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.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The way it crumbles

If -- as some believe -- we're in a giant computer simulation, then I have to say that the aliens running it have lost the plot.

I'm not, surprisingly enough, talking about the United States presidential election here, although that's been surreal enough.  The latest, if you haven't heard, is Donald Trump throwing a pre-emptive tantrum, saying that if he doesn't win outright today he's already got a fleet of lawyers ready to challenge the results and fight until it turns out the way he wants.

Which aren't the actions of a sociopathic, narcissistic toddler, or anything.

What increasingly strikes me, though, is not just how bad 2020 has been, but how completely fucking weird.  For example, consider the following multiple-choice question:
A near miss by a sizable asteroid has spurred people to construct an impact-proof vault in the permafrost on the island of Svalbard.  What is this vault intended to store and protect, to ensure that it is preserved for posterity?
  1. Critical historical documents and archaeological relics.
  2. Examples of important technological devices and instructions on how to build them.
  3. Top secret information on satellites, security, and communication contributed by world leaders.
  4. A stash of Oreo cookies and the recipe thereof.
If you selected #4, congratulations, you've gotten into the True Spirit of 2020.

My first reaction, upon seeing this story, was that this couldn't possibly be true, that it had to be a parody news story of the type done so very well by sites like The Onion and The Babylon Bee.  But no, the Oreo vault is completely real, and its existence has been verified repeatedly by Nabisco, producers of the iconic cookie.  In fact, they provided coordinates (78°08’58.1”N, 16°01’59.7″E) in case you want to check it out from satellite images.  If you're not that motivated, they gave us the following photo:

"As an added precaution," Nabisco announced, "the Oreo packs are wrapped in mylar, which can withstand temperatures from -80 degrees to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and is impervious to chemical reactions, moisture and air, keeping the cookies fresh and protected for years to come."

So we can all relax.  If there's a catastrophic meteor strike, nuclear war, or whatnot, all we have to do is get to Svalbard somehow and we can all share some tasty cookies.

And access the recipe so we can make more, even though this is unlikely because (1) Svalbard doesn't look like a place that has a baking ingredients aisle, (2) the catastrophe that sent us there probably didn't leave many of the grocery stores elsewhere open for business, and (3) it's unlikely that if there's a worldwide disaster, any of us will say, "You know what?  I think I'll bake some cookies."

So I'm not sure what to think about the Oreo vault.  I mean, Nabisco can do what it wants, I guess, and if the government of Norway is okay having a cookie vault on Svalbard, that's fine by me.  But once again, 2020 has proven to resemble some kind of global fever-dream.  I've stopped saying "what's going to happen next?" because every time I do, things just get weirder.

And I say that fully aware that today Americans might well re-elect the worst president in our history, someone who is not only entirely amoral, but is so stupid that he would be out of his depth in a kiddie pool.

But I probably shouldn't stress about any of it.  At any moment, the aliens running the computer simulation could just shut it off.  Or maybe they'll come down from the acid trip they've been on, and things will return to normal.

Until then, I'll just quote the Oracle from The Matrix:

"Here.  Have a cookie."


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is about one of the deepest mysteries in science: the origin of time.

Most physical processes are time-reversible.  If you looked at a video of a ball bouncing off a wall, then looked at the same video clip in reverse, it would be really difficult to tell which was the forward one and which the backwards one.  Down to the subatomic level, physical processes tend to make no distinction based upon the "arrow of time."

And yet our experience of time is very, very different.  We remember the past and don't know anything about the future.  Cause and effect proceed in that order, always.  Time only flows one direction, and most reputable physicists believe that real time travel is fundamentally impossible.  You can alter the rate at which time flows -- differences in duration in different reference frames are a hallmark of the theory of relativity -- but its direction seems to be unchanging and eternal.

Why?  This doesn't arise naturally from any known theory.  Truly, it is still a mystery, although today we're finally beginning to pry open the door a little, and peek at what is going on in this oddest of physical processes.

In The Order of Time, by physicist Carlo Rovelli (author of the wonderful Seven Brief Lectures in Physics), we learn what's at the cutting edge of theory and research into this unexplained, but everyday and ubiquitous, experience.  It is a fascinating read -- well worth the time it will take you to ponder the questions it raises.

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

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