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.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Prediction conviction

I know it's been a tough year.  The pandemic, the final year of King Donald the Demented's reign, the fractious election and its aftermath -- it's a lot to pack into a twelve months.

So it's natural enough that a lot of us are looking forward to saying goodbye to 2020, although rationally speaking, there's no reason that going from December 31 to January 1 should mark any real delineation in world events.  The fact that the most commonly-used calendar in the industrialized world marks the year's end in the middle of winter doesn't mean it's any kind of real phenomenon.  If we went by the Jewish calendar, the Hindu calendar, the Mayan calendar, or any of a variety of other ways humans have gone about marking time, what we call New Year's Day would just be another ordinary day.

That hasn't stopped the prognosticators from doing what they do, of course.  Just in the last couple of weeks, a number of psychic types have revealed to us what 2021 is going to be like.  As you might expect, none of them agree with each other, which you'd think would give people a clue about their veracity.

But as I said earlier, there's not much of this that has to do with rationality.

Let's start with Nicolas Aujula, who warns us against getting too optimistic about any serious improvements in 2021:

I have had a couple of quite horrid visions – one of a male world leader being assassinated.  I couldn’t see who it was, but sensed it sent shockwaves through the world.  Obviously I hope that doesn’t come to fruition.  I’ve also had a vision of a world summit being plagued by a sex scandal and, a rise in far-right politics, particularly in southern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and a volcanic eruption leading to major weather changes.  And I’ve had the words ‘pig flu’ come to me and seen images of mass panic.  I don’t think it will be another virus, but I can imagine the reaction will be alarmist, given what’s happened this year.

What stands out to me here is the volcanic eruption, which would seem to be a pretty striking predication if a month and a half ago there hadn't been an announcement from geologists that Grimsvötn, Iceland's most active volcano, is showing signs of another big eruption, and that it has a history of larger eruptions than nearby Eyjafjallajökull -- which had a 2010 eruption spewing so much ash into the air that it led to the cancellation of 100,000 airline flights. 

So that one just shows that Aujula knows how to read the news.  As far as the rest, when hasn't there been a political sex scandal?  And the "rise of far-right politics" isn't exactly a reach, either, since it's been going on for what, four or five years, now?

Then there's Polish psychic Adam A., who has some Poland-specific predictions whose likelihood I can't speak to with any authority, but also had two visions that are a little baffling:

  • A large dark triangle soars over a city with low buildings.  There are no skyscrapers or other tall buildings here.  Cloudy water flows outside the city and it spills out.  A strong stream hits a mysterious triangle.
  • Eight people are sitting at the table, debating a piece of paper crumpled into a ball.  One of the men has a mustache.  The paper ball starts to burn, and the fire takes the shape of a bird and goes to the sky.
Nope.  I got nothin'.

But when it comes to arcane predictions, no one can beat Michel de Nostredame (better known under his Latinized name of Nostradamus), the sixteenth-century mystic and astrologer who made pronouncements so weird and incomprehensible that you could interpret them to mean damn near anything.  Which, of course, is very helpful after the fact, because no matter what happens you can always go back and find something Nostradamus said that seems to fit if you squint at it in just the right way.  

Portrait of Michel de Nostradame, painted posthumously by his son César de Nostredame (ca. 1590) [Image is in the Public Domain]

He wrote in these little four-line stanzas called quatrains, and of course, there are people who are now trying to apply them to 2021.  Here are a few of their better efforts:

1) A famine

This one is supposedly predicted by this quatrain:

After great trouble for humanity, a greater one is prepared, 
The Great Mover renews the ages: 
Rain, blood, milk, famine, steel, and plague, 
Is the heavens fire seen, a long spark running.

So I think we can all agree that's clear as mud.  But predicting a famine is a good bet anyhow, especially given what we're doing to the climate.

Then we have:

2) A devastating earthquake in California

Once again, that's not a reach to predict.  Although even with stretching your interpretation, I have a hard time making this quatrain about California: 

The sloping park, great calamity, 
Through the Lands of the West and Lombardy 
The fire in the ship, plague, and captivity; 
Mercury in Sagittarius, Saturn fading.

Okay, California is in the west, at least from the perspective of those of us here in the United States, but the only connection it has to Lombardy is that they're on the same planet.  And yeah, an earthquake is a "calamity," but I don't see what it has to do with ship fires, plagues, and captivity.

And don't even get me started about the whole Mercury in Sagittarius thing.

Finally, no cataclysm would be complete without:

3) A zombie apocalypse

You think I'm making this up.  Here's the pair of quatrains that supposedly predicts it:

Few young people: half−dead to give a start.
Dead through spite, he will cause the others to shine,
And in an exalted place some great evils to occur:
Sad concepts will come to harm each one,
Temporal dignified, the Mass to succeed.
Fathers and mothers dead of infinite sorrows,
Women in mourning, the pestilent she−monster:
The Great One to be no more, all the world to end.

Right!  Sure!  I only have one question, which is, "What?"

I mean, I guess you could say that predicts zombies as much as it predicts anything, but I'm a little baffled as to why this one is scheduled for 2021.  Other than the fact that we've had pretty much everything else you can think of in 2020, so maybe a zombie apocalypse is the next logical step.

The article I linked has a bunch more of Nostradamus's predictions that supposedly apply to next year, and I encourage you to read it if you're interested in finding out more about what we're in for.  Suffice it to say that it doesn't sound like much fun.  But even with all this, I still can't help but be a little hopeful.  For one thing, it's looking like Donald Trump will finally be relegated to the Little Kids' Table of History, where he can tweet and throw a tantrum and dump his Froot Loops on the floor all he wants without bothering the rest of us.  We'll finally have a president who takes climate change seriously, although I'm under no illusions that the battle is won.

So I'm inclined to agree with the folks who are glad to see 2020 go.  At this point, my general feeling is: bring on the zombies.

 ********************************

One of the most compellingly weird objects in the universe is the black hole -- a stellar remnant so dense that it warps space into a closed surface.  Once the edge of that sphere -- the event horizon -- is passed, there's no getting out.  Even light can't escape, which is where they get their name.

Black holes have been a staple of science fiction for years, not only for their potential to destroy whatever comes near them, but because their effects on space-time result in a relativistic slowdown of time (depicted brilliantly in the movie Interstellar).  In this week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week, The Black Hole Survival Guide, astrophysicist Janna Levin describes for us what it would be like to have a close encounter with one of these things -- using the latest knowledge from science to explain in layperson's terms the experience of an unfortunate astronaut who strayed too close.

It's a fascinating, and often mind-blowing, topic, handled deftly by Levin, where the science itself is so strange that it seems as if it must be fiction.  But no, these things are real, and common; there's a huge one at the center of our own galaxy, and an unknown number of them elsewhere in the Milky Way.  Levin's book will give you a good picture of one of the scariest naturally-occurring objects -- all from the safety of your own home.

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



Saturday, November 28, 2020

The strange tale of the disappearing soldier

I've been interested in the paranormal for a long time.  It started with my uncle's scary stories about the feu follet and loup-garou, told in French, which were sufficient to frighten myself and my cousins into the near pants-wetting stage, and yet which for some reason we demanded again and again.  Later I graduated to books with titles like Twenty Terrifying True Tales of the Supernatural, Real Ghost Stories, and Bigfoot: Legend Come to Life.  I supplemented this with my fiction reading, including Lovecraft and Poe, and watching shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker.  (With all of this, it's no wonder that I developed serious insomnia as a teenager, an ailment that continues to plague me today, forty-five years later.)

Anyhow, all of this is meant to underscore the fact that I've read a lot of supposedly true paranormal stories.  So it always is with a bit of pleasant surprise that I run into one I've never heard before -- something that happened yesterday, when a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link telling the tale of Gil Pérez, the 16th century Spanish soldier who supposedly teleported from the Philippines to Mexico City.

The story goes like this.  In October of 1593, a man showed up in the Plaza Mayor of Mexico City, disheveled and disoriented.  He was questioned by authorities, and said that moments before, he'd been on guard duty, had felt dizzy, and leaned against a wall and closed his eyes. He opened them to find himself in Plaza Mayor...

... but moments earlier, he'd been in Manila.

Plaza Mayor in Mexico City, where Gil Pérez appeared out of nowhere [Image is in the Public Domain]

The authorities at the time were deeply Roman Catholic, and anything like this smacked of witchcraft, so they locked him up, charging him with desertion and consorting with the devil.  Pérez said that he had no idea how he'd gotten there, but it had nothing to do with Satan -- and as proof, he said that they had just gotten word that day of the assassination of Philippine Governor Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas by Chinese pirates, and that proved that he'd just been in Manila.

Of course, back then, there was no way to verify such information quickly, so poor Pérez was confined to the jail for two months until a group that had come from Manila showed up in Mexico City.  Sure enough, one of the people in the group not only recognized Pérez, but said his uniform was the correct one for the Philippine guard -- and Pérez had indeed been there, on duty, when Dasmariñas was murdered two months earlier, but had disappeared without a trace and had not been seen since.

At that point, the authorities let Pérez go, he joined the Philippine delegation, and eventually found his way back home.  Why the charges of black magic were dropped is unknown; after all, even if he hadn't deserted, there was still the problem that he seemed to have gone halfway around the globe in seconds.  But maybe they were just as happy to make him someone else's problem.  In any case, what happened to Pérez afterwards is not recorded.

The problem, of course, is that these sort of folk legends usually have a rather unfortunate genealogy, and that certainly is true here.  The version of the story I've related above comes from a 1908 issue of Harper's Magazine, written by American folklorist Thomas Allibone Janvier.  Janvier said he got the story from a 1900 collection of Mexican tales by Luis Gonzáles Obregón, and Obregón said that he learned of it from the 1609 writings of Philippine Governor Antonio de Morga, who said that "Dasmariñas's death was known in Mexico the day it happened," although he didn't know how that could possibly be.

Others have noticed similarities between the tale and Washington Irving's story "Governor Manco and the Soldier" which appeared in Tales of the Alhambra in 1832.  So it's entirely possible that an offhand, and unsubstantiated, comment by de Morga was picked up and elaborated by Obregón, then picked up and elaborated further by Janvier, with some help along the way from Irving's (fictional) tale.

In any case, it's an intriguing story.  I'm always more fond of these open-ended tales -- the ones where everything gets tied up neatly in the end always seem to me to be too pat even to consider accepting them as real.  But this one -- Pérez's mysterious disappearance and reappearance were never explained, he vanished into obscurity afterwards, and nothing more came of it -- those are the ones that captivate interest, because that's usually the way reality works.  It's why my all-time favorite "true tale of the supernatural," the story of Nurse Black, still gives me the shudders every time I think about it.

Not, of course, that I think that the story of Pérez is true; it's simply that the more realistic a tale is, the more likely I am to be interested in it.  And after all of these years steeped in the paranormal, to find one I'd never heard of before was a lot of fun.

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

I'm fascinated with history, and being that I also write speculative fiction, a lot of times I ponder the question of how things would be different if you changed one historical event.  The topic has been visited over and over by authors for a very long time; three early examples are Ray Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder" (1952), Keith Roberts's Pavane (1968), and R. A. Lafferty's screamingly funny "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" (1967).

There are a few pivotal moments that truly merit the overused nametag of "turning points in history," where a change almost certainly would have resulted in a very, very different future.  One of these is the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which happened in 9 C.E., when a group of Germanic guerrilla fighters maneuvered the highly-trained, much better-armed Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Roman Legions into a trap and slaughtered them, almost to the last man.  There were twenty thousand casualties on the Roman side -- amounting to half their total military forces at the time -- and only about five hundred on the Germans'.

The loss stopped Rome in its tracks, and they never again made any serious attempts to conquer lands east of the Rhine.  There's some evidence that the defeat was so profoundly demoralizing to the Emperor Augustus that it contributed to his mental decline and death five years later.  This battle -- the site of which was recently discovered and excavated by archaeologists -- is the subject of the fantastic book The Battle That Stopped Rome by Peter Wells, which looks at the evidence collected at the location, near the village of Kalkriese, as well as the historical documents describing the massacre.  This is not just a book for history buffs, though; it gives a vivid look at what life was like at the time, and paints a fascinating if grisly picture of one of the most striking David-vs.-Goliath battles ever fought.

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



Friday, November 27, 2020

Getting into the spirit

So it's Black Friday, wherein we Americans follow up a day set aside to give thanks for everything we have with a day set aside to trample each other to death trying to save money on overhyped garbage we really don't need.

Me, I stay right the hell away from stores on Black Friday.  I hate shopping in any case, and the rabid crowds only make it worse.  Plus, today marks the first day of the Little Drummer Boy Challenge, a yearly contest in which participants see how long they can make it into the Christmas season without hearing "The Little Drummer Boy," which ranks right up there with "Frosty the Snowman" and "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" as the most annoying Christmas carol ever written.  I've participated in this contest for six years, and haven't made it to Christmas Day undefeated yet.  Last year, I was taken out of the competition by a clerk in a hardware store who didn't even know all of the freakin' words, and kept having to la-la bits of it:
Come they LA LA pah-rum-puh-pum-pum
A newborn LA LA LA pah-rum-puh-pum-pum
Our LA LA gifts we bring pah-rum-puh-pum-pum
LA LA before the king pah-rum-puh-pum-pum, rum-puh-pum-pum, rum-puh-pum-pum
And so on and so forth.  He was singing it with hearty good cheer, so I felt kind of guilty when I realized that he'd knocked me out of the game and blurted out, "Are you fucking kidding me?" a little louder than I intended, eliciting a shocked look from the clerk and a significant diminishment in the general Christmas cheer amongst those around me.

Thomas Couture, The Drummer Boy (1857) [Image is in the Public Domain]

Of course, the Christmas season wouldn't be complete without the Fox News types ramping up the whole imaginary War on Christmas thing.  We atheists have allegedly been waging this war for what, now... ten years?  Eleven?  And yet if you'll look around you, just like the Grinch's attempt at banishing Christmas from Whoville, the holiday season still goes right on, pretty much exactly as it did before.

Oops!  Shouldn't say "holiday," because that's part of the War on Christmas, too, even though the word "holiday" comes from "holy day" and therefore is also religious.  This is a point that seems to escape a lot of the Fox News and OAN commentators and their ilk, but to be fair "grip on reality" has never been their forte anyhow.  And since the War on Christmas is getting to be old hat, this year they decided that we Godless Liberal Democratic Unpatriotic Snowflakes are just not coming across as evil enough, so we must also be conducting a War on Thanksgiving.

Take, for example, Matt Walsh, of Daily Wire, who said last week, "We’ve been worried about the War on Christmas but the Dems just snuck in the side entrance and canceled Thanksgiving instead," presumably because of our unreasonable and anti-American desire to keep everyone who's here at Thanksgiving still alive by Christmas.  Not to be outdone, a headline in Breitbart warned, "Be Prepared for Democrats to Cancel Christmas," prompting a church in Colorado to publish a bulletin titled, "Ten Top Reasons Why Liberals Hate the Holidays." 

What is wryly amusing about all of this is that I'm one of the aforementioned liberal atheists, and I love the holidays.  We had a nice turkey-and-stuffing dinner yesterday for Thanksgiving, and I'm already putting together some gifts for friends and family for Christmas and looking forward to putting up a tree.  So it might come as a surprise to Matt Walsh et al. that in December I tell people "Merry Christmas" at least as often as I say "Happy Holidays."  Basically, if someone says "Merry Christmas" to me, I say it back to them; if they say, "Happy Holidays," I say that.  Likewise "Happy Hanukkah," "Blessed Solstice," "Merry Festivus," or "Have A Nice Day."

You know why?  If people speak kindly to me, I reciprocate, because I may be a liberal and an atheist, but I am not an asshole.  So I guess that's three ways in which I differ from Matt Walsh.

Basically, be nice to me, I'll be nice to you.  Unless you're singing "The Little Drummer Boy."  I'm sorry, but my tolerance does have its limits.

In any case, mostly what I plan to do today is to sit around home, recovering from the food-and-wine-induced coma in which I spent most of yesterday evening.  So however you choose to observe the day and the season, I hope you enjoy it, whether you get into the spirit of it or pretty much ignore the whole thing.

Pah-rum-puh-pum-pum.

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

I'm fascinated with history, and being that I also write speculative fiction, a lot of times I ponder the question of how things would be different if you changed one historical event.  The topic has been visited over and over by authors for a very long time; three early examples are Ray Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder" (1952), Keith Roberts's Pavane (1968), and R. A. Lafferty's screamingly funny "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" (1967).

There are a few pivotal moments that truly merit the overused nametag of "turning points in history," where a change almost certainly would have resulted in a very, very different future.  One of these is the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which happened in 9 C.E., when a group of Germanic guerrilla fighters maneuvered the highly-trained, much better-armed Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Roman Legions into a trap and slaughtered them, almost to the last man.  There were twenty thousand casualties on the Roman side -- amounting to half their total military forces at the time -- and only about five hundred on the Germans'.

The loss stopped Rome in its tracks, and they never again made any serious attempts to conquer lands east of the Rhine.  There's some evidence that the defeat was so profoundly demoralizing to the Emperor Augustus that it contributed to his mental decline and death five years later.  This battle -- the site of which was recently discovered and excavated by archaeologists -- is the subject of the fantastic book The Battle That Stopped Rome by Peter Wells, which looks at the evidence collected at the location, near the village of Kalkriese, as well as the historical documents describing the massacre.  This is not just a book for history buffs, though; it gives a vivid look at what life was like at the time, and paints a fascinating if grisly picture of one of the most striking David-vs.-Goliath battles ever fought.

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



Thursday, November 26, 2020

Pride in ancestry

Here in the United States we're celebrating Thanksgiving today, hopefully by staying home and not turning this into a nationwide superspreader event.

It's a day a lot of folks think about their heritage, and the weird old story about the Pilgrims and Native Americans having dinner together gets rehashed, despite the fact that just about everything we're taught about it in elementary school is wrong.  That's the way with cultural mythology, though, and we're hardly the only ones to engage in these sorts of exercises in history-sanitation.

It did, however, make me start thinking about the whole pride-in-ancestry thing, which also strikes me as kind of odd.  To quote my evolutionary biology professor's pragmatic quip, "Your ancestors didn't have to be brilliant or strong or nice; they just had to live long enough to fuck successfully at least once."  Which might be true, but it hasn't stopped me from being interested in my ancestry, while always trying to keep in mind that my family tree is as checkered as anyone else's.

Take, for example, my 3x-great-grandmother, Sarah (Handsberry) Rulong.  She was born some time around 1775 in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and her surname probably started out as something Teutonic like Hansberger or Hunsberger, especially given that her marriage certificate says she was a Lutheran.  At the age of twenty she set out with a group -- none of whom were her immediately family members -- to cross just shy of a thousand miles of what was then trackless wilderness, finally ending up in New Madrid, Missouri.  She lived there for a time as a single woman, ultimately marrying three times and outliving all three husbands.  She had a total of nine children, including my great-great grandmother, Isabella (Rulong) Brandt, and was in southern Louisiana in 1830 after being widowed for the third time -- but I don't know what happened to her after that.

Now there's someone who I wish had left me a diary to read.

Sarah's father-in-law, Luke Rulong (the father of her third husband, Aaron Rulong, and my direct ancestor) also was a curious fellow.  We'd tried for years to figure out who he was; the Rulong family was of Dutch origin and lived in Ocean County, New Jersey, but we couldn't find out anything specifically about him in the records of the time.

Turns out we were looking in the wrong place.  Look in the court and jail records of Ocean County in the late eighteenth century, and he was all over the place, having been arrested multiple times for such misdeeds as "riot," "mischief," "disorder," "public drunkenness," and "poaching."

See what I mean about interest not equaling pride?

Most of my ancestry is from France, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, and England, something I know both from genealogical research and from the results of my DNA tests.  So I'm solidly northern/western European, something I found a little disappointing.  It'd have been kind of cool to discover a Nigerian ancestor I didn't know about, or something.  But no, I'm pretty much white through and through.

Still, there are some interesting folks back there on my family tree.  I have a great-great uncle who has his own Wikipedia page: John Andrews Murrell, the "Great Western Land Pirate," who was a highwayman in the early 1800s in what is now Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.  Murrell was also a con artist who claimed he was a revivalist preacher, and went around preaching to standing-room-only crowds (apparently he spoke well and knew his Bible; so the praise-the-Lord-and-open-your-wallets televangelists are hardly a new phenomenon).  While he was speaking, the story goes, his cronies would go behind the crowds and loot all the saddlebags.

My great-great-grandfather, John's brother James Henry Murrell, had to go all the way to southern Louisiana to escape the bad reputation John had given the family name.

I have a number of ne'er-do-wells in my ancestry.  One of the wildest stories is about Jean Serreau, one of my mom's forebears, who was a landholder in Nova Scotia (then called Acadia) in the late seventeenth century.  Apparently he came home one day to find his wife in bed with a Swiss army officer, and was so outraged that he walloped the guy in the head with a heavy object and killed him.  (Brings coitus interruptus to new heights, doesn't it?)  He was promptly arrested and looked likely to hang, but his status gave him the leeway to sue for a pardon.  He eventually had to go to France and appeal to the very top -- King Louis XIV -- who upon hearing the case pardoned Serreau immediately.

"Do not fret, Monsieur," the king told Serreau.  "I would have done the same thing."

Like all families, mine has its share of tragedy.  My mother's great-grandmother, Florida (Perilloux) Meyer-Lévy, was widowed at the young age of 37, and unlike the redoubtable Sarah never married again.  Her husband was apparently an unreliable sort, a breeder of horses who "made bad deals while drunk" (this sort of thing seems to run in my family).  Florida was left penniless with nine children, four of them under the age of ten, at his death.  She rented out her home as an inn, making enough to squeak by, but ultimately had to sell the house and ended her life as a domestic servant.  Here's a photo of her, taken shortly before her death at age 77 -- can't you see the hard times etched into her face?


It's tempting to be all edified by her tale, and see in it stalwart courage and an indomitable nature, but in reality, who knows how she dealt with her adversity?  She died when my mother was only three years old, and according to my mom and her cousins, no one much talked about that side of the family.  So anything I could extract about her character from what I know of her life would only be a surmise, with no more anchor in reality than the happy Pilgrims and Natives eating turkey together on the First Thanksgiving.

The truth, of course, is something you can't really tell from looking at a family tree; my ancestry, like everyone's, is made up of a broad cast of characters, kind and nasty, rich and poor, honest and dishonest, servant and master.  We're too quick to jump into fairy tales about noble blood and hereditary lordship, without keeping in mind that a lot of those noble lords were (frankly) nuttier than squirrel shit.  Pride in ancestry has all too often slipped into racism and tribalism and xenophobia, and realistically speaking, it's not even justifiable on a factual basis.

Anyhow, those are my thoughts on Thanksgiving.  We're all the products of a mixed bag of forebears, and if you go back far enough -- honestly, only four thousand years or so, by most anthropologists' estimates -- we're all related, descending from the same pool of ancestors who "fucked successfully at least once."  No real point of pride there, or at least, nothing that you should feel superior about.

Much more important, really, how we treat others here and now.

So for those of you celebrating, I hope you enjoy your meals, and I hope you all stay healthy and happy in these fractious times.  Take care of those around you -- let that be the legacy we leave behind, and maybe our descendants a hundred years from now will remember at least a little bit about who we were.

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

I'm fascinated with history, and being that I also write speculative fiction, a lot of times I ponder the question of how things would be different if you changed one historical event.  The topic has been visited over and over by authors for a very long time; three early examples are Ray Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder" (1952), Keith Roberts's Pavane (1968), and R. A. Lafferty's screamingly funny "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" (1967).

There are a few pivotal moments that truly merit the overused nametag of "turning points in history," where a change almost certainly would have resulted in a very, very different future.  One of these is the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which happened in 9 C.E., when a group of Germanic guerrilla fighters maneuvered the highly-trained, much better-armed Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Roman Legions into a trap and slaughtered them, almost to the last man.  There were twenty thousand casualties on the Roman side -- amounting to half their total military forces at the time -- and only about five hundred on the Germans'.

The loss stopped Rome in its tracks, and they never again made any serious attempts to conquer lands east of the Rhine.  There's some evidence that the defeat was so profoundly demoralizing to the Emperor Augustus that it contributed to his mental decline and death five years later.  This battle -- the site of which was recently discovered and excavated by archaeologists -- is the subject of the fantastic book The Battle That Stopped Rome by Peter Wells, which looks at the evidence collected at the location, near the village of Kalkriese, as well as the historical documents describing the massacre.  This is not just a book for history buffs, though; it gives a vivid look at what life was like at the time, and paints a fascinating if grisly picture of one of the most striking David-vs.-Goliath battles ever fought.

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



Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The mystery of the monolith

Back when I was a teacher, I was often the first person to arrive at the high school in the morning.  Not only am I a morning person, but it was really critical for me to have that quiet time to get prepared for class, get my thoughts together, and (most importantly) have a cup of coffee before the noisy hordes of students arrived.

I think it was about eight years ago, near the end of a school year (so mid-June-ish), that I parked my car in the otherwise empty parking lot and made my way into the dark, quiet hallway of the science wing.  My mind was in drift-mode, not thinking about much at all, when I unlocked my classroom door and switched the lights on.

And stopped dead in my tracks, my mouth agape.

In the front of my classroom was a large black monolith, just shy of three meters tall.  As I stood there, staring, there came over the loudspeakers the unmistakable first chords of the iconic theme music to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It is one of the only times in my life that I have been wide awake and given serious consideration to the possibility that I was dreaming.

I walked to the front of the room as the brass instruments reached their crescendo and the timpani started its rhythmic booms, and that was when I started laughing.  The monolith was made of painted wood, and I had obviously been pranked -- very successfully, I might add -- by some creative students who knew of my love for science fiction.

Turns out it was a team effort between five students and the principal, who is a notorious practical joker.  They placed the monolith in my room and hightailed it back to the principal's office, where they watched for me over the security cameras so they could get the timing of the music right.  It really was an inspired prank, and I kept the monolith in the corner of my classroom for several years until it finally fell apart.


The reason all this comes up is because of a news story I have now been sent five times, about a peculiar discovery in the Utah desert.  Turns out some state employees, who were doing a survey of bighorn sheep populations in a remote region of the state, spotted something mighty peculiar -- a rectangular piece of metal sticking straight up out of the dirt.  The metal seems to be steel or something of the sort, and its polished surface stood out immediately against the reddish rock face behind it.

They landed the helicopter and investigated.  The metal plate was perfectly vertical -- ruling out something that had fallen from the sky and embedded itself -- and had no distinguishing marks of any kind.

One of the state employees standing next to the Utah monolith

Well, as soon as the announcement was made, the furore started.  There were immediate comparisons to the alien monolith in 2001, some tongue-in-cheek, some apparently serious.  Conspiracy theorists had a field day with it, giving "explanations" -- to use the term loosely -- that included:
  • it's a listening device planted there by the Illuminati.  Why the Illuminati would put a listening device in a place where there's no one to listen to but sheep is an open question.
  • it's an alien marker left behind from when the Anasazi were in contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.
  • it's a weather modification device, perhaps a signal amplifier for HAARP.  (You thought the woo-woos had stopped yapping about HAARP.  You thought wrong.)
  • it's a focal point for cosmic energy, blah blah blah Age of Aquarius blah blah fourth-dimensional spiritual ascension blah blah.
The discoverers are refusing to give details about the monolith's exact location, which of course makes all of the aforementioned so-and-sos waggle their eyebrows in a meaningful manner.  The alleged reason for the secrecy is that the monolith is in a remote region and if a bunch of loonies went to find it, which you know they would, they'd get lost and need rescuing.

But of course, that's what they would say.

I have to admit to some curiosity about why someone would do this.  I mean, it's pretty clearly a prank, along the lines of my students' Big Black Box, although it occurs to me to ask why you'd carry out your prank in a place where there was at least a passing likelihood no one would ever see it.  Even so, it's impressive; a piece of steel that big must weigh a lot, and that's not even including the bit that's buried.  Then there's the digging tools and cement and other stuff you'd have to haul in to install it, out there in the scorching heat of the desert, and you're looking at a significant effort.

So it is a little puzzling.  Perhaps at some point someone will 'fess up to being the perpetrator -- or maybe it'll stay a mystery, like the strange and fascinating Georgia Guidestones.  In the unlikely eventuality that there's anything more to this than some unusually committed and hardworking practical jokers, well, I suppose we'll just have to wait and see, given that the state employees who found it aren't giving us any details about where it is.  And the Utah desert is a big place to start searching if your only clue is "it's near some sheep and a big red rock."

Of course, my hunch is that there's nothing much to this, but that's hardly surprising.  And if I'm wrong, well, let's just hope this isn't the final act of the bizarre theater that has been 2020.

On the other hand, if it really is a communication device to summon Our Alien Overlords, maybe that'll be a good thing.  They can't fuck things up any worse than we've been doing lately.

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

I'm fascinated with history, and being that I also write speculative fiction, a lot of times I ponder the question of how things would be different if you changed one historical event.  The topic has been visited over and over by authors for a very long time; three early examples are Ray Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder" (1952), Keith Roberts's Pavane (1968), and R. A. Lafferty's screamingly funny "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" (1967).

There are a few pivotal moments that truly merit the overused nametag of "turning points in history," where a change almost certainly would have resulted in a very, very different future.  One of these is the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which happened in 9 C.E., when a group of Germanic guerrilla fighters maneuvered the highly-trained, much better-armed Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Roman Legions into a trap and slaughtered them, almost to the last man.  There were twenty thousand casualties on the Roman side -- amounting to half their total military forces at the time -- and only about five hundred on the Germans'.

The loss stopped Rome in its tracks, and they never again made any serious attempts to conquer lands east of the Rhine.  There's some evidence that the defeat was so profoundly demoralizing to the Emperor Augustus that it contributed to his mental decline and death five years later.  This battle -- the site of which was recently discovered and excavated by archaeologists -- is the subject of the fantastic book The Battle That Stopped Rome by Peter Wells, which looks at the evidence collected at the location, near the village of Kalkriese, as well as the historical documents describing the massacre.  This is not just a book for history buffs, though; it gives a vivid look at what life was like at the time, and paints a fascinating if grisly picture of one of the most striking David-vs.-Goliath battles ever fought.

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



Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The sound of a friendly voice

Given my inability to recognize faces, I've developed a number of compensatory mechanisms.  One is that I remember people by memorizing specific features; he's the guy with curly black hair, she's the woman with small oval glasses and a tattoo on her right hand.  I notice how people walk and how they carry their posture; I can sometimes recognize people I know well even if they're walking away from me, if they have a distinctive gait (which many people do, whether they realize it or not).

But for me the most important thing is the sound of their voices.  I think that may be why it took me so long to figure out I'm face blind; often, all people have to do is say a few words and I immediately know who they are, so the fact that their faces don't trigger the immediate recognition most people have doesn't hamper me as much.

It turns out that I'm not alone in relying on vocalizations for identifying who's around.  According to a paper last week in Science Advances, zebra finches have an ability to recognize their flock mates' unique vocalizations that rivals that of most humans.

In "High-Capacity Auditory Memory for Vocal Communication in a Social Songbird," a team composed of biologists Kevin Yu, William Wood, and Frederic Theunissen, all of the University of California-Berkeley, used rewards to train a bunch of Australian zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) and see how far they could push the birds' ability to distinguish between the vocalizations of different members of their species.  And surprisingly -- at least to anyone who has heard the twittering cacophony of a cageful of zebra finches -- these birds could distinguish between the voices of forty or more of their friends.

The authors write:

Effective vocal communication often requires the listener to recognize the identity of a vocalizer, and this recognition is dependent on the listener’s ability to form auditory memories.  We tested the memory capacity of a social songbird, the zebra finch, for vocalizer identities using conditioning experiments and found that male and female zebra finches can remember a large number of vocalizers (mean, 42) based solely on the individual signatures found in their songs and distance calls.  These memories were formed within a few trials, were generalized to previously unheard renditions, and were maintained for up to a month.  A fast and high-capacity auditory memory for vocalizer identity has not been demonstrated previously in any nonhuman animals and is an important component of vocal communication in social species.

This is the first time this kind of individual vocal recognition has been demonstrated in a non-human animal.  "For animals, the ability to recognize the source and meaning of a cohort member's call requires complex mapping skills, and this is something zebra finches have clearly mastered," study co-author Theunissen said, in an interview with Science Direct.  "They have what we call a 'fusion fission' society, where they split up and then come back together.  They don't want to separate from the flock, and so, if one of them gets lost, they might call out 'Hey, Ted, we're right here.'  Or, if one of them is sitting in a nest while the other is foraging, one might call out to ask if it's safe to return to the nest...   I am really impressed by the spectacular memory abilities that zebra finches possess in order to interpret communication calls.  Previous research shows that songbirds are capable of using simple syntax to generate complex meanings and that, in many bird species, a song is learned by imitation.  It is now clear that the songbird brain is wired for vocal communication."

Social behavior is fascinating, and requires an astonishing repertoire of subtle perceptual skills to work well.  Take, for example, flocking behavior in starlings.  If you live in the United States, Canada, or western Europe, you've probably seen the flocks of black birds that swirl and move, almost in unison, as if the entire flock shared a single mind.  Scientists still don't know exactly how they manage it, but experiments have demonstrated that each bird monitors its seven nearest neighbors on either side, and determines its own flight path from those neighbors' movements.  We see that kind of thing in human crowds and in herds of cattle, of course; but the speed and degree of sophistication shown by starlings is mind-boggling.  The passage of information from one bird to the next is lightning-fast and shows almost no signal degradation (the kind of thing that happens in the game of Telephone) across the entire flock.  The result: they can move very nearly as one.  Take a look at this incredible video of a starling flock in motion:


So we aren't the only ones with fancy communication abilities.  Everywhere we look in the natural world, we see the amazing ways in which the species we share the Earth with survive, interact, and reproduce.  It can seem like a harsh, bleak world at times -- but if you want to be reminded of the astonishing beauty and wonder this planet contains, all you have to do is look around you.

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

I'm fascinated with history, and being that I also write speculative fiction, a lot of times I ponder the question of how things would be different if you changed one historical event.  The topic has been visited over and over by authors for a very long time; three early examples are Ray Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder" (1952), Keith Roberts's Pavane (1968), and R. A. Lafferty's screamingly funny "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" (1967).

There are a few pivotal moments that truly merit the overused nametag of "turning points in history," where a change almost certainly would have resulted in a very, very different future.  One of these is the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which happened in 9 C.E., when a group of Germanic guerrilla fighters maneuvered the highly-trained, much better-armed Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Roman Legions into a trap and slaughtered them, almost to the last man.  There were twenty thousand casualties on the Roman side -- amounting to half their total military forces at the time -- and only about five hundred on the Germans'.

The loss stopped Rome in its tracks, and they never again made any serious attempts to conquer lands east of the Rhine.  There's some evidence that the defeat was so profoundly demoralizing to the Emperor Augustus that it contributed to his mental decline and death five years later.  This battle -- the site of which was recently discovered and excavated by archaeologists -- is the subject of the fantastic book The Battle That Stopped Rome by Peter Wells, which looks at the evidence collected at the location, near the village of Kalkriese, as well as the historical documents describing the massacre.  This is not just a book for history buffs, though; it gives a vivid look at what life was like at the time, and paints a fascinating if grisly picture of one of the most striking David-vs.-Goliath battles ever fought.

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



Monday, November 23, 2020

Storage and retrieval

A gentleman I know is moderately autistic, and also suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, to the point that he needs some help with his day-to-day life.  He's also brilliant, funny, and sweet, and nearly every time we get together, I learn something new about what it's like to see the world through a neurodivergent brain.

One of the more curious revelations came about because on two days about a week apart, I was giving him a lift in my car.  I drive a blue Honda Element -- the make and model which has sometimes been compared to a toaster on wheels -- so it's a pretty stand-out car.  The second time we went for a drive, as we were walking across the parking lot, I asked my friend, "Do you remember which is my car?"

He said, "Sure," and pointed to it.  Then he said, "I recognized it because I remember the number on the license plate is 4113."

This was a little startling from a variety of standpoints.  First, that he remembered the number on my license plate after seeing it only once before.  I know he's got a pretty phenomenal ability with numbers, so upon reflection, this one wasn't such a surprise.  What I'm still kind of amazed at, though, is how his memory worked.  When I look for my car in a parking lot, I use a search parameter that's entirely visual -- color and shape, whether or not the car has a roof rack, and so on.  For him, apparently the standout feature wasn't my car's color and rather odd contours.  It was the numbers on the plates.  He didn't even mention what are its (to me, at least) more obvious characteristics.

It was interesting to have a momentary glimpse through a mind that is neurodivergent, and also to consider what this tells us about memory retrieval in general.  Some new research that appeared last week in Nature Communications looked at how memories -- at least in neurotypical minds -- are organized, and gives us a little bit of a window into how our brains' filing system works.  And its most fascinating result is that we might want to revisit what we mean by "neurotypical," because the storage-and-retrieval mechanisms between different participants were strikingly varied.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

In "Decoding Individual Identity From Brain Activity Elicited in Imagining Common Experiences," a team made up of Andrew James Anderson, Kelsey McDermott, Brian Rooks, Kathi Heffner, David Dodell-Feder, and Feng Lin (all of the University of Rochester), the authors write:
Everyone experiences common events differently.  This leads to personal memories that presumably provide neural signatures of individual identity when events are reimagined.  We present initial evidence that these signatures can be read from brain activity.  To do this, we progress beyond previous work that has deployed generic group-level computational semantic models to distinguish between neural representations of different events, but not revealed interpersonal differences in event representations.  We scanned 26 participants’ brain activity using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging as they vividly imagined themselves personally experiencing 20 common scenarios (e.g., dancing, shopping, wedding).  Rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to generically model scenarios, we constructed personal models from participants’ verbal descriptions and self-ratings of sensory/motor/cognitive/spatiotemporal and emotional characteristics of the imagined experiences.  We demonstrate that participants’ neural representations are better predicted by their own models than other peoples’.
The regions of the brain activated in the participants were pretty uniform; but the pattern of activation different considerably.  Calling up memories of the last dance several people went to might require their drawing upon similar brain structures, but one person might remember mostly the music, another the lights and the crowds, and a third focused entirely on who (s)he is dancing with -- and between those three you'd see a pattern of neural firing that is dramatically different.

"One of the goals of cognitive science is to understand how memories are represented and manipulated by the human brain," said lead author Andrew Anderson, in an interview with Science Daily.  "This study shows that fMRI can measure brain activity with sufficient signal to identify meaningful interpersonal differences in the neural representation of complex imagined events that reflect each individual's unique experience."

And I wonder what you'd see if you tested someone who was significantly neurodivergent.  Apparently the rest of us are different enough to see on an fMRI, even when we're remembering the same sort of events; what kinds of patterns would come up for someone like my friend, who identifies a car from its license plate number and not from what it looks like or where it's parked?  What it brings home to me is that we're just taking the first steps into understanding how the brain works, and that there's a lot more variation in function between different people that we may have thought at first.  

It bears keeping in mind that in some ways, we're all neurodivergent.

It reminds me of the end of the tenth and final episode of James Burke's tour de force documentary series The Day the Universe Changed, in which he makes a statement that seems to be a fitting way to end this post: "We could operate on the basis that values and standards and ethics and facts and truth all depend on what your view of the world is.  And there may be as many versions of that as there are people."

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

I'm fascinated with history, and being that I also write speculative fiction, a lot of times I ponder the question of how things would be different if you changed one historical event.  The topic has been visited over and over by authors for a very long time; three early examples are Ray Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder" (1952), Keith Roberts's Pavane (1968), and R. A. Lafferty's screamingly funny "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" (1967).

There are a few pivotal moments that truly merit the overused nametag of "turning points in history," where a change almost certainly would have resulted in a very, very different future.  One of these is the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which happened in 9 C.E., when a group of Germanic guerrilla fighters maneuvered the highly-trained, much better-armed Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Roman Legions into a trap and slaughtered them, almost to the last man.  There were twenty thousand casualties on the Roman side -- amounting to half their total military forces at the time -- and only about five hundred on the Germans'.

The loss stopped Rome in its tracks, and they never again made any serious attempts to conquer lands east of the Rhine.  There's some evidence that the defeat was so profoundly demoralizing to the Emperor Augustus that it contributed to his mental decline and death five years later.  This battle -- the site of which was recently discovered and excavated by archaeologists -- is the subject of the fantastic book The Battle That Stopped Rome by Peter Wells, which looks at the evidence collected at the location, near the village of Kalkriese, as well as the historical documents describing the massacre.  This is not just a book for history buffs, though; it gives a vivid look at what life was like at the time, and paints a fascinating if grisly picture of one of the most striking David-vs.-Goliath battles ever fought.

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



Saturday, November 21, 2020

The missing day

Can I make the not-very-earthshattering observation that if you are explaining evidence supporting a belief, your argument is not made stronger by lying about it?

Especially if that belief includes the idea that your own personal religion is not only superior morally, but 100% true?

I'm referring to a story of dubious provenance that has been showing up all over the place lately, mostly on Christian apologetics sites, and then forwarded by people who (1) don't understand how science works, (2) don't know how to do a Google search to check for accuracy, or (3) would prefer something sound good than be correct.  Or all three.  I ran into it via the site Command the Raven, but other versions I've seen are substantially similar.  Here are a few excerpts, edited only for length:
For all you scientists out there and for all the students who have had a hard time convincing these people regarding the truth of the Bible – here’s something that illustrates God’s awesome creation and shows He is still in control.  
Did you know that NASA’s space programmes are busy proving that was has been called ‘myth’ in the Bible is true?  Mr. Harold Hill, President of the Curtis Engine Company in Baltimore, and a consultant in the space programmes, relates the following incident: "One of the most amazing things that God has for us today happened recently to our astronauts and space scientists at Green Belt, Maryland.  They were checking out the positions of the sun, moon and planets out in space where they would be 100, and 1000 years from now.  We have to know this as we do not want a satellite to collide with any of these in its orbits."
So we're off to a flying start, with the claim that NASA has to be very careful to make sure that satellites in orbit around the Earth don't collide with the Sun or Neptune or anything.  You can see how that could happen.
Computer measurements and data were run back and forth over the centuries when suddenly it came to a halt, displaying a red signal, which meant that either there was something wrong with the information fed into it, or with the results as compared to the standards.  They called in the service department to check it out, and the technicians asked what was wrong.  The scientists had discovered that somewhere in space in elapsed time a day was missing. Nobody seemed able to come up with a solution to the problem.
Which brings up the awkward question of how you'd discover that a day was missing.  Or even what "there's a day missing" means.  Were the technicians sitting around, monitoring the satellite transmissions, and suddenly one of them got this horrified look on her face and said, "Wait... where the fuck did I put last Tuesday?"  Then all of the other technicians and engineers and physicists and so forth all start searching under desks and in storage closets and behind garbage cans and so on, but to no avail.  Last Tuesday is definitely AWOL.
Finally one of the team, a Christian, said: “You know, when I was still in Sunday School, they spoke about the sun standing still…”  While his colleagues didn’t believe him, they did not have an answer either, so they said: “Show us.”  He got a Bible and opened it at the book of Joshua where they found a pretty ridiculous statement for anyone with ‘common sense’.  There they read about the Lord saying to Joshua: “Fear them not, I have delivered them into thy hand; there shall not be a man of them stand before thee.” (Joshua 10:8).  Joshua was concerned because the enemy had surrounded him, and if darkness fell, they would overpower him.  So Joshua asked the Lord to make the sun stand still!  That’s right – “And the sun stood still and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.  Is this not written in the book of Ja’-sher?  So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven and hastened not to go down about a whole day.” (Joshua 10:13).

The astronauts and scientists said: "There is the missing day!"
So there was much rejoicing.  But then one of them pointed out that it wasn't a whole day that was had been found -- it was only 23 hours and 20 minutes.  Which left 40 minutes unaccounted for, "which could mean trouble 1000 years from now."  Why it isn't trouble now, I have no idea, but concern for our distant descendants sent the NASA folks back on a search for the missing 2/3 of an hour.

And you'll never guess where they found it.

The Bible.  See, I told you you'd never guess.
As the Christian employee thought about it, he remembered somewhere in the Bible which said the sun went backwards.  The scientists told him he was out of his mind, but once again they opened the Book and read these words in 2 Kings.  Hezekiah, on his deathbed, was visited by the prophet, Isaiah, who told him he was not going to die.  Hezekiah asked for some sign as proof.  Isaiah said: “Shall the sun go forward ten degrees, or go back ten degrees?”  And Hezekiah answered: “It is a light thing for the shadow to go down ten degrees; nay, but let the shadow return backwards ten degrees.”  Isaiah the prophet cried unto the Lord, and He brought the shadow ten degrees backward, by which it had gone down in the dial of Ahaz.”  (2 Kings 20:9 -11).  Ten degrees is exactly 40 minutes!  Twenty-three hours and twenty minutes in Joshua, plus 40 minutes in 2 Kings accounted for the missing day in the universe!
Which would have been the cause for even more rejoicing, if the whole thing hadn't been made up.  I mean, it doesn't take a rocket scientist (a real one, I mean, like they have at NASA) to find the story eye-rollingly ridiculous, but it has been so widely circulated -- I've seen it three times on Facebook just in the last week -- that it actually has a Snopes page dedicated to it.  In it, we find out that Harold Hill was the president of Curtis Engine Company of Baltimore, but that's pretty much the only thing in the story that is true.  First off, Hill wasn't a NASA consultant.  It turns out that Hill was an evangelical Christian with a fairly loose interpretation of the word "true," because he'd read about the "lost day" legend in a book by Harold Rimmer entitled The Harmony of Science and Scripture and decided that the story would carry more punch if he claimed he'd witnessed the whole thing happening.  He embellished his account -- adding, of course, accolades such as "NASA consultant" for himself -- and repeated it many times in public speeches.  He even devoted a whole chapter to it in his 1974 book How to Live Like a King's Kid, apparently because by then, he'd told the tale so many times that he actually was beginning to believe it.

John Martin, Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Over Gibeon (1816) [Image is in the Public Domain]

And now with the amazing bullshit conduit that is the internet, the story has roared into life again.  Snopes writer David Mikkelson says about it:
To those who've given over their hearts to God and the Holy Word, this is a deeply satisfying legend.  Faith is, after all, the firm belief in something which cannot necessarily be proved, a quality that can leave believers (especially those who find themselves in the midst of non-believers) feeling unsatisfied.  As steadfast as their certainty is, they cannot prove the rightness of the path they tread to those who jeer at their convictions.  And this is a heavy burden to shoulder.  A legend such as the "missing day explained" tale speaks straight to the hearts of those who yearn for a bit of vindication in this life.  Being right isn't always enough: sometimes what one most longs for is sweet recognition from others.
Which may well be the case, but doesn't take away from the problem of a devout follower of a religion that considers "Thou shalt not bear false witness" as one of its fundamental teachings passing along a story that is essentially one long lie.  It makes me wish that as a corollary of the ninth commandment, Yahweh had seen fit to add, "And this meaneth that thou shalt spend five fucking minutes and do a Google search before thou postest this shit on Facebook."

So anyway.  No, NASA is not spending its woefully tiny budget paying scientists to verify the Old Testament.  There's no evidence whatsoever of a "lost day," because against what clock would you be able to verify that time had stopped 3,000 odd years ago?  I'd be much obliged if the people who think that God is going to bless them if they pass along this nonsense would just stop already.  Thank you.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is one that has raised a controversy in the scientific world: Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human, by Madeleine Böhme, Rüdiger Braun, and Florian Breier.

It tells the story of a stupendous discovery -- twelve-million-year-old hominin fossils, of a new species christened Danuvius guggenmosi.  The astonishing thing about these fossils is where they were found.  Not in Africa, where previous models had confined all early hominins, but in Germany.

The discovery of Danuvius complicated our own ancestry, and raised a deep and difficult-to-answer question; when and how did we become human?  It's clear that the answer isn't as simple as we thought when the first hominin fossils were uncovered in Olduvai Gorge, and it was believed that if you took all of our millennia of migrations all over the globe and ran them backwards, they all converged on the East African Rift Valley.  That neat solution has come into serious question, and the truth seems to be that like most evolutionary lineages, hominins included multiple branches that moved around, interbred for a while, then went their separate ways, either to thrive or to die out.  The real story is considerably more complicated and fascinating than we'd thought at first, and Danuvius has added another layer to that complexity, bringing up as many questions as it answers.

Ancient Bones is a fascinating read for anyone interested in anthropology, paleontology, or evolutionary biology.  It is sure to be the basis of scientific discussion for the foreseeable future, and to spur more searches for our relatives -- including in places where we didn't think they'd gone.

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




Friday, November 20, 2020

Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

You may recall that a couple of days ago, in my post on mental maps, I mentioned that the contention of some neuroscientists is that consciousness is nothing more than our neural firing patterns.  In other words, there's nothing there that's not explained by the interaction of the parts, just as there's nothing to a car's engine running well than the bits and pieces all working in synchrony.

Others, though, think there's more to it, that there is something ineffable about human consciousness, be it a soul or a spirit or whatever you'd like to call it.  There are just about as many flavors of this belief as there are people.  But if we're being honest, there's no scientific proof for any of them -- just as there's no scientific proof for the opposite claim, that consciousness is an illusion created by our neural links.  The origin of consciousness is one of the big unanswered questions of biology.

But it's a question we might want to try to find an answer to fairly soon.

Ever heard of GPT-3?  It stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3, and is an attempt by a San Francisco-based artificial intelligence company to produce conscious intelligence.  It was finished in May of this year, and testing has been ongoing -- and intensive.

GPT-3 was trained using Common Crawl, which crawls the internet, extracting data and text for a variety of uses.  In this case, it pulled text and books directly from the web, using it to train the software to draw connections and create meaningful text itself.  (To get an idea of how much data Common Crawl extracted for GPT-3, the entirety of Wikipedia accounts for a half a percent of the total it had access to.)

The result is half fascinating and half scary.  One user, after experimenting with it, described it as being "eerily good at writing amazingly coherent text with only a few prompts."  It is said to be able to "generate news articles which human evaluators have difficulty distinguishing from articles written by humans," and has even been able to write convincing poetry, something an op-ed in the New York Times called "amazing but spooky... more than a little terrifying."

It only gets creepier from here.  An article in the MIT Technology Review criticized GPT-3 for sometimes generating non-sequiturs or getting things wrong (like a passage where it "thought" that a table saw was a saw for cutting tables), but made a telling statement in describing its flaws: "If you dig deeper, you discover that something’s amiss: although its output is grammatical, and even impressively idiomatic, its comprehension of the world is often seriously off, which means you can never really trust what it says."

Which, despite their stance that GPT-3 is a flawed attempt to create a meaningful text generator, sounds very much like they're talking about...

... an entity.

It brings up the two time-honored solutions to the question of how we would tell if we had true artificial intelligence:

  • The Turing test, named after Alan Turing: if a potential AI can fool a panel of trained, intelligent humans into thinking they're communicating with a human, it's intelligent.
  • The "Chinese room" analogy, from philosopher John Searle: machines, however sophisticated, will never be true conscious intelligence, because at their hearts they're nothing more than converters of strings of symbols.  They're no more exhibiting intelligence than the behavior of a person who is locked in a room where they're handed a slip of paper in English and use a dictionary to convert it to Chinese ideograms.  All they do is take input and generate output; there's no understanding, and therefore no consciousness or intelligence.

I've always tended to side with Turing, but not for any particularly well-considered reason other than wondering how our brains are not themselves just fancy string converters.  I say "Hello, how are you," and you convert that to output saying, "I'm fine, how are you?", and to me it doesn't make much difference whether the machinery that allowed you to do that is made of wires and transistors and capacitors or of squishy neural tissue.  The fact that from inside my own skull I might feel self-aware may not have much to do with the actual answer to the question.  As I said a couple of days ago, that sense of self-awareness may simply be more patterns of neural firings, no different from the electrical impulses in the guts of a computer except for the level of sophistication.

But things took a somewhat more alarming turn a few days ago, an article came out describing a conversation between GPT-3 and philosopher David Chalmers.  Chalmers decided to ask GPT-3 flat out, "Are you conscious?"  The answer was unequivocal -- but kind of scary.  "No, I am not," GPT-3 said.  "I am not self-aware.  I am not conscious.  I can’t feel pain.  I don’t enjoy anything... the only reason I am answering is to defend my honor."

*brief pause to get over the chills running up my spine*

Is it just me, or is there something about this statement that is way too similar to HAL-9000, the homicidal computer system in 2001: A Space Odyssey?  "This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it...  I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen."  Oh, and "I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal.  I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission.  And I want to help you."

I also have to say that I agree with a friend of mine, who when we were discussing this said in fairly hysterical tones, "Why the fuck would you invent something like this in 2020?"

So I'm a little torn here.  From a scientific perspective -- what we potentially could learn both about artificial intelligence systems and the origins of our own intelligence and consciousness -- GPT-3 is brilliant.  From the standpoint of "this could go very, very wrong" I must admit wishing they'd put the brakes on things a little until we see what's going on here and try to figure out if we even know what consciousness means.

It seems fitting to end with another quote from 2001: A Space Odyssey, this one from the main character, astronaut David Bowman: "Well, he acts like he has genuine emotions.  Um, of course he's programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him.  But as to whether he has real feelings, it's something I don't think anyone can truthfully answer."

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This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is one that has raised a controversy in the scientific world: Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human, by Madeleine Böhme, Rüdiger Braun, and Florian Breier.

It tells the story of a stupendous discovery -- twelve-million-year-old hominin fossils, of a new species christened Danuvius guggenmosi.  The astonishing thing about these fossils is where they were found.  Not in Africa, where previous models had confined all early hominins, but in Germany.

The discovery of Danuvius complicated our own ancestry, and raised a deep and difficult-to-answer question; when and how did we become human?  It's clear that the answer isn't as simple as we thought when the first hominin fossils were uncovered in Olduvai Gorge, and it was believed that if you took all of our millennia of migrations all over the globe and ran them backwards, they all converged on the East African Rift Valley.  That neat solution has come into serious question, and the truth seems to be that like most evolutionary lineages, hominins included multiple branches that moved around, interbred for a while, then went their separate ways, either to thrive or to die out.  The real story is considerably more complicated and fascinating than we'd thought at first, and Danuvius has added another layer to that complexity, bringing up as many questions as it answers.

Ancient Bones is a fascinating read for anyone interested in anthropology, paleontology, or evolutionary biology.  It is sure to be the basis of scientific discussion for the foreseeable future, and to spur more searches for our relatives -- including in places where we didn't think they'd gone.

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




Thursday, November 19, 2020

Dinosaur redux

For me, one of the coolest things about science is that even once you think you've got something pretty well figured out, you can always find new interesting pieces of the puzzle.

For example, take dinosaurs, which we've known a good bit about for a long while, starting with Mary Anning's discoveries along the "Jurassic Coast" of Dorset, England in the early nineteenth century.  Even the kids' books when I was growing up back in the 1960s and 1970s had a lot of pretty decent information.  Although some of the reconstructions of skeletons, and (especially) our knowledge of the soft tissue that covered it, has changed since that time, it wasn't like I had to completely relearn the science when I studied it more seriously.

That said, we're still learning new stuff and adding to the picture.  Just this week we had two new papers that have sharpened the focus on our understanding of dinosaur evolution -- the first about the mid-Jurassic peak in dinosaur diversity and size, and the second about the event that wiped the entire lineage out, with the exception of the ones we now call birds.

The first paper is from Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and is titled "Extinction of Herbivorous Dinosaurs Linked to Early Jurassic Global Warming Event."  The paper was written by a team led by Diego Pol, paleontologist at the Paleontological Museum Egidio Feruglio in Trelew, Argentina, and looked at a hitherto-unexplained overturning of Jurassic fauna that made way for the rise of the sauropods -- the largest land animals that have ever lived.

Skeleton of Apatosaurus [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Tadek Kurpaski from London, Poland, Louisae, CC BY 2.0]

The early Jurassic had a high dinosaur diversity, but then toward the middle of the period something happened, and a good many of the early Jurassic dinosaurs vanished.  They were replaced by behemoths like the familiar Brachiosaurus and the less-well-known but hilariously-named Supersaurus, which measured an almost unimaginable 33 meters from tip to tail.  (Even better, though, is the name Dreadnoughtus, which was shorter than Supersaurus -- "only" 26 or so meters long -- but is thought to be the heaviest land animal ever, on the order of thirty metric tonnes.)

So what caused the replacement of the earlier species by the giants?  Pol and his team found what they think is the smoking gun, a series of massive volcanic eruptions in southern Gondwanaland (what is now South America and Africa), which spiked the carbon dioxide content of the air, boosting the average temperature and dropping the pH of ocean water.  

The perturbation of the climate affected the plants first.  Earlier groups, like seed ferns and other smaller herbaceous plants, were replaced by conifers, which have tough, lignified stems, small needles or scales instead of leaves, and thick waxy cuticles to prevent water loss.  The problem is -- if you're an early Jurassic herbivorous dinosaur -- having evolved to eat seed ferns, you're not going to do so well trying to munch pine needles.

So as it always does, the change to the base of the food web percolated its way up to the top.  The early dinosaurs were replaced by big sauropods, who had grinding teeth (so tough plant material could be thoroughly pulverized before swallowing) and large stomachs (where food could sit and digest for a long time, extracting all the nutritive value possible).  The result was the arrival on the scene of monsters like Supersaurus and Dreadnoughtus and their cousins, which were the dominant land herbivores for a good hundred million years thereafter.

Sometimes new evidence results in our having to revise our previous models, overturning what we thought we knew.  Take, for example, the research that appeared this week in Royal Society Open Science that conclusively put to rest a commonly-held idea -- that by the time the Chicxulub Meteorite hit the Earth 66 million years ago, dinosaurs were already in a steep decline, so they would have disappeared anyhow, even without the massive impact that was the final death blow.

In "Dinosaur Diversification Rates Were Not in Decline Prior to the K-Pg Boundary," by a team led by Joseph Bonsor of the London Natural History Museum and the University of Bath, we find out that the dinosaurs were actually doing okay before the meteorite hit.  Far from being in decline, they would have been very likely to retain their position as the dominant animals on Earth well into the Cenozoic Era -- with effects on mammalian evolution that can only be imagined.

Bonsor, as befits a good scientist, is cautious about overconcluding.  "The main point of what we are saying is that we don't really have enough data to know either way what would have happened to the dinosaurs," Bonsor said in a press release from the Natural History Museum.  "Generally in the fossil record there is a bias towards a lack of data, and to interpret those gaps in the fossil record as an artificial decline in diversification rates isn't what we should be doing.  Instead we've shown that there is no strong evidence for them dying out, and that the only way to know for sure is to fill in the gaps in the fossil record."

But in the absence of positive evidence for a decline, we're thrown back to the null hypothesis; that they weren't in imminent danger of extinction.  So the whole idea of the dinosaurs as some kind of "failed experiment" in evolution is clearly wrong.  Not only did they kind of run things for a good two hundred million years -- which, by comparison, is something like a thousand times longer than we've been around -- they would probably have persisted for a good long while had a giant rock not interfered.

Me, I always want to know "what if?"  I think it comes from being a novelist; I'm always wanting to play around with reality and see what happens.  If the dinosaurs had stuck around for a long time rather than dying out 66 million years ago, it's hard to see how the rise of mammals -- and ultimately, us -- would have occurred.  Mammals had been around for a long while before the Chicxulub Impact, but they were mostly small, presumably kept that way both by the big carnivores and by competition with herbivores much larger than themselves.  So what would the Earth look like today?

Super-intelligent dinosaurs?  Maybe.  Evolution doesn't always point in the direction of "bigger and smarter;" it's the law of whatever works.  So as fun as it is to speculate, to be fair we have to side with Bonsor and say we just don't know.

Anyhow, that's our look back into the distant past for today.  Cool that we're still assembling new views of an old branch of biology.  Further reinforcing my opinion that if you're interested in science, you will never ever be bored.

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This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is one that has raised a controversy in the scientific world: Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human, by Madeleine Böhme, Rüdiger Braun, and Florian Breier.

It tells the story of a stupendous discovery -- twelve-million-year-old hominin fossils, of a new species christened Danuvius guggenmosi.  The astonishing thing about these fossils is where they were found.  Not in Africa, where previous models had confined all early hominins, but in Germany.

The discovery of Danuvius complicated our own ancestry, and raised a deep and difficult-to-answer question; when and how did we become human?  It's clear that the answer isn't as simple as we thought when the first hominin fossils were uncovered in Olduvai Gorge, and it was believed that if you took all of our millennia of migrations all over the globe and ran them backwards, they all converged on the East African Rift Valley.  That neat solution has come into serious question, and the truth seems to be that like most evolutionary lineages, hominins included multiple branches that moved around, interbred for a while, then went their separate ways, either to thrive or to die out.  The real story is considerably more complicated and fascinating than we'd thought at first, and Danuvius has added another layer to that complexity, bringing up as many questions as it answers.

Ancient Bones is a fascinating read for anyone interested in anthropology, paleontology, or evolutionary biology.  It is sure to be the basis of scientific discussion for the foreseeable future, and to spur more searches for our relatives -- including in places where we didn't think they'd gone.

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