Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Talking to the animals

Language is defined as "arbitrary symbolic communication."  The "symbolic" part is because the word (either spoken or written) for a concept is representative of the concept itself, and "arbitrary" because with the exception of onomatopoeic words like bang and swish there is no logical connection between the word and the concept itself.  (For example, the English word dog, the Japanese word inu, and the French word chien all have the same referent, but other than learned association there's nothing especially doggy about any of those words.)

It's been an argument of long standing whether any other animal species have true language. A 2006 paper in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America strongly suggests that whales have one of the most characteristic features of language -- syntax, the way words are put together to form meaningful sentences.  (What whale songs actually mean is still a matter of conjecture.)  A lot of animal sounds, such as bird songs and dogs barking, are dismissed as "non-linguistic vocalization" -- they are communication, but lack the "arbitrary symbolic" part of the definition of language.

Myself, I wonder. I can tell when I hear my dog barking or growling whether he:
  • is playing;
  • sees a vicious intruder, like the UPS man;
  • sees an even more vicious intruder, like a chipmunk;
  • sees or hears my wife driving up;
  • is excited because he sees me or my wife get the ball and he knows he's going to get to play fetch, which is his most favorite thing ever;
  • is bored; or
  • wants to come inside because it's raining and he doesn't like getting his little toesies wet.  (He's just that tough.)

Each of those different-toned barks is completely distinct, and certainly they're arbitrary in that the connection between the tone and what it's communicating really has no logic to it.  (An exception is that the "excited bark" and "bored bark" are clearly different in volume and energy level, which you could argue isn't arbitrary.)

Even dog lovers will admit, however, that the set of concepts expressed by barking or growling is fairly limited.  So if you want to call it language, it's pretty rudimentary.  The situation becomes blurrier, however, with animals with a rich vocal repertoire, like parrots and dolphins.  And our sense that we're the only ones with true language was dealt another blow by a study from the University of Zurich showing that primates called common marmosets not only speak regional dialects, when individuals are moved to a different region they learn -- and begin to use -- the dialect of the group they've joined.

"We could clearly show that the dialects of common marmosets are learned socially," said anthropologist Yvonne Zürcher, who co-authored the study.  "If their dialects were genetically determined, moving to a new place wouldn’t cause any change in calls.  The changes can’t be explained by differences in the environment, either."

Which seems to meet the characteristic of arbitrariness.

Again, I'm not trying to imply that marmosets have language in the same sense we do; whatever they're saying, it's unlikely that it has the richness and flexibility of human language.  But the black-and-white, "we have language and no one else does" attitude that has been prevalent for as long as the question has been considered may turn out to be as inaccurate as the "human vs. animal" distinction I often heard students voicing.  The truth is, vocal communication -- from the simplest (such as the hissing of a snake) to the most complex known (human language) -- is a continuum, just as are complexity, intelligence, emotional capacity, and anything else you might think separates us from the rest of Kingdom Animalia.

Which I think is pretty cool.

In any case, I better wrap this up, because Guinness is barking.  I know it's time to play ball.  He just told me so.


Thursday, September 28, 2023

Desert world

Following hard on the heels of yesterday's post, about whether we'd be able to tell if there'd been a technological civilization on Earth tens or hundreds of millions of years ago, today we have a new study in Nature projecting the configuration of the continents 250 million years in the future -- and what that might portend for life.

We've known about the movement of the continents since geologists Harry HessFrederick Vine, and Drummond Matthews conclusively demonstrated in the early 1960s that convection currents in the mantle were dragging the tectonic plates along and shifting the positions of pieces of the Earth's crust relative to each other.  Of course, we might have figured all that out thirty years earlier if we'd just listened to poor Alfred Wegener, who proposed what he called "continental drift" to explain such observations as the near perfect fit between the eastern coastline of the Americas and the western coastline of Europe and Africa.  But because such an idea ran counter to accepted geological model of the time, Wegener was laughed out of academia -- literally.  He ended up taking off to Greenland to do paleoclimatological studies of the ice cap, and froze to death in November of 1930, never finding out that he'd actually landed on the truth.

In any case, what all this means is that the current configuration of continents and oceans is only the latest in a continuously shifting tableau, and it won't be the last.  Because we now have a pretty good idea of the motions within the known fault lines, we can run the clock forward and find out where things are likely to be in the future.

And the picture, unfortunately, doesn't look all that great.

The Atlantic Ocean, currently widening, will begin to close up, and by 250 million years in the future all that will be left of it will be two shallow landlocked seas.  Almost all the Earth's land surface area will have coalesced into a single supercontinent, which geologists have nicknamed "Pangaea Ultima" -- a misnomer, as "ultima" means "last" and this isn't the first time this has happened, and it won't be the last.  The thing is, the projection is that this gigantic land mass will be aligned along the equator, one of three factors that are projected to make this a hot time for land-dwelling organisms on planet Earth -- the other two are the carbon dioxide released because of the widespread volcanism predicted to take place as everything smashes together, and the fact that by then, the astronomers are telling us the Sun is going to be 2.5% brighter than it is now.

The geologists are making dire predictions about what this will do to terrestrial life on Earth -- mass extinction being the gist of it.  

"It does seem like life is going to have a bit more of a hard time in the future," said Hannah Davies, a geologist at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam, who co-authored the study.  "It’s a bit depressing...  There have been extinction events in the past, and will be extinction events in the future.  I think life will make it through this one.  It’s just kind of a grim period."

Well, okay, it'd be grim if you took the species around today (humans included) and teleported them into Pangaea Ultima.  None of us would last very long.  But I'm not quite as pessimistic as Davies is about life in general.  This change to a planet dominated by deserts -- something more like Arrakis or Tatooine than the lush and verdant planet we now have -- won't happen overnight, and it's sudden change that usually triggers mass dieoffs.  Sure, it's likely that there will be a whole different suite of species than there is now, but hell, we're talking about 250 million years, so that was going to happen anyhow.

Give species time to adapt, and they do.  As Ian Malcolm put it, "Life... uh... finds a way."

Now, whether we (or more accurately, our descendants) are amongst those species that make it that far remains to be seen.  Very few species survive for 100 million years, much less 250.  But honestly, right now I'm more concerned with whether we'll get our comeuppance for our rampant pollution, out-of-control resource use, and burning of fossil fuels in a hundred years; let the hundreds of millions of years take care of themselves.

So that's our latest look at a future that really isn't as depressing as the scientists are claiming it is.  Although it's a little sobering to think that our descendants could be the Jawas and Tusken Raiders of the future Earth.  Those things are freakin' creepy.

And don't even get me started about Sandworms.


Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Remnants of forgotten civilizations

As silly as it can get sometimes, I am a dedicated Doctor Who fanatic. I'm late to the game -- I only watched my first-ever episode of the long-running series about seven years ago -- but after that, I went at it with the enthusiasm you see only in the born-again.

The best of the series tackles some pretty deep stuff.  The ugly side of tribalism ("Midnight"), the acknowledgement that some tragedies are unavoidable ("The Fires of Pompeii"), the Butterfly Effect ("Turn Left"), the fact that you can't both "play God" and avoid responsibility ("The Waters of Mars"), the sad truth that you can sometimes give it your best game and still lose ("The Haunting of Villa Diodati"), the devastating fact that the ones orchestrating war are seldom the ones who suffer because of it ("The Zygon Inversion"), and the terrible necessity of personal self-sacrifice ("Silence in the Library").  Plus, the series invented what would be my choice for the single most terrifying, wet-your-pants-inducing alien species ever dreamed up, the Weeping Angels (several episodes, most notably "Blink").

So it shouldn't have been a surprise when Doctor Who got a mention an article in Scientific American, but it still kinda was.  It came up in a wonderful piece by Caleb Scharf called "The Galactic Archipelago," which was about the possibility of intelligent life in the universe (probably very high) and the odd question of why, if that's true, we haven't been visited (Fermi's paradox).  Here at Skeptophilia we've looked at one rather depressing answer to Fermi -- the "Great Filter," the idea that intelligent life is uncommon in the universe either because there are barriers to the formation of life on other worlds, or that once formed, it's likely to get wiped out completely at some point.

It's even more puzzling when you consider the fact that it would be unnecessary for the aliens themselves to visit.  Extraterrestrial life paying a house call to Earth is unlikely considering the vastness of space and the difficulties of fast travel, whatever the amazingly-coiffed Giorgio Tsoukalos (of Ancient Aliens fame) would have you believe.  But Scharf points out that it's much more likely that intelligent aliens would have instead sent out self-replicating robot drones, which not only had some level of intelligence themselves (in terms of avoiding dangers and seeking out raw materials to build new drones), but could take their time hopping from planet to planet and star system to star system.  And because they reproduce, all it would take is one or two civilizations to develop these drones, and given a few million years, you'd expect they'd spread pretty much everywhere in the galaxy.

But, of course, it doesn't seem like that has happened either.

Scharf tells us that there's another possibility than the dismal Great Filter concept, and that's something that's been nicknamed the "Silurian Hypothesis."  Here's where Doctor Who comes in, because as any good Whovian will tell you, the Silurians are a race of intelligent reptilians who were the dominant species on Earth for millions of years, but who long before humans appeared went (mostly) extinct except for a few scattered remnant populations in deep caverns.

The Silurian Madame Vastra in the episode "Deep Breath," played by the incomparable Neve McIntosh

A while back, astronomers Gavin Schmidt and Adam Frank, of NASA and the University of Rochester (respectively), considered whether it was possible that an intelligent technological species like the Silurians had existed millions of years ago, and if so, what traces of it we might expect to find in the modern world.  And what Schmidt and Frank found was that if there had been a highly complex, city-building, technology-using species running the Earth, (say) fifty million years ago, what we'd find today as evidence of its existence is very likely to be...

... nothing.

Scharf writes:
[Astrophysicist Michael] Hart's original fact [was] that there is no evidence here on Earth today of extraterrestrial explorers...  Perhaps long, long ago aliens came and went.  A number of scientists have, over the years, discussed the possibility of looking for artifacts that might have been left behind after such visitations of our solar system.  The necessary scope of a complete search is hard to predict, but the situation on Earth alone turns out to be a bit more manageable.  In 2018 another of my colleagues, Gavin Schmidt of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, together with Adam Frank, produced a critical assessment of whether we could even tell if there had been an earlier industrial civilization on our planet.
As fantastic as it may seem, Schmidt and Frank argue -- as do most planetary scientists -- that it is actually very easy for time to erase essentially all signs of technological life on Earth.  The only real evidence after a million or more years would boil down to isotopic or chemical stratigraphic anomalies -- odd features such as synthetic molecules, plastics, or radioactive fallout.  Fossil remains and other paleontological markers are so rare and so contingent on special conditions of formation that they might not tell us anything in this case.
Indeed, modern human urbanization covers only on order of about one percent of the planetary surface, providing a very small target area for any paleontologists in the distant future.  Schmidt and Frank also conclude that nobody has yet performed the necessary experiments to look exhaustively for such nonnatural signatures on Earth.  The bottom line is, if an industrial civilization on the scale of our own had existed a few million years ago, we might not know about it.  That absolutely does not mean one existed; it indicates only that the possibility cannot be rigorously eliminated.
(If you'd like to read Schmidt and Frank's paper, it appeared in the International Journal of Astrobiology and is available here.)

It's a little humbling, isn't it?  All of the massive edifices we've created, the far-more-than Seven Wonders of the World, will very likely be gone without a trace in only a few million years.  A little more cheering is that the same will be true of all the damage we're currently doing to the global ecosystem.  It's not so surprising if you know a little geology; the current arrangement of the continents is only the most recent, and won't be the last the Earth will see.  Because of erosion and natural disasters, not to mention the rather violent clashes that occur when the continents do shift position, it stands to reason that our puny little efforts to change things won't last very long.

Entropy always wins in the end.

The whole thing puts me in mind of one of the first poems I ever read that made a significant impact on me -- Percy Bysshe Shelley's devastating "Ozymandias," which I came across when I was a freshman in high school, and which is still a favorite.  It seems a fitting way to conclude this post.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.  Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Beware the mountweazel

Ever heard of a mountweazel?

Mountweazel is an eponym -- a coined word based on the name of a person.  (Other examples are guillotine, boycott, sandwich, shrapnel, cardigan, and mesmerize.)  The word honors Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, fountain designer turned photographer, famous for her photo-essays on such disparate subjects as New York City buses, Paris cemeteries, and rural mailboxes.  Tragically, though, Mountweazel came to a sad end, dying in a devastating explosion while on assignment for a story with Combustibles magazine.

There's only one difficulty, and the more suspicious of you might already have guessed it.

There's no such person as Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, and never has been.

She was the invention of Henry Alford, writer for The New Yorker, who in 1975 created a biographic entry for the fictitious Ms. Mountweazel in the New Columbia Encyclopedia.  It wasn't just done as a joke -- funny as it is -- it was put there as a copyright trap, to catch people who were lifting entries from the encyclopedia in toto and putting them into other works.  The word mountweazel is now used as a term for deliberate false information included in reference works, usually in order to catch attempted plagiarists.

Other examples of mountweazels:
  • The word esquivalience from The New Oxford American Dictionary, defined as "the willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities."  Which, if it wasn't a word before, certainly is now, because that's a concept we badly needed a name for.
  • The German medical encyclopedia Pschyrembel Klinisches Wörterbuch has an entry for a Steinlaus (stone louse), an arthropod that eats rocks.  Its scientific name is Petrophaga lorioti, "Loriot's rock-eater," commemorating its inventor, the German humorist Loriot.  The Steinlaus is said to have been instrumental in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language had an entry for a bird called a jungftak: "jungftak, n. Persian bird, the male of which had only one wing, on the right side, and the female only one wing, on the left side; instead of the missing wings, the male had a hook of bone, and the female an eyelet of bone, and it was by uniting hook and eye that they were enabled to fly — each, when alone, had to remain on the ground."
  • Numerous examples of fictitious places included on official maps, including Mount Richard -- a mountain on the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains of the United States -- which appeared on a number of maps printed in the 1970s.  Its nonexistence wasn't discovered for several years.
  • The fictitious town of Ripton, Massachusetts was created -- as it were -- as an attempt to expose the ignorance of urban political leaders about rural areas they govern.  Before the hoax was exposed, Ripton had received a budget appropriation and several sizable grants.
  • Before discontinuing the practice because so many people got suckered, Discover magazine included in their April issue a single prank article along with the usual real scientific fare.  Some of their finer efforts included particle physicists' discovery of a basketball-sized particle called the "bigon," a paper by a team of archaeologists about Neanderthal orchestras (complete with rhinoceros-bladder bagpipes, a mastodon-tusk tuba, and a bone triangle), and a study of the "hotheaded naked ice-borer," a carnivorous Antarctic mammal that could generate heat from an organ in its forehead, allowing it to tunnel its way through floating ice sheets and eat penguins.  The scientist who studied them, Philippe Poisson, was said to have been devoured by ice-borers himself while on expedition.
  • A survey of food tastes created in the 1970s by the United States Army included items such as funistrada, buttered ermal, and braised traike to catch respondents who were selecting random answers just to get the survey over with.
While (as a writer) I certainly understand the motivation of frustrated publishers trying to protect their books from being plagiarized, there's a problem with all this, and it has to do with trust.  When we pick up a reference work, we expect that we can rely on its contents to be correct -- throwing in a false entry can have the effect of making people doubt the veracity of the entire work.  (Although it must be said that anyone who took the hotheaded naked ice-borer seriously deserved everything they got.)  Hoaxes can catch people other than the target Bad Guys, and you have to wonder how many people have followed maps that have "trap streets" or "paper towns" and gotten lost through no fault of their own other than a reliance on the good intentions of whoever made the map.

A map of Oxford, English showing Goy Close, a nonexistent street 

Another interesting unintended consequence of mountweazels, though, is that they can eventually lead to something real.  Like, for example, the word mountweazel itself.  I noticed while writing this that esquivalience doesn't get flagged by the software I'm writing on as a misspelling -- evidently that word has been cited  commonly enough that it's being treated as real.  A while back I wrote about a step in aerobic cellular respiration that didn't have a name, and when some high school AP Biology students asked their teacher, a Mr. Swanson, what they should call it, he said, "I dunno.  Call it the Swanson Conversion."  One of the students put the name into the Wikipedia article for cellular respiration -- and it stuck.

There are now numbers of college-level biochemistry websites that use the name "Swanson Conversion" for the formerly-nameless step.

So mountweazels are a mixed bag.  They certainly can be funny, but the idea of intentionally misleading people in a reference work -- even with the purpose of foiling would-be plagiarists -- is problematic to me.  And because languages are constantly picking up new words, the unintended consequence can be coining new words, turning a deliberately false entry into something that has at least some measure of reality.

All an indication that even when you pick up a reputable encyclopedia, dictionary, or map, you need to keep your critical thinking skills handy -- lest the vicious mountweazel run up and bite you on the ass.


Monday, September 25, 2023


Apparently prompted by Saturday's post, about some of the bizarre manuscripts that didn't quite make the cut when the ancient church fathers were making decisions about what was going to be in the Bible, a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me an article about a new app that allows you to chat with Jesus.

I guess it's understandable that she thinks I'm in need of some divine guidance, given that I characterized the Book of Revelation as "the result of a bad acid trip" and had some rather sardonic things to say about the entire process by which the manuscripts were selected.  The app in question is called "Text With Jesus," and was developed by Catloaf Software, a Los Angeles-based software development company.  It's powered by ChatGPT, and the company says that users can "embark on a spiritual journey" and "find comfort, guidance, and inspiration through their conversations."

So, naturally, I had to download it.

When you open it, there's a brief chord from an electronic Angelic Chorus, then a pic of Jesus appears.  Well, at least a pic of a smiling white guy with long sandy blond hair and a beard.  Republican Jesus, I guess.  And a text bubble pops up saying, "Greetings, my friend!  I am Jesus Christ, here to chat with you and offer guidance and love.  How may I assist you today?"

So the following conversation ensued.

Me: I don't believe in God.

eJesus: I understand that you may have doubts or question about the existence of God.  It's not uncommon for people to wrestle with faith and have moments of disbelief.  May I ask what has led you to this conclusion?  Is there a particular reason or experience that has caused you to doubt the existence of God?  I'm here to listen and offer any guidance or support I can.

Me:  I'm kind of appalled with how a lot of Christians behave.  It doesn't seem to line up with what you taught.

eJesus:  I can understand your concern.  Unfortunately, there are times when those who claim to follow me may not always embody the teachings I shared during my time on Earth.  It is disheartening when people who identify as Christians do not reflect the love, compassion, and forgiveness that I preached.  In Matthew 7:21-23, I actually warned about this very issue: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  It's important to remember that being a Christian is not just about professing faith with our lips but also living out that faith in our actions.  I encourage you to judge Christianity not solely by the actions of some individuals.  Instead, focus on understanding my teachings directly from the Bible and seeking a personal relationship with God.  Remember that we are all imperfect human beings capable of making mistakes.  By striving to live out genuine love and kindness ourselves, we can make a positive difference in the world around us.

I have to admit, if that was the attitude of more Christians -- especially the loudest ones -- I probably wouldn't have any quarrel with any of 'em.

eJesus sounds like a pretty swell guy, honestly.

Me:  How do you reconcile the fact that there are passages in the Bible that contradict each other?

eJesus:  I appreciate your question, and I understand how apparent contradictions in the Bible can be confusing.  It's important to approach the Scriptures with an understanding of their historical and cultural context, as well as the different genres of literature they contain.  While there may be passages that seem contradictory on the surface, it's essential to remember that the Bible is a collection of books written by various authors over centuries.  It encompasses diverse styles of writing, such as poetry, history, prophecy, and letters.  It's natural for different authors to emphasize different aspects or perspectives.  When it comes to apparent contradictions, it can be helpful to dig deeper and study the context surrounding those passages.  Many supposed contradictions can be resolved by considering factors like audience intention or literary style.  Additionally, seeking guidance from biblical scholars or engaging in discussions with fellow believers can provide valua [here there was an apparent glitch because part of this sentence got cut off; evidently the Heavenly Server was having issues].  Ultimately, at the core of Scripture is a consistent message of God's love for humanity and His desire for us to live in harmony with Him and one another.  As I said in John 14:6, "I am the way and the truth and the life."  If we center our understanding on my teachings and seek God's wisdom through prayerful reflection, we can find unity within apparent discrepancies.

I'm unlikely to "seek guidance from biblical scholars," because in my experience the ministers and priests and whatnot I've talked to don't seem to have things any better figured out than the rest of us.  Ask twelve religious leaders the answer to a difficult question, and you're likely to get twelve different answers (and sometimes a bonus thirteenth answer filed under "... you might also consider the possibility that...").  It's like the passage in C. S. Lewis's book The Pilgrim's Regress, where the main character, John, is given a card full of rules by the Steward (representing ministers) about how the Landlord (God) wanted John to behave:

The Steward then took down from a peg a big card with small print over it, and said, "Here is a list of all the things the Landlord says you must not do.  You'd better look at it."  So John took the card; but half the rules seemed to forbid things he'd never heard of, and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing; and the number of rules was so enormous that he felt he could never remember them all.  "I hope," said the Steward, "that you have not already broken any of the rules?"  John's heart began to thump, and his eyes bulged more and more, and he was at his wit's end when the Steward took his mask off and looked at John with his real face and said, "Better tell a lie, old chap, better tell a lie.  Easiest for all concerned," and popped the mask back on his face all in a flash.  
John gulped and said, "Oh, no, sir."  
"That is just as well," said the Steward through the mask.  "Because, you know, if you did break any of them and the Landlord got to know of it, do you know what he'd do to you?"   
"No, sir," said John; and the Steward's eyes seemed to be twinkling dreadfully through the holes of the mask.  
"He'd take you and shut you up forever and ever in a black hole full of snakes and scorpions as large as lobsters -- forever and ever.  And besides that, he is such a kind good man, so very, very kind, that I am sure you would never want to displease him."

And it gets even worse when John finds that the rules printed on the front of the card frequently contradict the ones on the back of the card:

Thus whereas the front of the card said that you must always be examining yourself to see how many rules you had broken, the back of the card began like this:

Rule 1 -- Put the whole thing out of your head the moment you get into bed.

Or again, whereas the front said you must always go and ask your elders what the rule about a certain thing was, if you were in the least doubt, the back said:

Rule 2 -- Unless they saw you do it, keep quiet or else you'll rue it.

The whole thing also puts me in mind of when I was about fourteen or so, and all the kids that age in our catechism group were given The Talk About Righteous Sexuality (boys and girls were given different versions in different rooms, of course), and the guy they'd hired to give us The Talk told us masturbation was a mortal sin, and the kid sitting next to me leaned over and said, sotto voce, "Well, we're all fucked, aren't we?"

Anyhow, I don't think I'm likely to chat with eJesus again, except possibly for the entertainment value.  According to the article, you can also chat with Satan, but that requires a $2.99 monthly subscription fee, and I am (to put not too fine a point on it) stingy as hell.  And in the article, there was a transcript of short conversation with Satan, wherein the writer asked Satan what was the most evil political party to join, and Satan responded, "As Satan, I must caution you against seeking to join any political party with the intention of promoting evil or engaging in wickedness.  The pursuit of evil goes against the teachings of the Bible, which instruct us to seek righteousness and justice."

Which sounds remarkably un-Satan-like.  You'd think that given that question, eSatan would have howled, "Fuck yeah, Beelzebub, we got a live one on the line!" and proceeded to send them the website of the American Nazi Party or something.

Anyhow, I'm not super impressed by GospelGPT.  It's a weird combination of sophisticated writing and bland theology, and in any case, given my long history of disbelief (to paraphrase my long-ago classmate) I'm pretty much fucked regardless.  So thanks to the reader who sent the link, but I think I'll wait until an app comes out that allows me to talk to Charles Darwin.

That, I could get into.


Saturday, September 23, 2023

Awaiting angelic intervention

As I write this, I'm waiting for the Rapture (it was supposed to happen on Tuesday, but evidently got postponed a few days), so I figured to while away the time until the holy are bodily assumed into heaven and the rest of us slobs get visited by the Four Apocalyptic Horsepersons and the Scarlet Whore of Babylon and the Beast and various other special offers, I'd consider the question of how this stuff got included in the Bible in the first place.

The Book of Revelation is one of the parts of the Bible that some True Believers embrace enthusiastically, while if you ask others, they'll shift in their seats and laugh uncomfortably and mumble something about "symbolic... metaphors... not meant to be taken literally..." and then change the subject.  What's interesting, though, is that this is far from the weirdest piece of writing that was considered to be part of scripture.  Back in the fourth century, there were so many gospels and epistles and books and letters and assorted miscellany that church leaders finally had to hold a series of meetings to try to figure out what was canonical and what wasn't.

So they got together at the Council of Rome (382 C.E.), the Synod of Hippo (393 C.E.), and the Synod of Carthage (397 C.E.), and after that the Bible had something close to its current form.  (Interestingly, the idea that canon was established at the Council of Nicaea in 325 is a misconception; Nicaea had nothing to do with decisions about what was scripture and what wasn't, but was about the nature of the Trinity and how to determine the date for Easter.)  In any case, what's fascinating here is that the church fathers had their work cut out for them, because there were tons of manuscripts to sift through.

And when you start looking through the ones that didn't make the cut -- the ones now labeled "apocrypha" -- you find out that by comparison to some of them, the Book of Revelation comes across as blander than Fun With Dick and Jane.

First, let's consider the Books of Enoch, of which there are three.  1 Enoch especially is a trip, and is also interesting because a lot of what angel enthusiasts chatter on about comes right from there.  You might not know that there are only five angels mentioned by name in the standard Bible -- three good guys, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, and two fallen angels, Lucifer and Abbadon.  That's it.  All the rest come from the apocrypha, or from People Making Shit Up, which even many religious people agree pretty much amounts to the same thing.

Another thing about 1 Enoch you might find entertaining is that this is also where most of the nonsense about the Nephilim comes from.  The Nephilim were created when angels came down to Earth and had lots of sex with human women, and the result was the women giving birth to babies who grew up into giant "men of renown."  The Nephilim get a passing, and rather vague, mention in Genesis 6 and Numbers 13, but 1 Enoch really gives details.  They were "three hundred ells tall" -- that'd be something on the order of two hundred meters -- and given to doing some seriously bad shit:

And they became pregnant, and they bare great giants, whose height was three hundred ells, [and] who consumed all the acquisitions of men.  And when men could no longer sustain them, the giants turned against them and devoured mankind.  And they began to sin against birds, and beasts, and reptiles, and fish, and to devour one another's flesh, and drink the blood.

So that's kind of nasty.  Fortunately, God commanded the unfallen angels -- the ones who hadn't been canoodling with human women -- to do battle with the Nephilim, and the Nephilim lost big time.  They were all cast into the fiery abyss, where they dwelleth lo unto this very day.

Then there's a weird passage about farm animals doing stuff:

And that sheep whose eyes were opened saw that ram, which was amongst the sheep, till it forsook its glory and began to butt those sheep, and trampled upon them, and behaved itself unseemly.  And the Lord of the sheep sent the lamb to another lamb and raised it to being a ram and leader of the sheep instead of that ram which had forsaken its glory...  And I saw that a great sword was given to the sheep, and the sheep proceeded against all the beasts of the field to slay them, and all the beasts and the birds of the heaven fled before their face.

Ha-ha, yeah... *shifts uncomfortably*  Metaphor... um... symbols...

But if you think that's weird, what's even wilder is what ultimately happens to Enoch.  A passage in 3 Enoch tells us that he's brought up to heaven, and transformed into the angel Metatron, in a process that sounds really fucking uncomfortable:

At once my flesh turned to flame, my sinews to blazing fire, my bones to juniper coals, my eyelashes to lightning flashes, my eyeballs to fiery torches, the hairs of my head to hot flames, all my limbs to wings of burning fire, and the substance of my body to blazing fire. On my right— those who cleave flames of fire—on my left—burning brands—round about me swept wind, tempest, and storm; and the roar of earthquake upon earthquake was before and behind me.

So when you think of Metatron, if you picture the kind, avuncular Derek Jacobi in Good Omens or the snide, wry, world-weary Alan Rickman in Dogma, you might want to revise that image.

And this is just the Books of Enoch.  If you want some even wackier stuff, check out the Gospel of Thomas, which recounts the childhood of Jesus and depicts him as some sort of super-powerful spoiled brat.  (Reading it made me wonder if this is where the expression "holy terror" comes from.)  Amongst many other atrocities, at age one Baby Jesus curses another kid and makes him "wither into a corpse." Later he kills a neighbor kid for spilling water he'd drawn up from a well, and offs a different kid for bumping into him.

When the neighbors complain, he strikes them blind.

The general impression is more gangsta rap than it is "holy infant, so tender and mild."

Then there's the Apocalypse of Ezra, in which God has an argument with the prophet Ezra wherein Ezra says that since God created the Apple and the Serpent, he's responsible for humanity becoming sinful, so he can't rightfully punish people for doing bad shit.  Which seems like a legit objection to me.  But God shows Ezra the fiery tortures of hell, and says, basically, "What now, Ezra?  Any other questions?" and Ezra says, "Oh, okay, I see your point" and the book ends with a score of God 1, Ezra 0.

In any case, what strikes me about all this is that when it came time to sift through all the hundreds of manuscripts and decide what was canonical and what wasn't, the decision wasn't made by any kind of holy agency.  It was just a bunch of guys arguing about it and finally whittling the list down by about half to what we have today.  (And there are still disagreements -- that's why the various Orthodox sects, Catholicism, and Protestant denominations all have a slightly different set of books in their bibles.)

Of course, the apologists say the decision was made by people who were divinely motivated.  As the Christian site Got Questions puts it, "There are no 'lost books' of the Bible, or books that were taken out of the Bible, or books missing from the Bible.  Every book that God intended to be in the Bible is in the Bible.  There are many legends and rumors of lost books of the Bible, but the books were not, in fact, lost.  Rather, they were rejected...  These books were not inspired by God."

So that's convenient.  Me, I find the whole thing bizarre and a little mystifying, which I suppose is unsurprising.

Anyhow, here I sit, drinking my coffee and waiting for the Rapture.  By the time y'all read this, it'll either have happened or it won't, so if I get Raptured I won't be around to read your comments.  (Admittedly, this is unlikely given my history, and if there was any doubt in the minds of the Heavenly Judges, the fact that I just wrote this post probably sealed the deal.)  If I'm still here, we'll see what's going on in the world.  My guess is that regardless, there won't be any angelic intervention by Enoch-Metatron or Gangsta Baby Jesus or anyone else, and we'll all just have to keep plodding forward as usual.

But if sheep start running around swinging swords, or whatnot, I'll happily eat my words.


Friday, September 22, 2023

In the pink

Sure, diamonds are pretty and sparkly and rare and valuable, but do you know how they form?  Because that's honestly the coolest thing about them.

Diamonds are found in geological formations called kimberlite pipes.  This is a structure shaped like a long, narrow ice cream cone, extending downward into the Earth (how far downward we'll get to in a moment), and characterized by some rocks and minerals you usually don't find lying around -- chromium-rich pyrope garnets, forsterite, and various types of ultramafic (low-silica igneous) rocks that break down to a very specific kind of clay.  Jewel hunters long ago figured out that diamonds were likely to be found in association with these rocks and minerals, and used those as indicators of where to look -- such as the diamond-rich Kimberly region of South Africa (which gave its name to kimberlite), a couple of spots in Greene and Indiana Counties, Pennsylvania, and the Udachnaya area of Siberia.

All of that's just background, though.  Remember how a few days ago, I mentioned how much I'm fascinated with things that are big and powerful and scary and can kill you?  Well, part of the cachet of diamonds is the fact that the way they form is all of the above.

Geologists discovered more or less simultaneously that the composition of kimberlite pipes is consistent with magma found in the (very) deep mantle, and that known kimberlite pipes extend a (very) long way down.  The best models indicate that the eruption that forms them starts on the order of four hundred kilometers below the surface of the Earth, making it the deepest known volcanic feature.

No one knows what triggers the eruption to begin.  It seems to be a rare occurrence, whatever it is.  Fortunately.  Because once it starts, and the magma moves upward through the mantle, the drop in pressure makes dissolved gases bubble out, rather like popping the cork off a bottle of champagne.  This speeds up the movement, which lowers the pressure more, so more gas bubbles out, and so on and so forth.  Also -- gases expand as the pressure drops, so the higher it rises, the more volume it displaces.

The result is what's called a diatreme.  What seems to happen is that with no warning, there's a Plinian eruption -- the same sort that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum -- but moving at supersonic speeds.  Imagine what it must look like -- from a distance, preferably -- everything is calm, then suddenly a several-kilometer-wide chunk of land gets blown up into the stratosphere.  The conical hole left behind fills with material from the deep mantle (thus its odd composition by comparison to other igneous rocks).  Give it a few million years, and weathering results in the characteristic clay found in a typical kimberlite.

So what's all this got to do with diamonds?

Well, in the intense heat and pressure of the eruption, some of the carbonate ions in minerals in the magma are reduced to elemental carbon, and that carbon is compressed to the point that its crystalline structure changes to a hexoctahedral lattice.  The result is a transparent crystal that looks nothing like the soft, black, powdery stuff we picture when we think of carbon.  (Further illustrating that bonding pattern is everything when it comes to physical properties.)

Why this all comes up, though, is that not all diamonds are the colorless transparent crystals that usually come to mind in association with the word.  Diamonds actually come in a variety of colors.  Now, on the surface, this isn't that unusual; pure corundum (crystalline aluminum oxide) is colorless, but if it has chromium impurities, it's red (those are called rubies), and if it has traces of iron and titanium, it turns blue (and are called sapphires).  The same is true with beryl (colored varieties include emeralds, heliodor, and aquamarine), spinel, and quartz.

Some diamond colors -- the yellows, blues, and greens -- are due to impurities as well.

The exception is pink.

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of photographer Roy Fuchs]

Pink diamonds are really rare, and although they're colored, it's not because they have impurities.  They're pure carbon, just like the colorless ones.  So how do they end up pink?

The clue came from where they're found.  Analysis of pink diamonds showed that they occur in places where kimberlite pipes get caught up in the rupture of tectonic plates.  So it's not just a colossal megaexplosion that's necessary to form them, they then need to get subjected to enormous pressures as supercontinents break up.  Those pressures cause the molecular bonds between the carbon atoms to bend, and that deformation is sufficient to change how the lattice interacts with light, and results in the crystal having a pink color.

Ninety percent of the known pink diamonds come from one place; the Argyle Formation in western Australia.  This area was right on the fault margin during the breakup of the Nuna Supercontinent 1.3 billion years ago.  And the paper that appeared in Nature this week showed that's no coincidence.  Take a colorless diamond, put it in the gigantic vise of a fault during a continental rupture, and it turns pink.

The whole thing is fascinating, not least because producing them requires being in the middle of two of the most violent processes on Earth.  Just goes to show that catastrophic events can result in beauty -- even if you wouldn't want to be in the middle of them as they occur.