A summary: "not well.")

The funny thing is that there's nothing in this situation that specifically breaks the laws of physics.  (It's not accidental that I made the character of Mary a high school physics teacher.)  In 2019 I wrote about the peculiar and unresolved problem of "the arrow of time" -- that virtually all physical processes are time-reversible, meaning that they work equally well backwards and forwards.  A simple example is if you watched a video of a pool ball bouncing off the bumper of a billiards table, then ran it backward, there would be no obvious way to tell which was which.  (If you had a longer video, you might be able to tell, because friction with the table would bleed away energy from the ball, causing it to slow down -- so the forward version is the one that shows the ball slowing down, and the backward version is the one in which it speeds up.  This is the approach of the arrow of time problem from the angle of the Second Law of Thermodynamics; if you want to know more, you can check out my post linked above.)

So in terms of physics, it's mystifying why we perceive an arrow of time, when it seems like there's no reason we shouldn't have equal access to both past and future.  "Time is an illusion," Albert Einstein said, "but it is a remarkably persistent one."

Things get even weirder when you start looking into physicist Hermann Minkowski's idea of a block universe, where the three dimensions of space and one of time are mapped onto a three-dimensional solid.  Picture it as a loaf of bread that you can slice at any angle.  The angle of the slice is determined by the relative speed of your reference frame in comparison to the reference frame of what you're looking at, but what it leads us to is that the present loses its simultaneity -- two events that are simultaneous in one reference frame might occur sequentially in another.  Pushed to its ultimate conclusion -- and it must be interjected at this point that once again, there is nothing about Minkowski's ideas that breaks any known law of physics -- this means that an event that is in the past for me might be in the future for you, and therefore all of temporal sequencing is relative.  Minkowski showed that you can model the universe as a block within which exists not only everything in space, but everything in time.  The fact that we haven't gotten to events in the future is no more remarkable than the fact that we haven't gotten to some locations in space yet.  They're still out there, they still exist, even if we haven't seen them.

Kind of casts a harsh light on the concept of free will, doesn't it?

In any case, the topic comes up not because of physics, but because of an article by science writer Eric Wargo over at the site Inner Traditions called "The Amazing Reality of Dream Precognition."  It's an unfortunate choice of titles, because the article is well written and way less woo-woo than it sounds.  Wargo is seriously trying to figure out if people have access to the future, specifically through dreams, and has a project going to do some citizen science and have a large number of people record their dreams, then sift through them to see if there are examples of actual precognition.

It's an interesting idea, although there are some difficulties.  One is that Wargo claims that a lot of dream precognition is symbolic in nature; for example, you might dream of seeing a photograph of a friend shattered into pieces, and soon after she is injured in a terrible automobile accident.  But this requires that we rely on our own interpretation of the symbols after the fact.  And if there's one thing I've learned from ten years of writing here at Skeptophilia, it's that humans are really good at remodeling what actually happened to fit with what they think happened.

That said, Wargo is going about things the right way.  One of the things that has plagued serious research into precognition is that you only know a dream (or thought) is precognitive after the event has occurred, at which point there's always the possibility that your memory of the allegedly precognitive event has been contaminated by your knowledge of what really happened.  Also, there's the unfortunate fact that there are lots of cases of outright falsification.  If the records are made beforehand, this reduces the likelihood of this sort of thing, although it still requires that there be some kind of rigorous standard for keeping track of when the records were written down relative to the event they allegedly predicted.

So the idea is interesting, to say the least, and I need to keep in mind that my inclination to say "this is impossible" is itself a bias.  Even the lack of a mechanism for precognition -- something about which I've written before -- sort of evaporates if Minkowski was right about the block universe.  It still might not explain how you and I, both on the same planet moving at the same speed in the same reference frame, have access to different slices of the spacetime loaf, but at least it takes away one of the most consistent objections, which is that the future is fluid and therefore precognition would constitute looking at something that has no physical reality.

Reminds me of the "fixed points in time" in Doctor Who.  Maybe the truth is that everything is a fixed point in time, not just big events like the eruption of Pompeii.

So I'll be interested to see what Wargo comes up with.  Me, I'm keeping an open mind about the whole thing, as counterintuitive as it may seem to me.  If he can come up with actual evidence of precognition, dream or otherwise, it'll force me to re-evaluate a good chunk of how I think the world works.  And my character of Mary Hansard in In the Midst of Lions may turn out to be a rather alarming case of Plato's belief that "art mimics life."

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

If, like me, you love birds, I have a book for you.

It's about a bird I'd never heard of, which makes it even cooler.  Turns out that Charles Darwin, on his epic voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, came across a species of predatory bird -- the Striated Caracara -- in the remote Falkland Islands, off the coast of Argentina.  They had some fascinating qualities; Darwin said they were "tame and inquisitive... quarrelsome and passionate," and so curious about the odd interlopers who'd showed up in their cold, windswept habitat that they kept stealing things from the ship and generally making fascinating nuisances of themselves.

In A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiberg, we find out not only about Darwin's observations of them, but observations by British naturalist William Henry Hudson, who brought some caracaras back with him to England.  His inquiries into the birds' behavior showed that they were capable of stupendous feats of problem solving, putting them up there with crows and parrots in contention for the title of World's Most Intelligent Bird.

This book is thoroughly entertaining, and in its pages we're brought through remote areas in South America that most of us will never get to visit.  Along the way we learn about some fascinating creatures that will make you reconsider ever using the epithet of "birdbrain" again.

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



Monday, April 12, 2021

The language of morality

If we needed any more indication that our moral judgments aren't as solid as we'd like to think, take a look at some research by Janet Geipel and Constantinos Hadjichristidis of the University of Trento (Italy), working with Luca Surian of Leeds University (UK).

The study, entitled "How Foreign Language Shapes Moral Judgment," appeared in the Journal of Social Psychology.  What Geipel et al. did was to present multilingual individuals with situations which most people consider morally reprehensible, but where no one (not even an animal) was deliberately hurt -- such as two siblings engaging in consensual and safe sex, and a man cooking and eating his dog after it was struck by a car and killed.  These types of situations make the vast majority of us go "Ewwwww" -- but it's sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly why that is.

"It's just horrible," is the usual fallback answer.

So did the test subjects in the study find such behavior immoral or unethical?  The unsettling answer is: it depends on what language the situation was presented in.

Across the board, if the situation was presented in the subject's first language, the judgments regarding the situation were harsher and more negative.  Presented in languages learned later in life, the subjects were much more forgiving.

The researchers controlled for which languages were being spoken; they tested (for example) native speakers of Italian who had learned English, and native speakers of English who had learned Italian.  It didn't matter what the language was; what mattered was when you learned it.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

The explanation they offer is that the effort of speaking a non-native language "ties up" the cognitive centers, making us focus more on the acts of speaking and understanding and less on the act of passing moral judgment.  I wonder, however, if it's more that we expect better behavior in the way of obeying social mores from our own tribe -- we subconsciously expect people speaking other languages to act differently than we do, and therefore are more likely to give a pass to them if they break the rules that we consider proper behavior.

A related study by Catherine L. Harris, Ayşe Ayçiçeĝi, and Jean Berko Gleason appeared in Applied Psycholinguistics.  Entitled "Taboo Words and Reprimands Elicit a Greater Autonomic Reactivity in a First Language Than in a Second Language," the study showed that our emotional reaction (as measured by skin conductivity) to swear words and harsh judgments (such as "Shame on you!") is much stronger if we hear them in our native tongue.  Even if we're fluent in the second language, we just don't take its taboo expressions and reprimands as seriously.  (Which explains why my mother, whose first language was French, smacked me in the head when I was five years old and asked her -- on my uncle's prompting -- what "va t'faire foutre" meant.)

All of which, as both a linguistics geek and someone who is interested in ethics and morality, I find fascinating.  Our moral judgments aren't as rock-solid as we think they are, and how we communicate alters our brain, sometimes in completely subconscious ways.  Once again, the neurological underpinnings of our morality turns out to be strongly dependent on context -- which is simultaneously cool and a little disturbing.

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

If, like me, you love birds, I have a book for you.

It's about a bird I'd never heard of, which makes it even cooler.  Turns out that Charles Darwin, on his epic voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, came across a species of predatory bird -- the Striated Caracara -- in the remote Falkland Islands, off the coast of Argentina.  They had some fascinating qualities; Darwin said they were "tame and inquisitive... quarrelsome and passionate," and so curious about the odd interlopers who'd showed up in their cold, windswept habitat that they kept stealing things from the ship and generally making fascinating nuisances of themselves.

In A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiberg, we find out not only about Darwin's observations of them, but observations by British naturalist William Henry Hudson, who brought some caracaras back with him to England.  His inquiries into the birds' behavior showed that they were capable of stupendous feats of problem solving, putting them up there with crows and parrots in contention for the title of World's Most Intelligent Bird.

This book is thoroughly entertaining, and in its pages we're brought through remote areas in South America that most of us will never get to visit.  Along the way we learn about some fascinating creatures that will make you reconsider ever using the epithet of "birdbrain" again.

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



Saturday, April 10, 2021

Bullshitometry

Having spent 32 years as a high school teacher, I developed a pretty sensitive bullshit detector.

It was a necessary skill.  Kids who have not taken the time to understand the topic being studied are notorious for bullshitting answers on essay questions, often padding their writing with vague but sciency-sounding words.  An example is the following, which is verbatim (near as I can recall) from an essay on how photosynthesis is, and is not, the reverse of aerobic cellular respiration:
From analyzing photosynthesis and the process of aerobic cellular respiration, you can see that certain features are reversed between the two reactions and certain things are not.  Aerobic respiration has the Krebs Cycle and photosynthesis has the Calvin Cycle, which are also opposites in some senses and not in others.  Therefore, the steps are not the same.  So if you ran them in reverse, those would not be the same, either.
I returned this essay with one comment: "What does this even mean?"  The student in question at least had the gumption to admit he'd gotten caught.  He grinned sheepishly and said, "You figured out that I had no idea what I was talking about, then?"  I said, "Yup."  He said, "Guess I better study next time."

I said, "Yup."

Developing a sensitive nose for bullshit is critical not only for teachers, because there's a lot of it out there, and not just in academic circles.  Writer Scott Berkun addressed this in his wonderful piece, "How to Detect Bullshit," which gives some concrete suggestions about how to figure out what is USDA grade-A prime beef, and what is the cow's other, less pleasant output.  One of the best is simply to ask the questions, "How do you know that?", "Who else has this opinion?", and "What is the counter-argument?"

You say your research will revolutionize the field?

Says who?  Based on what evidence?

He also says to be very careful whenever anyone says, "Studies show," because usually if studies did show what the writer claims, (s)he'd be specific about what those studies were.  Vague statements like "studies show" are often a red flag that the claim doesn't have much in its favor.

Remember Donald Trump's "People are telling me" and "I've heard from reliable sources" and "A person came up to me at my last rally and said"?

Those mean, "I just now pulled this claim out of my ass."

Using ten-dollar buzzwords is also a good way to cover up the fact that you're sailing close to the wind.  Berkun recommends asking, "Can you explain this in simpler terms?"  If the speaker can't give you a good idea of what (s)he's talking about without resorting to jargon, the fancy verbiage is fairly likely to be there to mislead.

This is the idea behind BlaBlaMeter, a website I discovered a while back, into which you can cut-and-paste text and get a score (from 0 to 1.0) for how much bullshit it contains.  I'm not sure what the algorithm does besides detecting vague filler words, but it's a clever idea.  It'd certainly be nice to have a rigorous way to detect it when you're being bamboozled with words.



The importance of being able to detect fancy-sounding nonsense was highlighted by the acceptance of a paper for the International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics -- when it turned out that the paper had been created by hitting iOS Autocomplete over and over.  The paper, written (sort of) by Christoph Bartneck, associate professor at the Human Interface Technology laboratory at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, was titled "Atomic Energy Will Have Been Made Available to a Single Source" (the title was also generated by autocomplete), and contained passages such as:
The atoms of a better universe will have the right for the same as you are the way we shall have to be a great place for a great time to enjoy the day you are a wonderful person to your great time to take the fun and take a great time and enjoy the great day you will be a wonderful time for your parents and kids.
Which, of course, makes no sense at all.  In this case, I wonder if the reviewers simply didn't bother to read the paper -- or read a few sample sentences and found that they (unlike the above) made reasonable sense, and said, "Looks fine to me."

Although I'd like to think that even considering my lack of expert status on atomic and nuclear physics, I'd have figured out that what I was looking at was ridiculous.

On a more serious note, there's a much more pressing reason that we all need to arm ourselves against bullshit, because so much of what's on the internet is outright false.  A team of political fact-checkers was hired by Buzzfeed News to sift through claims on politically partisan Facebook pages, and found that on average, a third of the claims made by partisan sites were outright false.  And lest you think one side was better than the other, the study found that both right and left were making a great many unsubstantiated, misleading, or wrong claims.  And we're not talking about fringe-y wingnut sites here; these were sites that if you're on Facebook you see reposts from on a daily basis -- Occupy Democrats, Breitbart, AlterNet, Fox News, The Blaze, The Other 98%, NewsMax, Addicting Info, Right Wing News, and U.S. Uncut.

What this means is that when you see posts from these sites, there is (overall) about a 2/3 chance that what you're seeing is true.  So if you frequent those pages -- or, more importantly, if you're in the habit of clicking "share" on every story that you find mildly appealing -- you damn well better be able to figure out which third is wrong.

The upshot of it is, we all need better bullshit filters.  Given that we are bombarded daily by hundreds of claims from the well-substantiated to the outrageous, it behooves us to find a way to determine which is which.

And, if you're curious, a 275-word passage from this Skeotphilia post was rated by BlaBlaMeter as having a bullshit rating of 0.13.  Which I find reassuring.  Not bad, considering the topic I was discussing.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is a bit of a departure from the usual science fare: podcaster and author Rose Eveleth's amazing Flash Forward: An Illustrated Guide to the Possibly (and Not-So-Possible) Tomorrows.

Eveleth looks at what might happen if twelve things that are currently in the realm of science fiction became real -- a pill becoming available that obviates the need for sleep, for example, or the development of a robot that can make art.  She then extrapolates from those, to look at how they might change our world, to consider ramifications (good and bad) from our suddenly having access to science or technology we currently only dream about.

Eveleth's book is highly entertaining not only from its content, but because it's in graphic novel format -- a number of extremely talented artists, including Matt Lubchansky, Sophie Goldstein, Ben Passmore, and Julia Gförer, illustrate her twelve new worlds, literally drawing what we might be facing in the future.  Her conclusions, and their illustrations of them, are brilliant, funny, shocking, and most of all, memorable.

I love her visions even if I'm not sure I'd want to live in some of them.  The book certainly brings home the old adage of "Be careful what you wish for, you may get it."  But as long as they're in the realm of speculative fiction, they're great fun... especially in the hands of Eveleth and her wonderful illustrators.

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



Friday, April 9, 2021

The Tennessee don't-say-gay bill

Have you heard of Tennessee's House Bill 0800?

Its summary describes it thusly: the bill "prohibits the state textbook and instructional materials quality commission from recommending or listing, the state board of education from approving for local adoption or from granting a waiver for, and LEAs and public charter schools from adopting or using textbooks and instructional materials or supplemental instructional materials that promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender issues or lifestyles."

It just passed the Education Subcommittee two days ago, and stands a good chance of passing the remaining steps as well.  What Governor Bill Lee will do with it if it gets to his desk is unknown, but given his support for denying LGBTQ couples the right to adopt children, I'd say the chances of his signing it into law are pretty good.

To say this makes me livid is an understatement of sizable proportions.  I can't even read words like "normalize" in the context of LGBTQ people without seeing red.  And for fuck's sake, "lifestyles?"

Choosing to go to square dances every Friday night is a lifestyle.  Filling your house with aquariums so you can raise tropical fish is a lifestyle.

Being queer is who you are.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Benson Kua, Rainbow flag breeze, CC BY-SA 2.0]

The insidious nature of this bill is horrifying.  It's implying that somehow, you become LGBTQ because you read a book about it, as if some sixteen-year-old straight guy picked up a copy of Rainbow Boys and suddenly his sex drive took a 180-degree about face, or that gay teens wouldn't be gay if they never heard the word.  

To believe this, you honestly have to be an idiot, and also never talk to an actual LGBTQ person.  I grew up in a culture that didn't so much demonize queerness as much as ignoring it into oblivion.  I knew I was attracted to both males and females when I was in high school, but I didn't even know the word "bisexual" existed until I was about twenty.  By then, the sense of secrecy and shame surrounding the whole thing stopped me from admitting, even to myself, who I was, and I ended up closeted.

For forty years.

The psychological damage this does is devastating.  Queer kids in Tennessee will now be blocked from having access to information that might help them understand and accept themselves, to be open about their identities, to be confident enough to speak out against the homophobia that is still all too common.  The only possible justification for this, besides outright prejudice, is the biblical prohibition against male/male sex (in the entire Bible there is not a single mention of female/female sex).

But let me make something clear, Tennessee politicians, and I'll speak slowly, because some of you seem to be lacking in the IQ department:

The laws of the United States are based upon the Constitution, not the Bible.

With bullshit like this, is it any wonder that the suicide rate amongst queer teens is through the roof?  Suicide is the second leading cause of death of people between the ages of ten and twenty-four, and LGBTQ youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexuals are.  Forty percent of transgender adults report having made a suicide attempt.

If this bill passes into law, the blood of every queer teenager who commits suicide in Tennessee from then on will be on the hands of the legislators who voted for it.

EVERY.  SINGLE.  ONE.

It appalls me that in 2021 we are still fighting the same fucking battles that we've fought for as long as I can remember.  To convince people that we were born this way, that it's not a choice or a sin or a "lifestyle."  To prove that we can be loving, caring, faithful partners and parents.  To make it illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of sexual orientation.

I do have some hope that there might be a sea change coming, however.  I recently listened to an episode of the NPR show Hidden Brain, originally aired in April 2019, which looked at the fact that attitudes toward queer people have changed at a rate that is completely unprecedented.  Previous anti-LGBTQ bills in Georgia and South Carolina resulted in the pullout of businesses, investors, and sports teams, costing the states millions of dollars in lost revenue, a move that never would have happened even twenty years ago.

But this kind of mindless, ugly bigotry is not gone, not yet.  Tennessee is hardly the only place it still exists.  We queer people, and LGBTQ allies, can not afford to stop speaking out.

The stakes are way, way too high.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is a bit of a departure from the usual science fare: podcaster and author Rose Eveleth's amazing Flash Forward: An Illustrated Guide to the Possibly (and Not-So-Possible) Tomorrows.

Eveleth looks at what might happen if twelve things that are currently in the realm of science fiction became real -- a pill becoming available that obviates the need for sleep, for example, or the development of a robot that can make art.  She then extrapolates from those, to look at how they might change our world, to consider ramifications (good and bad) from our suddenly having access to science or technology we currently only dream about.

Eveleth's book is highly entertaining not only from its content, but because it's in graphic novel format -- a number of extremely talented artists, including Matt Lubchansky, Sophie Goldstein, Ben Passmore, and Julia Gförer, illustrate her twelve new worlds, literally drawing what we might be facing in the future.  Her conclusions, and their illustrations of them, are brilliant, funny, shocking, and most of all, memorable.

I love her visions even if I'm not sure I'd want to live in some of them.  The book certainly brings home the old adage of "Be careful what you wish for, you may get it."  But as long as they're in the realm of speculative fiction, they're great fun... especially in the hands of Eveleth and her wonderful illustrators.

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



Thursday, April 8, 2021

Mimes in the brain

Maybe there's a reason why so many people despise mimes.

Okay, I know that seems like a non sequitur even for me, but the topic comes up because of a study by Patrick Little and Chaz Firestone (of Johns Hopkins University) called "Physically Implied Surfaces," which appeared this week in the journal Psychological Science.  And from this study, we find that the problem with watching a mime is that you can't help "seeing" the invisible wall or rope or cage or whatnot that (s)he is interacting with.

Apparently you can't ignore a mime even if you want to.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Stalinjeet, Stalinjeet & Rohit Bansal performing Mime, CC BY-SA 4.0]

The authors write:
In addition to seeing objects that are directly in view, we also represent objects that are merely implied (e.g., by occlusion, motion, and other cues).  What can imply the presence of an object? Here, we explored (in three preregistered experiments; N = 360 adults) the role of physical interaction in creating impressions of objects that are not actually present.  After seeing an actor collide with an invisible wall or step onto an invisible box, participants gave facilitated responses to actual, visible surfaces that appeared where the implied wall or box had been—a Stroop-like pattern of facilitation and interference that suggested automatic inferences about the relevant implied surfaces.  Follow-up experiments ruled out confounding geometric cues and anticipatory responses.  We suggest that physical interactions can trigger representations of the participating surfaces such that we automatically infer the presence of objects implied only by their physical consequences.

The "Stroop-like pattern" the authors mention refers to the Stroop effect, wherein a test subject is given an image where there are the names of various colors represented in different colors of ink, but they don't match -- e.g. the word "green" is written in red ink.  The subject is then asked to state, as quickly as possible, the colors of each word, ignoring the word that's actually written and focusing only on the ink color.

It's quite difficult to do.  You are attempting to force your brain to ignore the textual information (the words themselves) and focus only on the colors, but the two interfere with each other so much -- and we're so geared to getting information by reading text -- that to do it accurately, most people have to concentrate and slow down, and still they make mistakes.

Here, the implied surfaces the mime is creating generate such a strong illusion that if they don't correspond with a visual indicator of where the surfaces are, we tend to believe the mime rather than the indicator.  For example, in one test, volunteers were asked to state whether a line superimposed on a video clip of a mime was horizontal or vertical.  In some of the clips the line was oriented the same way, and in the same position, as the "surface" the mime was creating; in other cases, they didn't agree.  In the latter case, test subjects were routinely tripped up -- they tended to answer based on the (invisible) surface the mime's actions indicated rather than the (visible) marker they were supposed to be focusing on.

"Very quickly people realize that the mime is misleading them, and that there is no actual connection between what the person does and the type of line that appears," said study co-author Patrick Little, in an interview with Science Daily.  "They think, 'I should ignore this thing because it's getting in my way', but they can't.  That's the key.  It seems like our minds can't help but represent the surface that the mime is interacting with -- even when we don't want to."

It also reminds me a bit of the McGurk effect, a rather baffling interference between sound and sight that occurs when we hear a person say one syllable ("ba," for example) and watch their mouths move as if they were saying a different one (such as "va").  You'd think that since we're talking about making sense of an auditory input, the brain would rely much more on what's coming in through the ears than what's coming in through the eyes, but that's not what happens; if you see someone's lips moving as if they're saying "va" but you hear them say "ba," what you think you're hearing is "va."  It's absolutely convincing, and works even if you know what's going on.

So yet another example of how easy it is to befuddle our brains with contradictory input.  It also explains why, in Berke Breathed's brilliant comic strip Bloom County, Opus the Penguin got arrested for assaulting a street mime, but the charge was eventually ruled by the judge to be "justifiable."

It's one thing to do street performances, but creating invisible surfaces in our brain just crosses a line, even though we probably won't be able to determine if the line is vertical or horizontal.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is a bit of a departure from the usual science fare: podcaster and author Rose Eveleth's amazing Flash Forward: An Illustrated Guide to the Possibly (and Not-So-Possible) Tomorrows.

Eveleth looks at what might happen if twelve things that are currently in the realm of science fiction became real -- a pill becoming available that obviates the need for sleep, for example, or the development of a robot that can make art.  She then extrapolates from those, to look at how they might change our world, to consider ramifications (good and bad) from our suddenly having access to science or technology we currently only dream about.

Eveleth's book is highly entertaining not only from its content, but because it's in graphic novel format -- a number of extremely talented artists, including Matt Lubchansky, Sophie Goldstein, Ben Passmore, and Julia Gförer, illustrate her twelve new worlds, literally drawing what we might be facing in the future.  Her conclusions, and their illustrations of them, are brilliant, funny, shocking, and most of all, memorable.

I love her visions even if I'm not sure I'd want to live in some of them.  The book certainly brings home the old adage of "Be careful what you wish for, you may get it."  But as long as they're in the realm of speculative fiction, they're great fun... especially in the hands of Eveleth and her wonderful illustrators.

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



Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Thunderstorms on Titan

Sometimes I bump into a piece of research that's just so cool I have to tell you about it.

Yesterday when I was casting about for a topic for today's post, I found a link to a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research called "The Physics of Falling Raindrops in Diverse Planetary Atmospheres," by Kaitlyn Loftus and Robin Wordsworth, of Harvard University's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.  In it, they consider the models of how raindrops alter as they fall -- evaporating, changing shape because of atmospheric drag, interacting with nearby drops -- and how that might differ not only in different environments on Earth, but on other planets.

You may already know that raindrops aren't as they're usually pictured, with a teardrop shape that's bulbous on the bottom and tapers to a point at the top; they're more or less spherical.  Large raindrops, or drops in high winds, will sometimes be deformed into fat ellipses, but modeling raindrop shapes as spheres is going to be a pretty good approximation most of the time.  Where things get interesting, though, is the fact that they sometimes coalesce with other drops, or partially evaporate as they fall.  In fact, it's the evaporation of rain on the way down, especially when falling into warm, dry air, that gives rise to my all-time favorite atmospheric phenomenon: a convective microburst.

Microbursts don't occur where I live, here in central New York, which I'm disappointed about because it'd be cool to experience one, and relieved about because having your stuff blown into the next time zone is kind of inconvenient.  They're much more common in areas that have turbulent updrafts from a layer of warm air near the surface -- like the American Midwest.  (It's no coincidence that places with microbursts are usually also prone to tornados.)

What happens is something like this.  A moisture-laden cloud reaches the point where the droplets of water are heavy enough to fall, so they do, dropping into the layer of warm, dry air underneath.  This makes the drops begin to evaporate.  Evaporation cools the air layer, and if the gradient -- the temperature difference between the blob of rain-cooled air and the hot, dry air below it -- gets big enough, the cool air literally falls out of the sky like an Acme anvil in a Roadrunner and Coyote cartoon.

If you're underneath this, all you know is that it's lightly raining, and then all of a sudden, WHAM.  The winds go from zero to a hundred kilometers per hour in thirty seconds flat.  Then equally quickly, it's all over, leaving you to pick yourself up and wander around trying to figure out where your trash cans and patio furniture went.

A microburst near Denver, Colorado in 2006. There aren't many good photographs of them because they're over so quickly, and also because if you're in one, the last thing you'll be thinking about is taking pictures. [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Unixluv, Denver-microburst, CC BY 3.0]

Anyhow, raindrops are way more interesting than a lot of people realize, as is weather in general.  If I hadn't become a science teacher I think I'd have been a tornado chaser.  As things stand, I have to content myself with frequently updating my wife about such critical information as the status of frontal systems in North Dakota, usually eliciting a comment of, "Yes, dear," which I choose to interpret as a sign of breathless fascination.

But back to the study.  What Loftus and Wordsworth did was to model raindrop behavior, and then extrapolate that model to other, less familiar environments -- like the thunderstorms on Titan, which are made of droplets of ammonia.  The authors write:
The behavior of clouds and precipitation on planets beyond Earth is poorly understood, but understanding clouds and precipitation is important for predicting planetary climates and interpreting records of past rainfall preserved on the surfaces of Earth, Mars, and Titan.  One component of the clouds and precipitation system that can be easily understood is the behavior of individual raindrops.  Here, we show how to calculate three key properties that characterize raindrops: their shape, their falling speed, and the speed at which they evaporate.  From these properties, we demonstrate that, across a wide range of planetary conditions, only raindrops in a relatively narrow size range can reach the surface from clouds.  We are able to abstract a very simple expression to explain the behavior of falling raindrops from more complicated equations, which should facilitate improved representations of rainfall in complex climate models in the future.

Which I think is amazingly cool.  The idea that we could use information about rainfall here on Earth to make some guesses about what weather is like on other planets is astonishing.  I'm sure if we ever get real data from extrasolar planets, or better data from places like Titan and Enceladus here in our own Solar System, we'll still be in for plenty of surprises; I'm reminded of the cyclic violent downpours of liquid methane on the planet where the Robinsons are stranded in the remake of Lost in Space (which, unlike the original series, is actually good).

But even having a start at understanding the weather on exoplanets, based upon speculation about the conditions and knowledge of how raindrops behave on Earth, is nothing short of fascinating.

So who knows.  Maybe soon I'll be able to update my wife about what the low-pressure systems are doing on Titan.  With luck, that will produce a better reaction than "Yes, dear." 

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is a bit of a departure from the usual science fare: podcaster and author Rose Eveleth's amazing Flash Forward: An Illustrated Guide to the Possibly (and Not-So-Possible) Tomorrows.

Eveleth looks at what might happen if twelve things that are currently in the realm of science fiction became real -- a pill becoming available that obviates the need for sleep, for example, or the development of a robot that can make art.  She then extrapolates from those, to look at how they might change our world, to consider ramifications (good and bad) from our suddenly having access to science or technology we currently only dream about.

Eveleth's book is highly entertaining not only from its content, but because it's in graphic novel format -- a number of extremely talented artists, including Matt Lubchansky, Sophie Goldstein, Ben Passmore, and Julia Gförer, illustrate her twelve new worlds, literally drawing what we might be facing in the future.  Her conclusions, and their illustrations of them, are brilliant, funny, shocking, and most of all, memorable.

I love her visions even if I'm not sure I'd want to live in some of them.  The book certainly brings home the old adage of "Be careful what you wish for, you may get it."  But as long as they're in the realm of speculative fiction, they're great fun... especially in the hands of Eveleth and her wonderful illustrators.

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



Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Space nation

It probably is readily apparent to anyone who is a regular reader of Skeptophilia that I am frequently perplexed by the behavior of my fellow human beings.

Some of my perplexity is over things that people do which are unpleasant -- I find the motivations for such things as racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia not simply repellent, but (on some level) incomprehensible.  Why anyone would think that gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation was a valid basis for discrimination is absolutely baffling to me.

On the other hand, there's the behavior that falls into the "harmless but weird" department.  As an example of this latter tendency, we have the founding by Russian scientist Igor Ashurbeyli of the "independent space nation" of "Asgardia."

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA/JPL]

Ashurbeyli has called for people to sign up for citizenship, and in two weeks got a half a million names.  (Apparently further sign ups are on hold for now, but when they're reopened Ashurbeyli expects them to continue with undiminished fervor.)  As far as why he's doing it, he says, "Today, many of the problems relating to space law may never be solved in the dark woods of modern international law...  It is time now to create a new judicial reality in space."

Which may well be true -- I am certainly no expert in, um, "space jurisprudence" -- but his goals may be a little bit on the lofty side.  That's not discouraging him one bit, however.  Now that the number of applications has exceeded 100,000, Ashurbeyli says, "we can officially apply to the UN for the status of state."

Which I kind of wonder about.  Of course, the whole thing about what constitutes a nation and what does not isn't exactly clear.  It's not enough, apparently, to declare yourself an independent sovereign state; there's this thing called "recognition" wherein a more powerful nation can basically put its hands over its ears and say "la la la la la not listening" and pretend a less powerful nation doesn't exist, and the less powerful nation has no recourse but to keep whining "Yes, I am!  I'm real, I swear!" until the more powerful nation gives up and says, "Oh, okay, I guess."

It's also unclear how Asgardia can be a nation given that it doesn't have any actual territory to speak of.  The concept of "nation" is tangled up in the control of land, and unless Ashurbeyli and the other Asgardians are laying actual physical claim to space, it's hard to see how this can be a state in the conventional definition of the word.  "A state in the classical sense has a territory and has a significant portion of its population living on that territory," said Frans von der Dunk, professor of law at the University of Nebraska.  "As long as nobody's going into space, you can have as many signatures as you want, but you are not a state."

Which is probably true -- far be it from me, non-lawyer that I am, to argue with an expert in legal matters -- but kind of overlooks the fact that the whole concept of national borders is itself pretty bizarre.  The idea that there's an arbitrary invisible line drawn on the ground, and on the west side of that line it's legal to drink alcohol and on the east side it isn't, is really peculiar.  If aliens ever land on Earth, you have to wonder what they'll think of the fact that we have sliced up the planet into competing pieces, sometimes with blatant disregard for geography and/or culture, and they all have mutually contradictory sets of laws, and we'll fight to the death to keep the invisible lines where they are.

The aliens will probably up stakes and return home, and the next thing we know we'll find we're the subjects of an interstellar reality show called The Derpazoids of Dumbass-3.

Of course, I can't argue with Ashurbeyli's motivations.  On the "concept" page of the Asgardia website, he writes:
The essence of Asgardia is Peace in Space, and the prevention of Earth’s conflicts being transferred into space.
Asgardia is also unique from a philosophical aspect – to serve entire humanity and each and everyone, regardless of his or her personal welfare and the prosperity of the country where they happened to be born. 
Asgardia's philosophical envelope is to ‘digitalise’ the Noosphere, creating a mirror of humanity in space but without Earthly division into states, religions and nations.  In Asgardia we are all just Earthlings!
Which I can't honestly argue with.  And I suppose it's good that we have idealists like Ashurbeyli who are willing to throw themselves into a high-flown project like this, even if it's not immediately apparent how it will all work.

In any case, I may sign up, once they re-open registration.   Not entirely sure why except to say that I did it.

So I guess my initial statement that "humans are weird" is only accurate if I include myself in that assessment.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is a bit of a departure from the usual science fare: podcaster and author Rose Eveleth's amazing Flash Forward: An Illustrated Guide to the Possibly (and Not-So-Possible) Tomorrows.

Eveleth looks at what might happen if twelve things that are currently in the realm of science fiction became real -- a pill becoming available that obviates the need for sleep, for example, or the development of a robot that can make art.  She then extrapolates from those, to look at how they might change our world, to consider ramifications (good and bad) from our suddenly having access to science or technology we currently only dream about.

Eveleth's book is highly entertaining not only from its content, but because it's in graphic novel format -- a number of extremely talented artists, including Matt Lubchansky, Sophie Goldstein, Ben Passmore, and Julia Gförer, illustrate her twelve new worlds, literally drawing what we might be facing in the future.  Her conclusions, and their illustrations of them, are brilliant, funny, shocking, and most of all, memorable.

I love her visions even if I'm not sure I'd want to live in some of them.  The book certainly brings home the old adage of "Be careful what you wish for, you may get it."  But as long as they're in the realm of speculative fiction, they're great fun... especially in the hands of Eveleth and her wonderful illustrators.

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