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.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Planet cupcake

I just found out that Neal Adams, most famous as a comic book artist and creator of characters for DC Comics, died a couple of weeks ago at the age of eighty.

I'm not an aficionado of superhero stories, either in comic/graphic novel or movie form, so I didn't know much about Adams's contributes to that genre other than that he was involved somehow.  I knew Adams from a contribution to a much less publicized field: loopy pseudoscience.

As you all know, the Earth is a geologically active place.  Most scientists attribute this to plate tectonics, the shifting of Earth's geological plates relative to one another.  Their explanation is that these processes have been going on throughout Earth's history, driven by magmatic convection currents in the Earth's mantle, and that while active plate margins are expected to be -- well, more active -- any apparent clustering of geographically-separated tectonic events is simple coincidence, insignificant in the bigger picture.

Neal Adams disagreed.

In a video that you really should watch in its entirety, Adams called our attention to phenomena such as the following:
  • The formation of a three-kilometer-long crack in the ground in Huacullani, Chucuito Province, Peru, following an earthquake
  • The opening of a wedge-shaped, 500-meter-long, 60-meter-deep rift in Ethiopia, along the Great Rift Valley
  • The sudden creation of a crack in the ground in Iceland, and the subsequent draining of Lake Kleifarvatn into the fissure
  • The presence of a deep hydrothermal vent in the Mid-Cayman Rise, a spreading center in the middle of the Caribbean Sea
  • Increasing tension along the San Andreas Fault, causing cracks and fissures to form
Adams took these stories, and many others like them, and decided that the conventional explanation -- that all of these places are on plate margins, so cracks in the ground are to be expected -- is wrong.  And in a classic case of adding two plus two and getting 113, he deduced the following:

The Earth is expanding.

Yes, just like a cupcake in the oven, the Earth is getting bigger, and as it does, its surface cracks and splits.  The tectonic plates are a mere side-effect of this phenomenon, and are basically the broken up surface of the cupcake, pulled apart as the inside swelled.  Now, a cupcake, of course, is only increasing in volume, as the air bubbles in the batter expand; its mass remains the same.  Is that what's happening here?  Some kind of planetary dough rising?

Don't be silly.  We haven't trashed nearly enough physics yet.  It's not just volume; the Earth is actually gaining mass.

Wait, you might be saying; what about the Law of Conservation of Mass, which is strictly enforced in most jurisdictions?  Simple, Adams said.  No problemo.  Physicists have demonstrated that empty space can give rise to electron/positron pairs without any violation of physical law, because of the presence of "vacuum energy."  "Empty space" is actually, they say, a roiling foam of particles and antiparticles, most of which annihilate each other immediately.

So, Adams said, this sort of pair-production is happening inside the Earth.  Therefore it's gaining mass.  And expanding.

Of course, Adams conveniently ignored the fact that if this was happening, half of the mass thus produced would be antimatter.  If the Earth's middle was producing matter and antimatter fast enough to pop open cracks on the surface, the antimatter would follow the E = mc^2 rule (also strictly enforced) and blow us to smithereens.  After all, you may recall from scientific documentaries such as the original Star Trek what happens when antimatter containment is lost -- Captain Kirk strikes a dramatic pose, usually with his shirt ripped open to expose one or more nipples, and the show breaks to a commercial.  

And heaven knows we don't want any of that to happen.

So there are some problems with Adams' theory.  But this hasn't stopped websites from popping up supporting the Cupcake Earth Hypothesis and touting how amazing Adams's video is.  Apparently the argument is that the claims in the video must be true because (1) it has cool animation of the Earth shrinking and the continents fitting together as you go back in time, and (2) uses dramatic music from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  


Notwithstanding those points in its favor, it raises a few key questions in my mind:
  • What happened to all of the oceans?
  • If the Earth really was (let's say) a quarter as massive, 100 million years ago, it would have had a quarter of the gravitational pull.  Which would have resulted in a good bit of our atmosphere leaking out into space, not to mention herds of enormous dinosaurs bouncing about the landscape in the fashion of Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon.  So why do we still have an atmosphere?
  • Why am I spending so much time and effort addressing this goofy theory?
As far as the last question, I recognize that I can't debunk every silly idea in the world, and in fact I had originally intended to write about marginally more reasonable claims, such as sightings of sea serpents off the coast of England.  But then I found out that Adams had gone to that big E-Z Bake Oven in the sky, and I felt like I at least owed him that much.  So I'll end by passing along my condolences to his family, friends, and fans, and maybe today I'll eat a cupcake or two in his memory.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Catcalling

For many years we owned two cats, Puck and Geronimo.

Imagine two soft, gentle, affectionate, fluffy kitties.  Puck and Geronimo were the exact opposite of what you just pictured.

What neither of our cats looked even remotely like.  [Image courtesy of the Creative Commons Nicolas Suzor from Brisbane, Australia, Cute grey kitten, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Puck and Geronimo were siblings, both long-bodied, tough, lean, and solid black.  Puck had some odd features, though.  She had one single white whisker accentuating a face that was already kinda... off.  Her eyes didn't quite line up, so you never could be 100% sure of where she was looking.  She had one broken fang, so her tongue frequently protruded from the side of her mouth.  Plus, her voice sounded like a creaky wheel.  She was actually quite a sweet, affectionate cat, but even dedicated cat lovers had to admit she looked like she had a screw loose.

Geronimo, on the other hand, hated everyone, with two exceptions: (1) my wife; and (2) our dog, Grendel.  When we adopted Grendel, we were assured by the shelter that he was great with cats.  But shelter staff -- no insult intended, they do amazing work -- can sometimes overplay animals' good qualities in the interest of getting them adopted, so when we brought him home, we introduced him to the cats on leash, with me hanging on to my end of it like grim death.  Puck, he ignored completely.  Then he came up and sniffed Geronimo, who sniffed him back (without hissing, which was Geronimo's primary way of communicating with the entire world).  So I tentatively relaxed my end of the lead...

... and Grendel lifted his big front paw and body-slammed Geronimo to the floor.

I leaped forward, yelling, "Noooooooo....!!!!"  But then Grendel started to lick Geronimo's face.  Geronimo, although still pinned to the ground, started purring.  And thus was born the only interspecies gay romance I've ever witnessed.  They were boyfriends for as long as we had them.

But other than those exceptions, Geronimo viewed the entire world with something between haughty disdain and utter loathing.  Sometimes I'd look up from what I was doing to find Geronimo staring at me, his yellow eyes narrowed to slits, and he was clearly thinking, "I am going to disembowel you in your sleep."

What brings all this up is a paper that appeared in Nature last week about some research done at Kyoto University.  A team led by animal behavioral psychologist Saho Takagi did a clever set of experiments to see if cats could not only learn their own names but the names of other cats, and their results suggest that the answer is yes.

They worked with two sets of cats -- household pets, and "café cats."  Apparently in Japan, it's common to have cats living in cafés, for the benefit of patrons who would like to pet cats while they have their coffee and pastries, or at least have cats glaring at them and making harsh judgments about their general appearance.  They had their test subjects "softly restrained" by volunteers, who I hope were wearing body armor at the time, and the cats were given vocal stimuli (the cats' own names, the names of other cats living in the same place, and neutral words falling into neither categories), along with photographs of different cats, sometimes the photograph of the cat being named, sometimes not.

They found that the cats tended to look more quickly and for a longer duration at photographs when the photograph was of the cat being named.  It was evident that the cats tested did indeed know the names of the cats that cohabited with them.  (Except for one test subject who "completed only the first trial before escaping from the room and climbing out of reach.")

I found these data mildly surprising, considering that our own cats gave no evidence of knowing either their own names or each other's.  Geronimo usually responded to being called as follows:

Us:  Geronimo!!!

Geronimo:  Fuck you.

Us:  Geronimo, come get your dinner!

Geronimo:  Fuck you.

Us:  C'mon, kitty kitty kitty!

Geronimo:  Fuck you.

Us: We have a plate of fresh salmon for you!

Geronimo:  Fuck you...  Salmon?  Well, okay, maybe this time.

So I don't know how we'd have been able to tell if he did know his name.

But all of this does point out something I've always thought, which is that a lot of animals are way smarter than we give them credit for.  I know one of our current dogs, Guinness, always gives us this incredibly intent look when we talk to him, as if he's trying his hardest to understand every word we're saying.  Our other dog, Cleo, spends a lot of time ignoring us, but she's a Shiba Inu, which in my opinion is a cat wearing a dog suit.

So okay, maybe that doesn't exactly support the contention that our pets are really smart.  But my point stands.

In any case, that's our cool piece of animal behavior research for today.  If you are the owner of two or more cats, see if you can figure out if they know each other's names.

If any of your cats have a temperament like Geronimo's, you might want to have fresh salmon handy.

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Monday, May 16, 2022

Nice smile!

Back in December, I completely skeeved out some of my readers with a discussion of parasites, more specifically the protist Toxoplasma gondiiToxoplasma causes the disease toxoplasmosis, and a number of mammalian species are hosts, most notably cats, humans, and rats.  It's the cat/human connection that is why you've probably heard that pregnant women shouldn't clean cat litter boxes; contact with an infected cat's urine can transmit the parasite to a human, and Toxoplasma is associated with birth defects in human infants.

More interesting, though, are its behavioral effects.  In December's post, I described how toxoplasmosis alters the behavior of all three of its main hosts -- it makes cats more affectionate, humans more neurotic, and rats more fearless, all three of which serve the evolutionary function of increasing the likelihood that the pathogen will jump to another host.  (The cats seek out human company; the humans crave the comfort that pets can give; and the rats become unafraid of predators.  In fact, some studies have even shown that infected rats are actively attracted to the scent of cat urine.)

Which is creepy enough.  The idea that a brain parasite is, at least in some respects, in the driver's seat of our emotional state is a little unsettling.  Or maybe I'm only saying that because I've got it myself, having had cats off and on for pretty much my entire adult life.  But I'm not indulging in hypochondria, here; if you've ever owned a cat, especially one allowed outdoors, your chances of having a Toxoplasma infection is nearly 100%.  Kevin Lafferty, a microbiologist who is one of leading experts on Toxoplasma, estimates that there are three billion people in the world who have it.

Yes, that's "billion" with a "b."  As in just shy of 40% of the world's population,

But now another filigree of "holy shit, that is freaky" has been added to this already bizarre pathogen.  A team made up of Javier Borráz-Léon and Markus Rantala (of the University of Turku), Indrikis Krams (of the University of Latvia), and Ana Lilia Cerda-Molina (of the Instituto Nacional de Psiquiatría of Mexico City) found out that not only does Toxoplasma change our personalities, it changes our appearance.

The idea came from the fact that in other mammals, Toxoplasma can be spread through sexual contact, so there was no reason to believe the same couldn't be true of humans.  The researchers wondered if -- given that the parasite is pretty damn good at engineering its hosts to do things that pass it on -- there might be some way that being Toxoplasma-positive increased your likelihood of having sex.

And hoo boy, what they found.

They took a large test sample of infected and uninfected individuals, and rated them (or had others rate them, as the case may be) for a variety of features -- attractiveness (both self-perceived and as perceived by others), perception of healthiness, number of sexual partners, number of minor ailments, body mass index, mate value, handgrip strength, facial fluctuating asymmetry (i.e. asymmetry in features that change, such as how you smile), and facial width-to-height ratio, all of which could feasibly connect to sexual attractiveness.  

Some of the features (like handgrip strength and minor ailment susceptibility) showed no statistically significant difference.  But... well, let me quote you directly from the paper, so you don't think I'm making this up:
[We] found that infected men had lower facial fluctuating asymmetry whereas infected women had lower body mass, lower body mass index, a tendency for lower facial fluctuating asymmetry, higher self-perceived attractiveness, and a higher number of sexual partners than non-infected ones.  Then, we found that infected men and women were rated as more attractive and healthier than non-infected ones...  The present study offers novel evidence supporting the idea that some sexually transmitted parasites such as T. gondii may produce changes in the appearance and behavior of the human host, either as a by-product of the infection or as a result of the manipulation of the parasite to increase its spread to new hosts.
Which is probably why everyone finds me so dashingly handsome, and why my entire adult life I've had to fight off people trying to break down my bedroom door.

(Maybe having toxoplasmosis also makes you more sarcastic, I dunno.)

So.  Yeah.  That's not creepy at all.  Having a brain parasite causes you to look healthier and have a more attractive smile, and makes it more likely you'll get laid.  Who would have thought something that completely bizarre could be real?

Yeah, look at that smile. I bet you a hundred bucks David Tennant has toxoplasmosis. Maybe it even accounts for his amazing hair. [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Rach from Tadcaster, York, England, 2009 07 31 David Tennant smile 09, CC BY 2.0]

Interestingly, I wrote a short story called "The Germ Theory of Disease" (which you can read for free at the link provided) that riffs on this very idea -- a pathogen that makes you more social.  Unfortunately, it also turns you into a werewolf.  (C'mon, it's me we're talking about here, you had to know there'd be a paranormal twist.)

But hell's bells, I thought it was fiction.

And little did I know that I'm very likely to be carrying around a pathogen myself that does just that.  (Well, not the werewolf part.  I hope.)  Sometimes, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, life imitates art just as much as art imitates life.  Or, to quote Mark Twain, "The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to be believable."

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Saturday, May 14, 2022

A snapshot in amber

A few days ago I finished reading the wonderful new book by paleontologist Riley Black, The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World.  I can't say enough positive things about it -- it tells the gripping story of the impact of the seven-kilometer-wide Chicxulub Meteorite, which hit a spot just north of the Yucatán Peninsula so hard that most of the giant rock vaporized, what was left punched twenty kilometers into the Earth's crust, and it left an impact crater 180 kilometers across.

Artist's impression of the moment of impact [Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of artist Donald E. Davis and NASA/JPL]

Black gives us a vivid description of the event and its aftermath, each chapter from the point of view of one individual animal who experienced it (not necessarily lived through it, of course).  The day before the impact; the impact itself; the first hour; the first day; the first year; and so on, up until a hundred thousand years after the strike, at which point the Earth's ecosystems had largely recovered -- albeit with a completely different assemblage of species than it had before.

Black's contention, which is generally accepted by researchers, is that there's little truth to the old trope of the dinosaurs being a moribund group anyhow and the asteroid just finished them off.  The dinosaurs were doing just fine.  While some species were headed toward extinction, that had been happening during the group's 190 million year hegemony (and has happened in every single group of life forms ever evolved).  Dinosaurs as a group were still widespread and diverse -- and if it hadn't been for the impact, it's pretty likely that they would have remained in charge (as it were) for millions of years afterward.

Which means that it's probable that mammals would never have taken off the way they did.  (More accurately, "the way we did.")  It's also an incorrect understanding that mammals only launched after the dinosaurs were "out of the way."  Mammals had been around for a very long time themselves (the first ones, the morganucodontids and multituberculates, overlapped the dinosaurs by over a hundred million years).  What seems to be true, though, is that the dinosaurs occupied most of the large-apex-predator and giant-herbivore niches, so mammal groups were mostly small, and a lot of them were burrowers -- something that was an adaptation to there being a lot of carnivores around, but turned into a key to their survival during the searing infrared surge that swept across the world the day the asteroid hit.

What brings this up, besides my wanting to promote Riley Black's awesome book, is a link sent to me by a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia about a series of recent discoveries by paleontologist Robert DePalma at a dig site in Tanis, North Dakota.  What's stunning about these finds is that DePalma believes -- and the evidence seems strong -- that they represent the remains of organisms that died on the day of the Chicxulub Impact.

In other words, we're looking at a snapshot of the event that killed every non-avian dinosaur species, and changed the face of the world permanently.

Hard as it is to imagine, in the late Cretaceous, what is now North Dakota was a tropical wetland bordering the Western Interior Seaway -- an inlet of the ocean that has since vanished from a combination of uplift, the Rocky Mountain Orogeny, and simple evaporation.  Picture southern Louisiana, and you have an idea of what North Dakota looked like.

Then the meteorite struck.

Despite the fact that the distance between the impact site and the Tanis wetland is around four thousand kilometers, it only took an hour before there was a blast of heat, a rain of red-hot debris, and a series of earthquakes.  The first-mentioned is probably what did the most immediate damage; large animals that were too big to shelter were probably all dead within minutes after the the infrared surge started, as were just about all the terrestrial plants.  Even aquatic organisms weren't safe, though.  One of the more horrifying fossil finds was a turtle -- that had a stick driven all the way through its body.  The earthquakes triggered a series of seiche waves, which occur when an enclosed body of water is shaken laterally.  (Picture the sloshing of water in a metal tub if you jostle it back and forth.)  The seiche in the Western Interior Seaway and nearby lakes flung aquatic animals onto shore and then buried them under tons of debris -- DePalma and his team found layers of fish fossils right at the K-T Boundary Layer that were also victims of that awful day the impact occurred.

I've written about this event before, of course; I've always had a fascination with things that are big and powerful and can kill you.  But what made me decide to revisit it was a new discovery at Tanis of amber that contains glass spherules.  Amber, you probably know, is fossilized tree sap; it can contain other fossils, including pollen and animals that were trapped in the sap before it hardened (made famous by Jurassic Park, although it must be added that there's never been any found with intact DNA).  But these glass spherules were altogether different.  Silicate rocks turn to glass when they're melted and then cooled quickly; that's where the rock obsidian comes from.  But an analysis of the spherules showed something fascinating.  There were inclusions in the glass of tiny chips of two different kinds of rock; one type was high in calcium, while the other was largely metallic, with high content of chromium, nickel, and other heavy elements.

The first, DePalma says, are the remnants of the limestone bedrock from the spot in the Yucatán where Chicxulub hit, blasted into the air and landing four thousand kilometers away.

The other are the (thus far) only actual pieces of the meteorite itself which have ever been found.

It's absolutely astonishing that we can identify rocks and fossils that formed on a specific day 66 million years ago, and doubly so that it was a day when an event occurred that quite literally changed the course of life on Earth.  As horrifying as the Chicxulub Impact was -- Riley Black calls it "the worst day the Earth ever experienced," and it seems an apt description -- in a real sense, we owe our existence to it.

Without Chicxulub, it's pretty likely it'd still be a dinosaur-dominated world -- and one in which mammals were still small, furtive furballs that never had a chance to control their own destiny.

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Friday, May 13, 2022

A door into RNA world

[N.B.: This post is a little on the technical side, if you're not a biology type.  Trust me, the work is worth it, because what these people have discovered is stupendous.]

I had the experience yesterday of stumbling on an article published in Nature this week that, from the title, seemed like something that could only interest biochemistry geeks.

Then I started reading it, and I had to pick my jaw up off the floor.

Before I tell you about the paper, a little background.

Most laypeople know that genes are basically stretches of DNA, and that DNA is a double helix made of chains of smaller molecules called nitrogenous bases, of which there are four -- adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine.  (A, T, G, and C for short.)  Because the bases always pair the same way (A to T, C to G), it allows for DNA to replicate itself.

So far, so good.  But how do you get from a gene to a trait?  It took a long time to figure this out, and there's still work being done on how genes switch on and off during development.  But a simplified explanation goes like this:

The first step is that one gene (a piece of DNA) is copied into a similar, but not identical, chemical called RNA.  (This is called transcription.)  RNA is a single helix, so only one side of the DNA gene is copied; the other side only exists so the DNA can be replicated.  Then the RNA goes to a cellular structure called a ribosome, where the base sequence is read in threes (a group of three is a codon), and each trio instructs the ribosome to bring in a specific amino acid.  The amino acids dictated by the codon sequence are linked together into a protein, and those proteins directly generate the trait.  (This is called translation.)  Every trait is basically produced this way, whether it's something simple like skin color, or the interaction between the thousands of genes and proteins that it takes to generate a functioning human heart.

Okay, gene > RNA > protein > trait.  The sequence is so ubiquitous that it's been nicknamed The Central Dogma of Molecular Genetics.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons  , Pre-mRNA-1ysv-tubes, CC BY-SA 3.0]

But here's the problem.  When life first began, how did the process get started?

The problem isn't the building blocks; given the conditions that we're virtually certain existed on the early Earth, all of the pieces -- the bases, the sugars that make up the backbone of both DNA and RNA, the amino acids -- form spontaneously and abundantly.  They will even link up to form chains on their own.  It's likely that any Earthlike, water-containing planet has plenty of all the biochemical bits and pieces.

But how do you get from a particular RNA to a particular protein?  Remember, it's the sequence of bases in RNA that determines the sequence of amino acids in the protein, but to read the RNA sequence and assemble those amino acids requires a lot of cellular machinery -- first and foremost the ribosome.

Which is itself made of RNA.

So it seems like the first life had to pull itself up by its own bootlaces.  Put succinctly, to do transcription and translation, you need to have the mechanisms of transcription and translation already in place.

Or at least, that's what I thought until I read this paper.

Enter the team led by Felix Müller of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Germany, and their paper "A Prebiotically Plausible Scenario of an RNA-Peptide World."  Here's how the paper begins, with a couple of parenthetical notes added by me:

A central commonality of all cellular life is the translational process, in which ribosomal RNA catalyses peptide [i.e. protein] formation with the help of transfer RNAs, which function as amino acid carrying adapter molecules.  Comparative genomics suggests that ribosomal translation is one of the oldest evolutionary processes, which dates back to the hypothetical RNA world [the theory that the earliest self-replicating genetic molecules were RNA, not DNA, which is generally accepted in the scientific world].  The questions of how and when RNA learned to instruct peptide synthesis is one of the grand unsolved challenges in prebiotic evolutionary research.

The immense complexity of ribosomal translation demands a stepwise evolutionary process.  From the perspective of the RNA world, at some point RNA must have gained the ability to instruct and catalyse the synthesis of, initially, just small peptides.  This initiated the transition from a pure RNA world into an RNA–peptide world.  In this RNA–peptide world, both molecular species could have co-evolved to gain increasing ‘translation’ and ‘replication’ efficiency...
We found that non-canonical vestige nucleosides [i.e. unusual bases which are still part of some structures made of RNA, but aren't on the list of the four standard bases], which are key components of contemporary RNAs, are able to equip RNA with the ability to self-decorate with peptides.  This creates chimeric structures, in which both chemical entities can co-evolve in a covalently connected form, generating gradually more and more sophisticated and complex RNA–peptide structures...  We... found that peptides can simultaneously grow at multiple sites on RNA on the basis of rules determined by sequence complementarity, which is the indispensable requirement for efficient peptide growth.
Which is way more dignified than what I'd have written, which is, "Holy shit, we just figured out how gene expression evolved!"

In my AP Biology classes, I ended the unit on evolution with a list of some of the questions that evolutionary theory had not yet solved, and the origins of gene expression and protein synthesis topped the list.  It looks like that one might now be checked off -- which, if my assessment is correct, should put Müller and his team in contention for this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry.

I find it so fascinating that there are still some of the Big Questions out there, and that scientists are actually making inroads into answering them.  Good science doesn't just say "it's a mystery" and forthwith stop thinking.  We're gradually chipping away at problems that were thought to be intractable -- in this case, giving us insight into how life began on Earth four billion years ago.

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Thursday, May 12, 2022

An act of faith

Over the last couple of months I've been dealing with a health problem that is one of those collections of symptoms that falls somewhere on the spectrum between "mild inconvenience" and "I'm going to be dead in three months."  Fortunately, at the moment the doctor is leaning strongly toward the former.  (I won't go into further details because I hate it when People Of A Certain Age begin every conversation with what my dad called "the organ recital" -- telling everyone they talk to intimate details of their various health-related issues.)

In any case, this kind of thing absolutely plays hell with someone who has chronic anxiety.  Frankly, over the last two months the anxiety has been far worse than the symptoms themselves, and I have no doubt that it's actually made the symptoms more severe.  But it's put making any firm summer plans on hold, given that my brain keeps shouting at me that I might not be able to follow through on them on account of being incapacitated, hospitalized, or dead.

But it started me down a line of thought that, for once, was productive instead of irrational and paralyzing.  It brought to mind the word faith.  I realize this is not one you'd expect to hear from a skeptical atheist type.  But it struck me that faith is what's invoked any time we make plans -- faith that we and the ones involved will still be around when the plans come to fruition.

That seems pretty dark and pessimistic, but actually it's the opposite.  None of us are guaranteed another day, another hour, another minute, so the only option is to act as if we do, to be right here in the moment and let the future take care of itself.  It's like what Jean-Luc Picard -- then in the mind of the character Kamin -- said to his daughter in the beautiful episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "The Inner Light:" "Seize the time, Meribor – live now.  Make now always the most precious time.  Now will never come again."


Being ill has made this thought come back to me again and again.  It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago when I bought a couple of tropical plants to replace some of the ones I lost this past winter when my greenhouse heater malfunctioned on one of the coldest nights in January, and I heard a sepulchral voice in my mind say, "Maybe I won't be around to see them flower."  When I saw the daffodils blooming in April and it occurred to me that this might be the last time I ever would.  When I was outside playing with my dogs and wondered how many more opportunities I'd have.

I know these thoughts are coming from my mental illness; I do trust the doctor that I'm probably going to be okay.  But really, isn't that the situation we're all in?  It's all an act of faith.  Getting out of bed in the morning is an act of faith.  We maneuver our way through this dangerous, unpredictable, endlessly weird world and plan for meeting some friends at the pub day after tomorrow, for a vacation this summer, for visiting with family during the winter holidays, simultaneously knowing that none of it might happen.  But that's what we have to do.  The only other option is to descend into panic now because of what might or might not occur later, to willfully destroy our present because our future isn't guaranteed.

My grandma used to tell me, "Worry is like a rocking chair; it keeps you busy but it doesn't get you anywhere."  I'd make it even stronger, though.  Worry wastes what we've got right here in our hands.  I'm not going to say it's easy to conquer; I've had anxiety disorder my entire life, and I'm not expecting it to go away magically.  But I have -- and so does everyone -- control over deliberately choosing to live life the best I can regardless of how much of it I have left.  It's all a risk; every action we take, or decide not to take.  As J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, in The Fellowship of the Ring, "It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door.  You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to."

The question is not whether you want to take a risk; the question is which risk you want to take.  For me, I'd rather risk the possibility of my plans and aspirations not coming to fruition than risk giving in to my anxiety, then getting to the end of the path and realizing what I missed.

So my advice: carpe the absolute fuck out of every diem you've got left, whether it's one or ten thousand.  I'm completely agnostic about whether there's an afterlife; maybe there is, maybe there isn't.  But as far as what I know for sure, this right here, right now, is all I've got.  And right now the sun is shining and the weather is warm and pleasant and there are people who love me.  There's music to listen to and stories to write and dogs to play with and books to read.  Okay, it won't last forever.  But I'll hang on to the sweetness I've got right now for all I'm worth, and have faith that whatever happens tomorrow, I'll have made the most of today.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Seeing stars

I am endlessly amused (or endlessly frustrated, depending on my mood) by the way the same piece of information can be interpreted by different woo-woos to support each of their varying, and in many cases mutually contradictory, views of the world.  All of them take the same bit of data, and put their own spin on it, so that it becomes some kind of purportedly incontrovertible support for whatever they already believed.

In short order, you have a multilayered rainbow-colored cake of confirmation bias, with nuts.

Take, for example, the curious photograph that is currently zinging its way around the Internet, an image from Google Maps taken by satellite of a spot near Lisakovsk, Kazakhstan:


The thing is real, not a photoshopped image; type the coordinates 52°28’46.86″N 62°11’7.68″E into Google Earth to see it for yourself.  But of course, once you know it's real, what is it?

You can bet that the fundamentalist Christians have an answer to that.

The upside-down pentagram is well known as a sign of Satan, and this cadre has accompanied the photograph with a dire-sounding message that the Time Of The Antichrist Is At Hand.  This version of the story is also accompanied by a claim that the pentagram appeared near a pair of towns called "Adam" and "Lucifer," a statement that is supposed to be significant somehow but for which I could find no corroboration whatsoever.  And frankly, that part sounds more than a little spurious to me.  Most of the towns in Kazakhstan that I could find on a map have names like "Zhezkagan" and "Stepnogorsk."  "Adam" and "Lucifer" sound a little... anglo to me to be place names in that part of the world.

And, after all, New York has an Adams County and a Lucifer Falls, and I've seen neither giant pentagrams nor Satan appearing around here, so there's that.

Another thing, though, is that whether this looks like an upside-down pentagram depends on the angle from which you view it.  Turn the photograph upside-down, or (in fact) rotate it by 36° in either direction, and all of a sudden it becomes a right-side-up pentagram.  So color me unconvinced that this is a sign of the End Times.

But of course, the evangelical Christians aren't the only ones who have weighed in on the curious photograph.  You also have the ones who think it's a sign from Mother Earth that we are "abusing nature" and that we need to be more considerate of our environment.  This version of the story has a piece about the pentagram being one of the "signs that we cannot continue to harm our planet without the planet letting us know about it."

These are presumably the same people who think that crop circles are a way for the Spirit of Nature to inform us to give up coal mining and take up organic farming and wear clothes woven from hemp.  And these folks think the upside-down pentagram isn't an evil symbol at all, but a positive, vital neopagan symbol that has suddenly appeared to bring us all to some kind of environmental enlightenment.

Then, you have the people who think that the pentagram is "an unfinished summer camp for the children of the Illuminati."  Because the Illuminati are just that sneaky and secretive, that they would create a structure that you couldn't ever find out about unless you happened to look on Google Maps.  According to this guy, "Kazakistan" (which is how he pronounces it throughout the entire video) is part of the "bloodline of the Illuminati."  Whatever the fuck that means.  But that's where the whole world is being controlled from, so... so... just don't let your guard down for a minute.

You know how that goes.

The speculation doesn't end there, however.  There's another group who weighed in on the topic, and they don't think the star is a symbol of Satan, the Illuminati, or Gaea, but a communiqué from... you'll never guess who.


Righty-o.  Because intelligent extraterrestrials who have expended a great amount of effort, time, and energy to get to Earth from a planet light years away would have nothing better to do than to draw a giant star on the ground and then leave.

Of course, the actual explanation turned out to be much simpler.  No Antichrist, Nature Spirits, New World Order, or extraterrestrials needed.

"It is the outline of a park made in the form of a star," archaeologist Emma Usmanova said in an interview with LiveScience about the geographical oddity.  "The star was a popular symbol during the Soviet era.  Stars were often used throughout the Soviet Union to decorate building facades, flags and monuments...  We believe that the star shape was the abandoned site of a Soviet-era lakeside campground."

And Usmanova apparently has years of experience working in the Lisakovsk area, so she should know.

Not that I expect that this will shut up the "It's Aliens" crew, much less the neopagans or the fundamentalists.  But that's how confirmation bias works, isn't it?  You latch on to an explanation for something because it fits what you already believed, and hang on like grim death even if there's a plausible explanation to the contrary.  Because, let's face it; when it comes to choosing an explanation, "an abandoned campground site" just doesn't have the gravitas that Satan, Mother Earth, the Illuminati, and aliens do.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2022

The cost of helplessness

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction defines disaster to mean:

A serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity, leading to one or more of the following: human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts...  [Disasters] may test or exceed the capacity of a community or society to cope using its own resources, and therefore may require assistance from external sources, which could include neighbouring jurisdictions, or those at the national or international levels.

This comes up because the UNDRR just released its Global Assessment Report, which was (to put it mildly) not optimistic.  The rate of disasters (as defined) has been rising steadily; over the last two decades the world has averaged between 350 and 500 medium- to large-scale disasters a year, but at the current rate of increase we'll be up to an average of 560 by the year 2030.

That's 1.5 disasters a day.

The reason seems to be a combination of factors.  One, of course, is anthropogenic climate change, which is destabilizing the climate worldwide (as just one of many examples, the southeastern and midwestern United States is forecast to have record-breaking heat over the next three days, and summer hasn't even officially started yet).  Sea level rise is not only threatening coastlines, if it gets much worse (and there is no reason to think it will not) there are a number of island nations that will simply cease to exist, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, and the Maldives topping the list.  The combined cost of all these disasters, especially in Asia and the Pacific, is predicted to cost affected nations 1.6% of their GDP every year.

You can't incur these kinds of costs and continue to function as a society.

South Tarawa Island, part of the nation of Kiribati [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Photo taken by Government of Kiribati employee in the course of their work, South Tarawa from the air, CC BY 3.0]

The UNDRR's report found that the primary culprits in our vulnerability were:

  • Optimism -- sure, we built our town on the side of a volcano, but I'm sure it won't erupt.
  • Underestimation -- if there's a flood, we'll get a bit of water in our basement, but we can manage that.
  • Invincibility -- we'll just ride this hurricane out, I'm not afraid of some wind and rain.

I think that's spot on, but I'd like to add three of my own:

  • Helplessness -- what can I do?  I'm just one person.  It doesn't matter if I continue to drive a gas-guzzler, because no one else is gonna give them up.
  • Corporate callousness and greed -- strip-mining the Amazon Basin produces valuable resources that are absolutely necessary for industry.
  • Media disinformation -- there's no such thing as human-caused climate change; Tucker Carlson said it was a myth made up by the radical Left.

Despite the odds, this is no time to give up and accept catastrophes as inevitable.  "The world needs to do more to incorporate disaster risk in how we live, build and invest, which is setting humanity on a spiral of self-destruction," said Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations.  "We must turn our collective complacency to action. Together we can slow the rate of preventable disasters as we work to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals for everyone, everywhere."

Which I certainly agree with in principle, but how do you put it into practice?  We've known about humanity's role in climate change, and the potential devastation it will wreak, for more than three decades.  I remember teaching students about it my first year as a public school teacher, which was 1986.  The people who have been the most vocal in advocating a global climate change policy -- my dear friend, the articulate and endlessly courageous Dr. Sandra Steingraber, comes to mind -- have been fighting a Sisyphean battle.

"Disasters can be prevented, but only if countries invest the time and resources to understand and reduce their risks," said Mami Mizutori, who heads the UNDRR.  "By deliberately ignoring risk and failing to integrate it in decision making, the world is effectively bankrolling its own destruction.  Critical sectors, from government to development and financial services, must urgently rethink how they perceive and address disaster risk."

Yes, but how?  Humanity is notorious for valuing short-term expediency and profit over long-term safety -- and even viability.  There are certainly days when I feel like I'm shouting into a vacuum; I've been ranting about environmental issues since I started Skeptophilia in 2011.  But giving up is exactly the wrong response, as tempting as it is some days.  Perhaps we don't know what positive effect we can have if we act, but we do know what positive effect we'll have if we throw our hands up and say, "To hell with it."

Zero.

I'll end with two quotes that I think are particularly apposite.

The first one comes from one of my personal heroes, Wangari Maathai, the amazing Kenyan activist, environmentalist, and women's rights advocate: "In order to accomplish anything, we must keep our feelings of empowerment ahead of our feelings of despair.  We cannot do everything, but still there are many things we can do."

And I'll give the last word to my friend Sandra: "We are all musicians in a great human orchestra, and it is now time to play the Save the World Symphony.  You are not required to play a solo, but you are required to know what instrument you hold and play it as well as you can.  You are required to find your place in the score.  What we love we must protect.  That's what love means.  From the right to know and the duty to inquire flows the obligation to act."

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Monday, May 9, 2022

Oops, I did it again

The following is a direct transcript of how I got welcomed into a multi-person business-related Zoom call a couple of years ago:

Me: How are you today?

Meeting leader: I'm fine, how are you?

Me: Pretty good, how are you?

Meeting leader: ...

Me: *vows never to open his mouth in public again*

I think we can all relate to this sort of thing -- and the awful sensation of realizing, microseconds after it leaves our mouths, that what we just said was idiotic.  When my then fiancée, now wife, told a mutual friend that she was getting married -- after we'd been dating for two years -- the friend blurted out, "To who?"  Another friend ended a serious phone call with her boss by saying, "Love you, honey!"  Another -- and I witnessed this one -- was at a trailhead in a local park, preparing to go for a walk as two cyclists were mounting their bikes and putting on their helmets.  He said to them, "Enjoy your hike!"

The funniest one, though, was a friend who was in a restaurant, and the waitress asked what she'd like for dinner.  My friend said, "The half chicken bake, please."  The waitress said, "Which side?"  My friend frowned with puzzlement and said, "Um... I dunno... Left, I guess?"  There was a long pause, and the waitress, obviously trying not to guffaw, said, "No, ma'am, I mean, which side order would you like?"

I don't think my friend has been in that restaurant since.

This "oops" phenomenon probably shouldn't embarrass us as much as it does, because it's damn near ubiquitous.  The brilliant writer Jenny Lawson -- whose three wonderful books, Let's Pretend This Never Happened, Furiously Happy, and Broken (In the Best Possibly Way) should be on everyone's reading list -- posted on her Twitter (@TheBloggess -- follow her immediately if you don't already) a while back, "Airport cashier: 'Have a safe flight.'  Me: 'You too!'  I CAN NEVER COME HERE AGAIN.", and was immediately inundated by (literally) thousands of replies from followers who shared their own embarrassing, and hilarious, moments.  She devotes a whole chapter to these endearing blunders in her book Broken -- by the time I was done reading that chapter, my stomach hurt from laughing -- but here are three that struck me as particularly funny:

I walked up to a baby-holding stranger (thinking it was my sister) at my daughter's soccer game and said "Give me the baby."

A friend thanked me for coming to her husband's funeral.  My reply?  "Anytime."

A friend placed her order at drive thru.  She then heard, "Could you drive up to the speaker?  You're talking to the trash can."

Lawson responded, "How could you not love each and every member of this awkward tribe?"

This universal phenomenon -- particularly the moment of sudden realization that we've just said or done something ridiculous -- was the subject of a study at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center that came out last week, led by neurologist Ueli Rutishauser.  You'd think it'd be a difficult subject to study; how do you catch someone in one of those moments, and find out what's going on in the brain at the time?  But they got around this in a clever way, by studying patients who were epileptic and already had electrode implants to locate the focal point of their seizures, and had them perform a task that was set up to trigger people to make mistakes.  It's a famous one called the Stroop Test, after psychologist John Ridley Stroop who published a paper on it in 1935.  It's an array of names of colors, where each name is printed in a different color from the one named:


The task is to state the colors, not the names, as quickly as you can.

Most people find this really difficult to do, because we're generally taught to pay attention to what words say and ignore what color it's printed in.  "This creates conflict in the brain," Rutishauser said. "You have decades of training in reading, but now your goal is to suppress that habit of reading and say the color of the ink that the word is written in instead."  Most people, though, when they do make an error, realize it right away.  So this made it an ideal way to see what was happening in the brain in those sudden "oops" moments.

What Rutishauser et al. found is that there are two arrays of neurons that kick in when we make a mistake, a process called "performance monitoring."  The first is the domain-general network, which identifies that we've made a mistake.  Then, the domain-specific network pinpoints what exactly the mistake was.  This, of course, takes time, which is why we usually become aware of what we've just done a moment after it's too late to stop it.

"When we observed the activity of neurons in this brain area, it surprised us that most of them only become active after a decision or an action was completed," said study first author Zhongzheng Fu.  "This indicates that this brain area plays a role in evaluating decisions after the fact, rather than while making them."

Which is kind of unfortunate, because however we rationalize those kinds of blunders as being commonplace, it's hard not to feel like crawling into a hole afterward.  But I guess that, given the fact that it's hardwired into our brains, there's not much hope of changing it.

So we should just embrace embarrassing situations as being part of the human condition.  We're weird, funny, awkward beasts, fumbling along as best we can, and just about everyone can relate to the ridiculous things we say and do sometimes.

But I still don't think I'd be able to persuade my friend to eat dinner at the restaurant where she ordered the left half of a chicken.

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Saturday, May 7, 2022

A black widow pirouette

It's difficult to talk about neutron stars without lapsing into superlatives.  They're the collapsed remnants of large stars -- those that start out at about eight solar masses or larger -- and form because when the star exhausts its fuel at the end of its life, the ongoing battle between the outward pressure from the heat from the core and the inward pull of gravity from the star's mass goes out of equilibrium.  Gravity wins.  The outer layers of the star fall inward, and the increase in pressure spikes the temperature to an estimated billion degrees Celsius.  This creates a massive explosion -- a supernova -- releasing 10^44 joules of energy.

I don't know about you, but I have a hard time even wrapping my brain around a number that big.  Suffice it to say that the explosion of a supernova releases in a few minutes as much energy as the Sun will produce in its entire ten-billion-year life.

These unimaginable pressures jam together atomic nuclei that otherwise would never have overcome the electrostatic repulsion (all nuclei have a net positive charge, and like charges repel), producing pretty much every element in the periodic table heavier than nitrogen.  

So as bizarre as it seems, the oxygen you breathe, the calcium in your bones, the sodium and chlorine you sprinkle on your food at dinnertime, the iron in your blood, the silicon in your window glass, the gold and silver in your jewelry -- all were created in the unimaginable violence of stellar collapse and explosion.

Nota bene: This is an oversimplification; not only are there several types of supernovas which vary some in output, there are other phenomena, like the merger of neutron stars (more on that in a moment), that can create heavy elements and disperse them through the cosmos -- but it'll do as a first-order approximation.  If you're curious about breaking it down further, the following table represents a finer-grained analysis of where all the elements come from:

[Image licensed under the Creative Cosmos Cmglee, Nucleosynthesis periodic table, CC BY-SA 3.0]

As astrophysicist Carl Sagan put it, "We are made of star stuff...  Our ancestors worshipped the Sun, and they were far from foolish.  It makes sense to revere the Sun and the stars, for we are their children."

The reason this comes up because of a recent discovery that adds a new weird twist to the behavior of neutron stars.  About three thousand light years away is what's left of a triple-star system.  Multiple-star systems aren't that uncommon; a while back I wrote here about one of the most peculiar ones known, Algol (in the constellation Perseus).  The newly-discovered one, though, called ZTF J1406+1222, has an additional layer of strangeness; not only are two of the components neutron stars, they're close enough that they're whirling around their common center of gravity so fast that they complete their orbits in only sixty-two minutes.  In fact, they're close enough that the heavier of the two is siphoning off material from the lighter one.  Stars like this are called black widow binaries, from the unfortunate habit of female black widow spiders eating their mates.

The most astonishing thing about all this is to consider how much force it would take to pull material from a neutron star.  The collapse of the core during its formation was so powerful that it basically crushed the electrons of the constituent atoms into the nucleus, raising its density so high that it's estimated that one teaspoon full of neutron star material would weigh as much as a mountain.

That's the stuff that's being ripped from the surface of the lighter member of the pair.

What about star number three?  The third companion is a much smaller stellar remnant, a white dwarf, that has a ten thousand year orbital period -- almost as if it's edging carefully around its violently spinning friends, keeping at a safe distance while the inner two tear each other apart.

It's unknown how this mad pirouette will end.  The surmise is eventually the two will merge, but what happens then?  If the combined mass is high enough (estimated at about twenty solar masses), then even the neutron/neutron repulsion, mediated by the strong nuclear force, would be insufficient to overcome the gravitational pull, and the collapse will resume -- forming a black hole.  It's also possible that the inertia of such huge masses being accelerated so quickly will rip the two apart completely, flinging neutron star material -- which, once it cools and settles down, would be the aforementioned heavy elements -- across the area of space it's sitting in.

So that's our mind-boggling cosmic tale for today.  It's easy to forget, here on the (comparatively) placid Earth, the unimaginable violence that happens out there in space.  Not only that -- the same violence is what created most of the atoms that make up ourselves and all of the everyday objects we're surrounded with.

When you think about it, there's nothing about the universe we live in that isn't extraordinary.

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Friday, May 6, 2022

Love, not actually

For about a year I've been working with a wonderful personal trainer.  Not only is Kevin an outstanding running coach (who has kept me going through the last eight months during which I've dealt with a back injury and various other health problems), he's also funnier than hell.  I swear, some sessions we spend as much time laughing as working out.  We're pretty similar in a lot of ways, not least that we both are frequently baffled by how absolutely weird the human race is.

So when I got an email from him a couple of days ago with the subject line, "Humankind is completely BONKERS," along with a link, I figured it had to be good.  I'm happy to say he didn't disappoint.

The link brought me to a story about a Japanese gentleman named Akihiko who has fallen madly in love with a woman named Hatsune Miko, and decided to marry her.  Here's where the problems start, though.  First, Hatsune is only sixteen years old, which is a little troubling.  But that's not the only issue.

Hatsune is a computer-generated hologram.

I swear I'm not making this up.  I know I say this a lot, but I can sense y'all looking at me like I've lost my marbles.  Akihiko calls himself a "fictosexual" -- someone who is sexually attracted to fictional characters.  Now, let me say up front that on some level, I understand.  My love for Doctor Who led to my basically being in lust with both Amy Pond (played by Karen Gillan) and Captain Jack Harkness (played by John Barrowman).  (Being bisexual comes along with the problem that I can get my head turned by just about anyone.)

But I've never lost sight of two facts: (1) Amy and Captain Jack are fictional characters; and (2) any attraction I have for them is disappears as soon as I turn the television off.  I might have been a bit goggle-eyed by Amy in her sleek little policewoman outfit and Captain Jack when he had all his clothes vaporized by a robot, but that was where it ended.

It turns out there's a name for this: a parasocial relationship.  The researchers who studied this -- it was the subject of a paper in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships last October, and in fact I touched on it in a post shortly after the paper came out -- describe it as "a false sense of mutual awareness with favorite characters and [the presence of] strong emotional bonds with them."  So somehow, the fact that the characters they love aren't real and are played by actors who have their own quite different lives and relationships gets lost, and they feel like that love is somehow reciprocated.

The researchers found that the likelihood of forming a parasocial relationship tended to go hand-in-hand with what they call avoidant attachment.  This sounds like an oxymoron, and it sort of is; a push-me-pull-you battle between a desperation to have a relationship and a powerful desire to avoid emotional connections.  When you think about it, it's at least somewhat understandable.  Actual human relationships are demanding, because humans are not only complex creatures, we sometimes hide parts of our personality that only come out later, or change because of external circumstances.  "Relationships" with characters in television and movies, on the other hand, are entirely one-sided.  You can read anything you like into them.

Well, most of the time.  I've run into people who are deeply enamored of a fictional character, and then become furious when the character "betrays them" by either doing something unexpected or (worse) falling in love with another character.  Or, sometimes, when the character is at odds with the actor portraying him/her.  To use my previous example -- apparently the actor John Barrowman can kind of be a putz, and there are allegations that he said and did some things behind the scenes that were completely inappropriate.  My guess is that he's not someone I would want to spend time with.

But I can still think that Captain Jack is hot.  Because he and the actor who plays him are not the same person.

So while attraction is one thing, actually going all in with a fictional character is in a different category altogether.  Or, in the case of Akihiko, a computer-generated hologram.  I'm particularly puzzled about the "sexual" part of "fictosexual."  As Kevin put it, "What if his penis is a USB-A plug and her vagina is a USB-B port?"  Which is it exactly.  Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to get cozy with someone who is actually flesh-and-blood.

Anyhow, that's our excursion into Weird Human Behavior for today.  I wish I had a good explanation for it, but failing that, I think I'll fall back on Kevin's assessment: "Humankind is bonkers."

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Thursday, May 5, 2022

The dunes of Io

By anyone's standards, Jupiter's moon Io is a strange place.  It is by far the most geologically-active body in the Solar System, which is extremely unusual for an object its size.  Since tectonic forces are created by heat generated in the core, and smaller objects radiate away heat faster, it was thought that most planetary moons should be tectonically dead -- essentially, frozen in place.

What keeps the fires in Io going are the tidal forces between Jupiter and the other three "Galilean" moons (so called because they were first spotted by Galileo Galilei in January of 1610, and were instrumental in his championing of the heliocentric model of the Solar System).  But from earthbound telescopes all four just looked like points of light, despite the fact that as moons go, they're pretty big.  In fact, the largest of them -- Ganymede -- is bigger than Mercury, with a radius of 2,634 kilometers (as compared to Mercury's 2,440).  The four, the two aforementioned plus Europa and Callisto, were all named for various of Zeus's lovers, which meant astronomers had an extensive list of names to choose from, given that 95% of Greek mythology was driven by Zeus's inability to keep his toga on.

In any case, the push-and-pull of the gravitational forces from Jupiter and its moons stretches Io, and the friction thus created generates enough heat to keep its core (thought to be made mostly of iron, like Earth's) molten.  This thermal energy drives tectonic forces that dwarf the most violent volcanoes and earthquakes here on our planet.  Io has extensive lava flows, some over five hundred kilometers across.  Its volcanoes have ejected so much debris that there is a plasma ring surrounding Jupiter, sketching out Io's orbit.

We got our first good images of Io from Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in 1979, and from its brightly-colored, pockmarked surface astronomers said it "looked like a moldy pizza" -- a vivid image that is certainly apt enough:

An image of Io taken, appropriately enough, by the spacecraft Galileo in 1995 [Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA/JPL]

The bright yellows and oranges come from crystalline sulfur, which is abundant on the moon's surface.  Also common on its surface is sulfur dioxide, which at Earth's surface temperatures is a colorless gas that smells like rotten eggs; at Io's temperatures, averaging at 110 K (about -160 C), it's a crystalline solid.  The rest is mostly made up of silicate rock and sand.

There's still a lot we don't know about this peculiar place.  One of its odd features is that it has dunes, some of them over thirty meters high.  This should be impossible, as dunes are caused by fluid flow -- on Earth, either wind or water -- and Io has essentially no atmosphere and no liquid component of any kind on the surface.  But a recent paper published in Nature Communications explains a way that dunes can form without any wind; once again, it's caused by Io's extreme volcanism.  The study found that if there's at least a ten-centimeter thick layer of sulfur dioxide ice, and it is contacted by the subterranean (well, subionion) lava flows, the ice sublimates rapidly and explosively, blowing plumes of gas and debris at speeds of up to seventy kilometers and hour, reaching as much as two hundred kilometers high.

The force, though, isn't just exerted upwards, it's exerted outward.  This lateral blast moves enough of the sand and rock on the surface to generate Io's extensive dunes.  A combination of two things -- Io's low gravity and lack of an atmosphere -- means that the airborne debris can move a lot farther than a similar flow could do on Earth.  So while at first glance the processes seem similar to what we know of planetary geology, it's (as far as we know) unique in the Solar System.

"In some sense, these [other worlds] are looking more familiar," says George McDonald, a planetary scientist at Rutgers University, who co-authored the study, in an interview with Science News.  "But the more you think about it, they feel more and more exotic."

If you want to experience mystery and wonder, just look up.  The night sky is filled with a myriad places we are only just beginning to understand.  As French physicist and mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré put it, "Astronomy is useful because it raises us above ourselves; it is useful because it is grand; …  It shows us how small is man's body, how great his mind, since his intelligence can embrace the whole of this dazzling immensity, where his body is only an obscure point, and enjoy its silent harmony."

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Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Cellphones and brain explosions

A while back there was a rumor circulating that using cellphones could give you brain cancer. A study of 420,000 cellphone users, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, indicates that there is no correlation between cellphone use and cancer, which caused sighs of relief from the thousands of people who like to discuss details of their sex lives and intimate health issues in public places.

Now, however, thanks to a scary email I received yesterday, I find that cellphone users have worse things to worry about than cancer; using your phone can simply make your brain explode.

Don't believe me?  I'll show you.  I excerpt part of the email below:
Do not pick up calls under the following given numbers: 9888308001, 9316048121 91+, 9876266211, 9888854137, 9876715587.  These numbers will come up red in color, if the call comes from these numbers.  It's with very high wavelength, and very high frequency.  If a call is received from mobile on these numbers, it creates a very high frequency and will cause you to have a brain hemorrhage.

It's not a joke, it's TRUE.  27 people have died receiving calls from these numbers.  This has appeared on news programs and has been verified as true, it's not a hoax.  Please forward this on to all the people you care about!
Well, first off, it's a little ironic that I was the recipient of this email.  My phone service provider gives me a weekly rundown of use time, and I average about fifteen minutes a day.  Most of this use is not talking to people, but playing an idiotic game called Snood that I somehow have become addicted to.  Snood involves using a little catapult to launch funny-looking faces at an array of other funny-looking faces, with the Tetris-like goal of getting three or more in a row, at which point they fall off the screen.  The goal is to get all of the faces to fall.  I'd like to say I enjoy Snood, but honestly, mostly what it does is piss me off, because I always flub easy shots and then achieve phone-hurling levels of anger.

I should probably avoid games altogether, honestly, and find a hobby that is more suited to my temperament and level of technological skill, such as making music by banging two rocks together.

Part of the problem is that besides being a Luddite, I just hate telephones in general.  I actually enjoy being in a place where I can't be reached by telephone.  I'm sort of like Pavlov's dog -- but instead of salivating, when the phone rings, I swear.  If people want to communicate with me, my order of preferred modes of contact is as follows:
  1. Email
  2. Text
  3. Social media direct message
  4. Every other form of communication ever invented, up to and including carrier pigeon
  5. Telephones
I will go to amazing lengths to avoid talking on the phone.  When we order take-out, my wife places the order (two-minute phone conversation) and I drive to pick it up (at least twenty-minute drive each way, because we live in the middle of nowhere), and I still think it's an excellent tradeoff.  As far as people calling me, thank heaven for caller ID, which at least allows me to screen the calls I get and ignore the ones from people I don't want to talk to, which is just about everyone.  The idea of taking a telephone with me, so I can be reached anywhere, has about as much appeal as taking along my dentist on vacation so that he can interrupt my lying around on the beach by doing a little impromptu root canal.

But I digress.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Ed Yourdon from New York City, USA, People using cellphones on a street in New York, CC BY-SA 2.0]

For those of you who actually do use your phones to communicate with other human beings, should you worry about picking up your phone, for fear of your brain exploding?  The answer, fortunately, is no, and we don't need to have a study funded by the National Brain Explosion Institute to prove it.  Without even trying hard, I can find three problems with the contents of the email:

First, there's no way that a cellphone could transmit sound waves at a high enough volume to cause any damage.  Phone speakers are simply not capable of producing large-amplitude (high decibel level) sounds -- phone use isn't even damaging to your ears, much less your brain.  You're at more risk of ear damage from turning the volume up too high when you're listening to music through earbuds than you are from talking to someone on your phone.

Second, how do they know all of this, if all the people it happened to died?  Did the victims pick up their phones, say "Hi," and then turn to their spouses and say, "OMIGOD ETHEL I JUST RECEIVED A CALL FROM 9888308001 AND THE NUMBER CAME UP RED AND NOW I'M HAVING A BRAIN ANEURYSM ACCCCCKKKKK"?

Third, the email itself indicates that the originator has the intelligence of a peach pit, because anyone who's taken high school physics knows that it's impossible for a wave to have high frequency and high wavelength at the same time, as wavelength and frequency are inversely proportional, sort of like IQ and the likelihood of being a Flat Earther.

So, anyway, feel free to continue using your phones without any qualms, and I'll feel free to continue to not use mine.  Maybe one day I'll eventually arrive in the 21st century, and stop being such a grumpy curmudgeon about telephones, and consent to carry one around so I can have constant, 24/7 availability to receive calls about my car's extended warranty.

But don't expect it to happen any time soon.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2022

The meaning of "Two Dignified Spinsters Sitting in Silence"

I have frequently ranted at length about how silly the practice of astrology is.  The last mention of my general disdain for the practice prompted one of my readers to send me an email, the gist of which was, "You haven't even begun to plumb the depths of the silliness," and attached a link to a page called, "The Degrees and Meanings of the Sabian Symbols."

For those of you who would prefer not to risk valuable brain cells even opening this link, allow me to explain that the Sabian Symbols are mystical images, one for each of the 360 degrees of the zodiac.  Another site, simply called "Sabian Symbols," describes them as follows:
Renowned worldwide as both an uncanny divination system and an insightful tool for astrologers, the Sabian Symbols were channeled in San Diego in 1925 by Marc Edmund Jones, a well reknowned [sic] and respected astrologer, and Elsie Wheeler, a spiritualist medium.  They consist of 360 word images corresponding to the 360 degrees of the zodiac (each zodiac sign comprising of 30 degrees)...  The Sabian Symbols are extraordinary for insight, revelation and guidance.  Miracles, big and small, happen in your life when you tap into their field... (it is) an "ancient mind matrix."
Well.  Alrighty, then.  Let's just take a look, shall we?  Here are a few selected Sabian Symbols from various degrees of the zodiac.  Let me know of any insight, revelation, or guidance you got from them, okay?
  • Aries, 7-8 degrees: A large woman's hat with streamers blown by the east wind.
  • Taurus, 15-16 degrees: An old teacher fails to interest his pupils in traditional knowledge.
  • Leo, 1-2 degrees: An epidemic of mumps.
  • Virgo, 15-16 degrees: In the zoo, children are brought face-to-face with an orangutan.
  • Sagittarius, 20-21 degrees: A child and a dog wearing borrowed eyeglasses.
  • Capricorn, 16-17 degrees: A repressed woman finds psychological release in nudism.
  • Aquarius, 22-23 degrees: A big bear sitting down and waving all of its paws.
Okay, so that gives you an idea.  And no, I didn't make any of these up.  Nor did I pick these out because they sound especially weird; they all sound like this.  All I can say is: whatever drugs this guy was on when he came up with these, can I have some?

[Image is in the Public Domain]

Of course, the people who believe in this stuff don't think that it was drugs.  They think that Marc Edmund Jones was really channeling a mystical presence.  Once again, quoting from "Sabian Symbols:"
The Sabian Symbol story is embedded in the ancient cultures of the Middle East.  Marc Edmund Jones felt that there was an "unseen agency" - an external, esoteric mind-set at work in the birthing of the Sabian Symbols.  Connection was made through a 'Brother', a member of the ancient Mesopotamian brotherhood, the Sabian Brotherhood.  He believed that they were the 'voices' that were spiritually behind Elsie Wheeler, delivering the messages that became the Symbols...  As we move out of the Piscean age and into the Aquarian age, we are transmuting in many ways, with the vibration of our spiritual and intellectual minds moving into higher gears as we evolve.  In such hectic times, we hunger for meaning and guidance, but often don't have the time or the patience to pause and reflect deeply on our situation.  The Sabian Oracle opens the doorway between our inner feelings and intentions and our conscious mind.  They do this by helping to put what is within us into words.  Being provided with possibilities enables us to act positively and confidently, and think rationally.
My general response to all of that is that if you were thinking rationally you wouldn't be relying on astrology in the first place.  And, of course, the usual problem with symbolic fortunetelling occurs here, just as it does with the Tarot, the I Ching, runes, and so on; the symbols are so weird and open to interpretation that you can make just about anything out of them that you want.  Suppose that for some reason, the "oracle" told me that my symbol for today was Libra, 29-30 degrees ("Three mounds of knowledge on a philosopher's head.")  My first response would be that I didn't know that knowledge came in mounds.  But after that, what does it mean?  Is it saying that I'm smart?  Or that I'm not smart enough and should go study and try to gain more mounds of knowledge?  Or that today would be good for contemplation?  Or that I should be looking for guidance from three different sources?  Or that I could find answers in books by philosophers?

This is why the "Sabian Symbols" site offers "professional Sabian astrology consultations" -- because slobs like me just aren't qualified to interpret what "A butterfly with a third wing on its left side" (Libra, 23-24 degrees) means.

The take-home lesson here, I suppose, is that there is no realm of woo-woo so goofy that someone can't elaborate on it in such a fashion as to make it way goofier.  Wondering whether there might be anything else I could learn from all the time I spent reading this stuff, I clicked on the link that said "Clear your mind and click on this picture of a galaxy" to get wisdom from the oracle.  I got Scorpio, 16-17 degrees, which is "A woman, fecundated with her own spirit, is the father of her own child."   Which, I think, was a symbolic way for the oracle to tell me to go fuck myself.

Oracles can be so hostile, sometimes.

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