Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Djinn and tonic

This week we've been looking at some pretty deep topics, such as the effects of dark matter on star position in the Milky Way, what causes some plants to be essentially immortal, and the discovery of mineral grains that predate the Earth's formation.  So it seems fitting to address next something that is, I'm sure, on all of your minds, namely: what do I do if my house is occupied by an evil djinn?

The djinn, sometimes spelled "jinn" or anglicized as "genie," are spirits who you find in Middle Eastern mythology.  While people who are in the know about such things make it clear that djinns are not inherently good or evil, they have the tendency to be swayed toward the evil side of things.  Muhammad supposedly was sent not only to bring the word of Allah to humans but to the djinn as well, but even so they have a reputation for having some seriously ill will toward the rest of us.  Folk tales from that region are rife with djinn living in "unclean places" and possessing humans (the outcome is seldom good).

So pretty clearly, this is a group of beings we should all be on the lookout for.  This is where a guy named Saad Ja'afar comes in.  Because he is the world's foremost -- perhaps the world's only -- professional djinn trapper.

My first thought on reading this was to say, "um... his name is... Ja'afar?  You have got to be making this up."  Because any of you with children will undoubtedly know that this is the name (although usually spelled "Jafar") of the evil Grand Vizier in Aladdin.  But apparently yes, the djinn trapper is indeed Saad Ja'afar, and his business (Pakar Tangkap Jin), based in Johor Bahru, at the southern tip of Malaysia, is who you want to contact if you're being bothered by scary blue guys who live inside lamps.

Zawba'a, one of the kings of the djinn, with some of his attendant djinn servants.  Which brings up the question of why so many of them are blue.  Are they cold?  Maybe they should try putting some clothes on. (From a late 14th century Arabic manuscript) [Image is in the Public Domain]

As far as Ja'afar goes, his rates are pretty reasonable.  For one djinn removal, he charges 200 ringgit ($48.75 at current exchange rates), and he can even work remotely.  "I don’t have to physically be there at the location to catch the ghost," Ja'afar says.  "Before this, the farthest I’ve captured a djinn was at Sabah.  We keep the spirit and djinn close to the mosque to encourage it to repent."

It bears mention that Sabah isn't exactly right next door to Johor Bahru.  The only way to get from one to the other is via a two-hour flight.  So it's just as well he can trap troublesome djinn without leaving the comfort of his home.  I wouldn't want him to have to fly all the way to upstate New York if we were having djinn trouble, because I did that flight before and it was kind of miserable.  Kuala Lumpur to New York City was a sixteen-hour flight, meaning you could watch a long movie, sleep for six hours, and you'd still have seven hours left to go.

I have never been so glad to get off an airplane in my life.

Anyhow, Ja'afar has a Facebook page (because of course he does), and on it he has accounts of his successful captures, including a spirit-realm battle he got in with a bomoh, a Malaysian shaman, who brought a djinn back into a house he'd just cleared.  I can understand how frustrating this must have been.  I face that all the time with my dogs tracking in mud on floors I just cleaned, and they're not even doing it using magic.

Apparently, once Ja'afar captures the djinn, he imprisons it in a bottle, which I guess makes sense given the whole genie-in-a-lamp thing.  So it seems like he's got quite a lucrative racket going.  He never has to leave his house, and all he needs is a supply of glass bottles and corks and a good schtick to tell his customers about how dire the battle was, but he was victorious and the djinn is vanquished, and he gets paid.

Almost makes me wish I had thought of it first.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is scarily appropriate reading material in today's political climate: Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall's wonderful A Colorful History of Popular Delusions.  In this brilliant and engaging book, the authors take a look at the phenomenon of crowd behavior, and how it has led to some of the most irrational behaviors humans are prone to -- fads, mobs, cults, crazes, manias, urban legends, and riots.

Sometimes amusing, sometimes shocking, this book looks at how our evolutionary background as a tribal animal has made us prone all too often to getting caught up in groupthink, where we leave behind logic and reason for the scary territory of making decisions based purely on emotion.  It's unsettling reading, but if you want to understand why humans all too often behave in ways that make the rational ones amongst us want to do repeated headdesks, this book should be on your list.

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




Friday, January 17, 2020

Trapped in the ice

Today in the "I've Seen This Movie, And It Didn't End Well" department, we have: scientists digging into glacial ice and finding heretofore-undiscovered species of viruses and bacteria.

Just this week, a paper called "Glacier Ice Archives Fifteen-Thousand-Year-Old Viruses" was released as a preprint on bioRxiv, detailing work by a team led by Zhi-Ping Zhong of Ohio State University.  Here's what the scientists themselves write about the research:
While glacier ice cores provide climate information over tens to hundreds of thousands of years, study of microbes is challenged by ultra-low-biomass conditions, and virtually nothing is known about co-occurring viruses.  Here we establish ultra-clean microbial and viral sampling procedures and apply them to two ice cores from the Guliya ice cap (northwestern Tibetan Plateau, China) to study these archived communities...  The microbes differed significantly across the two ice cores, presumably representing the very different climate conditions at the time of deposition that is similar to findings in other cores.  Separately, viral particle enrichment and ultra-low-input quantitative viral metagenomic sequencing from ∼520 and ∼15,000 years old ice revealed 33 viral populations (i.e., species-level designations) that represented four known genera and likely 28 novel viral genera (assessed by gene-sharing networks).  In silico host predictions linked 18 of the 33 viral populations to co-occurring abundant bacteria, including Methylobacterium, Sphingomonas, and Janthinobacterium, indicating that viruses infected several abundant microbial groups.  Depth-specific viral communities were observed, presumably reflecting differences in the environmental conditions among the ice samples at the time of deposition. 
On the face of it, it's unsurprising they're finding new viruses, because we find new viruses wherever we look in modern ecosystems.  Viruses are so small that unless you're specifically looking for them, you don't see them.

But four new genera of viruses is a little eyebrow-raising, because that means we're talking about viruses that aren't closely related to anything we've ever seen before.

This, of course, brings up the inevitable question, which was the first thing I thought of; what if one of these new viruses turns out to be pathogenic to humans?  The majority of viruses don't cause disease in humans, but it only takes one.  Science fiction is rife with people messing around with melting ice and releasing horrors -- this was the basic idea of The Thing, not to mention The X Files episode "Ice" and best of all (in my opinion) the horrifying, thrilling, and heartbreaking Doctor Who episode "The Waters of Mars," which is in my top five favorites in the entire history of the series.


So I'm hoping like hell the research team is being cautious.  Not that it ever made any difference in science fiction.  Somebody always fucks up, and large amounts of people end up getting sick, eaten, or converted to some horrifying new form that goes around killing everyone.

Lest you think I'm just being an alarmist because I've watched too many horror movies, allow me to point out that this sort of thing has already happened.  In 2016, permafrost melt in Siberia released frozen anthrax spores that sickened almost a hundred people, one fatally, and killed over two thousand reindeer -- after that region not seeing a single case of anthrax for at least seventy years.

On the other hand, it's understandable that the scientists are acting quickly, because the way things are going in the climate, glaciers will be a thing of the past in fairly short order.  Glaciers and polar ice sheets are time capsules, layer by layer preserving information about the climatic conditions when the ice was deposited, even trapping air bubbles that act as proxy records giving us information about the atmospheric composition at the time.  (This is one of the ways we've obtained carbon dioxide concentrations going back tens of thousands of years.)

However, it also preserves living things, including some that seem to retain their ability to be resuscitated nearly indefinitely.  I try not to panic over every little risk, but I have to admit this one has me spooked.  We don't have a stellar track record for caution, but our track record for saying, "Oh, yeah, this'll work!" and then unleashing a catastrophe is a good bit more consistent.

So let's be careful, okay, scientists?  I'm all for learning whatever we can learn, but I'd rather not be turned into a creepy evil being with a scaly face dripping toxic contagious water all over the place.  Call me picky, but there it is.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is scarily appropriate reading material in today's political climate: Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall's wonderful A Colorful History of Popular Delusions.  In this brilliant and engaging book, the authors take a look at the phenomenon of crowd behavior, and how it has led to some of the most irrational behaviors humans are prone to -- fads, mobs, cults, crazes, manias, urban legends, and riots.

Sometimes amusing, sometimes shocking, this book looks at how our evolutionary background as a tribal animal has made us prone all too often to getting caught up in groupthink, where we leave behind logic and reason for the scary territory of making decisions based purely on emotion.  It's unsettling reading, but if you want to understand why humans all too often behave in ways that make the rational ones amongst us want to do repeated headdesks, this book should be on your list.

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




Thursday, January 16, 2020

Rock of ages

One of the simplest, but one of the most mind-blowing, concepts in science is that matter is recycled indefinitely.

It came up in a variety of ways in my biology classes, most frequently because of the water cycle, nitrogen cycle, and carbon cycle.  I always told my classes, "Every drop of water in your body has been in many forms.  It's been in clouds, it's been in rain, polar ice, the oceans and lakes.  It's been tree sap, bird blood, and dinosaur piss.  It never is created or destroyed, it just keeps getting reused."

This recycling, however, does make certain things hard to study, because the process of the recycling often erases where those molecules had been before and what they'd been doing.  This is most obvious in geological cycles.  When a geologist says, "This rock is recent, it was formed only a few hundred years ago," or "this is an ancient rock dating back to around eight hundred million years ago," (s)he is not talking about the materials; the materials, for the most part, all ended up on Earth at around the same time.  (Exceptions are meteorites, which will come up again shortly.)  The materials that make up yesterday's cooled lava rock and the rock of the Precambrian-Age Laurentian Shield of Canada are the same age; what's different is when the last event occurred that modified them enough to erase their previous history.

Because those history-erasing processes are happening all the time, this makes it difficult to find rocks that are over a billion years old, because the likelihood of a rock surviving unmelted all that time is virtually nil.  This makes our knowledge of the geological history of the Earth sketchier and sketchier the further back in time we go, and honestly, any models we have about the position of the continents and their relationships to the current configuration pretty quickly devolve into pure speculation much earlier than the Cambrian Period -- meaning that 7/8 of the entire history of the Earth is pretty much uncharted territory, geologically-speaking.

All of this is why it was quite a shock when I found out, from a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, that a rock has been found containing grains that date from between five and seven billion years ago, and some may be older than that.

Electron micrographs of presolar grains from the Murchison meteorite [Image by Philipp R. Heck, et al., of the University of Chicago]

If you're saying, "Wait, isn't that older than the Earth?", the answer is "yes."  The Earth's surface cooled and became solid on the order of 4.6 billion years ago.  So how can this possibly be correct?

The grains, it turns out, are part of a space rock called the Murchison meteorite that landed in Australia in 1969, so while everything on Earth was getting melted down, smashed, and mixed around, the rock of the Murchison meteorite was safely out in space, preserving the interior as a sort of time capsule of the very early Solar System.  These "presolar grains" of silicon carbide were dated using known conversion rates of the component atoms to other elements from interacting with cosmic rays, in some cases giving ages that are about as old as the Sun itself.

As far as how this can be, it bears keeping in mind that the Sun itself is thought to be a "third-generation star," so therefore nowhere near as old as the Universe as a whole.  The earliest stars were composed solely of hydrogen (and helium, as the hydrogen fuel was consumed), and heavier elements formed in the death throes of those stars.  The heaviest elements all were formed in supernovas, so any star enriched in these elements -- as our Sun is -- must contain materials from at least one, probably more, previous generations of stars.

So these silicon carbide grains were formed from atoms generated in stellar furnaces that predated the Sun (thus their name, "presolar grains"), and were floating around in interstellar space for all that time until a chunk of them happened to discover that Australia was in the way.  Fortunately for us; it gives us a chance to see materials about as old as you could find anywhere -- dating back to a time when the Solar System was still a ring of coalescing debris around a very young star.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is scarily appropriate reading material in today's political climate: Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall's wonderful A Colorful History of Popular Delusions.  In this brilliant and engaging book, the authors take a look at the phenomenon of crowd behavior, and how it has led to some of the most irrational behaviors humans are prone to -- fads, mobs, cults, crazes, manias, urban legends, and riots.

Sometimes amusing, sometimes shocking, this book looks at how our evolutionary background as a tribal animal has made us prone all too often to getting caught up in groupthink, where we leave behind logic and reason for the scary territory of making decisions based purely on emotion.  It's unsettling reading, but if you want to understand why humans all too often behave in ways that make the rational ones amongst us want to do repeated headdesks, this book should be on your list.

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




Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Tree of life

One of my favorite time wasters is the site Quora, where you can ask any question you like and get (if you're lucky) dozens of answers from people who know.  Of course, being a site where the content comes from everyone and anyone, there are a good many dumb questions and even more dumb answers, but by and large, the site is fairly entertaining,

Having answered a couple of biology-related questions in the past, the site's algorithm now throws a lot of biological questions my way when I sign on, and just yesterday I was given an interesting one: do plants have life spans -- do they age and die?  As it so happens, I've read a bit (only a smattering, I'm hardly an expert) on this subject, and there actually is senescence -- age-related degradation -- in at least some species of plants, and that's not even counting true annuals which only live one year.

Yellow birch trees, for example, usually don't make it past forty or fifty years, quaking aspens sometimes not even that much.  Silver maples start to fall apart, often rotting from the inside out, when they're in their seventies and eighties; sugar maples can easily make it to 150 years.  At the upper end of the scale are trees like redwoods, which get into the thousands of years old.  The oldest known tree is a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California, which a trunk core showed to be 5,065 years old.

Consider it.  When Jesus walked the Earth, this tree was already three thousand years old.

In one of those weird synchronicities, yesterday afternoon -- only a couple of hours after I answered the question on Quora -- I stumbled upon a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looked at the phenomenon of longevity in trees, more specifically in the strange Gingko biloba or "maidenhair tree," the only living species in the entire phylum Ginkgophyta.  It's native to southern China, and had been cultivated locally there for centuries for its beautiful symmetrical shape, graceful leaves, and incredibly smelly fruit that are used medicinally.  It was brought to Europe about three hundred years ago, and now is grown all over the world -- a remarkable comeback for a plant that was truly a living fossil.

Ginkgoes are amazingly long-lived, some specimens in China and Japan exceeding three thousand years in age.  The researchers collected tissue from a variety of ginkgo trees, from age three on up, and looked for the markers of senescence.

What they found was fascinating.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Jean-Pol GRANDMONT [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]]

Dying leaves at mid-autumn showed lots of activation of aging-related genes.  On a leaf-by-leaf basis, the tree was doing exactly what animals do; experiencing metabolic slowdown, lowered immunity to infection, and structural degradation.  But the tree as a whole showed no such tendencies.  Genes related to aging showed no greater expression in old trees than they did in young trees.

There were differences, of course, primarily in genes controlling growth rate.  Young trees grow faster than old ones.  But it seems like if you're a gingko tree, you get to be your adult size, and then you just kind of go into stasis -- for thousands of years.

To quote Howard Thomas, botanist at Aberystwyth University (who was not involved in the ginkgo study), "The default condition for plants is immortality."

How this is controlled genetically is still poorly understood.  Hell, we don't even know how it's controlled in ourselves; it's likely to have something to do with the telomeres, the "end caps" on chromosomes that shorten with each cell division and thus act as a kind of molecular clock that keeps track of the age of the organism.  It's almost certainly not that simple, of course, and there are probably contributions to the aging process from cumulative DNA damage, epigenetic effects, metabolism and diet, and slowing of the immune system.  It's currently a huge area of research, because (face it) few of us are all that fond of the idea of aging.  I've got a great many more gray hairs, laugh lines, and backaches than I did even ten years ago, and if I could somehow reverse all that I'd be all for it.

An immortality pill is probably a long, long way off, enough that I pretty certainly won't be here to take advantage of it.  And whatever the mechanisms are for controlling aging in humans, they're not going to be similar enough to plants that the current research will give us much hope in that direction.

But given how the woo-woos think, expect a huge surge in sales for Ginkgo biloba tablets claiming that if you take them every day, you won't age.  Same as the craze for shark cartilage tablets a few years ago when the claim (which turns out to be false anyway) that sharks never get cancer convinced people that the way to avoid cancer was to swallow shark bits in pill form.

Me, I'm just interested in the research because it's kind of cool.  If this or other studies uncovers a solution to the aging problem, that'd be cool, but for now I think I'll just admire this lovely tree -- and marvel at its ability to live essentially forever.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is scarily appropriate reading material in today's political climate: Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall's wonderful A Colorful History of Popular Delusions.  In this brilliant and engaging book, the authors take a look at the phenomenon of crowd behavior, and how it has led to some of the most irrational behaviors humans are prone to -- fads, mobs, cults, crazes, manias, urban legends, and riots.

Sometimes amusing, sometimes shocking, this book looks at how our evolutionary background as a tribal animal has made us prone all too often to getting caught up in groupthink, where we leave behind logic and reason for the scary territory of making decisions based purely on emotion.  It's unsettling reading, but if you want to understand why humans all too often behave in ways that make the rational ones amongst us want to do repeated headdesks, this book should be on your list.

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




Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Biblical corn

One of the things I find amusing about people who argue over the meaning of passages in the Bible is that so few of them seem to recognize that they're working from a translation.

A few -- very few, in my experience -- people are true biblical scholars, and have worked with the Aramaic and Greek originals (and I use that word with some hesitation, as even those were copies of earlier documents, copied and perhaps translated themselves with uncertain accuracy).  Most everyone else acts as if their favorite English translation is the literal word of God, as if Jesus Christ himself spoke pure, unadulterated 'Murican.

It does give rise to some funny situations.  We have the argument over whether the forbidden fruit that Eve gave Adam was an apple, a fig, or a pomegranate.  We have the claim (Micah 5:2) that the Messiah would be descended from David, and both Matthew and Luke go to great lengths to show that Joseph was a descendant of David (although they disagree on his descent, so they can't both be right) -- and Jesus wasn't Joseph's son in any case.  We have one person who has argued that the creation story was translated wrong, and that God didn't create life, he "separated" humans from everything else, presumably by giving them souls.

We even have some folks who claim -- tongue-in-cheek, of course -- that the line from Leviticus 20 about "if a man lies with another man, they should both be stoned" as biblical support for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization simultaneously.

All of which strikes me as funny, because no matter how you slice it, you're still arguing over the meaning of an uncertainly-translated text that has been recopied with uncertain precision an uncertain number of times, and reflects the beliefs of a bunch of Bronze Age sheepherders in any case.  Notwithstanding, you still have people arguing like hell that their translation is the correct, God-approved one, and all of the others are wrong.

And then you have this guy, who takes things a step further, declaring that the translation of one word is correct, and that means that... pretty much everything else we know about the history of the Middle East is wrong.

That word is "corn."

[Image is in the Public Domain]

The word occurs 102 times (in the King James Version, at least) -- mostly as a translation of the Semitic root dagan.  The problem, of course, is that corn is a Mesoamerican plant, and did not exist in the Middle East until it was brought over after the exploration of the New World. It's very easily explained, though; not only did dagan mean "grain" (not, specifically, corn), the word "corn" itself once meant "grain" in early Modern English -- a usage that persists in the word "barleycorn."

But this guy doesn't think so.  He thinks that the use of the word "corn" means... corn.  As in the stuff you eat at picnics in the summer with lots of butter and salt, the stuff cornmeal and popcorn and corn starch and high-fructose corn syrup are made from.  And therefore, he thinks...

... that everything in the bible actually happened here in the Western Hemisphere.

I'm not making this up.  Here's a direct quote:
The difficult situation with CORN in the BIBLE is that most people, due to the brainwashing that has been handed down through generations, firmly believe that the Biblical events happened in the Middle East.  After much research I can PROVE that the Middle East has absolutely NOTHING to do with the history, geography, and genealogy of the Holy Scriptures.  Nothing!...  CORN is in the Bible because the PEOPLE, PLACES, and EVENTS of the Biblical narratives were in the AMERICAS!
The "true history" of the events of the bible, he says, have been "hidden for over 500 years."  He has proof, which he will tell us when his book is released, and it's gonna overturn everything you think you know about history.

Oh, yeah, and the Crusades happened over here, too.  Apparently the Crusaders didn't trek to Jerusalem, they were trying to retake Peoria or something.

'Murica! Yeah!

I'm not making this up, and the guy who wrote it seems entirely serious.  But it does highlight what can happen when you decide that any human-created document is the infallible word of a deity, or even (as I've heard) that God guided the translators and copiers so that it still is inerrant even after the inevitable Game of Telephone that translating and copying usually entails.  Not many people go as far as Corn Dude does -- but it does bring up the question of whether any translation of the Bible is good enough that we should even entertain using it as a guide to behavior or (heaven forfend) science.

So that's our exercise in eye-rolling for today.  Me, I'm done with the topic, so I'm going to go get breakfast.

For some reason, I'm in the mood for cornbread.  Funny thing, that.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is scarily appropriate reading material in today's political climate: Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall's wonderful A Colorful History of Popular Delusions.  In this brilliant and engaging book, the authors take a look at the phenomenon of crowd behavior, and how it has led to some of the most irrational behaviors humans are prone to -- fads, mobs, cults, crazes, manias, urban legends, and riots.

Sometimes amusing, sometimes shocking, this book looks at how our evolutionary background as a tribal animal has made us prone all too often to getting caught up in groupthink, where we leave behind logic and reason for the scary territory of making decisions based purely on emotion.  It's unsettling reading, but if you want to understand why humans all too often behave in ways that make the rational ones amongst us want to do repeated headdesks, this book should be on your list.

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




Monday, January 13, 2020

News from overhead

Seems like I've been writing a lot about the skies lately.

My general opinion is that what's going on up there is not only interesting, it's useful in taking my mind off the shitshow that's going on down here.  Be that as it may, in the last few weeks we've seen new discoveries about dark energy, a likely nearby supernova candidate, neutron stars, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life in unlikely places.  The astronomers and astrophysicists have been kept on their toes lately by the number of new discoveries and surprising observations -- in fact, in today's post, we'll take a look at not one, but two more pieces of news from above.

In the first, a team at the European Space Agency was working on mapping stellar positions in the "Gould's Belt," a ring of stars surrounding the Milky Way but tilted at about twenty degrees away from the galactic plane.  And what the team found was that within the Gould's Belt, there is a huge structure (from our perspective here on the Earth, it extends across half the sky) that shows regular up-and-down periodicity -- an enormous wave with a wavelength of about six thousand light years.

What could have created this structure is unknown, but waves are usually created when something gravitationally perturbs the pre-existing structure, so astronomers are trying to find something massive enough to cause a pattern change on this scale.  There don't seem to be any good candidates, so the current guess is that (once again) we may be talking about a clump of dark matter.

Whatever the hell that is.

"But this is very speculative at the moment, and other scenarios are as plausible, as an accretion of gas either from the halo of the Milky Way, stretched by the tidal forces of the galaxy (hence its narrowness)," said study lead author João Alves of the University of Vienna.  "Or maybe this is what spiral arms look like up close.  In summary, we have many ideas that we will be testing with future releases of Gaia data but we don't have a favorite scenario at the moment, and that is pretty exciting."

Another odd feature is the the wave is "damped' -- its amplitude decreases along its length.  This suggests that whatever created the disturbance interacted with the stars in the Belt and then passed on -- much like the waves from a rock dropped into a pond decrease in amplitude as they move outward.  It turns out that the Sun was passing through the belt about thirteen million years ago, but if it caused anything untoward here on Earth, it's left few traces.

"There was no obvious mass extinction event thirteen million years ago, so although we were crossing a sort of minefield back then, it did not leave an obvious mark," Alves said.  "Still, with the advent of more sensitive mass spectrometers, it is likely we will find some sort of mark left on the planet."

The second story is about another upcoming stellar explosion, this one more predictable (although less spectacular) than the Betelgeuse supernova about which I wrote two weeks ago.  The star in question is V Sagittae -- which, actually, is a binary system, a white dwarf (a collapsed stellar core) and a larger main-sequence companion.  Because of the white dwarf's gravitational pull, it is siphoning off matter from the surface of its partner, and the interaction is slowing down their rotation around their barycenter, so they're getting closer -- and will ultimately collide.

When that happens, it will cause a colossal explosion which will -- even at our position, 7,800 light years away -- release so much energy that for a short while, V Sagittae will be the brightest star in the sky.  And because we know a good bit about its rotational period and the rate at which the matter is being pulled from the main-sequence star, the astrophysicists also have a good idea of when this will happen: 2083, give or take a few years in either direction.

V Sagittae [Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA/JPL]

So there are people alive today who will see this happen.  Sadly, I'm probably not going to be one of them, because in 2083 I'd be 123 years old.  And even though I fully intend to live forever (so far, so good), I must grudgingly admit that the chances of my making it to 123 aren't that high.

Still, there's always the possibility of some advance in genetic engineering extending our life spans.  I'm not exactly optimistic about the likelihood of this, but hope springs eternal and all that nonsense.  And if I'm not going to get to see Betelgeuse go kablooie, then V Sagittae sounds like a decent second-best.

So that's the news from overhead for today.  It's hard not to be impressed by the strides we're making in figuring out how the universe works.  Even though we've got a lot more questions still to answer -- which, after all, is how science works -- the idea that sitting here, on a little planet around an average star in an average galaxy, we can figure all this out is pretty damned impressive.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is scarily appropriate reading material in today's political climate: Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall's wonderful A Colorful History of Popular Delusions.  In this brilliant and engaging book, the authors take a look at the phenomenon of crowd behavior, and how it has led to some of the most irrational behaviors humans are prone to -- fads, mobs, cults, crazes, manias, urban legends, and riots.

Sometimes amusing, sometimes shocking, this book looks at how our evolutionary background as a tribal animal has made us prone all too often to getting caught up in groupthink, where we leave behind logic and reason for the scary territory of making decisions based purely on emotion.  It's unsettling reading, but if you want to understand why humans all too often behave in ways that make the rational ones amongst us want to do repeated headdesks, this book should be on your list.

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




Saturday, January 11, 2020

An MRI built for two

Some years ago, I injured my left knee doing martial arts, and a couple of weeks later found myself inside an MRI machine.  The technician, who would be the odds-on favorite for the least personable medical professional I've ever met, started out by telling me "strip down to your underwear" in tones that would have done a drill sergeant proud, then asking me if I had any metal items on my person.

"I don't think so," I said, as I shucked shirt, shoes, socks, and pants.  "Why?"

His eyes narrowed.  "Because when I turn these magnets on, anything made of metal will be ripped from your body, along with any limbs to which they might be attached."

I decided to check a second time for metal items.

After reassuring myself I was unlikely to get my leg torn off because I had forgotten I was wearing a toe ring, or something, I got up on a stretcher, and he cinched my leg down with straps.  Then he said, "Would you like to listen to music?"

Surprised at this unexpected gentle touch, I said, "Sure."

"What style?"

"Something soothing.  Classical, maybe."  So he gave me some headphones, tuned the radio to a classical station, and the dulcet tones of Mozart floated across me.

Then, he turned the machine on, and it went, and I quote:

BANG BANG BANG CRASH CRASH CRASH CRASH *whirrrrrr* BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG etc.

It was deafening.  The nearest thing I can compare it to is being inside a jackhammer.  It lasted a half-hour, during which time I heard not a single note of Mozart.  Hell, I doubt I'd have heard it if he'd tuned in to the Rage Against the Machine station and turned the volume up to eleven.

The upshot of it was that I had a torn meniscus, and ended up having surgery on it, and after a long and frustrating recovery period I'm now mostly back to normal.

But the MRI process still strikes me as one of those odd experiences that are entirely painless and still extremely unpleasant.  I'm not claustrophobic, but loud noises freak me out, especially when I'm wearing nothing but my boxers and have one leg tied down with straps and am being watched intently by someone who makes the T-1000 from Terminator 2 seem huggable.  I mean, call me hyper-sensitive, but there you are.

So it was rather a surprise when I found out courtesy of the journal Science that the latest thing is...

... an MRI scanner built to accommodate two people.

My first thought was that hospitals were trying to double their profits by processing through patients in pairs, and that I might be there getting my leg scanned while old Mrs. Hasenpfeffer was being checked for slipped discs in her neck.  But no, it turns out it's actually for a good -- and interesting -- reason, entirely unconnected with money and efficiency.

They want to see how people's brains react when they interact with each other.

Among other things, the scientists had people talk to each other, make sustained eye contact, and even tap each other on the lips, all the while watching what was happening in each of their brains and even on their faces.  This is certainly a step up from previous solo MRI studies having to do with emotional reactions; when the person is in the tube by him/herself, any kind of interpersonal interaction -- such as might be induced by looking at a photo or video clip -- is bound to be incomplete and inaccurate.

Still, I can't help but think that the circumstance of being locked into a tube, nose to nose with someone, for an hour or more is bound to create data artifacts on its own.  I mean, look at the thing:


One of the hardest things for me at the men's retreat I attended in November, and about which I wrote a while back, was an exercise where we made sustained eye contact at close quarters -- so you're basically standing there, staring into a stranger's eyes, from only six inches or so away.  I'm not exactly an unfriendly person, per se, but locking gazes with a person I'd only met hours earlier was profoundly uncomfortable.

And we weren't even cinched down to a table with a rigid collar around our necks, with a noise like a demolition team echoing in our skulls.

So as much as I'm for the advancement of neuroscience, I am not volunteering for any of these studies.  I wish the researchers the best of luck, but... nope.

Especially since I wouldn't only be anxious about whether I'd removed all my metal items, I'd have to worry whether my partner had, too.  Although I do wonder what would show up on my brain MRI if I was inside a narrow tube and was suddenly smacked in the face by a detached arm.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is simultaneously one of the most dismal books I've ever read, and one of the funniest; Tom Phillips's wonderful Humans: A Brief History of How We Fucked It All Up.

I picked up a copy of it at the wonderful book store The Strand when I was in Manhattan last week, and finished it in three days flat (and I'm not a fast reader).  To illustrate why, here's a quick passage that'll give you a flavor of it:
Humans see patterns in the world, we can communicate this to other humans and we have the capacity to imagine futures that don't yet exist: how if we just changed this thing, then that thing would happen, and the world would be a slightly better place. 
The only trouble is... well, we're not terribly good at any of those things.  Any honest assessment of humanity's previous performance on those fronts reads like a particularly brutal annual review from a boss who hates you.  We imagine patterns where they don't exist.  Our communication skills are, uh, sometimes lacking.  And we have an extraordinarily poor track record of failing to realize that changing this thing will also lead to the other thing, and that even worse thing, and oh God no now this thing is happening how do we stop it.
Phillips's clear-eyed look at our own unfortunate history is kept from sinking under its own weight by a sparkling wit, calling our foibles into humorous focus but simultaneously sounding the call that "Okay, guys, it's time to pay attention."  Stupidity, they say, consists of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results; Phillips's wonderful book points out how crucial that realization is -- and how we need to get up off our asses and, for god's sake, do something.

And you -- and everyone else -- should start by reading this book.

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





Friday, January 10, 2020

Unearthing the time capsule

It's said that there's no cloud without a silver lining, but sometimes the silver lining just adds to the whole situation's poignancy.

That was my response to the new show (opening in May) at the British Museum called Arctic: Culture and Climate.  The exhibit will contain priceless archaeological finds from the Canadian and Siberian Arctic, including a nine-thousand-year-old woven birch basket, a necklace made of mammoth ivory, a variety of objects carved from walrus teeth, bone needles, headbands, a spirit mask, clothing made of reindeer fur, a bag crafted from salmon skin, and a fantastic array of other artifacts, some of which date back to thirty thousand years ago.

The problem, of course, is why this beautiful exhibit is even possible -- the melting of the Arctic permafrost because of anthropogenic climate change.

"As the Arctic is melting, the permafrost, the frozen ground, is melting as well," said exhibit curator, archaeologist Jago Cooper.  "The things that people were living with in that landscape, which are incredibly well preserved in that frozen ground, are coming out as the ground is melting...  Archaeologists have to find the objects before they disappear on the surface of the earth because they are exposed to the elements.  It’s like the Library of Alexandria being on fire… You’re plucking out these books which are coming out, and yes, it’s a remarkable window into life, all coming out of the ground in one go...  This is a treasure trove, but its story is tragic."

The fact is, the Arctic is the region of the Earth where the climate is changing the fastest; current estimates are that within eighty years, summers in the northern Arctic will be entirely ice and permafrost-free.  Entire communities are disappearing as frozen-solid soil capable of holding up house foundations turns into marsh.  The only place on Earth I can think of that is changing this drastically and this fast is the coast of my home state of Louisiana, where communities on the fringe of coastal marsh, such as Isle de Jean Charles, are being swallowed up as sea levels rise.  But since both the Arctic and coastal Louisiana are occupied by poor and/or marginalized people mostly belonging to ethnic minorities, there has been little if any attention paid to the devastation climate change is wreaking.

The effects on the Arctic are multiple and widespread.  The 2019 Arctic "report card" from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was not so much sobering as outright terrifying.  Its findings include:
  • 2019 was the Arctic's second-warmest year ever recorded.  (The warmest was 2016.)  July 2019 was the warmest month since records started in 1850.
  • Cold-water fish populations are shrinking and retreating north, disrupting the food chain and affecting populations of Arctic predators such as seals, walruses, and polar bears.
  • The amount of ice melted from the Greenland Ice Sheet in 2019 tied for highest volume ever lost (with 2012).
  • The ice at the very north is itself destabilizing.  Only one percent of the marine ice in the Arctic Ocean is over four years old, so the "permanent Arctic ice sheet" is a thing of the past.
  • The loss of ice cover in the summer is causing a feedback loop as darker/more absorptive open ocean retains more of the summer's heat and ramps temperatures up further.  The summers for the past ten years have broken record after record for high temperatures and speed of warm-up.
Horrifying news.  But most countries seem to take the stance of "oh, well, it doesn't affect us," and continue to sit on their hands.  It immediately put me in mind of the old comic strip, one that has shown up in many contexts, from Nazi aggression before World War II to Wall Street speculation to the spread of terrorism, but which seems tragically apt here:



Sometimes I get tired of shouting "WILL YOU PEOPLE PLEASE WAKE UP AND FOR FUCK'S SAKE DO SOMETHING?"  Heaven knows I've hit on this topic enough times here at Skeptophilia, my readers must be getting sick of my ringing the changes over and over.  But given that there are still climate change deniers out there, and people are paying more attention to noted climatologists like Meat Loaf than the actual scientists, we can't afford to let fatigue silence us.

The problem is, the scientific papers and even the heartbreaking exhibits like the one opening soon at the British Museum are almost entirely reaching people who already know that anthropogenic climate change is happening, and simultaneously are unable to change policy.  I can virtually guarantee the politicians aren't reading science journals (in the case of Donald Trump, I seriously doubt he's ever read anything longer than the label on a soup can).  So it's a case where there are two hermetically-sealed groups -- the science community and informed laypeople, who know what's happening but are unable to change it, and the elected leaders, who are able to change it but are either uniformed or else willfully participating in the disinformation campaign.

So I'll keep blogging, and other concerned people will continue working toward getting the truth out there, but until we change things at the ballot box, my guess is that to paraphrase Douglas Adams, nothing will continue to happen.

My only hope is that by the time we are able to act, it won't already be past the tipping point.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is simultaneously one of the most dismal books I've ever read, and one of the funniest; Tom Phillips's wonderful Humans: A Brief History of How We Fucked It All Up.

I picked up a copy of it at the wonderful book store The Strand when I was in Manhattan last week, and finished it in three days flat (and I'm not a fast reader).  To illustrate why, here's a quick passage that'll give you a flavor of it:
Humans see patterns in the world, we can communicate this to other humans and we have the capacity to imagine futures that don't yet exist: how if we just changed this thing, then that thing would happen, and the world would be a slightly better place. 
The only trouble is... well, we're not terribly good at any of those things.  Any honest assessment of humanity's previous performance on those fronts reads like a particularly brutal annual review from a boss who hates you.  We imagine patterns where they don't exist.  Our communication skills are, uh, sometimes lacking.  And we have an extraordinarily poor track record of failing to realize that changing this thing will also lead to the other thing, and that even worse thing, and oh God no now this thing is happening how do we stop it.
Phillips's clear-eyed look at our own unfortunate history is kept from sinking under its own weight by a sparkling wit, calling our foibles into humorous focus but simultaneously sounding the call that "Okay, guys, it's time to pay attention."  Stupidity, they say, consists of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results; Phillips's wonderful book points out how crucial that realization is -- and how we need to get up off our asses and, for god's sake, do something.

And you -- and everyone else -- should start by reading this book.

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





Thursday, January 9, 2020

Lying down with dogs

We love our dogs, but there are times when we look straight into their big brown eyes and say, "You are the reason we can't have nice things."

Of course, given that neither of our dogs are known for their excessive brain power, they usually respond by wagging cheerfully.


Sometimes I think our dogs are not so much pets as a pair of home demolition experts.  Both of them track mud everywhere, a problem made worse by Guinness's love of swimming in our pond.


There's also the issue that when he chases his tennis ball -- his all-time favorite occupation, one that he is capable of doing for hours on end -- he performs his catches with all the grace and subtlety of a baseball player sliding into home.  The result is that he has torn our back lawn into a wasteland of rutted dirt, which in early spring when the snow melts turns into a giant mud puddle.  We've been renovating our walk-out basement, and while considering what flooring to put in, I suggested that we simply spread an enormous plastic tarp on the floor and call it good.

Carol felt that this didn't set the right aesthetic for our home, and I suppose she's right,  but it would certainly be easier to keep clean.

And it'd be nice if tracking dirt everywhere was all they did.  Guinness (code name: El Destructo) has a great love of chewing stuff, and despite having approximately 1,485 chew toys, he is constantly finding stuff to tear up that isn't technically his.  So far, we've lost shoes, slippers, books, paintbrushes, pieces of unopened mail, a set of iPod headphones, and so many cardboard boxes that I've lost count.  He's also an accomplished counter surfer, and just a couple of weeks ago he snagged a half-pound of expensive French brie, something we still haven't quite forgiven him for.

I guess I didn't realize that when we picked him out at the shelter, we were on the Bad Doggie Aisle.  That'll teach me not to read the signs more carefully.

Anyhow, when we ask our dogs, "So, what good are you two, anyway?", they don't generally have any answer unless you count cheerful wagging.  But maybe they will now -- because two papers, one in the Journal of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology and the other in PLOS-One, have shown that dogs actually do have a positive contribution to make (above and beyond companionship), especially to the health of children.

In the first, "Early Exposure to Cats, Dogs and Farm Animals and the Risk of Childhood Asthma and Allergy," by a team led by Vincent Ojwang of Tampere University (Finland), we find that children living with dogs and/or cats when they're very young have a statistically significant lower chance of allergies, asthma, and eczema than children who don't.  The mechanism is poorly understood -- it may have something to do with early exposure to dirt and pet dander desensitizing children to harmless antigens -- but the effect was clear.  The sample size was nearly four thousand, so it's not an inconsequential result.  (Interestingly, the correlation with farm animals was uncertain, perhaps because farm animals aren't in the home and exposure to them is not only more limited, it's more likely to occur in the open air where concentrations of dust and dander are lower.)

The second, "Exposure to Household Pet Cats and Dogs in Childhood and Risk of Subsequent Diagnosis of Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder," by a team led by Robert Yolken of Johns Hopkins, found that (even when you control for other factors), a child who lived with a pet dog for a significant amount of time before age thirteen was 24% less likely to be diagnosed later with schizophrenia.  (There was no similar correlation with cat ownership; the reason is unclear.)

As with the allergy/asthma study, the mechanism behind this correlation is uncertain.  "Serious psychiatric disorders have been associated with alterations in the immune system linked to environmental exposures in early life, and since household pets are often among the first things with which children have close contact, it was logical for us to explore the possibilities of a connection between the two," Yolken said in an interview with Science Daily.  "Previous studies have identified early life exposures to pet cats and dogs as environmental factors that may alter the immune system through various means, including allergic responses, contact with zoonotic bacteria and viruses, changes in a home's microbiome, and pet-induced stress reduction effects on human brain chemistry...  [Some researchers] suspect that this immune modulation may alter the risk of developing psychiatric disorders to which a person is genetically or otherwise predisposed."

So I suppose I must grudgingly admit that our dogs actually might serve some purpose other than getting hair all over the sofa, barking at the UPS guy, and chasing away terrifying intruders like chipmunks.  Maybe we should credit their dirt-spreading capacity with the fact that our sons are both completely healthy and allergy-free.  At this point, though, since Carol and I are both clearly adults, they can lay off changing our home's microbiome.  I'll accept the risk of developing an allergy if I don't have to put up with Lena lying down next to me after having rolled in a rancid squirrel carcass.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is simultaneously one of the most dismal books I've ever read, and one of the funniest; Tom Phillips's wonderful Humans: A Brief History of How We Fucked It All Up.

I picked up a copy of it at the wonderful book store The Strand when I was in Manhattan last week, and finished it in three days flat (and I'm not a fast reader).  To illustrate why, here's a quick passage that'll give you a flavor of it:
Humans see patterns in the world, we can communicate this to other humans and we have the capacity to imagine futures that don't yet exist: how if we just changed this thing, then that thing would happen, and the world would be a slightly better place. 
The only trouble is... well, we're not terribly good at any of those things.  Any honest assessment of humanity's previous performance on those fronts reads like a particularly brutal annual review from a boss who hates you.  We imagine patterns where they don't exist.  Our communication skills are, uh, sometimes lacking.  And we have an extraordinarily poor track record of failing to realize that changing this thing will also lead to the other thing, and that even worse thing, and oh God no now this thing is happening how do we stop it.
Phillips's clear-eyed look at our own unfortunate history is kept from sinking under its own weight by a sparkling wit, calling our foibles into humorous focus but simultaneously sounding the call that "Okay, guys, it's time to pay attention."  Stupidity, they say, consists of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results; Phillips's wonderful book points out how crucial that realization is -- and how we need to get up off our asses and, for god's sake, do something.

And you -- and everyone else -- should start by reading this book.

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