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, September 19, 2020

King of the who?

Given yesterday's post on odd coincidences, I thought it was kind of amusing that I stumbled upon the topic for today's post -- more or less by random chance -- immediately after reading two books that touched on the subject.

Both of them are about the Arthurian Legends, which has been an interest for years, so my reading them isn't itself odd.  It's odder, perhaps, that I didn't like either one of them at all.  The first was the novelization of the story from the point of view of Morgaine (Morgan le Fay), Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon.  I found just about every character in the story somewhere between obnoxious and downright repulsive, and it's hard to stay invested in a novel when I honestly don't give a damn if the characters live or die.  (My distaste was only deepened when I found out about the disturbing allegations against Bradley and her husband made by their children -- allegations which were proven in the husband's case, leading to his being sent to prison for pedophilia and dying there in 1993.)

The second was intended as historical scholarship, and although I'm hardly a qualified expert on the subject, this one seemed to me to face-plant rather badly as well.  Norma Lorre Goodrich's book King Arthur looks at the literary sources of Arthuriana, focusing especially on Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, and Thomas Malory.  Glossing over the fact that the earliest of the three -- Geoffrey of Monmouth -- was still writing a good five centuries after Arthur's time, she goes through intellectual backflips to support her contention that Arthur and his pals weren't from Cornwall and Wales as usually depicted, but from Scotland, more specifically the area around Stirling and Edinburgh.  Like I said, I can't give a knowledgeable opinion about her use of the source material, but I am qualified to say that her attempts at historical linguistics are nothing short of silly.  (They amount to, "if you change this letter to this one, and reverse the syllables, and add a prefix, you can clearly see these two words are the same!")

Oh, and when she mentioned "fifth century Vikings" I wasn't sure whether to laugh or to hurl the book across the room.

Speaking of authoritative sources...

Anyhow, I just stopped reading Goodrich's book last night (didn't finish it and don't intend to), so I was a little startled when, in the course of looking for a topic for today's post, I stumbled quite by accident on an article in Edinburgh Live from only last week about some new archaeological discoveries on "Arthur's Seat," the remains of an extinct volcano overlooking the Firth of Forth.  Researchers have found the site of a village occupied by the Votadini, a rather mysterious Iron Age Celtic tribe who spoke a Brythonic language (i.e. more closely related to Welsh, Breton, and Cornish than to Scots Gaelic), centered around Traprain Law, a hill fort seventeen kilometers east of Edinburgh.

Arthur's Seat [Image licensed under the Creative Commons David Monniaux, Edinburgh Arthur Seat dsc06165, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Which, of course, is exactly the area Goodrich claims was Arthur's bailiwick.  That she's not the only one who thinks there's a connection to King Arthur is evident from the name of the site, although it seems likely that the place was named a long while after Arthur's time by people who thought the Arthurian connection gave the place more gravitas.

Anyhow, the new research on the topic is more grounded in history, and more interesting.  The remains of the village on Arthur's Seat showed some significant fortification, including buildings surrounded by a hundred-meter-long, five-meter-thick rampart blocking the easiest path up to the top of the hill.  Fifth-century Roman silver coins were found at the site, suggesting the Votadini traded with the Romans living in the northern parts of England, although the evidence is their territory was only under actual occupation during a fairly short time in the middle of the second century C. E.

The archaeologists, however, found zero evidence of King Arthur having anything to do with the site.  If, in fact, there ever was a historical Arthur, something the jury is still out on.  The problem is, you can't really base history on a bunch of (way) after-the-fact, quasi-mythological accounts.  One of the best and most exhaustive analyses of the topic -- Francis Pryor's Britain A.D.: A Quest for Arthur, England, and the Anglo-Saxons -- found that the earliest source known that explicitly mentions Arthur, Nennius's Historia Brittonum, was written in the early ninth century, still a good three hundred years after Arthur's (alleged) reign.

Not exactly an eyewitness account, that.

Still, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as cosmologist Martin Rees was wont to say.  There could have been an Arthur messing about in Britain back then.  And there's no doubt that it's at the very least a fascinating legend.

I do still find it funny that I ran across this research literally the day after reaching the limits of my tolerance for Norma Lorre Goodrich's wild speculations on the same place and the same topic.  Not only that, a day after writing here at Skeptophilia on the subject of odd coincidences.  Which you have to admit is kind of meta.  Either it's the universe having a good laugh at my expense, or else I need to re-read my own post about how strange coincidences don't actually mean anything.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is about one of the most terrifying viruses known to man: rabies.

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, we learn about the history and biology of this tiny bit of protein and DNA that has, once you develop symptoms, a nearly 100% mortality rate.  Not only that, but it is unusual amongst pathogens at having extremely low host specificity.  It's transmissible to most mammal species, and there have been cases of humans contracting rabies not from one of the "big five" -- raccoons, foxes, skunks, bats, and dogs -- but from animals like deer.

Rabid goes through not only what medical science has to say about the virus and the disease it causes, but its history, including the possibility that it gave rise to the legends of lycanthropy and werewolves.  It's a fascinating read.

Even though it'll make you a little more wary of wildlife.

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



Friday, September 18, 2020

It is your mind that bends

Yesterday I was in my car on the way to an appointment in Ithaca, and I was listening to some classical music on satellite radio.  The announcer came on with some of the usual sort of background information before a piece is played.  In this case, she said, "Next, we're going to hear from one of the masters of the classical guitar."  And immediately, I thought, "it's going to be Narciso Yepes."

And she continued, "... here's Narciso Yepes, playing Bach's Lute Suite #1."

Now, it's odd that I thought of Yepes at all.  I don't know much about classical guitar players -- the two I've heard the most often are Andrés Segovia and Christopher Parkening, but even them I only listen to intermittently.  I think I have one CD of Yepes, but I'm not sure where it is and I don't think I've listened to it in years.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Kirkwood123, Matao MC-1 classical guitar 01, CC BY-SA 3.0]

So the certainty of my thought is peculiar from a couple of standpoints, even if you believe that it wasn't a premonition (which, predictably, I don't).  The first is that I came up with the name of a guitarist I barely know at all, as soon as the announcer mentioned "classical guitar;" and the second, of course, is that it turned out to be right.

Interestingly (and you might consider this another synchronicity), just yesterday a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link to a subreddit called Glitch in the Matrix which is devoted to exactly these sorts of occurrences.  The name, of course, comes from the movie The Matrix, in which odd coincidences and experiences of déjà vu are indicative that the Machines are making minor alterations to the computer simulation inside which we all live. 

The fact that we all have these experiences now and again certainly deserves some consideration. Let's take a look at three excerpts from the subreddit:
For about 5 or 6 years now (I'm 21 as of now), I've noticed that, whether it's the time that I check my phone, or it's a donation on a Twitch stream, or any number of other things, there's a decent chance that it'll be the number 619.  It's nothing I'm too worried about, but it pops up every so often naturally that it just doesn't seem like a simple coincidence anymore.  It's something that I noticed happened, and then it continued to happen long after that... 

I'll notice the time as 6:19 every once in a while, and at first I chalked it up to being stuck in the same routine, but it continued to occur after several changes in sleep schedules and school/work schedule.  Again, it's not only the time of day either, but I'll notice it in a phone number, or any number of places.  It's gotten to be like my own private joke that people or places attached to the number must mean something to me, although I never act on it... 

So any theories on my special little number?  Does anyone else have a number or idea "follow" them around like this?  Or is this an underlying symptom of a mental disorder that I've been ignorant of for 21 years?
Here's another:
One of the most terrifying experiences I've ever encountered was with my friend Gordie last summer and to this day still makes me feel uncomfortable to talk about because I genuinely can not explain what happened on any logical level.

We were driving to Mission and on the way back I noticed I had forgotten something at the store.  By this time we were in downtown Maple Ridge and considering we had nothing to do so we went back.  It's about a 20 minute drive to Mission from where we were.  The clock read 3:23.

The clock reads 3:37. Gordie and I look at each other.  And he asks me "what happened?"  Neither of us remember the drive between Maple Ridge and Mission.  We lost 15 minutes of lives and we have no idea where it went.  All we know is that in between post A and B nothing or probably something happened.

Not a single word was said.  The last thing we remember talking about was how Skyrim will never have a follow up.  Then at the snap of a universal finger.  Nothing.  15 minutes gone.

The rest of the ride was very quiet and we were both very much on edge and uncomfortable.  We have both experienced something completely unexplainable but yet at the same time we experienced nothing.

I'm the grand scheme of things, 15 minutes seems inconsequential and minimal to the many minutes in our life.  But nevertheless it remains unknown as to where time went.

My only explanation is that I passed though a wormhole and somehow ended up on the other side.
And one last one:
I had a problem with a programming question, so I googled it, and I went to the forum Stackoverflow (in which I had signed up 2 years ago).  I found an excellent answer that solved my problem, and I told myself "Oh...  So many intelligent people out there...  I would have never been able to write something like that."  
And then I realized... the author of the answer is my account.  It's me...  
I am convinced this is caused by a glitch in the matrix.  Most probably, many answers on the forum are generated by the matrix, and the glitch was to attribute my username to it.  Of course, a couple of seconds after that, I was getting a vague idea that I may have written the answer (false memory), but I am not fooled!
So, given that we are starting from the standpoint of there being a natural explanation for all of this, what is going on here?

I think the key is that all of these rely on two things; the general unreliability of perception and memory, and our capacity for noticing what seems odd and ignoring pretty much everything else.  Starting with our 619-noticer, consider how many times (s)he probably looks at clocks, not to mention other sources of three-digit numbers, and it's not 619.  Once you have a couple of precedents -- most likely caused, as the writer noted, by being in the same routine -- you are much more likely to notice it again.  And each subsequent occurrence reinforces the perception that something odd is going on.

As far as the time-slip friends, I think what happened here is a simple failure of attention.  I've driven on auto-pilot more than once, especially when I'm fatigued, and suddenly sat up straight and thought, "How the hell did I get here?"  I honestly had no memory at all of driving the intervening distance.  But a mysterious time-slip is less likely than my brain being elsewhere (leaving some portion of my attention still focused on my driving, fortunately).

And the last one, the person who answered him/herself on an internet forum, certainly has to be a case of a lost memory.  I have a friend from college who has an excellent memory for details from the past, and periodically reminds me of things that happened to the two of us -- and more than once I've had to admit to him that I have no recollection of the events whatsoever.  It's disconcerting, but our memories are far less thorough and accurate than we think they are.

My own premonition-like decision that the radio announcer was going to be playing a piece by Narciso Yepes is clearly something of the sort.  Considering how often I listen to the radio, and hear the announcer give a bit of information about the next selection, it's likely I have thoughts like, "I hope she plays something by Scarlatti next!" several times a day.  Most of them, of course, are wrong predictions, and because that's the norm, such events are immediately forgotten.  It's only the coincidental ones, the outliers, that get noticed -- yet another example of our old friend dart-thrower's bias.

But even so, I think I'll dig up that Yepes album and put it on.  Whether or not it was a glitch in the matrix, he's a pretty damn good guitarist.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is about one of the most terrifying viruses known to man: rabies.

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, we learn about the history and biology of this tiny bit of protein and DNA that has, once you develop symptoms, a nearly 100% mortality rate.  Not only that, but it is unusual amongst pathogens at having extremely low host specificity.  It's transmissible to most mammal species, and there have been cases of humans contracting rabies not from one of the "big five" -- raccoons, foxes, skunks, bats, and dogs -- but from animals like deer.

Rabid goes through not only what medical science has to say about the virus and the disease it causes, but its history, including the possibility that it gave rise to the legends of lycanthropy and werewolves.  It's a fascinating read.

Even though it'll make you a little more wary of wildlife.

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



Thursday, September 17, 2020

The vanishing ice

California and Oregon are, literally, burning up.  A couple of days ago, there were five named tropical cyclones in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico simultaneously, something that's only happened one other time since records have been kept.  One of those cyclones is, as I write this, in the process of pummeling coastal Alabama and the panhandle of Florida, and the city of Pensacola is mostly underwater.

And still our "leaders" are claiming climate change doesn't exist.

The issue is settled, folks.  It has been for some time.  There is not a reputable climate scientist out there who denies the reality of anthropogenic global warming.  I know you can't link single events to a climate shift -- saying, for example, that a particular wildfire was directly caused by climate change -- but the overall pattern is absolutely unequivocal.  To deny it is an indicator either of being beholden to the corporate interests who would very much like climate change not to exist, or else abject and inexcusable ignorance. 

Donald Trump, for example.  The man was an amoral, sociopathic narcissist to begin with, and now is illustrating on nearly a daily basis that he is also a catastrophic clod.  Take the briefing he participated in with California Governor Gavin Newsom a couple of days ago, in which the following exchange took place:

Wade Crowfoot, the California Secretary for Natural Resources:  We've had temperatures explode this summer...  We want to work with you to really recognize the changing climate and what it means to our forests and actually work together with that science.  That science is going to be key because if we ignore that science and sort of put our head in the sand and think it's all about vegetation management, we're not going to succeed in protecting Californians.

Trump:  It'll start getting cooler.  You just — you just watch.

Crowfoot:  I wish science agreed with you.

Trump:  Well, I don't think science knows, actually.
Right.  Same as his statement a few months ago that COVID-19 was going to "disappear, just like a miracle, you'll see."

The fact that Trump has a single supporter left brings home the accuracy of Isaac Asimov's famous essay "The Cult of Ignorance," written all the way back in 1980, in which he said:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been.  The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

Trump may be the best illustration of that poisonous belief that the world has ever produced.

There's malice underlying his ignorance, though.  Trump not only is colossally stupid, he goes out of his way to surround himself with people who either share his views or, at the very least, don't dare challenge him.  Witness the fact that just two days ago, he appointed a well-known climate science denier, David Legates, to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- which oversees funding for climate monitoring and climate research.

All of this is hardly a surprise.  It's just more manifestation of a long-established pattern of science denial by our government.  Nevertheless, if you for some reason needed yet another reason to accept that climate change is occurring as we speak, consider the study that appeared in Nature last week, by Laura Landrum and Marika Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.  In a paper that has the grim title, "Extremes Become Routine in an Emerging New Arctic," Landrum and Holland describe a fundamental shift in the entire climate of the Arctic, where open water and rain is now more common than sea ice and snow.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Pink floyd88 a, Arctic Ice 2, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Writing about the research for the New York Times, journalist Henry Fountain paints a devastating picture of the speed of the change:

Using years of observational data from the region and computer models, the researchers found that sea ice is already in a new climate, in effect: The extent of ice in recent years is consistently less than what would be expected in even the worst year for ice in the mid-20th century.

Arctic sea ice has declined by about 12 percent per decade since satellite measurements began in the late 1970s, and the 13 lowest sea-ice years have all occurred since 2007.  This year is expected to be a record or near-record low for ice extent, which will be determined by the end of this month as the summer melt period ends.

I had to read that twice to realize that actually, even Fountain is soft-pedaling it.  The "thirteen sea-ice years since 2007" are every year since 2007.  The first sentence of the second paragraph should end with, "... and each of the last thirteen years has had lower sea ice than any other on record."

That is climate change.  Unmistakable unless you're either mind-blowingly ignorant or else in the pocket of corporate interests.

Or, like in the case of Donald Trump, both.

The time for argument over whether climate change is happening is over.  It has been for some time.  My fear is that the window of opportunity for doing something about it might be closing as well.  I'm not giving up yet, though.  Too much is at stake, like the long-term habitability of the Earth.  Time we elected some leaders who not only care about this, but understand and respect science rather than sneering and scoffing at it.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is about one of the most terrifying viruses known to man: rabies.

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, we learn about the history and biology of this tiny bit of protein and DNA that has, once you develop symptoms, a nearly 100% mortality rate.  Not only that, but it is unusual amongst pathogens at having extremely low host specificity.  It's transmissible to most mammal species, and there have been cases of humans contracting rabies not from one of the "big five" -- raccoons, foxes, skunks, bats, and dogs -- but from animals like deer.

Rabid goes through not only what medical science has to say about the virus and the disease it causes, but its history, including the possibility that it gave rise to the legends of lycanthropy and werewolves.  It's a fascinating read.

Even though it'll make you a little more wary of wildlife.

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



Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Life in hell

Given my near-obsessive interest in extraterrestrial life, I suppose it was inevitable that I've now been sent links to the latest research on Venus over a dozen times.

The gist, in case you haven't read about it yet, is that astronomers have identified the absorption spectrum of a rare molecule -- phosphine -- in the upper atmosphere of the planet Venus.  Phosphine is produced in vanishingly small quantities on Earth by cloud-to-ground lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions, but the amount detected in the atmosphere of Venus is a full ten thousand times too high to be accounted for by any known inorganic chemistry or geology.

Ruling out one by one all of the inorganic sources of phosphine seems to leave only one remaining possibility; there are microbes in the Venusian atmosphere that produce the stuff.  There are a handful of species of terrestrial microbes that produce phosphine (here, it's in even smaller quantities than the inorganic sources).  But if these microbes (or something like them) existed on Venus, it could easily account for the excess.

You may be wondering how anything lives on Venus.  It's a good question.  The surface of Venus is a lot like our conception of hell.  For a long time people interpreted the constant cloud layers that obscure the surface as being made of water droplets, like they are on Earth; it led to some pretty cool speculative fiction about what could be down there (C. S. Lewis's novel Perelandra and H. P. Lovecraft's outstanding short story "In the Walls of Eryx" come to mind).  But that speculation was based on nothing but an absence of evidence.  As Carl Sagan put it so eloquently:

The chain of reasoning goes something like this: I can't see a thing on the surface of Venus.  Why not?  Because it's covered with a dense layer of clouds.  Well, what are clouds made of?  Water, of course.  Therefore, Venus must have an awful lot of water on it.  Therefore, the surface must be wet.  Well, if the surface is wet, it's probably a swamp.  If there's a swamp, there's ferns.  If there's ferns, maybe there's even dinosaurs.

Observation: I can't see a thing.  Conclusion: dinosaurs.

This whole thing got shot down pretty conclusively in the 1960s when the first unmanned (fortunately) probes to Venus dropped through the atmosphere and promptly were simultaneously crushed and fried by an atmosphere with ninety times the pressure of Earth's atmosphere at sea level and temperatures that hover around 460 C.  Further exploration showed that the clouds are largely sulfuric acid, and the atmosphere is 96.5% carbon dioxide (compared to 0.04% on Earth), leading to a runaway greenhouse effect.

The surface of Venus [Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA/JPL]

It's not just hot, it's wracked with turbulence the likes of which we never see on Earth.  The heat provides a huge energy source for Venusian weather, mostly in the form of violent storms and updrafts.  As dubious as he was about life on Venus, Sagan had suggested these updrafts as a key to the possible terraforming of the planet, and proposed launching rockets with payloads of blue-green bacteria spores, set to detonate in the upper clouds.  As the spores fall through the relatively mild temperatures of the upper atmosphere, they begin to photosynthesize, using up some of the carbon dioxide.  Enough are kept aloft by the updrafts to keep the process going, and ultimately, the greenhouse effect would diminish and the temperature would fall to more tolerable levels.

Well, nature may have anticipated Sagan.  If there are anaerobic microbes riding the turbulence in Venus's upper atmosphere, it would be the first unequivocal example of extraterrestrial life ever found.  The scientists are being careful about overstating their conclusion, but even given the usual caution, the excitement is palpable.  "The non-biological production of phosphine on Venus is excluded by our current understanding of phosphine chemistry in rocky planets' atmospheres," said Leonardo Testi, astronomer with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile, one of the most sensitive telescopes in existence.  "Confirming the existence of life on Venus's atmosphere would be a major breakthrough for astrobiology; thus, it is essential to follow-up on this exciting result with theoretical and observational studies to exclude the possibility that phosphine on rocky planets may also have a chemical origin different than on Earth."

So it's premature to say "we've discovered extraterrestrial life," but this is the best candidate for it I can recall seeing, and in one of the most inhospitable spots in the Solar System.  If this is confirmed to be of biological origin, it gives a lot of support to the contention I've had all along -- that life will turn out to be common in the the universe.  It'd boost the enthusiasm for checking out other places in the Solar System that could host life (Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Titan come to mind), because after all, if life can exist on Venus, it could exist damn near anywhere.

Still no dinosaurs, though.  None of Lewis's floating islands made of rafts of plants, either, nor Lovecraft's evil jewel-hunting reptilian natives.  But for now, it's good enough for me, as long as the astronomers don't find some kind of exotic Venusian chemistry that explains the gas's presence.

If the whole thing pans out, it really gives new meaning to Ian Malcolm's line from Jurassic Park, doesn't it?

"Life finds a way."

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is about one of the most terrifying viruses known to man: rabies.

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, we learn about the history and biology of this tiny bit of protein and DNA that has, once you develop symptoms, a nearly 100% mortality rate.  Not only that, but it is unusual amongst pathogens at having extremely low host specificity.  It's transmissible to most mammal species, and there have been cases of humans contracting rabies not from one of the "big five" -- raccoons, foxes, skunks, bats, and dogs -- but from animals like deer.

Rabid goes through not only what medical science has to say about the virus and the disease it causes, but its history, including the possibility that it gave rise to the legends of lycanthropy and werewolves.  It's a fascinating read.

Even though it'll make you a little more wary of wildlife.

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



Tuesday, September 15, 2020

In the dark

 "Okay, that's cool, but what the hell am I looking at?"

That was my reaction to a press release last week from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics about a new study of the distribution of dark matter in the universe.  Turns out it's not uniform, which is what I'd have expected given that it apparently doesn't interact with anything except via gravitation (although I hardly need to point out that my opinion on the matter counts for next to nothing because I'm not a physicist).  It exists in filaments and haloes, where the majority of galaxies are concentrated.  Here's one of the images they generated:


I know you can't read much into appearances, but I was immediately struck by how much this image, especially the right-hand part, looks like a neural net.  (I'm just waiting for the woo-woos to latch onto this and claim that this proves the universe is a giant brain.)

"Amongst the things we’ve learned from our simulations is that gravity leads to dark matter particles 'clumping' in overly dense regions of the universe, settling into what’s known as dark matter haloes," said study lead author Sownak Bose.  "These can essentially be thought of as big wells of gravity filled with dark matter particles.  We think that every galaxy in the cosmos is surrounded by an extended distribution of dark matter, which outweighs the luminous material of the galaxy by between a factor of 10-100, depending on the type of galaxy.  Because this dark matter surrounds every galaxy in all directions, we refer to it as a 'halo.'"

So this could be a partial explanation for structures like the Boötes Void, a region of space so empty that (in the words of astronomer Greg Aldering) if the Milky Way was at the center of it, we wouldn't have known about the existence of other galaxies until the 1960s.  It's about 236,000 cubic megaparsecs -- equivalent to a cube 61 trillion parsecs on each side -- and, as of this writing, seems to contain only sixty galaxies.

That, my friends, is a whole lot of nothing.

The distribution of matter in space is clumpy and irregular.  Whether this drives the distribution of dark matter, or it's the other way around (the distribution of dark matter drives the arrangement of ordinary matter in the cosmos) is unknown.

Because that's the trouble, here, to go back to my initial question.  We've got some wonderful pictures of dark matter haloes and filaments, but what the hell is it?  I know the physicists have been working on this question ever since astronomer Vera Rubin demonstrated its existence back in the 1990s, but for cryin' in the sink, it makes up 83% of the mass of the universe, and we still don't have a good idea of what it's made of or how it interacts (again, other than its gravitational signature, which is how it was detected in the first place).

But what dark matter actually is still lies in the realm of speculation.  "Ground-based telescopes like the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) can be used for this purpose [detecting dark matter], too." said Jie Wang, who co-authored the study.  "And, pointing telescopes at galaxies other than our own could also help, as this radiation should be produced in all dark matter haloes.  With the knowledge from our simulation, we can evaluate many different tools to detect haloes—gamma-ray, gravitational lensing, dynamics.  These methods are all promising in the work to shed light on the nature of dark matter particles."

So the upshot is there's a network of invisible stuff spreading through the entire universe, perhaps organizing the distribution of ordinary matter, but for sure surrounding and penetrating everything there is.  Without interacting with it in any way other than gravity (as far as we can tell).

Which is a hell of a mystery, isn't it?

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is about one of the most terrifying viruses known to man: rabies.

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, we learn about the history and biology of this tiny bit of protein and DNA that has, once you develop symptoms, a nearly 100% mortality rate.  Not only that, but it is unusual amongst pathogens at having extremely low host specificity.  It's transmissible to most mammal species, and there have been cases of humans contracting rabies not from one of the "big five" -- raccoons, foxes, skunks, bats, and dogs -- but from animals like deer.

Rabid goes through not only what medical science has to say about the virus and the disease it causes, but its history, including the possibility that it gave rise to the legends of lycanthropy and werewolves.  It's a fascinating read.

Even though it'll make you a little more wary of wildlife.

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



Monday, September 14, 2020

Solution to the Census Taker Puzzle

A few days ago, I posted a puzzle, and challenged my readers to try to solve it.  (If you haven't seen it yet, it's in my post "Pieces of the Puzzle.")  I promised I'd post a solution, so here it is.  (If you're still working on it, read no further!  It's always more fun to work something out yourself than to have someone simply tell you the answer.)

Here's the puzzle:
A census taker goes to a man's house, and asks for the ages of the man's three daughters.  
The man says, "The product of their ages is 36."  
The census taker says, "That's not enough information to figure it out." 
The man says, "Okay. The sum of their ages is equal to the house number across the street."  
The census taker looks out of the window at the house across the street, and says, "That's still not enough information to figure it out."  
The man says, "Okay.  My oldest daughter has red hair."  
The census taker says thank you and writes down the ages of the three daughters.  
How old are they?
Clue #1 -- that the product of the three girls' ages is equal to 36 -- gives us eight possible combinations of ages:
1, 1, 36
1, 2, 18
1, 3, 12
1, 4, 9
1, 6, 6
2, 3, 6
2, 2, 9
3, 3, 4
So the census taker is quite right that this is insufficient information.

The second clue is that the sum of their ages is equal to the house number across the street. So let's see what the house number could be:
1 + 1 + 36 = 38
1 + 2 + 18 = 21
1 + 3 + 12 = 16
1 + 4 + 9 = 14
1 + 6 + 6 = 13
2 + 3 + 6 = 11
2 + 2 + 9 = 13
3 + 3 + 4 = 10
The census taker looks at the house number through the window, and still can't figure it out.  This is the key to the puzzle. 

Suppose the house number had been 21.  Then looking at the house number would have been sufficient information for solving it; the children would be 1, 2, and 18.  The only way that looking at the house number would be insufficient is if there were two sets of ages that added to the same thing -- which is only true for 1, 6, and 6, and 2, 2, and 9, both which add to 13.

The third clue is that the oldest daughter has red hair.  In the first of our remaining possibilities, 1, 6, and 6, there is no oldest daughter -- the eldest children are twins.  Therefore the daughters are 2, 2, and 9.

I hope you enjoyed this puzzle -- I think it's one of the cleverest ones I've ever seen!

Voices from the past

Sometimes I'll bump into a story that is so down my alley that I'm surprised I didn't find out about it earlier.  That was my reaction to the link sent to me by a friend and long-time loyal reader of Skeptophilia, about a discovery back in 2017 of some samples of two languages that were up till then almost completely unknown.

The discovery was made because of palimpsests, which are documents that have been erased and written over.  This happened because the writing surfaces available -- mostly parchment made from lambskin -- were often considered more valuable than the text written on them, so when it was in short supply people would erase what was there (often it was sanded off with a stone) and rewrite over the new surface.  Some parchments were reused multiple times this way.

The erasing process, though -- just like using an eraser on a piece of paper today -- was never perfect, and traces of the original document(s) were left behind.  Which is why some researchers studying parchments at one of the oldest continuously-run libraries in the world, Saint Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, Egypt, were able to detect passages from two languages for which there were almost no samples left, Caucasian Albanian and Christian Palestinian Aramaic.

Saint Catherine's Monastery [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Berthold Werner / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA.]

The palimpsests were read by photographing them repeatedly in different frequencies of light (including ultraviolet and infrared) and turning a computer loose on the composite images to see what was there that might not be visible to the naked eye.  The results were stunning -- new text from one hundred and thirty different palimpsests that has drastically increased our knowledge of the two extinct languages.

Caucasian Albanian (the language, and place, are unrelated to the present country of Albania), in the Lezgic family of languages -- its closest currently-spoken relative is Udi, spoken by about four thousand people in Azerbaijan and the Caucasian region of Russia.  Caucasian Albanian seems to have vanished from the region some time around 1000 C.E., and until now was only known from a handful of inscriptions on stone tablets.  Linguist Josh Gippert, who is an expert in this language family, is unequivocal about the find.  "This one discovery has brought about a twenty-five percent increase in the readability of Caucasian Albanian," Gippert said.

Christian Palestinian Aramaic is a dialect of Aramaic spoken between the fifth and thirteenth centuries C.E. by the Melkites, a Christian group in Syria.  Over the years, the speaking of Christian Palestinian Aramaic dwindled, replaced by Arabic, and seems to have vanished completely some time in the Middle Ages.  "This was an entire community of people who had a literature, art, and spirituality," said Michael Phelps, director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, who oversaw the project. "Almost all of that has been lost, yet their cultural DNA exists in our culture today.  These palimpsest texts are giving them a voice again and letting us learn about how they contributed to who we are today."

The whole thing is pretty stupendous, not only for the ingenuity of the discovery but because it gives us at least a little bit more information about languages that haven't been spoken for eight hundred years or more.  We're seeing language extinctions today at an increasing rate, as the world's dominant languages (primarily Mandarin, English, Russian, Spanish, and Arabic) replace small/isolated languages.  There are hundreds of languages for which there are only a handful of remaining native speakers -- primarily older people -- which will be extinct without intervention (and possibly even with intervention) in the next twenty years.  Indigenous languages in Australia and South America are especially at risk.  There are places where indigenous people in two villages ten miles apart speak mutually unintelligible languages, and the natives there have mostly adopted the lingua franca (English and Spanish, respectively) in order to be able to travel and communicate.

You can understand why they do it, but it's still kind of sad, considering the cultural knowledge that is vanishing before our eyes.

In any case, the discovery in Egypt is a happy note, giving us a window into the speech of people from over a thousand years ago.  It's nice to know that we can still hear the voices of people who were thought to be silenced forever.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is about one of the most terrifying viruses known to man: rabies.

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, we learn about the history and biology of this tiny bit of protein and DNA that has, once you develop symptoms, a nearly 100% mortality rate.  Not only that, but it is unusual amongst pathogens at having extremely low host specificity.  It's transmissible to most mammal species, and there have been cases of humans contracting rabies not from one of the "big five" -- raccoons, foxes, skunks, bats, and dogs -- but from animals like deer.

Rabid goes through not only what medical science has to say about the virus and the disease it causes, but its history, including the possibility that it gave rise to the legends of lycanthropy and werewolves.  It's a fascinating read.

Even though it'll make you a little more wary of wildlife.

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



Saturday, September 12, 2020

Color my world

 I'm not absolutely certain about this, but I strongly suspect that every time I taught my biology students about the physiology of color vision, someone asked, "Is it possible that we see colors differently?  Like, what you call red is the color I see as green, but we've both learned to call it red?"

My usual response was, "It's possible, given that I can't see the world through your eyes and interpreted by your brain.  I only have access to my own perceptive apparatus.  However, it's pretty unlikely, given that your eyes and brain are structured pretty much identically to mine, so there's no reason to surmise they see the world in a radically different way.  The most parsimonious explanation is that we all perceive colors alike."

That parsimonious explanation got a boost this week by a paper in Psychological Science called, "Universal Patterns in Color-Emotion Associations Are Further Shaped by Linguistic and Geographic Proximity," by a huge team led by Domicele Jonauskaite of the University of Lausanne.  The researchers asked 4,598 volunteers from different cultures to answer questions about the connections they saw between colors and emotions.  In English, for example, we talk about seeing red, being green with envy, or feeling blue.  Presumably other cultures also associate colors with emotions -- but are the correspondences the same across cultures?

[Image is in the Public Domain]

Interestingly, the answer appears to be yes.  There were a few unusual ones that popped out, such as the association in China of the color white with sadness.  White is traditionally worn at Chinese funerals, thus the link.  The same was found with the color purple in Greece; in Greek Orthodox culture, purple is considered the color of mourning.

But there were far more similarities than differences, including some that when you think about it, are rather odd.  Red is one of the only colors that has connection to two essentially opposite emotions; it is the color both of love and of anger.  This same link turns out to be relatively uniform across cultures.  (The anger part might be because of the association with violence and blood; the connection to love is the stranger one.)  Likewise, brown is the color that has the least emotional impact, regardless what culture you are from.

Unsurprisingly, the closer two cultures were geographically and linguistically, the more similar the correspondences were.  That much you'd expect, because of an overlapping or shared heritage.  But even accounting for that, there were more similarities than differences even between very distantly-related cultures.  "There is a range of possible influencing factors: language, culture, religion, climate, the history of human development, the human perceptual system," said study co-author Daniel Oberfeld of Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz.  "Many fundamental questions about the mechanisms of color-emotion associations have yet to be clarified."

It does, though, settle one thing; we are very likely to all see colors the same way.  Your blue and my blue, for example, are perceived alike, and if we were somehow to switch bodies, we wouldn't suddenly see the world painted in a completely different palette.  If that weren't true, why would yellow be the color of cowardice in both the United States and west Africa?

This doesn't, of course, answer the question of why yellow is for cowards in the first place.  Other than the obvious ones like red=blood, the color-to-emotion correspondences are pretty weird.  But it does seem to support the conjecture that regardless of why we link emotions to colors, my color perception works the same as yours does.

Just as well.  Trying to picture a world where the grass is orange and the sky is yellow is making my head hurt.

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

Humans have always looked up to the skies.  Art from millennia ago record the positions of the stars and planets -- and one-off astronomical events like comets, eclipses, and supernovas.

And our livelihoods were once tied to those observations.  Calendars based on star positions gave the ancient Egyptians the knowledge of when to expect the Nile River to flood, allowing them to prepare to utilize every drop of that precious water in a climate where rain was rare indeed.  When to plant, when to harvest, when to start storing food -- all were directed from above.

As Carl Sagan so evocatively put it, "It is no wonder that our ancestors worshiped the stars.  For we are their children."

In her new book The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars, scientist and author Jo Marchant looks at this connection through history, from the time of the Lascaux Cave Paintings to the building of Stonehenge to the medieval attempts to impose a "perfect" mathematics on the movement of heavenly objects to today's cutting edge astronomy and astrophysics.  In a journey through history and prehistory, she tells the very human story of our attempts to comprehend what is happening in the skies over our heads -- and how our mechanized lives today have disconnected us from this deep and fundamental understanding.

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



Friday, September 11, 2020

Forecasting on a fault line

Living in an earthquake zone is risky business.

I lived for ten years in Seattle, which is immediately adjacent to the Cascadia Subduction Zone, widely considered to be one of the most potentially dangerous faults in the world.  The little Juan de Fuca plate -- all that's left of a much larger piece of oceanic crust that once lay underneath Panthalassa, the ocean that surrounded the supercontinent Pangaea back around the time of the Permian-Triassic Extinction of 251 million years ago -- is slowly disappearing as it gets pulled underneath the North American Plate by convection currents in the mantle.  Subduction zone earthquakes occur along trenches that form the boundaries between plates that are moving toward each other, generating a "thrust fault" as one plate dives beneath the other.  Not only do these produce some of the most massive earthquakes known, they also generate volcanoes like Mount Saint Helens and Mount Rainier.

So lovely as the Seattle area is, it's kind of a disaster waiting to happen.  If you have a high tolerance for being freaked out by the power of the natural world, or you don't live in the Pacific Northwest (or both), you should read journalist Kathryn Schulz's wonderful analysis "The Really Big One" that appeared in The New Yorker in 2015.  Her predictions for what will happen to the area when Cascadia ruptures are truly terrifying -- and would be enough to keep me from ever moving back there, much as I loved western Washington for its culture, climate, and natural beauty.


[Image is in the Public Domain]

If you read the article hoping that Schulz (or the geologists she interviewed) can tell you when the "Really Big One" is going to occur, you're not going to find what you're looking for.  We have a pretty good idea of where earthquakes occur and the types of faults that cause them, but predicting when they'll happen is far more problematic.  And sometimes, even the "where" isn't predictable.  In November of 2019 a 5.0 magnitude quake hit the Rhône Valley in France, along the La Rouvière Fault -- a fault zone that we thought was last active twenty million years ago.

Just last week, though, three papers came out looking at the warning signs that a fault is about to rupture, and methods we may be able to use to predict when they'll happen and how big they'll be.  Getting better at this is imperative for the millions of people who live in quake-prone areas, and could potentially save countless lives.

The first, in the journal Nature, was by a team led by Jonathan Bedford of Helmholtz Centre Potsdam.  In "Months-Long Thousand-Kilometre-Scale Wobbling Before Great Subduction Earthquakes," we learn that there are warning signs -- a slow backward drag on the plate margin that ends with a massive slip in the opposite direction, a little like pulling backward on a bowstring and then letting go suddenly.  The authors write:
[We used] a recently developed trajectory modelling approach that is designed to isolate secular tectonic motions from the daily GNSS time series to show that the 2010 Maule, Chile (moment magnitude 8.8) and 2011 Tohoku-oki, Japan (moment magnitude 9.0) earthquakes were preceded by reversals of 4–8 millimetres in surface displacement that lasted several months and spanned thousands of kilometres.  Modelling of the surface displacement reversal that occurred before the Tohoku-oki earthquake suggests an initial slow slip followed by a sudden pulldown of the Philippine Sea slab so rapid that it caused a viscoelastic rebound across the whole of Japan.

The second paper, in Science, looked at what's happening deep underground beneath one of the most famous fault zones, the strike-slip San Andreas Fault.  In "Excitation of San Andreas Tremors by Thermal Instabilities Below the Seismogenic Zone," geologists Lifeng Wang of the China Earthquake Administration and Sylvain Barbot of the University of Southern California found that temperature patterns can predict the likelihood of a fault suddenly giving way.  For a while, the pieces of the plate margin can slowly, steadily grind past each other, but that motion generates frictional heating.  This can lead to rapid fault failure as the warming rock becomes more plastic.  "Just like rubbing our hands together in cold weather to heat them up, faults heat up when they slide. The fault movements can be caused by large changes in temperature," said study co-author Sylvain Barbot, in an interview with Science Daily.  "This can create a positive feedback that makes them slide even faster, eventually generating an earthquake."

Last, in Nature Communications, geologists Claudia Hulbert and Romain Jolivet (of the École Normale Superieure) and Bertrand Rouet-LeDuc and Paul Johnson (of the Geophysics Group at Los Alamos National Laboratory) turned the power of machine learning on past patterns of seismic instability, and found that large "megathrust" earthquakes were preceded by as much as a year-long slow slip.  Where this slip is occurring, and how fast, might give us advance warning of a major fault rupture:

Slow slip events result from the spontaneous weakening of the subduction megathrust and bear strong resemblance to earthquakes, only slower.  This resemblance allows us to study fundamental aspects of nucleation that remain elusive for classic, fast earthquakes.  We rely on machine learning algorithms to infer slow slip timing from statistics of seismic waveforms.  We find that patterns in seismic power follow the 14-month slow slip cycle in Cascadia, arguing in favor of the predictability of slow slip rupture.  Here, we show that seismic power exponentially increases as the slowly slipping portion of the subduction zone approaches failure, a behavior that shares a striking similarity with the increase in acoustic power observed prior to laboratory slow slip events.  Our results suggest that the nucleation phase of Cascadia slow slip events may last from several weeks up to several months.

Even though such a pattern of slow slips might tell us that a major earthquake is imminent, it's unlikely we'll ever be able to say "... and it's going to happen next Friday at ten A.M."  And given our penchant for ignoring science unless it can give us pinpoint accuracy, we're probably not going to see much change in our behavior.  After all, that tendency is at the heart of the United States's failure to address the COVID-19 pandemic -- the scientists were saying back in December and January, "this has the capacity to be deadly and fast-spreading," and government officials said, "How fast and how deadly?"  The scientists had to say, "We're not sure yet," and that was insufficient for leaders to take swift and decisive action.  (And that's not even taking into consideration that Donald Trump knew about the danger, admitted up front the potential devastation COVID-19 could cause, and deliberately decided to lie about it because he was afraid it would hurt his chances of being re-elected.)

So we're not so good at reacting to clear and present dangers if the remedy is inconvenient or costly.  As James Burke said, in his frighteningly prescient 1991 documentary After the Warming, "The scientists said that devastating climate change was going to happen at some point, but for most people that wasn't good enough.  We wouldn't pay for what amounts to climate insurance, even though we happily insure our lives and our property against far less likely occurrences."

Be that as it may, I'm glad we're seeing this progress being made.  Earthquakes are notorious amongst natural disasters at giving no warning whatsoever, so anything we could do to figure out how to predict them more accurately could potentially save lives.

But even so, I don't think I'd want to live in the Pacific Northwest again.

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

Humans have always looked up to the skies.  Art from millennia ago record the positions of the stars and planets -- and one-off astronomical events like comets, eclipses, and supernovas.

And our livelihoods were once tied to those observations.  Calendars based on star positions gave the ancient Egyptians the knowledge of when to expect the Nile River to flood, allowing them to prepare to utilize every drop of that precious water in a climate where rain was rare indeed.  When to plant, when to harvest, when to start storing food -- all were directed from above.

As Carl Sagan so evocatively put it, "It is no wonder that our ancestors worshiped the stars.  For we are their children."

In her new book The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars, scientist and author Jo Marchant looks at this connection through history, from the time of the Lascaux Cave Paintings to the building of Stonehenge to the medieval attempts to impose a "perfect" mathematics on the movement of heavenly objects to today's cutting edge astronomy and astrophysics.  In a journey through history and prehistory, she tells the very human story of our attempts to comprehend what is happening in the skies over our heads -- and how our mechanized lives today have disconnected us from this deep and fundamental understanding.

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