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.

Friday, August 14, 2020

The English dinosaurs

Continuing with the paleontological bent we've been on all week, today we have: bones of a previously-unknown tyrannosaur on a beach in England.

As unlikely as it sounds, beaches in southern England are great places to find dinosaur bones.  One of the founders of the science of paleontology, Mary Anning, did most of her work in the Lyme Regis region of the Dorsetshire coast during the first half of the nineteenth century, and her discovery of complete skeletons of Jurassic-era ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs on walks with her faithful dog has become the stuff of legends.  (Sadly, her dog was killed in a landslide when a cliffside collapsed -- Anning missed sharing his fate because she was only a couple of feet ahead of him.)

The new find comes from Cretaceous sedimentary rocks on the coast of the Isle of Wight, where paleontologists from the University of Southampton have identified some fossilized bones as belonging to a new species that has been christened Vectaerovenator inopinatus (the name translates roughly to "unexpected air-filled hunter").  It got its name from the presence of air sacs in and around the bones.  This adaptation is also found in modern birds, re-emphasizing the relationship between predatory theropods and chickadees.

Vectaerovenator was a big guy -- an estimated four meters long -- but was astonishingly light-built.  "We were struck by just how hollow this animal was - it's riddled with air spaces," said Christopher Barker, who was lead author of the study.  "Parts of its skeleton must have been rather delicate.  The record of theropod dinosaurs from the 'mid' Cretaceous Period in Europe isn't that great, so it's been really exciting to be able to increase our understanding of the diversity of dinosaur species from this time...  You don't usually find dinosaurs in the deposits at Shanklin as they were laid down in a marine habitat.  You're much more likely to find fossil oysters or driftwood, so this is a rare find indeed."

The fossils were found in marine sedimentary rocks, and surmise is that the dinosaur they belonged to fell into a river (whether before or after it died is, of course, impossible to tell) and its body washed out into the shallow sea, where it was covered up and preserved.

Artist Trudie Wilson's impression of the final moments of the Shanklin Ventaerovenator inopinatus  [Image courtesy of the University of Southampton]

The bones were found by three amateur fossil-hunters.  Robin Ward of Stratford-upon-Avon, was walking on the beach with his family and found the first ones.  "The joy of finding the bones we discovered was absolutely fantastic," Ward said.  "I thought they were special and so took them along when we visited Dinosaur Isle Museum.  They immediately knew these were something rare and asked if we could donate them to the museum to be fully researched."

"It looked different from marine reptile vertebrae I have come across in the past," said James Lockyer, of Spalding, Lincolnshire, who found additional pieces of the skeleton.  "I was searching a spot at Shanklin and had been told and read that I wouldn't find much there.  However, I always make sure I search the areas others do not, and on this occasion it paid off."

Paul Farrell, an Isle of Wight native, contributed further pieces to the discovery.  "I was walking along the beach, kicking stones and came across what looked like a bone from a dinosaur," Farrell said.  "I was really shocked to find out it could be a new species."

All three agreed to donate their finds to the Dinosaur Isle Museum at Sandown.

What this highlights to me is the degree to which interested amateurs can contribute to science.  In fact, Mary Anning herself had no training in paleontology, or in fact, in any kind of science; to call opportunities for women in science in the early nineteenth century "limited" is a vast understatement.  Anning's descriptions of her extraordinary discoveries were turned down for publication by the Magazine of Natural History, and she was denied entry to the Geological Society of London purely because of her gender.

So it's a double-edged sword, isn't it?  Talented amateurs can make incredible contributions, but only if the often hidebound powers-that-be will allow them.  Sometimes it's an uphill struggle just to gain a small amount of credibility, and in Anning's case, even that never happened.  Shortly before her death from breast cancer at the age of 47, she wrote, "The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone."

Fortunately, that isn't the case here, and the amateurs and the scientists are happily collaborating.  With luck and persistence, we will continue to learn about the prehistoric landscape of England as it was 115 million years ago, when dinosaurs like Ventaerovenator were prowling the shores.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is by the brilliant Dutch animal behaviorist Frans de Waal, whose work with capuchin monkeys and chimps has elucidated not only their behavior, but the origins of a lot of our own.  (For a taste of his work, watch the brilliant TED talk he did called "Moral Behavior in Animals.")

In his book Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, de Waal looks at this topic in more detail, telling riveting stories about the emotions animals experience, and showing that their inner world is more like ours than we usually realize.  Our feelings of love, hate, jealousy, empathy, disgust, fear, and joy are not unique to humans, but have their roots in our distant ancestry -- and are shared by many, if not most, mammalian species.

If you're interested in animal behavior, Mama's Last Hug is a must-read.  In it, you'll find out that non-human animals have a rich emotional life, and one that resembles our own to a startling degree.  In looking at other animals, we are holding up a mirror to ourselves.

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




Thursday, August 13, 2020

Taking flight

One of the many things I find fascinating about the evolutionary model is how different lineages can happen on the same "solution" to the problems of surviving and reproducing, leading to similarities cropping up that don't result from common ancestry.  This is a phenomenon called convergent evolution, and explains why the North American flying squirrel and Australian sugar glider look a lot alike, even though they are only distantly related.  (The flying squirrel is a rodent, and the sugar glider a marsupial more closely related to kangaroos.)

I put the word "solution" in quotes and use it with caution, because this makes it sound like evolution is forward-looking, which it is not.  As Richard Dawkins explains brilliantly in his book The Blind Watchmaker, to trigger evolution, all you have to have is an imperfect replicator (in this case, DNA) and a selecting agent.  To phrase it more like Darwin would have put it: variation coupled with differences in survival rate.

I recall how surprised I was to learn that the eye had actually evolved multiple times.  Starting with light-sensitive spots, such as you still find today in many microorganisms, variations on different lineages came up with a variety of different "solutions" -- the pinhole-camera eye of a chambered nautilus, the cup-shaped eye of a flatworm, the compound eye of a fly, and our own eye with a transparent lens like that of a refracting telescope.  All these adaptations work just fine for the animal that has them.  (Eye formation in a number of species is controlled by the paired-box 6 [PAX6] gene, without which eyes won't form at all.  It's such a critical gene that it is conserved across thousands of species -- in fact, your PAX6 gene and a mouse's are identical, base-pair-for-base-pair.)

The reason this subject comes up is because of some research published in the journal Current Biology last week that showed another trait -- flight -- not only evolved separately in groups like insects and birds, but even in the dinosaurian ancestors of today's birds, it evolved more than once.

A team led by paleontologist Rui Pei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences analyzed bone and feather structure of various dinosaur groups to see if they flew, glided, or were using their feathers for a different purpose (such as keeping warm).  To their surprise, it was found that multiple lineages were capable of flying or nearly so.  The authors write:
We [used] an ancestral state reconstruction analysis calculating maximum and minimum estimates of two proxies of powered flight potential—wing loading and specific lift.  These results confirm powered flight potential in early birds but its rarity among the ancestors of the closest avialan relatives (select unenlagiine and microraptorine dromaeosaurids).  For the first time, we find a broad range of these ancestors neared the wing loading and specific lift thresholds indicative of powered flight potential.  This suggests there was greater experimentation with wing-assisted locomotion before theropod flight evolved than previously appreciated.  This study adds invaluable support for multiple origins of powered flight potential in theropods (≥3 times), which we now know was from ancestors already nearing associated thresholds, and provides a framework for its further study.
Here are their results, in graphical form:


As you can see, actual birds -- labeled "Later-diverging avialans" near the bottom of the tree -- were far from the only ones to have flight capability.  Rahonavis, Microraptor, and several of the anchiornithines were probably fliers, and only the last mentioned is on the same clade as today's birds.

Flying is pretty useful, so it's no wonder that when feathers evolved from scales -- probably, as I mentioned earlier, in the context of warmth and insulation -- it was only a small step remaining toward lengthening those feathers to the point that their owners could catch a breeze and glide.  After that, the same kind of refinement took over that happened with the eye, and eventually, you have true flight.

So that's yet another cool bit of research about prehistory.  Wouldn't you like to know what those prehistoric fliers looked like?  I'd love to see them.  From a distance, because a lot of them were predators.  For example, Microraptor is Greek for "tiny hunter," and were a little like miniature velociraptors with wings.

If you wanted an image to haunt your dreams.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is by the brilliant Dutch animal behaviorist Frans de Waal, whose work with capuchin monkeys and chimps has elucidated not only their behavior, but the origins of a lot of our own.  (For a taste of his work, watch the brilliant TED talk he did called "Moral Behavior in Animals.")

In his book Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, de Waal looks at this topic in more detail, telling riveting stories about the emotions animals experience, and showing that their inner world is more like ours than we usually realize.  Our feelings of love, hate, jealousy, empathy, disgust, fear, and joy are not unique to humans, but have their roots in our distant ancestry -- and are shared by many, if not most, mammalian species.

If you're interested in animal behavior, Mama's Last Hug is a must-read.  In it, you'll find out that non-human animals have a rich emotional life, and one that resembles our own to a startling degree.  In looking at other animals, we are holding up a mirror to ourselves.

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




Wednesday, August 12, 2020

After 'while, crocodile

Because I have an endless fascination for things that are big and powerful and can kill you, today's topic is: Deinosuchus.

If you know a little Greek, the name itself should put you on notice.  It comes from the words δεινός (terror) and σοῦχος (crocodile).  Because crocodiles aren't terrifying enough on their own, apparently.  The largest extant crocodilian is the Australian saltwater crocodile, which can get to be about six meters in length and can weigh twelve hundred kilograms.  It regularly attacks humans, often stupid ones who don't know enough to stay away from the shallow water habitats it prefers, and as the Wikipedia article puts it, "As a result of its power, intimidating size and speed, survival of a direct predatory attack is unlikely if the crocodile is able to make direct contact."

Deinosuchus was just shy of twice as long.  Considering that the usual rule that the mass of an animal varies as the cube of its length, this would put the biggest ones at eight times heavier than a saltie -- something on the order of nine thousand kilograms.

That's equivalent to the mass of a school bus.  Just for reference.

If that's not bad enough, it had teeth up to a foot long.  Lots of them.  The largest species, Deinosuchus riograndensis, which lived (unsurprisingly) in what is now the western United States and northern Mexico, apparently fed on dinosaurs.

A reconstructed Deinosuchus hatcheri skeleton in the Natural History Museum of Utah.  [Image is in the Public Domain]

According to research published last week in The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology -- which is why this whole horrifying topic comes up -- a combination of new fossil finds and re-analysis of old fossils, Deinosuchus was probably an ambush predator, like its much smaller modern Australian cousin.  It could, paleontologists believe, have taken down just about any of the dinosaurs alive at the time, up to the biggest ones.

"Deinosuchus was a giant that must have terrorized dinosaurs that came to the water's edge to drink," Adam Cossette, of the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University.  "Until now, the complete animal was unknown.  These new specimens we've examined reveal a bizarre, monstrous predator with teeth the size of bananas."

During the time it was around -- the late Cretaceous Period, between 75 and 82 million years ago -- it lived in similar habitats to the Australian saltwater crocodile.  At that time, North America was split in two by a shallow sea that extended from the Arctic Ocean to what is now the Gulf of Mexico, and which covered most of what is now the Midwest and Southeast.  The Western Interior Seaway, as it was called, separated the small continent of Laramidia (now the Southwest, California, and the Pacific Northwest) from Appalachia (the mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and eastern Canada).  (If you're curious, the surreal, brightly-colored rock formations in what is now Bryce Canyon National Park, in Utah, were deposited at this time.  Hard to imagine that what is now high desert was once a shallow tropical sea, but it was.)

So Deinosuchus would have lived on both sides of that narrow sea, laying in wait for any prey to come along.  Also found in these same rocks are fossils of Pteranodon, the familiar crested pterodactyloid, along with hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs) and monstrous turtles like Archelon, which is estimated at five meters in length and weighing about two thousand kilograms.

Hard to picture that tableau as having occurred in what is now Kansas.

One of the weirder things about Deinosuchus is that it didn't make it to the Cretaceous Extinction.  It died out about 75 million years ago, missing getting fried by the Chicxulub Meteorite strike by a good nine million years.  What wiped it out is unknown, but there's a general pattern that if the environment changes, apex predators get hit the hardest -- they're usually slow-reproducing, and their survival depends on the entire biotic web being intact.  (Consider that most of the modern large mammalian predators are on the Endangered Species List.)

There comes a point where superlatives fail me, and I think I've hit it.  I'll leave the rest to your imagination.  Suffice it to say that while it was around, it was the unchallenged ruler of the Western Interior Seaway.  And honestly, cool as it undoubtedly was, I'm just as glad those aren't lurking around any more.  Australian saltwater crocodiles are terrifying enough.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is by the brilliant Dutch animal behaviorist Frans de Waal, whose work with capuchin monkeys and chimps has elucidated not only their behavior, but the origins of a lot of our own.  (For a taste of his work, watch the brilliant TED talk he did called "Moral Behavior in Animals.")

In his book Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, de Waal looks at this topic in more detail, telling riveting stories about the emotions animals experience, and showing that their inner world is more like ours than we usually realize.  Our feelings of love, hate, jealousy, empathy, disgust, fear, and joy are not unique to humans, but have their roots in our distant ancestry -- and are shared by many, if not most, mammalian species.

If you're interested in animal behavior, Mama's Last Hug is a must-read.  In it, you'll find out that non-human animals have a rich emotional life, and one that resembles our own to a startling degree.  In looking at other animals, we are holding up a mirror to ourselves.

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




Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Fishy business

My evolutionary biology professor told our class, many years ago, "The only reason we came up with the word species is because humans have no near relatives."

It's a comment that has stuck with me.  We perceive species as being these little cubbyholes with impenetrable sides, and once you've filed something there, it stays put.  Of course a polar bear and a grizzly bear are different species.  How could they be otherwise?

But when you start pushing at the definition a little, you find that it gives way almost immediately.  Ask some non-scientist how they know polar bears and grizzly bears are different species, and you'll likely get an answer like, "Because they look completely different."  And, to be fair, that's more or less how the father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, did it.

Problems creep in almost immediately, though.  The "of course different species" polar and grizzly bears look far more alike than do, say, a chihuahua and a St. Bernard.  (Imagine trying to convince an alien biologist that those two are members of the same species.)  So very quickly, scientists were forced into refining the definition so as to capture the separateness of two different species in such a way that the term could be applied consistently.

What they ultimately landed on was the canonical definition used in just about every biology textbook in the world: "Members of the same species are capable of potentially interbreeding and producing viable and fertile offspring."  (The "fertile" part had to be added because of the famous example of a horse and a donkey being able to produce a viable hybrid -- but that hybrid, the mule, is almost always infertile.)

The problem was, even that wasn't enough to clarify things. Polar bears and grizzly bears, for example, can and do hybridize in the wild, and the offspring (the rather unfortunately-named "pizzly bear") are almost always fertile.  This isn't an aberration.  These kinds of situations are common in the wild.  In fact, in my part of the world, there are two birds that look dramatically different -- the blue-winged warbler and the golden-winged warbler -- but they will happily crossbreed.  When the hybrids were first observed by scientists, they were different enough from both parents that it was thought they were a third separate species, which was called Brewster's warbler.  It was only after long observation that biologists figured out what was going on -- especially given that "Brewster's warblers" are potentially interfertile with either parental species.

In fact, the more you press the definition, the more it falls apart, the more exceptions you find.  Today's taxonomists are usually wary about labeling something a "species" -- or when they do, they're aware that it's potentially an artificial distinction that has no particular technical relevance.  They are much more comfortable talking about genetic overlap and most recent common ancestry, which at least are measurable.

The reason all this comes up is because of a startling discovery brought to my attention by a friend and long-time loyal reader of Skeptophilia.  Researchers in Hungary have produced a hybrid between an American paddlefish and a Russian sturgeon -- two species no one could confuse with each other -- and they appear to be fertile, and normal in every other way.

The more you look at these "sturddlefish," the more shocking they get.  Sturgeon and paddlefish are not only separate species, they're in separate families -- two layers of classification above species.  "I’m still confused," said Prosanta Chakrabarty, ichthyologist at Louisiana State University.  "My jaw is still on the floor.  It’s like if they had a cow and a giraffe make a baby."

He quickly amended that statement -- giraffes and cows have a recent common ancestor only a few million years ago, whereas paddlefish and sturgeons have been separate lineages for 184 million years.  To get anything comparable, Chakrabarty said, you'd have to have something like a human coming out of a platypus egg.

The scientists believe that the reason this happened is because of the relatively slow rate of evolution of both lineages (especially the sturgeons).  Sturgeons now look pretty similar to sturgeons two hundred million years ago, while almost all of the mammalian biodiversity you see around you -- divergence between, say, a raccoon and a squirrel -- happened since the Cretaceous Extinction, 66 million years ago.  But even so, it's pretty remarkable.  To my eye, paddlefish and sturgeon look way more different than lots of pairs of species that can't interbreed, so once again, we're confronted with the fact that the concept of species isn't what we thought it was -- if it has any biological relevance at all.

Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus)

American Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)  [Both this and the above image are in the Public Domain]

This brings us back to the unsettling (but exciting) fact that whenever we think we have everything figured out, nature reaches out and astonishes us.  It's why I'll never tire of biology -- to paraphrase Socrates, the more we know, the more we realize how little we know.

But one thing I know for sure is that the biologists really need to come up with better names than "sturddlefish" and "pizzly bear."

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is by the brilliant Dutch animal behaviorist Frans de Waal, whose work with capuchin monkeys and chimps has elucidated not only their behavior, but the origins of a lot of our own.  (For a taste of his work, watch the brilliant TED talk he did called "Moral Behavior in Animals.")

In his book Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, de Waal looks at this topic in more detail, telling riveting stories about the emotions animals experience, and showing that their inner world is more like ours than we usually realize.  Our feelings of love, hate, jealousy, empathy, disgust, fear, and joy are not unique to humans, but have their roots in our distant ancestry -- and are shared by many, if not most, mammalian species.

If you're interested in animal behavior, Mama's Last Hug is a must-read.  In it, you'll find out that non-human animals have a rich emotional life, and one that resembles our own to a startling degree.  In looking at other animals, we are holding up a mirror to ourselves.

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




Monday, August 10, 2020

A portrait in black-and-white

My mother was born Marguerite Thérèse Ayo in the little town of Schriever, Louisiana, on August 10, 1920, exactly a hundred years ago.  She was the middle of three children.  Her father was an insurance salesman, a kind, soft-spoken man who was absent from the home a good bit of the time.  Her mother -- typical of the time -- was a stay-at-home mom, and from what I've heard was an exacting, demanding woman who expected her children to be perfect.

Left to right: my aunt Florence, my grandmother (Flora (Meyer-Lévy) Ayo), my uncle Sidney, and my mom.  

The photograph above speaks volumes.  According to my mother, when the film was developed, Florence was the only one who met with approval.  Sidney's belt end had flopped down and my mom's stockings were wrinkled at the knees, something they heard about every time my grandmother looked at this photograph.  My mom had a bad case of middle-child syndrome -- her older sister was the picture of etiquette and academic success, and her younger brother got away with murder because he was the youngest and the only boy.  My mom never felt like she could measure up.

My mom at about 12

Historian Arnold Toynbee famously said "Life is just one damned thing after another," and that was certainly true in my mom's case.  When I think of what happened to her over her more than eight decades of life, what strikes me is that she got knocked down again and again by circumstances outside her control.  As I mentioned, she never got much approval from either parent.  When she was 17, her mother had a stroke at the young age of 44, and it changed her already difficult personality for the worse -- now she was largely housebound, had difficulty walking and talking, and found fault with everything and everyone.

My mom, age around 18

My mom escaped by marrying my dad, then a private in the Marine Corps.  It was the first years of World War II and my dad ended up stationed in Hawaii (in fact, they were in Honolulu and heard the bombs striking Pearl Harbor).  In 1945 my sister Margaret Mary was born -- but she was premature and had Rh-incompatibility syndrome, then a dire and life-threatening emergency, and only lived nine days.

My grandmother had a second stroke and died shortly after the war ended.  My parents had neither the resources nor the opportunity to return to Louisiana for the funeral, and in traditional Cajun culture, not going to a close relative's funeral is about as disrespectful as you can get.  Everyone said they understood, but my mom never forgave herself.

My mom shortly after the end of the war

Over the next decade, my dad was bounced around from military base to military base.  For three years, in the 1950s, he lived on a base in Japan.  Left alone at home, my mom did the best she could, and that was when she found her true passion -- art.  She learned painting, sculpture, and (especially) ceramics, and created some amazing works in porcelain.  Here's one of her bone china dolls:

The lace itself is made of bone china.  Don't ask me how she did it.

My parents wanted children, and after the loss of my sister, they tried.  No luck.  Doctors' visits showed nothing physically wrong with either one, but no success.  Fifteen years after my sister's death, my mom was forty years old and had resigned herself to being childless.  She was preparing to throw herself into becoming a full-time studio artist...

... when I came along.

Me and my mom, June of 1961

I won't say I wasn't wanted; but when my parents said I was their "mistake," it was only half kidding.  I busted up my mother's plans of being a full-time artist without even knowing I'd done it.  Then in late 1961, shortly after this photo was taken, my dad got transferred -- to Reykjavík, Iceland.  Back then enlisted men couldn't bring their families along to most overseas assignments, so for two years my mom and I only saw my dad when he was on furlough.  She and I moved in with her father, who had by then remarried.

Imagine it.  You're a forty-year-old with your only child, and you have to move back to your father's house and live with him and with a stepmother whom you frankly detest.  Once again, fate had given her a good gut punch.

This is where it gets complicated, because my mom honestly tried to jump into her new role as mother as well as she could.  But our relationship was fractious pretty much from the beginning.  I was about as opposite to her picture of "the perfect son" as it's possible to be.  She wanted a tough, independent, all-American boy, who was a solid-B student and played baseball and went fishing and hunting on the weekend.  She got me -- a bookish, nearsighted, sensitive dreamer who wanted to spend his time reading and making up stories, who hated team sports with a passion and whose idea of athletics was going on a solo five-mile run.  Despite my being reasonably smart, she couldn't even brag about my academic prowess -- my grades yo-yoed all over the place, depending on whether I liked the teacher and whether during that grading period I'd focused on learning about the Franco-Prussian War instead of inventing characters to send on adventures in time and space.

Plus, there was the problem that she and I never honestly understood each other, not on any kind of deep level.  She was a devout Roman Catholic; I was a doubter pretty much the moment I was old enough to consider the question.  She had an innate respect for authority; my general attitude toward authority was "either earn my respect, or go to hell."  She was a staunch conservative; I was born leaning to the left.  She liked everything in black-and-white -- people were good or bad, a thing was true or not, an action was right or it was wrong.  Me, I saw (and still see) pretty much everything in shades of gray.

It was almost like she and I didn't speak the same language.

My dad was stationed for a time in Charleston, West Virginia, and we lived in the town of St. Albans, where my mom met a neighbor named Garnett Mudd, the woman my mom called "the only real friend I ever had."  They were kindred spirits, especially in their love of gardening, and I remember Garnett as being a wise and gentle person with wide-ranging knowledge and a brilliant sense of humor.  Then -- my parents got transferred again, and they had to leave West Virginia.  And as if this wasn't bad enough, six months after they moved away, Garnett was walking home from the school where she taught and died of a massive heart attack at the age of 57. 

And once again, my mom's world closed in on her a little more.

My dad retired in 1967 and we moved back to his home town of Lafayette, Louisiana.  For a year I lived with my paternal grandmother -- ostensibly because they were in the process of building a house and the little room they rented didn't have space for me, but I think honestly it was mostly because my mom was having trouble dealing with me.  This led to another fractious relationship -- between my mom and her mother-in-law.  In retrospect, I have to admit my paternal grandmother wasn't an easy person.  I idolized her, but she and my mom never got along -- as far as I've heard, right from the start.  The fact that I preferred being with my grandmother has to have rankled.  Whatever the cause, pretty much every time they were together, there was an argument, and no matter how petty the cause, neither one would ever give the other an inch.

It was during this time that my mom developed rheumatoid arthritis, a horrible disease that gradually robbed her of her mobility, and worse, of her ability to use her hands.  Her art became less a joy than a painful frustration.  I remember her during my teenage years as being in perpetual pain.  By then, we were at continual loggerheads over just about everything.  So on top of the usual teenage angst, stubbornness, and rebellion, there was a good dose of spite in my behavior -- of my doing things deliberately to set her off.

You'd think she'd have looked forward to my moving out, but when I was looking at colleges, my parents were adamant that I attend the University of Louisiana, in my home town, live at home rather than in the dorms, and commute.  Considering my attitude, to this day I don't know why they didn't hand me my suitcase and say "good riddance" to me.  I also don't know why I didn't push harder to move away.  Having space from each other would have done all of us a world of good, I think.  But she pressed, and I caved, and in what I think is one of the worst personal mistakes I've ever made, I stayed at home while going to college.  During a time when most people are dating, partying, and forming friendships, I had a nearly zero social life.  I had some friends I saw at school; but after class was over, I went home and stayed home.  And still my mom and I frayed each other on a daily basis.

I finally moved away after graduation in 1982, because I'd met the woman who would become my first wife.  It is not an exaggeration to say that my mom and Anne loathed each other.  My mom, who prided herself on following the rules of etiquette, could barely say a polite word to Anne about anything.  To be fair, Anne was far from blameless herself; my first marriage was, in a word, a mistake, which is another topic in and of itself.  But by that time I was desperate to get out, and Anne was my ticket -- to her home town of Seattle, Washington.

Visits home were few, tense, and as short as we could make them for propriety's sake.  From the outside, everything probably looked hunky-dory -- my mom told friends and neighbors about her pride when I got my teaching license and landed my first full-time teaching position, then when my two sons were born.  But the fact remained that we just didn't understand each other, and conversations were like walking in a minefield.  By this time we were usually able to avoid arguments, largely because we rarely talked about anything more meaningful than how the boys were doing and how my job was going.

Ultimately Anne and I divorced, and a few years later, I remarried to Carol, two of the only things I've ever done that met with my mom's 100% unequivocal approval.  (I still recall that when Carol and I were dating, in 2001, she had a business trip that would take her through Lafayette, and she bravely arranged to visit my parents.  I was a nervous wreck until the visit was over -- but to Carol's credit and my complete shock, it was a resounding success.)  My dad died of a stroke on July 4, 2004, and my mom followed eight months later, on February 19, 2005.

My mom with her two grandsons in the Blue Dog Café, Lafayette, Louisiana, in December 2004, three months before her death at age 84

Thinking about my mother on what would be her hundredth birthday, I'm experiencing mixed emotions.  I feel sorry for all the adversity she faced during her life -- it seemed like fate dealt her blow after blow, and as soon as she stood up from one knockdown, she was hit again from a different direction.  I have a lot of regret for not working harder to get along with her, for not realizing at the time how much of our rough relationship was because of the emotional pain she'd endured.  I don't know that even in the best of circumstances, we'd ever have been close -- it's hard to imagine two people so different ever really understanding each other -- but I know I could have done much better, and if I could sit down now and talk with her about it, I think she'd have to admit she could have, too.

Still, we were both doing the best we knew how at the time.  Suffice it to say that in our own fashion, and to the extent we could, we loved each other.

Happy birthday, Mom.  As hard as it was on both of us sometimes, I wish I could say it to you in person.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is by the brilliant Dutch animal behaviorist Frans de Waal, whose work with capuchin monkeys and chimps has elucidated not only their behavior, but the origins of a lot of our own.  (For a taste of his work, watch the brilliant TED talk he did called "Moral Behavior in Animals.")

In his book Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, de Waal looks at this topic in more detail, telling riveting stories about the emotions animals experience, and showing that their inner world is more like ours than we usually realize.  Our feelings of love, hate, jealousy, empathy, disgust, fear, and joy are not unique to humans, but have their roots in our distant ancestry -- and are shared by many, if not most, mammalian species.

If you're interested in animal behavior, Mama's Last Hug is a must-read.  In it, you'll find out that non-human animals have a rich emotional life, and one that resembles our own to a startling degree.  In looking at other animals, we are holding up a mirror to ourselves.

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




Saturday, August 8, 2020

Font of creativity

I'm undecided as to whether writers' block is a real thing.

I know there are times I find it difficult to write.  Not only my fiction writing -- which, as a purely creative endeavor, might be subject to more mystical forces of inspiration and imagination -- but even my work here at Skeptophilia.  Sometimes the daily blog post is easy and quick, and other times it's an uphill slog at best.

But the term writers' block implies that it's near impossible to get a word on the page, and I kind of doubt that actually happens.  Writing, like anything, takes diligence, dedication, and a decent work ethic.  Doing it well is like any other skill, requiring effort and practice.  Your first efforts probably won't be very good, but you wouldn't expect to sit down at a piano for the first time and play a Bach partita flawlessly.  Why should creative writing be any different?

As Stephen King put it -- vividly if graphically -- in his tour de force analysis of horror fiction, Danse Macabre, "Discipline and constant work are the whetstones upon which the dull knife of talent is honed until it becomes sharp enough, hopefully, to cut through even the toughest meat and gristle."

So the way to write is to sit your ass down and write.  I'm saying this to myself as much as I am to anyone else; I just started a new (and ridiculously ambitious) new work-in-progress yesterday, the first in a post-apocalyptic trilogy that will eventually span a thousand years.  (As my dad used to say about me, "He likes to test the depth of a river with both feet.")  And I know about myself that I tend to get overwhelmed and go into major avoidance-mode sometimes.  Fortunately, I'm lucky enough to have a supportive group of author friends who are perfectly happy to hold my feet to the fire when I'm looking for a distraction, any distraction, rather than opening up my document and getting to work.

Because it is work, as Stephen King points out.  The idea of writers effortlessly pouring words onto the page is a myth.


But it's a remarkably persistent one, because people always want an easy solution.  Which is why a claim has been circulating for the past few months that the way to break through writers' block is to switch fonts on your computer.

Unfortunately, the font you're supposed to switch to is...

... Comic Sans.

Yes, Comic Sans, that much-derided loopy font that tend to make one think unwillingly of the comic strip Garfield.  The idea is that Comic Sans is "easy on the eyes" and "playful," and this decreases the stress of coming up with quality plot, characters, narrative, and dialogue.  A writer in Medium who goes by the moniker "Ms. Lola" tried it out, and she describes her experience thusly:
Seeing one’s own work stripped of pretension down to its most basic level, language wearing children’s clothes, is a powerful thing.  By the second or third day of writing in Comic Sans, I found myself feeling freer than ever to make silly mistakes, take risks, and explore stranger territories. 
In result, the word count of my novel has doubled in the past week. 
There is no magical solution to writer’s block, but sometimes even the smallest changes of habit can remind us of our own meek position as artists.
Far be it from me to criticize anyone else's life hack; we all have our personal mental gymnastics we employ to keep ourselves going with challenging tasks.  For me, I'm dubious it would work.  I went to the three pages I wrote on my new book yesterday, and altered the font to Comic Sans just to see what it would look like, and my feeling was: it looks ridiculous.  The story I started on yesterday is supposed to be tense, dark, and dramatic, and written in Comic Sans, you keep waiting for the main character to have a hair's-breadth escape from the Bad Guys just in time to get home and feed his overweight cat some lasagna.

So I switched back to serious, no-nonsense Times New Roman.

It's a little like the claim I looked at a couple of months ago, where some researchers in Australia claimed to have found a font that improves reading retention.  (They called it "Sans Forgetica.")  Sadly, subsequent studies found that it was both annoying and unhelpful, so it actually had the opposite effect from what a teacher of literature would want.  And while I wasn't able to find any legitimate research about the effect of Comic Sans -- I don't know how you'd measure writers' block in any case -- I strongly suspect the same is true here.  While the novelty combined with the placebo effect might help some writers increase their output for a while, I'm dubious that there's anything more than that going on.

It's a little like the famous exchange between the mathematician Euclid and his pupil, King Ptolemy.  When the latter asked his teacher if there was no easier way to understand the mathematical concept they were working on, Euclid responded, "μὴ εἰ̃ναι βασιλικὴν ἀτραπὸν ἐπὶ γεωμετρίαν" -- "There is no royal shortcut to geometry."

There's no royal shortcut to creative writing, either, more's the pity.  And with that, I need to sit my ass down and work on my new story.  Dark, harrowing post-apocalyptic tales don't write themselves, even if you use a goofy-looking font.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun and amusing discussion of a very ominous topic; how the universe will end.

In The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) astrophysicist Katie Mack takes us through all the known possibilities -- a "Big Crunch" (the Big Bang in reverse), the cheerfully-named "Heat Death" (the material of the universe spread out at uniform density and a uniform temperature of only a few degrees above absolute zero), the terrifying -- but fortunately extremely unlikely -- Vacuum Decay (where the universe tears itself apart from the inside out), and others even wilder.

The cool thing is that all of it is scientifically sound.  Mack is a brilliant theoretical astrophysicist, and her explanations take cutting-edge research and bring it to a level a layperson can understand.  And along the way, her humor shines through, bringing a touch of lightness and upbeat positivity to a subject that will take the reader to the edges of the known universe and the end of time.

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




Friday, August 7, 2020

The lure of nature

I didn't have an easy childhood.  There were a lot of reasons for this, some stemming from my own issues and some completely outside my control.  But one happy constant in my life, and the high point of every year, was that in the summer my dad and I would go on a three-week car trip to Arizona and New Mexico.

The reason for this was that my dad was an avid rockhound.  Not only did he simply like rocks, he was a talented lapidary -- he had the diamond-edged saws and grinding wheels and all the other equipment to turn agates and jaspers and turquoise into beautiful jewelry.  Our summer expeditions resulted in the car coming back weighing twice as much as it did going out, because the trunk was full of boxes of fist-sized chunks of brightly-colored rocks we'd found while hiking in the canyons.

I loved these trips.  My dad was an interesting guy but not very talkative -- a trait I definitely inherited myself -- so it left me lots of space to wander my own interior world while messing about outdoors.  I liked rocks myself, but my favorite things about the desert were the blue skies and clear air, the stark, pristine beauty of the cliffs and mesas, the weird and wonderful cacti, and -- most of all -- the absolute silence.  Where I grew up, in southern Louisiana, was at the time a quiet, not-quite-suburban neighborhood not on the direct path to anywhere, but even so I was never far away from traffic noise.  In the canyons of southeastern Arizona, however, there was literally no sound but the sighing of the wind, and sometimes the distant call of a hawk.  The rumble of a distant thunderstorm or the howling of a coyote at night sounded otherworldly.  It was a strange, beautiful, harsh, magical place, and I swore as a child one day I'd live in Arizona permanently.  It never happened, but over the years I've been back several times to visit some of my favorite childhood haunts, and the southwestern desert still has an attraction for me that borders on the spiritual.


The reason this comes up is a study that appeared this week in The Journal of Environmental Education called, "How Combinations of Recreational Activities Predict Connection to Nature Among Youth," by Rachel Szczytko (Pisces Foundation), Kathryn Tate Stevenson and Markus Nils Peterson (North Carolina State University), and Howard Bondell (University of Melbourne).  The team of researchers looked into what activities were most likely to lead to kids feeling a lifelong connection to the outdoors, and they found that social activities -- family camping trips, Girl or Boy Scouts, programs like 4-H and Primitive Pursuits -- were good, but far better were activities outdoors that were solitary.  Give a kid time to explore outside on his/her own -- whether in the context of an activity like hunting or fishing, or just for the hell of it -- and (s)he's likely to form a permanent bond to nature.

"We saw that there were different combinations of specific activities that could build a strong connection to nature; but a key starting point was being outside, in a more solitary activity," said study co-author Kathryn Tate Stevenson, in a press release from North Carolina State University.  "Maybe we need more programming to allow children to be more contemplative in nature, or opportunities to establish a personal connection.  That could be silent sits, or it could be activities where children are looking or observing on their own.  It could mean sending kids to the outdoors to make observations on their own.  It doesn’t mean kids should be unsupervised, but adults could consider stepping back and letting kids explore on their own."

My dad certainly did that.  I got good instruction on safety -- always carry water and food, wear sturdy hiking boots, don't stint on the suntan lotion (a rule that had to be reinforced daily, given that as a kid I was kind of the half-naked savage type), stay on established trails, and so on.  I already had a healthy respect for wildlife, having grown up in a place that had water moccasins and copperheads galore, so I kept a good lookout for rattlesnakes and scorpions and the like.  As a result, I never got lost or injured, and spent many a happy hour exploring the desert, fostering a love for the outdoors that I still enjoy.

And we need more people growing up with a love of the natural world, given how much our current activities are imperiling it.  "There are all kinds of benefits from building connections to nature and spending time outside," Stevenson said.  "One of the benefits we’re highlighting is that children who have a strong connection to nature are more likely to want to take care of the environment in the future."

It certainly did that for me.  I never got to live in the desert, as I wanted as a child, but instead made my home in one of the most beautiful places on Earth -- the lake country of upstate New York, where I have 3.5 acres of woods and fields, a nice pond (suitable for skinnydipping), and if that's not enough, I'm five miles from a National Forest with miles of trails for running, hiking, and cross-country skiing.

Which is, to me, a recipe for bliss.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun and amusing discussion of a very ominous topic; how the universe will end.

In The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) astrophysicist Katie Mack takes us through all the known possibilities -- a "Big Crunch" (the Big Bang in reverse), the cheerfully-named "Heat Death" (the material of the universe spread out at uniform density and a uniform temperature of only a few degrees above absolute zero), the terrifying -- but fortunately extremely unlikely -- Vacuum Decay (where the universe tears itself apart from the inside out), and others even wilder.

The cool thing is that all of it is scientifically sound.  Mack is a brilliant theoretical astrophysicist, and her explanations take cutting-edge research and bring it to a level a layperson can understand.  And along the way, her humor shines through, bringing a touch of lightness and upbeat positivity to a subject that will take the reader to the edges of the known universe and the end of time.

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




Thursday, August 6, 2020

The legend of 50 Berkeley Square

Sometimes, with folk tales, you can pinpoint exactly when a legend entered the public awareness.  Someone writes and publishes a story in one of those "True Weird Tales" books or magazines; a report of a haunting makes the local news or newspaper; or, more recently, someone makes a claim in a blog, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Such, for example, is the famous story of the tumbling coffins of Barbados, about which there seems to be zero hard documentary evidence -- but which first appeared (as a true tale) in James Alexander's Transatlantic Sketches, and has been a standard in the ghost story repertoire ever since.  Likewise, the story of Lord Dufferin and the doomed elevator operator has a very certain provenance -- Lord Dufferin himself, who enjoyed nothing more than terrifying the absolute shit out of his house guests by telling the story over glasses of cognac late at night.

One of the scariest ghost stories, though, seems to have been built by accretion, and has no certain date of origin.  It's the tale of the "most haunted house in London" -- Number 50 Berkeley Square.


[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Metro Centric, Sophie Snyder Berkeley Square, CC BY 2.0]

The house itself is a four-story structure, built in the late eighteenth century, that looks innocent enough from the outside.  Until 1827 it was the home of British Prime Minister George Canning, which certainly gives it some historical gravitas right from the outset.  But gradually the ownership descended down the socioeconomic scale, and in the late 1800s it had fallen into disrepair.

At some point during that interval, it got the reputation for being haunted.  Apparently, it's the upper floor that is said to be the worst; some say it's occupied by the spirit of a young woman who committed suicide by throwing herself from one of the upper windows, others that it's haunted by the ghost of a young man whose family had locked him in the attic by himself, feeding him through a slot in the door until he went mad and finally died.  Whatever the truth of the non-paranormal aspects -- the suicide of the young woman, or the madness and death of the unfortunate young man -- it's clear that neighbors viewed the house askance during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.  And that's when the legends really took off.

The earliest definite account of haunting comes from George, Baron Lyttelton, who spent the night in the attic in 1872 after being dared to do so by a friend.  He saw (he said) an apparition that appeared to him as a brown mist and that "generated a feeling of absolute terror."  He shot at it, to no apparent effect, and the next morning found the shotgun shell but no other trace of what he'd fired at.  Lyttelton himself committed suicide four years later by throwing himself down the stairs of his London home -- some say, because he never recovered from the fright he'd received that night.

In 1879, Mayfair ran a story about the place, recounting the then-deceased Baron Lyttelton's encounter, and also describing the experience of a maid who'd been sent up to the attic to clean it, and had gone mad.  She died shortly afterward in an asylum, prompting another skeptic, one Sir Robert Warboys -- a "notorious rake, libertine, and scoffer" -- to spend the night, saying that he could handle anything that cared to show up.  The owner of the house elected to stay downstairs, but they rigged up a bell so that Warboys could summon help if anything happened.  Around midnight, the owner was awakened by the bell ringing furiously, followed by the sound of a pistol shot.  According to one account:
The landlord raced upstairs and found Sir Robert sitting on the floor in the corner of the room with a smoking pistol in his hand.  The young man had evidently died from traumatic shock, for his eyes were bulged, and his lips were curled from his clenched teeth.  The landlord followed the line of sight from the dead man's terrible gaze and traced it to a single bullet hole in the opposite wall.  He quickly deduced that Warboys had fired at the 'Thing', to no avail.
The house was (according to the legend) left unoccupied thereafter because no one could be found who was willing to rent it.  This is why it was empty when two sailors on shore leave from Portsmouth Harbor, Edward Blunden and Robert Martin, decided to stay there one foggy night when they could find no rooms to rent.  They were awakened in the wee hours by a misty "something" that tried to strangle Martin -- beside himself with fright, he fled, thinking his buddy was right behind him.  He wasn't.  When he went back into the house the following morning, accompanied by police, he found the unfortunate Blunden -- with his neck broken.

What's interesting about all of this is that after the Mayfair story, the whole thing kind of died down.  It's still called "the most haunted house in London," and figures prominently on London ghost tours, but it was purchased in 1937 by Maggs Brothers Antiquarian Book Dealers and has shown no sign since that time of any paranormal occurrences.  And it's been pointed out that the story The Haunted and the Haunters by Edward Bulwer-Lytton -- published in 1859, right around the time the rumors of the haunting started -- bears an uncanny resemblance to the tale of 50 Berkeley Square, especially the account of the unstable Baron Lyttelton.

Sad to say for aficionados of "true ghost stories," the likeliest explanation is that the entire thing was spun from whole cloth.  There's no evidence that any of the paranormal stuff ever happened.  In fact, "Sir Robert Warboys" doesn't seem to exist except in connection to the haunted attic; if there is a mention of him anywhere except in accounts of his death at the hands of the misty "Thing," I haven't been able to find it.  As far as "two sailors from Portsmouth," that has about as much factual reliability as "I heard the story from my aunt who said her best friend in high school's mother's second cousin saw it with her very own eyes."  And Lyttelton, as I've said, doesn't seem like he was exactly the most mentally stable of individuals to start with.

But I have to admit, it's a hell of a scary tale.  Part of what makes it as terrifying as it is is the fact that you never see the phantom's face.  As Stephen King points out, in his outstanding analysis of horror fiction Danse Macabre, there are times when not seeing what's behind the door is way worse than opening the door and finding out what's actually there.  So even though I'm not buying that the place is haunted, it does make for a great story -- and 50 Berkeley Square will definitely be on my itinerary when I have an opportunity to visit London.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun and amusing discussion of a very ominous topic; how the universe will end.

In The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) astrophysicist Katie Mack takes us through all the known possibilities -- a "Big Crunch" (the Big Bang in reverse), the cheerfully-named "Heat Death" (the material of the universe spread out at uniform density and a uniform temperature of only a few degrees above absolute zero), the terrifying -- but fortunately extremely unlikely -- Vacuum Decay (where the universe tears itself apart from the inside out), and others even wilder.

The cool thing is that all of it is scientifically sound.  Mack is a brilliant theoretical astrophysicist, and her explanations take cutting-edge research and bring it to a level a layperson can understand.  And along the way, her humor shines through, bringing a touch of lightness and upbeat positivity to a subject that will take the reader to the edges of the known universe and the end of time.

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