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

Saturday, April 30, 2022

If looks could kill

New from the Why Didn't I Think Of That First department, we have: a guy who performs psychic healing just by looking at people.

Here I thought you had to at least do something to affect a woo-woo cure -- swing some crystals around, say a chant or two, give your patient a homeopathic pill that doesn't contain any medicine -- at least something.

Enter the Croat healer known only as "Braco" (his real name is Josip Grbavac).  Braco, who has apparently been on tour for years and performs to packed houses, gets paid big bucks to sit on a stage for a half hour and stare at the audience.  He doesn't say a word -- just stares, then gets up and leaves, and goes backstage to collect his paycheck.  His gaze is said to have "healing powers."  "People aren't even sure what they're feeling," devotee Sahaja Coventry told a reporter after Braco's appearance at the Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland.  "But it is a sweetness, it is a loving energy and some people get physical healing, some just feel a sense of peace."

If I had to sit there for a half hour in a dimly-lit room in total silence for a half-hour, I bet I'd feel a sense of peace, too -- I'd probably fall asleep.  But of course, that's not what Coventry et al. are talking about.  Neither do they think they're being hypnotized, which is another possibility.  They really think that Braco is doing something with his eyes, somehow affecting "energy levels" in the room.  Braco, of course, does everything he can to beef up this claim; children and pregnant women are not allowed to attend, because the "energies could be too strong," and he does not let his face be broadcast on television for more than seven-second clips, presumably to prevent some sort of electronically-transmitted overdose of Braco Stare.

My objections, of course, are the usual ones.  First: show me the mechanism.  If you think this guy's gaze can cure your chronic headaches, show me how that could work in such a way that it eliminates the possibility of auto-suggestion.  Another of his followers who was interviewed hinted at the problem when she said, "You have to have an open mind and an open heart, more or less to get this feeling."  Why on earth should this be so?  If the guy is doing something real, how could my attitude make any difference?  You'd think it'd be even more impressive if Braco cured someone who thought he was a fraud.

Second, of course, there's the fact that the whole thing flies in the face of how vision actually works.  When you see, it's not because something's going out from your eyes, it's because something's going into your eyes (namely, light reflected from the object you're looking at).  Vision is receptive, not productive.  The ancients didn't get this, and we see this in some relic expressions like to "throw a glance" at someone, and in holdover beliefs such as the "evil eye."  Certainly, the eyes and face can communicate information; a lot of work has been done on the ease with which the human brain picks up on subtle "microexpressions," and how that effects social interaction.  But that's not what Braco's followers think is happening, here.  They really think that some "force" is leaving his body through his eyes, and traveling to you, and changing your mental and/or physical condition.  To which I say: I seriously doubt it.

In any case, if you'd like to see him (or, actually, to have him see you), you can check out his tour schedule at his website.  And because I just have to, here's a photograph of him, screen-capped from his YouTube channel (of course he has a YouTube channel).  I suggest putting on eye protection before looking at this, and whatever you do, don't leave it staring at you for more than seven seconds!  Don't say I didn't warn you.

On the other hand, I see from his current schedule that he's currently offering live online Braco Gaze.  If there's anything goofier than the idea that a guy on stage could send something to the audience via his gaze, it's that he could do the same thing virtually through a computer monitor.  It reminds me of the piece I did a while back about "Quantum Downloadable Medicines," wherein you pay money to get a download link that when you click it, allegedly downloads curative medicines directly into you.  How it works is never explained; presumably it realigns the qi of your chakras and increases the quantum frequencies of your harmonic resonant subatomic coupling to the universe.

You can see how that makes perfect sense, right?  

Of course, right.

I do wonder, though, about Braco's live online sessions.  How is this any different from seeing him on television?  If it isn't, do you pay money and then only get seven seconds of Braco Stare?  Or does he put some kind of filter on the webcam so that the dosage won't get too high?  So many questions.

Honestly, though, like I said initially, I kind of wish I'd thought of it first.  It seems an easier way to make a living than to do what I do, which is to write novels and hope like hell someone will read them.  If I could make a living just by staring at people from a stage for a half-hour every few nights, I'd could ditch all the editing and promotion and marketing and so on, and have a great deal more free time than I currently have (not to mention making a great deal more money).  But Braco seems to have cornered the Psychic Stare market, so I'll have to come up with a different angle.  Hey, I know!  Maybe you could just send me a check for a hundred dollars, and I'll gently place my fingertips on your signature for five minutes.  It will communicate healing energy through the psychic link established through your signature.  You'll feel better immediately.  Trust me.


Friday, April 29, 2022

What's bred in the bone

See this innocent-looking face?

This is Cleo.  She's a Shiba Inu, a Japanese breed (the name means "underbrush dog" because they were used for hunting small game in overgrown places).  We adopted her from a rescue facility in December, and she has settled right into our home, including becoming best buds with our other dog, a big, goofy pittie mix named Guinness.

Cleo is sweet, charming, funny, playful, and cuddly.  However, she is also stubborn, independent, willful, and has zero interest in learning commands for rewards.  For any rewards.  She is the only dog I have ever met who is completely unmotivated by food.  She sort of likes cheese, so that occasionally works, but she approaches everything with the attitude, "I'm doing this only because I want to.  And if I don't want to, even cheese doesn't tempt me."

For example, shortly after we adopted her, we installed a dog door (once it became obvious that she wanted in and out dozens of times a day).  And for weeks, she steadfastly refused to use it.  We were becoming convinced that she wasn't smart enough to figure out how it worked.  Turns out she understood perfectly well, she just didn't want to.  Last week she started using the dog door -- going through it, both directions, as if it was nothing.  Apparently she wasn't going to do it until she made it clear to us that it was her decision.

Then there's her volubility.  There's a phenomenon called the "Shiba scream," which was one of many things we didn't find out about her breed until after we adopted her.  When she's excited by something good like my wife pulling into the driveway, or there's a red-alert situation like the FedEx guy or a cyclist going past or a squirrel farting somewhere in the next county, she goes -- and this is as accurate a transcription of it as I can manage -- "ruff ruff ruff rrrrOOOWWRRROOO WAAAAAHHWAAH WAAHWAAH."  She also barks when she's excited, or (especially) when she wants something and we are not providing it right away as we, of course, should.  This includes taking her on a walk at two in the morning, a habit that led my wife to christen her "Demon-Spawn Dog," or, more succinctly, "Beelzebark."

It's not that we don't love her, or don't appreciate her positive qualities, of which there are lots.  Something my wife and I have said about 358 times since adopting her is, "She is so cute -- fortunately for her."  It turns out we're not alone in this experience of Shiba Inus.  Here's what the site Shiba Rescue has to say:
In their eyes, Shibas can take on the world no matter how big the foe or the task.  They are dominant with other dogs and do not usually get along well with other "bossy" dogs of the same sex.  Many Shibas will, however, get along great with another dog or cat that agrees the Shiba is boss.

Shibas always like to be in charge; their favorite word is "mine."  Although not "barky" dogs, they do yodel and scream anytime they feel they are being violated, such as nail trimming, bathing, and leash training.  Shibas can be runners.  The Shiba Inu is a natural hunter.  Given a chance, Shibas will take off in search of game.  It is advisable to never trust your Shiba off-lead unless in a fenced yard.

The Shiba's least favorite word is "come."  They will usually take your number and get back to you, when called.

Shibas have a mind of their own.  While it is possible to obedience train a Shiba, it is a challenge.  Tell him to sit and he sits . . . sometimes.  If there is something in it for him, and it is convenient at the time.

The first thing I thought after reading this (besides "Amen!") was how interesting it is that you can characterize an entire breed like this, irrespective of how an individual animal was raised.  Not that prior treatment is inconsequential; one thing that Cleo still exhibits is wariness from having been abused as a puppy (you'll notice if you look closely at the photograph that she's missing her left eye).  But the fact that you can draw a detailed picture of a typical Shiba personality like this indicates something fascinating -- that a great deal of dog behavior is controlled by genetics, not by training.

Way back in 2008, a paper in The American Journal of Human Genetics considered this phenomenon, and suggested that these kinds of behavioral trends are caused by a fairly small number of genes (and speculated that the same sort of thing may be true of human personality types).  A more recent 2019 study looked specifically at canine aggression and fearfulness, and found that those have between sixty and seventy percent heritability.  Consider how many breeds you characterize in a word or two  -- the friendliness of Golden Labs, the intelligence and always-on-the-job attitude of a Border Collie, the aggressiveness (despite its size) of a Chihuahua.  And Shibas are not the only ones who have built-in, almost certainly genetic, difficult behaviors; a friend of mine once told me that if you want an exercise in frustration, try to house-train a Cocker Spaniel.  This kind of thing has an unfortunate effect on dog owners who are unprepared or uninformed.  A particularly sad example is that after the movie One Hundred and One Dalmatians aired, there was a run on Dalmatian puppies -- and six months later, an influx of Dalmatians being given up at shelters.  Far from the cute, cuddly stereotype of the puppies from the movie, as a breed Dalmatians tend to be high-stung, nervous, reserved, and aggressive; they are considered to be one of the top-ten breeds most likely to bite, and a great many of the people who adopted a Dalmatian puppy very quickly regretted their choice.

I say this knowing, of course, that "unprepared and uninformed" is a pretty good description of my wife and I when we adopted Cleo.  However, in our defense I have to add that we're experienced dog owners with a history of adopting rescues, just about all of whom have had bad pasts and the attendant behavior problems -- and we have yet to own a dog who hasn't turned out to be a wonderful and charming, if quirky, companion.  We strongly believe that pet adoption is forever; if you can't commit, don't adopt.  (I do reconsider that stance on occasion when Cleo starts screaming in the middle of the night, but those lapses are short-lived.)

So we're not expecting Cleo's personality to change, and indeed, we don't want it to.  She's a charmer even when she's being a pain in the ass.  We'd like to modify some of it -- such as the twice-aforementioned barking for something in the wee hours -- but by and large, those kinds of characteristics are what make dogs interesting.

It reminds me of the famous quote from John Heywood, "What's bred in the bone comes out in the flesh."  There's a lot of truth to that, for better or worse.  For better at the moment; right now, Cleo is cuddled up at the foot of the bed, paws twitching as she dreams of chasing squirrels.  And she's already become part of the family, difficulties and all.  Whatever the source, each dog's personality is as rich and varied as each person's is, something I've come to appreciate more and more with every dog we've adopted.  And we've always been rewarded tenfold by having pets -- receiving love for kindness, devotion for care, deep trust for patience.

For me, that makes it all worthwhile.


Thursday, April 28, 2022


Today I'm going to continue on my exploration of weird physics, which has happened not only because I find it fascinating but because I keep finding new research that blows my mind.

It's what I love about science in general, really.  This won't be any shock to regular readers of Skeptophilia -- I'm always seeming to bump into just-published papers on crazy cool topics, especially having to do with astronomy, biology, physics, geology, and paleontology, and then telling you about them here.  As I've said before, delve into science if you want to guarantee you'll never be bored again.

Today's topic came to me via a paper in Physical Review Letters by Barbara Šoda and Achim Kempf (of the University of Waterloo), and Vivishek Sudhir (of MIT), and made reference to a phenomenon I'd never heard of before: the Unruh effect.  It was named for Canadian physicist William Unruh, who did some of the earliest theoretical work on it, but major contributions were made by Stephen Fulling of the United States and Paul Davies of England.  And it all has to do with what an observer would see if (s)he was accelerating rapidly through empty space.  (Although in a moment we'll have to redefine what we mean by "empty," because a vacuum isn't actually empty at all.)

We're all familiar with the science fiction movie image of what it looks like to jump to superluminal speeds.  Every time the commander of a spaceship shouts "jump to warp!" or "engage hyperdrive!", they're treated to a view like this:

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA]

There's no way to tell if this is what such a space traveler going faster than light would actually see, because (1) no one has ever actually experienced it, and (2) it's almost certainly impossible anyway (Cf. the Special Theory of Relativity and my summary of all the papers written on the topic as "Yay!  Einstein wins again!")  But even if actual warp drive and faster-than-light velocities aren't possible, what would it look like if you gazed out of the front window of a spaceship that was accelerating rapidly toward the speed of light?

The idea of stars turning into blurred streaks as we whiz past, as engaging as it is, doesn't seem to capture what we'd actually see in such a situation.  

The Unruh effect is what we'd observe.  This is a quantum effect caused by accelerating in a vacuum, which would cause an apparent increase in temperature ahead of us -- it would appear to have a thermal glow.  The reason is that seemingly empty space isn't empty in the conventional sense.  It is filled with quantum fields -- which exist everywhere in the universe -- and the word "empty" here means that those fields are in the ground state, the lowest possible energy configuration space can have.

To a stationary observer, it would indeed appear empty.  But to our space traveler, the rapid acceleration would cause an apparent increase in temperature ahead of the spacecraft.  A stationary observer would consider the empty space ahead as being in the ground state; an accelerating space traveler would measure it to be in a mixed state, in thermodynamic equilibrium with a non-zero ambient temperature.

The vacuum of space would seem to glow.  That's the Unruh effect.

Just like our discussion on Monday of simultaneity, asking "so what temperature is it really?" is a meaningless question.  The measured temperature -- like just about anything else you could measure -- depends on your frame of reference.  The only thing that every observer, in every reference frame (accelerating or not), measures as precisely the same is the speed of light.  (In fact, it's the constancy of the speed of light in every frame of reference that springboarded our understanding of the relativistic nature of the universe, and directly gave rise to all of the other bizarre effects in the model.)

Nobody has actually observed the Unruh effect; the temperature increase is small, and the acceleration required is huge.  Even if you could achieve those accelerations, you'd have to eliminate all the other possible sources of a perceived increase in temperature, which are numerous.

Well -- no one has observed it yet.  Šoda, Kempf, and Sudhir believe they have found a way to isolate the system so that the only possible source of temperature rise is due to the detector's acceleration.  "To see this effect in a short amount of time, you'd have to have some incredible acceleration," Sudhir said, in an interview with Science Daily.  "If you instead had some reasonable acceleration, you'd have to wait a ginormous amount of time -- longer than the age of the universe -- to see a measurable effect...  We believe we have found a way to shave that time down to a few hours.  Now at least we know there is a chance in our lifetimes where we might actually see this effect.  It's a hard experiment, and there's no guarantee that we'd be able to do it, but this idea is our nearest hope."

So with luck, this team might have found a way to observe something that no one has ever seen before -- what it would be like to look through the front window of a rapidly-accelerating spaceship.  It may not be as dramatic as the stars-turned-into-streaks effect known and loved by fans of Star Trek and Star Wars, but it's still amazingly cool that we have a chance to see, for real, what they'd see.

Engage hyperdrive!


Wednesday, April 27, 2022

A sun with no size

When I was in college, the original series Cosmos, hosted by Cornell University astrophysicist Carl Sagan, aired for the first time.

I was absolutely captivated.  I'd been an astronomy buff since middle school.  I was given my own telescope as a birthday present when I was thirteen, and spent many a happy evening in my parents' front yard trying to find the cool-looking astronomical objects I found on the star maps I collected obsessively.  (This is when I first fell in love with the Pleiades -- still my favorite naked-eye star group -- and when I found out that these were recently-created stars, almost fifty times younger than the Sun, I thought that was so cool.  It wasn't until I took an astronomy course in college that I learned how astronomers knew this.)

But when Cosmos came on, it took my interest to a whole new level.  For the time, the special effects and animations were stunning.  The soundtrack was nothing short of brilliant (in fact, it was my first introduction to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, who has been one of my top three favorite composers ever since).  Sagan's writing and delivery were captivating; like many people who've seen it, if you read quotes from the scripts, you'll hear them in Sagan's unmistakable voice.  I'm not the only one who responded this way; the wildly talented rapper Greydon Square's song "Galaxy Rise" from his album The Mandelbrot Set is a tribute to Sagan and American physicist Michio Kaku.  Square himself majored in physics in college and includes concepts from science in a great many of his songs.

There were a couple of moments, though, that stand out in my memory as being jaw-dropping.  One was the breathtaking animation of colliding galaxies -- all generated from then cutting-edge computer models -- in episode ten, "The Edge of Forever."  But one passage from episode nine, "The Lives of the Stars," impressed me so much that now, forty-two years later, I can very nearly quote it from memory:

There are three ways that stars die.  Their fates are predestined; everything depends on their initial mass.  A typical star with a mass like the Sun will one day continue its collapse until its density becomes very high, and then the contraction is stopped by the mutual repulsion of the overcrowded electrons in its interior.  A collapsing star twice as massive as the Sun isn't stopped by the electron pressure.  It goes on falling in on itself until nuclear forces come into play, and they hold up the weight of the star.  But a collapsing star three times as massive as the sun isn't stopped even by nuclear forces.  There's no force known that can withstand this enormous compression.  And such a star has an astonishing destiny: it continues to collapse until it vanishes utterly.

Each star is described by the force that holds it up against gravity.  A star that's supported by its gas pressure is a normal, run-of-the-mill star like the Sun.  A collapsed star that's held up by electron forces is called a white dwarf.  It's a sun shrunk to the size of the Earth.  A collapsed star supported by nuclear forces is called a neutron star.  It's a sun shrunk to the size of a city. And a star so massive that in its final collapse it disappears altogether is called a black hole.

It's a sun with no size at all.

I can't imagine hearing the last line and not being a little goggle-eyed.

Since Sagan's time, we've learned a great deal more, but by and large, his series still holds up pretty well.  In fact, three years ago astronomers captured the first-ever photograph of a black hole (visible because of the x-ray emission of matter spiraling down toward its event horizon).  And just last week a paper appeared in Physical Review Letters about an event of cataclysmic proportions -- the collision of two black holes.

The collision was detected because of gravitational waves -- ripples in the fabric of spacetime that propagate outward from accelerating masses at the speed of light.  Most gravitational waves are tiny, so it takes huge masses moving really fast to detect them here on Earth; but these were so enormous that they were picked up by two separate detectors (LIGO and Virgo) from 1.2 billion light years away.  Here's artist Aurore Simonnet's conception of what this would have looked like from (much) closer:

It's hard to describe this event without lapsing into superlatives.  One of the most amazing things about it is that apparently, there was an asymmetry in the production of gravitational waves, and that gave a kick to the (larger) black hole produced once they coalesced, because of Newton's Third Law.

Well, "kick" doesn't begin to describe it.  The recoil from this particular gun left the bullet traveling at 0.5% of the speed of light -- about 1,500 kilometers per second.  Imagine the force it would require to propel a mass that large at that speed.  (Remember that Sagan said black holes only form from stars with a minimum mass of three times that of the Sun.  Minimum.  And this was two of them put together.)

So that's our mind-blowing news from astronomy for today.  Even though I have (on some level) known about this stuff for more than four decades, I still can't help being left in awe by the grandeur and beauty of the universe we live in, and by what we continue to add to our body of knowledge about how it works.

I think Carl Sagan would be delighted.


Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The stubbornly persistent illusion

I was driving through Ithaca, New York a while back, and came to a stoplight, and the car in front of me had a bumper sticker that said, "Time is that without which everything would happen at once."

I laughed, but I kept thinking about it, because in one sentence it highlights one of the most persistent mysteries of physics: why we perceive a flow of time.  The problem is, just about all of the laws of physics, from quantum mechanics to the General Theory of Relativity, are time-reversible; they work equally well in forward as in reverse.  Put another way, most physical processes look the same both ways.  If I were to show you a short video clip of two billiard balls colliding on a pool table, then the same clip backwards, it would be hard to tell which was which.  The Laws of Conservation of Momentum and Conservation of Energy that describe the results of the collision work in either direction.

There are exceptions, though.  The Second Law of Thermodynamics is the most commonly-cited one: closed systems always increase in entropy.  It's why when I put sugar in my coffee in the morning and stir it, the sugar spreads through the whole cup.  If I were to give it one more stir and all the sugar molecules were to come back together as crystals and settle out on the bottom, I'd be mighty surprised.  I might even wonder if someone had spiked the sugar bowl with something other than sugar.

In fact, that's why I had to specify a "short clip" in the billiard ball example.  There is a time-irreversible aspect of such classical physics; as the balls roll across the table, they lose momentum, because a little of the kinetic energy of their motion leaks away as thermal energy due to friction with the surface.  When they collide, a little more is lost because of the sound of the balls striking each other, the (slight) physical deformation they undergo, and so on.  So if you had a sensitive enough camera, or a long enough clip, you could tell which was the forward and which the reverse clip, because the sum of the kinetic energies of the balls in the forward clip would be (slightly) greater before the collision than after it.

But I am hard-pressed to see why that creates a sense of the flow of time.  It can't be solely from our awareness of a movement toward disorder.  When there's an energy input, you can generate a decrease in entropy; it's what happens when a single-celled zygote develops into a complex embryo, for example.  There's nothing in the Second Law that prevents increasing complexity in an open system.  But we don't see those situations as somehow running in reverse; entropy increase by itself doesn't generate anything more than expected set of behaviors of certain systems.  How that could affect how time is perceived by our brains is beyond me.

The problem of time's arrow is one of long standing.  Einstein himself recognized the seeming paradox; he wrote, "The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."  "Persistent" is an apt word; more than sixty years after the great man's death, there was an entire conference on the nature of time, which resolved very little but giving dozens of physicists the chance to defend their own views, and in the end convinced no one.

It was, you might say, a waste of time.  Whatever that means.

One of the most bizarre ideas about the nature of time is the one that comes out of the Special Theory of Relativity, and was the reason Einstein made the comment he did: the block universe.  I first ran into the block universe model not from Einstein but from physicist Brian Greene's phenomenal four-part documentary The Fabric of the Cosmos, and it goes something like this.  (I will append my usual caveat that despite my bachelor's degree in physics, I really am a layperson, and if any physicists read this and pick up any mistakes, I would very much appreciate it if they'd let me know so I can correct them.)

One of the most mind-bending things about the Special Theory is that it does away with simultaneity being a fixed, absolute, universal phenomenon.  If we observe two events happening at exactly the same time, our automatic assumption is that anyone else, anywhere in the universe, would also observe them as simultaneous.  Why would we not?  But the Special Theory shows conclusively that your perception of the order of events is dependent upon your frame of reference.  If two individuals are in different reference frames (i.e. moving at different velocities), and one sees the two events as simultaneous, the other will see them as sequential.  (The effect is tiny unless the difference in velocities is very large; that's why we don't experience this under ordinary circumstances.)

This means that past, present, and future depend on what frame of reference you're in.  Something that is in the future for me might be in the past for you.  This can be conceptualized by looking at space-time as being shaped like a loaf of bread; the long axis is time, the other two represent space.  (We've lost a dimension, but the analogy still works.)  The angle you are allowed to slice into the loaf is determined by your velocity; if you and two friends are moving at different velocities, your slice and theirs are cut at different angles.  Here's a picture of what happens -- to make it even more visualizable, all three spatial dimensions are reduced to one (the x axis) and the slice of time perceived moves along the other (the y axis).  A, B, and C are three events, and the question is -- what order do they occur in?

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons User:Acdx, Relativity of Simultaneity Animation, CC BY-SA 4.0]

As you can see, it depends.  If you are taking your own velocity as zero, all three seem to be simultaneous.  But change the velocity -- the velocities are shown at the bottom of the graph -- and the situation changes.  To an observer moving at a speed of thirty percent of the speed of light relative to you, the order is C -> B -> A.  At a speed of fifty percent of the speed of light in the other direction, the order is A -> B -> C.

So the tempting question -- who is right? what order did the events really occur in? -- is meaningless.

Probably unnecessarily, I'll add that this isn't just wild speculation.  The Special Theory of Relativity has been tested hundreds, probably thousands, of times, and has passed every test to a precision of as many decimal places as you want to calculate.  (A friend of mine says that the papers written about these continuing experiments should contain only one sentence: "Yay!  Einstein wins again!")  Not only has this been confirmed in the lab, the predictions of the Special Theory have a critical real-world application -- without the equations that lead directly to the block universe and the relativity of simultaneity, our GPS systems wouldn't work.  If you want accurate GPS, you have to accept that the universe has some seriously weird features.

So the fact that we remember the past and don't remember the future is still unexplained.  From the standpoint of physics, it seems like past, present, and future are all already there, fixed, trapped in the block like flies in amber.  Our sense of time flowing, however familiar, is the real mystery.

But I'd better wrap this up, because I'm running out of time.

Whatever that means.


Monday, April 25, 2022

The conspiracy theory that won't die

A while ago, a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia said, "You haven't written about my favorite conspiracy theory -- Majestic 12."  There was a brief moment in which I wondered whether "Majestic 12" might be some kind of sequel to Ocean's Eleven, but then I realized that they've already done that (they're up to what, now, Ocean's Seventeen, or something?), so it had to be something else.

It turns out that Majestic 12 is a code name, which makes it cool right from the get-go.  The story is that during the presidency of Harry Truman, a secret committee of scientists, military leaders, and government officials was formed in order to investigate the Roswell incident and to keep tabs on the aliens.  Since that time, thousands of pages' worth of documents have been "leaked" from this alleged committee, most of them dealing with covert operations by the CIA, and giving highly oblique references to UFO sightings.  A few of the documents have hinted at darker doings -- alliances with evil aliens, and a secret intent to use technology of extraterrestrial provenance to further our military goals and monitor our enemies.

The original members of Majestic 12 were allegedly the following prominent individuals:
Roscoe Hillenkoetter (first director of the CIA)
Vannevar Bush (president of the Carnegie Institute, amongst many other titles)
James Forrestal (Secretary of the Navy)
Nathan Twining (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
Hoyt Vandenberg (Air Force Chief of Staff)
Robert Montague (Commander of Fort Bliss)
Jerome Hunsaker (aeronautics engineer at MIT)
Sidney Souers (first executive secretary of the National Security Council)
Gordon Gray (Secretary of the Army)
Donald Menzel (astronomer at Harvard)
Detlev Bronk (chair of the National Academy of Sciences)
Lloyd Berkner (prominent physicist)
And because no good conspiracy would be complete without throwing around a few well-known names, the Majestic 12 were supposedly advised by Edward Teller, Robert Oppenheimer, Wehrner von Braun, Albert Einstein, and Cigarette-Smoking Man.

Oh, wait, the last one was fictional.  Silly me.  The problem is, so are the documents.  The FBI has done a thorough investigation of the various Majestic 12 files, and declared them "completely bogus."  Of course, they would say that, claim the conspiracy theorists; the government's response is always "deny, deny, deny."  However, there have been independent studies done, by reasonably objective and disinterested parties (for example, Philip J. Klass, noted UFO skeptic and debunker), and virtually all of them think that the whole thing is a hoax -- probably perpetrated by Stanton Friedman, William Moore, and Jaime Shandera, three UFOlogists who were more-or-less obsessed with the Roswell Incident.  In fact, Moore and Shandera were actually the recipients of some of the Majestic 12 documents -- sent to them by an "anonymous source high up in the government."

How did the skeptics come to the conclusion that the whole thing was a hoax?  One of the main pieces of evidence was the simple, pragmatic matter of how the documents were typed.  In many cases, it's possible to date a document simply by looking at the font, spacing, and ink -- these changed with fair regularity, and even a discrepancy of a couple of years can be enough to prove a document to be fake.  In the case of a number of the Majestic 12 documents, there were font changes and space-justification that were impossible in the late 1940s and 1950s -- the first typewriter capable of this was invented in 1961.

An amusing sidebar: when Philip Klass was investigating the Majestic 12 claim, he offered $1000 to anyone who could produce government documents that had typefaces matching the ones found in the Majestic 12 papers.  Who popped up to claim the prize?  None other than Stanton Friedman, prime suspect as the chief engineer of the hoax.  As skeptic Brian Dunning wrote, "Don't take the bait if you don't want to be hooked."

One of the frustrations with debunking conspiracy theories, though, is that once someone believes that a conspiracy exists, there always is a way to argue away the evidence.  One of the most popular ones is argument from ignorance -- we don't know what the government was doing back then, so they could have been doing anything.  As for the typewriters -- oh, sure, the first typewriter capable of justification (the IBM 72) was released to the public in 1961, but maybe the Big Secret Government Circles had access to it fourteen years earlier.  Who knows?  (And by "who knows?", of course what they mean is "we do.")

The problem with the argument from ignorance is that you can't create a logical case for something based on what you don't know about it.  It's like what astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said about UFOs:  "Remember what the 'U' in 'UFO' stands for.  People say, 'I saw a bright light in the sky, I don't know what it was.... so therefore it must be a spaceship from another planet.'  Well, if you don't know what it was, that's where the discussion should stop.  You don't then go on to say it 'must be' anything."

And as far as my aforementioned "objective and disinterested" investigators -- in the conspiracy theorists' minds, there is no such thing as an objectivity.  Anyone who argues against the theory at hand is either a dupe, or else a de facto member of the conspiracy.  Between this and the argument from ignorance, there is no way to win.

And that's why Majestic 12 has turned into the conspiracy theory that won't die.

But wait, you may be saying; what if the government was engaged in top-secret nasty stuff?  Even if you accused them, the government would certainly deny their involvement and claim it was a hoax.  Well, first, I'm sure that the government is, in fact, engaged in top-secret nasty stuff.  I just don't think this is it.  We fall back on Ockham's Razor yet again -- what is the simplest explanation that adequately accounts for all of the known facts?  

And second, if there is some diabolical stuff happening, and it was top-secret, you wouldn't know about it.

Because that's what top-secret means.

So, anyway, I think we can safely say that the Majestic 12 papers are fakes.  Which is, no doubt, exactly what Cigarette-Smoking Man wants us to think, and will make him smile in that creepy way of his, and walk off into the night until the next episode.


Saturday, April 23, 2022

Gaze anchoring

A friend of mine has been suffering from benign paroxysmal positional vertigo.  It sounds worse than it is; the "benign" part is important.  It rarely ever leads to complications, usually goes away untreated, and the biggest danger from it is losing your balance and falling.

The symptoms, however, are no fun.  Without warning, the room seems to spin, and she loses all sense of which direction is up.  The dizziness usually is gone in under a half-hour, but while it's happening it's profoundly disorienting.  The most curious symptom -- and why I started with this today -- is that when she's in the middle of an episode, she loses hand/eye coordination.

"I reach for something," she told me, "and the place my hand goes is several inches to one side or the other of the object I'm reaching for.  It's like my vision and my brain become misaligned somehow."

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons, 3D still showing Vertigo, CC BY-SA 4.0]

I thought of her unpleasant plight when I ran across some new research out of New York University about how we focus our eyes on what we're reaching for.  In sighted people, this usually happens so quickly and fluidly that we're not even aware of what's happening.  It's only when something goes wrong -- as in my friend's BPPV -- that we notice how important that ability is, and how hard it is to make it work when some piece of the system has gone awry.

Both our ability to focus on an object, and our ability to do depth perception, have a lot to do with triangulation.  People with reasonably good sight in both eyes figure out where a nearby object is by sight-lining.  Picture a straight line coming out of the pupil of each eye and aiming toward the object you're looking at.  The brain determines that the place where those two lines cross is where the object is, and that initiates a series of coordinated muscle contractions if we're then going to reach toward it.  (To see how your eye muscles do this, raise one finger at arm's length, and then gradually bring the finger toward your face while staying focused on it.  Your eyes will progressively turn inward, at least until they reach the limit of their ability to do so, at which point the image of the finger becomes blurry.)

When this system is confounded, the results are weird.  Remember those "3-D" drawings that were so popular a while back?  They relied on your eyes becoming unfocused (i.e., not triangulating toward a point on the surface of the drawing), and the lines and colors shift as your brain tries to make sense of what it's seeing.  If you concentrate on looking past the page, at one point the patterns on the drawing merge in such a way that an apparently three-dimensional image pops out.  Go back to triangulating on the drawing itself, and the illusion vanishes.

The recent research, conducted by neurologists Bijan Pesaran and Maureen Hagan, found that our ability to focus, as simple as it seems, is the result of a tightly-orchestrated and complex sequence of events in the brain.  There is an inhibitory effect on the parietal saccade region of the brain, with the effect of suppressing the little, jittery eye movements called saccades that we have going at other times.  This allows for gaze anchoring, the "locked on target" phenomenon, where our perception of the object remains stable.  During that time, the relevant brain regions are producing beta waves (waves of neural firing at between fifteen and twenty-five Hertz) for as long as our gaze is locked.  At that point, the motor cortex and cerebellum interact to initiate muscle movements in the arm, allowing for reaching toward the target object with accuracy.  Even a small movement of the eyes during the gaze-anchoring period causes us to lose that accuracy -- just as it did this morning when I was putting coffee into the grinder this morning, got momentarily distracted by my dog, and dumped half the beans onto the counter.

And, of course, this explains my friend's peculiar symptoms.  If your sense of balance is disturbed, as in BPPV, you lose the ability to keep your eyes locked on target, and your brain starts to misinterpret what you're seeing.  So when your arm is launched toward the object, your aim is off.

I find it endlessly amazing how much complex coordination in the brain is necessary to accomplish tasks that, under normal conditions, we take so much for granted we're not even aware of them.  The more I learn about this, the more thankful I am that most of the time, these systems work pretty well.  All it takes is a small disturbance to throw you off completely -- making an activity you used to do fluidly and automatically damn near impossible.


Friday, April 22, 2022

A quest for the Grail

In his brilliant, labyrinthine novel Foucault's Pendulum, about the conspiracy theory to end all conspiracy theories, Umberto Eco's character Jacopo Belbo is explaining to the main character (Casaubon) the difference between cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics, and explains the last-mentioned as follows:
A lunatic is easily recognized.  He is a moron who doesn't know the ropes.  The moron proves his thesis; he has a logic, however twisted it may be.  The lunatic, on the other hand, doesn't concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits.  For him, everything proves everything else.  The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy.  You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.
I couldn't help but be reminded of this passage when I stumbled across an article in The Birmingham Mail about one David Adkins, a historian (I wasn't able to find out what his credentials are, but the article calls him that, so I'll go with it), who claims that the Shroud of Turin was actually a fourteenth-century tablecloth manufactured in Burton-upon-Trent, in Staffordshire, England.

So far, I sort of went, "Meh."  Back in 2018, scientists did a radiocarbon analysis on the linen cloth and found it dated from some time between 1260 and 1390 C. E., so whatever the Shroud is, it is conclusively not the burial cloth of Jesus.  And I guess it could as well have been manufactured in Staffordshire as anywhere else.

But Adkins wasn't content to walk well-trodden ground and just stop there.  No, he says, the image on the cloth isn't an imprint of the body of Jesus.  That would be silly.

The image is an imprint of the Fisher King.

Those of you who are into the Arthurian legends will undoubtedly know that the Fisher King is supposed to be the last in a long bloodline of custodians of the Holy Grail.  He was named "Anfortas" in Chrétien de Troyes's tale Perceval, written in about 1180, and was a nobly-descended king who had been wounded in the leg or genitals (or both) and left unable to do anything but sit in a boat outside his castle and fish in the river.  He was waiting for someone to heal him, and this was eventually accomplished by (depending on what version you read) either Percival or Galahad.

To be fair to Adkins, he's not claiming that it's an imprint of the body of the actual Fisher King (who, after all, was fictional); he says the Shroud was a linen tablecloth that had been used to wrap around an alabaster carving of the Fisher King, and stored in a cellar, where "the alabaster had reacted with chemicals in the mustiness of the cellar" and created the image.  The bloodstains, he says, were added later by monks to make it look like Jesus's burial shroud.  Conveniently for Adkins, the statue doesn't exist, or at least doesn't any more; he says that when the monks happened upon the idea of creating a fake burial shroud, they destroyed the statue so no one would notice the similarity.

As far as I can tell, his only support for this theory is that the Shroud contains alabaster dust.  "The presence of gypsum in the shroud confirms, in my mind, that the cloth was indeed originally used to wrap up a statue of the Fisher King in Burton-upon-Trent where the minerals alabaster - and particularly gypsum - originate," Adkins says.  "This can be the only explanation for finding it on a shroud."

Always perk your ears up when someone says "this can be the only explanation."  Here, there's another obvious explanation; that lots of Italian churches have marble and alabaster statuary, and the Shroud has been housed in Italian churches at least since the fifteenth century.  Burton-upon-Trent is far from the only place in the world to produce and/or use alabaster.

My curiosity was piqued, however, and I started digging into other claims Adkins had made.  He seems fixated on Burton-upon-Trent for some reason, and I found that he says there are other valuable archaeological finds to be made there.  In particular, he's interested in Sinai Park House, on the grounds of the ruins of Burton Abbey, which -- and apparently geologists have confirmed this is true -- sits on top of labyrinth of natural caverns and tunnels in the limestone bedrock.  These caverns, Adkins says, would be a great place to hide treasure, so down there somewhere are the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, which were secretly brought to the site and hidden there by...

... wait for it...

... the Templars.

And you thought the final resting place of the Holy Grail was the Castle Aaaaaaaarghhh.  A lot you know.

Specifically, Adkins says the Grail and the Ark were brought to Burton-upon-Trent by Hugues de Payens (1070-1136), founder of the Knights Templar.  The problem with this assertion is there seems to be no particular connection between de Payens and Burton-upon-Trent; de Payens (who was French) did visit England and Scotland in 1128, but focused his attention on starting two Templar houses, one near London and the other in Midlothian, Scotland.

The connection between de Payens and Staffordshire, Adkins says, is via William Paget (1506-1563), a statesman who served under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I, amazingly enough outlived all three of them, and died of something besides losing his head.  Adkins claims Paget is a corruption of "de Payens," although they don't sound much alike even if you pronounce "Paget" the French way.  (Genealogists believe that the surname Paget was Norman, and was originally Pachet -- the name of the village in Normandy where they lived.  Certainly makes a lot more sense, linguistically, than it coming from de Payens.)  

In any case, Paget did purchase Burton Abbey in 1539 and then demolish it -- that part is accurate -- but Adkins says this is only explicable if you buy that Paget was looking for buried treasure.

There's that unfortunate word "only," again.  Paget's demolition of Burton Abbey couldn't, for example, be because Paget was working for Henry VIII at the time, and the purchase and destruction of the Abbey happened right in the middle of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, wherein King Henry decided that the Catholic abbots were entirely too Catholic, but mostly too wealthy, and proceeded to pull down most of the monasteries in England and annex the property to the crown.  No, that's just too far-fetched.

Must be Templars and the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant and so forth.

So you can see why I was reminded of the passage from Foucault's Pendulum.  What we have here is an elaborate conclusion about artifacts that are either fakes or simply don't exist, based upon the slimmest of evidential support (none at all, in the case of the Templar treasure underneath Burton Abbey).  I guess it falls into the "no harm if it amuses you" department, but he's got the current owner of Sinai Park House on board, and plans to explore the tunnels thoroughly.

I suppose something might turn up; tunnels are great places to hide things, even if they're not the Holy Grail.  So I wish them luck in their explorations.  And if he does stumble on the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, I'll be happy to eat my words.

But I'm not holding my breath.


Thursday, April 21, 2022

The floral death trap

One of the most interesting features of evolution is coevolution -- where two unrelated species influence each other's evolutionary pathway.

It's usually framed as benevolent, providing a benefit for both species, as in the whistling thorn (Vachellia drepandolobium) of East Africa, which makes hollow spheres at the base of the spines.  These provide a home for various species of symbiotic ants, which help out the tree by attacking and killing insect pests that might eat the leaves.  (It's called "whistling thorn" because the wind blowing across the holes in the spheres makes a whistling noise.)

There's also the less pleasant sort, the best-known of which is the evolutionary arms race -- such as the cheetah and the impala.  The fastest cheetahs catch and eat the slowest impalas, thus pushing both species to (on average) get faster.  (The general consensus, though, is that the cheetah might have topped out in terms of potential speed -- the combination of their powerful muscles and flexible spine and limbs would make them prone to dislocations and stress fractures if they were driven much harder.)

A relationship that's usually portrayed as entirely positive, though, is the one between flowering plants and their pollinators.  One of the earliest vindications of Darwin's theory of natural selection came with his conjecture that the Star of Bethlehem orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale) of Madagascar, which has a ridiculously long hollow spur at the back of the flower (with the nectar glands all the way at the tip), must have a pollinator with mouthparts that fit it:

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons sunoochi from Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan, Angraecum sesquipedale Thouars, Hist. Orchid. 66 (1822) (45523703575), CC BY 2.0]

Not long afterward, researchers discovered the Madagascar hawk moth (Xanthopan morganii praedictum), exactly as Darwin said they would:

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Nesnad, Xanthopan morganii praedicta Sep 16 2021 03-58PM, CC BY 4.0]

In fact, the coevolution between flowering plants and insects is so varied and complex that some evolutionary biologists claim it's responsible for the explosion in biodiversity in both groups that started during the early Cretaceous Period.  This, they say, is why flowering plants outnumber all other plant species by a considerable margin, and insect species outnumber all the rest of Earth's species put together.  (My own opinion is that it's probably not that simple -- evolutionary drivers seldom are.  But I won't deny that coevolution played a significant role.)

What's kind of interesting, in a grim sort of way, is when the coevolution between plants and their pollinators takes a darker turn.  One example, that is so crazily complicated that I had students tell me I was making the whole thing up, is the bucket orchid (Coryanthes spp.) of South America.  These bizarre-looking flowers have some upright petals, but the lower ones are fused into a "bucket" that fills with sweet-scented nectar.  The pistil (the female part of the flower) is submerged at the bottom.  One genus of bees (Euglossa spp.) is attracted to the scent, but upon landing on the edge of the bucket, finds no place to hang onto and falls in.  It swims around trying to find a way out, but the sides of the bucket are coated with a slick wax that provides no traction.  There's only one place it can get out -- at the back of the bucket is a ladder (I shit you not) made of hairs the bee can hang onto.  But when it gets to the top of the ladder, it finds itself head-first in a long tube with no place to turn around, so it wriggles its way to the end -- in the process gluing the anthers (the male pollen-bearing structures) to its back.  At the end of the tube is a hole (whew), and the bee flies away.  But then -- not having learned its lesson, apparently -- it finds another flower, falls in again, and this time the nectar acts as a solvent.  The anthers it was carrying come loose and settle to the bottom of the bucket (remember, that's where the pistil is), and pollinates the plant.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Orchi, Coryanthes hunteriana Orchi 01, CC BY-SA 3.0]

But at least here, it has a happy ending -- the bee escapes eventually.  There are, however, plants that kill their own pollinators -- in fact, that's the reason this whole topic comes up, because another one was just discovered recently.

The first one I ever heard about that pulls this nasty trick is a species of African water lily (Nymphaea capensis).  It's deceptively beautiful:

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Fan Wen, Nymphaea capensis (14) 1200, CC BY-SA 4.0]

The flowers open twice, on two successive days.  The first day, the pistils are inaccessible beneath a tight cone of stamens (the above photograph was taken on the first day).  Bees landing on the flower are doomed to disappointment, because the nectar is inside the cone, but in trying to get to it they coat themselves with pollen.  The flowers close at night, then when they open on the second day, the cone of stamens opens as well, exposing a tempting pool of nectar with (once again) the pistil at the bottom.  A bee, having just visited a first-day flower and come away with no food but lots of pollen, lands on the edge of the pool in the middle of a second-day flower, and falls in.  This time, though, there's no escape.  It drowns, and the pollen it's carrying settles to the bottom of the pool and fertilizes the flower -- thus ensuring the plant will cross-pollinate, not self-pollinate.

What brought this topic to mind was a paper I stumbled across yesterday in the journal Plants, People, Planet that describes the same sort of fatal deception, but using a different kind of lure.  A Japanese species of the genus Arisaema, which in the United States is best known for the spring wildflower we call Jack-in the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), that is common here in the northeast.  They have bizarre flowers -- a long, inverted cone with a flap on top (it's actually a spathe, a modified leaf), and in the middle a narrow cylinder (containing the actual flowers themselves, which are tiny).  If they're not weird enough from appearance alone, wait till you hear what some of the Japanese species do.

Arisaema angustatum (left) and Arisaema peninsulae (right), two of the tricksters described in the paper [Photograph by Kenji Suetsugu] 

These flowers are pollinated by fungus gnats -- familiar as annoyances to anyone who owns a greenhouse -- pinhead-sized flies that are attracted to moist soil.  Well, the plants don't just lure them by pretending to be a source of food.  The researcher, Kenji Suetsugu of Kobe University, realized something else was going on when he found that inside the cone-shaped spathe there were dozens of dead fungus gnats...

... all of them male.

Suetsugu started analyzing what chemicals the flowers were producing, and found that like the water lily, the Arisaema flowers change during the time they're open.  At first, only the male flowers are open, and fungus gnats that find their way in (presumably lured by the musty smell the plant has) climb about and pick up pollen.  But then the male flowers close and the female ones open -- and the strategy changes.

When the male flowers only are open, there's a little escape hatch at the base of the flower, so the gnats can get out after picking up pollen.  But when the female flowers open, the escape hatch closes.  And that's when the plants start producing a new chemical: an analog to the sexual attractant pheromone female fungus gnats produce to attract the males.

So the poor male gnats, hoping to get laid, find their way into the flower, but there's no way out because (again like the water lily) the interior of the cone is slippery.  They climb around on the female flowers, pollinating them, but eventually die from a combination of exhaustion and frustrated horniness.

If you thought that the relationship between flowers and pollinators was all mutual happiness, think again.  "Nature is red in tooth and claw," as Alfred, Lord Tennyson put it.  He was thinking of predators and prey, but it isn't restricted to the animal kingdom.  There are plants that reward their pollinators with an unpleasant demise -- showing that once again, evolution finds a way to exploit just about every possible innovation you can think of, nice or not.


Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Primordial soup dwellers

A paper in Nature last week blew my mind from several different perspectives.

Entitled, "Evidence for Early Life in Earth's Oldest Hydrothermal Vent Precipitates," it sounds at first like something that could only possibly interest paleontology and/or geology geeks.  But as soon as you start looking closely, you find that what this paper describes is groundbreaking.


The group, led by Matthew Dodd of University College London, thin-sliced rock excavated from a piece of the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt in Québec, one of the oldest intact rock formations on Earth.  And I do mean thin; the rock slices were, on average, 100 microns thick, or about the thickness of a sheet of printer paper.  And "old" is no exaggeration, either.  The rock is estimated at four billion years old, only three hundred million or so years after the crust solidified from molten magma.

The rock is an iron-rich sedimentary rock that formed at a hydrothermal vent -- a fissure on the deep ocean floor that is spitting out geothermally-heated, mineral-rich water.  We still have these around, mostly in places where the tectonic plates are moving apart, like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and even today they host a biome that is unlike any other on Earth.  There are species of shrimp, tube worm, sponges, and bacteria found nowhere else.  Not only that, they are one of only a handful of communities that is disconnected, energetically, from the Sun.  Everything else -- so, almost all life on Earth -- can trace the energy that makes it go back down the food chain and ultimately to a photosynthesizer (usually plants or phytoplankton), which are powered by sunlight.  The hydrothermal vent organisms, on the other hand, are powered by chemical reactions between the seawater and the hot stone of the upper mantle.

And when the scientists looked at the thin slices of the four-billion-year-old rock from Québec, they found...

... fossils.

The formation where the fossil-bearing rock was found [Photograph by Dominic Papineau]

The fossil traces are almost certainly from thermophilic bacteria, but form a colonial structure nearly a centimeter long.  It includes tubes, branching filaments, and spheres that are (the researchers claim) too complex to be explainable by inorganic chemical reactions.  This pushes the earliest life forms back by almost a third of a billion years earlier than the previous estimate, so we're not talking about a small shift, here.

"Using many different lines of evidence, our study strongly suggests a number of different types of bacteria existed on Earth between 3.75 and 4.28 billion years ago," said study co-author Dominic Papineau, in an interview with GeologyIn.  "This means life could have begun as little as 300 million years after Earth formed.  In geological terms, this is quick – about one spin of the Sun around the galaxy."

What this immediately brought to my mind is that it is increasingly looking as if the development of life is much faster and easier than anyone thought, and this bodes well for finding it elsewhere.  Probably lots of elsewheres, considering the billions of extrasolar planets there undoubtedly are in the Milky Way.  Perhaps, too, we might look closer to home; there may even be life in tectonically-active moons in our own Solar System such as Titan and Europa.

I'm not the only one who had this reaction.  "These findings have implications for the possibility of extraterrestrial life," Papineau added.  "If life is relatively quick to emerge, given the right conditions, this increases the chance that life exists on other planets."

Now, bear in mind that still is talking about microscopic life.  Even if the start of life turns out to be common on any sufficiently hospitable planet, that still leaves us with four variables in the Drake equation that are relatively poorly understood -- the fraction of life in the universe that becomes multicellular, the fraction of multicellular life that becomes intelligent/sentient, the fraction of intelligent life that advances in technology enough to send signals into space, and the average length of time such high-tech civilizations last.  So while the current study is encouraging to exobiology aficionados like myself, it may not have a lot of impact on our search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

But no matter how you slice it (*rimshot* again), the Nature paper is amazingly cool.  It's hard to believe that such a short time after the Earth's crust solidified, there were already tiny living things building homes in the oceans.  And it boggles the imagination to think about where else similar life forms might exist -- on some other planet, perhaps, circling one of the stars we see in the night sky.


Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The Lazarus flower

The adage goes, "Extinction is forever."

It's a sobering thought.  There's been talk of "de-extinction" -- using intact DNA from well-preserved fossils to resurrect, Jurassic-Park-style, extinct animals -- but so far, the research in that vein has been tentative and not particularly promising.  Plus, there are the inevitable ethical questions about bringing back woolly mammoths, passenger pigeons, and dodos into a world where their environment has changed into something they couldn't survive in anyway.  It seems like recreating a few individuals of an extinct species, then having them live out their lives in zoos, is nothing more than generating a handful of entertaining curiosities at a very great cost.

There are, however, a few species that have been declared extinct which have turned out not to be.  The most famous of these is the coelacanth, a weird-looking fish that's one of the lobe-finned fish, the fish group with the closest relationship to amphibians.  It was thought that all the lobe-fins had become extinct along with the non-avian dinosaurs during the Cretaceous Extinction 66 million years ago, but then someone caught one in the Indian Ocean.  There are, in fact, two living species of coelacanth -- the West Indian Ocean coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) and the Indonesian coelacanth (Latimeria menadoensis).  This long-term survival of a species that was thought to be long gone has resulted in the coelacanth being labeled a "living fossil" or a "Lazarus taxon."

There are also the ones that have been declared extinct, but that a handful of true believers -- and sometimes some scientists, as well -- are convinced are still alive.  The last thylacine, or Tasmanian wolf (Thylacinus cynocephalus), which is neither a wolf nor restricted to Tasmania, died in a zoo in 1936 -- except there continue to be sightings of purported thylacines, both in Tasmania and adjacent South Australia.  In fact, there's a Facebook group devoted to alleged thylacine sightings, which so far, have either been anecdotal, or accompanied by photos of Bigfoot-level blurriness.

Then there's the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campophilus principalis), an enormous woodpecker species that used to live in swampy regions of the North American southeast.  The last confirmed sighting was in Louisiana in 1944, but there have been sporadic reports ever since -- most, probably, of the related (but smaller) pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus).  But a friend of mine, an employee of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, was part of the team sent to investigate a cluster of alleged sightings, and she was one of the people who say they actually saw one.  Now, let me add that my friend is an accomplished and knowledgeable birder, and knew what she was looking for; she, and the other members of the team, would not mistake a pileated woodpecker for this bird.  Unfortunately, the only video they got was short and of poor quality, and although she and the rest of the team have serious credibility, it still amounts to a single anecdotal report, and a lot of folks are not convinced.

All of this is just by way of introducing a discovery that should give some hope to the thylacine and ivory-billed woodpecker aficionados.  Just last week, a paper in the journal PhytoKeys described the (re)discovery of a plant in the family Gesneriaceaea tropical group most familiar to collectors of rare houseplants -- the best-known members are the African violet (Saintpaulia spp.),  Cape primrose (Streptocarpus spp.), and gloxinia (Gloxinia spp.).

The recent discovery was in the Centinela region of southern Ecuador, in the foothills of the Andes Mountains.  Centinela has been devastated by deforestation -- by some estimates, 97% of the original old-growth rain forest has been cleared or extensively damaged -- so it's to be expected that any species endemic to the region are gone.  That's what the botanists thought about a glossy-leaved, orange-flowered plant that grew in the humid understory; it was last seen in the 1980s.  By the time it was discovered and catalogued, it was gone.

That's why they named it Gasteranthus extinctus.

And then, a couple of months ago, some botanists studying what's left of Centinela found that it wasn't extinct after all.  Here's the plant:

[Photograph by Riley Fortier]

They took lots of photographs but were careful not to disturb the few remaining plants -- nor are they telling exactly where they found them.  This same strategy was adopted by the folks from Cornell looking for the ivory-billed woodpecker; the last thing they needed was a bunch of overenthusiastic amateurs stomping about the place (and you know they would).  But it is a hopeful thought, that some of the species we thought were gone forever might still be out there somewhere.  (For what it's worth, they're keeping the name Gasteranthus extinctus, and hoping that it doesn't one day become accurate in fact.)

"Rediscovering this flower shows that it’s not too late to turn around even the worst-case biodiversity scenarios, and it shows that there’s value in conserving even the smallest, most degraded areas," said Dawson White, a postdoctoral researcher at the Field Museum in Chicago, who was the paper's lead author.  "New species are still being found, and we can still save many things that are on the brink of extinction."

So that's today's optimistic news.  Me, I'm still hoping for the thylacine.  Those things were cool.  While thus far the evidence thus far has been less than convincing, it's certainly still a possibility that it -- and some of the other species most folks have given up on -- are still alive after all.


Monday, April 18, 2022

Sending pucks to Bolivia

Over the last few days I've been reading physicist Sean Carroll's wonderful book Something Deeply Hidden, which is about quantum physics, and although a lot of it (so far) is at least familiar to me in passing, he has a way of explaining things that is both direct and simultaneously completely mind-blowing.

I'm thinking especially of the bit I read last night, about the fact that even the physicists are unsure what quantum mechanics is really describing.  It's not that it doesn't work; the model has been tested every different way you can think of (and probably ones neither one of us would have thought of), and it's passed every test, often to levels of precision other realms of physics can only dream of.  The equations work; there's no doubt about that.  But what is it, exactly, that they're describing?

Here's the analogy he uses.  Suppose there was some physicist who was able to program a computer with all of Newton's laws of motion and the other equations of macroscopic physics that have been developed since Newton's time.  So if you wanted to know anything about the position, velocity, momentum, or energy of an object, all you have to do is input the starting conditions, and the computer will spit out the final state after any given amount of time elapsed.

A simple example: a cannon fires a cannonball with an initial velocity of 150 m/s at an incline of 45 degrees.  The (constant) acceleration due to gravity is -9.8 m/s^2 (the negative sign is because the acceleration vector points downward).  Ignoring air resistance, what is the highest point in its trajectory?

And the computer spits out 574.4 meters.

Now, anyone who took high school physics could figure this out with a few calculations.  But the point Carroll makes is this: could someone input numbers like that into the software, and get an output number, without having any clue what the model is actually doing?

The answer, of course, is yes.  You might even know what the different variables mean, and know that your answer is "maximum height of the cannonball," and that when you check, the answer is right.  But as far as knowing why it works, or even what's happening in the system that makes it work, you wouldn't have any idea.

That's the situation we're in with quantum physics.

And of course, quantum physics is a hell of a lot less intuitive than Newtonian mechanics.  I think the piece if it that always boggles me the most is the probabilistic nature of matter and energy on the submicroscopic level.  

Let me give you an example, analogous to the cannonball problem.  Given a certain set of conditions, what is the position of an electron?

The answer -- which, to reiterate, has been confirmed experimentally countless times -- is that prior to observation, the electron kind of isn't anywhere in particular.  Or it's kind everywhere at once, which amounts to the same thing.  Electrons -- and all other forms of matter and energy -- are actually fields of probabilities.  You can calculate those probabilities to as many decimal places as you like, and it gives phenomenally accurate predictions.  (In fact, the equations describing those probabilities have a load of real-world applications, including semiconductors, microchips, and lasers.)  But even so, there's no doubt that it's weird.  Let's say you repeatedly measure electron positions hundreds or thousands of times, and plot those points on a graph.  The results conform perfectly to Schrödinger's wave equation, the founding principle of quantum physics.  But each individual measurement is completely uncertain.  Prior to measurement, the electron really is just a smeared-out field of probabilities; after measurement, it's localized to one specific place.

Now, let me point out something that this isn't saying.  Quantum physics is not claiming that the electron actually is in a specific location, and we simply don't have enough information to know where.  This is not an issue of ignorance.  This was shown without any question by the famous double-slit experiment, where photons are shot through a pair of closely-spaced slits, and what you see at the detector on the other side is an interference pattern, as if the photons are acting like waves -- basically, going through both slits at the same time.  You can even shoot one photon at a time through the slits, and the detector (once again after many photons are launched through), still shows an interference pattern.  Now, change one thing: add another detector at each slit, so you know for sure which slit each photon went through.  When you do that, the interference pattern disappears.  The photons, apparently, aren't little packets of energy; they're spread-out fields of probabilities, and when they're moving they take all possible paths to get from point A to point B simultaneously.  If you don't observe its path, what you measure is the sum of all the possible paths the photon could have taken; only if you observe which slit it went through do you force it to take a single path.

It's as if when Wayne Gretzky winds up for a slap shot, the puck travels from his stick to the net taking every possible path, including getting there via Bolivia, unless you're following it with a high-speed camera -- if you do that, the puck only takes a single path.

If you're saying, "what the hell?" -- well, so do we all.  The most common interpretation of this -- called the Copenhagen interpretation, after the place it was dreamed up -- is that observing the electron "collapses the wave function," meaning that it forces the electron to condense into a single place described by a single path.  But this opens up all sorts of troublesome questions.  Why does observation have that effect?  What counts as an observer?  Does it have to be a sentient being?  If a photon lands on the retina of a cat, does its wave function collapse?  What if the photon is absorbed by a rock?  Most importantly -- what is actually happening that makes the wave function collapse in the first place?

To add to the mystery, there's also the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which states that for certain pairs of variables -- most famously, position and velocity -- you can't know both of them to high precision at the same time.  The more you know about a particle's position, the less you can know even theoretically about its velocity.  Or, more accurately, if you pinpoint a particle's position, its velocity can only be described as a wide field of probabilities.  And vice versa.

I think the passage in Carroll's book that made me the most astonished was the following summation of all this:

Classical [Newtonian] mechanics offers a clear and unambiguous relationship between what we see and what the theory describes.  Quantum mechanics, for all its successes, offers no such thing.  The enigma at the heart of quantum reality can be summed up in a simple motto: what we see when we look at the world seems to be fundamentally different from what actually is.

So.  Yeah.  You can see why I was kind of wide-eyed, and I'm not even a quarter of the way through the book yet.  

Anyhow, maybe we should lighten things up by ending with my favorite joke.

Schrödinger and Heisenberg are out for a drive, with Heisenberg at the wheel.  After a while, they get pulled over by a cop.

The cop says to Heisenberg, "Do you have any idea how fast you were going?"

Heisenberg replies, "No, but I know exactly where I am."

The cop says, "You were going 85 miles an hour!"

Heisenberg throws his hands up and the air and says, "Great!  Now I'm lost!"

The cop by this time is getting pissed off, and says, "Fine, if you're going to be a smartass, I'm gonna search your car."  So he opens the trunk, and in the trunk is a dead cat.

The cop says, "Did you know there's a dead cat in your trunk?"

Schrödinger says, "Well, there is now."

Thanks.  You've been a great audience.  I'll be here all week.