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.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The biochemical zoo

The human/alien hybrid is a common trope in science fiction.  From the angst-ridden half-Vulcan Mr. Spock, to the ultra-competent and powerful half-Klingon B'Elanna Torres, to the half-Betazoid empath Deanna Troi, the idea of having two intelligent humanoid species produce children together is responsible for dozens of plot twists in Star Trek alone.

Much as I love the idea (and the show), the likelihood of a human being able to engage in any hot bow-chicka-bow-wow with an alien, and have that union produce an offspring, is damn near zero.  Even if the two in question had all the various protrusions and indentations more or less lined up, the main issue is the compatibility of the genetic material.  I mean, consider it; it's usually impossible for two ordinary terrestrial species to hybridize -- even related ones (say, a Red-tailed Hawk and a Peregrine Falcon) are far enough apart genetically that any chance mating would produce an unviable embryo.

Now consider how likely it is to have genetic compatibility between a terrestrial species and one from the fourth planet orbiting Alpha Centauri.

Any hope you might have had for a steamy tryst with an alien just got smashed even further by a study that came out of a study from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Emory University, and the German Aerospace Center a few days ago.  Entitled, "One Among Millions: The Chemical Space of Nucleic Acid-Like Molecules," by Henderson James Cleaves II, Christopher Butch, Pieter Buys Burger, Jay Goodwin, and Markus Meringer, the study shows that the DNA and RNA that underlies the genetics of all life on Earth is only one of millions of possible information-encoding molecules that could be out there in the universe.

It was amazing how diverse these molecules were, even given some pretty rigid parameters.  Restricting the selection to linear polymers (so the building blocks have to have attachment points that allow for the formation of chains), and three constituent atoms -- carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, like our own carbohydrates -- the researchers found 706,568 possible combinations (counting configurations and their mirror images, pairs of molecules that are called stereoisomers).  Adding nitrogen (so, hooking in chemicals like proteins and the DNA and RNA nitrogenous bases, the letters of the DNA and RNA alphabets) complicated matters some -- but they still got 454,442 possible configurations.

The results were a surprise even to the researchers.  "There are two kinds of nucleic acids in biology, and maybe twenty or thirty effective nucleic acid-binding nucleic acid analogs," said Henderson James Cleaves, who led the study, in an interview in SciTechDaily "We wanted to know if there is one more to be found...  The answer is, there seem to be many, many more than was expected."

Co-author Pieter Burger of Emory University is excited about the possible medical applications of this study.  "It is absolutely fascinating to think that by using modern computational techniques we might stumble upon new drugs when searching for alternative molecules to DNA and RNA that can store hereditary information," Burger said.  "It is cross-disciplinary studies such as this that make science challenging and fun yet impactful."

While I certainly can appreciate the implications of this research from an Earth-based standpoint, I was immediately struck by its application to the search for extraterrestrial life.  As I mentioned earlier, it was already nearly impossible that humans and aliens would have cross-compatible DNA, but now it appears that alien life might well not be constrained to a DNA-based genetic code at all.  I always thought that DNA, or something very close to it, would be found in any life form we run across, whether on this planet or another; but the Cleaves et al. study suggests that there are a million or more other ways that organisms might spell out their genetic code.

So this drastically increases the likelihood of life on other planets.  The tighter the parameters for life, the less likely it is -- so the discovery of a vast diversity of biochemistry opens up the field in a manner that is breathtaking.


... but the chance that the aliens will look like this is, sadly, pretty low.

This raises the problem of whether we'll recognize alien life when we see it.  The typical things you look for if you're trying to figure out if something's alive -- such as a metabolism involving the familiar organic compounds all our cells contain -- might cause us to overlook something that is alive but is being carried along by a completely different chemistry.

And what an organism with that completely different chemistry might look like -- how it would move, eat, sense its environment, reproduce, and think -- well, there'd be an embarrassment of riches.  The possibilities are far beyond even the Star Trek universe, with their fanciful aliens that look basically human but with odd facial structures and funny accents.

The whole thing boggles the mind.  And it further reinforces a conclusion I've held for a very long time; I suspect that we'll find life out there pretty much everywhere we look, and even on some planets we'd have thought completely inhospitable.  The "Goldilocks Zone" -- the region surrounding a star where orbiting planets would have conditions that are "just right" for life to form -- is looking like it might be a vaster territory than we'd ever dreamed.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is for people who have found themselves befuddled by such bizarre stuff as Schrödinger's Cat and the Pigeonhole Paradox and the Uncertainty Principle -- which, truthfully speaking, is probably the vast majority of us.

In Six Impossible Things: The Mystery of the Quantum World, acclaimed science writer John Gribbin looks at six possible interpretations of the odd results from quantum theory.  Gribbin himself declares himself a "quantum agnostic," that he is not espousing any one of them in particular.  "They all on some level sound crazy," Gribbin says.  "But in quantum theory, 'crazy' doesn't necessarily mean 'wrong.'"

His writing is clear, lucid, and compelling, and will give you an idea what the cutting edge of modern physics is coming up with.  It'll also blow your mind -- but isn't good science always supposed to do that?

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





Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Jurassic bird

Regular readers of Skeptophilia know that I have scant patience for creationists, but what really grinds my gears about them is that so often their questions and objections to evolutionary theory are an indication that they haven't even bothered to find out what the scientists are actually saying.

A few examples, that I am still seeing and hearing, even though a three-minute Google search would answer them in a way even a third-graders would understand:

1.  If humans came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?
If God created humans from dust, why is there still dust?
2.  Evolution is ridiculous.  They're expecting you to believe that a fish gave birth to a bird.
No, actually, no one is trying to get you to believe that, and your apparent failure to understand what the theory says is not evidence that it's wrong.
3.  Scientists have disproven/discredited (choose as many as you want from the following): radioisotope dating, Darwin's theory of natural selection, the existence of beneficial mutations, the antiquity of the Earth.  They are abandoning evolution as a failed theory in droves.
No, they haven't, and no they aren't.  Next question.
4.  If evolution is true, there's no reason to be moral, and there should be no problem if we run around murdering and pillaging and raping all the time.
All you have to do is look at the degree of cooperation and social bonding in a wolf pack to recognize why that's wrong.  Oh, and if all that's keeping you from murdering and pillaging and raping is your religion, then I think you're the one with the questionable moral standards, not me.
5.  There are no transitional fossils.  There's no hard evidence of "missing links" between different groups of organisms.
There are actually thousands of fossils of transitional species.  The problem is, if you tell a creationist, "Look, here's a species B that's a transition between A and C!" he'll say, "Yeah, well now you have two gaps -- between A and B, and between B and C!"
It's the transitional fossil question that brings up this topic today, because of an awesome discovery in Japan that was the subject of a paper in Communications Biology last week.  In "An Unusual Bird (Theropoda, Avialae) from the Early Cretaceous of Japan Suggests Complex Evolutionary History of Basal Birds," Takuya Imai, Yoichi Azuma, Soichiro Kawabe, Masateru Shibata, and Kazunori Miyata (of Fukui Prefectural University), and Min Wang and Zhonghe Zhou (of the Chinese Academy of Sciences) describe a fascinating new species, christened Fukuipteryx prima, that is adding to what we know about the evolutionary history of birds, and their relationship to theropod dinosaurs.

Grumpy bird is sick of those creationists' shit.  [Restoration of Fukuipteryx prima by Masanori Yoshida]

The authors write:
Except for the Late Jurassic Archaeopteryx, non-ornithothoracine birds had previously been known only from the Jehol Biota [China] and contemporary deposits in northern Korean Peninsula.  The discovery of F. prima further increases the geological distribution of non-ornithothoracine birds.  It appears that non-ornithothoracine avialans are not restricted to a relatively cold, highland lacustrine environment in the Early Cretaceous of north-eastern China, but inhabited more temperate, lowland regions such as the one represented by the Kitadani Formation, most likely with other ornithothoracines widespread around the globe.  Further exploration of the Early Cretaceous fossil birds outside East Asia are greatly needed to clarify the palaeogeographical distribution of these basal birds.  Very recently, several new genera and species of non-ornithothoracine avialans have been described from north-eastern China.  These discoveries and this study suggest non-ornithothoracine avialans may represent a diverse group within the Avialae.
So Fukuipteryx (and Archaeopteryx as well) are basically cousins to modern birds (the "Ornithothoracines," a term that means "bird thorax" and signifies an internal chest structure similar to modern birds).  But it clearly shows the transition of an animal that was more dinosaur-like into something more bird-like, adding one more link in the chain between the two groups and further strengthening the assertion that, basically, modern birds are dinosaurs.

I'm sure it won't take the creationists long to start disputing all this, however.  As I've remarked before, if you disbelieve in the methods of science, you're kind of unreachable.  (I've heard it put, you can't logic your way out of a belief you didn't logic your way into.)  But for the rest of us, this is just one more fascinating piece of the puzzle -- another one of Darwin's "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful" that evolution has generated on our planet.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is for people who have found themselves befuddled by such bizarre stuff as Schrödinger's Cat and the Pigeonhole Paradox and the Uncertainty Principle -- which, truthfully speaking, is probably the vast majority of us.

In Six Impossible Things: The Mystery of the Quantum World, acclaimed science writer John Gribbin looks at six possible interpretations of the odd results from quantum theory.  Gribbin himself declares himself a "quantum agnostic," that he is not espousing any one of them in particular.  "They all on some level sound crazy," Gribbin says.  "But in quantum theory, 'crazy' doesn't necessarily mean 'wrong.'"

His writing is clear, lucid, and compelling, and will give you an idea what the cutting edge of modern physics is coming up with.  It'll also blow your mind -- but isn't good science always supposed to do that?

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





Monday, November 18, 2019

Religious expression in science class

Did you hear about Ohio House Bill 164?

It's been called the "Student Religious Liberties Act."  It contains four provisions:
  • It requires public schools to give students the same access to facilities if they want to meet for religious expression as they’d give secular groups.
  • It removes a provision that allows school districts to limit religious expression to lunch periods or other non-instructional times.
  • It allows students to engage in religious expression before, during and after school hours to the same extent as a student in secular activities or expression.
  • It prohibits schools from restricting a student from engaging in religious expression in completion of homework, artwork and other assignments.
It's the last one that made me sit up and take notice.

Despite being an atheist, I have no problem with public schools allowing religious groups to meet on their property, as long as there's no statement (overt or implied) that students are required be there.  I don't really have a problem with provision #2 except that it's ambiguous -- who is leading the religious expression?  If students want to say a prayer before an exam, no big deal.

If the teacher leads the class in a prayer before an exam, big deal.

Eastman Johnson, A Child at Prayer (1873) [Image is in the Public Domain]

Likewise, #3 is no real issue as long as there's no coercion.  But #4?

Just hang on a moment.

So what you're telling me is that my biology students could "engage in religious expression" in their homework, to the extent of saying the Earth is 6,000 years old and life was whooshed into existence by a Big Dude in the Sky?  That they could claim radioisotope dating doesn't work?  That they could state that the Grand Canyon was formed in a big, worldwide flood, and the only survivors were a 700-year-old man and his family who rescued two of each of the nine-million-odd species on Earth, conveniently dropping them off in their ancestral homelands afterward?  And all the water just sort of "went away?"

If an administrator told me I had to do that, my response would include the word "No," but the rest of it would be barely printable without a "strong language" warning.

Teachers are under no obligation to coddle students' erroneous beliefs, whether or not they come under the heading of "religion."  If a kid comes in and tries to convince me homeopathy works or that vaccines cause autism or that there's a secret code in our DNA implanted there by Ancient Aliens, I am abrogating my duty as a science teacher if I don't (gently and kindly) show them why they're wrong.  That's what science is about -- using the tools of inference, logic, and evidence to figure out how things work.

If your wild imaginings, fears, or wishful thinking lead you to an answer that is demonstrably wrong, I'm sorry, but I'm not going to pretend you're right just out of some misguided sympathy.   And I don't care particularly where the aforementioned wrong stuff came from.  It could come from Monster Quest or from Chariots of the Gods... or the Bible.  The source is completely irrelevant.

What matters is that science is about figuring out the truth, not about making us comfortable.

There are folks who might think my fury about this is an overreaction, that provision #4 just guarantees that students can put religious imagery or references into art, personal essays, and so on.  This is nonsense; students have always been able to do that.  (There was a claim zooming around the internet a while back about a kid who had turned in a paper saying her biggest inspiration was Jesus, but the Evil Secular Teacher wrote in red ink "Remove Jesus Please!" and gave her an F.  The illustration was obviously photoshopped, and the whole story made up, but that didn't stop a lot of extremely religious people from posting indignant screeds about how the United States was going to hell.)

No, provision #4 is yet another attack on science teachers, an attempt to shoehorn Genesis and the Great Flood into the classroom.  It's a sneaky way to protect kids who claim there's doubt about evolution (there isn't), that there's no evidence of the Big Bang (there is, plenty of it), and that plate tectonics is false (it's not), allowing them to write down blatant falsehoods in a discipline that is supposed to value the truth, and still not be penalized for it.

It is, simply put, another attempt to destroy the separation of church and state.

Oh, and I didn't tell you the worst news: Ohio House Bill 164 passed.

By a margin of 61 to 3.

I can only hope that the fight's not over, that this legislation will generate lawsuits about constitutionality, but it does demonstrate the fact that the people who would love to see the United States become a fundamentalist theocracy aren't giving up.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is for people who have found themselves befuddled by such bizarre stuff as Schrödinger's Cat and the Pigeonhole Paradox and the Uncertainty Principle -- which, truthfully speaking, is probably the vast majority of us.

In Six Impossible Things: The Mystery of the Quantum World, acclaimed science writer John Gribbin looks at six possible interpretations of the odd results from quantum theory.  Gribbin himself declares himself a "quantum agnostic," that he is not espousing any one of them in particular.  "They all on some level sound crazy," Gribbin says.  "But in quantum theory, 'crazy' doesn't necessarily mean 'wrong.'"

His writing is clear, lucid, and compelling, and will give you an idea what the cutting edge of modern physics is coming up with.  It'll also blow your mind -- but isn't good science always supposed to do that?

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





Friday, November 15, 2019

Explorer, scientist... and hoaxer

Ever heard of André Thevet?

Born around 1516 in Angoulême, France, he was educated in the convent school of that city, although his teachers recorded that as a child he was "more interested in reading books than he was in religion," which seems like a reasonable choice to me.  Be that as it may, he evidently decided religion was worth studying after all, because at the age of twenty he took his vows and became a Franciscan priest.

[All the images in the post are in the Public Domain]

He led a life that was pretty remarkable, especially as compared to most of the people of his day (even the well-educated ones).  With the blessing of Jean de Bar-le-Duc, Cardinal of Lorraine, he visited Egypt, Greece, Turkey, and Palestine -- and in 1555 set out with Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, a French naval officer, to cross the Atlantic and explore the eastern coast of South America.

Now, keep in mind when all this was happening.  This is fifty years before the founding of Jamestown, Virginia.  It's ten years before the founding of St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest continuously-occupied city founded by Europeans in North America.

So no one in Europe knew much about the Americas at that point other than (1) they existed, (2) they were big, and (3) they were inhabited by people who weren't really all that receptive to a bunch of white guys showing up and saying "this is ours now."

But that didn't stop Thevet and de Villegaignon, who ended up in what is now Brazil, with their base of operations as the tiny settlement that ultimately would become Rio de Janeiro.  And this is where the story gets interesting.

Thevet was a self-styled naturalist, and he set about to document, describe, and draw all the interesting new plants and animals he found.  But the problem was, Thevet was also apparently a dedicated spinner of wild yarns.  So his book, Les singularités du France-Antarctique, has a few at least marginally accurate bits, like the sloth:


And this toucan:


But then, for reasons unknown, Thevet threw in some things like the succarath of Patagonia:


Which looks like he could use a good meal or two.  Then there's the camphruch, a sort of weird water unicorn thing (notice the webbed hind feet):


And the aloés, a sort of fish-goose mashup:


The yuanat, which apparently is the bastard child of a cat and an iguana:


And worst of all, the licorne-de-mer, which looks a bit like a giant fish with a chainsaw protruding from its forehead:


What strikes me about all of this is that I've been to South America (twice), and there's enough weird and fascinating wildlife there that you have to wonder what Thevet's possible motivation was for inventing all of this.  (I'm aware that some of this may have been quick glimpses followed by filling in the blanks in his memory with whatever came to mind.  I already noted the yuanat's resemblance to an iguana, and the saw-horn of the licorne-de-mer looks like the flat, toothed snout of a sawfish.  But still, a lot of it seems to have been spun from whole cloth.)

It's a question I've asked before -- what does a hoaxer get out of hoaxing?  Assuming there's not some obvious motivation like money?  Profit doesn't seem to be the issue here.  Thevet would likely have had precisely the same number of sales of his book, once he got back to France, with illustrations of real animals and plants as he did with all of this fanciful stuff that he'd clearly made up as he went along.  I mean, you don't need to exaggerate anything to see how bizarre the Pink Fairy Armadillo is:


Or the White-faced Saki:


Or the South American Tapir:


My guess is that he just got lazy, and decided it was more fun to sit on board ship and sip brandy and make up fanciful animals than it was tromping around the rain forest trying to see what was actually out there.

Thevet was hardly the only one who did this, of course.  The early days of European exploration were rife with examples of people coming back from ship voyages with bizarre tales of human tribes with their faces in the middle of their chests, people who had dogs' heads, people whose feet pointed backwards so their tracks would confuse anyone trying to follow them, a tribe whose members had enormous, pendulous elephant ears, and one-legged men with a single enormous foot that they used as a parasol on hot days (a legend used for wonderfully humorous effect in C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).  I guess "yeah, we had a good trip and saw some cool people who looked basically like us only with darker skin" just wasn't good enough.

As amusing as all this may seem, I find this tendency maddening.  It's hard enough to figure out what's real and what's not under ordinary circumstances, but hoaxers complicate matters, and for no good reason other than a desire for notoriety.  So as much as I can chuckle at Thevet's duck/lion/unicorn, people like him set back the actual science of natural history significantly with their fairy stories.

I'd like to say that all of this is a thing of the past, but it's the same thing that motivates a lot of claims of cryptid-hunters, isn't it?  Now, I hasten to say that this doesn't invalidate all cryptid claims; as I've said many times before, there may really be something weird and unknown to biology out there lurking in the woods, lakes, or oceans.  But we have enough trouble dealing with the inevitable tendency of people (especially under high-adrenaline conditions) to exaggerate or misinterpret what they see and hear without the added complication of hoaxers making shit up.

So I encourage you to go to South America, which is a wonderful, diverse, fascinating, and huge place to explore.  It's home to over 300 species of hummingbirds (the eastern United States has a grand total of one), and countless other birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, insects, and assorted miscellany.  If you go there, though, watch out for cat-iguanas.  I hear they pack a nasty bite.

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Last week's Skeptophilia book recommendation was a fun book about math; this week's is a fun book about science.

In The Canon, New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Natalie Angier takes on a huge problem in the United States (and, I suspect, elsewhere), and does it with her signature clarity and sparkling humor: science illiteracy.

Angier worked with scientists from a variety of different fields -- physics, geology, biology, chemistry, meteorology/climatology, and others -- to come up with a compendium of what informed people should, at minimum, know about science.  In each of the sections of her book she looks at the basics of a different field, and explains concepts using analogies and examples that will have you smiling -- and understanding.

This is one of those books that should be required reading in every high school science curriculum.  As Angier points out, part of the reason we're in the environmental mess we currently face is because people either didn't know enough science to make smart decisions, or else knew it and set it aside for political and financial short-term expediency.  Whatever the cause, though, she's right that only education can cure it, and if that's going to succeed we need to counter the rote, dull, vocabulary-intense way science is usually taught in public schools.  We need to recapture the excitement of science -- that understanding stuff is fun.  

Angier's book takes a long stride in that direction.  I recommend it to everyone, layperson and science geek alike.  It's a whirlwind that will leave you laughing, and also marveling at just how cool the universe is.





Thursday, November 14, 2019

Dimensional analysis

Adding to the long list of scientific words that woo-woos misdefine and then misapply, let's consider "dimension."

It's rising in popularity, and may soon outstrip "quantum" and "vibration" and "frequency," hard though that may be to believe.

Its misuse, of course, goes back a long way.  My wife got me the complete DVD set of the classic (i.e., terrible) science fiction series Lost In Space for my birthday a while back, a move she has lived to regret, because our son Lucas and I now constantly quote memorable lines from it, such as famous ones like "Danger, Will Robinson!  Danger!" and "Oh, my delicate back,' not to mention less-known ones like "Would you like another serving of Space Pie?" and "Golly!  They've turned him into a Cave Robot!"

But the subject comes up because of an episode I watched just a couple of days ago, called "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension."  In this wonderful piece of sf cinematography, we meet a pair of aliens who look a little like the love children of John Kerry and Stephen Miller:


These aliens are ultra-powerful because they come from the fifth dimension, we're told, and have made their spaceship impregnable by using a "fifth-dimensional force field."  Even so, they're no match for Will Robinson, who makes their spaceship blow up by, basically, feeling sad at them.

I'm not making this up.

In any case, this illustrates how the incorrect use of the word "dimension" isn't of recent vintage.  Back then, but lo unto this very day, woo-woos have somehow thought that "dimension" was a fancy way of saying "place," and that therefore a creature could "come from another dimension."

Take, for example, the piece that from Before It's News called "Inter-Dimensional Invasion Begins," which a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a couple of days ago, and wherein we learn that because "dimension" means "place," creatures can come from "between dimensions," just as you could say, for example, that you lived between Hoboken and Jersey City, even though you might not want to brag about that fact.

In this article, we're told that "when studying for his B.Sc. in physics," the author learned about string theory, which posits up to eleven spatial dimensions.  This, he says, opens the door for all sorts of weird stuff:
All events ever experienced by humans throughout history either from the mundane to the extraordinary have at best been reported or recorded using the language of 4 dimensions. 3 spatial (X,Y,Z) and one temporal (time). 
That leaves at least 7 dimensions that we are only dimly aware of.  If at all.  Most people intrinsically understand the spatial dimensions (X,Y, and Z) , it is the structure of all our movements, all the things in which we interact with , it is our life’s experiential structure.  But Time is also a dimension, albeit times [sic] arrow only runs in one direction under normal Newtonian situations.  But it is a dimension none-the-less.  It is a axis of freedom in which we move, ever trudging forward ceaselessly.  To quote William Shakespeare “Time is the fire in which we burn”.  What sort of experiences and entities burn in the higher 7 dimensions?
Right!  Whatever the hell that even means.

Later, though, he answers the question, of course. Those extra dimensions provide a place for Bigfoot to hide:
I believe that all forms of what we call “Paranormal” is normal, maybe just not in our 4 dimensional reality.  The “Inter-dimensional Hypothesis” states that UFOs, aliens, shadow people, crop circles, Bigfoot, and ghostly activity are all explained by the passage of beings from another dimension occasionally crossing into our dimension and being witnessed.  The method of cross overs are not understood at this time by science.
Okay, can we just hang on a moment, here?

The trouble I have with people like this is not only do they not understand science, they can't, apparently, even read a fucking Wikipedia page.  Because if you go to Wikipedia, and search for "Dimension," you are brought to a page wherein we are given, right in the first paragraph, the following definition:
In physics and mathematics, the dimension of a space or object is informally defined as the minimum number of coordinates needed to specify any point within it.  Thus a line has a dimension of one because only one coordinate is needed to specify a point on it – for example, the point at 5 on a number line.  A surface such as a plane or the surface of a cylinder or sphere has a dimension of two because two coordinates are needed to specify a point on it – for example, both a latitude and longitude is required to locate a point on the surface of a sphere.   The inside of a cube, a cylinder or a sphere is three-dimensional because three coordinates are needed to locate a point within these spaces.
So saying that UFOs come from the seventh dimension is a little like saying that your Uncle Steve comes from "horizontal."

Higher dimensional spaces may exist, of course, although that point is controversial.  The alleged physics student who wrote the article for Before It's News cited string theory and M-theory as support for his position, even though the very same Wikipedia article says the following:
In physics, three dimensions of space and one of time is the accepted norm.  However, there are theories that attempt to unify the four fundamental forces by introducing more dimensions.  Most notably, superstring theory requires 10 spacetime dimensions, and originates from a more fundamental 11-dimensional theory tentatively called M-theory which subsumes five previously distinct superstring theories.  To date, no experimental or observational evidence is available to confirm the existence of these extra dimensions.  If extra dimensions exist, they must be hidden from us by some physical mechanism.  One well-studied possibility is that the extra dimensions may be "curled up" at such tiny scales as to be effectively invisible to current experiments.
So if Bigfoot lives there, he's not so much Bigfoot as he is Submicroscopicfoot.

Anyhow. I'll just reiterate my wish that people would learn some basic science before they go blathering on, throwing around scientific terminology as if they actually knew what they were talking about.  As for me, I'm off to get a second cup of coffee.   Maybe if I can put some in a four-dimensional Klein bottle, I'll never run out, you think?

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Last week's Skeptophilia book recommendation was a fun book about math; this week's is a fun book about science.

In The Canon, New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Natalie Angier takes on a huge problem in the United States (and, I suspect, elsewhere), and does it with her signature clarity and sparkling humor: science illiteracy.

Angier worked with scientists from a variety of different fields -- physics, geology, biology, chemistry, meteorology/climatology, and others -- to come up with a compendium of what informed people should, at minimum, know about science.  In each of the sections of her book she looks at the basics of a different field, and explains concepts using analogies and examples that will have you smiling -- and understanding.

This is one of those books that should be required reading in every high school science curriculum.  As Angier points out, part of the reason we're in the environmental mess we currently face is because people either didn't know enough science to make smart decisions, or else knew it and set it aside for political and financial short-term expediency.  Whatever the cause, though, she's right that only education can cure it, and if that's going to succeed we need to counter the rote, dull, vocabulary-intense way science is usually taught in public schools.  We need to recapture the excitement of science -- that understanding stuff is fun.  

Angier's book takes a long stride in that direction.  I recommend it to everyone, layperson and science geek alike.  It's a whirlwind that will leave you laughing, and also marveling at just how cool the universe is.





Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A botanical chameleon

One of the things I love most about science is its capacity to astonish us.

You can be really knowledgeable in a field, and then the natural world slings a curve ball at you and leaves you amazed.  Sometimes these unexpected twists lead to profound leaps in our understanding -- an example is the discovery of the parallel magnetic stripes in igneous rocks along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge leading to the theory of plate tectonics -- but sometimes it's just a fascinating bit of scientific trivia, one of those little things that makes you smile in a bemused sort of way and say, "Science is so cool."

I had a moment like that yesterday.  I taught biology for 32 years and have been interested in plants -- especially tropical plants -- a great deal longer than that.  I have a fine collection of tropical plants, currently jammed into my greenhouse so tightly that I can barely walk through it because the ones who spend the summer on my deck have to be tucked away in a warm place during our frigid winters.  I have bromeliads, cacti, three species of ginger, two different kinds of angel's trumpet (one of which got to be seven feet tall last summer, and sometimes had twenty giant, peach-colored flowers all blooming at once), a fig tree and a lime tree that produce every year, and two species of eucalyptus.

Among others.

While I wouldn't call myself an expert when it comes to tropical plants, I'm at least Better Than The Average Bear.  So I was startled to run, quite by accident, into an account of a species I had never even heard of -- and even more startled when I found out how truly bizarre and unique this plant is.

It's called the "chameleon vine," and its scientific name is Boquila trifoliolata.  It belongs to a small and rather obscure family of dicots called Lardizabalaceae, which contains forty species found in two places -- southeast Asia and western South America.  (How a group of plants with common ancestry ended up in such widely separated locales is a mystery in and of itself; populations like this are called peripheral isolates and are a perennial puzzle in evolutionary biology.)

Boquila is one of the South American ones, and lives in southern Chile and Argentina.  It's a woody vine whose leaves are composed of three leaflets (thus the plant's species name).  Here's a picture:

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Inao, Boquila trifoliata [sic], CC BY-SA 2.0]

It's not really much to look at, and you non-botanical types are probably tapping your fingers and saying, "So what?"  But wait till you hear what this plant can do -- and why it merits its common name of "chameleon vine."

Boquila trifoliolata has an extraordinary ability called mimetic polymorphism.  It's capable of altering its leaf shape to mimic a variety of different (unrelated) plants -- including the ones it most commonly twines up as a support.  We're not talking about small differences, either.  It can be glossy or dull, have different petiole lengths, have different leaflet sizes and shapes, and even change whether or not it has serrations or spines along the edge!  

This ability, first described in a paper by botanists Ernesto Gianoli and Fernando Carrasco-Urra in Current Biology in 2014, was first attributed to genetic transfer from the host to the vine, a sort of genetic parasitism.  I'll admit that was the first explanation I thought of -- although how a plant could take up DNA from another species and only express the genes related to leaf morphology left me scratching my head a little.  But Gianoli and Carrasco-Urra were able to rule out this possibility, because Boquila can alter its leaf shape without touching the plant it's mimicking.

All it has to do is be nearby.  So it isn't a parasite at all.  The current guess is that Boquila is picking up volatile organic compounds emitted by the other plant, and those are altering gene expression, but those organic compounds have yet to be identified -- nor has any kind of specific mechanism by which that kind of alteration in phenotype could happen.

Even though we still have no idea how Boquila is managing this neat trick, the why is pretty clear.  If it's hiding amongst the foliage of another plant, herbivores can't single it out for a snack.  Gianoli and Carrasco-Urra found that when Boquila is climbing up a non-living support like a chain-link fence, herbivores actually seek it out for browsing.  But when it's camouflaged within another plant's leaves, it can avoid being seen and identified -- and, they found, browsing of its foliage dropped by as much as 50%.

Fascinating, isn't it?  And yet despite study, we haven't been able to figure out how the plant evolved this amazing (and apparently unique in the plant world) ability, nor what kind of information it's gleaning that might say, "Okay, time to change color and grow some spikes!"

So yet another example of how science is really freakin' cool.  It also illustrates how every new discovery opens up new avenues for investigation.  The crazy chameleon plant should make it absolutely clear that if you go into science, you'll never be done learning.

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Last week's Skeptophilia book recommendation was a fun book about math; this week's is a fun book about science.

In The Canon, New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Natalie Angier takes on a huge problem in the United States (and, I suspect, elsewhere), and does it with her signature clarity and sparkling humor: science illiteracy.

Angier worked with scientists from a variety of different fields -- physics, geology, biology, chemistry, meteorology/climatology, and others -- to come up with a compendium of what informed people should, at minimum, know about science.  In each of the sections of her book she looks at the basics of a different field, and explains concepts using analogies and examples that will have you smiling -- and understanding.

This is one of those books that should be required reading in every high school science curriculum.  As Angier points out, part of the reason we're in the environmental mess we currently face is because people either didn't know enough science to make smart decisions, or else knew it and set it aside for political and financial short-term expediency.  Whatever the cause, though, she's right that only education can cure it, and if that's going to succeed we need to counter the rote, dull, vocabulary-intense way science is usually taught in public schools.  We need to recapture the excitement of science -- that understanding stuff is fun.  

Angier's book takes a long stride in that direction.  I recommend it to everyone, layperson and science geek alike.  It's a whirlwind that will leave you laughing, and also marveling at just how cool the universe is.





Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Been there, done that

One of the strangest and most ubiquitous sensations is déjà vu, that bizarre sense that you're experiencing something that's happened before.  The name is French and means "already seen," but for some of us -- myself included -- the experience is almost always auditory.  It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's absolutely convincing.  The last really striking experience I had with déjà vu occurred about three years ago, when I was talking to the seventh-grade life science teacher about some interesting concept in genetics, and I was suddenly certain that I'd had this conversation before.

I recognized it -- the exchange, where we were standing, what we were discussing, even what particular words were spoken.  It was uncanny -- and unnerving.  My perplexity must have shown in my face, because my colleague said, "What's wrong?"  I explained to her what was going on, and asked if we'd discussed this before.

She shrugged.  "I don't think so.  At least not that I recall."

But her reassurance did nothing to change the feeling.  After the discussion was over, I was still sure -- despite my rational knowledge to the contrary -- that she and I had had that exact conversation before.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons hagerman, Déjà Vu (Six Flags Over Georgia) 01, CC BY 2.0]

I've heard a few explanations of déjà vu, none of them convincing.  Certainly, the paranormal ones don't seem to me to hold any water -- that it's evidence of reincarnation, or precognition, or astral transport (the subject having visited the place in spectral form, apparently), or telepathy (you're picking up the memories of someone else).  One at least minimally plausible one is that the information our brain is receiving from the senses is out of sync with our processing, so by the time the input is integrated and interpreted the sensory parts register it as already having happened.  But even this one doesn't make a lot of sense, given what I know of neuroscience; the time for sensory processing and interpretation in a normally-functioning brain is on the scale of milliseconds, so it seems highly unlikely to me that there could be a significant enough delay in one branch of the system to account for some kind of out-of-sync reception of the signal.

Last week, though, a study from Colorado State University was published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review that is the first explanation of the phenomenon I've heard that really makes sense.  In "A Postdictive Bias Associated With Déjà Vu," Anne M. Cleary, Andrew M. Huebert, Katherine L. McNeely-White, and Kimberly S. Spahr show that in the middle of an episode of déjà vu, we're actually lousy at predicting what's going to happen next (which surely should occur if we really did somehow live through this moment before), but that the familiarity of some feature of the event triggers a response in the brain after the fact that gives rise to the feeling we knew what was going to happen before it did.

The authors write:
Recent research links reports of déjà vu – the feeling of having experienced something before despite knowing otherwise – with an illusory feeling of prediction.  In the present study, a new finding is presented in which reports of déjà vu are associated not only with a predictive bias, but also with a postdictive bias, whereby people are more likely to feel that an event unfolded as expected after the event prompted déjà vu than after it did not.  During a virtual tour, feelings of predicting the next turn were more likely during reported déjà vu, as in prior research.  Then, after actually seeing the turn, participants exhibited a postdictive bias toward feeling that the scene unfolded as expected following déjà vu reports.  This postdictive bias following déjà vu reports was associated with higher perceived scene familiarity intensity.  A potential reason for this association may be that high familiarity intensity as an event outcome unfolds falsely signals confirmatory evidence of having sensed all along how it would unfold. 
"If the entire scene feels intensely familiar as it unfolds, that might trick our brains into thinking we got it right after all," said study lead author Anne Cleary, in an interview with Science Daily. "Because it felt so familiar as you were going through it, it felt like you knew all along how it was going to go, even if that could not have been the case."

So unfortunately for those who like a supernatural explanation for things, it looks like déjà vu might well be another case of our brain being presented with conflicting explanations for something, and putting them together the best way it can (which in this case, is wrong).  In that sense, it's a little like those optical illusions showing forks with three prongs at one end and two at the other, or circular staircases that keep rising but end up where they started.  Your brain tries to shoehorn what it's getting into some kind of sense, and ends up with an incomplete, or outright erroneous, picture of things.

What I find funny is that even though this explanation makes good sense to me, when I experience déjà vu I am still left with the completely persuasive feeling that something uncanny has happened.  All of which once again illustrates that even us skeptics aren't as purely rational as we'd like to be -- or as we'd like everyone to think we are.

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Last week's Skeptophilia book recommendation was a fun book about math; this week's is a fun book about science.

In The Canon, New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Natalie Angier takes on a huge problem in the United States (and, I suspect, elsewhere), and does it with her signature clarity and sparkling humor: science illiteracy.

Angier worked with scientists from a variety of different fields -- physics, geology, biology, chemistry, meteorology/climatology, and others -- to come up with a compendium of what informed people should, at minimum, know about science.  In each of the sections of her book she looks at the basics of a different field, and explains concepts using analogies and examples that will have you smiling -- and understanding.

This is one of those books that should be required reading in every high school science curriculum.  As Angier points out, part of the reason we're in the environmental mess we currently face is because people either didn't know enough science to make smart decisions, or else knew it and set it aside for political and financial short-term expediency.  Whatever the cause, though, she's right that only education can cure it, and if that's going to succeed we need to counter the rote, dull, vocabulary-intense way science is usually taught in public schools.  We need to recapture the excitement of science -- that understanding stuff is fun.  

Angier's book takes a long stride in that direction.  I recommend it to everyone, layperson and science geek alike.  It's a whirlwind that will leave you laughing, and also marveling at just how cool the universe is.





Monday, November 11, 2019

The attraction of the unexpected

I've always been fascinated by why people like particular pieces of music and not others.

It's extremely personal, and also rather mysterious and unpredictable.  This is why I find it funny when someone asks if I like classical music.  That's a little like saying, "Do you like food?"  I love some classical music, and some of it does nothing for me at all.  But what's eternally fascinating to me is that two people who are alike in a great many respects can come to completely opposite opinions about music.  Take my buddy Dave, for example, who is passionately fond of the Romantic composers -- Brahms, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky.  I, on the other hand, have never heard a piece of music by Brahms I've liked -- my tastes run more to the very early (Tallis, Susato, Praetorius, Palestrina, Bach) and the much more recent (Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams, Holst).  If I had to pick one very favorite piece of music it would be Stravinsky's Firebird:


I'm hard-pressed to say why, however.  And what's the connection between that one, and the piece that had me bawling -- at age seventeen, no less -- the first time I heard it, Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis?:


One fascinating piece of the puzzle was discovered five years ago, when two researchers at Wesleyan University, Luke Harrison and Psyche Loui, found that people have strong physical reactions when listening to music they love, and if you hook them up to a fMRI or PET scanner, you find that at the climax of the piece of music, the same parts of the brain light up as when they have an orgasm.

No wonder we love music so much.

That whole tension/resolution thing, with its obvious parallels to sexual response, is pretty universal to music of all sorts.  I remember this being demonstrated to me when I was in the college chorus, and the director was telling us about dynamic tension in chord progression and resolution to the tonic, and demonstrated by going to the piano and playing us a line from the Christmas carol "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."  He played, "Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn."

And stopped.

About a dozen people sung out "KING" in tones that clearly communicated, "Don't leave us hanging, bro!"

So tension/resolution is part of it.  But just this week, a paper was published in Current Biology that added another piece to the puzzle.  Apparently, we also tend to like music that surprises us -- that takes us on a path that we didn't expect.

In "Uncertainty and Surprise Jointly Predict Musical Pleasure and Amygdala, Hippocampus, and Auditory Cortex Activity," neuroscientists Vincent K.M. Cheung, Lars Meyer, and Stefan Koelsch (of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences), Peter M.C. Harrison and Marcus T. Pearce (of the Queen Mary University of London), and John-Dylan Haynes (of the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin) found that we're grabbed by twists and turns we didn't see coming.

The authors write:
Listening to music often evokes intense emotions.  Recent research suggests that musical pleasure comes from positive reward prediction errors, which arise when what is heard proves to be better than expected.  Central to this view is the engagement of the nucleus accumbens—a brain region that processes reward expectations—to pleasurable music and surprising musical events...  Here, we demonstrate that pleasure varies nonlinearly as a function of the listener’s uncertainty when anticipating a musical event, and the surprise it evokes when it deviates from expectations.
That certainly agrees with my experience.  I love being surprised, and my favorite music (in any genre) often contains unexpected or startling rhythmic patterns.  Take, for example, the brilliant "Ring Out, Solstice Bells," by Jethro Tull:


I've played Balkan music for years -- with mutant time signatures like 11/16, 22/16, and (no lie) 25/16 -- and I'm damned if I can figure out what time signature this song is in.

And I love that.

My passion for music has been with me for a very, very long time.  My mother used to love to tell the story about how I pestered her incessantly (I couldn't have been more than three or four years old) to learn how to use the record player so I wouldn't have to ask her every time I wanted to listen to music (which was basically all the time).  She finally acquiesced -- and she was impressed that I cared enough about the music that I never damaged either the record player or one of the fragile, easily-scratched vinyl LPs that were all we had back then.  And there was one piece of music I played over and over and over and over, and my mom couldn't figure out (and of course, at that point I couldn't articulate) why I loved it so much.  This was the tail-end of the Big Band era, and my parents had several LPs from Lawrence Welk's band.  Most of them were "meh," in my opinion, but there was one that was different.

It's called "Scarlett O'Hara."  Listen for the completely unexpected key change -- not at all characteristic of Big Band music -- from A Major to (of all the weird keys...) B Major that happens a couple of times.  I used to get a visceral thrill from that moment, even at the tender age of four.


My favorite example of surprise, though, comes from classical music.  I distinctly remember the first time I listened to Bach's magnificent Mass in B Minor, and the sweet, sedate aria "Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus" drew to a close, and without any warning I was launched forward into the breathtaking chorus "Cum Sancto Spiritu:"


Talk about a brain orgasm.

So we're gradually figuring out some possible reasons for that mysterious phenomenon -- musical taste.

Since I'm on a roll and having way too much fun roaming around YouTube listening to music, I think I'll end with two more of my favorites, one rock and one classical.  I don't know if there's anything similar about them -- see if you can figure it out.  For now, I'm just enjoying listening.

The Kongos, "Come With Me Now:"

  
Jean Sibelius, Lemminkainen's Return:


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Last week's Skeptophilia book recommendation was a fun book about math; this week's is a fun book about science.

In The Canon, New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Natalie Angier takes on a huge problem in the United States (and, I suspect, elsewhere), and does it with her signature clarity and sparkling humor: science illiteracy.

Angier worked with scientists from a variety of different fields -- physics, geology, biology, chemistry, meteorology/climatology, and others -- to come up with a compendium of what informed people should, at minimum, know about science.  In each of the sections of her book she looks at the basics of a different field, and explains concepts using analogies and examples that will have you smiling -- and understanding.

This is one of those books that should be required reading in every high school science curriculum.  As Angier points out, part of the reason we're in the environmental mess we currently face is because people either didn't know enough science to make smart decisions, or else knew it and set it aside for political and financial short-term expediency.  Whatever the cause, though, she's right that only education can cure it, and if that's going to succeed we need to counter the rote, dull, vocabulary-intense way science is usually taught in public schools.  We need to recapture the excitement of science -- that understanding stuff is fun.  

Angier's book takes a long stride in that direction.  I recommend it to everyone, layperson and science geek alike.  It's a whirlwind that will leave you laughing, and also marveling at just how cool the universe is.