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

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

A coin out of chaos

Allegedly there is a traditional Chinese curse that goes, "May you live in interesting times."

It's certainly true that the periods in history that are the most engaging to read about are often the ones no one in their right mind would want to experience first-hand.  For myself, I've always had a near-obsession with the western European "Dark Ages" -- between the collapse of Roman rule in Britain at the end of the fourth century C. E. and the consolidation of Frankish rule under Charlemagne in the middle of the eighth.  Part of the reason for my fascination is that so little is known for certain about it.  When people are fighting like hell just to stay alive, not too many of them are going to prioritize writing books about the experience, or (honestly) even bothering to learn how to read and write.  Add to that the fact that during the turmoil, a great many of the books that had been written beforehand were destroyed, and it all adds up to a great big question mark.

I riffed on this idea in my recently-completed (not yet published) novel The Scattering Winds, in which a similar crisis in the modern world propels us into a new Dark Age -- and five hundred years later, when the surviving remnants of humanity have reverted to a non-literate agrarian culture, one man discovers what's left of a modern library that has somehow survived all the intervening chaos.

The effects such a discovery would have on a people was fascinating for someone like me -- a linguist and (very) amateur historian -- to explore.  But to find out what happened, you'll need to wait till it's in print!

Anyhow, back to reality.  Only a hundred years earlier than the onset of the canonical European Dark Ages, the Roman Empire went through its own Interesting Times -- the "Crisis of the Third Century."  Things had been moving along rather nicely for the Romans (if not for all of the various people they conquered), but then a series of short-lived and completely incompetent emperors led to a period of about seventy years of utter chaos. 

The spiral began with the emperor Elagabalus, who was only fourteen when he succeeded to the throne.  Historians haven't been kind to the young man, largely because he was (1) a raging egotist, (2) completely uninterested in running the government, and (3) gay.  Elagabalus seemed to look upon his position as being not much more than a golden opportunity to find large numbers of hot-looking young men to have sex with, and it's unsurprising that his reign didn't last long.  Just under four years after he was crowned, he was assassinated by the members of his own Praetorian Guard, and was succeeded by his cousin, Severus Alexander.

Severus Alexander was only thirteen when he was crowned (222 C.E.), but for a while, it seemed like things were going to be okay.  The "interesting times" started in earnest when Rome was invaded (for the umpteenth time) by Germanic tribes from the north and then from the Sassanid Empire from the east.  Severus Alexander did a pretty good job meeting both of these threats, but there were members of the Roman army who didn't like the fact that he used both diplomacy and bribery in his peace efforts -- and in the year 235, they murdered the emperor and put one of their own, a man named Maximus Thrax, on the throne in his place.

Maximus Thrax was the first of the "barracks emperors" -- men who had been declared emperor by some faction of the military, despite having neither the skills to rule nor the hereditary claim to gain support of the people.  238 C.E. was called "the Year of Six Emperors," during which six men rose to the high throne and were one after another defeated and killed within weeks to months.  The once-mighty Roman army became a fragmented mess, where different legions supported different claimants to the throne, and spent more time fighting each other than fighting the threats on the imperial borders.

Then, in mid-century, the Plague of Cyprian struck.  No one is completely certain what the disease was, but whatever the cause, it was bad.  Here's an account of the epidemic, by one Pontius of Carthage:

Afterwards there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house.  All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also.  There lay about the meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves.  No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains.  No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event.  No one did to another what he himself wished to experience.

There are no good estimates of the death toll, but what is certain is that for the Roman Empire, it made a very bad situation a great deal worse.  Fortunately, in around 270, there were a series of barracks emperors who at least were able to garner enough popular support (and to stay alive long enough) to fight back invasions from the Goths and the Vandals, and the whole miserable period finally ended when Diocletian was crowned in 284.  While he was no one's idea of a nice guy -- Diocletian's known as the leader of the last and bloodiest persecution of the Christians the Roman Empire perpetrated -- there's no doubt that his reform of the government and military was a brilliant success.  He also did something virtually unknown amongst crowned leaders; he ruled for twenty-one years then voluntarily abdicated, preferring to spend his final years gardening.

The reason all this comes up is that the chaos in Europe in the third century leaves historians having to piece together what happened from fragmentary records, and new discoveries can sometimes generate some surprises.  Like the gold coin discovered in 1713 in Transylvania, long considered a fake, that was just demonstrated to be genuine by microscopic analysis of the material it was embedded in.  And the image and inscription on that coin turned out to be of an emperor no one even knew about -- a man named Sponsian.

Sponsian seems to have been another of the barracks emperors, and ruled at least part of the Roman province of Dacia (now part of modern Romania) some time between 260 and perhaps 270.  Given that he's only known from a single coin, we don't know much about him -- the likelihood is that he met the same end as most of the other mid-third century claimants to the Roman throne.

All of which makes me wonder why any of these people wanted to be emperor during this period.  Did they really think, "Okay, the last fourteen guys have all been brutally murdered by howling mobs, but everyone is gonna love me!"?  Myself, I think I'd pre-empt Diocletian and take up gardening from the get-go.

Be that as it may, this new analysis of an old discovery is pretty cool -- and points out that even the Dark Ages may have left behind enough traces that we can piece together what happened.  Even if we never find an intact library, like in my novel, we can still know something about an era that until now has been largely a mystery.


Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The creation of Loab

Just yesterday I ran into a new internet phenomenon that had me literally shouting at my computer screen, "Will all you people just calm down for a moment?"

What started me yelling at inanimate objects was a story about -- I shit you not -- an "AI-generated demon that is now haunting the internet."  The claim is that an AI art generator -- a program that can produce art based upon various prompts -- had unexpectedly produced a horrifying image of a woman with sunken cheeks and decaying eyes, and that image somehow "became real" and is now showing up all over the place.

The first part is actually true.  A woman named Steph Swanson, of Uppsala, Sweden, who goes by the online handle "Supercomposite," was working with something called a "negative weight prompt."  A negative weight prompt is an AI command to create an image that is as different from the prompt as possible.  So when Swanson was messing around with this idea, she put in a negative weight prompt using "Marlon Brando" as the input.  The result looked like a business logo.

Which is, honestly, pretty different from a photograph of Marlon Brando.

When it got interesting was when she took the business logo image and used it as the input for a negative weight prompt.  In a completely logical world, what you'd expect to get is Marlon Brando.

What she got was this.

Now, up front, I must admit this image is creepy as fuck.  Swanson herself was pretty shocked, and tried it again -- and kept coming up with similar horrifying images.  One of them had some scrawled writing on it -- "LOAB" -- so the woman in the image started being referred to by that name.

Rationally, it's not all that weird that what came out wasn't a picture of Brando.  It's analogous to what happens with internet translators; they're notorious for failing this kind of input reversal test.  Two possibly apocryphal examples are pretty well known.  The first is when someone put "Out of sight, out of mind" into a translator, sent the output into a second translator to return it to English, and what came out was "invisible insanity."  Even funnier is when they used "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" and got back "the liquor is good but the meat is rotten."

What's going on here, though, is considerably more subtle than simple connotation misunderstandings in an online translator, and even people who understand AI programs (I am very definitely not one of those people) haven't really been able to explain why -(-(Marlon Brando)) gives you the hideous, corpse-like visage of Loab.

But if you know anything about urban legends, conspiracy theories, and so on, you will certainly be able to predict what happened next.

A bunch of people decided that Loab is an actual demon who was haunting the internet, and after Swanson accidentally activated her, she's been popping out in all sorts of unexpected places.  (Loab, not Swanson.)  There's already a mythos growing around her (once again, Loab, not Swanson), with some people eagerly trying to find ways to chat with her and others screeching that she's eeeeeee-villl and wants to destroy your eternal soul.  Some folks are saying Loab is an egregore -- a creature that went from imaginary to real because of the collective "thought energy" of the ones who believe in her, so all those folks messing around with AI generators of various kinds need to stop right now before they create something really really bad and destroy the whole universe.

That was the point when I started yelling at my computer.

I mean, really.  I know there are a lot of superstitious people out there, and magical thinking is still all too common, but haven't we progressed as a society past the point where any sane adult thinks stepping on a crack in the sidewalk really will break your mother's back?  Because that's all this is, with the added trappings of computers and AI.

I'm as curious as the next layperson as to why the algorithm brought up Loab's gruesome face; but I'd be willing to bet a significant amount of money that when the experts study this, they will not find out that it's because there's a real evil demon woman haunting our computers.

On the other hand, if the next time I open my laptop, my desktop background has been changed to an image of a hideous corpse-lady, I'll have to admit I was mistaken.

Assuming I don't scream like a little child and then have a stroke, which is honestly more likely.


Monday, November 28, 2022

Songs of the heart

When I think about what my favorite song lyrics are, they can generally be sorted into two categories:

1.  Heartwrenchingly poignant/sad


"No Bad Days" by Bastille
"39" by Queen
"I Will Follow You Into the Dark" by Death Cab for Cutie
"Dance in the Graveyards" by Delta Rae
"100 Years" by Five for Fighting

 2.  Relentlessly upbeat and cheerful


"I Was Born" by Hanson
"Try Everything" by Shakira
"Geronimo" by Sheppard
"Good to Be Alive" by Andy Grammer
"The Sound of Sunshine" by Michael Franti & Spearhead

I've often wondered what makes certain music captivate some people and not others.  For myself, I suspect the resonance these songs have for me is because my own mood can oscillate between the high peaks and the valleys pretty quickly, and -- especially when I'm down in the low points -- a good cry can help process some of those emotions.

To be fair, though, I'm one of those people who cries as easily at happy or touching moments as I do at sad ones.  It's why I'm a misery to sit next to in the movie theater, because while everyone else is smiling, I'm sitting there sobbing, choking out, "B...b...but it's just so beautiful!"

*brief pause to blow nose loudly*

My own mild neuroses notwithstanding, it's interesting to consider what triggers the surges of emotion most of us feel when we hear a song we really connect to.  And just last week, a study was published in the Journal of the International Association for Relationship Research that looked at this topic -- specifically, how the lyrics of favorite love songs reflected an individual's own approach to romantic relationships.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Kashirin Nickolai, Music listener, CC BY 2.0]

The first finding, which is perhaps unsurprising, is that people who are attachment-avoidant tend to like songs that describe an avoidant approach to relationships.  (You have to wonder if a favorite is Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats.")  Similarly, people with attachment anxiety are more attracted to songs that reflect their own insecurities about romance.

More interesting, though, were the overall trends in music over the past few decades.  From 1946 to 2015, the researchers found a steady increase in song lyrics reflecting social disengagement.  In the 1940s and 1950s the vast majority of lyrics that dealt with the topic of love were idealizations, happily-ever-after stories about Finding True Love And Never Letting Go.  Even the oddly popular subgenre Dave Barry calls "Teen Death Songs," while undeniably morbid, are really about how perfect and beautiful love is.  ("Last Kiss" by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers comes to mind, which was later -- weirdly -- covered by Pearl Jam.)

But as the years went on, lyrics about romance became more complex and nuanced -- and darker.  For example, consider Pink's song "Try," which is not only a song about how difficult love can be, but has some of the most stunning choreography of any music video I've ever seen, reflecting perfectly the clasp-and-crash relationship the lyrics describe.

A friend of mine and I were just talking about how disconnected we've all become, and how hard that is -- that so much of the depression a lot of us experience is due to disengagement and loneliness.  It's no wonder that gets reflected in the music we make, and the music that resonates with us.

Music is a powerful force in so many of our lives.  It touches us at a completely visceral level, and allows us to access incredibly intense emotions that are often walled off from us by the strictures and demands of daily life.  It's like a pressure valve for our hearts.

Now, y'all'll have to excuse me, because I'm gonna put on some songs.  Maybe I'll put my iTunes on "shuffle."  A sure way to get musical whiplash, but hey, it's all part of the experience.


Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Orders of magnitude

Our minds tend to boggle when numbers get too large or too small.

It's why we get in trouble talking about things like the national debt.  To a lot of people, a million dollars, a billion dollars, and a trillion dollars all sound pretty much alike; "more money than we're ever likely to see in our lives."  Explaining that a trillion dollars is "the amount of money owned by a million millionaires" helps some, but the fact remains that we can't really wrap our brains around numbers that big.

The same thing happens on the small end.  I remember trying to get my students to grok the difference between the sizes of small things -- say, an amoeba, a virus, a DNA molecule, and an atom.  My analogy for the size of the atom is that if you had as many grains of sand as there are atoms in a typical raindrop, you'd have enough sand to fill a trench a foot deep, a mile wide, stretching from New York City to San Francisco.

It was a good "oh wow" moment, but once again, I'm not sure how much good it did to fight the general trend of our not being able to conceptualize things that are very far outside of the scales we're used to.

The more we find out through science, though, the wider the actual scales of our understanding need to grow.  This is why if you want to have a prayer of getting anywhere in science, you need to understand scientific notation -- a way of notating very large or very small numbers, such as the speed of light, which is 300,000,000 meters per second -- or, as it's put in scientific notation, 3x10^8 meters/sec.  The bigger (or smaller) the numbers get, the more useful scientific notation is; take, for example, the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy, which is 2.4x10^19 kilometers (24 followed by eighteen zeroes).  With something that large, just counting the zeroes to get an idea of what magnitude you're talking about becomes unwieldy.

On the other hand, for unwieldy, you can't beat the English units of measurement. This is a chart of the relationships between the ones for length. The rest of them are just as bad. [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Christoph P├Ąper, English length units graph, CC BY 3.0]

The same thing happens on the other end of the scale.  The width of one of your DNA molecules is about two billionths of a meter; in scientific notation, 2x10^-9 meters.  (The negative sign means the decimal point is moved to the left; this is 0.000000002 meters.)

To obviate the need for such large exponents, there are prefixes used to get rid of some of the zeroes.  Some are familiar -- "kilo-" for a thousand, "milli-" for one-thousandth, "micro-" for one millionth, and so on.  This, in fact, is the reason this comes up; we've plunged so deep into the realms of the very large and the very small that the previous ones have proven insufficient, so they've invented four new ones and tacked them onto the outside of the scale.

It's not like we didn't already have some pretty extreme prefixes.  On the large end, we go up to "yotta-," meaning 10^24.  On the other end, "yocto-" means 10^-24.  But now we have "ronna-" and "quetta-" (10^27 and 10^30, respectively) and "ronto-" and "quecto-" (10^-27 and 10^-30, respectively).  (Abbreviations are, in order, R, Q, r, and q.)  For reference, the Sun has a mass of about two thousand quettagrams; an electron, one rontogram.

The funny thing is, even these won't cover all contingencies.  When you get to galactic masses, you're talking about something that would require scientific notation even if you measured it in quettagrams.  And in the realm of the very small, when you get down to where physicists believe even such quantities as length and time are quantized (made up of chunks that can't be subdivided any further), you're still in the negative exponent range.  These Planck units of length and time are, respectively, 1.6x10^-35 meters (1.6x10^-5 quectometers) and 5.4x10^-44 seconds (5.4x10^-14 quectoseconds).

So we're still not out of the woods.  But I don't mind, because "quectosecond" is fun to say.

I'm not sure if this does anything to help the original problem -- that our brains can't really handle very big and very small numbers.  Anything more than a couple of orders of magnitude outside of what we deal with every day, and we boggle.  Which is why I think, science geek that I am, that I'm going to stick with my friend's favorite large unit of mass, which is the "metric shit tonne."

At least I have a pretty good idea of what that means.


Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Reaping the whirlwind

Once again I'm sick at heart because of the news of a mass shooting, this time at a prominent LGBTQ+ club in Colorado Springs called Club Q.  At the time of this writing, five people are dead and another twenty-five wounded.  The suspected shooter, Anderson Aldrich, was subdued by two people at the club and is now in custody, currently being treated for minor injuries.

There's a lot to unpack, here.  How Aldrich got a gun, despite a previous arrest for a bomb threat.  Where he picked up the hateful and homophobic ideology that impelled him to do such a thing.  It was just revealed that he's the grandson of California Assemblyman and staunch MAGA Republican Randy Voepel, but whether that will turn out to be relevant to Aldrich's horrific act of violence remains to be seen.

The queer community is, understandably, reeling.  Colorado Springs is soundly conservative, and Club Q was one of the only safe havens they had there.  Social media this morning has been full of tearful, terrified individuals who have once again been reminded of how vulnerable they are, and how much unreasoning and vicious hatred still exists in this country.

My horror started turning to anger, though, when I saw the tweet yesterday morning from Representative Lauren Boebert, whose district includes Colorado Springs.  "This morning the victims & their families are in my prayers," she wrote.  "This lawless violence needs to end and end quickly."

With all due respect, Representative Boebert, you can take your thoughts and prayers and shove them up your ass.

Boebert has been a strident voice in the anti-LGBTQ+ right wing, accusing the left of "grooming children" for such actions as pressing educators to honor trans youths' pronouns and including LGBTQ+ representation in school library books.  She warned drag queens to "stay away from Colorado's Third District."  Oh, but when her own hateful ideology comes back to her own district in the form of violence, she wants to -- as AOC succinctly put it -- "thoughts-and-prayers her way out of" any responsibility for what happened.

There's a line from the Bible that covers this kind of thing.  It's Hosea 8:7.  "Who sows the wind, reaps the whirlwind."

Neither I, nor any of the other members of the queer community whom I've spoken with, wants anything to do with the thoughts and prayers of people who after today will go back to doing everything they can to harm us.  No, not just harm us; eradicate us, erase every last one of us from the face of the Earth.

Think I'm exaggerating?  Consider monsters like Pastor Dillon Awes of the Steadfast Baptist Church in Watauga, Texas, who a couple of months ago told a cheering congregation that gay people should be lined up against a wall and shot in the head.  Or Pastor Joe Cammilleri, who saw a boy wearing fingernail polish and said to his congregation, "Oh, I just want to break his fingers."  Or far-right commentator Matt Walsh, who has built his career fighting against trans people's right to be who they are, and just last week crowed about once again being allowed to be as horrible as he wants to on Twitter now that Elon Musk has taken over: "We have made huge strides against the trans agenda.  In just a year we’ve recovered many years worth of ground conservatives had previously surrendered.  The liberation of Twitter couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.  Now we can ramp up our efforts even more."

Anyone in public office who honestly wants to stem the tide of violence against queer people can start by speaking out against these ugly spewers of hatred.  Until such time as Representative Boebert and the others like her will stand up and say to them, "This is morally indefensible.  LGBTQ+ people are deserving of the same rights and protections as anyone else.  No one gets to threaten the life, safety, and happiness of any other human being.  Not on my watch," they can sit down and shut the fuck up.

Actions like that of Anderson Aldrich are meant to terrify.  And yes, I've heard a lot of fear in the people I've talked to and those whose posts on social media I've seen this morning.  But not a single one of them has said, "So I'm just going to go back into hiding."  Queer people know all about the devastating effects of shame and fear; it's what kept me in the closet, literally for decades.  Whatever happens, we're not going back there.

Silence validates hatred.  Acquiescence perpetuates the feeling of being less worthy, less valued, less human.  Once we've mourned the victims of the shooting, innocent people who were just there to dance and laugh and socialize and have fun, we will redouble our efforts to make sure nothing like this ever happens again, and you can bet we will fly the rainbow flag more proudly than ever.

You homophobes think we can be bullied and threatened back into silence?  You ain't seen nothin' yet.  Gives a different twist to the line from the Book of Hosea, doesn't it?

Who sows the wind, reaps the whirlwind.


Monday, November 21, 2022

A hand and a message

One of the most enduring mysteries, both in history and in linguistics, is the Basque people of northeastern Spain.

For many years, it was thought that because they speak Euskara -- a linguistic isolate, certainly not Indo-European and seemingly unrelated to any other known language -- that they were physically unrelated to the rest of Europeans as well.  That's proven to be untrue; their genetics are markedly similar to other western Europeans, including a high prevalence of the R1b-DF27 Y-DNA haplogroup, found throughout Spain and southern France.  While there is some evidence that the Basque people are remnants of a Paleolithic population of western Europe, there's enough similarity with the surrounding population that this question is considered far from settled.

There's no doubt they've been genetically isolated for a long time, though.  One good indicator is their abnormally high frequency of the Rh negative blood type allele.  If you, or one of your parents, is Rh negative, there is a great likelihood that you have ancestry in northern Spain or southwestern France.  (My mom, who was Rh negative, was nearly a hundred percent of French descent, mostly from western France -- I'm quite certain she has some Basque ancestry back there somewhere.)  This has a significant downside; the danger of Rh incompatibility disorder, which occurs when a negative mother conceives a positive fetus (i.e. the father is positive).  When that happens, the mother's immune system can set up a reaction against the baby's blood and destroy it.  It's what killed my sister, Mary Margaret -- when she was born, in 1945, she was premature and severely anemic, and only lived a couple of days.  Between her birth and mine, in 1960, the RhoGAM injection was developed, which suppresses that part of the mother's immune system and prevents the damage.

That injection is why I'm alive today.

In any case, there's no doubt the Basques are a unique people.  The origin of their gene pool, culture, and language are still shrouded in mystery.  But a discovery last year near Pamplona may end up shedding some light on their history.

Called the "Hand of Irulegi," it's a bronze piece thought to be about two thousand years old.  This is cool enough in and of itself, but recent analysis has shown that it has an inscription, seemingly in proto-Basque, the language of the Vascones -- the Iron Age tribe encountered in northeastern Spain by the Romans, and who are thought to be the ancestors of the modern Basques.

It had been thought previously that the Vascones had little in the way of written language -- no traces of it had been found except for occasional one-word inscriptions on coins.  So almost nothing is known about the language they spoke (except, as previously noted, that it was definitely non-Indo European).  The first word in the inscription on the Hand of Irulegi is sorioneku, almost certainly the root word of modern Euskara zorioneko, meaning "luck" or "a good omen."

It's worth being cautious, though.  Unfortunately, such claims have been made before -- and have turned out to be worse than false, actually fraudulent.  Two years ago, two archaeologists were fined and given short jail sentences for faking artifacts and claiming that they were evidence of an early Basque written language.  So following the "once burned, twice shy" rule, the archaeologists and linguists studying the Hand of Irulegi are proceeding carefully.

But if it holds up under scrutiny, it will be a pretty remarkable discovery.  The early history and linguistics of the Basque people have been huge unanswered questions before now, and any pieces we can add to the puzzle will help clarify the origins of what is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating cultures in Europe.


Saturday, November 19, 2022

Dance of life

Dancing is ubiquitous amongst human societies.

Everywhere you go, every culture you look at, there is some form of rhythmic movement, usually to music.  (Sometimes the dancing creates its own music.)  I love to dance; I'm not saying I'm great at it, but starting out the day by putting on some tunes and moving my body just feels good.  And it's much more fun to do daily chores like cooking dinner with my music on, rockin' to the beat while I'm chopping the vegetables.

It's an interesting question why this is.  A shrewd guess is that a lot of it is about social cohesion.  You get a bunch of people together, all moving in the same way to the same rhythm, and it's a strong symbol of unity and common purpose.  

There's some biochemical support for this contention.  A series of studies a few years ago found that dancing releases four of the most important feel-good and bonding hormones -- dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphin.

No wonder we feel better after we dance.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Ramesh lalwani, Revanta Sarabhai Male Dancer, CC BY-SA 4.0]

For me, one of the most wonderful -- and difficult -- things about dancing is that it requires you to forget about yourself.  To dance fluidly, you need to be immersed in the music and the movement, and overcome the self-consciousness we all seem to carry around with us, to greater or lesser degrees.  I'm plagued with more than my fair share of it, and it's only been fairly recently that I've been willing to dance with other people around.  Which, of course, is missing a good part of the fun of it -- sharing the experience of moving your body in synchrony to the music.

What brings all this up is a fascinating study from the University of Tokyo released last week showing that humans aren't the only ones who feel like shakin' their tails when the music comes on.

Rats do it, too.

Rats were fitted out with tiny helmets containing wireless accelerometers, and then exposed to varying types and speeds of music.  Sure enough -- they began to move their heads in time to the beat.

"Rats displayed innate — that is, without any training or prior exposure to music — beat synchronization most distinctly within 120-140 bpm (beats per minute), to which humans also exhibit the clearest beat synchronization," said Hirokazu Takahashi, of the Graduate School of Information Science and Technology, who co-authored the paper.  "The auditory cortex, the region of our brain that processes sound, was also tuned to 120-140 bpm, which we were able to explain using our mathematical model of brain adaptation...  Music exerts a strong appeal to the brain and has profound effects on emotion and cognition.  To utilize music effectively, we need to reveal the neural mechanism underlying this empirical fact."

I find this absolutely astonishing, given that rats don't have music in their natural environments (well, except for the rats that sometimes end up cohabiting with us).  What possible purpose can this serve?  It's interesting, but it seems to me to raise as many questions as it answers.

Which, of course, is the hallmark of good science.

Whatever the reason, it's pretty cool that this impulse to move to the music has a long evolutionary history.  And there's no doubt that it does a body good.  I'll end with a quote from the wonderful writer Dave Barry: "Nobody cares if you can't dance well.  Get out there on the floor and dance anyway."


Friday, November 18, 2022

A projectile from deep space

Sometimes the most interesting questions to ask in science are the ones about facts so commonplace that we don't usually even think about them.  For example: how did the Earth end up with the composition it has?

The crust of the Earth -- the part that (obviously) we're most familiar with -- is largely made of silicate rocks (especially feldspars), with a good bit of magnesium, aluminum, potassium, and sodium thrown in.  The mantle, the liquid-to-semisolid bit beneath the crust, is also rich in silicates, but as you go deeper the iron and magnesium content increases (minerals with those elements are generally denser than silicates, so the silicates float to the top).  The core is mainly iron and nickel.

The oceans and atmosphere are a thin layer that is insignificant in terms of contribution to the mass of the Earth as a whole.  (Pretty damn significant to life on Earth, of course.)  And the impressive mountains and valleys, not to mention things like the oceanic trenches, aren't as impressive as they seem from our vantage point.  I remember being blown away when one of my geology professors said that the highest mountain ranges and deepest trenches have less topographic relief than you find on a typical billiard ball.

The Earth formed during the early days of the Solar System from accretion of asteroids, dust, and debris that pulled together from what was probably a set of rings around the Sun similar to what still exists around the planet Saturn.  During that phase, the energy of the constant collisions and bombardment heated the nascent Earth to beyond the melting point of the rock that it was made of, rendering the whole mass molten, glowing orange-hot.  (Some of that heat is what still makes the interior of the Earth hot today; the rest comes from the breakdown of radioactive elements in the core and mantle.  It's what keeps the Earth tectonically active, and the liquid metallic outer core is very likely why our planet has a magnetic field.)

But the specific makeup of the particular rocks that came together early in Earth's history determined what we have here today.  That includes the water in our lakes, rivers, and oceans.  The vast majority of our water arrived during the coalescence of our world -- but we just found out a little more about that particular feature from a much more recent arrival.

On the 28th of February, 2021, a football-sized meteorite streaked across the skies of Winchcombe, a town in Gloucestershire, in the southwest of England.  The intense heating from friction in the atmosphere made the rock explode, and a large chunk of it landed in the driveway of Rob and Cathryn Wilcock, who donated it to the Natural History Museum of London.

Rob Wilcock's photograph of what was left of the Winchcombe meteorite after it smashed into his driveway in February of 2021

The meteorite turned out to be a carbonaceous chondrite, a rare sort of meteorite that is carbon and water-rich.  And the first cool thing was that when the scientists measured the hydrogen-to-deuterium ratio of the the water in the meteorite, they found that it was identical to that in the Earth's oceans.

But you want the kicker?  Also present in the Winchcombe meteorite were various amino acids and a slew of other organic compounds -- the biochemical building blocks of life.

It's discoveries like this that that make me even more certain there's life out there in the cosmos.  Intelligent life is another matter; we still have yet to explain the Fermi paradox (Enrico Fermi's comment that if extraterrestrial life is common, then "where is everybody?" -- a topic about which I wrote in some detail a while back).  But non-technological life?  I'd bet a significant amount of money that it'll turn out to be abundant.  Think of what we could learn from a biology that was entirely separate from us, that had no ancestral connection to anything on Earth.

The mind boggles.

Studies like the one just done on the Winchcombe meteorite give us a perspective not only on how our planet formed, but what else might be out there waiting for us to find.  To quote Carl Sagan: "The universe is a pretty big place.  If it's just us, it seems like an awful waste of space."


Thursday, November 17, 2022

A black hole's warm glow

Once again I was sent a link by my buddy Andrew Butters, of the wonderful Potato Chip Math, who is not only a great writer but has a keen eye for a cool science article.

The link was to a story in Science Alert, and was titled, "Scientists Created a Black Hole in the Lab, and Then It Started To Glow," by Michelle Starr.  But before I tell you what the gist is, I have to bring up a peevish complaint about the headline (which may not have been Starr's fault; many times the headlines aren't written by the journalist herself, so I'm not jumping to blaming her for it).  The researchers, as you will see, did not "create a black hole;" what they did was create something that models some of the behavior of a black hole.  Which is cool enough, but doesn't have the cachet that black holes have, so Science Alert apparently thought they needed to jazz things up.  The headline is wildly misleading; no massive stars were destroyed in the course of this experiment.

Of course, this is not going to stop people from reading only the headline and then posting hysterical screeds about how those Mad Scientists Are Trying To Destroy Us All and undoubtedly tying in CERN, HAARP, the Illuminati, and Reptilian Aliens From Zeta Reticuli.

You know how it goes.

Anyhow, back to reality.  What the scientists really did was pretty amazing, and may give us some inroads into figuring out one of the biggest puzzles in physics; why theoretical physicists have been unable to reconcile the equations of quantum mechanics and those of relativity.  When they attempt to accommodate gravitational effects on the scale of the very small, the equations "blow up" -- they result in infinities -- usually a sign that something is very wrong about our understanding.

The reason black holes play into this question is that in the extraordinary gravitational field at the event horizon (the "point of no return," where the space is so strongly curved that even light can't escape), there is a quantum effect that becomes important on the macroscopic scale.  It's called Hawking radiation, after Stephen Hawking (who first proposed it), and deserves some closer attention.

 To start with, empty space isn't empty.  There is an inherent energy in space called zero-point energy or vacuum energy, and it is possible for this energy to be "borrowed" to produce particle-antiparticle pairs (such as an electron and a positron).  There's a catch, though; the pairs always recollide (in a minuscule amount of time, the upper limit of which is determined by the uncertainty principle).  So the pairs pop into existence and right out again, creating continuous tiny, extremely short-lived ripples in the fabric of space.  Not enough for anyone even to notice.

Well, unless you're near the event horizon of a black hole.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

The huge gravitational field at the event horizon means that vacuum energy is much higher, and pair production happens at a much greater rate.  And because of that boundary, sometimes one member of a pair falls into the event horizon, while the other one doesn't.  At that point, the survivor radiates out into space -- taking a little of the black hole's mass/energy along with it.

That's the Hawking radiation.  What it implies is that black holes don't last forever -- eventually they evaporate, finally exploding in a burst of gamma rays.

The problem has been that the Hawking radiation is impossible to study experimentally; we're (fortunately) not near any black holes, at least so far as we know, and the faint signature of the radiation would be lost in the general white noise of the universe.  But now -- and this is where we get to the current research -- a team led by Lotte Mertens of the University of Amsterdam has developed a model that simulates this behavior, and found that just like the real thing, it emits radiation exactly the way Hawking predicted (this is the "it started to glow" in the headline).

What they did was to lock together a chain of atoms that provided a path for electrons to move, and by fine-tuning the rate at which this happened, they created a simulated event horizon that caused some of the electrons' wave-like behavior to vanish completely.  The result was an increase in thermal radiation that matched the Hawking model precisely.

Why this is significant is that it could provide a way to study the quantum effects of gravity in the lab, something that has been impossible before now.  It's not like we can hop a spacecraft and fly to a black hole (which would be inadvisable anyhow).  So this fascinating experiment might be the first step toward one of the prime goals of physicists -- finding a way to unify the quantum and gravitational models.

So even if they didn't "create a black hole in the lab," the whole thing is still pretty freakin' cool.


Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Broken tools

Since 2016, one of the most persistent puzzles to me has been the unflagging support of evangelical Christians for Donald Trump, a man whose main claim to fame seems to be embodying all Seven Deadly Sins in one individual.

I get why people with far-right ideology support him; that, at least, is consistent.  Trump has the same pro-corporate capitalist, xenophobic, anti-immigration, authoritarian views they do.  But the very religious have continued to idolize the man despite his openly admitting affairs while married, multiple credible allegations of fraud, and so many outright lies that it's impossible even to keep up with them.  They even go so far as to consider him anointed by God -- I heard one person, with no apparent sense of irony, call Trump "Jesus's Right-Hand Man."

When I've inquired (cautiously) into how "Jesus's Right-Hand Man" can be so dramatically and thoroughly flawed, I've heard comments like "God can work with a broken tool."  Which seems to me to be a puzzling stance for a group of people who ostensibly believe that the Bible should be followed to the letter, and anyone who doesn't do so is destined for the fires of hell.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Gerbilo, Christianity symbols, CC BY 3.0]

A fascinating study that appeared last week in Politics and Religion may have figured out the answer.  It's not that they think Trump is religious himself; they don't.  In fact, only 37% of the white evangelical Christians in the study said they thought Trump was religious.  (Surprisingly, Biden scored slightly higher.)  Despite this, they overwhelmingly voted for Trump -- because, the study found, Trump repeatedly emphasized that evangelical Christians were a threatened minority, and promised to protect them.

The perception, apparently, was that it didn't matter if Trump was religious, or even moral, himself; his election was "part of God's plan" to bolster up the evangelical community against perceived external threats.  Trump's strategy was to play into that fear -- and it worked.

"This finding suggests that Trump is a unique case when it comes to white evangelical evaluations of the religiosity of elites," said Jack Thompson of the University of Exeter, who authored the study, in an interview with PsyPost.  "Instead of projecting their beliefs onto Trump, and thereby supporting him because of his perceived religiosity, white evangelicals support him despite his lack of religiosity...  The findings concerning the salience of identity threats on conditioning white evangelical beliefs also provide an additional explanation for why evaluations on Trump’s religiosity might not have mattered when it came to their vote choice in 2016.  Namely, because Trump’s invocation of the decline of white Christian America proved effective in activating religious identity threat in a way that led to white evangelicals to coalesce around his candidacy.  In this way, Trump’s ability to articulate white evangelicals’ fears about the declining influence of Christianity likely overrode any lingering concerns about his religiosity."

So "God can work with a broken tool" turns out to be pretty spot on, as does the observation by a friend of mine that "the Religious Right loves Trump because he hates the same people they do."  

The whole thing makes some twisted kind of sense.  If you're convinced that "God has a plan" -- and that, importantly, you know what that plan is -- then it doesn't make a difference who contributes to the working out of that plan.  It could be the most evil human being alive, committing atrocities, and as long as that moves God's plan forward -- well, that's what needs to happen.

Mighty convenient, that.

One has to wonder how this will continue to play out, because there's no doubt that evangelical Christianity is declining.  A study in 2021 found that between 2006 and 2020, the number of self-identified evangelicals in the United States dropped by 37%.  (In the same period, the number of Roman Catholics also dropped by 27%.)  What that suggests is that the fears of decreasing influence are well-founded.  At some point, the mobilization of the remaining evangelicals because of fear will inevitably be overcome by the fact that they're simply too few in numbers to make a difference in national elections.

At least, I hope so.  I'm not religious myself but have no problem with people who are, as long as they stay in their lane and don't attempt to force belief down my throat.  On the other hand, any group who could support a moral degenerate like Donald Trump can't be allowed to swing the direction of our entire nation.