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.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Dog days

Yesterday, we found out that the president of the United States ordered his lawyer to commit perjury before Congress, and has taken his "Oh, yeah, well you're a great big poopyhead!" style of interaction to new levels with revealing the details of a (formerly) secure visit to the troops in Afghanistan by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, presumably to get back at her for denying him the opportunity to deliver his State of the Union speech.

Oh, and there's another "caravan" on the way.  And Ivanka Trump has been tapped to help select the next leader of the World Bank.

*looks around desperately for something, anything, else to think about*

Okay, folks, today we're going to consider: why have sightings of "dogmen" been on the rise lately?

Yesterday we considered eyewitness accounts of seeing pterodactyl-like flying creatures, which is weird enough.  But now we're having to contend with scary visitations by bipedal canines.

As if the quadrupedal kind weren't enough trouble.  Our rescue dog, Guinness, is a truly wonderful guy, but his nickname of "El Destructo" is well earned.  In the past two weeks, he's chewed up a bottle of red ceramic underglaze, a visitor's shoe, a magazine, a pillow, and a single piece from a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle.  About the latter, I'd almost have preferred if he'd eaten the whole puzzle; having one piece gnawed is just maddening.

Oh, and he swiped a chunk of gourmet cheese off the counter and ate the entire thing.

Do NOT let this innocent expression fool you.

So the idea that there might be intelligent bipedal dogs, perhaps even with opposable thumbs, is kind of alarming.  But that's just what people have been seeing.

Starting with an anonymous (of course) eyewitness in northern Arkansas, who two months ago saw a fearsome doglike creature while driving home from his job as a roofing worker.

"I came across this evil-looking wolf creature," he said.  "It was carrying something in its hands, like a leash or a rope.  It was standing on two feet on the left side of the road.  It was gray, maybe seven feet tall, three hundred pounds."

That, in the words of a friend of mine, is "a big bow-wow."

Then there's the guy in Colorado who was driving home with his own dog, and saw Fido's scary cousin.  He'd stopped the car and let his dog out to pee, but evidently that was the last thing on her mind.  "She wouldn’t do her business," he said.  "She started barking.  At first I thought she was barking at the traffic, but there was no traffic."

The fact that he even considered the explanation that she was barking at traffic that wasn't there makes me wonder about his reliability as a witness, but let's hear the rest of his testimony.

"I noticed five lights hovering in the sky in the distance...  I quickly put the dog in the car and went to investigate.  The lights rose higher and then got smaller and zigzagged, then vanished."

This did not calm his dog down, and in fact, she seemed even more scared than before.  Then...

"I tried comforting her, and that’s when I noticed something moving in the corner of my eye.  I looked up and saw something running behind my car, through the taillights... It had red fur and a tail, but it also had a human face...  It's hard to describe."

Understandably, the guy hauled ass back out onto the road, but he adds that his dog was still terrified when they arrived home, and he had nightmares for several nights thereafter.

There were other sightings in the last couple of months in Michigan and California, the latter by a retired Air Force security officer who was in a park with her daughter and saw "a large male dogman," six-and-a-half to seven feet tall, with broad shoulders, a narrow waist, long arms, dog-like legs, a tail, and amber eyes.  She pulled a gun on it, and started speaking to the thing in her native language (she is Shoshone), and that stopped it from advancing on them.  She and her daughter hightailed it back to their car, and got home safely.  She decided to return the next day with her husband, and see if she could find more evidence (or possibly see it again), and there was no certain trace of the dogman, but they did find a cat skeleton "stripped clean down to the bones."

Skeptic though I am, if I'd seen something like that, I don't think you could pay me enough to return to the same spot.  So major props to her for doing this, and I'm glad that the Shoshone-speaking cat-eating dogman of California didn't harm any of them.

But as far as our initial question -- to wit, why there have been more sightings of dogmen lately -- the only thing I can come up with is that the dogmen have decided we humans had our shot at running the world, but we've fucked things up so royally that they're going to take matters into their own, um, paws.  Maybe they'll team up with yesterday's pterodactyls to form a really New World Order.  Myself, I say let 'em.  Can't be any worse than what we have now.

Of course, if the dogmen are anything like Guinness, they will stubbornly refuse to even consider running the government until you throw the ball for them 459 times, and follow it up by saying "whoozagooboy?" and giving them a dog cookie.

So that's today's cryptozoological news.  And now, sad to say, I've dithered around long enough, and I should probably gird my loins and check the news.  Who knows what might have happened in my absence?  Maybe Donald Trump threw a mud pie at Nancy Pelosi.  Maybe Mitch McConnell finally decided that his title of "Senate Majority Leader" means he should actually lead the Senate.  Maybe Ivanka Trump will be appointed to replace Sarah Huckabee Sanders as White House Spokesperson, given that Sanders is allegedly resigning, probably because she's used up her quota of egregious lies, so now has no option other than telling the truth.

And we can't have that.

But in any case, be on the lookout for dogmen, but play it safe.  A seven-foot-tall, three-hundred-pound dog could do a lot of damage to shoes and jigsaw puzzles.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a little on the dark side.

The Radium Girls, by Kate Moore, tells the story of how the element radium -- discovered in 1898 by Pierre and Marie Curie -- went from being the early 20th century's miracle cure, put in everything from jockstraps to toothpaste, to being recognized as a deadly poison and carcinogen.  At first, it was innocent enough, if scarily unscientific.  The stuff gives off a beautiful greenish glow in the dark; how could that be dangerous?  But then the girls who worked in the factories of Radium Luminous Materials Corporation, which processed most of the radium-laced paints and dyes that were used not only in the crazy commodities I mentioned but in glow-in-the-dark clock and watch dials, started falling ill.  Their hair fell out, their bones ached... and they died.

But capitalism being what it is, the owners of the company couldn't, or wouldn't, consider the possibility that their precious element was what was causing the problem.  It didn't help that the girls themselves were mostly poor, not to mention the fact that back then, women's voices were routinely ignored in just about every realm.  Eventually it was stopped, and radium only processed by people using significant protective equipment,  but only after the deaths of hundreds of young women.

The story is fascinating and horrifying.  Moore's prose is captivating -- and if you don't feel enraged while you're reading it, you have a heart of stone.

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





Friday, January 18, 2019

The wind beneath my wings

We're at a dire crossroads, here in the United States, with a president under investigation, foreign and domestic policy decisions being driven by far right political commentators, political appointees making statements implying they can curtail constitutionally-protected rights.  Looking at the news has become a daily exercise in fighting back a sense of horror.

So today, I'm going to consider: a rash of recent pterodactyl sightings.

I learned about this phenomenon over at Cryptozoology News, where aficionados of creatures that don't technically exist can go for updates.  It turns out that we've had a sudden spike in reports of giant winged creatures, inevitably described as "bat-like" although many times larger than the biggest bats.

And since such explanations as "the eyewitness was drunk, confused, or just making shit up" clearly aren't applicable here, we are forced to the conclusion that pterodactyloids didn't become extinct 66 million years ago, they stuck around and are now appearing in places such as Wisconsin.

In fact, the Wisconsin sighting is only one of many in the last few months.  This particular report tells of an anonymous (of course) eyewitness who last August was driving home one afternoon and saw "a weird thing flying in the sky."  The creature was estimated at being two meters in length, and had "skin on its wings instead of feathers."

"Like a bat," he said.  "It looked like a pterodactyl or some kind of angel."

For reference, let's consider each of these:


Fig. 1: A bat  [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Barracuda1983, Pipistrellus flight2, CC BY-SA 3.0]



Fig. 2: A pterodactyloid [Image is in the Public Domain]

Fig. 3: An angel [Image is in the Public Domain]

So I think we can all agree that it'd be easy to confuse the three.

But our gentleman in Wisconsin isn't the only one to see a strange flying creature recently.  In November, a woman in Chester County, Pennsylvania saw a huge thing with wings while she was zooming down the interstate.  "I realized just how big it actually was," she said.  "The wingspan was twice the width of the car, as it flew over it and headed straight toward my car.  The feathers were black, or very dark brown.  As it flew over my car, I ducked a bit, to look up at it, through the windshield.  It was amazing to see such a beautiful sight. If I hadn’t been driving so fast – the speed limit is 70 mph – I could have attempted to take a photo."

An even bigger one was spotted only a few days later in Ohio.  A woman was driving with her fiance in Ravenna, Ohio, and stopped at a stoplight, only to see something enormous gliding overhead.  "It was two or three times larger than our SUV," she said.  "It had elbow-like wings.  It was darker than the sky.  The thing was huge."

The most recent sighting was just last week, once again in Pennsylvania, which seems to have more than its fair share of pterodactyls.  This time, a 47-year-old construction worker said he was out cutting firewood when the thing flew over.

"A large shadow appeared above me," he said.  "I ran inside to grab my phone, but by the time I came outside the bird was gone.  I’ve been terrified to go outside since that event."

He described it as a "green bird with a twenty-foot wingspan, covered in scales, [with] a spike on the end of its tail and razor-sharp talons."  He added, "It looked like a lizard."

Once again, for reference:

Fig. 4: A lizard.  [Image is licensed under the Creative Commons SajjadF, Lizard - e, CC BY 3.0]

So apparently, what we have here is a prehistoric-looking lizard angel bat-bird.  At least all the eyewitnesses agree on the fact that they're huge.

For my loyal readers in Wisconsin, Ohio, and (especially) Pennsylvania, keep your eyes on the skies, and let me know if any enormous winged creatures soar over.  Feel free to report your sightings here.  I realize seeing something like this could be scary, but the upside of it is that it'll take your mind off Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, so as far as I'm concerned, bring on the pterodactyls.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a little on the dark side.

The Radium Girls, by Kate Moore, tells the story of how the element radium -- discovered in 1898 by Pierre and Marie Curie -- went from being the early 20th century's miracle cure, put in everything from jockstraps to toothpaste, to being recognized as a deadly poison and carcinogen.  At first, it was innocent enough, if scarily unscientific.  The stuff gives off a beautiful greenish glow in the dark; how could that be dangerous?  But then the girls who worked in the factories of Radium Luminous Materials Corporation, which processed most of the radium-laced paints and dyes that were used not only in the crazy commodities I mentioned but in glow-in-the-dark clock and watch dials, started falling ill.  Their hair fell out, their bones ached... and they died.

But capitalism being what it is, the owners of the company couldn't, or wouldn't, consider the possibility that their precious element was what was causing the problem.  It didn't help that the girls themselves were mostly poor, not to mention the fact that back then, women's voices were routinely ignored in just about every realm.  Eventually it was stopped, and radium only processed by people using significant protective equipment,  but only after the deaths of hundreds of young women.

The story is fascinating and horrifying.  Moore's prose is captivating -- and if you don't feel enraged while you're reading it, you have a heart of stone.

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





Thursday, January 17, 2019

Memento mori

People have really weird attitudes toward death.

Note that I am not just referring to religious concepts of the afterlife, here, although as an atheist I am bound to think that some of those sound pretty bizarre, too.  I've heard everything from your traditional harps-and-haloes idea, to being more or less melted down and fused with god, to fields of flowers and babbling brooks, to spending all of eternity with your dead relatives (and it may sound petty of me, but considering a few of my relatives, this last one sounds more like a version of hell).  Then, of course, you have the much-discussed Islamic 72-virgins concept of heaven, which brings up the inevitable question of what the virgins' opinions about all of this might be.  All of these strike me as equal parts absurdity and wishful thinking, given that (honestly) believers have come to these conclusions based on exactly zero evidence.

But today, I'm more considering the rituals and traditions surrounding death itself, aside from all of the ponderings of what (if anything) might happen to us afterwards.  I was first struck by how oddly death is handled, even here in relatively secular America, when my mom died fourteen years ago.  My wife and I were doing the wrenching, painful, but necessary choosing of a coffin, and we were told by the salesman that there was a model that had a little drawer inside in which "photographs, letters, and other mementos can be placed."  There was, we were told, a battery-powered light inside the drawer, presumably because it's dark down there in the ground.

Carol and I looked at each other, and despite the circumstances, we both laughed.  Did this guy really think that my mom was going to be down there in the cemetery, and would periodically get bored and need some reading material?

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Nabokov at English Wikipedia, CoffinShopWarsaw, CC BY 3.0]

Lest you think that this is just some sort of weird sales gimmick, an aberration, recently I ran into an article that describes an invention by Swedish music and video equipment salesman Fredrik Hjelmquist.  Hjelmquist has one-upped the coffin with the bookshelf and reading light; his coffins have surround-sound, and the music storage device inside the coffin can be updated to "provide solace for grieving friends and relatives by making it possible for them to alter the deceased's playlist online."

The whole thing comes with a price tag of 199,000 kroner (US$30,700), which you would think would put it out of the price range of nearly everyone -- but there have been thousands of inquiries, mostly from the United States and Canada, but also from as far away as China and Taiwan.

Now, I understand that many of the rituals surrounding death are for the comfort of the living; the flowers, the wakes, the songs at funerals, and so on.  But this one is a little hard to explain based solely on that, I think.  Is there really anyone out there who would be comforted by the fact that Grandma Bertha is down there in Shady Grove Memorial Park, rockin' out to Metallica?  I would think that if you would go for something like this, especially considering the cost, you would have to believe on some level that the Dearly Departed really is listening.  Which, to me, is kind of creepy, because it implies that the person you just buried is somehow still down there. Conscious and aware. In that cold, dark box underground.

To me, this is the opposite of comforting.  This is Poe's "The Premature Burial."

The whole thing brings to mind the Egyptians' practice of placing food, gifts, mummified pets, and so on in the tombs of departed rich people, so they'll have what they need on their trip into the afterlife.   But unlike the Egyptians, who had a whole intricate mythology built up around death, we just have bits and pieces, no coherent whole that would make sense of it.  (And again, that's with the exception of religious explanations of the afterlife.)  As a culture, we're distinctly uneasy about the idea of dying, but we can't quite bring ourselves to jump to the conclusion, "he's just gone, and we don't understand it."

I was always struck by the Klingons' approach to death in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  As a comrade-in-arms is dying, you howl, signifying that the folks in the afterlife better watch out, because a seriously badass warrior is on the way.   But afterwards -- do what you want with the body, because the person who inhabited it is gone.  "It is just a dead shell," they say. "Dispose of it as you see fit."

Me, I like the Viking approach.  When I die, I'd appreciate it if my family and friends would stick me on a raft, set it on fire, and launch it out into the ocean, and then have a blowout party on the beach afterwards, complete with drinking, dancing, and debauchery.  Sending a burning boat out into the ocean is probably all kinds of illegal, much less one with a corpse on it, but it seems like a fitting farewell, given that I've always thought that Thor and Odin and Loki and the rest of the gang were a great deal more appealing than any other religion I've ever run across.  But if that turns out to be impractical, just "dispose of me as you see fit."  And in any case, I am quite sure that I won't need a reading light or surround-sound.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a little on the dark side.

The Radium Girls, by Kate Moore, tells the story of how the element radium -- discovered in 1898 by Pierre and Marie Curie -- went from being the early 20th century's miracle cure, put in everything from jockstraps to toothpaste, to being recognized as a deadly poison and carcinogen.  At first, it was innocent enough, if scarily unscientific.  The stuff gives off a beautiful greenish glow in the dark; how could that be dangerous?  But then the girls who worked in the factories of Radium Luminous Materials Corporation, which processed most of the radium-laced paints and dyes that were used not only in the crazy commodities I mentioned but in glow-in-the-dark clock and watch dials, started falling ill.  Their hair fell out, their bones ached... and they died.

But capitalism being what it is, the owners of the company couldn't, or wouldn't, consider the possibility that their precious element was what was causing the problem.  It didn't help that the girls themselves were mostly poor, not to mention the fact that back then, women's voices were routinely ignored in just about every realm.  Eventually it was stopped, and radium only processed by people using significant protective equipment,  but only after the deaths of hundreds of young women.

The story is fascinating and horrifying.  Moore's prose is captivating -- and if you don't feel enraged while you're reading it, you have a heart of stone.

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





Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Dream a little dream of me

I got a "what do you think of this?" sort of email from a loyal reader of Skeptophilia yesterday, along with a link to an article over at Collective Evolution entitled, "Scientist Demonstrates Fascinating Evidence of Precognitive Dreaming."

I tried not to read it with my scoffer-hat on.  I have to admit, though, that my immediate bias is to disbelieve in precognition of any sort -- if there was true precognition, there'd be no cases of psychics getting in car accidents and lots of cases of psychics winning the lottery.  Also, there's the troubling lack of a mechanism by which this could happen; regardless of where you fall on the free-will-versus-determinism spectrum, the one-way flow of time seems to preclude information of any kind going the other way (although it must be admitted up front that the "arrow of time" problem -- why time is asymmetrical, moving only one direction -- is a perplexing conundrum in physics that is far from settled).

So I tried to keep my mind open, but not so far open that my brains fell out.  And here's what I learned.

Stanley Krippner, professor of psychology at Saybrook University (Oakland, California), and was curious about the alleged phenomenon of precognitive dreams.  So he set up an experiment as follows, described in an interview with Geraldine Cremine of Vice Motherboard:
Each night, the subject dreamer would go through an ordinary night of dreaming, with an intent to dream about an experience he would have the following morning.  The dreamer was woken 4-5 times throughout the night to relay his dreams to an experimenter.  The following mornings, experimenters randomly selected an experience from a number of prearranged options, and the dreamer was subjected to that experience.  Dr. Krippner said there was no way for the participants to know what experience they would encounter before it was selected and administered.
One participant stood out.  He dreamed of birds several nights in a row, and the randomly-selected video and audio he was presented with was -- bird songs.

Job's Evil Dream, by William Blake (1805) [Image is in the Public Domain]

Of course, you don't get very far by picking out the bit of your data that conforms best to your hypothesis, and putting all the weight on that.  But according to Krippner, the independent judges who evaluated the evidence found at least one correspondence between the dream content and the video or audio experience they were given the next morning.

Okay, this experiment does have something going for it, at least over the anecdotal, after-the-fact reporting that most instances of alleged precognition rely on.  The fact that the experience the next morning was chosen at random, and thus was uninfluenced by what the dreamer's reported dream content was, is certainly suggestive.  Having independent evaluators analyze the dreams and the experiences and see if there was a correlation is certainly better than having it done by someone with a preconceived notion of what they were going to find.

But... the problem with this study is the same one that plagues all dream-content studies; there's a relatively small number of dream types, and we all tend to dream about the same stuff.  Friends, family, being in danger (e.g. being chased, falling, being held captive), not to mention the inevitable erotic dreams we all have from time to time.  So in general terms, if you have the video/audio experience reflect any of these, chances are there'll be correlations at some point.

It very much remains to be seen if the number, and specificity, of those correlations was significantly over what you'd expect from chance alone.

Then Krippner does something that I find absolutely maddening; attributing the effect to quantum physics.  Krippner says,  "Quantum events happen on a different time scale to what most people live and experience in the West.  We have this understanding of time that is: ‘past, present, future.’ But quantum physics gives you a different concept of time."

Predictably, this made me weep softly while banging my head on the keyboard.

Quantum events happen on a different scale than we're used to, kind of by definition; quantum mechanics describes the behavior of matter and energy on the submicroscopic scales.  Yes, it's counterintuitive, even if you're not here "in the West."  But quantum effects such as entanglement are so difficult to observe in the macroscopic world that it's only in the last few years that physicists have been able to demonstrate conclusively that they exist.  The idea that entanglement explains why I and a friend showed up at work yesterday wearing nearly identical shirts is blatantly idiotic.

Actually, it's worse than that; it's lazy.  Instead of doing the hard work to learn some quantum physics -- an endeavor that would rapidly put to rest any idea that it has to do with dreams -- Krippner just goes, "Blah blah dreaming blah blah shamanic consciousness blah blah quantum mechanics," and people apparently just nod and say, "Cool.  Makes sense."

So the problem here is twofold.  One piece is to demonstrate that there's anything here to study, something that could be established by replicating Krippner's dreaming experiment and seeing if you get the same results.  This should be straightforward enough; after all, the experiment doesn't require much in the way of sophisticated technology.

But the second problem is the tendency of people to take stuff like this and run right off a cliff with it.  It's no different than young-Earth creationists saying that scientists say the Big Bang means "nothing exploded and made everything" and evolution means "humans evolved from a rock" (both statements are, by the way, direct quotes from creationists I've run into online).  A very brief amount of research would establish that in neither case have scientists claimed anything of the kind.  So if you're going to use scientific research, either to support/explain some claim of yours or to argue against one you'd like to disprove, then for cryin' in the sink find out what the scientists are actually saying.  It's way more interesting than the shallow, screwy misconceptions you often hear people trumpet, and it'll keep you from making silly mistakes and discrediting your entire argument.

Which, I'm afraid, is exactly what Stanley Krippner did.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a little on the dark side.

The Radium Girls, by Kate Moore, tells the story of how the element radium -- discovered in 1898 by Pierre and Marie Curie -- went from being the early 20th century's miracle cure, put in everything from jockstraps to toothpaste, to being recognized as a deadly poison and carcinogen.  At first, it was innocent enough, if scarily unscientific.  The stuff gives off a beautiful greenish glow in the dark; how could that be dangerous?  But then the girls who worked in the factories of Radium Luminous Materials Corporation, which processed most of the radium-laced paints and dyes that were used not only in the crazy commodities I mentioned but in glow-in-the-dark clock and watch dials, started falling ill.  Their hair fell out, their bones ached... and they died.

But capitalism being what it is, the owners of the company couldn't, or wouldn't, consider the possibility that their precious element was what was causing the problem.  It didn't help that the girls themselves were mostly poor, not to mention the fact that back then, women's voices were routinely ignored in just about every realm.  Eventually it was stopped, and radium only processed by people using significant protective equipment,  but only after the deaths of hundreds of young women.

The story is fascinating and horrifying.  Moore's prose is captivating -- and if you don't feel enraged while you're reading it, you have a heart of stone.

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





Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Life out of catastrophe

After yesterday's post about mysterious explosions in distant galaxies, today I want to look at a colossal explosion that happened much, much closer to home -- and may have jump-started life on Earth.

In a paper by Steven Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Alachua, Florida, presented at a conference last fall in Atlanta, we find out that there's geological evidence that early in Earth's history, there may have been a collision with an enormous object -- by some estimates, the size of the Moon -- that drastically altered the atmosphere.  4.47 billion years ago, only sixty million years after the Earth coalesced from the ring of planetary debris where it originated, it was struck so hard by planetoid that water molecules were ripped apart into oxygen and hydrogen, and superheated metallic debris was flung into the air and generated a torrential rain of molten iron.

Artist's conception of what the collision might have looked like from space

As the atmosphere (and everything else) cooled, the highly reactive oxygen bound to the iron, forming a thick layer of iron (and other metal) oxides that explains their prevalence in the Earth's crust today.  More interesting still is that the collision left behind the hydrogen in the atmosphere.  This created what is called a reducing atmosphere -- a collection of gases with an abundance of free electrons, essentially the opposite of what we have today (an oxidizing atmosphere, where oxygen and other electronegative elements mop up any available electrons, making organic matter and other reduced compounds fall apart).

The reducing atmosphere, Benner says, stuck around for two hundred million years, and it was during this time that the first organic compounds were formed.  This lines up neatly with the famous Miller-Urey experiment, where biochemists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey of the University of Chicago showed back in 1952 that in the presence of reducing gases and a source of energy, organic compounds formed readily, including DNA and RNA nitrogenous bases, amino acids, and simple sugars.

Benner believes that the critical one was RNA.  RNA is (as far as we know) unique in that it can not only replicate itself, it's autocatalytic -- it can catalyze its own reactions.  This pull-yourself-up-by-your-shoelaces ability is why a lot of scientists believe that the first genetic material was RNA, not the (currently) more ubiquitous DNA.  And Benner's theory about how the reducing atmosphere was generated explains not only how the building blocks of RNA could have formed, but why the Earth's atmosphere was reducing in the first place.

Benner believes the key is a set of biochemical reactions that involves repeated wetting and drying, along with interaction of the oxygen-free atmosphere with sulfur-containing gases released from volcanic eruptions.  He has demonstrated that in these conditions, formaldehyde -- CH2O, one of the simplest organic compounds, would form "by the metric ton."  From there, reactions with the sulfur-bearing gases produced hydroxymethanesulfonate, which reacts readily to form glyceraldehyde (a simple sugar) and the four bases of RNA, adenine, cytosine, guanine, and uracil.

Once that happens, the autocatalytic ability of RNA means you're off to the races.  As Richard Dawkins pointed out in his tour-de-force The Blind Watchmaker, if you have two things -- an imperfect replicator, and a selecting mechanism -- you can generate order from disorder in the blink of an eye.  "[M]any experiments have confirmed that once RNA chains begin to grow, they can swap RNA letters and even whole sections with other strands, building complexity, variation, and new chemical functions," said science journalist Robert F. Service, writing for Science magazine.  "[T]he impact scenario implies organic molecules, and possibly RNA and life, could have originated several hundred million years earlier than thought.  That would allow plenty of time for complex cellular life to evolve by the time it shows up in the fossil record at 3.43 billion years ago."

This research not only confirms what Miller and Urey showed in their landmark experiment 67 years ago, but lines up beautifully with what is known from studies by geologists of the earliest rocks.  As for Benner, he's ready to put aside any doubt.  When Ramon Brasser, paleogeologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, laid out a timeline of the early Earth in his talk at the Atlanta conference, Benner asked him when the atmosphere would have likely dropped below a temperature of 100 C, the boiling point of water.  Brasser indicated a point about fifty million years after the impact with the planetoid.

"That's it, then!" Benner said excitedly, pointing to a spot at about 4.35 billion years ago on the timeline.  "Now we know exactly when RNA emerged. It's there—give or take a few million years."

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a little on the dark side.

The Radium Girls, by Kate Moore, tells the story of how the element radium -- discovered in 1898 by Pierre and Marie Curie -- went from being the early 20th century's miracle cure, put in everything from jockstraps to toothpaste, to being recognized as a deadly poison and carcinogen.  At first, it was innocent enough, if scarily unscientific.  The stuff gives off a beautiful greenish glow in the dark; how could that be dangerous?  But then the girls who worked in the factories of Radium Luminous Materials Corporation, which processed most of the radium-laced paints and dyes that were used not only in the crazy commodities I mentioned but in glow-in-the-dark clock and watch dials, started falling ill.  Their hair fell out, their bones ached... and they died.

But capitalism being what it is, the owners of the company couldn't, or wouldn't, consider the possibility that their precious element was what was causing the problem.  It didn't help that the girls themselves were mostly poor, not to mention the fact that back then, women's voices were routinely ignored in just about every realm.  Eventually it was stopped, and radium only processed by people using significant protective equipment,  but only after the deaths of hundreds of young women.

The story is fascinating and horrifying.  Moore's prose is captivating -- and if you don't feel enraged while you're reading it, you have a heart of stone.

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





Monday, January 14, 2019

Examining the Cow

Today's intriguing mystery comes from the realm of astronomy, with a colossal explosion in a distant galaxy that has scientists scratching their heads with puzzlement.

Nicknamed "the Cow" -- after its official name, AT2018cow -- it was so bright that initially astronomers thought it must be a nearer (and dimmer) phenomenon, possibly a flare-up of a white dwarf star after having engulfed material from a nearby companion star.  But analysis of the red shift of the light coming from the explosion shows that it's 200 million light years away -- so lies in a distant galaxy that at first was thought to be behind it.

This means that it was phenomenally bright.  Its peak luminosity was equivalent to a hundred billion Suns -- a good ten times brighter than the brightest supernova ever observed.

"The Cow" -- initial appearance (left), peak brightness (middle), and waning (right)

The Cow first appeared on June 16, 2018, and literally was not there one day and shining like a beacon the next.  Astronomers say this rules out a supernova, the most common cause of sudden increases in brightness, because supernovae -- contrary to how they're depicted in science fiction movies -- show a more gradual increase in brightness.  More puzzling still, the Cow continued to increase in brightness over a period of three weeks following its appearance.  This meant that there was something continuing to power the explosion after the initial kaboom, but what that something is, no one has been able to figure out.

This is despite intensive study.  "When we saw that, we thought, 'let's get on with it,'" said Daniel Perley, astronomer at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom.  "We dropped everything in the first two weeks, observing it seven times a night."

Even more curious is that the phenomenon, whatever it is, produced radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, including a strong signal in the ultraviolet and x-ray regions.  But after three weeks, the x-ray emissions started to fluctuate wildly, and the intensity across the entire spectrum started to weaken.  Within six weeks, it was back to being entirely invisible.

One possibility is that it was a supernova surrounded by a thick gas cloud.  The initial brightening after the supernova's first burst of emissions was augmented when the shock wave hit the gas cloud, warming it up and causing it to glow.  The brightening continued as the shock wave plunged through, only diminishing when it reached the outer edges.

But that's only a speculative solution.  Other possibilities include the birth of a black hole or a white dwarf being swallowed by a neutron star.  But none of these align perfectly with the data.  "All of our explanations have problems," said Liliana Rivera Sandoval, astronomer at Texas Tech University.  "It's super weird."

The problem, of course, is these one-off phenomena -- events that occur so rarely that the chance of another one happening in our lifetime is small indeed -- give scientists scanty information at best, and no repeated data set with which to compare the initial measurements.  "I hope there are more Cows," Sandoval said, but the likelihood of that is pretty slim.  So now what we have is one six-week data set, with no way to test any theories against subsequent observations.

"The bright transient AT2018cow has been unlike any other known type of transient," write the research team in a paper published in arXiv last August.  "Its large brightness, rapid rise and decay and initially nearly featureless spectrum are unprecedented and difficult to explain using models for similar burst sources."

Frustrating, but that's the way science is, especially with the realms of science that do not allow for replication, such as astronomy, paleontology, and geology.  All you can do is use what information you have to generate hypotheses about what is going on, and see which one fits best.  After that, nothing much can be done except for waiting and hoping for more data.

So that's this week's puzzle.  A colossal explosion in a distant galaxy that is proving to have no easy explanation.  I don't know about you, but when I read stuff like this, it makes me feel awfully small and insignificant.  Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; there's nothing wrong with a good dose of humility.  But the idea that we have observed a mysterious unexplained phenomenon shining with the light of a hundred billion Suns, from a distance of two hundred million light years, boggles my mind with the sheer scale.

Such a big universe, and so much still to learn.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a little on the dark side.

The Radium Girls, by Kate Moore, tells the story of how the element radium -- discovered in 1898 by Pierre and Marie Curie -- went from being the early 20th century's miracle cure, put in everything from jockstraps to toothpaste, to being recognized as a deadly poison and carcinogen.  At first, it was innocent enough, if scarily unscientific.  The stuff gives off a beautiful greenish glow in the dark; how could that be dangerous?  But then the girls who worked in the factories of Radium Luminous Materials Corporation, which processed most of the radium-laced paints and dyes that were used not only in the crazy commodities I mentioned but in glow-in-the-dark clock and watch dials, started falling ill.  Their hair fell out, their bones ached... and they died.

But capitalism being what it is, the owners of the company couldn't, or wouldn't, consider the possibility that their precious element was what was causing the problem.  It didn't help that the girls themselves were mostly poor, not to mention the fact that back then, women's voices were routinely ignored in just about every realm.  Eventually it was stopped, and radium only processed by people using significant protective equipment,  but only after the deaths of hundreds of young women.

The story is fascinating and horrifying.  Moore's prose is captivating -- and if you don't feel enraged while you're reading it, you have a heart of stone.

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





Saturday, January 12, 2019

One ringy-dingy...

It will come as no particular shock to people who know me well that I loathe telephones.

I'm not exactly sure why, other than my general introversion.  I will go to significant lengths not to call people on the phone, preferring alternative methods like sending a letter via Pony Express.  When someone calls me, my reaction to the phone ringing is annoyance.  It's like Pavlov's dog, except instead of salivating when the bell rings, I swear loudly.

So it's unsurprising that I resisted getting a cellphone for years.  I hate having phones at home; the last thing I wanted to do was carry one around with me 24/7.  Having a cellphone with me while I'm relaxing on vacation is about as appealing as bringing along a dentist so while I'm lounging on the beach, he can do a little impromptu root canal.

I had one of those old flip phones for a while, which (for me) had the advantage that it had lousy reception, and only occasionally worked.  I also liked that it looked like the communicators on the original Star Trek, and I was sometimes known to flip it open and say, "Beam me up, Scotty," to whoever was calling.

At least I found it funny.


The problem was, I so seldom used it that I never could remember my voicemail password, and in fact, for a long time, I didn't even know my own phone number.  I recall being at the doctor's office, and they were updating my paperwork, and they asked for my cellphone number.  I said I couldn't remember.  The secretary gave me the slow single-eyebrow-raise, and said, "But you do have a cellphone, sir?"  I said, "Yeah, but I never call it, now do I?  So how would I know what the number is?"

From her expression, it was clear she didn't understand what a battle it was even to get me to carry it.  Remembering my phone number was just a bridge too far.

But a couple of years ago, after much cajoling from my wife and friends, I got an iPhone.  And I will admit that there are times it comes in handy.  I like having the GPS capability, even though I wish I could change the computerized voice that gives the directions to, say, Alan Rickman as Snape:
Me: *takes a wrong turn*
Snape voice:  "Why do I bother trying to tell you anything?  You are either deaf or hopelessly stupid.  So now you're lost.  Don't look to me to get you back on track."
Also, I can do essential things like checking to see how many "likes" I have on my last criticism and/or ridicule of Donald Trump on Twitter, and also how many profanity-laced, spittle-flecked responses I got from the #MAGA crowd.

Simple pleasures.

Anyhow, all this comes up because of an article over at the Financial Post, wherein I learned that my acquiescing to getting an iPhone has another downside:

It's going to inform the Antichrist of my whereabouts in the event of the End Times.

This pronouncement came this week from Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.  "The church does not oppose technological progress," Kirill said in an interview on Russian state television, "but I am concerned that someone can know exactly where you are, know exactly what you are interested in, know exactly what you are afraid of, and that such information could be used for centralized control of the world.  Control from one point is a foreshadowing of the coming of Antichrist, if we talk about the Christian view.  Antichrist is the person who will be at the head of the world wide web that controls the entire human race."

I have to admit that I'm with Kirill in the sense that social media's ability to parse my likes and dislikes and demographics and affiliations from my clicks is a little unsettling.  For example, I'm bombarded by advertisements for running gear and scientific gadgetry -- even on sites I've never gone to before.  Most alarming, though, was a conversation that took place with my wife while I had my iPhone in my pocket, about people who dress their dogs up in costumes, in which I mentioned offhand that we should get an AT-AT costume for our coonhound Lena, that her long skinny legs would be perfect for the part.


I got on my computer when I got home, and the first thing I saw on Facebook was...

... an advertisement for AT-AT suits for dogs.

So apparently the Christmas carol about "he sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake" is not taking about Santa Claus, it's talking about Mark Zuckerberg.

Anyhow, I'm not all that worried about the Antichrist.  First, I'm an atheist, so I kind of doubt he exists in the first place.  Second, if I'm wrong and the Antichrist exists, it's not like I'd be that hard to find even if I didn't have an iPhone.  I'm kind of hiding in plain sight, you know?

Third, I'm not really sure why he'd want to find me anyhow.  I don't think I'd be that useful to an evil entity intent on taking over the world, unless for some reason the evil entity had a burning desire to learn about the Krebs Cycle.

So there's our news from the fringe for today.  Now, y'all'll have to excuse me, because I gotta go check my Twitter app for the latest likes and hate-tweets.  Antichrist or no Antichrist, I gotta keep up with my public.

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Carl Zimmer has been a science writer for a long time, and his contributions -- mostly on the topic of evolution -- have been featured in National Geographic, Discover, and The New York Times, not to mention appearances on Fresh Air, This American Life, and Radiolab.  He's the author of this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation, which is about the connections between genetics, behavior, and human evolution -- She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potentials of Heredity.

Zimmer's lucid, eloquent style makes this book accessible to the layperson, and he not only looks at the science of genetics but its impact on society -- such as our current infatuation with personal DNA tests such as the ones offered by 23 & Me and Ancestry.  It's a brilliant read, and one in which you'll learn not only about our deep connection to our ancestry, but where humanity might be headed.

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




Friday, January 11, 2019

Why the short face?

Given my background in genetics, it's mildly amusing to me that there are people who think humans are somehow qualitatively different than all other animals.

Or it would be, if it weren't for the fact that many of these people are trying to drive their views into science curricula.

We had one more nail in the coffin of the idea that humans can claim to be a separate type of creature from every other species of animal just last week, when a paper was published in Science showing that the genetic error that causes Robinow syndrome -- a rare disorder in which affected individuals show stunting of growth, bowed legs, large, widely-spaced eyes, flat, rounded faces, vertebral malformation, and shortened lifespan -- is the same as the genetic error that causes nearly identical symptoms in bulldogs and Boston terriers.

The brachycephalic (short-faced) dog breeds are notorious for having health problems.  English bulldogs have an average lifespan of only eleven years, and are plagued with issues like skin problems and heart abnormalities.  My beloved rescue dog Grendel, who died last year of kidney failure at age eleven, was not only brachycephalic but the same basic shape as a fireplug, so I'm afraid he inherited his sadly truncated lifespan from his flat-faced ancestors.


A team of geneticists at the University of California-Davis published a paper called, "Whole Genome Variant Association Across 100 Dogs Identifies a Frameshift Mutation in DISHEVELLED 2 Which Contributes to Robinow-like Syndrome in Bulldogs and Related Screw Tail Dog Breeds," where we learn that errors in DISHEVELLED2 (DVL2), a homeotic (developmental) gene found in all mammalian species studied, show essentially the same effects whether they occurs in dogs or humans.

Team member Sara Konopelski discovered that DVL2 is essential for a developmental pathway that influences the growth of the fetal skeleton and nervous system.  From there, the researchers looked at individuals (both human and canine) who have malfunctions in this gene.  Mutations in DVL2 -- common in dogs, rare in humans -- create a roadblock in that pathway, and trigger a set of distinct changes in body structure.

The interesting thing is that this mutation is considered deleterious in humans (and is, honestly, deleterious in dogs as well), but because of artificial selection, we now have breeds in which 100% have DVL2 errors.  The authors write:
Some dog breeds are characterized by extreme morphological differences from their ancestor, the wolf.  One group of three breeds (Bulldog, French Bulldog and Boston Terrier) is characterized by a wide head, short muzzle, widely spaced eyes, small size and abnormalities of the vertebral bones of the back and tail.  These breeds are referred to as the screw tail breeds since the characteristic that is unique and easy to see in these breeds is their shortened and kinked tails.  These breeds have become increasingly popular as pet dogs, although they have health issues associated with their morphology.  We analyzed the genome sequences of 100 dogs, including 10 screw tail dogs, and identified all the genetic differences between those dogs.  We then compared these differences to identify changes in the DNA sequences associated with screw tail.  The mutation and the affected gene identified are very similar to the types of mutations that have been shown to be responsible for a rare human disorder with similar clinical abnormalities, called Robinow syndrome.  We demonstrate that the dog mutation makes an altered protein that affects an important cell-cell communication system crucial for tissue development.
So unsurprisingly, our kinship with the rest of Kingdom Animalia can be demonstrated not only by the overlap between the genomes themselves -- after all, you share 84% of your DNA with your dog -- but the fact that changes in the code affect different species the same way.  This is a little hard to explain if you don't buy common ancestry.  But hell, if you haven't accepted common ancestry for a plethora of other reasons, it's probably a forlorn hope that this would convince you.

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

Carl Zimmer has been a science writer for a long time, and his contributions -- mostly on the topic of evolution -- have been featured in National Geographic, Discover, and The New York Times, not to mention appearances on Fresh Air, This American Life, and Radiolab.  He's the author of this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation, which is about the connections between genetics, behavior, and human evolution -- She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potentials of Heredity.

Zimmer's lucid, eloquent style makes this book accessible to the layperson, and he not only looks at the science of genetics but its impact on society -- such as our current infatuation with personal DNA tests such as the ones offered by 23 & Me and Ancestry.  It's a brilliant read, and one in which you'll learn not only about our deep connection to our ancestry, but where humanity might be headed.

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