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, September 22, 2020

Towards zero

Most scientifically-literate types know about the impossibility of reaching the temperature of -273.15 C, better known as "absolute zero."  The way most of us would explain why it's impossible goes back to one formulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  Since the Second Law says that heat always flows from a hotter object to a colder one unless you put energy into the system (I always called this "the Refrigerator Principle" in my biology classes), once you get near absolute zero it takes exponentially more energy to remove that last bit of heat from the object you're cooling, and to go all the way to zero would require (1) an infinite amount of energy expended to accomplish it, and (2) an infinite heat sink in which to place the extracted energy.  (Despite having been conjectured for over a century, this way of looking at absolute zero was proven beyond question by the mathematics of known physical laws just three years ago.

There's another way to look at it, though, which is a little harder to wrap your brain around, because it hinges on one of the most misunderstood laws of physics: the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Developed in 1927 by German physicist Werner Heisenberg, the Uncertainty Principle does not mean what I saw someone claim on a woo-woo website a while back that "because of the Uncertainty Principle, we now know that science can't ever prove anything."


What the Uncertainty Principle does tell us is, despite its name, extremely specific.  What it says is for a particle, there are pairs of physical quantities called complementary variables, and for such a pair (call 'em A and B), the more we know about variable A, the less we can even theoretically know about variable B.  The most commonly cited pair of complementary variables is position and momentum/velocity.  If we know exactly where a particle is, we have no accessible information about its velocity, and vice versa.

Note that the Uncertainty Principle is not about the inaccuracy of our measuring techniques.  It's not that the particle has a specific position and velocity and we just don't know what they are, the same as watching a car speed by and thinking, "Okay, it was going so fast, at any given point along the road I don't know exactly how quickly it was moving."  This is a fundamental, built-in feature of the universe.  If I know a particle's position to a high degree of certainty, its velocity is equally uncertain, and in fact the particle exists in a superposition of all possible velocities simultaneously.  The reality is inherently blurry, and the more you home in on one piece of it, the blurrier the rest of it gets.

So what does this have to do with absolute zero?  Well, the temperature of an object is a measure of the average speeds of its constituent particles.  So if you had an object at absolute zero, you'd know the positions of the particles (because they're not moving) to 100% accuracy, and you'd also know their velocities (zero) to 100% accuracy.

About as huge a violation of the Uncertainty Principle as you can get.

The reason all this comes up is because of a study at the University of Vienna that was the subject of a paper last week in Science in which we read about a 150-nanometer bit of silica (made up of around a hundred million atoms) that was cooled down to twelve millionths of a degree above absolute zero.  This turns out to be the true temperature limit for a particle that size; every atom in the particle was in the ground state, the lowest allowable energy a particle can have without violating Heisenberg's law.  The particle was suspended in an "optical trap" -- the easiest way to describe it is they levitated it with lasers -- and then allowed to free-fall so they could observe its behavior.

What the researchers hope to do is to use such experiments to shed some light on the behavior of gravity in the quantum world, something that has been a dream of physicists for a very long time.  While the other three fundamental forces of nature (electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces) have all been shown to be manifestations of a single "electronuclear" force, gravitation has resisted all attempts to incorporate it into a "Grand Unified Theory" that could simultaneously explain the gravitational warping of space and the strange behavior of the quantum world.  None of the candidates for a Grand Unified Theory (the most famous contender is string theory) have as yet panned out, but the search continues -- and the ability to cool particles described in last week's paper give a bit of hope that physicists will be able to isolate and study systems under conditions that make the mathematics tractable.

So that's our quantum weirdness for today.  Thanks to the friend and long-term loyal reader of Skeptophilia who sent me the link to the study.  I would never claim to say I understand it at any kind of deep level -- after all, no less a luminary than Richard Feynman famously said, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics."  The fundamental workings of the universe are counterintuitive and mind-blowingly odd, and that's kind of where we have to leave it.

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Author Mary Roach has a knack for picking intriguing topics.  She's written books on death (Stiff), the afterlife (Spook), sex (Bonk), and war (Grunt), each one brimming with well-researched facts, interviews with experts, and her signature sparkling humor.

In this week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in Space, Roach takes us away from the sleek, idealized world of Star Trek and Star Wars, and looks at what it would really be like to take a long voyage from our own planet.  Along the way she looks at the psychological effects of being in a small spacecraft with a few other people for months or years, not to mention such practical concerns as zero-g toilets, how to keep your muscles from atrophying, and whether it would actually be fun to engage in weightless sex.

Roach's books are all wonderful, and Packing for Mars is no exception.  If, like me, you've always had a secret desire to be an astronaut, this book will give you an idea of what you'd be in for on a long interplanetary voyage.

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


Monday, September 21, 2020

That rabbit's dynamite!

After dealing in recent posts with such topics as the catastrophic loss of Arctic sea ice, the role of isolation in depression, and various scientific advances from astrophysics, archaeology, and neuroscience, I'm sure what you're all thinking is, "Yes, but what about BunnyMan?"

BunnyMan is a cryptid I'd never heard of, that apparently haunts the town of Clifton, Virginia, in Fairfax County.  And according to an article over at Mysterious Universe, we're not talking some gentle, fuzzy little Peter Cottontail, here.  BunnyMan is more like the scary evil rabbit from Donnie Darko.


Author Brent Swancer, who is also the person who a while back warned us about giant Sky Jellyfish attacking Japan, tells us that sightings of BunnyMan have been going on for over a hundred years.  The whole thing started with the escape in 1904 of two inmates from an insane asylum, Douglas Grifon and Marcus Wallster, in the woods near Clifton.  Wallster was eventually found, hanging from a bridge railing, with a note saying, "You'll never catch me, no matter how hard you try.  Signed, The BunnyMan."  Grifon was never found.  And thus began a century's worth of mysterious deaths and sightings of guys in bunny suits.

You may be laughing by now.  I know I was.  Swancer, however, seems to be entirely serious, and describes numerous encounters with the long-eared lunatic.  And he tells us that this thing is the most foul-tempered rrrrrodent... -- well, let's hear an example or two in his own words:
Two of the most intriguing and bizarre accounts of the Bunny Man surfaced in 1970.  The first incident occurred on October 19, 1970, when an Air Force Academy cadet by the name of Bob Bennett was allegedly with his fiancée and parked his car on Guinea Road in Burke, Virginia, so that the couple could talk.  It was at this time that they noticed a white figure moving outside of the vehicle.  Moments later, the front window was smashed into a cascade of glass, and an ominous voice warned “You’re on private property and I have your tag number.”  The horrified couple sped away and as they screamed down the road they noticed a small hatchet on the floor of the car.  When questioned later by the police, Bennett would insist that the attacker had been decked out in a full bunny suit, and he told his superiors at the Air Force base the same thing.  As ridiculous as the story sounded, Bennett would continue to insist it was true long after the incident.
Then, later that same year, BunnyMan had another run-in over people trespassing in his private Carrot Patch:
Just two weeks after the Bennett incident, the Bunny Man struck again.  Paul Phillips, a private security guard for a construction company, reported that he had seen a man-sized rabbit in front of a house under construction.  When approached by Phillips, the rabbit was reported to have said “All you people trespass around here.  If you don’t get out of here, I’m going to bust you on the head,” after which it started to furiously hack away at the unoccupied house with an axe.  Allegedly, when the startled Phillips went back to his car to get a firearm, the “bunny” swiftly escaped into the woods and disappeared.
Swancer's article is chock-full of other stories about people meeting this buck-toothed bad guy in northeastern Virginia.  In fact, the Colchester Overpass, the site of numerous suicides by hanging, has also been the site of so many appearances that it's supposedly called "BunnyMan Bridge" by locals who don't mind losing any credibility they might have had.

What strikes me about all of this is the proximity of Clifton, Virginia to the CIA Headquarters in Langley.  The two are only separated by twenty miles, as the rabbit hops, which I'm sure can't be a coincidence.  After all, I've watched historical documentaries in which Fox Mulder and Dana Scully found out about all sorts of horrible things the government was involved in, including alien hybridization experiments.  So the next step, evil-wise, would be hybridizing humans with various animals, some of which would inevitably escape and terrorize the countryside.  Just be glad it was BunnyMan.  It could have been WeaselMan, PigeonMan, or, god forbid, HornetMan.

I've been at this blog for ten years, and by this time, I thought I'd run into every cryptid in the book; but I have to admit, before yesterday I'd never heard of this guy.  So thanks to Brent Swancer for another example of hard-hitting journalism, uncovering the depredations of a vicious rabbit only a stone's throw from our nation's capital.  I feel safer now.  As Elmer Fudd teaches us, forewarned is forearmed.


Swancer ends his article on a cautionary note:
Who, or what, is the Bunny Man?  Is this a case of a ghost, an unsolved crime, a psycho on the loose, some mystery animal, or merely the delusional human psyche working upon its inner fears to create a phantom construct in the real world in the form of scary stories and myth?  The story of a man-sized bunny running around terrorizing, even murdering, people seems to cross over the line from mystery into preposterousness, but many urban legends doubtlessly have their origins in some grain of truth, so who really knows?  For the case of the Bunny Man, no matter how ludicrous it may sound, it might be a good idea to stay away from the Colchester Overpass at night, just in case.
Of course, he misses one possibility, which is "people impersonating a figure from a local legend to stir up trouble," which I think is the most likely solution.  Given the propensity of pranksters to keep such stories going -- consider the copycat phenomenon in the case of crop circles -- it's no wonder that once BunnyMan started being a thing around Clifton, he continued to be seen over and over again.

Any notoriety is better than obscurity, I suppose.

So that's our hare-raising tale for today.  If you're ever down in Fairfax County, keep your eyes open, especially at night.  You might want to bring some carrots along as a peace offering.  I hear BunnyMan has quite a temper.

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Author Mary Roach has a knack for picking intriguing topics.  She's written books on death (Stiff), the afterlife (Spook), sex (Bonk), and war (Grunt), each one brimming with well-researched facts, interviews with experts, and her signature sparkling humor.

In this week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in Space, Roach takes us away from the sleek, idealized world of Star Trek and Star Wars, and looks at what it would really be like to take a long voyage from our own planet.  Along the way she looks at the psychological effects of being in a small spacecraft with a few other people for months or years, not to mention such practical concerns as zero-g toilets, how to keep your muscles from atrophying, and whether it would actually be fun to engage in weightless sex.

Roach's books are all wonderful, and Packing for Mars is no exception.  If, like me, you've always had a secret desire to be an astronaut, this book will give you an idea of what you'd be in for on a long interplanetary voyage.

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


Saturday, September 19, 2020

King of the who?

Given yesterday's post on odd coincidences, I thought it was kind of amusing that I stumbled upon the topic for today's post -- more or less by random chance -- immediately after reading two books that touched on the subject.

Both of them are about the Arthurian Legends, which has been an interest for years, so my reading them isn't itself odd.  It's odder, perhaps, that I didn't like either one of them at all.  The first was the novelization of the story from the point of view of Morgaine (Morgan le Fay), Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon.  I found just about every character in the story somewhere between obnoxious and downright repulsive, and it's hard to stay invested in a novel when I honestly don't give a damn if the characters live or die.  (My distaste was only deepened when I found out about the disturbing allegations against Bradley and her husband made by their children -- allegations which were proven in the husband's case, leading to his being sent to prison for pedophilia and dying there in 1993.)

The second was intended as historical scholarship, and although I'm hardly a qualified expert on the subject, this one seemed to me to face-plant rather badly as well.  Norma Lorre Goodrich's book King Arthur looks at the literary sources of Arthuriana, focusing especially on Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, and Thomas Malory.  Glossing over the fact that the earliest of the three -- Geoffrey of Monmouth -- was still writing a good five centuries after Arthur's time, she goes through intellectual backflips to support her contention that Arthur and his pals weren't from Cornwall and Wales as usually depicted, but from Scotland, more specifically the area around Stirling and Edinburgh.  Like I said, I can't give a knowledgeable opinion about her use of the source material, but I am qualified to say that her attempts at historical linguistics are nothing short of silly.  (They amount to, "if you change this letter to this one, and reverse the syllables, and add a prefix, you can clearly see these two words are the same!")

Oh, and when she mentioned "fifth century Vikings" I wasn't sure whether to laugh or to hurl the book across the room.

Speaking of authoritative sources...

Anyhow, I just stopped reading Goodrich's book last night (didn't finish it and don't intend to), so I was a little startled when, in the course of looking for a topic for today's post, I stumbled quite by accident on an article in Edinburgh Live from only last week about some new archaeological discoveries on "Arthur's Seat," the remains of an extinct volcano overlooking the Firth of Forth.  Researchers have found the site of a village occupied by the Votadini, a rather mysterious Iron Age Celtic tribe who spoke a Brythonic language (i.e. more closely related to Welsh, Breton, and Cornish than to Scots Gaelic), centered around Traprain Law, a hill fort seventeen kilometers east of Edinburgh.

Arthur's Seat [Image licensed under the Creative Commons David Monniaux, Edinburgh Arthur Seat dsc06165, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Which, of course, is exactly the area Goodrich claims was Arthur's bailiwick.  That she's not the only one who thinks there's a connection to King Arthur is evident from the name of the site, although it seems likely that the place was named a long while after Arthur's time by people who thought the Arthurian connection gave the place more gravitas.

Anyhow, the new research on the topic is more grounded in history, and more interesting.  The remains of the village on Arthur's Seat showed some significant fortification, including buildings surrounded by a hundred-meter-long, five-meter-thick rampart blocking the easiest path up to the top of the hill.  Fifth-century Roman silver coins were found at the site, suggesting the Votadini traded with the Romans living in the northern parts of England, although the evidence is their territory was only under actual occupation during a fairly short time in the middle of the second century C. E.

The archaeologists, however, found zero evidence of King Arthur having anything to do with the site.  If, in fact, there ever was a historical Arthur, something the jury is still out on.  The problem is, you can't really base history on a bunch of (way) after-the-fact, quasi-mythological accounts.  One of the best and most exhaustive analyses of the topic -- Francis Pryor's Britain A.D.: A Quest for Arthur, England, and the Anglo-Saxons -- found that the earliest source known that explicitly mentions Arthur, Nennius's Historia Brittonum, was written in the early ninth century, still a good three hundred years after Arthur's (alleged) reign.

Not exactly an eyewitness account, that.

Still, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as cosmologist Martin Rees was wont to say.  There could have been an Arthur messing about in Britain back then.  And there's no doubt that it's at the very least a fascinating legend.

I do still find it funny that I ran across this research literally the day after reaching the limits of my tolerance for Norma Lorre Goodrich's wild speculations on the same place and the same topic.  Not only that, a day after writing here at Skeptophilia on the subject of odd coincidences.  Which you have to admit is kind of meta.  Either it's the universe having a good laugh at my expense, or else I need to re-read my own post about how strange coincidences don't actually mean anything.

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This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is about one of the most terrifying viruses known to man: rabies.

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, we learn about the history and biology of this tiny bit of protein and DNA that has, once you develop symptoms, a nearly 100% mortality rate.  Not only that, but it is unusual amongst pathogens at having extremely low host specificity.  It's transmissible to most mammal species, and there have been cases of humans contracting rabies not from one of the "big five" -- raccoons, foxes, skunks, bats, and dogs -- but from animals like deer.

Rabid goes through not only what medical science has to say about the virus and the disease it causes, but its history, including the possibility that it gave rise to the legends of lycanthropy and werewolves.  It's a fascinating read.

Even though it'll make you a little more wary of wildlife.

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



Friday, September 18, 2020

It is your mind that bends

Yesterday I was in my car on the way to an appointment in Ithaca, and I was listening to some classical music on satellite radio.  The announcer came on with some of the usual sort of background information before a piece is played.  In this case, she said, "Next, we're going to hear from one of the masters of the classical guitar."  And immediately, I thought, "it's going to be Narciso Yepes."

And she continued, "... here's Narciso Yepes, playing Bach's Lute Suite #1."

Now, it's odd that I thought of Yepes at all.  I don't know much about classical guitar players -- the two I've heard the most often are Andrés Segovia and Christopher Parkening, but even them I only listen to intermittently.  I think I have one CD of Yepes, but I'm not sure where it is and I don't think I've listened to it in years.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Kirkwood123, Matao MC-1 classical guitar 01, CC BY-SA 3.0]

So the certainty of my thought is peculiar from a couple of standpoints, even if you believe that it wasn't a premonition (which, predictably, I don't).  The first is that I came up with the name of a guitarist I barely know at all, as soon as the announcer mentioned "classical guitar;" and the second, of course, is that it turned out to be right.

Interestingly (and you might consider this another synchronicity), just yesterday a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link to a subreddit called Glitch in the Matrix which is devoted to exactly these sorts of occurrences.  The name, of course, comes from the movie The Matrix, in which odd coincidences and experiences of déjà vu are indicative that the Machines are making minor alterations to the computer simulation inside which we all live. 

The fact that we all have these experiences now and again certainly deserves some consideration. Let's take a look at three excerpts from the subreddit:
For about 5 or 6 years now (I'm 21 as of now), I've noticed that, whether it's the time that I check my phone, or it's a donation on a Twitch stream, or any number of other things, there's a decent chance that it'll be the number 619.  It's nothing I'm too worried about, but it pops up every so often naturally that it just doesn't seem like a simple coincidence anymore.  It's something that I noticed happened, and then it continued to happen long after that... 

I'll notice the time as 6:19 every once in a while, and at first I chalked it up to being stuck in the same routine, but it continued to occur after several changes in sleep schedules and school/work schedule.  Again, it's not only the time of day either, but I'll notice it in a phone number, or any number of places.  It's gotten to be like my own private joke that people or places attached to the number must mean something to me, although I never act on it... 

So any theories on my special little number?  Does anyone else have a number or idea "follow" them around like this?  Or is this an underlying symptom of a mental disorder that I've been ignorant of for 21 years?
Here's another:
One of the most terrifying experiences I've ever encountered was with my friend Gordie last summer and to this day still makes me feel uncomfortable to talk about because I genuinely can not explain what happened on any logical level.

We were driving to Mission and on the way back I noticed I had forgotten something at the store.  By this time we were in downtown Maple Ridge and considering we had nothing to do so we went back.  It's about a 20 minute drive to Mission from where we were.  The clock read 3:23.

The clock reads 3:37. Gordie and I look at each other.  And he asks me "what happened?"  Neither of us remember the drive between Maple Ridge and Mission.  We lost 15 minutes of lives and we have no idea where it went.  All we know is that in between post A and B nothing or probably something happened.

Not a single word was said.  The last thing we remember talking about was how Skyrim will never have a follow up.  Then at the snap of a universal finger.  Nothing.  15 minutes gone.

The rest of the ride was very quiet and we were both very much on edge and uncomfortable.  We have both experienced something completely unexplainable but yet at the same time we experienced nothing.

I'm the grand scheme of things, 15 minutes seems inconsequential and minimal to the many minutes in our life.  But nevertheless it remains unknown as to where time went.

My only explanation is that I passed though a wormhole and somehow ended up on the other side.
And one last one:
I had a problem with a programming question, so I googled it, and I went to the forum Stackoverflow (in which I had signed up 2 years ago).  I found an excellent answer that solved my problem, and I told myself "Oh...  So many intelligent people out there...  I would have never been able to write something like that."  
And then I realized... the author of the answer is my account.  It's me...  
I am convinced this is caused by a glitch in the matrix.  Most probably, many answers on the forum are generated by the matrix, and the glitch was to attribute my username to it.  Of course, a couple of seconds after that, I was getting a vague idea that I may have written the answer (false memory), but I am not fooled!
So, given that we are starting from the standpoint of there being a natural explanation for all of this, what is going on here?

I think the key is that all of these rely on two things; the general unreliability of perception and memory, and our capacity for noticing what seems odd and ignoring pretty much everything else.  Starting with our 619-noticer, consider how many times (s)he probably looks at clocks, not to mention other sources of three-digit numbers, and it's not 619.  Once you have a couple of precedents -- most likely caused, as the writer noted, by being in the same routine -- you are much more likely to notice it again.  And each subsequent occurrence reinforces the perception that something odd is going on.

As far as the time-slip friends, I think what happened here is a simple failure of attention.  I've driven on auto-pilot more than once, especially when I'm fatigued, and suddenly sat up straight and thought, "How the hell did I get here?"  I honestly had no memory at all of driving the intervening distance.  But a mysterious time-slip is less likely than my brain being elsewhere (leaving some portion of my attention still focused on my driving, fortunately).

And the last one, the person who answered him/herself on an internet forum, certainly has to be a case of a lost memory.  I have a friend from college who has an excellent memory for details from the past, and periodically reminds me of things that happened to the two of us -- and more than once I've had to admit to him that I have no recollection of the events whatsoever.  It's disconcerting, but our memories are far less thorough and accurate than we think they are.

My own premonition-like decision that the radio announcer was going to be playing a piece by Narciso Yepes is clearly something of the sort.  Considering how often I listen to the radio, and hear the announcer give a bit of information about the next selection, it's likely I have thoughts like, "I hope she plays something by Scarlatti next!" several times a day.  Most of them, of course, are wrong predictions, and because that's the norm, such events are immediately forgotten.  It's only the coincidental ones, the outliers, that get noticed -- yet another example of our old friend dart-thrower's bias.

But even so, I think I'll dig up that Yepes album and put it on.  Whether or not it was a glitch in the matrix, he's a pretty damn good guitarist.

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This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is about one of the most terrifying viruses known to man: rabies.

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, we learn about the history and biology of this tiny bit of protein and DNA that has, once you develop symptoms, a nearly 100% mortality rate.  Not only that, but it is unusual amongst pathogens at having extremely low host specificity.  It's transmissible to most mammal species, and there have been cases of humans contracting rabies not from one of the "big five" -- raccoons, foxes, skunks, bats, and dogs -- but from animals like deer.

Rabid goes through not only what medical science has to say about the virus and the disease it causes, but its history, including the possibility that it gave rise to the legends of lycanthropy and werewolves.  It's a fascinating read.

Even though it'll make you a little more wary of wildlife.

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



Thursday, September 17, 2020

The vanishing ice

California and Oregon are, literally, burning up.  A couple of days ago, there were five named tropical cyclones in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico simultaneously, something that's only happened one other time since records have been kept.  One of those cyclones is, as I write this, in the process of pummeling coastal Alabama and the panhandle of Florida, and the city of Pensacola is mostly underwater.

And still our "leaders" are claiming climate change doesn't exist.

The issue is settled, folks.  It has been for some time.  There is not a reputable climate scientist out there who denies the reality of anthropogenic global warming.  I know you can't link single events to a climate shift -- saying, for example, that a particular wildfire was directly caused by climate change -- but the overall pattern is absolutely unequivocal.  To deny it is an indicator either of being beholden to the corporate interests who would very much like climate change not to exist, or else abject and inexcusable ignorance. 

Donald Trump, for example.  The man was an amoral, sociopathic narcissist to begin with, and now is illustrating on nearly a daily basis that he is also a catastrophic clod.  Take the briefing he participated in with California Governor Gavin Newsom a couple of days ago, in which the following exchange took place:

Wade Crowfoot, the California Secretary for Natural Resources:  We've had temperatures explode this summer...  We want to work with you to really recognize the changing climate and what it means to our forests and actually work together with that science.  That science is going to be key because if we ignore that science and sort of put our head in the sand and think it's all about vegetation management, we're not going to succeed in protecting Californians.

Trump:  It'll start getting cooler.  You just — you just watch.

Crowfoot:  I wish science agreed with you.

Trump:  Well, I don't think science knows, actually.
Right.  Same as his statement a few months ago that COVID-19 was going to "disappear, just like a miracle, you'll see."

The fact that Trump has a single supporter left brings home the accuracy of Isaac Asimov's famous essay "The Cult of Ignorance," written all the way back in 1980, in which he said:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been.  The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

Trump may be the best illustration of that poisonous belief that the world has ever produced.

There's malice underlying his ignorance, though.  Trump not only is colossally stupid, he goes out of his way to surround himself with people who either share his views or, at the very least, don't dare challenge him.  Witness the fact that just two days ago, he appointed a well-known climate science denier, David Legates, to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- which oversees funding for climate monitoring and climate research.

All of this is hardly a surprise.  It's just more manifestation of a long-established pattern of science denial by our government.  Nevertheless, if you for some reason needed yet another reason to accept that climate change is occurring as we speak, consider the study that appeared in Nature last week, by Laura Landrum and Marika Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.  In a paper that has the grim title, "Extremes Become Routine in an Emerging New Arctic," Landrum and Holland describe a fundamental shift in the entire climate of the Arctic, where open water and rain is now more common than sea ice and snow.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Pink floyd88 a, Arctic Ice 2, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Writing about the research for the New York Times, journalist Henry Fountain paints a devastating picture of the speed of the change:

Using years of observational data from the region and computer models, the researchers found that sea ice is already in a new climate, in effect: The extent of ice in recent years is consistently less than what would be expected in even the worst year for ice in the mid-20th century.

Arctic sea ice has declined by about 12 percent per decade since satellite measurements began in the late 1970s, and the 13 lowest sea-ice years have all occurred since 2007.  This year is expected to be a record or near-record low for ice extent, which will be determined by the end of this month as the summer melt period ends.

I had to read that twice to realize that actually, even Fountain is soft-pedaling it.  The "thirteen sea-ice years since 2007" are every year since 2007.  The first sentence of the second paragraph should end with, "... and each of the last thirteen years has had lower sea ice than any other on record."

That is climate change.  Unmistakable unless you're either mind-blowingly ignorant or else in the pocket of corporate interests.

Or, like in the case of Donald Trump, both.

The time for argument over whether climate change is happening is over.  It has been for some time.  My fear is that the window of opportunity for doing something about it might be closing as well.  I'm not giving up yet, though.  Too much is at stake, like the long-term habitability of the Earth.  Time we elected some leaders who not only care about this, but understand and respect science rather than sneering and scoffing at it.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is about one of the most terrifying viruses known to man: rabies.

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, we learn about the history and biology of this tiny bit of protein and DNA that has, once you develop symptoms, a nearly 100% mortality rate.  Not only that, but it is unusual amongst pathogens at having extremely low host specificity.  It's transmissible to most mammal species, and there have been cases of humans contracting rabies not from one of the "big five" -- raccoons, foxes, skunks, bats, and dogs -- but from animals like deer.

Rabid goes through not only what medical science has to say about the virus and the disease it causes, but its history, including the possibility that it gave rise to the legends of lycanthropy and werewolves.  It's a fascinating read.

Even though it'll make you a little more wary of wildlife.

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



Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Life in hell

Given my near-obsessive interest in extraterrestrial life, I suppose it was inevitable that I've now been sent links to the latest research on Venus over a dozen times.

The gist, in case you haven't read about it yet, is that astronomers have identified the absorption spectrum of a rare molecule -- phosphine -- in the upper atmosphere of the planet Venus.  Phosphine is produced in vanishingly small quantities on Earth by cloud-to-ground lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions, but the amount detected in the atmosphere of Venus is a full ten thousand times too high to be accounted for by any known inorganic chemistry or geology.

Ruling out one by one all of the inorganic sources of phosphine seems to leave only one remaining possibility; there are microbes in the Venusian atmosphere that produce the stuff.  There are a handful of species of terrestrial microbes that produce phosphine (here, it's in even smaller quantities than the inorganic sources).  But if these microbes (or something like them) existed on Venus, it could easily account for the excess.

You may be wondering how anything lives on Venus.  It's a good question.  The surface of Venus is a lot like our conception of hell.  For a long time people interpreted the constant cloud layers that obscure the surface as being made of water droplets, like they are on Earth; it led to some pretty cool speculative fiction about what could be down there (C. S. Lewis's novel Perelandra and H. P. Lovecraft's outstanding short story "In the Walls of Eryx" come to mind).  But that speculation was based on nothing but an absence of evidence.  As Carl Sagan put it so eloquently:

The chain of reasoning goes something like this: I can't see a thing on the surface of Venus.  Why not?  Because it's covered with a dense layer of clouds.  Well, what are clouds made of?  Water, of course.  Therefore, Venus must have an awful lot of water on it.  Therefore, the surface must be wet.  Well, if the surface is wet, it's probably a swamp.  If there's a swamp, there's ferns.  If there's ferns, maybe there's even dinosaurs.

Observation: I can't see a thing.  Conclusion: dinosaurs.

This whole thing got shot down pretty conclusively in the 1960s when the first unmanned (fortunately) probes to Venus dropped through the atmosphere and promptly were simultaneously crushed and fried by an atmosphere with ninety times the pressure of Earth's atmosphere at sea level and temperatures that hover around 460 C.  Further exploration showed that the clouds are largely sulfuric acid, and the atmosphere is 96.5% carbon dioxide (compared to 0.04% on Earth), leading to a runaway greenhouse effect.

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

It's not just hot, it's wracked with turbulence the likes of which we never see on Earth.  The heat provides a huge energy source for Venusian weather, mostly in the form of violent storms and updrafts.  As dubious as he was about life on Venus, Sagan had suggested these updrafts as a key to the possible terraforming of the planet, and proposed launching rockets with payloads of blue-green bacteria spores, set to detonate in the upper clouds.  As the spores fall through the relatively mild temperatures of the upper atmosphere, they begin to photosynthesize, using up some of the carbon dioxide.  Enough are kept aloft by the updrafts to keep the process going, and ultimately, the greenhouse effect would diminish and the temperature would fall to more tolerable levels.

Well, nature may have anticipated Sagan.  If there are anaerobic microbes riding the turbulence in Venus's upper atmosphere, it would be the first unequivocal example of extraterrestrial life ever found.  The scientists are being careful about overstating their conclusion, but even given the usual caution, the excitement is palpable.  "The non-biological production of phosphine on Venus is excluded by our current understanding of phosphine chemistry in rocky planets' atmospheres," said Leonardo Testi, astronomer with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile, one of the most sensitive telescopes in existence.  "Confirming the existence of life on Venus's atmosphere would be a major breakthrough for astrobiology; thus, it is essential to follow-up on this exciting result with theoretical and observational studies to exclude the possibility that phosphine on rocky planets may also have a chemical origin different than on Earth."

So it's premature to say "we've discovered extraterrestrial life," but this is the best candidate for it I can recall seeing, and in one of the most inhospitable spots in the Solar System.  If this is confirmed to be of biological origin, it gives a lot of support to the contention I've had all along -- that life will turn out to be common in the the universe.  It'd boost the enthusiasm for checking out other places in the Solar System that could host life (Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Titan come to mind), because after all, if life can exist on Venus, it could exist damn near anywhere.

Still no dinosaurs, though.  None of Lewis's floating islands made of rafts of plants, either, nor Lovecraft's evil jewel-hunting reptilian natives.  But for now, it's good enough for me, as long as the astronomers don't find some kind of exotic Venusian chemistry that explains the gas's presence.

If the whole thing pans out, it really gives new meaning to Ian Malcolm's line from Jurassic Park, doesn't it?

"Life finds a way."

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is about one of the most terrifying viruses known to man: rabies.

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, we learn about the history and biology of this tiny bit of protein and DNA that has, once you develop symptoms, a nearly 100% mortality rate.  Not only that, but it is unusual amongst pathogens at having extremely low host specificity.  It's transmissible to most mammal species, and there have been cases of humans contracting rabies not from one of the "big five" -- raccoons, foxes, skunks, bats, and dogs -- but from animals like deer.

Rabid goes through not only what medical science has to say about the virus and the disease it causes, but its history, including the possibility that it gave rise to the legends of lycanthropy and werewolves.  It's a fascinating read.

Even though it'll make you a little more wary of wildlife.

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



Tuesday, September 15, 2020

In the dark

 "Okay, that's cool, but what the hell am I looking at?"

That was my reaction to a press release last week from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics about a new study of the distribution of dark matter in the universe.  Turns out it's not uniform, which is what I'd have expected given that it apparently doesn't interact with anything except via gravitation (although I hardly need to point out that my opinion on the matter counts for next to nothing because I'm not a physicist).  It exists in filaments and haloes, where the majority of galaxies are concentrated.  Here's one of the images they generated:


I know you can't read much into appearances, but I was immediately struck by how much this image, especially the right-hand part, looks like a neural net.  (I'm just waiting for the woo-woos to latch onto this and claim that this proves the universe is a giant brain.)

"Amongst the things we’ve learned from our simulations is that gravity leads to dark matter particles 'clumping' in overly dense regions of the universe, settling into what’s known as dark matter haloes," said study lead author Sownak Bose.  "These can essentially be thought of as big wells of gravity filled with dark matter particles.  We think that every galaxy in the cosmos is surrounded by an extended distribution of dark matter, which outweighs the luminous material of the galaxy by between a factor of 10-100, depending on the type of galaxy.  Because this dark matter surrounds every galaxy in all directions, we refer to it as a 'halo.'"

So this could be a partial explanation for structures like the Boötes Void, a region of space so empty that (in the words of astronomer Greg Aldering) if the Milky Way was at the center of it, we wouldn't have known about the existence of other galaxies until the 1960s.  It's about 236,000 cubic megaparsecs -- equivalent to a cube 61 trillion parsecs on each side -- and, as of this writing, seems to contain only sixty galaxies.

That, my friends, is a whole lot of nothing.

The distribution of matter in space is clumpy and irregular.  Whether this drives the distribution of dark matter, or it's the other way around (the distribution of dark matter drives the arrangement of ordinary matter in the cosmos) is unknown.

Because that's the trouble, here, to go back to my initial question.  We've got some wonderful pictures of dark matter haloes and filaments, but what the hell is it?  I know the physicists have been working on this question ever since astronomer Vera Rubin demonstrated its existence back in the 1990s, but for cryin' in the sink, it makes up 83% of the mass of the universe, and we still don't have a good idea of what it's made of or how it interacts (again, other than its gravitational signature, which is how it was detected in the first place).

But what dark matter actually is still lies in the realm of speculation.  "Ground-based telescopes like the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) can be used for this purpose [detecting dark matter], too." said Jie Wang, who co-authored the study.  "And, pointing telescopes at galaxies other than our own could also help, as this radiation should be produced in all dark matter haloes.  With the knowledge from our simulation, we can evaluate many different tools to detect haloes—gamma-ray, gravitational lensing, dynamics.  These methods are all promising in the work to shed light on the nature of dark matter particles."

So the upshot is there's a network of invisible stuff spreading through the entire universe, perhaps organizing the distribution of ordinary matter, but for sure surrounding and penetrating everything there is.  Without interacting with it in any way other than gravity (as far as we can tell).

Which is a hell of a mystery, isn't it?

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is about one of the most terrifying viruses known to man: rabies.

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, we learn about the history and biology of this tiny bit of protein and DNA that has, once you develop symptoms, a nearly 100% mortality rate.  Not only that, but it is unusual amongst pathogens at having extremely low host specificity.  It's transmissible to most mammal species, and there have been cases of humans contracting rabies not from one of the "big five" -- raccoons, foxes, skunks, bats, and dogs -- but from animals like deer.

Rabid goes through not only what medical science has to say about the virus and the disease it causes, but its history, including the possibility that it gave rise to the legends of lycanthropy and werewolves.  It's a fascinating read.

Even though it'll make you a little more wary of wildlife.

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