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, February 16, 2019

The ghost of Robert Schumann

Yesterday, I was driving home from work, and was listening to Symphony Hall, the classical music station on Sirius-XM Satellite Radio, and the announcer said that we'd be hearing the Violin Concerto in D Minor of the brilliant and tragic composer Robert Schumann.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

"And there's quite a story to go with it," he said, and proceeded to tell us how the composer had written the piece in 1853, three years before his death, for his friend and fellow musician Joseph Joachim.  Joachim, however, thought the piece too dark to have any chance at popularity, and after Schumann attempted suicide in 1854 the sheet music was deposited at the Prussian State Library in Berlin, and everyone forgot about it.

In 1933, eighty years later, two women conducting a séance in London were alarmed to hear a "spirit voice" that claimed to be Schumann, and that said they were to go to the Prussian State Library to recover an "unpublished work" and see to it that it got performed.  So the women went over to Berlin, and found the music -- right where the "spirit" said it would be.

Four years later, in 1937, a copy was sent anonymously to the great conductor Yehudi Menuhin.  Impressed, and delighted to have the opportunity to stage a first performance of a piece from a composer who had been dead for 84 years, he premiered it in San Francisco in October of that year.  But the performance was interrupted by one of the two women who had "talked to Schumann," who claimed that she had a right to first performance, since she'd been in touch with the spirit world about the piece and had received that right from the dead composer himself!

We then got to hear the piece, which is indeed dark and haunting and beautiful, and you should all give it a listen.



Having been an aficionado of stories of the paranormal since I was a teen -- which is, not to put too fine a point on it, a long time ago -- it's not often that I get to hear one that I didn't know about before.  Especially, given my love for music, one involving a famous composer.  So I thought this was an intriguing tale, and when I got home I decided to look into it, and see if there was more known about the mysterious piece and its scary connection to séances and ghosts.

And -- sorry to disappoint you if you bought the whole spirit-voice thing -- there is, indeed, a lot more to the story.

Turns out that the announcer was correct that violinist Joachim, when he received the concerto, didn't like it much.  He commented in a letter that the piece showed "a certain exhaustion, which attempts to wring out the last resources of spiritual energy, though certain individual passages bear witness to the deep feelings of the creative artist."  And he not only tucked it away at the Prussian State Library, he included a provision in his will (1907) that the piece should not be performed until 1956, a hundred years after Schumann's death.  So while it was forgotten, it wasn't perhaps as unknown as the radio announcer wanted us to think.

Which brings us up to the séance, and the spirit voice, and the finding of the manuscript -- conveniently leaving out the fact that the two woman who were at the séance, Jelly d'Arányi and Adila Fachiri, were sisters -- who were the grand-nieces of none other than Joseph Joachim himself!

Funny how leaving out one little detail like that makes a story seem like it admits of no other explanation than the supernatural, isn't it?  Then you find out that detail, and... well, not so much, any more.

It's hard to imagine that d'Arányi and Fachiri, who were fourteen and nineteen years old, respectively, when their great-uncle died, wouldn't have known about his will and its mysterious clause forbidding the performance of Schumann's last major work.  d'Arányi and Fachiri themselves were both violinists of some repute, so this adds to their motivation for revealing the piece, with the séance adding an extra frisson to the story, especially in the superstitious and spirit-happy 1930s.  And the forwarding of the piece to Menuhin, followed by d'Arányi's melodramatic crashing of the premiere, has all of the hallmarks of a well-crafted publicity stunt.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed to discover how easy this one was to debunk.  Of course, I don't know that my explanation is correct; maybe the two sisters were visited by the ghost of Robert Schumann, who had been wandering around in the afterlife, pissed off that his last masterwork wasn't being performed.  But if you cut the story up using Ockham's Razor, you have to admit that the spirit-voices-and-séance theory doesn't make nearly as much sense as the two-sisters-pulling-a-clever-hoax theory.

A pity, really, because a good spooky story always adds something to a dark, melancholy piece of music. I may have to go listen to Danse Macabre, The Drowned Cathedral, and Night on Bald Mountain, just to get myself back into the mood.

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

A particularly disturbing field in biology is parasitology, because parasites are (let's face it) icky.  But it's not just the critters that get into you and try to eat you for dinner that are awful; because some parasites have evolved even more sinister tricks.

There's the jewel wasp, that turns parasitized cockroaches into zombies while their larvae eat the roach from the inside out.  There's the fungus that makes caterpillars go to the highest branch of a tree and then explode, showering their friends and relatives with spores.   Mice whose brains are parasitized by Toxoplasma gondii become completely unafraid, and actually attracted to the scent of cat pee -- making them more likely to be eaten and pass the microbe on to a feline host.

Not dinnertime reading, but fascinating nonetheless, is Matt Simon's investigation of such phenomena in his book Plight of the Living Dead.  It may make you reluctant to leave your house, but trust me, you will not be able to put it down.





Friday, February 15, 2019

The end of the world as we know it

Seems like it's been a while since the world ended, you know?

For a while, it seemed like the world was ending every couple of weeks or so.  But since Harold Camping died, apocalyptic prophecies have been a little thin.  So I'm glad to announce that once again, the world is ending, this time on December 28, 2019.

At least it's after Christmas.  I kind of like Christmas.

What's funniest about all of this is that there have been 89 serious prophecies of the End of Everything in the last hundred years, twelve of which came from the Jehovah's Witnesses.  That's not even counting all of the ones before that, when every religious sect in the world periodically threw a "Countdown to the Apocalypse" party.  And I don't know if you've noticed, but the world is still here, kind of loping along, without the appearance of Scarlet Whores of Babylon or Apocalyptic Horsepersons or Dragons with Seven Heads and Ten Crowns.

Which brings up the question of why a dragon would have ten crowns if it only has seven heads.  Do three of its heads get two crowns each?  If so, does he just kind of stack them up?  It seems like the sensible thing would be to have an equal number of heads and crowns, but maybe I'm just not thinking enough like a dragon.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Viktor Vasnetsov (1887) [Image is in the Public Domain]

In any case, this latest dire prediction comes from David Montaigne, whom, you may remember, has predicted the end before.  In fact, he said that the world would end in 2013 (since the December 2012 Mayan Apocalypse didn't happen), and when we got to January 1, 2014 with nothing untoward happening, he revised that to 2016.

Both times, you might want to know, were supposed to be caused by Barack Obama.

Since a flat 0% success rate is not nearly enough to discourage these people, Montaigne is at it again, this time aiming for the end of December of this year.  Apparently the cause this time is an astronomical alignment which will cause massive earthquakes and volcanoes.  Here's what he has to say about it:
On December 21, 2019, survivors will experience the first day of a pole shift – when the entire surface of the planet will shift out of position and move over the more fluid layers beneath the crust.  Over the next few days this will cause earthquakes and tidal waves and volcanic activity which will almost completely destroy what is left of our civilisation.  There is a mountain of evidence in historical, geological, and biological records showing such pole shifts have happened before.  Even the Bible describes them repeatedly.  I think that we will experience another pole shift for the week following December 21, 2019, getting worse each day until the natural disasters culminate on December 28 – Judgment Day.
Well, first of all, the "pole shift" he's apparently referring to is the flipping of the magnetic poles, and has nothing whatsoever to do with movements of the crust or (worse) the axis of the Earth.  Now, there's no doubt that this will wreak havoc on navigational systems; in fact, recently the North Magnetic Pole has been wandering around quite a lot, moving at a rate of 55 kilometers a year.  (If you want to see a map of the positions of the North and South Geomagnetic Poles, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a great one.)

None of this has a thing to do with earthquakes and volcanoes, however.  And it's unlikely that the Bible has anything to say about pole reversals one way or another, since the last one occurred 780,000 years ago, and according to people of Montaigne's stripe the Earth is only 6,000-odd years old.

So I'm perhaps to be excused if I'm not all that alarmed by this.  Yeah, if the poles flip it'll take a while for GPS and other systems to compensate, and I'll probably have to accustom myself to being lost even more than usual.  But other than that, I suspect that (1) Montaigne has no idea when the reversal is actually going to take place, because basically, neither do the scientists, and (2) he doesn't have the first clue what pole reversal actually means, and (3) we'll all make it to December 29 un-judged and still moseying on.  So if you were counting on being Raptured Up To Heaven and not having to work in 2020, you might want to reconsider your options.

Oh, and after Montaigne made his announcement, he wrote a wonderful post on his blog called "Are My Books Being Discredited Because I'm Actually Onto Something Important?"  Which requires us to invoke Betteridge's Law, that "any article with a headline in the form of a question can be summed up with the answer 'No.'"

There's a part of me that's kind of disappointed by this.  Some Trumpets and Seals and Bowls and Dens of Iniquity would kind of spice things up around here.  I live in rural upstate New York, which is -- and I say this with great affection -- kind of boring at times.  Especially in the middle of winter, when we're usually calf-deep in snow.  So if the Antichrist showed up, at least it would break the monotony.

Which probably means it won't happen.  Disappointing, that'll be.  But there's the consolation, global-disaster-wise, that we'll still be in the Donald Trump presidency (provided he's not impeached or otherwise run out of town before then), and they seem to be doing a good enough job of setting us up for Armageddon as-is.

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

A particularly disturbing field in biology is parasitology, because parasites are (let's face it) icky.  But it's not just the critters that get into you and try to eat you for dinner that are awful; because some parasites have evolved even more sinister tricks.

There's the jewel wasp, that turns parasitized cockroaches into zombies while their larvae eat the roach from the inside out.  There's the fungus that makes caterpillars go to the highest branch of a tree and then explode, showering their friends and relatives with spores.   Mice whose brains are parasitized by Toxoplasma gondii become completely unafraid, and actually attracted to the scent of cat pee -- making them more likely to be eaten and pass the microbe on to a feline host.

Not dinnertime reading, but fascinating nonetheless, is Matt Simon's investigation of such phenomena in his book Plight of the Living Dead.  It may make you reluctant to leave your house, but trust me, you will not be able to put it down.





Thursday, February 14, 2019

Quantum pigeons

After yesterday's screed about the anti-education stance of this administration, today in the interest of reducing my likelihood of spontaneously combusting out of rage I'm going to retreat to my happy place, which is: weird and cool scientific discoveries.

I have a fascination for quantum physics.  Not that I can say I understand it that well; but no less than Nobel laureate and generally brilliant guy Richard Feynman said (in his lecture "The Character of Physical Law"), "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics."  I have a decent, if superficial, grasp of such loopy ideas as quantum indeterminacy, superposition, entanglement, and so on.  Which is why I find the following joke absolutely hilarious:
Heisenberg and Schrödinger were out for a drive one day, and they got pulled over by a cop.  The cop says to Heisenberg, who was driving, "Hey, buddy, do you know how fast you were going?" 
Heisenberg says, "No, but I know exactly where I am." 
The cop says, "You were doing 85 miles per hour!" 
Heisenberg responds, "Great!  Now I'm lost." 
The cop scowls at him.  "All right, pal, if you're going to be a smartass, I'm going to search your car."  So he opens the trunk, and there's a dead cat inside it.  He says, "Did you know there's a dead cat in your trunk?" 
Schrödinger says, "Well, there is now."
Thanks, you're a great audience.  I'll be here all week.

In any case, a paper came out last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences called, "Experimental Demonstration of the Quantum Pigeonhole Paradox," by a team of physicists at China's University of Science and Technology, which was enough to make my brain explode.  Here's the gist of it, although be forewarned that if you ask me for further explanation, you're very likely to be out of luck.

There's something called the pigeonhole principle in number theory, that seems kind of self-evident to me but apparently is highly profound to number theorists and other people who delve into things like sets, one-to-one correspondences, and mapping.  It goes like this: if you try to put three pigeons into two pigeonholes, one of the pigeonholes must be shared by two pigeons.

See, I told you it was self-evident.  Maybe you have to be a number theorist before you find these kind of things remarkable.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Razvan Socol, Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) in Iași, CC BY-SA 3.0]

In any case, what January's paper showed is that on the quantum level, the pigeonhole principle doesn't hold true.  In the experiment, photons take the place of pigeons, and polarization states (either horizontal or vertical) take the place of the pigeonholes.  And when you do this, you find...

... that when you compare the polarization states of the three photons, no two of them are alike.

Hey, don't yell at me.  I didn't discover this stuff, I'm just telling you about it.

"The quantum pigeonhole effect challenges our basic understanding….  So a clear experimental verification is highly needed," study coauthors Chao-Yang Lu and Jian-Wei Pan wrote in an e-mail.  "The quantum pigeonhole may have potential applications to find more complex and fundamental quantum effects."

It's not that I distrust them or am questioning their results (I'm hardly qualified to do so), but I feel like what they're saying makes about as much sense as saying that 2+2=5 for large values of 2.  Every time I'm within hailing distance of getting it, my brain goes, "Nope.  If the first two photons are, respectively, horizontally polarized and vertically polarized, the third has to be either horizontal or vertical."

But apparently that's not true.  Emily Conover, writing for Science News,writes:
The mind-bending behavior is the result of a combination of already strange quantum effects.  The photons begin the experiment in an odd kind of limbo called a superposition, meaning they are polarized both horizontally and vertically at the same time.  When two photons’ polarizations are compared, the measurement induces ethereal links between the particles, known as quantum entanglement.  These counterintuitive properties allow the particles to do unthinkable things.
Which helps.  I guess.  Me, I'm still kind of baffled, which is okay.  I love it that science is capable of showing us wonders, things that stretch our minds, cause us to question our understanding of the universe.  How boring it would be if every new scientific discovery led us to say, "Meh.  Confirms what I already thought."

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

A particularly disturbing field in biology is parasitology, because parasites are (let's face it) icky.  But it's not just the critters that get into you and try to eat you for dinner that are awful; because some parasites have evolved even more sinister tricks.

There's the jewel wasp, that turns parasitized cockroaches into zombies while their larvae eat the roach from the inside out.  There's the fungus that makes caterpillars go to the highest branch of a tree and then explode, showering their friends and relatives with spores.   Mice whose brains are parasitized by Toxoplasma gondii become completely unafraid, and actually attracted to the scent of cat pee -- making them more likely to be eaten and pass the microbe on to a feline host.

Not dinnertime reading, but fascinating nonetheless, is Matt Simon's investigation of such phenomena in his book Plight of the Living Dead.  It may make you reluctant to leave your house, but trust me, you will not be able to put it down.





Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Missive from a loser

Nota bene: If you don't want to read a rant, you may want to exit right now.

Yesterday I woke up to news of Donald Trump's El Paso pro-wall rally on just about every media website there is.  Among the highlights were Trump's claim that there were 69,000 people in the crowd (there weren't), that most of the wall is already built (it isn't), and that despite that, we've got a national emergency because we need to build the wall (we don't).  There was a call to Make America Great Again.  *cheers*  America needs secure borders.  *cheers*  Democrats want open borders, free admission to criminals, and eat babies for breakfast.  *cheers*

But all of that is what we've heard over and over (if you're on Twitter, over and over and over and over and over) so it didn't really raise any eyebrows, either with the #Resist or the #MAGA contingents.  It wasn't until I read the comments from Donald Jr. (also greeted with shouts of acclamation) that my blood pressure really started to rise.

Don Jr. threw himself into whipping the crowd into a frenzy, and he did so by pointing out how cool it was to see young people in the crowd.   "You know what I love?" he said, to more cheers.  "I love seeing some young conservatives, ’cuz I know it’s not easy.  Keep up that fight, bring it to your schools.  You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism from birth.  You don’t have to do it."

Excuse me?

You think I have time to indoctrinate my students?  I'm too busy giving them a basic grounding in biology to waste class time telling them to become socialists.  In my 32-year career, I have known four -- count 'em, four -- teachers who were clearly partisan and made it clear their students were expected to toe the party line.

And it bears mention that two of them are conservatives and two of them are liberals.

Some of my students last week, learning how to Gram stain bacteria [used with permission]

Even in my Critical Thinking class, which if I were not cautious could turn into a daily biased screed, I struggle constantly to maintain balance and fairly represent all angles.  In our unit on logical fallacies, I make sure that my examples of erroneous thinking are chosen from both sides of the political aisle (yes, I count them).  I make it clear that tossing aside the opposition's viewpoint simply because they are the opposition is as lazy as gullibility.  I tell my conservative students to make a point of checking out MSNBC every so often -- but I also tell my liberal students they need to check out Fox.

So: loser?  Excuse me?  I have thrown everything I have into teaching, on a daily basis, for over three decades.  I buy about a third of the lab supplies I use because our budgets have been cut to the bone and I'm unwilling to eliminate labs because we can no longer afford them.  I, and most of my colleagues, are at school well before the contract requires and stay there long after the contract says we could go home.  Teaching is a fun, frustrating, rewarding, exhausting career, and I hope I have touched some lives the way mine has been touched.  I still am thankful beyond words for the likes of Ms. Jane Miller (my high school biology teacher), Ms. Bev Authement (high school creative writing), and Dr. Harvey Pousson (college calculus).  They altered the course of my life, and I model much of my teaching on the kind, compassionate, interesting, funny style they brought to the classroom.

It's nothing short of appalling to be called a "loser" by a guy who has from kindergarten on gone to expensive, exclusive private schools, who never had to work a day in his life, who has been handed everything on a silver platter, and who still thinks he has the right to criticize people who work long hours in meaningful careers each and every day.  Even more appalling is that the #MAGA crowd thought what he was saying was just the cat's pajamas.  Damn liberal teachers, indoctrinating our young folks.  I'll definitely vote against the school budget next time it comes around.

And of course, I'm under no illusions as to why he's doing this.  I wouldn't call either Donald, Senior or Junior, smart, but they are not lacking in a low, animal cunning.  Not only does this message play well to their supporters -- tyrants keeping their followers feeling endangered and besieged is a strategy with a long and inglorious history -- but it also insulates them against even hearing another side to the issues.  Which is exactly what the Trumps want.  Create an airtight, vacuum-sealed echo chamber, and don't even let a hint of the opposition's argument cross.  Represent everything the liberals say in straw-man arguments, convince the true believers that all they need to do is listen to Dear Leader and his son and everything will be fine.

It makes me despair a little for the future of America.  I have a naturally optimistic bent -- as I've said before, it'd be silly to be a teacher if I was a pessimist -- but stuff like this makes me think we haven't hit rock bottom yet.  The fight back upwards is going to be a long and arduous one.  And I, for one, am thankful that there are teachers who are still out there giving our children the tools they need to see foolish propaganda for what it is.

But on a more personal note, to Junior himself; how dare you disparage me and my colleagues when I doubt you have set foot in a public school in your entire life.  Your ignorance and snide arrogance are stomach-turning to anyone who knows what actually happens in schools.  So I'll end with saying this, from the bottom of my heart, and I hope you're listening:

You can go to hell.

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

A particularly disturbing field in biology is parasitology, because parasites are (let's face it) icky.  But it's not just the critters that get into you and try to eat you for dinner that are awful; because some parasites have evolved even more sinister tricks.

There's the jewel wasp, that turns parasitized cockroaches into zombies while their larvae eat the roach from the inside out.  There's the fungus that makes caterpillars go to the highest branch of a tree and then explode, showering their friends and relatives with spores.   Mice whose brains are parasitized by Toxoplasma gondii become completely unafraid, and actually attracted to the scent of cat pee -- making them more likely to be eaten and pass the microbe on to a feline host.

Not dinnertime reading, but fascinating nonetheless, is Matt Simon's investigation of such phenomena in his book Plight of the Living Dead.  It may make you reluctant to leave your house, but trust me, you will not be able to put it down.





Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Star light, star bright

In today's episode of Confirmation-Bias-"R"-Us, we have: an odd observation about stellar velocities proving that the entire universe is conscious.

The observation itself is pretty obscure; I'm something of an amateur stargazer and I'd never heard of it before.  It's called Paranego's discontinuity, and is such a marginal footnote that it doesn't have so much as a Wikipedia entry.  The only places I can find mention of it are on sites devoted to panpsychism -- the idea that consciousness is imbued in all matter -- so the only decent explanation I could find is on a site called Conscious Stars, which I'm taking with a grain of salt right from the get-go.  But here's what they have to say:
Parenago’s Discontinuity, an observational effect, confirmed in main sequence stars out to ~260 light-years, describes faster galactic revolution velocities for stars cooler than (B-V)~0.5...  Here, it is demonstrated, using observational data published in the 1930’s for a small star sample that the onset of molecular spectral lines in stellar reversing layers occurs almost precisely at the velocity discontinuity.  The shape of the previously published galactic revolution velocity vs. (B-V) color index for several thousand stars is very similar to the curve of G spectral line width vs. (B-V) for the small stellar sample considered, which suggests a connection between molecules and Parenago’s Discontinuity.
So we have a strange correlation between stellar temperature and observed velocities of revolution, something that is certainly worthy of investigation.   But New York City College of Technology professor of physics Gregory Matloff says it's indicative of something that if true, is pretty earthshattering -- that the stars themselves are consciously altering their velocities for some unknown reason.  In a paper in The Journal of Consciousness Exploration and Research, Matloff writes:
...I elected to investigate whether there is any evidence to support his core metaphysics—that the universe is in some sense conscious and that a portion of stellar motion is volitional (as an alternative to Dark Matter).  Stars do not possess neurons or tubules, but the spectral signatures of cooler stars such as the Sun reveal the presence of simple molecules.  A universal proto-consciousness field congruent with vacuum fluctuations could interact with molecular matter via the contribution of the Casimir Effect to molecular bonds...  As discussed in the paper, local explanations for Parenago’s Discontinuity seem inadequate...  If the Discontinuity is a galaxy-wide phenomenon, the volitional star hypothesis will be advanced.  One way that a minded star could alter its galactic trajectory is by the emission of a uni-directional jet.  Such jets have been observed in young stars.  Future work will hopefully show how uni-directional jets correlate with star temperature and distance from the galactic center.  It is therefore not impossible that panpsychism can emerge from philosophy to become a subdivision of observational astrophysics.
Okay, now, let's just hang on a moment.

I certainly think it's an interesting correlation that odd stellar velocities are seen in stars cool enough to allow for the presence of molecules (ordinary, hotter stars are so energetic they tear molecules apart as soon as they form).  But as a chain of logic, odd velocities + molecules = the universe is conscious and stars are engaging in jet propulsion to move around seems like a bit of a reach.

The pulsar at the center of the Crab Nebula [Image courtesy of NASA/JPL]

What seems to be going on here is that virtually everyone who mentions Paranego's Discontinuity already believes in panpsychism, so when confronted with stars moving in a way that seems to conflict with ordinary physics they immediately jump to the conclusion that the stars themselves are "volitional."  There are dozens of examples of strange, seemingly inexplicable observations in astronomy alone -- all of which turned out to have completely ordinary scientific explanations, with no recourse to aliens, magic, or stellar consciousness.  My favorite example is Jocelyn Bell's discovery of pulsars -- collapsed stars that spin so fast they seem to flicker on and off dozens of times per second.  It seemed so bizarre that when the signal was first noted, it was nicknamed "LGM" (Little Green Men) because it was hard to imagine a natural object that could switch on and off so fast.  Of course, it turned out to be a natural phenomenon -- which I suspect Paranego's Discontinuity will as well.

My problem here is not that panpsychism is impossible.  Consciousness is still an unexplained phenomenon even in ourselves, so it would be inadvisable for me to say it couldn't occur elsewhere.  But one observation of strange physics is pretty thin evidence for such a radical concept.  Here I fall back on the ECREE Principle -- Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.

In any case, it's hard to imagine anyone being convinced by this who wasn't already sold on the idea of universal consciousness.  As for me, I'm waiting for more evidence before I start thinking that when I'm looking up at the stars at night, they're looking back.

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

A particularly disturbing field in biology is parasitology, because parasites are (let's face it) icky.  But it's not just the critters that get into you and try to eat you for dinner that are awful; because some parasites have evolved even more sinister tricks.

There's the jewel wasp, that turns parasitized cockroaches into zombies while their larvae eat the roach from the inside out.  There's the fungus that makes caterpillars go to the highest branch of a tree and then explode, showering their friends and relatives with spores.   Mice whose brains are parasitized by Toxoplasma gondii become completely unafraid, and actually attracted to the scent of cat pee -- making them more likely to be eaten and pass the microbe on to a feline host.

Not dinnertime reading, but fascinating nonetheless, is Matt Simon's investigation of such phenomena in his book Plight of the Living Dead.  It may make you reluctant to leave your house, but trust me, you will not be able to put it down.





Monday, February 11, 2019

Oarfish, earthquakes, and shadow people

I'm perpetually astonished at how little it takes to get the woo-woos going.

I suppose, though, that's the definition of confirmation bias -- taking thin evidence (or skimpy anecdote) as incontrovertible support for what you already believed.  Me, I try to approach stuff with more caution -- I'm not perfect, but I do my best when confronted with a strange or intriguing story to stop and think, "Wait a moment, how do I know this is true... and means what people are saying it means?"

I ran into two particularly good examples of that yesterday.  In the first, we have people saying that the appearance of three dead oarfish in coastal Japan is indicative that they're in for a major undersea earthquake and tsunami.  Now, there's no doubt that seeing an oarfish would make you sit up and take notice; they live in deep waters and are usually only seen when they're dead or dying, and can get up to eleven meters long.  (Yes, I double-checked that statistic, and it's correct.)

American servicemen displaying a dead oarfish they found off the coast of California in 1996 [Image is in the Public Domain]

So I suppose it's no wonder that people stop and say, "Okay, that's weird," when they see one.  But oarfish are not uncommon, despite seldom being seen; and there are lots of cases of dead oarfish washing up on shore that were not followed by geological catastrophes.   "I have around twenty specimens of this fish in my collection so it’s not a very rare species, but I believe these fish tend to rise to the surface when their physical condition is poor, rising on water currents, which is why they are so often dead when they are found," said Hiroyuki Motomura, professor of ichthyology at Kagoshima University.  "The link to reports of seismic activity goes back many, many years, but there is no scientific evidence of a connection so I don’t think people need to worry."

Which, of course, will have precisely zero effect on the woo-woos.  What the hell does some silly scientist know about, um, science?  There will be an earthquake, you'll see!  (Of course, it helps that the oarfish were found on the coast of Japan, because Japan is -- stick with me, here -- a freakin' earthquake zone.)

The other story comes from a perusal of some twelve million documents that were declassified two years ago by the CIA.  This started all the conspiracy theorists sifting through them, because of course if the CIA wanted to keep an evil conspiracy secret, the first thing they'd do is declassify all the files surrounding it.  But even the wooiest woo-woo takes a while to go through twelve million files, so it was only a couple of weeks ago that we found out that in the files were photographs of...

... "shadow people."

We're told about how spooky and eerie these photographs are, and how they could be aliens or ghosts, or connected to MKUltra or the Illuminati or god alone knows what else.  "The silhouettes are composed of visual noise, almost like television static," we're told, "and have empty voids where their faces should be."  There were two of them, we find out, and each silhouette has a number on it -- 1569 on one, 1572 on the other.

I thought, "Okay, that does sound pretty creepy."  And naturally, I wanted to see the images myself.  So I clicked the link, and here's what I saw:


And I said -- this is a direct quote -- "You have got to be fucking kidding me right now."

This isn't a photograph, it's a drawing.  And not even a very good one.  (In the interest of rigorous research, I looked at the other one, which is identical except for saying "1572" and facing the other direction.)  It is mildly curious that these would be in CIA files, although I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out that the CIA people stuck 'em in there when they declassified the files in order to watch the woo-woos leap about and make excited little squeaking noises.

Which is exactly what happened.

The universe is a wonderful, complex, intriguing, mysterious place.  There is plenty to investigate, plenty to be amazed at, without making shit up or stretching pieces of observable evidence to the snapping point.  So let's all calm down a little, okay?  I'm sure Japan will eventually have another major earthquake (cf. my previous comment about earthquake zones), and I'm also sure there'll be weird random things in the CIA files, whether or not my surmise about people sticking them in deliberately to stir the pot turns out to be true.  But grabbing those little pieces of data and running off the cliff with them is not advisable.

Confirmation bias, unfortunately, makes a terrible parachute.

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

A particularly disturbing field in biology is parasitology, because parasites are (let's face it) icky.  But it's not just the critters that get into you and try to eat you for dinner that are awful; because some parasites have evolved even more sinister tricks.

There's the jewel wasp, that turns parasitized cockroaches into zombies while their larvae eat the roach from the inside out.  There's the fungus that makes caterpillars go to the highest branch of a tree and then explode, showering their friends and relatives with spores.   Mice whose brains are parasitized by Toxoplasma gondii become completely unafraid, and actually attracted to the scent of cat pee -- making them more likely to be eaten and pass the microbe on to a feline host.

Not dinnertime reading, but fascinating nonetheless, is Matt Simon's investigation of such phenomena in his book Plight of the Living Dead.  It may make you reluctant to leave your house, but trust me, you will not be able to put it down.





Saturday, February 9, 2019

The face in the mirror

One of the most relied-upon tests of animal intelligence is the mirror test.  The idea is to see if an animal realizes that its reflection in a mirror is itself, or if it thinks it's another animal.  A lot of primates pass the mirror test -- if you put a mark on a chimp's cheek and show it its reflection, it will immediately reach toward its cheek to wipe off the mark rather than reach toward the reflection.

Most dogs don't pass the mirror test, but some can.  My hyper-intelligent but emotionally-conflicted border collie/coonhound cross, Doolin, barked at her own reflection -- once.  Confronted with a full-length mirror, she went into attack-the-intruder mode, for about five seconds, then fell silent, and kind of did a doggie shrug.  "Oh," she seemed to think.  "I get it.  That's me."  And she never barked at her reflection again.

My bluetick/redbone hound Lena, though -- who is, to put it kindly, on the opposite side of the intelligence spectrum from Doolin -- spends many hours in the summer entertaining herself by barking at her own reflection in our pond.  "I'll get you, Water Dog!  Get out of my pond immediately!"

She also spent a long time barking furiously at something out in the yard last summer.  I went to investigate, thinking she might have cornered a groundhog or something, and it turned out to be a stick.

To be fair, it was a pretty threatening-looking stick, but still.

In general, most other animals can't pass the mirror test.  Male betta fish, for example, will hurl themselves at a reflection until they injure themselves.  But new research from Osaka City University, led by behaviorist Masanori Kohda, suggests that some fish might be a good bit cleverer.

Cleaner wrasses (Labroides spp.) are a group of small marine fish that make a living picking and eating parasites from other fish.  Such behavior isn't necessarily indicative of intelligence; there are also cleaner shrimp that do the same thing and don't show any particular sign of extraordinary brainpower.  But the wrasses in Kohda's aquarium showed an interesting response when confronted with a mirror.  First, they attacked the reflection, but that behavior died down after a few days (it never does with bettas).  But instead of simply ignoring the reflection -- which might indicate they'd just given up trying to chase the intruder off -- the wrasses began swimming upside down in front of the reflection, as if they were inspecting themselves from another angle.

Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse [Image is in the Public Domain]

So Kohda and his team wondered if this might be an indication that wrasses could pass the mirror test.  They took some wrasses and marked the underside of their throats, and put them in front of a mirror.  Instead of trying to pick the mark off their reflection, they scraped their throats on the bottom of the tank -- as if they'd recognized the mark was on themselves and were trying to rub it off.

Not all scientists are convinced by this evidence, however.  "True, self-scraping is not a behavior one would expect if these fish interpret their reflection as another individual, but is this enough reason to conclude that they perceive the fish in the mirror as themselves?" wrote Frans de Waal, the brilliant Dutch animal behaviorist in a response to the Kohda et al. study.  "After all, the most compelling evidence for the latter would be unique behavior never seen without a mirror, whereas self-scraping, or glancing, is a fixed action pattern of many fish.  We may need an in-depth study of this particular pattern before we can ascertain what it means when performed in front of a mirror."

The study is pretty suggestive, though, and it's to be hoped that there'll be more research to see if it's supported, or if (as de Waal mentions) it might just be a complex fixed action pattern.  In any case, I need to wrap this up, because Lena is outside barking her head off.  Maybe she's cornered a highly vicious leaf or something, I dunno.

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

Humans have a morbid fascination with things that are big and powerful and can kill you.  Look at the number of movies made and books written about tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanoes, not to mention hordes of predatory dinosaurs picking people off the streets.  But in the "horrifically dangerous" category, nothing can beat black holes -- collapsed stars with a gravitational field so strong not even light can escape.  If you fell into one of these things, you'd get "spaghettified" -- stretched by tidal forces into a long, thin streamer of goo -- and every trace of you would be destroyed so thoroughly that they'd not even be theoretically possible to retrieve.

Add to that the fact that because light can't escape them, you can't even see them.  Kind of makes a pack of velociraptors seem tame by comparison, doesn't it?

So no wonder there are astrophysicists who have devoted their lives to studying these beasts.  One of these is Shep Doeleman, whose determination to understand the strangest objects in the universe is the subject of Seth Fletcher's wonderful book Einstein's Shadow: A Black Hole, a Band of Astronomers, and the Quest to See the Unseeable.  It's not comfortable reading -- when you realize how completely insignificant we are on the scale of the universe, it's considerably humbling -- but it'll leave you in awe of how magnificent, how strange, and how beautiful the cosmos is, and amaze you that the human brain is capable of comprehending it.

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





Friday, February 8, 2019

Order of operations

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the idea, first codified in the 1930s by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, that a speaker's language affects his/her cognition and brain wiring.  It's still a controversial idea now, eighty-some-odd years later.  Some linguists buy it, often citing examples such as the languages of a couple of Siberian nomad groups that have no words for left, right, in front of, and behind -- they relate everything to cardinal directions.  (To them, my coffee cup is currently east of me, not to my left.)  Investigations into these speakers have suggested that they have trouble even comprehending left and right -- when linguist and anthropologist David Harrison went there and tried to explain the concept, it elicited puzzled laughter.  "You people are arrogant," they told Harrison.  "You orient the entire world relative to the position of your own body?  So when you turn around the entire world changes shape?  Ridiculous."

Other linguists are not so sanguine.  There is evidence to suggest that any concept could potentially be expressed in any language by any speaker, and the oddness of left and right to the Siberians doesn't reflect their brain wiring any more than my inability to understand multivariate statistics reflects mine.  If I were sufficiently motivated and worked hard enough, I could learn whatever I wanted, and so can they; just because concepts are unfamiliar to a group doesn't mean their brains are wired differently.

The pro-Sapir-Whorf group got a bit of a boost this week from the publication in Scientific Reports of a study by Federica Amici, Alex Sánchez-Amaro, Carla Sebastián-Enesco, Trix Cacchione, Matthias Allritz, Juan Salazar-Bonet, and Federico Rossano, of the Max Planck Institute, the University of Florida, and the University of California-San Diego, called, "The Word Order of Languages Predicts Native Speakers' Working Memory."  The gist of the experiment is that the researchers looked at differences in working memory between native speakers of languages that tended to put modifiers after the verbs or nouns they modify (the languages they chose in this category were Thai, Ndonga, Khmer, and Italian) and ones where the modifiers usually come in front (Sidaama, Khoekhoe, Korean, and Japanese).

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

They recruited between twenty and thirty volunteers for each language, and  gave them tests of their working memory, and found a clear correlation.  Speakers of languages where modifiers precede the noun or verb tended to have better working memory than those who speak languages where the modifiers follow the verb.  The guess they have is that for the first group, you have to keep track of the modifiers without knowing what noun or verb they'll apply to; for the second, you find out the noun or verb first, and simply modify it as you go along.

The authors write:
As predicted, LB [left-branching, languages where the modifiers come first] and RB [right-branching, languages where the modifiers come afterwards] speakers were significantly different in their ability to recall initial and final stimuli, showing a clear link between branching direction and working memory (WM). In WM tasks, LB participants were better than RB participants at recalling initial stimuli (and RB were better at recalling final stimuli)...  These results confirm our hypothesis and suggest that sensitivity to branching direction predicts the way in which humans remember and/or process sequences of stimuli, as real-time sentence comprehension relies more heavily on retaining initial information in LB languages but not in RB languages.
Interesting results, and certainly worthy of further investigation.  My hunch is that it won't turn out to be this simple; it's hard to imagine that something as simple as word order in sentences could have a profound effect on something as complex as memory.  But the correlation is there, and surely deserves an explanation.  Another one I'm curious about is whether speakers of tonal languages, such as Thai and Mandarin, are more likely to have perfect pitch -- something that (if true) would also bolster Sapir-Whorf.

In any case, the Amici et al. paper is pretty fascinating, and further elucidates the interplay between our behavior and our neural wiring.  I look forward to more research on this topic -- and more evidence, one way or the other, regarding how language shapes our brains.

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

Humans have a morbid fascination with things that are big and powerful and can kill you.  Look at the number of movies made and books written about tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanoes, not to mention hordes of predatory dinosaurs picking people off the streets.  But in the "horrifically dangerous" category, nothing can beat black holes -- collapsed stars with a gravitational field so strong not even light can escape.  If you fell into one of these things, you'd get "spaghettified" -- stretched by tidal forces into a long, thin streamer of goo -- and every trace of you would be destroyed so thoroughly that they'd not even be theoretically possible to retrieve.

Add to that the fact that because light can't escape them, you can't even see them.  Kind of makes a pack of velociraptors seem tame by comparison, doesn't it?

So no wonder there are astrophysicists who have devoted their lives to studying these beasts.  One of these is Shep Doeleman, whose determination to understand the strangest objects in the universe is the subject of Seth Fletcher's wonderful book Einstein's Shadow: A Black Hole, a Band of Astronomers, and the Quest to See the Unseeable.  It's not comfortable reading -- when you realize how completely insignificant we are on the scale of the universe, it's considerably humbling -- but it'll leave you in awe of how magnificent, how strange, and how beautiful the cosmos is, and amaze you that the human brain is capable of comprehending it.

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





Thursday, February 7, 2019

Who's driving the car?

The sense that there's a "self" inside us running the show is hard to escape.  We feel like we have volition, will, and in any given situation could have chosen differently than we did.  The unsettling thing is that none of that seems to be true.  And I'm not even referencing the ongoing debate about free will versus predestination, here; what I'm talking about is far less philosophical and far more grounded in real-world biology.

The degree to which our actions and thoughts are controlled by our brain chemistry becomes apparent if you've ever been drunk or high.  All psychoactive chemicals, be it legal ones (like caffeine and alcohol) or illegal ones (like THC and psilocybin) do what they do by altering how our brains react to a set of compounds collectively known as neurotransmitters.  Neurotransmitters are responsible for every sensation we perceive, every thought we have, every memory we store, every motion of our bodies.  So it's no wonder that if you change the way they behave -- whether by increasing or decreasing their activity, or causing them to act on a part of the brain they usually don't -- what you perceive and how you behave are going to be pretty different from usual.

It's why I'm hesitant to believe folks who say that what they've experienced on hallucinogens is some sort of "alternate reality."  That it could be profoundly life-altering I can easily accept.  That it elicited strong emotions, whether pleasant or unpleasant, also is unsurprising.  But I doubt seriously if the brain on mescaline is perceiving some sort of real world that the rest of us can't see, that somehow the brain evolved to wait until the locals discovered that you need to eat a bit of that cactus plant over there to perceive what's real.

Just my opinion, and admittedly based on no hard evidence whatsoever, if "hard evidence" is even something that would apply in this case.  I haven't even tried psychedelics of any kind, so if your take on things is that I'm unqualified to make this determination, I'm willing to accept that humbly.

But I'd still like to have more proof of the claim than "it's what I saw when I was high."

[Image is in the Public Domain]

We just got another blow to the idea that we're in control of our own mental state by a rather strange discovery at Emory University School of Medicine (published last week in Journal of Clinical Investigation).  Neurosurgeons were trying to find a way to calm down patients who were undergoing a waking craniotomy -- brain surgery performed under local anesthesia, while you're awake and conscious.  The necessity of doing this is because frequently during brain surgery, the surgeon needs to check the patient's responses -- ask them questions to monitor what effect the surgery itself is having.  As you might expect, the prospect of waking craniotomy scares the absolute hell out of most people, so surgeons have to figure out how to keep the patient calm during the (often lengthy) procedure.  But giving the patient sedative medication could alter the very responses the surgeon is trying to monitor.

What the Emory University team found is that if you electrically stimulate a part of the brain called the cingulate bundle, feelings of anxiety and fear evaporate completely.  It even works on people who are prone to anxiety, and who would be most at risk for a panic attack during surgery.  "Even well-prepared patients may panic during awake surgery, which can be dangerous," said lead author Kelly Bijanki, assistant professor of neurosurgery.  "This particular patient was especially prone to it because of moderate baseline anxiety.  And upon waking from global anesthesia, she did indeed begin to panic.  When we turned on her cingulum stimulation, she immediately reported feeling happy and relaxed, told jokes about her family, and was able to tolerate the awake procedure successfully."

Now, don't get me wrong; I think this is an amazingly cool discovery, and could help thousands of patients who have to undergo brain surgery to avoid being traumatized.  Having generalized anxiety disorder myself, I wouldn't mind having a switch I could flip on the cingulate bundle when I start to go into meltdown mode.  "[A]lthough substantial further study is necessary in this area," Bijanki said, "the cingulum bundle could become a new target for chronic deep brain stimulation therapies for anxiety, mood, and pain disorders."

But there's a part of this that's a little unsettling. Our emotions are so central to our sense of self that it's kind of spooky that you can completely change them by stimulating one tiny circuit in the brain.  This sense of a solid, inviolable me running things turns out to be, for all intents and purposes, an illusion.

So it leaves me with the troubling question of who's driving the car.  More and more it's seeming as if the driver is a fluid, changing mix of chemicals and electrical impulses -- so there's no guarantee that we'll have the same driver tomorrow, or even five minutes from now.

All of which kind of makes me want to forget about all of this science stuff and go play with my dog until the world stops seeming so big, weird, and scary.

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

Humans have a morbid fascination with things that are big and powerful and can kill you.  Look at the number of movies made and books written about tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanoes, not to mention hordes of predatory dinosaurs picking people off the streets.  But in the "horrifically dangerous" category, nothing can beat black holes -- collapsed stars with a gravitational field so strong not even light can escape.  If you fell into one of these things, you'd get "spaghettified" -- stretched by tidal forces into a long, thin streamer of goo -- and every trace of you would be destroyed so thoroughly that they'd not even be theoretically possible to retrieve.

Add to that the fact that because light can't escape them, you can't even see them.  Kind of makes a pack of velociraptors seem tame by comparison, doesn't it?

So no wonder there are astrophysicists who have devoted their lives to studying these beasts.  One of these is Shep Doeleman, whose determination to understand the strangest objects in the universe is the subject of Seth Fletcher's wonderful book Einstein's Shadow: A Black Hole, a Band of Astronomers, and the Quest to See the Unseeable.  It's not comfortable reading -- when you realize how completely insignificant we are on the scale of the universe, it's considerably humbling -- but it'll leave you in awe of how magnificent, how strange, and how beautiful the cosmos is, and amaze you that the human brain is capable of comprehending it.

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