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 25, 2021

Buried treasure

Maybe I need to get myself a metal detector.

The reason I say this is that it's apparently an auspicious time for treasure hunters, at least judging by two discoveries I found out about (once again!) from my friend and fellow writer Gil Miller, without whom in the last couple of weeks I wouldn't have had much to write about here.

The first one was a discovery in Norway made by an amateur treasure hunting enthusiast, using his newly-purchased metal detector for the first time (maybe there's something to beginner's luck after all...).  The fortunate fellow is named Ole Ginnerup Schytz, and I have to point out that (1) no, I am not making this name up, and (2), yes, this is from a reputable source, specifically the National Museum of Denmark.

In any case, the discovery, made a couple of months ago near the town of Jelling but only announced recently, is absolutely stupendous.  It's a collection of gold artifacts dating from the Danish Iron Age, about seventh century C.E.  It consists primarily of bracteates -- rune-decorated medallions thought to have not only a decorative but a magical purpose.  This new collection has bracteate designs the archaeologists say they've never seen before.

"It is the symbolism represented on these objects that makes them unique, more than the quantity found," explained Mads Ravn, director of research at the Vejle Museum.

As far as Schytz, he was as stunned as everyone else by his discovery.  "When the device activated, I knelt down and found a small, bent piece of metal," he said.  "It was scratched and covered in mud.  I had no idea, so all I could think of was that it looked like the lid of a can of herring."

One of the bracteates from the Jelling cache

"It was the epitome of pure luck," Schytz said.  "Denmark is 43,000 square kilometers, and then I happen to choose to put the detector exactly where this find was."

One thing I find fascinating about the discovery is that it contained gold coins from the Roman Empire that had been converted into jewelry, and a medallion depicting Constantine the Great (ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire from 306 to 337 C.E.).  So even though the cache seems to have been buried in the seventh century, some of the artifacts are a good three hundred years older than that.  Jelling, apparently, was the center of trade back then -- including trade from over two thousand kilometers away.

The second discovery was made on the other side of the world, in Colombia.  Recently archaeologists discovered a trove of gold and emeralds, filling eight ceramic jars of a type made by the Muisca people, an indigenous group known for their find goldsmithing (and who may have inspired the legend of the city of El Dorado).  The jars are thought to have been buried about six centuries ago, but this is much less certain than the Jelling cache's date, because there were no obvious historical benchmarks here as there were in Denmark.

One of the jars from the Muisca site

A lot of the pieces from this discovery are figurines in the shape of snakes and other animals, as well as people wearing headdresses and carrying staffs and weapons.  This has prompted the leader of the team which made the discovery, Francisco Correa, to conclude that the site may have been associated with the worship of ancestor spirits and animal totems.

In any case, both the Danish and the Colombian find are staggeringly precious, not just because of the monetary value of the gold and jewels, but because of what it tells us about the cultures that created these beautiful pieces.  So like I said, if you believe in auspices, maybe it's time to go out and get yourself a metal detector.

I probably won't bother.  Not only do I not believe in strings of good fortune, I don't think there's any gold buried around here.  About the only use I've seen people make of metal detectors in this area is sweeping the village fairgrounds after the annual fair wraps up, looking for lost pocket change.

And frankly, I don't think the return on that investment would be enough to justify the time and expense.

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

Like graphic novels?  Like bizarre and mind-blowing ideas from subatomic physics?

Have I got a book for you.

Described as "Tintin meets Brian Cox," Mysteries of the Quantum Universe is a graphic novel about the explorations of a researcher, Bob, and his dog Rick, as they investigate some of the weirdest corners of quantum physics -- and present it at a level that is accessible (and extremely entertaining) to the layperson.  The author Thibault Damour is a theoretical physicist, so his expertise in the cutting edge of physics, coupled with delightful illustrations by artist Mathieu Burniat, make for delightful reading.  This one should be in every science aficionado's to-read stack!

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


Friday, September 24, 2021

Stories in music

I was driving to work a couple of days ago, listening to classical music on satellite radio, and I heard Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Lennart Sikkema, Canyon River Tree (165872763), CC BY 3.0]

Pretty cool piece of music, but to me the fifth and final movement is something really special.  It's called "Cloudburst" and is a musical depiction of a thunderstorm in the desert.

And the thought occurred to me that you don't need words to tell a story, which I thought would be an interesting topic for this week's Fiction Friday.  Grofé gives us a picture in sounds -- the approach of the storm, lightning, thunder, wind -- then its subsidence (and just like in a real storm, afterward you can still hear the thunder in the distance as it recedes).


This is a pretty well-known piece of music, and is far from the only one that tells a story using music.  Another famous one is Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre, depicting the devil playing the fiddle and summoning the dead to dance in the cemetery (xylophones for the bones knocking together!).  Listen at the end for the church bells ringing in the distance to signal the sunrise, and the little musical shiver the devil gives when he knows the day is coming -- followed by a sad, mournful violin solo.  But then, the last few notes seem to promise that he'll be back once night falls again.


Beethoven drew his inspiration from stories as well, and I'm not only thinking of pieces like the Pastoral Symphony.  Check out this amazing performance of his piano solo Rondo a Capriccio: Rage Over a Lost Penny.  (All I can say is that if losing a penny made me come up with tunes like this, I'd be flinging coins all over the place.)


One of my favorite musical depictions is from the incredibly prolific American composer Alan Hovhaness.  His Symphony #50 (he wrote 67 of them, and about 450 other sorts of pieces) is subtitled Mount Saint Helens.  Listen to it -- if that's not a musical version of a volcanic eruption, I don't know what is.


Jean Sibelius wrote a lot of music based upon Finnish folk tales, myths, and legends, but to me none gives as vivid a picture as "Lemminkainen's Return" from the Kalevala Suite.  Lemminkainen is a folk hero, and the piece depicts his triumphant return to his home after a long adventure.  It gallops along, and you can almost see the hero with his long hair flying in the wind, riding his horse through a snowstorm.


One of the funniest pieces in classical music -- once you know the story it's telling -- is Sergei Prokofiev's brilliant Lieutenant Kije Suite.  The story behind it is that during an inspection of a military regiment by the Tsar, he was reviewing the roster and saw that someone had scribbled in the word "Kije" (Russian for "thingamajig"), and mistakenly thought it was the name of a soldier.  No one wanted to correct the Tsar, so they invented a Lieutenant Kije, and waxed rhapsodic about his exploits and bravery, along with romantic vignettes of his courtship of, and eventual marriage to, a beautiful young lady.  But they overdid it -- so much that the Tsar decided that he needed to meet this exemplary military man and paragon of virtue.  Cornered, the leaders of the regiment had to invent a heroic death in battle for Kije so the Tsar wouldn't uncover the deception.


I'll end with one of my favorite pieces, the stunning suite Firebird by Igor Stravinsky.  It tells of the magical Firebird, half bird and half human, who is captured by the heroic Prince Ivan.  She gives him one of her feathers, and tells him he can use it to defeat the evil sorcerer King Katschei.  Katschei keeps his soul hidden in an egg in a casket and thinks he's immortal because of it (shades of J. K. Rowling's horcruxes).  But using the magic of the feather, Ivan forces Katschei and his minions to dance themselves to exhaustion.  He then finds the egg and destroys it, killing Katschei and freeing all of the people he'd magically enslaved -- including the young woman Ivan is in love with.  The end is one of the most joyful, stirring, triumphant pieces of music ever written.


So that's a few of my favorite stories in music.  I hope you enjoyed listening.  What are your favorites?

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

Like graphic novels?  Like bizarre and mind-blowing ideas from subatomic physics?

Have I got a book for you.

Described as "Tintin meets Brian Cox," Mysteries of the Quantum Universe is a graphic novel about the explorations of a researcher, Bob, and his dog Rick, as they investigate some of the weirdest corners of quantum physics -- and present it at a level that is accessible (and extremely entertaining) to the layperson.  The author Thibault Damour is a theoretical physicist, so his expertise in the cutting edge of physics, coupled with delightful illustrations by artist Mathieu Burniat, make for delightful reading.  This one should be in every science aficionado's to-read stack!

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


Thursday, September 23, 2021

The natural pharmacy

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the discovery and decipherment of a codex written in Nahuatl, one of the languages spoken by the Aztecs (and still spoken in central Mexico).  The study highlighted the fact that language is one of the most critical pieces of culture, embodying a unique way of describing the world.  When languages disappear, that perspective is forever lost.

It's even worse than that, according to another study, that appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a couple of months ago.  In "Language Extinction Triggers the Loss of Unique Medicinal Knowledge," authors Rodrigo Cámara-Leret and Jordi Bascompte of the University of Zürich look at the role of language in preserving information about medicinal plants -- information that might well be encoded in only a single one of the estimated 6,500 languages currently spoken on Earth.

Cámara-Leret and Bascompte considered indigenous languages in three places -- New Guinea, Amazonia, and North America -- lining up those languages with databases of medicinal native plants.  Specifically, they were looking at whether the knowledge of the medicinal value of native flora crossed linguistic boundaries, and were known (and used) in the cultures of the speakers of different languages.

Some, of course, were.  The use of willow bark as an analgesic was widely known to Native Americans throughout the eastern half of North America.  The sedative nature of poppy sap was also widespread, and has a long (and checkered) history.  (It's no coincidence that these two plants produce compounds -- aspirin and morphine, respectively -- that are part of the modern pharmacopeia.)

Illustration and uses of mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) from Dioscurides's De Materia Medica (7th century C.E.) [Image is in the Public Domain]

But what about the rest of the myriad species of medicinal plants that have been catalogued?  What Cámara-Leret and Bascompte found is simultaneously fascinating and alarming.  They looked at 12,495 species of medicinal flora native to the regions they studied, and found that over 75% of them were only named and known as pharmacologically valuable in a single language.

Worse, the researchers found that there was a correlation between the languages with the rarest medicinal knowledge, and how endangered the language is.  "We found that those languages with unique knowledge are the ones at a higher risk of extinction," Bascompte said, in an interview with Mongabay.  "There is a sort of a double problem in terms of how knowledge will disappear."

That knowledge isn't purely of interest to anthropologists, as a sort of cultural curiosity.  Consider how many lives have been saved by quinine (from the Peruvian plant Cinchona officinalis, used in treating malaria), vincristine (from the Madagascar periwinkle, Catharanthus rosea, used in treating leukemia and Hodgkin's disease), digoxin (from the foxglove plant, Digitalis purpurea, used for treating heart ailments), taxol (from the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, used in treating a variety of cancers), and reserpine (from the south Asian plant Rauvolfia serpentina, used in treating hypertension).  And that's just some of the better-known ones.  The whole point of the Cámara-Leret and Bascompte study is that the majority of pharmacologically-useful plants aren't known outside of a single indigenous ethnic group -- and when those languages and cultures are lost or homogenized into the dominant/majority culture, that information is lost, perhaps forever.

"There is life outside English," Bascompte said.  "These are languages that we tend to forget—the languages of poor or unknown people who do not play national roles because they are not sitting on panels, or sitting at the United Nations or places like that.  I think we have to make an effort to use that declaration by the United Nations [the UNESCO decision that 2022 to 2032 will be the "Decade of Action for Indigenous Languages"] to raise awareness about cultural diversity and about how lucky we are as a species to be part of this amazing diversity."

I can only hope that it works, at least to slow down the cultural loss.  It's probably hopeless to stop it entirely; currently, the top ten most common first languages (in order: Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, and Punjabi) account for almost fifty percent of the world's population.

The remaining 6,490 languages account for the other half.  

I understand the drive to learn one of the more-spoken languages, from the standpoint of participation in the business world (if that's your goal).  You probably wouldn't get very far international commerce if you only spoke only Ainu.  But the potential for losing unique knowledge from language extinction and cultural homogenization can't be overestimated.  Nor can the purely practical aspects of this knowledge -- including the possibility of life-saving medicinal plants that might only be recognized as such by a single small group of people in a remote area of New Guinea. 

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

Like graphic novels?  Like bizarre and mind-blowing ideas from subatomic physics?

Have I got a book for you.

Described as "Tintin meets Brian Cox," Mysteries of the Quantum Universe is a graphic novel about the explorations of a researcher, Bob, and his dog Rick, as they investigate some of the weirdest corners of quantum physics -- and present it at a level that is accessible (and extremely entertaining) to the layperson.  The author Thibault Damour is a theoretical physicist, so his expertise in the cutting edge of physics, coupled with delightful illustrations by artist Mathieu Burniat, make for delightful reading.  This one should be in every science aficionado's to-read stack!

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


Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The cities on the plain

Scary place, this universe of ours.

I've dealt here before with some cosmic-level catastrophes -- supernovas and Wolf-Rayet stars and black holes and gamma-ray bursters and false vacuums -- but the situation's not much better down here on the seemingly peaceful surface of the Earth.  There are weather-related disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, as well as spectacular but less-known phenomena such as convective microbursts, which are not only scary and violent but strike seemingly out of nowhere, producing wind that goes from dead calm to 120 kilometers per hour in under two minutes (and are over equally quickly).  Volcanoes and earthquakes are seldom a surprise with regards to location, but are unpredictable in terms of timing -- although now with better remote sensing techniques, we're getting more accurate at forecasting quakes and eruptions, such as the one currently devastating the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands.  (The Ministry of Tourism announced that the island is "still open to tourism," adding, "You must have a valid passport, as well as proof that you are a complete idiot.")

So we're better off than the people in Pompeii in 79 C.E., or the poor folks in 1902 who were the victims of a pyroclastic eruption from Mont Pelée in Martinique, which killed thirty thousand people in less than five minutes.  There were only three known survivors, the most famous of which was in an underground jail cell at the time.  All three escaped with burns and other injuries, but at least didn't get flash-fried like the rest of the city.

I'm pretty lucky here in upstate New York.  We're not in an earthquake zone, even farther from the nearest volcano, very rarely have tornadoes, and although we sometimes get sideswiped by the remnants of an Atlantic hurricane, we seldom get anything serious.  The worst we have to contend with is snow, but even our worst storms (like the "Hundred-Year Storm" of  March 1993, eight months after I moved here from Seattle, Washington, which dropped almost two meters of snow on us in a space of 48 hours) are nowhere near as violent as the killer blizzards they get in the Rocky Mountain states and the upper Midwest.

So I can't complain.  Even though I do sometimes anyhow.

But I guess even in a relatively clement place, you never know what's going to hit you.  Sometimes literally, to judge by a paper this week in Nature by a team led by geologist Ted Bunch of Northern Arizona University, which describes the fate of the city of Tall el-Hammam in the southern Jordan Valley. 

Never heard of it?  Neither had I, which is surprising considering both its prominence and its ultimate fate.  Up till about 1650 B.C.E., Tall el-Hammam was the bustling center of commerce for a region inhabited by an estimated fifty thousand people.  

The authors describe it as follows:

The three largest settlements in this area were Tall el-Hammam [TeH], Tall Nimrin, and Jericho (aka, Tell Es-Sultan), urban anchors of three city-state clusters, each surrounded by numerous smaller satellite towns and villages.  At 36 hectares of fortifications (0.36 km2) and an additional 30 hectares of “suburban sprawl,” TeH at its zenith was > 4× larger than Tall Nimrin and > 5× larger than Jericho, and thus, was likely to have been the area’s politically dominant MBA [Middle Bronze Age] urban center for many centuries.  TeH was initially occupied during the early Chalcolithic Period (~ 6600 cal BP) and was a well-established fortified urban center by the Early Bronze Age (~ 5300 cal BP).  The city reached its peak of hegemony during the MBA and dominated the eastern half of the Middle Ghor and most likely, the western half as well.

Then -- suddenly -- the entire city was wiped off the map.  The entire region was abandoned for over six hundred years, and in fact wasn't substantially recolonized for almost a millennium.

So what happened? 

Bunch et al. believe they've figured it out.  In 1650 B.C.E., Tall el-Hammam was flattened -- by a stratospheric meteorite explosion.

Artist's conception of what the original palace at Tall el-Hammam looked like -- and what's left of it

You may recall the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor, an object an estimated twenty meters across that exploded about thirty kilometers above the surface of the Earth, creating a shock wave that damaged houses and injured an estimated 1,491 people.  The 1908 Tunguska Event was even larger, caused by an object an estimated fifty meters across, and blew down trees radially outward from ground zero, destroying over two thousand square kilometers of forest that were (fortunately) far away from any densely-occupied areas.

The one that destroyed Tall el-Hammam is estimated to be larger still -- the researchers suggest a diameter of around seventy meters.  Tall el-Hammam was, quite literally, blown away, the thick walls of the palace sheared off at the foundation.  Mud bricks and roofing clay actually melted.  Mineralogical analysis of the rocks and debris show something kind of terrifying; inclusions of high-melting-point materials like platinum, iridium, and zircon melted as well, indicating temperatures above 2,000 C (and thus ruling out such causes as city-wide conflagrations, which don't get anywhere near that hot).  Quartz granules in the rocks of the area have radial fracture patterns similar to the circular cracks in your windshield when it's hit by a flying piece of gravel, indicating that something big punched the site.

Really hard.

The researchers suggest that the meteor strike at Tall el-Hammam might have been the origin of the biblical story of the destruction of "the Cities on the Plain," most famously Sodom and Gomorrah, although the jury's still out on that.  It would certainly explain the suddenness and totality of the destruction described in the biblical account, although it'd still leave up in the air why Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt.

As an aside, the meteor strike in 1650 B.C.E. is not considered a possible basis of the biblical account of the destruction of Jericho, in Joshua chapter 6; by what we know of the chronology of the history of Judea, the Book of Joshua was written nearly a thousand years later.  And it's worth mentioning that there seems to be no evidence whatsoever of Jericho experiencing a catastrophic collapse (the Bible talks about the walls of the city "falling flat") during that entire time period, leading archaeologist and biblical scholar William Dever to state that the story of the fall of Jericho was "invented from whole cloth" as nationalist propaganda by the leaders of the state of Judah to bolster their reputation as not only the Chosen Ones of God, but as all-around tough motherfuckers.  (I paraphrase Dever's actual analysis slightly.)

Anyhow, the Bunch et al. paper is a tour de force of thorough scientific investigation, and from my (admitted layperson's) perspective, it seems like they've locked down their case pretty tightly.  So now you have something else to worry about, even if (like me) you're far away from raging volcanoes, earthquake zones, and Tornado Alley, not to mention any local gamma-ray bursters and black holes.  Exploding rocks from space.  At least it'd be a quick way to go; considering the level of destruction they describe at Tall el-Hammam, we're talking "loud noise and bright light, look upward for a second, then get blasted to smithereens."

Have a nice day.

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

Like graphic novels?  Like bizarre and mind-blowing ideas from subatomic physics?

Have I got a book for you.

Described as "Tintin meets Brian Cox," Mysteries of the Quantum Universe is a graphic novel about the explorations of a researcher, Bob, and his dog Rick, as they investigate some of the weirdest corners of quantum physics -- and present it at a level that is accessible (and extremely entertaining) to the layperson.  The author Thibault Damour is a theoretical physicist, so his expertise in the cutting edge of physics, coupled with delightful illustrations by artist Mathieu Burniat, make for delightful reading.  This one should be in every science aficionado's to-read stack!

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


Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Shake your tail feathers

My wife and I reset some pavers in our front sidewalk a couple of days ago.  In our area, most of the stone used for paving and wall-building is native slate and limestone, which make up the majority of the bedrock in this part of upstate New York; and given slate's tendency to fracture naturally along parallel planes, it makes an obvious good choice for paving stones.

We used a pry-bar to pull up one big stone -- maybe a meter across and two meters long -- and a piece of it sheared off.  Unfortunate but unavoidable.  When I stopped and picked up the chunk, a flat, triangular piece a little larger than the palm of my hand, I noticed something interesting about it.  It had ripple marks, the clear signature of the muddy environment where it formed.

Seeing this sort of thing always makes me imagine what things were like back then.  The rocks in this area are Devonian in age, on the order of four hundred million years old, at which time this whole area was at the bottom of a shallow sea.  So those ripple marks in my sidewalk paving stone were created by water movements that occurred so long ago it's hard to imagine.  At that point, there was virtually no terrestrial life -- a few plants and insect species had colonized the land, but everything else was still aquatic.  The first dinosaurs were still a good 150 million years in the future.

It's kind of cool the way these sorts of moments thrill me from two different perspectives.  Being a biology teacher (retired now), I find it absolutely fascinating to ponder the grand panorama that is the history of life on Earth, and to consider evolution's role in creating what Darwin famously called "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful."  As a novelist, it never fails to fire my imagination -- to picture what it would be like to stand there on the beach with the bare, treeless Devonian landscape stretching out behind me, looking out over oceans where swam trilobites and bizarre armored fish (ostracoderms) and ammonites, all of which went extinct long, long ago.

The reason this comes up -- besides finding signs of four-hundred-million-year-old ocean waves in my slate sidewalk paver -- is a link sent to me (once again) by the indefatigable Gil Miller, about a fossil discovery found in northeastern China recently.  It's the fantastically well-preserved remains of a little feathered dinosaur from 120 million years ago called Yuanchuavis kompsosoura, which was about the size of a blue jay -- but had a thirty-centimeter-long tail, which is longer than its entire body.

Yuanchuavis kompsosoura

Extravagant tails like this are an interesting case of an evolutionary trade-off.  Modern birds like peacocks have tails so long they're actually a hindrance to flying, but apparently the disadvantages of having such a clumsy appendage are outweighed by the advantage in terms of attractiveness to potential mates (sexual selection).  It's theorized that having elaborate plumage is a way of advertising your overall genetic health.  "Look at me," they say.  "I am so genetically superior I can throw away all sorts of energy and resources on something completely frivolous.  I am totally who you want to have sex with."

Kind of the bird version of driving a Jaguar.

That sort of teleological reasoning, however, is always thin ice when you're talking about evolutionary drivers.  None of that selection is being done because of any kind of conscious weighing of options.  But whatever its basis, we see similar kinds of wild tails in a great many bird species today -- swallowtailed kites, African widowbirds, paradise flycatchers, quetzals, drongos, and a lot of hummingbirds, as just a few examples.  The fact that so many relatively unrelated species have gone down the same path supports the conjecture that whatever is propelling this selection, it's pretty powerful.

Reading the article about this fascinating little dinosaur immediately switched on the other mode, which led me to imagining what it actually looked like when alive, and wondering about its behavior and environment.  Of course, even most well-preserved fossils give you only a hint about what the living creature looked like; all the spots and patterns and colors in movies like Jurassic Park are guesses, as are the behaviors (like the dinosaur with the toxic spit that killed Dennis Nedry).  But here, the preservation is on such a fine scale that the paleontologists do have an idea of what color it was -- traces of pigment-producing cells suggest that the fan part of its tail was gray, and the two long banner feathers in the middle were jet black.

Here, we actually can visualize what it looked like when he was shaking his tail feathers in the early Cretaceous forests.

So that's our imagined trip into deep time for today.  I know I've quoted it here before, but the lines from Tennyson's "In Memoriam" are so poignant and so apposite that I will end with them anyhow:

There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O Earth, what changes hast thou seen?
There where the long road roars hath been
The stillness of the central sea.

The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds, they shape themselves and go.

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

Like graphic novels?  Like bizarre and mind-blowing ideas from subatomic physics?

Have I got a book for you.

Described as "Tintin meets Brian Cox," Mysteries of the Quantum Universe is a graphic novel about the explorations of a researcher, Bob, and his dog Rick, as they investigate some of the weirdest corners of quantum physics -- and present it at a level that is accessible (and extremely entertaining) to the layperson.  The author Thibault Damour is a theoretical physicist, so his expertise in the cutting edge of physics, coupled with delightful illustrations by artist Mathieu Burniat, make for delightful reading.  This one should be in every science aficionado's to-read stack!

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


Monday, September 20, 2021

Hot times

In today's contribution from the Completely Useless Advice department: if you own property in southern Africa, you might want to consider selling it some time in the next ten million years or so.

The reason I say this is because of a paper published a couple of months ago in Nature Geoscience that was once again thrown my way by my pal Gil Miller, who seems to have an inordinate talent at ferreting out truly fascinating stuff I hadn't heard about.  The paper is entitled "A Tree of Indo-African Mantle Plumes Imaged by Seismic Tomography," by Maria Tsekhmistrenko, Karin Sigloch, and Kasra Hosseini (of Oxford University), and Guilhem Barruol (of the Université de Paris), and describes the structure of the mysterious "hotspots" -- upwelling of extremely hot magma from deep in the mantle -- that are responsible for such volcanically-active regions as Hawaii, Yellowstone, and Réunion Island.

These hotspots have long puzzled geologists, because they are quite distant from tectonic plate boundaries, where most of the world's seismic and volcanic activity occurs.  Hawaii is the best-studied hotspot; it was one of the most powerful pieces of evidence of plate movement, back in the 1960s when the theory of plate tectonics was first being studied.  The Big Island of Hawaii is just the easternmost point in a chain that extends way beyond what we usually think of as the Hawaiian Islands; even the westernmost island that pokes up above sea level, Kure Atoll, isn't the end of it.  It continues into the Emperor Seamount Chain, which extends underwater all the way to the Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia. 

My long-ago geology professor described it as being like pulling a piece of fabric (the Pacific Plate) through an upside-down sewing machine (the Hawaiian Hotspot); the needle of the sewing machine punches regular holes upward through the fabric as it moves through, but the sewing machine itself stays in the same place.  The plates are moving; the hotspot isn't.  (And the angle in the chain of seamounts indicates that at some point in the past, the Pacific Plate changed direction, probably because of jostling against other plates.)

The Pacific Ocean floor, showing the Hawaiian-Emperor Seamount Chain [Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NOAA]

What is still mysterious about hotspots is why they happen at all.  We have a pretty decent idea of why the activity along plate margins occurs -- strike-slip faults like the famous San Andreas, where two plates are moving along each other in opposite directions; trenches/subduction zones like Indonesia, where you get both powerful quakes and huge volcanoes; and mid-ocean ridges/divergent zones like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where plates are moving apart and new magma upwells to fill the gaps.  But why would there be a persistent chain of volcanoes out in the middle of a stable plate?

The current paper describes blobs of extremely hot magma originating from the lower parts of the mantle, which rise and then diverge into branches.  The authors write:
Mantle plumes were conceived as thin, vertical conduits in which buoyant, hot rock from the lowermost mantle rises to Earth’s surface, manifesting as hotspot-type volcanism far from plate boundaries.  Spatially correlated with hotspots are two vast provinces of slow seismic wave propagation in the lowermost mantle, probably representing the heat reservoirs that feed plumes...  Using seismic waves that sample the deepest mantle extensively, we show that mantle upwellings are arranged in a tree-like structure.  From a central, compact trunk below ~1,500 km depth, three branches tilt outwards and up towards various Indo-Austral hotspots.  We propose that each tilting branch represents an alignment of vertically rising blobs or proto-plumes, which detached in a linear staggered sequence from their underlying low-velocity corridor at the core–mantle boundary.  Once a blob reaches the viscosity discontinuity between lower and upper mantle, it spawns a ‘classical’ plume-head/plume-tail sequence.
So the Réunion Hotspot is apparently connected to the East African Rift Zone, three-thousand-odd kilometers away.  The EARZ is a developing rift that is ultimately going to shear off the "Horn of Africa," opening a new ocean and creating a new "microcontinent" made up Somalia and bits of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.  (As an aside, it's also the site of Olduvai Gorge, where some of the earliest hominin fossils were found.)

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of the USGS]

"From looking at the core-mantle boundary, you can maybe predict where the oceans will open,” said study co-author Karin Sigloch.  "If the new models are accurate, a few tens of millions of years from now, you may not want to be in South Africa — or, perhaps, on planet Earth at all."

The reason Sigloch says this is that the team's analysis of the "tree" of magma that underlies both Réunion and the EARZ suggests that it's in the process of forming another branch -- another mantle plume -- that will ultimately end up underneath what is now South Africa.  "In tens of millions of years, a blob of nightmarishly gargantuan proportions will pinch off from the central cusp," Sigloch said, in an interview with Quanta magazine.  "This would produce cataclysmic eruptions.  The Deccan Traps [one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever, and which probably contributed to the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago] were caused by what we would think of as a solitary mantle plume.  This future mega-blob, though, would be capable of producing volcanism so prolific and extensive that the Deccan Traps would be a firecracker in comparison."

Pretty scary.  But like I said, if you want to visit South Africa, or if you live there, you still have a ten-million-year window to take care of business.  What's interesting from a geological perspective is that up till now, South Africa has been very stable tectonically.  The majority of the country is made of extremely old rock, what geologists call a "craton" -- a chunk of some of the oldest continents on Earth.  A massive flood basalt eruption, like the Deccan Traps, the Columbia River Flood Basalts, and the largest of them all -- the Siberian Traps, implicated in the cataclysmic Permian-Triassic Extinction -- would (literally) overturn three billion years of stable geology, with catastrophic results for the entire planet.

So yeah.  That's cheerful.  But since we have ten million years before we have anything serious to worry about, it'd be better if to turn your attention to more pressing concerns, even if you live in Johannesburg.  Like what we're doing to destroy the global ecosystem our own selves by our seeming commitment to burn every last gallon of fossil fuels out there, damn the climate, full speed ahead, and which could make the Earth pretty close to uninhabitable a great deal sooner. 

Which now that I think of it, isn't all that reassuring.

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

Like graphic novels?  Like bizarre and mind-blowing ideas from subatomic physics?

Have I got a book for you.

Described as "Tintin meets Brian Cox," Mysteries of the Quantum Universe is a graphic novel about the explorations of a researcher, Bob, and his dog Rick, as they investigate some of the weirdest corners of quantum physics -- and present it at a level that is accessible (and extremely entertaining) to the layperson.  The author Thibault Damour is a theoretical physicist, so his expertise in the cutting edge of physics, coupled with delightful illustrations by artist Mathieu Burniat, make for delightful reading.  This one should be in every science aficionado's to-read stack!

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


Saturday, September 18, 2021

The reawakening of Merlin

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about a site in Hertfordshire, England called "Arthur's Seat" that has long been associated with the famous (but possibly mythical) sixth-century king, but which dates from Neolithic times -- over four millennia earlier.

The difficulty with teasing out fact from fiction, when there are scant contemporaneous written records of any reliability, is apparent.  A good many historians think that Arthur is based on a real person, who was a Celtic (or Celto-Roman) chieftain and fought against the first invasions of the Saxons, but the phrase "based upon" is being used in the loosest possible sense.  How many of the other figures in the Arthurian Legend cycle -- Guinevere, Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain, the Knights Who Say "Ni" -- were even within hailing distance of reality is unknown, and probably unknowable.

Of course, there are always new discoveries being made, even in an extensively-researched place like England.  The most recent, and the reason the topic of Arthur comes up (again), is a manuscript found in an archive in Bristol, which I found out about because of my friend Gil Miller, who is a frequent contributor to Skeptophilia

The manuscript dates from the middle of the thirteenth century, and has a few interesting features.  The text is very similar to known copies of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, which formed the basis of Thomas Malory's famous Le Morte d'Arthur.  It has a few curious differences, though, particularly surrounding the relationship between Merlin and Viviane (also called Nimué) -- the Lady of the Lake.

A piece of the Bristol manuscript

In most copies of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, Viviane writes magic words on her groin, and this binds Merlin to her will, inducing him to have sex with her and teach her all of his knowledge.  Once she's had her way with him as much as she wants and has learned everything she can from him, she puts him into a charmed sleep -- this prevents him from assisting King Arthur in his fight at the Battle of Camlann against his villainous nephew Mordred (or Modred or Medraut), resulting in the deaths of both Arthur and Mordred.  Afterward, Merlin is fated to sleep "until Britain needs him again," at which he'll awaken and use his magic to save the day and make up for allowing Arthur to die.

Merlin, from Howard Pyle's illustrations for The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903) [Image is in the Public Domain]

The new version takes out some of the more risqué bits.  Viviane inscribes the magic words on a ring instead of on her skin, and Merlin is simply bewitched rather than doing the deed with her.  The outcome is the same -- Merlin gets put into a charmed sleep -- but otherwise, the Bristol fragments have been cleaned up a bit by the prudish sorts.  Here's the passage from one of the standard sources:

And the girl [Viviane] made Merlin lie down in her lap, and she started to ask him questions.  She moved around him, and seduced him again and again until he was sick with love for her.  And then she asked him to teach her how to put a man to sleep.  And he knew very well what she was planning, but nevertheless, he could not prevent himself from teaching her this skill, and many others as well, because Our Lord God wanted it this way.  And he taught her three names, which she inscribed on a ring every time that she had to speak to him.  These words were so powerful that when they were imprinted on her, they prevented anyone from speaking to her.  She put all of this down in writing, and from then on, she manipulated Merlin every time that he came to talk to her, so that he had no power over her.  And that is why the proverbs say that women have one more trick than the devil.

What I find interesting about the new manuscripts is that from handwriting analysis, they were written in northern France -- but an annotation in the margin has been identified as an English script style used in the early fourteenth century, so the manuscript somehow made its way to England only a few decades after it was written.

Interesting as it is, it doesn't improve our knowledge from a historical perspective.  The Bristol manuscripts were still written a good seven centuries after Arthur's time, and don't add anything much to the legend, unless you count whether or not Merlin had sex with Viviane.  Back in the British "Dark Ages" -- between the exit of Rome in the fourth century and the consolidation of the Saxon kingdoms in southern and eastern England in the seventh century -- there were damn few records of any kind being kept, and whatever there was didn't survive.  We're relying on folk histories (which intermingle history with legend and mythology) and records that were written way after the fact.

So the sad truth is, we'll probably never know which bits of the story were true and which were not.

But it's still a cool discovery.  I had no idea how much handwriting analysis tells scholars; I didn't realize that it was distinct enough as to time and place that you could confidently say "this was written in northern France in around 1250."

But all I can say is, if Merlin is still in his magical sleep, it's probably time for him to wake up.  I know a few places other than Britain that could use some help from a powerful benevolent wizard.  So if Viviane reads this, allow me to say: Enough already.

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

London in the nineteenth century was a seriously disgusting place to live, especially for the lower classes.  Sewage was dumped into gutters along the street; it then ran down into the ground -- the same ground from which residents pumped their drinking water.  The smell can only be imagined, but the prevalence of infectious water-borne diseases is a matter of record.

In 1854 there was a horrible epidemic of cholera hit central London, ultimately killing over six hundred people.  Because the most obvious unsanitary thing about the place was the smell, the leading thinkers of the time thought that cholera came from bad air -- the "miasmal model" of contagion.  But a doctor named John Snow thought it was water-borne, and through his tireless work, he was able to trace the entire epidemic to one hand-pumped well.  Finally, after weeks and months of argument, the city planners agreed to remove the handle of the well, and the epidemic ended only a few days afterward.

The work of John Snow led to a complete change in attitude toward sanitation, sewers, and safe drinking water, and in only a few years completely changed the face of the city of London.  Snow, and the epidemic he halted, are the subject of the fantastic book The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Cities, Science, and the Modern World, by science historian Steven Johnson.  The detective work Snow undertook, and his tireless efforts to save the London poor from a horrible disease, make for fascinating reading, and shine a vivid light on what cities were like back when life for all but the wealthy was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (to swipe Edmund Burke's trenchant turn of phrase).

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


Friday, September 17, 2021

Prolix proverbs

I thought I'd have a little fun with this week's Fiction Friday, and throw some word puzzles at you.  It may stretch the definition of Fiction Friday, but oh well.

It's my blog and I'll do what I like.

When I was in high school -- so, many years ago (how many is left as an exercise for the reader) -- my English teacher, Ms. Reinhardt, gave us a set of puzzles: familiar sayings, aphorisms, and clichés in unfamiliar guise.  Amazingly enough, I kept my copy all these years, and just ran across it this evening while searching for something else.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Wikimedia Foundation, Puzzly puzzled, CC BY-SA 3.0]

I don't know what their origin is -- I don't think she made them up -- but wherever they're from, they're cool brain-teasers.  (And if anyone does know the source, let me know so I can credit them properly.)  How many of them can you figure out?
1. A lithoid form, whose onward course
Is shaped by gravitational force
Can scarce enjoy the consolation
Of bryophytic aggregation.

2. To carry haulm of cereal growth
The tylopod is nothing loath;
But just one haulm too many means
That dorsal fracture supervenes.

3. When, nimbus-free, Sol marches by
Across the circumambient sky,
To graminiferous meads repair --
Your instant task awaits you there!

4. There is no use in exhortation
To practice equine flagellation,
If vital forces did depart
And still the breath, and cease the heart.

5. That unit of the avian tribe
Whose movements one can circumscribe
In manu, as a pair will rate
Subarborially situate.

6. For none who claims to represent
The Homo species sapient,
Will loiter Einstein's fourth dimension
Or sea's quotidian declension.

7. Faced with material esculent
As source of liquid nourishment
Avoid excess; 'twill but displease
Of culinary expertise.

8. Conducting to the watering place
A quadruped of equine race
Is simple; but he may not care
To practice imbibition there.

9. The coroner observed: "Perpend,
The death of this, our feline friend,
Reflects preoccupation shown
With business other than his own."

10. Of little value his compunctions
Who executes clavigerous functions,
When once from circumambient pen
Is snatched its equine denizen.
Have fun!  (And drop me an email if you want a hint or get stumped and are desperate for answers.)

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

London in the nineteenth century was a seriously disgusting place to live, especially for the lower classes.  Sewage was dumped into gutters along the street; it then ran down into the ground -- the same ground from which residents pumped their drinking water.  The smell can only be imagined, but the prevalence of infectious water-borne diseases is a matter of record.

In 1854 there was a horrible epidemic of cholera hit central London, ultimately killing over six hundred people.  Because the most obvious unsanitary thing about the place was the smell, the leading thinkers of the time thought that cholera came from bad air -- the "miasmal model" of contagion.  But a doctor named John Snow thought it was water-borne, and through his tireless work, he was able to trace the entire epidemic to one hand-pumped well.  Finally, after weeks and months of argument, the city planners agreed to remove the handle of the well, and the epidemic ended only a few days afterward.

The work of John Snow led to a complete change in attitude toward sanitation, sewers, and safe drinking water, and in only a few years completely changed the face of the city of London.  Snow, and the epidemic he halted, are the subject of the fantastic book The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Cities, Science, and the Modern World, by science historian Steven Johnson.  The detective work Snow undertook, and his tireless efforts to save the London poor from a horrible disease, make for fascinating reading, and shine a vivid light on what cities were like back when life for all but the wealthy was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (to swipe Edmund Burke's trenchant turn of phrase).

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


Thursday, September 16, 2021

Bias amplification

Last week I had a frustrating exchange with an acquaintance over the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine.

He'd posted on social media a meme with the gist that there'd been so much waffling and we're-not-sure-ing by the medical establishment that you couldn't trust anything they said.  I guess he'd seen me post something just a few minutes earlier and knew I was online, because shortly afterward he DMd me.

"I've been waiting for you to jump in with your two cents' worth," he said.

I guess I was in a pissy mood -- and to be honest, anti-vaxx stuff does that to me anyhow.  I know about a dozen people who've contracted COVID, two of whom died of it (both members of my graduating class in high school), and in my opinion any potential side-effects from the vaccine are insignificant compared to ending your life on a ventilator.

"Why bother?" I snapped at him.  "Nothing I say to you is going to make the slightest bit of difference.  It's a waste of time arguing."

He started in on how "he'd done his research" and "just wasn't convinced it was safe" and "the medical establishment gets rich off keeping people sick."  I snarled, "Thanks for making my point" and exited the conversation.


It's kind of maddening to be told "I've done my research" by someone who not only has never set foot in a scientific laboratory, but hasn't even bothered to read peer-reviewed papers on the topic.  Sorry, scrolling through Google, YouTube, and Reddit -- and watching Fox News -- is not research.

Unlike a lot of anti-science stances, this one is costing lives.  Every single day I see news stories about people who have become grievously ill with COVID, and whose relatives tell tearful stories after they died about how much they regretted not getting the vaccine.  Today's installment -- from a man in Tennessee who has been in the hospital for three weeks and is still on oxygen -- "They told us not to worry, that it was just a bad cold.  They lied."

The problem is -- like my acquaintance's stubbornly self-confident "I've done my research" comment -- fighting this is a Sisyphean task.  If you think I'm exaggerating, check out the paper that came out this week in Journal of the European Economic Association, about some (actual, peer-reviewed) research showing that not only do we tend to gloss over evidence contradicting our preferred beliefs, when we then share those beliefs with others, our certainty we're right increases whether or not the people we're talking to agree with us.

The phenomenon, which has been called bias amplification, is like confirmation bias on steroids.  "This experiment supports a lot of popular suspicions about why biased beliefs might be getting worse in the age of the internet," said Ryan Oprea, who co-authored the study.  "We now get a lot of information from social media and we don't know much about the quality of the information we're getting.  As a result, we're often forced to decide for ourselves how accurate various opinions and sources of information are and how much stock to put in them.  Our results suggest that people resolve this quandary by assigning credibility to sources that are telling us what we'd like to hear and this can make biases due to motivated reasoning a lot worse over time."

I don't even begin to know how to combat this.  The problem is, most laypeople (and I very much include myself in this) lack the expertise to comprehend a lot of peer-reviewed research on immunology, which is usually filled with technical jargon and abstruse details of biochemistry.  And every step you take away from the actual research -- from university or research-lab press releases, to summaries in popular science magazines, to blurbs in ordinary media, to Some Guy's blog -- introduces more opinions, oversimplifications, and outright misinformation.

And I'm completely aware that Skeptophilia is also Some Guy's blog.  I will say in my own defense, however, that I do try to base what I write on the actual research, not on Tucker Carlson quoting Nicki Minaj's tweets about how her boyfriend got the COVID vaccine and afterward his balls swelled up.  (No, I am not making this up.)

So that's today's rather discouraging scientific study.  It's sad that so many of us have to become gravely ill, or watch someone we love die in agony, before we'll admit that we might have been wrong.  I'll just end with what the research -- from the scientists themselves -- has to say: the COVID vaccines are safe and effective, and the vast majority of people who have had severe COVID are unvaccinated.  The "breakthrough cases" of vaccinated people testing positive almost never result in hospitalization, and when they do, it's because of comorbidities.

But don't take my word for it.  If you honestly want to know what the research says, and you're willing to keep an open mind on the topic and shape your opinion based upon the evidence, start here.  And after that, go out and get the fucking vaccine.

Seriously.

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

London in the nineteenth century was a seriously disgusting place to live, especially for the lower classes.  Sewage was dumped into gutters along the street; it then ran down into the ground -- the same ground from which residents pumped their drinking water.  The smell can only be imagined, but the prevalence of infectious water-borne diseases is a matter of record.

In 1854 there was a horrible epidemic of cholera hit central London, ultimately killing over six hundred people.  Because the most obvious unsanitary thing about the place was the smell, the leading thinkers of the time thought that cholera came from bad air -- the "miasmal model" of contagion.  But a doctor named John Snow thought it was water-borne, and through his tireless work, he was able to trace the entire epidemic to one hand-pumped well.  Finally, after weeks and months of argument, the city planners agreed to remove the handle of the well, and the epidemic ended only a few days afterward.

The work of John Snow led to a complete change in attitude toward sanitation, sewers, and safe drinking water, and in only a few years completely changed the face of the city of London.  Snow, and the epidemic he halted, are the subject of the fantastic book The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Cities, Science, and the Modern World, by science historian Steven Johnson.  The detective work Snow undertook, and his tireless efforts to save the London poor from a horrible disease, make for fascinating reading, and shine a vivid light on what cities were like back when life for all but the wealthy was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (to swipe Edmund Burke's trenchant turn of phrase).

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


Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Acoustic illusions

Some years ago I was in a musical trio called Alizé that specialized in traditional French folk music.  One weekend we played a gig at a local music festival, and we were approached by a very nice fellow named Will Russell who told us how much he'd enjoyed our playing -- and said he thought we should record an album.

Will is no amateur music enthusiast.  He runs Electric Wilburland, a recording studio in Newfield, New York, not far from where I live.  Will is a Grammy-winning sound engineer, and as we soon found out, is truly gifted at making musicians sound their absolute best.  He also has some nifty tricks up his sleeve, which we discovered when we were working on the audiofile for a four-tune medley we'd just recorded.

"What's your concept for this one?" Will asked.

We explained to him that the first tune is solemn, almost religious-sounding, and it gradually ramps up until reaching a peak in the last tune, a lightning-fast dance tune called "Gavotte des Montagnes."

"So we start out in church," our guitarist explained, "then there's the recessional... then there's the party."

Will frowned thoughtfully.  "Okay, for the first bit, in church.  Do you know what church you want it to be in?"

I thought he was joking.

"No, really," he explained.  "I have acoustic sampling from a bunch of different cathedrals.  Do you want to sound like you're in St. Paul's?  Or York Minster?  Or Chartres Cathedral?  Or...?"

"No way," I said.

He proceeded to play our track to us, applying the acoustics of various different cathedrals.  We ended up picking Chartres, not only because it sounded awesome, but because it seemed appropriate for a French song.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Marianne Casamance, Chartres - Cathédrale 16, CC BY-SA 3.0]

With all due modesty -- and with many thanks both to Will and to my bandmates -- the album (titled Le Canard Perdu) came out sounding pretty cool, and if you're so inclined, it's available on iTunes.

The topic comes up because of a paper this week in Science Advances by a team led by Theodor Becker of ETH Zürich, which has looked at the question of how we know what kind of space we're in acoustically, and then seeing if there's a way to mimic that by altering the qualities of the sound -- characteristics like reverb, interference patterns between whatever's producing the sound and the various echoes from surfaces, and so on.  The ultimate goal is to achieve whatever kind of acoustic illusion you want, from being in a particular cathedral to being underwater to having the echoes (or even the original sounds) cloaked entirely.

I don't pretend to understand the technical bits; but the results are mind-boggling.  The authors write:

[W]e demonstrate in 2D acoustic experiments that a physical scattering object can be replaced with a virtual homogeneous background medium in real time, thereby hiding the object from broadband acoustic waves (cloaking).  In a second set of experiments, we replace part of a physical homogeneous medium by a virtual scattering object, thereby creating an acoustic illusion of an object that is not physically present (holography).  Because of the broadband nature of the control loop and in contrast to other cloaking approaches, this requires neither a priori knowledge of the primary energy source nor of the scattered wavefields, and the approach holds even for primary sources, whose locations change over time.

The military applications of this technology are apparent; cloaking the sound of a surveillance device (or other piece of equipment), or creating the illusion that it's something (or somewhere) else, are of obvious utility in military settings.  As a musician, I'm more interested in the creative aspects.  The ability to create what amount to acoustic illusions is a significant step up from Will's already-impressive magic trick of teleporting us to Chartres Cathedral.

The purists in the studio audience are probably bouncing up and down in their chairs with indignation at the idea of further mechanizing the process of making (and recording) music.  I've heard plenty of musicians decrying the use of features like auto-tune -- the usual objection being that it allows second-rate singers to tune up electronically and sound way better than they actually are.

No doubt it's sometimes used that way, but I'll throw out there that like any technology for enhancing the creative process, it can be used as a cheat or it can be used to further expand the artistry and impact of the performance.  One example that immediately comes to mind is the wild, twisty use of auto-tune in Imagine Dragons' brilliantly surreal song "Thunder:"


But for innovative use of technology in music, there's no one better than the amazing British singer Imogen Heap.  Check out her use of looping for this mind-boggling --and live -- performance of her song "Just for Now:"


I've been a musician for forty years and have been up on stage more times than I can even begin to estimate, and I can't imagine having the kind of coordination to pull off something like that in front of a live audience.

So I find the Becker et al. paper exciting from a number of standpoints.  When you think about it, musicians have been experimenting with new technology all along, and not just with electronic tinkering.  Every time a new musical instrument is invented -- regardless if it's a viola da gamba or a theremin -- it expands what kind of auditory experience the listener can have.  When electronic music first gained momentum in the 1960s with pioneers like Wendy Carlos and Isao Tomita, it elicited a lot of tut-tutting from the classical music purists of the day -- but now just about everyone recognizes them for their innovative genius.  Masterpieces like Carlos's Switched-On Bach and The Well-Tempered Synthesizer and Tomita's Firebird and The Snowflakes are Dancing have rightly taken their place amongst the truly great recordings of non-standard performances of classical music.

I'll be interested to see where all this leads.  I'll end with a quote from Nobel-Prize-winning biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi.  He was speaking about science, but it could apply equally well to any creative endeavor.  "Discovery consists of seeing what everyone has seen, and thinking what nobody else has thought."

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

London in the nineteenth century was a seriously disgusting place to live, especially for the lower classes.  Sewage was dumped into gutters along the street; it then ran down into the ground -- the same ground from which residents pumped their drinking water.  The smell can only be imagined, but the prevalence of infectious water-borne diseases is a matter of record.

In 1854 there was a horrible epidemic of cholera hit central London, ultimately killing over six hundred people.  Because the most obvious unsanitary thing about the place was the smell, the leading thinkers of the time thought that cholera came from bad air -- the "miasmal model" of contagion.  But a doctor named John Snow thought it was water-borne, and through his tireless work, he was able to trace the entire epidemic to one hand-pumped well.  Finally, after weeks and months of argument, the city planners agreed to remove the handle of the well, and the epidemic ended only a few days afterward.

The work of John Snow led to a complete change in attitude toward sanitation, sewers, and safe drinking water, and in only a few years completely changed the face of the city of London.  Snow, and the epidemic he halted, are the subject of the fantastic book The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Cities, Science, and the Modern World, by science historian Steven Johnson.  The detective work Snow undertook, and his tireless efforts to save the London poor from a horrible disease, make for fascinating reading, and shine a vivid light on what cities were like back when life for all but the wealthy was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (to swipe Edmund Burke's trenchant turn of phrase).

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


Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Unknown unknowns

One of my college physics professors made a statement to his class that was mind-boggling in its inaccuracy.  We'd been learning about the subatomic particles, and he was telling us about the smallest pieces of matter known: quarks.  Physicists had given the different types of quarks fanciful names -- up, down, top, bottom, charmed, strange.  His commentary was something of a sneer: "When scientists spend their times giving ridiculous names to physical phenomena, you know there must not be much in the way of new things waiting to be studied."

Even at the time -- I was about twenty -- it seemed humorless and mean-spirited to claim that just because scientists are having a little fun with naming stuff, they're wasting their time playing around rather than engaging in actual science.  Much later, I ran into Lord Kelvin's statement along the same line, that "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.  All that remains is more and more precise measurement."  

The problem was that Kelvin said this in 1900 -- immediately before Einstein and Schrödinger turned all of physics on its head with the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, respectively.

So saying "there's nothing left to study" is not only arrogant, it's entirely inaccurate.  The preposterous implication is that right now we have a good idea of how much is left that we don't know.  It reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld's much-ridiculed statement about "known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns."  Yeah, he could have phrased it a little better, but honestly, he had a point.  There isn't any way to estimate the extent of what we're not even aware that we don't know.  The only thing we can go by is the history of science -- which pretty clearly shows that every time we think we have everything explained, the universe steps in a with a well-aimed dope slap.

I started thinking about all this because of a press release in Science Alert about a mysterious radio source near the center of the Milky Way that has astrophysicists scratching their heads.  To quell the immediate reaction a lot of folks are having, no one at this point is saying anything about aliens, or at least no one with any credibility.  But the behavior of the source is odd enough even without bringing in the Daleks or the Andorians or the Stenza or whoever your favorite extraterrestrial bad guys are.

The radio source is euphoniously named ASKAP J173608.2-321635.  (I wonder if my long-ago physics professor would have approved of that name as sufficiently serious.)  The radio emissions from ASKAP-etc. are odd in a variety of respects.  The source emits radio waves for weeks, then will suddenly "turn off" for a while before just as suddenly beginning to shine again.  The electromagnetic radiation from it is highly polarized -- the waves line up, all vibrating in the same direction, like a bunch of people creating waves in long springs, and everyone oscillating the springs up-and-down rather than each spring moving in some randomly-chosen plane of vibration.

The source was discovered through a collaboration between the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (that's where "ASKAP" comes from) and the  MeerKAT radio telescope, near Cape Town, South Africa (speaking of whimsical names; the "KAT" part of the name stands for "Karoo Array Telescope;" "meer" is Afrikaans for "more."  It also, of course, riffs on the name of the comical little African mammal of the same name).  This isn't the first time this combo has found something strange.  Earlier this year, they found another yet-to-be-explained interstellar object, the aptly-named "Odd Radio Circles" that have bright edges and dimmer interiors, like giant gossamer soap bubbles.

A MeerKAT image of the center of the Milky Way, as viewed in radio wavelengths

Astrophysicists have considered a number of explanations for these strange objects, and so far, none of them have panned out.  "Possible identifications [include] a low-mass star/substellar object with extremely low infrared luminosity, a pulsar with scatter-broadened pulses, a transient magnetar, or a Galactic Center Radio Transient," the research team writes, "[but] none of these fully explains the observations, which suggests that ASKAP J173608.2-321635 may represent part of a new class of objects being discovered through radio imaging surveys."

So once again, we're confronted with how little we know.  We've come a long way, there's no doubt about that; our scientific achievements as a species are pretty damn impressive, especially considering that serious research has only been going on for a couple of centuries of the tens of thousands of years humans have been at least somewhat technological.  But there will always be more mysteries to solve, more puzzles to put together, more questions to ask.

I'll end with a quote from astrophysicist John Bahcall, whose research into the behavior and properties of neutrinos in the 1960s gave us a new window into why stars shine:

I do not personally want to believe that we already know the equations that determine the evolution and fate of the universe; it would make life too dull for me as a scientist…  I hope, and believe, that the Space Telescope might make the Big Bang cosmology appear incorrect to future generations, perhaps somewhat analogous to the way that Galileo’s telescope showed that the earth-centered, Ptolemaic system was inadequate...  Every time we get slapped down, we should thank Mother Nature -- because we're about to learn something important.

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London in the nineteenth century was a seriously disgusting place to live, especially for the lower classes.  Sewage was dumped into gutters along the street; it then ran down into the ground -- the same ground from which residents pumped their drinking water.  The smell can only be imagined, but the prevalence of infectious water-borne diseases is a matter of record.

In 1854 there was a horrible epidemic of cholera hit central London, ultimately killing over six hundred people.  Because the most obvious unsanitary thing about the place was the smell, the leading thinkers of the time thought that cholera came from bad air -- the "miasmal model" of contagion.  But a doctor named John Snow thought it was water-borne, and through his tireless work, he was able to trace the entire epidemic to one hand-pumped well.  Finally, after weeks and months of argument, the city planners agreed to remove the handle of the well, and the epidemic ended only a few days afterward.

The work of John Snow led to a complete change in attitude toward sanitation, sewers, and safe drinking water, and in only a few years completely changed the face of the city of London.  Snow, and the epidemic he halted, are the subject of the fantastic book The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Cities, Science, and the Modern World, by science historian Steven Johnson.  The detective work Snow undertook, and his tireless efforts to save the London poor from a horrible disease, make for fascinating reading, and shine a vivid light on what cities were like back when life for all but the wealthy was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (to swipe Edmund Burke's trenchant turn of phrase).

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