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.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Even spookier action

Once again, I've had my mind blown by a set of experiments about the behavior of subatomic particles that teeters on the edge of what my layman's brain can understand.  So I'm gonna tell you about it as best I can, and I would ask that any physics types in the studio audience let me know about any errors I make so I can correct 'em.

You're undoubtedly aware of the quote by Einstein having to do with "spooky action at a distance," which is how he viewed the bizarre and counterintuitive features of the physics of the very small such as quantum superposition and entanglement.  Both of these phenomena, though, have been explained by the model that particles aren't the little pinpoint masses we picture them as, but spread-out fields of probabilities that can interact even when they're not near each other.

But that still leaves intact the conventional view, certainly the common-sense one, that one object can't affect another unless the field generated by one of them intersects the field generated by the other, whether that field be gravity, electromagnetism, or either of the two less-familiar nuclear forces (strong and weak).  Not as obvious is that this influence is generally transmitted by some sort of carrier particle being exchanged between the two -- although the carrier particle that transmits the gravitational force has yet to be discovered experimentally.

This is one of the main reasons that unscientific superstitions like astrology can't be true; it's positing that your personality and life's path are affected by the position of the Sun or one of the planets relative to a bunch of stars that only appear to be near each other when viewed from our perspective.  Most of those stars are tens to hundreds of light years away, so any influence they might have on you via the four fundamental forces is about as close to zero as you could possibly get, because all four of them dramatically decrease in intensity the farther away you get.  (As Carl Sagan quipped, at the moment of your birth, the obstetrician who delivered you was exerting a greater gravitational pull on you than Jupiter was.)

So the bottom line appears to be: no interaction between the fields generated by two objects, no way can they influence each other in any fashion.

But.

In 1959, two physicists, Yakir Aharonov and David Bohm, published a paper on what has come to be known as the Aharonov-Bohm effect.  This paper concluded that under certain conditions, an electrically-charged particle can be affected by an electromagnetic field -- even when the particle itself is shielded in such a way that both the electric field and magnetic field it experiences is exactly equal to zero, and the particle's wave function is blocked from the region that is experiencing the field.

So that leaves us with one of two equally distasteful conclusions.  Either the measured electric and magnetic fields in a region don't tell us all we need to know to understand the electromagnetic potential a particle is experiencing, or we have to throw away the principle of locality -- that an object can only be influenced by the conditions in its local environment.

(Nota bene: in physics, "local" has a rigorous definition; two phenomena are local relative to each other if the amount of time a cause from one can precede an effect on the other is equal to or greater than the amount of time it would take light to travel from the position of the cause to the position of the effect.  This is the basis of the reluctance of physicists to believe in any kind of superluminal information transfer.)

What's more troubling still is that this isn't just some theoretical meandering; the Aharonov-Bohm effect has been demonstrated experimentally.  So as bafflingly weird as it sounds, it apparently is a built-in feature of quantum physics, as if we needed anything else to make it even crazier.

But maybe this is just some weirdness of electromagnetism, right?  Well, that might have been believable...

... until now.

In a paper three days ago in Science, five physicists at Stanford University -- Chris Overstreet, Peter Asenbaum, Joseph Curti, Minjeong Kim, and Mark Kasevich -- have demonstrated that the same thing works for gravitational interactions.

This is bizarre for a variety of reasons.  First, the Aharonov-Bohm effect is just bizarre, in and of itself.  Second, as I mentioned earlier, we don't even have experimental proof that gravity has a carrier particle, or if perhaps it is just a description of the curvature of space -- i.e., if gravity is a completely different animal from the other three fundamental forces.  Third, and weirdest, the equations governing gravity don't mesh with the equations governing the other three forces, and every effort to coalesce them and create a "Grand Unified Theory" has met with failure.  Combining the gravitational field equations with the ones in the quantum realm generates infinities -- and you know what that does.  


"Every time I look at this experiment, I’m like, 'It’s amazing that nature is that way,'" said study co-author Mark Kasevich, in an interview with Science News.

"Amazing" isn't how I would have put it.  In Kasevich's situation, I think what I'd have said would have been more like, "Holy shit, what the hell is going on here?"  But I'm kind of unsubtle that way.

So what it seems to indicate to me is that we're missing something pretty fundamental about how forces work, and that this is an indication that there's a serious gap in the theoretical underpinning of physics.

(Nota bene #2: I still think astrology is bullshit, though.)

It's tempting for us laypeople to just throw our hands up in despair and say, "Okay, this stuff is so weird it can't be true."  The problem is, if you buy into the methods of science -- which I hope all of us do -- that's the one response you can't have.  The experimental evidence is what it is, whether you like (or understand) it or not, and if it contradicts your favorite model of how things work, you have to chuck the model, not the evidence.  Or, as Neil deGrasse Tyson more eloquently and succinctly put it, "The wonderful thing about science is that it works whether or not you believe in it."

So it looks like we're stuck with this even-spookier-action-at-a-distance, as counterintuitive as it sounds.  Objects can interact with each other gravitationally even when the gravitational field produced by object #1 is exactly zero where object #2 is currently sitting.  And this is about the limit of what I can explain, so if you ask me to clarify further, I'm afraid my response will be a puzzled head-tilt much like what my dog gives me when I tell him something he just can't comprehend, like why I don't want to go outside and play ball with him when it's subzero temperatures and snowing.

But I'll end on a more academic note, with a quote by the famous biologist J. B. S. Haldane, that I've used before in posts about quantum physics: "The universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine."

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

Since reading the classic book by Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape, when I was a freshman in college, I've been fascinated by the idea of looking at human behavior as if we were just another animal -- anthropology, as it were, through the eyes of an alien species.  When you do that, a lot of our sense of specialness and separateness simply evaporates.

The latest in this effort to analyze our behavior from an outside perspective is Pascal Boyer's Human Cultures Through the Scientific Lens: Essays in Evolutionary Cognitive Anthropology.  Why do we engage in rituals?  Why is religion nearly universal to all human cultures -- as is sports?  Where did the concept of a taboo come from, and why is it so often attached to something that -- if you think about it -- is just plain weird?

Boyer's essays challenge us to consider ourselves dispassionately, and really think about what we do.  It's a provocative, fascinating, controversial, and challenging book, and if you're curious about the phenomenon of culture, you should put it on your reading list.

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


Saturday, January 15, 2022

Easy as A, B, C

There's an unfortunate but natural tendency for us to assume that because something is done a particular way in the culture we were raised in, that obviously, everyone else must do it the same way.

It's one of the (many) reasons I think travel is absolutely critical.  Not only do you find out that people elsewhere get along just fine doing things differently, it also makes you realize that in the most fundamental ways -- desire for peace, safety, food and shelter, love, and acceptance -- we all have much more in common than you'd think.  As Mark Twain put it, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

One feature of culture that is so familiar that most of the time, we don't even think about it, is how we write.  The Latin alphabet, with a one-sound-one-character correspondence, is only one way of turning spoken language into writing.  Turns out, there are lots of options:

  • Pictographic scripts -- where one symbol represents an idea, not a sound.  One example is the Nsibidi script, used by the Igbo people of Nigeria.
  • Logographic scripts -- where one symbol represents a morpheme (a meaningful component of a word; the word unconventionally, for example, has four morphemes -- un-, convention, -al, and -ly).  Examples include Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Cuneiform script of Sumer, the characters used in Chinese languages, and the Japanese kanji.
  • Syllabaries -- where one symbol represents a single syllable (whether or not the syllable by itself has any independent meaning).  Examples include the Japanese hiragana script, Cherokee (more about that one later), and Linear B -- the mysterious Bronze-Age script from Crete that was a complete mystery until finally deciphered by Alice Kober and Michael Ventris in the mid-twentieth century.
  • Abjads -- where one symbol represents one sound, but vowels are left out unless they are the first sound in the word.  Examples include Arabic and Hebrew.
  • Abugidas -- where each symbol represents a consonant, and the vowels are indicated by diacritical marks (so, a bit like a syllabary melded with an abjad).  Examples include Thai, Tibetan, Bengali, Burmese, Malayalam, and lots of others.
  • Alphabets -- one symbol = one sound for both vowels and consonants, such as our own Latin alphabet, as well as Cyrillic, Greek, Mongolian, and lots of others.
To make things more complicated, scripts (like every other feature of language) evolve over time, and sometimes can shift from one category to another.  There's decent evidence that our own alphabet evolved from a pictographic script:


Note, for example, the evolution of our letter "A," from a cow's head (so presumably the symbol originally represented an actual cow or ox), becoming a stylized representation of a horned animal, and finally losing its pictographic character entirely and becoming a representation of a sound instead of an idea.

Not only do scripts evolve, they can be invented.  (Obviously, they're all invented, but most of the ones we know about are old enough that we don't know much about their origins.)  Cyrillic, for example, was an creation of the Bulgarian Tsar Simeon I, but he based it on three sources -- Greek, Latin, and Glagolitic (a script used to write Old Church Slavonic), so it wasn't an invention ex nihilo.  The syllabic Cherokee script, however, was invented in the early nineteenth century by the brilliant Cherokee polymath Sequoyah, to give his people a way to write down their own history (a script that became one of the first written languages of the Indigenous people of North America).  In fact, it's a recently-invented script that brought this topic up today; a paper last week in Current Anthropology looks at a writing system I'd never heard of, the Vai script of Liberia, invented by a collaboration of eight people in 1833 from motivation similar to Sequoyah's.  Like Cherokee, it's syllabic in nature:


The paper looks at the interesting fact that even in the short time since its invention, Vai has evolved -- the symbols have simplified, and the script has "compressed" -- similar-sounding syllables eventually being represented by the same symbol.

"Visual complexity is helpful if you're creating a new writing system," said the study's lead author, Piers Kelly, of the Max Planck Institute, in an interview with Science Alert.  "You generate more clues and greater contrasts between signs, which helps illiterate learners.  This complexity later gets in the way of efficient reading and reproduction, so it fades away."  Also, as more and more people learn the writing system, it becomes regularized and standardized -- something that happens even faster when people switch from pen-and-paper to some kind of technological means of reproducing text.

It's why the recent tendency for People Of A Certain Age to bemoan the loss of cursive writing instruction in American public schools is honestly (1) kind of funny, and (2) swimming upstream against a powerful current.  Writing systems have been evolving since the beginning, with complicated, difficult to learn, difficult to reproduce, or highly variable systems being altered or eliminated outright.  It's a tough sell, though, amongst people who have been trained all their lives to use that script; witness the fact that Japanese still uses three systems, more or less at the same time -- the logographic kanji and the syllabic hiragana and katakana.  It will be interesting to see how long that lasts, now that Japan has become a highly technological society.  My guess is at some point, they'll phase out the cumbersome (although admittedly beautiful) kanji, which requires understanding over two thousand symbols to be considered literate.  The Japanese have figured out how to represent kanji on computers, but the syllabic scripts are so much simpler that I suspect they'll eventually win.

In any case, it's fascinating to see how many different solutions humans have found for turning spoken language into written language, and how those scripts have changed over time (and continue to change).  All features of the amazing diversity of humanity, and a further reminder that "we do it this way" isn't the be-all-end-all of culture.

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

Like many people, I've always been interested in Roman history, and read such classics as Tacitus's Annals of Imperial Rome and Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars with a combination of fascination and horror.  (And an awareness that both authors were hardly unbiased observers.)  Fictionalized accounts such as Robert Graves's I, Claudius and Claudius the God further brought to life these figures from ancient history.

One thing that is striking about the accounts of the Roman Empire is how dangerous it was to be in power.  Very few of the emperors of Rome died peaceful deaths; a good many of them were murdered, often by their own family members.  Claudius, in fact, seems to have been poisoned by his fourth wife, Agrippina, mother of the infamous Nero.

It's always made me wonder what could possibly be so attractive about achieving power that comes with such an enormous risk.  This is the subject of Mary Beard's book Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, which considers the lives of autocrats past and present through the lens of the art they inspired -- whether flattering or deliberately unflattering.

It's a fascinating look at how the search for power has driven history, and the cost it exacted on both the powerful and their subjects.  If you're a history buff, put this interesting and provocative book on your to-read list.

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



Friday, January 14, 2022

The Hourglass

Folks who have read a lot of my stories will recognize Flanagan's Irish Pub as a setting for a number of different scenes, and the friendly blonde bartender Valerie who works there has shown up as a recurring minor character in several of my books and short stories.  It's based on a real pub -- the Rongovian Embassy to the United States, in Trumansburg, New York -- now several years defunct, but a fixture for decades in this part of the Finger Lakes.

The idea for "The Hourglass" came to me out of the blue one October day, as I was picturing the interior of the Rongo (as locals called it), and suddenly I had a powerful image of two twenty-somethings, strangers, coming into the bar and both ordering a pint of Guinness.  This starts a conversation... about what? I had to write the story to find out.

The result is a story-within-a-story that is one of the twistiest things I've ever written, and I submit it to you for this week's Fiction Friday, along with a question: what do you think happened at the end?

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

The Hourglass

Chad Tarlow consulted his watch.  Seven thirty.  Plenty of time for a pint.  Only one, as usual, both because the beer he liked was expensive, and also because he needed to be lucid when he got back to his apartment.  He still had about five hours of reading and writing to do for his graduate classes, and he’d seen the results of writing papers in an alcohol-induced fog.  He only had two semesters left and he’d have his master’s degree and his teaching license.  No sense screwing it up now.

He sat at the bar, and gave a smile to Valerie, the cute bartender.  Valerie, he knew, was taken, in a long-term relationship with a guy who worked for the college as some kind of environmental researcher.  No use to hit on her.  He did a slow look around the bar, to see if there were any other prospects, but Flanagan’s was pretty dead. Oh, well, it was not like he had time for a girlfriend anyhow.  He sighed, and turned back to find a foamy pint of Guinness waiting for him.

“Saw you come in,” Valerie said, grinning and wiping her hands on a towel.

“I’m getting predictable.” 

“Nothing wrong with knowing what you like.”  She headed off to the other end of the bar to pour a drink for an elderly man who looked like he’d already had one too many.

The door opened, letting in a rush of cool autumn air, and a few dead leaves.  Chad looked up from his pint and saw, with a pang of disappointment, that the newcomer was a young man.  He was perhaps twenty-five, with tousled curly hair, dark eyes, and an angular jaw that was in need of a shave.  He stopped for a moment, and glanced around the place as if looking for someone.

No single women here tonight, bud.  Hope you weren’t counting on getting any.

The man seemed to consider leaving, then with a little shrug came up to the bar, shucked his windbreaker and woolen scarf, and hung them over the back of the barstool two down from where Chad sat.  Valerie came over wearing her usual friendly smile.  “What can I get you?” 

“You have Guinness on tap?”

“Yup.”

“A pint, then.”  He slid a ten-dollar bill toward her and sat down, leaning forward, elbows on the bar.

She drew the pint, and while it was settling she gave him his change.  “You from around here?  Haven’t seen you in here before.”

“I live in Skaneateles.  My first time in here.”

She slid the pint toward him. “Nice town, Skaneateles.” 

“That it is.”

Valerie went to attend to the elderly gentleman, who was waving at her in a rather woozy fashion, leaving Chad and the newcomer with their pints and the awkward silence that always descends between people who are strangers but who are forced to be near each other by circumstance.

“What do you do in Skaneateles?”  Chad finally said, feeling that he couldn’t just sit there without saying anything, drink his beer, and then leave.  But once said, it sounded ridiculous – an empty sentence, like “Have a nice day.”

But the newcomer smiled faintly, and said, “I’m a writer.”

“Really?  What do you write?”

“Novels.  Science fiction, mainly, and some fantasy.  Mostly speculative stuff.”

“That’s cool.”  Chad swiveled a little towards him.  “I’ve always wondered how writers think of their plots.  Especially you science fiction guys.  I mean, you not only have to make up your plot and characters and all, you have to invent a whole world.”

The man smiled again, and took a sip of his pint. “I get asked that a lot.  By the way, my name’s Aaron.”  He extended his hand, which Chad shook.

“Chad.  I’m a grad student in education.  Heading toward teaching physics in high school – provided, of course, that I can get a job.”

Aaron nodded.  “Not easy, these days.”

“But you work from home.  Pretty cool.  You just write stories, and your customers come to you.”

He looked down.  “Something like that.”  He glanced over at the window for a moment, again seeming like he was looking for something or someone.  Then he turned back toward Chad.  “It’s usually the plots that get me stuck.  It can take a long time to work out plot points, because in science fiction, everything’s got to hang together.  The readers immediately pick up on it if there’s an inconsistency.”

“How do you work it out when you get stuck?”

Aaron shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Usually the solution just comes to me sooner or later.  I’m not sure from where.  But when I get badly stuck, sometimes it takes weeks to figure my way through it.”  He paused.  “In fact, I’m trying to work something out right now.  It’s why I went for a drive today – to try to clear my brain and see if I could figure out how the story should go.”

“What are you stuck on?” 

“You want me to tell you?” Aaron's dark eyebrows lifted a little.  “I don’t want to bore you.”

“It won’t bore me.  Look, dude, I have several hours of reading educational philosophy when I get home.  Anything you could come up with would be fascinating by comparison.”

Aaron laughed.  “All right.  It’s a time travel story.”

“Okay.”

“But the time travel isn’t really the point.  I mean, it’s not like The Time Machine, where it went into the fictional technology and all.  Even though it depends on being able to reverse the hourglass, this story focuses more on an ethical dilemma.  And I want to make sure that the story works out the right way.  You know, not corny or trite.  And I’m not sure what to do.”

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Michael Himbeault, Hourglass , CC BY 2.0]

“So, when does the character travel to?”

Aaron took another pull on his pint.  “Here’s the deal.  The main character is a nice guy, but he had a really shitty childhood.  His mother was a complete whackjob.  Borderline personality, controlling, manipulative.”  He gestured with one hand.  “The kind of woman who should never be allowed to have children.  But like a lot of borderlines, she appeared normal enough on first glance.  In fact, she was kind of a magnetic personality.  Most people figured out soon enough that she was psycho.  She lost job after job, and so on.  And made her son’s life miserable.”

“Poor kid,” Chad said.

“Right?  The main character’s father was a decent guy, kept trying to help his wife, even though she was kind of beyond help, and stayed in the marriage to shield his son as much as he could.  But the mom was nuts enough that it didn’t really help.  And when the main character was seventeen, his mom had a total flip-out and killed his dad.  She ended up in jail.”

“Wow.  Seriously heavy stuff.”

“Yup.  So, anyway, that’s the setup.  That’s all in the past, in the story.  The reader just finds out about it in the first few chapters.  The son grows up, and he’s got a shitload of baggage from what he went through as a kid.  I mean, graduating from high school – mom’s in jail for killing dad.  The kind of thing most kids never have to deal with.”

“I hope not.  I don’t know what I’d do if something like that happened to one of my students.”

“I guess it happens sometimes.  Teachers got to deal with all sorts of stuff they wish they’d never had to see.  In fact, in the story, it’s the main character’s teachers, and some of his dad’s relatives, that save him.  So, anyway, he grows up, mostly normal, but has all of this psychotic stuff in his past.  Then, time travel is invented.  Scientists find a way to send people backwards, forwards, whatever you want.  And the guy gets an idea; what if he goes back in time, and stops his mom from meeting his father?”

“Seriously?  Like Back to the Future, only in reverse?”

Aaron smiled.  “Sort of like that.  He knows that if he does that, he’ll save his father from twenty years in a horrible relationship, that will end with his being shot to death by the woman he’d married.  But of course, you see the dilemma.”

“If he succeeds, he’ll cease to exist.”

Aaron nodded.  “And I have to be able to answer the question, confidently enough that what my character does makes sense.  You know?  If I’m not sure, I won’t be able to write it convincingly.  So, I guess the question is: do you save someone decades of unhappiness and an early death, at the cost of your own life?  Or do you save your own life even if it means someone you care about will be miserable?”

“The father might have been just as miserable had he not met the mom,” Chad said.  “You never know.”

“That’s true.  But even so.  What should he do?”  Aaron held up one hand, palm upwards.  “It’s just a story, after all.  I can make it come out whatever way I want.”

“Is the main character happy with his life?  I mean, if he’s screwed up himself, maybe he’d be better off, you know… not existing.  Kind of a clean suicide.”

“I didn’t want to make it that clear-cut.  That seemed too corny.  Like, he’s just wanting out, so he goes back in time to kill himself painlessly and save dad the trauma as an added benefit.  In the story, he’s kind of ordinary.  Some days good, some days bad.  He’s got some memories and shit to deal with, yeah – but he’s not, like, despondent or anything.”

“Wow,” Chad said.  “That’s a really interesting question.  I can see why you’re stuck.”

Aaron smiled, and took another drink.  “A puzzler, isn’t it?”

“Well, here’s an idea.  Maybe he should go back in time, you know… and present the idea to the dad.  Tell him what is going to happen.  Let the dad decide.”

“That’s kind of a cop-out.”

“Yeah, but, you know, see if the dad thinks all the misery would be worth it, to have a kid.”

“How could the dad judge that?  You know, condemn himself to twenty years of misery, and knowing he’d be killed at the end of it by the woman he’d married?  Do you really think anyone would be willing to do that voluntarily?”

“I don’t know,” Chad said.  “Maybe it’s a good thing we don’t know our futures.”

“Believe me,” Aaron responded, with some vigor, “since I started working on this story, I’ve thought about that many times.”

Chad finished his pint.  “Well, I’ve got to get going.”

“Educational philosophy waits for no man.”  Aaron gave him a smile.

“Nope.  And, with luck, once I’m actually teaching I’ll never have to read this crap again.”

This got a laugh. “That’s why I stick to writing science fiction.  People actually want to read it.”

Chad stood up, and shook Aaron’s hand.  “Good luck with your story.  I think it’s an interesting idea.  I’m sure you’ll work it out.”

“I hope so,” Aaron said.

Chad picked up his backpack from next to the barstool, and said goodbye to Valerie.  As he was approaching the door, it opened, admitting another gust of cool air.  A woman walked in – slim, with shoulder-length brown hair and sparkling blue eyes.  She glanced his way, and smiled.

No boyfriend in tow.  Okay, did he really need to stop at one pint?  He had time for another, right?

Chad opened his mouth to say something to her – his usual pickup line was, “Can I buy you a drink, or would you prefer to break my heart?”, which worked about fifty percent of the time, and in the other half of the cases just resulted in an eyeroll.  But something in him seemed to stall.  The words would not form, and the smile died on his lips.

The woman walked past him, and up to the bar. Chad turned to watch her.  And up on a shelf, behind the bar, was something he had never noticed before – a large hourglass in an ornate wooden frame, filled with white sand.  Valerie turned away from the elderly gentleman, who was finally paying his tab and seemed to be trying to determine if he could successfully stand up.  The woman sat down on one of the barstools at the otherwise empty bar, crossed her legs at the ankles, and rested her elbows on the polished mahogany top, smiling at Valerie and saying something too quietly for Chad to hear.  Valerie smiled, and turned – and then picked up the hourglass and flipped it over.

Chad watched the stream of sand spilling downwards for a moment, a distant expression on his face, like someone just waked from dreaming.  Then he walked out, alone, into the windy October night.

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

Like many people, I've always been interested in Roman history, and read such classics as Tacitus's Annals of Imperial Rome and Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars with a combination of fascination and horror.  (And an awareness that both authors were hardly unbiased observers.)  Fictionalized accounts such as Robert Graves's I, Claudius and Claudius the God further brought to life these figures from ancient history.

One thing that is striking about the accounts of the Roman Empire is how dangerous it was to be in power.  Very few of the emperors of Rome died peaceful deaths; a good many of them were murdered, often by their own family members.  Claudius, in fact, seems to have been poisoned by his fourth wife, Agrippina, mother of the infamous Nero.

It's always made me wonder what could possibly be so attractive about achieving power that comes with such an enormous risk.  This is the subject of Mary Beard's book Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, which considers the lives of autocrats past and present through the lens of the art they inspired -- whether flattering or deliberately unflattering.

It's a fascinating look at how the search for power has driven history, and the cost it exacted on both the powerful and their subjects.  If you're a history buff, put this interesting and provocative book on your to-read list.

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



Thursday, January 13, 2022

Footprints in the snow

So far this winter my upstate New York village has been lucky; despite repeated winter storms roaring through northeastern North America, we've received a mere dusting as compared to the thick blankets of snow folks have gotten pretty much all around us.  My buddy in Dieppe, New Brunswick, posted photos of the piles he and his family had to shovel to get out of their driveway, and I've seen similar pics from coastal New England, as well as south of us in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Here, though?  We've had a few really cold days, and a bit of persistent snow on the ground, but other than that, it's been pretty mild.  In fact, this morning the sun came out for a bit, and it's supposed to get well above freezing by mid-day, so what snow we have is beginning to melt -- although at this time of year I figure the comparative warmth is only a tease.

Watching the effect that the sun had on footprints I made yesterday while hauling firewood, as they widened from the clear indentations of a human wearing ridge-soled Timberland boots into diffuse, open blobs, put me in mind of one of the most peculiar legends of Merrie Old England.  Perhaps you've not heard of it; if not, you may find it an interesting tale for a chilly winter day.

Early in the morning on February 8, 1855 (so the story goes), the people of five small towns in south Devon -- Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, and Dawlish -- woke to find a line of footprints in the snow.  The London Times of February 16 reported on the story in detail:
It appears that on Thursday night last there was a very heavy fall of snow in the neighborhood of Exeter and the south of Devon.  On the following morning, the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the tracks of some strange and mysterious animal, endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the foot-prints were to be seen in all kinds of inaccessible places -- on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards enclosed by high walls and palings, as well as in open fields.  There was hardly a garden in Lympstone where the footprints were not observed.

The track appeared more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps were generally eight inches in advance of each other.  The impressions of the feet closely resembled that of a donkey's shoe, and measured from an inch and a half to (in some instances) two and a half inches across.  Here and there it appeared as if cloven, but in the generality of the steps the shoe was continuous, and, from the snow in the center remaining entire, merely showing the outer crest of the foot, it must have been convex.

The creature seems to have approached the doors of several houses and then to have retreated, but no one has been able to discover the standing or resting point of this mysterious visitor.  On Sunday last the Rev. Mr. Musgrave alluded to the subject in his sermon, and suggested the possibility of the footprints being those of a kangaroo; but this could scarcely have been the case, as they were found on both sides of the estuary of the Exe.

At present it remains a mystery, and many superstitious people in the above towns are actually afraid to go outside their doors at night.
What is oddest -- and has been reported in multiple sources from the time -- is that the perpetrator, whatever or whomever it was, seemed unperturbed by obstacles.  The line of footprints walked right up to the bank of a river, and resumed on the other side as if it had walked straight through the running water.  Walls didn't slow it down, either; witnesses say that the footprints indicated it had simply stepped over the wall, as the imprint in the snow showed no change in depth from one side to the other (as it would have if the perpetrator had climbed up one side and then jumped down).  The footprints went in more or less a straight line, with only minor deviations, apparently to glimpse into the windows of houses it passed (*shudder*).  The most conservative reports claim the line of prints extended for sixty kilometers, far too much for one person (or creature) to cover in a single night.

The snow, as it melted, accentuated the strangeness of the prints, just as it did with the bootprints in my front yard.  The resemblance to a cloven hoof, with its suggestion of the devil, became more pronounced, and the fear grew to near hysteria.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, for those of us who like to know the solutions to mysteries) the events were never repeated, and never satisfactorily explained.

A sketch of the footprints, as drawn by several people who saw them first-hand

The Devonshire footprints were credited by some as a visitation not by Satan, but by one of his uniquely English cousins -- Spring-heeled Jack.  The first reported sighting of Spring-heeled Jack was in London in 1837 by a businessman walking home from work.  The gentleman described being terrified by the sudden appearance of a dark figure which had "jumped the high railings of Barnes Cemetery with ease," landing right in his path.  The businessman wasn't attacked, and was able to keep his wits sufficiently about him to describe a "muscular man, with a wild, grinning expression, long, pointed nose and ears, and protruding, glowing eyes."  

Sort of like the love child of Salvador Dali and Mr. Spock, is how I think of him.

Others were attacked, and some were not so lucky as our businessman.  A girl named Mary Stevens was attacked in Battersea, and had her clothing torn and was scratched and clawed, but survived because neighbors came to help when they heard her screams.  The following day Jack jumped in front of a coach, causing it to swerve and crash.  The coachman was severely injured, and several witnesses saw Jack escape by leaping over a nine-foot-high wall, all the while howling with insane laughter.

Several more encounters occurred during the following year, including two in which the victims were blinded temporarily by "blue-white fire" spat from Jack's mouth.

Although publicity grew, and Spring-heeled Jack became a character of folk myth, song, and the punch line to many a joke, sightings grew less frequent.  Following the footprints in the snow-covered Devonshire countryside in 1855, there was a flurry of renewed interest (*rimshot*), but the last claimed sighting of Spring-heeled Jack was in Lincoln in 1877, and after that he seems to have gone the way of the dodo.

As intriguing as both stories are, all of the evidence points to pranksters (and, in the case of Mary Stevens, an unsuccessful rapist).  With the Devonshire footprints, the length of the track line is almost certainly an exaggeration, or at best a conflation of tracks from different sources -- a few of them by a hoaxer to get things going, followed by people blaming every human or animal track they see in the snow afterward on the mysterious walker.  As far as Spring-heeled Jack goes, I'm not inclined to believe in Jack's phenomenal jumping ability, except in cases where Jack jumped down off a wall -- that requires no particular skill except the agility to get up there in the first place, and after that gravity takes care of the rest.  It seems to me that a combination of nighttime, fear, a wild costume, and the witnesses' being primed by already knowing the story creates a synergy that makes their accuracy seriously in question.

The fact remains, however, that both of them are very peculiar stories.  I remember reading about the Devonshire footprints when I was a kid (I didn't find out about Spring-heeled Jack until later), and the idea of some mysterious non-human creature pacing its way across the snowy English countryside, silently crossing fields and farms and streets and rivers, peering into the windows of homes at the sleeping inhabitants, was enough to give me what the Scots call the "cauld grue."  Still does, in fact. Enough that I hope that the fitful January sun will soon eradicate my bootprints in the front yard completely -- which goes to show that even a diehard rationalist can sometimes fall prey to an irrational case of the creeps.

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

Like many people, I've always been interested in Roman history, and read such classics as Tacitus's Annals of Imperial Rome and Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars with a combination of fascination and horror.  (And an awareness that both authors were hardly unbiased observers.)  Fictionalized accounts such as Robert Graves's I, Claudius and Claudius the God further brought to life these figures from ancient history.

One thing that is striking about the accounts of the Roman Empire is how dangerous it was to be in power.  Very few of the emperors of Rome died peaceful deaths; a good many of them were murdered, often by their own family members.  Claudius, in fact, seems to have been poisoned by his fourth wife, Agrippina, mother of the infamous Nero.

It's always made me wonder what could possibly be so attractive about achieving power that comes with such an enormous risk.  This is the subject of Mary Beard's book Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, which considers the lives of autocrats past and present through the lens of the art they inspired -- whether flattering or deliberately unflattering.

It's a fascinating look at how the search for power has driven history, and the cost it exacted on both the powerful and their subjects.  If you're a history buff, put this interesting and provocative book on your to-read list.

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



Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Figure and ground

One of the most fundamental unanswered questions in physics is why there is something instead of nothing.

I don't mean this in an existential sense, although now that I come to think of it, it's about the most existential question there is.  But this isn't asking if there is some sort of final cause for the universe, be it a Creator or whatever other spin you could put on it.  No, this is a purely scientific question, and one which has defied all attempts to answer it.

The basic problem stems from the issue of antimatter.  You probably know that for every particle, there is a corresponding antiparticle that has the same mass-energy but opposite properties -- protons and antiprotons, electrons and positrons (anti-electrons), neutrons and antineutrons, and so forth.  Brought into contact, matter and antimatter undergo mutual annihilation, and all of that mass is converted to gamma rays with an energy release as determined by Einstein's famous equation E = mc^2.

So far, nothing particularly surprising, especially if you've watched any of the various iterations of Star Trek, with their starships powered by an "antimatter core" brought into contact with matter in a controlled way and using the energy released to propel the ship.  (And, just about every other week, having a "warp core breach" leading to an uncontrolled matter-antimatter explosion, a catastrophe averted each time only minutes before the credits roll.)

Here's the rub, though.  All of the current models of the Big Bang suggest that at the beginning of the universe, matter and antimatter should have been created in equal amounts, like the energy equivalent of figure and ground.  They then should have collided, releasing the energy as photons, ultimately resulting in a universe that has zero matter of either kind except for the transient "virtual" particle pairs that are created from photons and more or less instantaneously come back together again, mutually annihilating and producing more photons.

Why, then, is there an imbalance?  Why do we see all this left-over matter -- the planets and stars around us -- instead of a universe filled with nothing but photons?  (Yes, I know, if that were the case we wouldn't be there to "see" it.  Just play along, okay?)

Some have suggested that distant galaxies might be antimatter; after all, at a distance you wouldn't be able to tell the difference.  But the problem with that is if this were true, there would be an interface somewhere between the supposed antimatter galaxy and the nearest matter galaxy, and at that interface there would be constant collisions of matter and antimatter -- so you'd see a sort of curtain of gamma-ray production representing the boundary.  We see no such thing anywhere we look.  From the observational data we have, it appears that all of the visible objects in the universe are made of ordinary matter.

Nota bene: Observational data also do not support that a planet made of antimatter would have identical people with opposite personalities, such as Evil Spock With A Beard.


So physicists surmised that if the processes during the Big Bang did produce equal amounts of matter and antimatter, perhaps the asymmetry came from the particles themselves -- i.e., the antimatter particles don't have exactly identical-but-opposite properties from their matter equivalents, but some small difference that made the matter particles either more numerous or more likely to survive.

Well, a paper last week in Nature appears to have ruled that out as well.

Researchers at CERN working on the Baryon-Antibaryon Symmetry Experiment (BASE) looked at the oscillations of a single antiproton trapped in a magnetic field, and compared those oscillations with the equivalent from an ordinary proton.  After taking data from over 24,000 of these pairs, they found that the measured properties of the two are absolutely identical -- to an accuracy of 1.6 billionths of a percent.

That pretty much settles it, I'd think.

However, this means the original question still stands.  What caused the imbalance?  Is there still a possibility that some of the most distant galaxies -- possibly ones on opposite side of the 330-million-light-year-wide Boötes Void -- might be made of antimatter?  It's possible, but we've seen nothing to support that as an explanation.  Or that there's a "multiverse" with equal numbers of matter and antimatter galaxies all "separated causally" (i.e., so far apart they can't even potentially interact), so the entire thing is balanced, but only on the biggest scales?  The problem with that is if they are causally separated, then they've never been in contact in such a way as to be able to interact or influence each other, so it's hard to imagine how they'd have been created by a single event at one space-time location.  Also, in such a model, it's not even theoretically possible to obtain any information about these supposed antimatter regions, because they're beyond the distance limit from which we could observe them.  This puts the issue outside of what is even potentially verifiable by observational data, so as a hypothesis -- to use Wolfgang Pauli's acerbic quote -- "it's not even wrong."

Which leaves one of the biggest puzzles in physics still unanswered.

But it's this kind of conundrum that drives science, and had pushed us toward understanding some of the deepest mysteries of the universe.  It might be frustrating, but that's the way research works.  As Richard Feynman put it, "I'd rather have questions that cannot be answered than answers that cannot be questioned."

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

Like many people, I've always been interested in Roman history, and read such classics as Tacitus's Annals of Imperial Rome and Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars with a combination of fascination and horror.  (And an awareness that both authors were hardly unbiased observers.)  Fictionalized accounts such as Robert Graves's I, Claudius and Claudius the God further brought to life these figures from ancient history.

One thing that is striking about the accounts of the Roman Empire is how dangerous it was to be in power.  Very few of the emperors of Rome died peaceful deaths; a good many of them were murdered, often by their own family members.  Claudius, in fact, seems to have been poisoned by his fourth wife, Agrippina, mother of the infamous Nero.

It's always made me wonder what could possibly be so attractive about achieving power that comes with such an enormous risk.  This is the subject of Mary Beard's book Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, which considers the lives of autocrats past and present through the lens of the art they inspired -- whether flattering or deliberately unflattering.

It's a fascinating look at how the search for power has driven history, and the cost it exacted on both the powerful and their subjects.  If you're a history buff, put this interesting and provocative book on your to-read list.

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



Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The eccentric heavens

For a lot of people, the most disquieting thing about science is the way it's moved humanity farther and farther from its position as the center of the universe.

It's why the heliocentric model met with such resistance.  That the Earth was at the center, and all celestial objects move in circles around it, seemed not only common sense but to fit with the biblical view of the primacy of humans as being created in the image of God.  Copernicus and Galileo ran afoul of the church because their findings contradicted that -- especially when Galileo was the first to see the four largest moons of Jupiter (now known as the "Galilean moons" in his honor), and it was clear they were circling Jupiter and not the Earth -- meaning there are celestial objects that don't obey the model of the entire universe being geocentric.

Another blow was dealt to this idea when Johannes Kepler used data by Danish observational astronomer Tycho Brahe to show that the planets weren't even in circular orbits -- i.e., the heavens were not neat, tidy, and divine, with everything moving in "perfect circles."  That idea didn't die easily.  It'd been known since the time of Ptolemy (second century C.E.) that perfectly circular orbits with the Earth at the center didn't produce predictions that matched the actual positions of the planets, so Ptolemy and others tried desperately to salvage the model by having them move in "epicycles" -- smaller circles that loop-the-loop around a point that itself travels in a circle around the Earth.  But that didn't quite do it, either.  Instead of scrapping the model, Ptolemy introduced epicycles around the epicycles, resulting in an orbital pattern so complex it's almost funny (but still, supposedly, "perfect").


The Ptolemaic model of the universe [Image is in the Public Domain]

But that didn't quite work either, even if you followed Copernicus's lead, put the Sun at the center, and adjusted the planetary orbits accordingly.  The discrepancies bothered Kepler until he finally had to concede that the objects in the Solar System didn't move in circles around the Sun, but in "imperfect" ellipses with the Sun at one focal point.  A measure of how far off the orbit is from being circular -- the "flatness" of the ellipse, so to speak -- is called the eccentricity.  Some planets have very low eccentricity; their orbits are nearly circular.  Of the planets in the Solar System, Venus has the lowest eccentricity, at 0.0068.  Mercury has the highest, at 0.2056.

There's no reason why it couldn't go a lot higher, though.  Comets have highly eccentric orbits; Halley's Comet, for example, has an orbital period of 76 years and an eccentricity of 0.9671.

Could an actual planet have a very eccentric orbit?  Yes, but it would create the climate from hell, hot when it's at the perihelion of its orbit and freezing cold when it's at the aphelion.  Even the old Lost in Space looked at this possibility; very early on, the Robinsons find that the average temperature on the planet where they're stranded is dropping, and the Robot figures out this is because the planet is in a highly elliptical orbit.  This means, of course, that if they survive the intense cold, they're in for a period of intense heat when the planet reaches the other side of its orbit.  Unfortunately, this clever plot point got fouled up because the writers evidently didn't know the difference between a planet's rotation and its revolution, so when the peak cold and peak heat come, it only lasts for a few minutes.  For example, in a highly dramatic scene, the intrepid family take shelter under reflective tarps when the planet's sun is at its closest, and some of the tarps burst into flame, but five minutes later, things are cooling off.

Disaster averted, unless you count the traumatic eye-rolls experienced by viewers who knew even the rudiments of astronomy.

The reason this comes up is because of the discovery of an exoplanet with the highest eccentricity known.  A paper in Astronomy & Astrophysics last week describes a planet orbiting a red dwarf star about 188 light years away, which is over twice the size of the Earth, and has an orbital eccentricity of about 0.5.  This means that in its 35-day orbit, the average temperature fluctuates between -80 C and 100 C -- a frozen wasteland at aphelion and a boiling blast furnace at perihelion, with brief periods in between where the temperature might be tolerable.

"In terms of potential habitability, this is bad news," said Nicole Schanche, an astronomer at the University of Bern and lead author of the paper, in what has to be understatement of the year.

So the whole "Goldilocks zone" issue for finding habitable exoplanets -- an orbital distance resulting in temperatures where water could exist as a liquid, which isn't too hot or too cold, but "just right" -- isn't as simple as it sounds.  The average temperature might be in the right range, but if the planet has an eccentric orbit, the average may not tell you much.  It's like the old quip that if you have one foot encased in ice and the other one in a pot of boiling water, on average you're comfortable.

Not only that, but there's the problem of tidal locking -- when the rotation and revolution rate are equal, so the same side of the planet always faces its sun.  Once again, this might result in an average temperature that is reasonably good, but only because one side is getting continuously cooked while the other is in the deep freeze.  It might be possible to live on the boundary between the light and dark sides -- a place where the planet's star is forever on the horizon -- but there, you'd find a different problem.  Because of the process of convection, in which fluids flow in such a way as to distribute heat evenly, on that twilight margin there'd be catastrophic upper-level winds from the hot to the cold side and equally strong ones at the surface from the cold to the hot side, putting that thin zone smack in the center of the Convection Cell from Hell and rendering even that area effectively uninhabitable.

So we're lucky to live where we do.  Or, more accurately, if the Earth had any of the aforementioned problems, we wouldn't be here.  But this further reinforces my awareness of what a beautiful, awe-inspiring, and scarily inhospitable place the universe is.  And whether there are other places out there that are as clement as the Earth, where life as we know it could evolve and thrive, remains very much to be seen.

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

Like many people, I've always been interested in Roman history, and read such classics as Tacitus's Annals of Imperial Rome and Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars with a combination of fascination and horror.  (And an awareness that both authors were hardly unbiased observers.)  Fictionalized accounts such as Robert Graves's I, Claudius and Claudius the God further brought to life these figures from ancient history.

One thing that is striking about the accounts of the Roman Empire is how dangerous it was to be in power.  Very few of the emperors of Rome died peaceful deaths; a good many of them were murdered, often by their own family members.  Claudius, in fact, seems to have been poisoned by his fourth wife, Agrippina, mother of the infamous Nero.

It's always made me wonder what could possibly be so attractive about achieving power that comes with such an enormous risk.  This is the subject of Mary Beard's book Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, which considers the lives of autocrats past and present through the lens of the art they inspired -- whether flattering or deliberately unflattering.

It's a fascinating look at how the search for power has driven history, and the cost it exacted on both the powerful and their subjects.  If you're a history buff, put this interesting and provocative book on your to-read list.

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



Monday, January 10, 2022

A Miocene storage place

No matter how long you've been interested in a subject, there's always more to learn.

That's why I was delighted to run into an article yesterday in Science Advances describing the discovery of a "Lagerstätte" from Australia.  The paper had the word "Miocene" in it and was full of photographs of fossils, so I figured it must have something to do with paleontology, even though Lagerstätte sounds like a place to hide beer.

Actually, as a brief etymological aside, the word does share a common root with lager beer.  Lagerstätte is German for "storage place" and refers to a paleontological site full of fossils showing exceptionally fine preservation; the beer name comes from Lagerbier ("stored beer"), so named because it was cold-fermented after storage in a cool, dark place.  So as unlikely as it sounds given their definitions, the two words share a common root.

Anyhow, this particular Lagerstätte (dammit, now that I've learned the word, I'm gonna use it) is in a spot called McGraths Flat, about twenty-five kilometers northeast of the town of Gulgong (itself about three hundred kilometers northwest of Sydney).  What is most remarkable about it is not only the exceptional state of preservation of the fossils -- down to the soft parts that usually don't fossilize well -- but the range of organisms represented, all the way from microorganisms and spores up to flowers, fruit, leaves, and branches of dozens of different species of plants, insects and spiders, fish, and even the feather of a bird (of unknown species, but probably something sparrow-sized).  Like the other fossils, the feather is amazingly well-preserved -- enough that you can still see the feather's melanosomes, the pigment-bearing cells, the arrangement of which allowed the researchers to conclude that the bird it came from was dark-colored and iridescent, like today's grackles and starlings.

The site dates to about fourteen million years ago, putting it squarely in the middle of the Miocene Period.  The Miocene was an interesting time, geologically and climatically.  It's the period that saw the collision of the Indian subcontinent with Eurasia, raising the Himalayas, as well as enough subduction off the western coast of South America to fuel the developing volcanoes of the Andes Range.  Even more dramatic was the eruption of the Columbia River Flood Basalts in what is now eastern Washington and eastern Oregon, releasing enough lava that it filled up the valleys east of the Cascades like water filling a bathtub.  (The Columbia River Formation is not only the most recent flood basalt province, but -- amazingly -- the smallest; it's dwarfed by both the Siberian Traps and the Deccan Traps, which are thought to have played a large role in the Permian-Triassic and Cretaceous Extinctions, respectively.)

Interestingly, it's an Eocene Period basalt deposit that seems to be what allowed for the phenomenal state of preservation at McGraths Flat.  Around 37 million years ago -- so, 23 million years before the lowland swampy forest that eventually became the Lagerstätte -- there was an eruption of iron-rich basalt nearby, and by the mid-Miocene the rock was eroding.  The seep water became a nearly saturated solution of goethite (iron oxide-hydroxide), which then precipitated in fine layers over the organic remains, producing fossils with a level of detail you rarely ever get to see.

A few of the amazing fossils from McGraths Flat (New South Wales, Australia).  The one in the upper left is the bird feather, one of the few vertebrate fossils identified.

The climate worldwide at the time was largely warm and dry, although throughout the period there was a cooling trend which would ultimately lead to the Pliocene and Pleistocene Ice Ages.  The habitat at McGraths Flat, though, was thought to be wetter than average -- probably similar to today's lowland forests in places like New Zealand.  The plants weren't so different from what you find today; eucalyptus, acacia, casuarina, various members of the Protea, Myrtle, and Laurel families.  Transported back there, you probably wouldn't notice a great deal of difference from what you see today.  A botanist would recognize that the species were different from modern ones -- but by fourteen million years ago, the families of plants and animals would be substantially the same ones you find in eastern Australia now.

The authors write:

Reduced precipitation in the Miocene triggered the geographic contraction of rainforest ecosystems around the world.  In Australia, this change was particularly pronounced; mesic rainforest ecosystems that once dominated the landscape transformed into the shrublands, grasslands, and deserts of today.  A lack of well-preserved fossils has made it difficult to understand the nature of Australian ecosystems before the aridification.  Here, we report on an exceptionally well-preserved rainforest biota from New South Wales, Australia.  This Konservat-Lagerstätte hosts a rich diversity of microfossils, plants, insects, spiders, and vertebrate remains preserved in goethite.  We document evidence for several species interactions including predation, parasitism, and pollination.   The fossils are indicative of an oxbow lake in a mesic rainforest and suggest that rainforest distributions have shifted since the Miocene.  The variety of fossils preserved, together with high fidelity of preservation, allows for unprecedented insights into the mesic ecosystems that dominated Australia during the Miocene.

This discovery gives us an astonishingly vivid picture of a landscape from fourteen million years ago -- all because of a fortuitous nearby rock formation.  It also gives us an excuse for using the word Lagerstätte when talking to our friends, which I hope you all will.  I definitely am gonna.  Which probably explains why so many people suddenly realize in mid-conversation with me that they have pressing engagements elsewhere.

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

Like many people, I've always been interested in Roman history, and read such classics as Tacitus's Annals of Imperial Rome and Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars with a combination of fascination and horror.  (And an awareness that both authors were hardly unbiased observers.)  Fictionalized accounts such as Robert Graves's I, Claudius and Claudius the God further brought to life these figures from ancient history.

One thing that is striking about the accounts of the Roman Empire is how dangerous it was to be in power.  Very few of the emperors of Rome died peaceful deaths; a good many of them were murdered, often by their own family members.  Claudius, in fact, seems to have been poisoned by his fourth wife, Agrippina, mother of the infamous Nero.

It's always made me wonder what could possibly be so attractive about achieving power that comes with such an enormous risk.  This is the subject of Mary Beard's book Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, which considers the lives of autocrats past and present through the lens of the art they inspired -- whether flattering or deliberately unflattering.

It's a fascinating look at how the search for power has driven history, and the cost it exacted on both the powerful and their subjects.  If you're a history buff, put this interesting and provocative book on your to-read list.

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