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

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Beauty, truth, and the Standard Model

A couple of days ago, I was talking with my son about the Standard Model of Particle Physics (as one does).

The Standard Model is a theoretical framework that explains what is known about the (extremely) submicroscopic world, including three of the four fundamental forces (electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force), and classifies all known subatomic particles.

Many particle physicists, however, are strongly of the opinion that the model is flawed.  One issue is that one of the four fundamental forces -- gravitation -- has never been successfully incorporated into the model, despite eighty years of the best minds in science trying to do that.  The discovery of dark matter and dark energy -- or at least the effects thereof -- is also unaccounted for by the model.  Neither does it explain baryon asymmetry, the fact that there is so much more matter than antimatter in the observable universe.  Worst of all is that it leaves a lot of the quantities involved -- such as particle masses, relative strengths of forces, and so on -- as empirically-determined rather than proceeding organically from the theoretical underpinnings.

This bothers the absolute hell out of a lot of particle physicists.  They have come up with modification after modification to try to introduce new symmetries that would make it seem not quite so... well, arbitrary.  It just seems like the most fundamental theory of everything should be a lot more elegant than it is, and that there should be some underlying beautiful mathematical logic to it all.  The truth is, the Standard Model is messy.

Every one of those efforts to create a more beautiful and elegant model has failed.  Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, in a brilliant but stinging takedown of the current approach that you really should watch in its entirety, puts it this way: "If you follow news about particle physics, then you know that it comes in three types.  It's either that they haven't found that thing they were looking for, or they've come up with something new to look for which they'll later report not having found, or it's something so boring you don't even finish reading the headline."  Her opinion is that the entire driving force behind it -- research to try to find a theory based on beautiful mathematics -- is misguided.  Maybe the actual universe simply is messy.  Maybe a lot of the parameters of physics, such as particle masses and the values of constants, truly are arbitrary (i.e., they don't arise from any deeper theoretical reason; they simply are what they're measured to be, and that's that).  In her wonderful book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, she describes how this century-long quest to unify physics with some ultra-elegant model has generated very close to nothing in the way of results, and maybe we should accept that the untidy Standard Model is just the way things are.

Because there's one thing that's undeniable: the Standard Model works.  In fact, what generated this post (besides the conversation with my science-loving son) is a paper that appeared last week in Physical Review Letters about a set of experiments showing that the most recent tests of the Standard Model passed with a precision that beggars belief -- in this case, a measurement of the electron's magnetic moment which agreed with the predicted value to within 0.1 billionths of a percent.

This puts the Standard Model in the category of being one of the most thoroughly-tested and stunningly accurate models not only in all of physics, but in all of science.  As mind-blowingly bizarre as quantum mechanics is, there's no doubt that it has passed enough tests that in just about any other field, the experimenters and the theoreticians would be high-fiving each other and heading off to the pub for a celebratory pint of beer.  Instead, they keep at it, because so many of them feel that despite the unqualified successes of the Standard Model, there's something deeply unsatisfactory about it.  Hossenfelder explains that this is a completely wrong-headed approach; that real discoveries in the field were made when there was some necessary modification of the model that needed to be made, not just because you think the model isn't pretty enough:

If you look at past predictions in the foundations of physics which turned out to be correct, and which did not simply confirm an existing theory, you find it was those that made a necessary change to the theory.  The Higgs boson, for example, is necessary to make the Standard Model work.  Antiparticles, predicted by Dirac, are necessary to make quantum mechanics compatible with special relativity.  Neutrinos were necessary to explain observation [of beta radioactive decay].  Three generations of quarks were necessary to explain C-P violation.  And so on...  A good strategy is to focus on those changes that resolve an inconsistency with data, or an internal inconsistency.  

And the truth is, when the model you already have is predicting with an accuracy of 0.1 billionths of a percent, there just aren't a lot of inconsistencies there to resolve.

I have to admit that I get the particle physicists' yearning for something deeper.  John Keats's famous line, "Beauty is truth, and truth beauty; that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know" has a real resonance for me.  But at the same time, it's hard to argue Hossenfelder's logic.

Maybe the cosmos really is kind of a mess, with lots of arbitrary parameters and empirically-determined constants.  We may not like it, but as I've observed before, the universe is under no obligation to be structured in such a way as to make us comfortable.  Or, as my grandma put it -- more simply, but no less accurately -- "I've found that wishin' don't make it so."


Monday, February 27, 2023

Chewed up and spat out

Seems like I've featured a lot of research about astrophysics here at Skeptophilia lately, and that's not only because I'm really interested in it, but because the astrophysicists keep discovering stuff that is downright amazing.

Consider two papers last week highlighting different bizarre behaviors of one of the weirdest beasts in the cosmic zoo -- black holes. 

Since the first serious proposal of their existence, by German physicist Karl Schwarzschild in 1916, they've captivated the imagination.  Not only are they created in supernovas -- surely the most spectacular events in the universe -- their intense gravitational warping of space makes it impossible for anything, even light, to escape.  If you were falling into one (not recommended), time would slow down, at least as perceived by someone watching you from a safe distance.  From your perspective, though, your own watch would continue to run normally, until it (and you) succumbed to spaghettification -- yes, that's actually what the astrophysicists call it -- the point where the tidal forces across even such a short distance as the one between your head and your feet became sufficient to stretch you into the universe's most horrifying pasta.

As strange and terrifying as they are, they were thought for a long time to be physically quite simple; physicist John Archibald Wheeler said that "black holes have no hair," by which he meant that they have no arbitrary differences between each other that cannot be accounted for by three externally-observable parameters: their mass, angular momentum, and electric charge.  It took no less a luminary than Stephen Hawking to demonstrate that this wasn't true.  In 1974 he showed that (contrary to the picture of a black hole as a one-way-only object) they slowly evaporate through a phenomenon now called Hawking radiation in his honor.  The general idea here is that the extremely warped space near the event horizon generates sufficient energy to facilitate significant pair production -- creation of particle/antiparticle pairs.  Almost always, those pairs recombine and mutually annihilate in a fraction of a second after creation, so they're called "virtual particles" that have a measurable effect on ordinary matter but no long-term reality.  However, in the vicinity of a black hole, things are different.  Because of the extraordinary gravitational field at the event horizon, sometimes there's enough time for the two particles in the pair to separate sufficiently that one of them crosses the event horizon and the other doesn't.  At that point, the one that's fallen in is doomed; the other one just keeps moving away -- and that's the Hawking radiation.  

But what this does is robs a small bit of the mass/energy from the black hole, so its volume decreases.  What Hawking showed is that black holes actually evaporate.  It's on a huge time scale; a massive black hole has a life span many times longer than the current age of the universe.  But it suggests that everything -- even something as seemingly permanent as a black hole -- has a finite life span.

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA/JPL]

Even that, though, doesn't begin to plumb the depths of the weirdness of these things.  Take for example the two papers I referenced earlier, each of which shows an only partially-explained behavior of black holes.

In the first, that appeared in The Astrophysical Journal, researchers looked at the odd behavior of an object called X-7 that is close to Sagittarius A*, the massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.  X-7 is a cloud of gas and dust about fifty times the mass of the Earth, and is so close to Sagittarius A* that it orbits it once every 170 years.  The tidal forces are spaghettifying X-7 -- fast enough to observe in real time.

"No other object in this region has shown such an extreme evolution," said Anna Ciurlo of UCLA, who is the paper’s lead author.  "It started off comet-shaped and people thought maybe it got that shape from stellar winds or jets of particles from the black hole.  But as we followed it for twenty years we saw it becoming more elongated.  Something must have put this cloud on its particular path with its particular orientation."

From its current trajectory, the researchers think that it will get close enough to the black hole by 2036 that it will be torn apart completely.

If X-7 is being chewed up, there's another place in the universe where a black hole has been spat out.  The galaxy RCP 28, 7.5 billion light years from Earth, appears to be undergoing something cataclysmic; its central black hole, with an estimated mass of twenty million times that of the Sun, has been ejected from the middle and is moving away at a speed of 5.6 million kilometers per hour, pulling along a streamer of stars behind it like the tail of a comet.

What could possibly slingshot an object that massive at such high velocities remains to be seen; the researchers think it was in some kind of unstable orbit with two or more massive bodies.  (As I described in a post a couple of years ago, the three-body problem -- the mathematics of three or more objects of similar masses orbiting a common center of gravity -- is one of the most famous unsolved problems in classical mechanics, and models show that most of the time, these sorts of configurations are unstable.)  But the authors are clear that more study is needed to confirm the analysis, and then, to come up with an explanation for what exactly is going on.

In any case, what's obvious is that we've only scratched the surface of these strange objects.  Every time we look up into the star-spangled sky, we find new and amazing things to wonder at.  The astrophysicists, I think, are in for a long and exciting ride.


Saturday, February 25, 2023


I am a truly dreadful chess player.

I know how all the pieces move, and have no difficulty comprehending the basic gist of the game.  My problem is that I have zero ability at strategy.  My understanding is that excellent chess players have an above-average capacity for assessing control of the board holistically -- i.e., they're not simply looking forward and predicting their opponent's moves, they're evaluating the entire layout and planning their moves based on a judgment of what will improve their overall position.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Jyothis, Chess Large, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Wherever this capacity comes from, I don't have it.  My strategy when playing chess is "KILL KILL KILL."  I focus on attacking particular pieces, and therefore walk blindly into traps set by even mediocre players.

True story: I participated in a chess tournament when I was at the University of Louisiana.  It was a single-elimination tournament, but with a twist; the goal of the tournament was to find the worst chess player at the University.  So after a game, the winner was eliminated, and the loser went on to the next round.

I came in second.

The only game I won was the final game, against a player so catastrophically bad she exceeded even my level of strategic incompetence.  At one point, I had (accidentally, of course) put my queen in danger of being taken by her bishop.  I honestly hadn't seen it until I'd already made the move.  So I was sitting there, waiting for her to pounce.  And sure enough, she picked up the bishop, moved it...

... and set it down exactly one space before the queen.

This prompted one of the spectators, who were strictly enjoined against making commentary or helping the players, to burst out in helpless frustration, "What in the fuck are you doing?"

She looked up, gave him a perplexed smile, and said, "What do you mean?"

So.  Yeah.  Her I won against.  Missed getting the trophy by that much.

It's an odd thing, really.  I'm fairly confident that I have a decent brain, and am a reasonably analytical thinker.  But anything involving strategy is absolutely beyond me.  It's why I also suck at most card games.  Games like poker -- where you have to decide your own next move based on what you know about your opponents' cards, and there's a good chance at least some of them are bluffing -- are baffling to me.  I have a great poker face, though.  I'm really good at keeping my expression blank.  But it's not because I've got this great strategy and am keeping it secret.

My expression is blank because most of the time, I have no idea what the hell is going on.

The reason this comes up is a paper in the journal Genes that found a single gene locus -- KIBRA -- that correlates with chess-playing ability (and, the authors suggest, ability in science and technology).  The authors write:
The kidney and brain expressed protein (KIBRA) plays an important role in synaptic plasticity.  Carriers of the T allele of the KIBRA (WWC1) gene... C/T polymorphism have been reported to have enhanced spatial ability and to outperform individuals with the CC genotype in working memory tasks.  Since ability in chess and science is directly related to spatial ability and working memory, we hypothesized that the KIBRA T allele would be positively associated with chess player status and Ph.D. status in science.  We tested this hypothesis in a study involving 2479 individuals (194 chess players, 119 Ph.D. degree holders in STEM fields, and 2166 controls; 1417 males and 1062 females)...  We found that frequencies of the T allele were significantly higher in... chess players compared with ethnically matched controls.  In addition, none of the international chess grandmasters (ranked among the 80 best chess players in the world) were carriers of the CC genotype (0 vs. 46.3%; OR = 16.4, p = 0.005).  Furthermore... Ph.D. holders had a significantly higher frequency of CT/TT genotypes compared with controls.  Overall, this is the first study to provide comprehensive evidence that the rs17070145 C/T polymorphism of the KIBRA gene may be associated with ability in chess and science, with the T allele exerting a beneficial effect.

I find this fascinating from a couple of standpoints.  The first is that it's astonishing a single gene locus can have an effect on a complex set of behaviors such as spatial perception and strategy.  Second, it's interesting that there's also a correlation to attainment of a Ph.D., which is another thing that is beyond my grasp.  I spent some time in my early college days aiming toward a career in research science -- which would have pretty much necessitated my attaining a doctorate -- and after switching around from field to field, finally had the epiphany that the problem wasn't the specific field I was in, it was that I simply didn't have the capacity for narrow, laser focus required to do research.  Nor did I have the ability to synthesize techniques and concepts from disparate fields you see in truly original research -- something that has a lot in common with the holistic strategizing you see in the best chess players.

Put simply, my brain just doesn't work that way.  I'm a raging generalist; someone once described my knowledge, accurately if not particularly kindly, as "a light year across and an inch deep."  I'm positively in awe of people who do scientific research and are blessed with the ability to see dazzlingly brilliant solutions to questions about the universe...

... but I am not one of them.

It's okay, really.  I'm not unhappy with my CC genotype; being an inquisitive sort with a broad general knowledge background is part of what made me a successful teacher.  I have had my pangs of envy when I read about scientists doing amazing work, but deep down, I know I could never have made it as a researcher, any more than I could be a chess grand master.

And at least I can comfort myself in knowing there was one person I went to college with who was worse at that sort of thing than I am.


Friday, February 24, 2023

Saucy savagery

Kids these days, ya know what I mean?

Wiser heads than mine have commented on the laziness, disrespectfulness, and general dissipation of youth.  Here's a sampler:
  • Parents themselves were often the cause of many difficulties.  They frequently failed in their obvious duty to teach self-control and discipline to their own children.
  • We defy anyone who goes about with his eyes open to deny that there is, as never before, an attitude on the part of young folk which is best described as grossly thoughtless, rude, and utterly selfish.
  • The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.  Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households.  They no longer rise when elders enter the room.  They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.
  • Never has youth been exposed to such dangers of both perversion and arrest as in our own land and day.  Increasing urban life with its temptations, prematurities, sedentary occupations, and passive stimuli just when an active life is most needed, early emancipation and a lessening sense for both duty and discipline, the haste to know and do all befitting man's estate before its time, the mad rush for sudden wealth and the reckless fashions set by its gilded youth--all these lack some of the regulatives they still have in older lands with more conservative conditions.
  • Youth were never more saucy -- never more savagely saucy -- as now... the ancient are scorned, the honourable are condemned, and the magistrate is not dreaded.
  • Our sires' age was worse than our grandsires'.  We, their sons, are more worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt.
  • [Young people] are high-minded because they have not yet been humbled by life, nor have they experienced the force of circumstances…  They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.
Of course, I haven't told you where these quotes come from. In order:
  • from an editorial in the Leeds Mercury, 1938
  • from an editorial in the Hull Daily Mail, 1925
  • Kenneth John Freeman, Cambridge University, 1907
  • Granville Stanley Hall, The Psychology of Adolescence, 1904
  • Thomas Barnes, The Wise Man's Forecast Against the Evil Time, 1624
  • Horace, Odes, Book III, 20 B.C.E.
  • Aristotle, 4th century B.C.E.
So yeah.  Adults saying "kids these days" has a long, inglorious history.  (Nota bene: the third quote, from Kenneth Freeman, has often been misattributed to Socrates, but it seems pretty unequivocal that Freeman was the originator.)

Jan Miense Molenaar, Children Making Music (ca. 1630) [Image is in the Public Domain]

I can say from my admitted sample-size-of-one that "kids these days" are pretty much the same as they were when I first started teaching 35 long years ago.  Throughout my career there were kind ones and bullies, intelligent and not-so-much, hard-working and not-so-much, readers and non-readers, honest and dishonest.  Yes, a lot of the context has changed; just the access to, and sophistication of, technology has solved a whole host of problems and created a whole host of other ones, but isn't that always the way?  In my far-off and misspent youth, adults railed against rock music and long hair in much the same way that they do today about cellphones and social media, and with about as much justification.  Yes, there are kids who misuse social media and have their noses in their SmartPhones 24/7, but the vast majority handle themselves around these devices just fine -- same as most of my generation didn't turn out to be drug-abusing, illiterate, disrespectful dropouts.

This comes up because of a study in Science Advances by John Protzko and Jonathan Schooler, called "Kids These Days: Why the Youth of Today Seem Lacking."  And its unfortunate conclusion -- unfortunate for us adults, that is -- is that the sense of today's young people being irresponsible, disrespectful, and lazy is mostly because we don't remember how irresponsible, disrespectful, and lazy we were when we were teenagers.  And before you say, "Wait a moment, I was a respectful and hard-working teenager" -- okay, maybe.  But so are many of today's teenagers.  If you want me to buy that we're in a downward spiral, you'll have to convince me that more teenagers back then were hard-working and responsible, and that I simply don't believe.

And neither do Protzko and Schooler.

So the whole thing hinges more on idealization of the past, and our own poor memories, than on anything real.  I also suspect that a good many of the older adults who roll their eyes about "kids these days" don't have any actual substantive contact with young people, and are getting their impressions of teenagers from the media -- which certainly doesn't have a vested interest in portraying anyone as ordinary, honest, and law-abiding.

Oh, and another thing.  What really gets my blood boiling is the adults who on the one hand snarl about how complacent and selfish young people are -- and then when young people rise up and try to change things, such as Greta Thunberg and the activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, they say, "Wait, not like that."  What, you only accept youth activism if it supports the status quo?

All well and good for kids to have opinions, until they start contradicting the opinions of adults, seems like.

Anyhow, I'm an optimist about today's youth.  I saw way too many positive things in my years as a high school teacher to feel like this is going to be the generation that trashes everything through irresponsibility and disrespect for tradition.  And if after reading this, you're still in any doubt about that, I want you to think back on your own teenage years, and ask yourself honestly if you were as squeaky-clean as you'd like people to believe.

Or were you -- like the youth in Aristotle's day -- guilty of thinking you knew everything, and being quite sure about it?


Thursday, February 23, 2023

Saving the marriage

You probably saw that Marjorie Taylor Traitor Greene has called for a "national divorce" along red state/blue state lines, splitting the United States into two countries.  Here's her exact quote:

We need a national divorce.  We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government.  Everyone I talk to says this.  From the sick and disgusting woke culture issues shoved down our throats to the Democrat’s [sic] traitorous America Last policies, we are done.

There are some, in my opinion overly optimistic, people who believe this is just a publicity stunt, another opportunity to increase polarization and ring the changes once again on the whole "Culture War" trope, and that she doesn't actually believe what she's saying.  Myself, I'm not so sure.  For one thing, in the past the woman has shown every sign of having the IQ of a Hostess Ho-Ho.  For another, her voting record is nothing if not consistent.  As long as a bill has the MAGA imprimatur, she'll vote for it.

Also, it hardly matters if she believes it, because apparently a good chunk of her constituency does.  While I doubt that "everyone she talks to" says this, I'm guessing that there are people on the Far Right would love nothing better than to turn the red states into a right-wing, Christo-nationalist enclave.

There are a number of problems with this, though, the main one being a wee problem of money.

The Far Right loves nothing more than to call the liberals a "bunch of socialists," living off of federal government handouts.  Wanting "something for nothing."  You know the talk; it's all over right-wing media.  The truth is, though, that if you look at federal government dependency -- the ratio of money given per capita to the federal government to money received as benefits from the federal government -- an awkward pattern emerges:

While the correlation isn't perfect, it's a curious thing that the states run by Evil Liberal Socialists tend to be least dependent on the federal government for funding, and a good many of the states run by the Stalwart Independent Conservatives are the ones who happily accept the most in the way of help.  (In fact, the nonpartisan study I linked above found that my staunchly-red home state of Louisiana is near the top, and relies on the federal government for 52.27% of its funding.)

So if MTG's loony proposal was followed, the liberated Confederate States of America (version 2.0) would instantly become the Western Hemisphere's newest Third World country.

The other frustrating thing about this is that whenever issues of secession come up, I hear from pissed-off liberals things like "Hell yeah, let 'em go and serves them right."  The problem is that even the reddest of red states is more diverse than the purveyors of polarization would like you to believe.  In Greene's own bright-red district in Georgia, for example, 34% of voters in the last election voted for her Democratic opponent, Marcus Flowers.  

So suppose we did split along red state/blue state lines.  I have liberal and moderate friends in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida, and West Virginia (just to name a few off the top of my head).  If MTG's Christofascist MAGA paradise was realized, what happens to them?  What happens to the people of color, the non-Christians, the LGBTQ people?  They're already fighting like hell not to have legislation passed allowing discriminatory practices against them -- how do you honestly think they'd fare under President Greene?

Let me make one thing clear, and hopefully head off at least a few of the hate-comments; yeah, yeah, I know, not all conservatives.  I also have a good many conservative friends, and mostly we get along fine, because they are coming from a position of respecting others and trying to find common ground.  (Otherwise it's hard to imagine we'd stay friends long.)  But that's not where people like Greene (and Ron DeSantis and Lauren Boebert and Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham) are coming from.  They play on divisiveness because it gets headlines, and inflame hatred because fear and anger get people to the voting booth, even if that fear and anger is based on lies.  (And if you object to my saying "lies" outright, recall that recent legal disclosures make it clear that the Fox News hosts are well aware that they're lying to their listeners; text messages from people like Carlson and Ingraham not only state explicitly that they knowingly lied on air, they brutally ridiculed Trump and Trump supporters for falling for those lies.  They're not only liars, they are hypocrites who hold their own listeners in the deepest contempt.)

It's time for reasonable people on both sides to stand up and shout down the ugliness trumpeted by folks like MTG -- and demand the truth, not partisan spin (and outright falsehoods) from media.  Americans of all political stripes have more common interests than we have differences, and those differences can be discussed in a civil manner.  For a good example of this, check out the Twitter account of conservative commentator and former congressperson Joe Walsh.  While there's a lot we disagree on, he is a deeply honorable man and open to finding that common ground.  If more of us on both sides of the aisle approached issues like he does, we'd be a far better nation -- and hate-mongers like MTG would never get elected.

It's easy to feel hopeless.  If you read the news, things certainly seem to be sliding into a nightmare.  But when I look around me, I'm struck by the fact that the vast majority of people I see are decent and kind and want the same sorts of things; stability, peace, a safe place to raise their kids, a roof over their heads, enough to eat.  We might differ about how to get there, but that's stuff we can talk about.

Let's give ourselves a chance at that conversation by turning off the lying, hateful, and divisive voices -- and listening to each other for a change.


Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Life on ice

I'm currently reading planetary scientist Sarah Stewart Johnson's wonderful book The Sirens of Mars, about the search for signs of life on Mars (and other planets in the Solar System).  What strikes me whenever I read anything on this topic is that everything we've learned supports the contention that life is common in the universe.  (Not necessarily intelligent life; as I've dealt with before, that's another discussion entirely.)  As I learned from another great book I read a while back, Michael Ray Taylor's Dark Life: Martian Nanobacteria, Rock-Eating Cave Bugs, and Other Extreme Organisms of Inner Earth and Outer Space, every place we've looked on Earth -- however seemingly inhospitable -- we've found living things.  Fissures in rocks miles underneath the Earth's surface; deep-sea hydrothermal vents under crushing pressures and sky-high temperatures; brine ponds containing water many times the salinity of seawater; alkaline and acidic hot springs; chilly, pitch-dark caves with toxic air; anaerobic, sulfur-filled mud.  Teeming with life, all of them.

Not only that, but the building blocks of life are kind of everywhere.  When Stanley Miller and Harold Urey did their mind-blowing experiment back in 1953, it was unclear whether they had just happened on the right formula; they'd included their best guesses as to the constituents of the early Earth's atmosphere, and used artificial lightning as an energy source, and in short order they had organic compounds in enormous quantities.  It turned out, though, that the results had been not so much of a happy accident as an inevitability.  As long as you have (1) a reducing atmosphere (i.e. no free oxygen), (2) inorganic sources of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur, and (3) some kind of an energy source, you end up synthesizing all twenty amino acids found in living things (plus some we don't use), DNA and RNA nucleotides, simple sugars, fatty acids, glycerol, and a host of other organic compounds.

In other words, every monomer you need to build an organism.  All from off-the-shelf inorganic chemicals and some kind of power source.

What became clear after Miller and Urey published their results is that the early Earth's seas -- and by extension, the seas of any planet with a reducing atmosphere and sufficient liquid water -- might be expected to be brimming with the building blocks of life.  This so-called "primordial soup" on Earth gave rise to primitive life in a relative flash, and there's no reason to expect the same wouldn't happen elsewhere.

What came as something of a shock, though, is that you don't even need warm, Earthlike conditions to generate biochemistry.  Not long ago, astrophysicists started finding the characteristic signatures of organic compounds in interstellar nebulae.  And just last week researchers at the University of Copenhagen announced that they'd discovered organic compounds in a cloud of gas, dust, and ice called Chameleon 1 -- one of the coldest, darkest places ever to be studied, located about six hundred light years away.

The Tarantula Nebula [Image courtesy of NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and the Webb ERO Production Team]

Detected by their spectroscopic fingerprints -- the characteristic frequencies of light they absorb from the ambient starlight -- these chemicals were located during a new study using the James Webb Space Telescope.  "With the application of observations, e.g. from ALMA [the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, which was also used in the study], it is possible for us to directly observe the dust grains themselves, and it is also possible to see the same molecules as in the gas observed in the ice," said Lars Kristensen, who co-authored the study.

"Using the combined data set gives us a unique insight into the complex interactions between gas, ice and dust in areas where stars and planets form," added Jes Jørgensen, who also co-authored.  "This way we can map the location of the molecules in the area both before and after they have been frozen out onto the dust grains and we can follow their path from the cold molecular cloud to the emerging planetary systems around young stars."

What this shows is that a great many of the compounds in the primordial soup may have formed before the coalescence of the Earth, and might already have been present when the seas formed.  "This study confirms that interstellar grains of dust are catalysts for the forming of complex molecules in the very diffuse gas in these clouds, something we see in the lab as well," said Sergio Ioppolo, another co-author.

Further evidence that biochemistry -- and almost certainly life -- is plentiful in the universe.

I wonder what life is like on other worlds.  Surely whatever it is, it's evolved into a host of forms completely different from what we have here, ones that have adapted to whatever the local conditions are.  Different sets of environmental challenges would generate new and innovative evolutionary solutions, as would a different set of one-off occurrences (such as the Chicxulub Meteorite collision that ended the supremacy of the dinosaurs and put us mammals on the pathway to pretty much running the place).  Now, take that diversity, those "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful," as Darwin so trenchantly put it -- and multiply that by a million times.

That is what is very likely to be out there in the cosmos.

If I can be forgiven for ending a post with a quote by Carl Sagan two days in a row, the line he put in the mouth of his iconic character Ellie Arroway (from the book and the movie Contact) seems apposite: "If we're the only ones in the universe, it seems like an awful waste of space."


Tuesday, February 21, 2023

A tadpole in the cosmic sea

If you've taken some college-level physics, you can readily attest to the fact that analyzing the motion of objects in perfectly regular, symmetrical orbits is hard enough.  The various bodies orbiting the Sun are, by and large, in elliptical orbits as per Kepler's Laws; there are only tiny deviations from the predicted paths for a couple of them, notably Mercury (whose orbit precesses -- the long axis of the ellipse gradually shifts position -- its proximity to the Sun causes it to experience larger effects from General Relativity than other planets in the Solar System) and Uranus (which experiences small alterations in its orbit due to the gravitational pull of Neptune; in fact, that's how Neptune was discovered).

If you look farther out into space, however, you find that there are some really oddly-shaped conglomerations of matter out there, and it's been difficult for astrophysicists to account for their configurations and patterns of motion.  One example is the peculiar Tadpole Nebula, located 27,000 light years away, in the constellation of Sagittarius:

Artist's depiction of the Tadpole Nebula [Image courtesy of Keio University]

The strange shape of the Tadpole is odd enough, but an analysis of the light emitted from it, and the motion of the gas and dust within it, suggests something stupendous; the Tadpole has been stretched out because it's orbiting a black hole -- with a mass a hundred thousand times that of the Sun.

The Tadpole Nebula is near the center of the Milky Way; from our perspective, the galactic center also lies in Sagittarius.  (In fact, when you're looking toward the constellation of Sagittarius in late summer, consider the fact that if it weren't for the dust clouds in the way, you'd be able to see the glorious spectacle of the Milky Way's nucleus -- other than the Sun, it'd be far and away the brightest thing in the sky.)  And the Milky Way itself has at its center a stupendously large black hole, this one estimated to be four million times the mass of the Sun.  But the Tadpole shows that there are other enormous gravitational attractors out there, capable of taking a huge cloud of gas and stretching it out into a celestial question mark.

My wife and I just finished rewatching the old series Cosmos last week, and I was struck over and over at how delighted Carl Sagan would have been to see the developments and discoveries that have been made since his tragic death of bone marrow cancer in 1996 at the age of 62.  His wonder at the beauty of the universe shines through in every word.  I more than once remarked while watching the series, "He's not only a scientist, he's a poet."  How much more would he be awestruck by what we know today -- the sparkling clarity of the images coming in from the James Webb Space Telescope, the information we're learning about the planets and moons in our own Solar System, the thousands of exoplanets that have been discovered.

I'll conclude with a quote from Sagan, which seems a fitting way to end: "Who would not feel awed?  There is a wide, yawning black infinity.  In every direction, the extension is endless; the sensation of depth is overwhelming.  And the darkness is immortal.  Where light exists, it is pure, blazing, fierce; but light exists almost nowhere, and the blackness itself is also pure and blazing and fierce...  The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars.  We are a way for the universe to know itself."


Monday, February 20, 2023

Anxiety and stigma

I am mentally ill.

I say it that openly, and that bluntly, for a reason: mental illness still has a significant and entirely undeserved stigma in our society, a stigma shared by virtually no other group of illnesses.  I've never heard of someone ashamed to say they have bronchitis, high blood pressure, arthritis, heart disease, or cancer.  While no one would question the gravity of any of those or the impact on the patients and their families, none of those carry the same sense of shame -- the underlying feeling that somehow, it requires an apology, that it's the sufferer's fault for "not trying hard enough."

"Suck it up and deal."  "Just focus on the good things."  "Let go of the negatives."  All, perhaps, well meant, and all entirely useless.  Whatever the underlying cause of the anxiety and depression I've battled my entire life -- whether they're from a neurochemical imbalance, a genetic predisposition (there is good evidence that depression, at least, runs in both sides of my family), trauma from the emotional abuse I endured as a child, or all three -- what I experience is just as real as any symptoms coming from a purely physical illness.

I've gone to hell and back trying to find a medication that helps; none of the standard meds made much of a difference, and several gave me horrible side effects.  Right now the depression is reasonably well in check from the combination of the compassion and support of my family and friends and a set of coping mechanisms (exercise being top of the list).  The anxiety is tougher because it can come on without any warning, and is often triggered by activities that "should be positive" -- getting together with friends, engaging in creative pursuits, even leaving the house.

Edvard Munch, Anxiety (1894) [Image is in the Public Domain]

The reason this comes up is a pair of studies I ran into last week that resonated so strongly with my experience that I found myself saying, "Why didn't the researchers just ask me?  I coulda told them that."  The first, that appeared in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, investigated fear responses -- specifically, how quickly startle reactions ceased once a person realized something surprising wasn't actually a threat.  What they did was show test subjects photographs of two women, then suddenly substituted one with a photograph of a woman showing fear and accompanied it by the sound of a woman screaming at 95 decibels, delivered through headphones.  (I'm so sound-sensitive that just reading about this made me anxious.)  What was fascinating is that (of course) all the test subjects startled, but the ones without anxiety disorders very quickly learned that it wasn't a threat -- on repeated exposures to the same stimulus, they stopped reacting.  The people with anxiety disorders didn't.  Every time the photo changed and the scream came, they reacted, even when they knew it was coming.

This is all too familiar to me.  I once lamented to a therapist, "Exposure therapy doesn't work on me."  I have dreadful social anxiety; I take a long time to open up to people, and when I'm in a large group I tend to shut down completely.  I've been at parties where all night long, I've said exactly two sentences: "Hi, how are you this evening?" and "Good night, thanks for inviting me."  It doesn't seem to matter how many social gatherings I go to where nothing bad happens; I still get overwrought the next time, and spend the lead-up to the event hoping like hell there'll be a dog there to socialize with.

The second study, that appeared in the journal Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, looked at the ways that people with social anxiety cope, and found that those same "safety behaviors" -- such as rehearsing ahead of time what they'll say, avoiding eye contact, shying away physically if they feel like they're in the way, and not talking unless spoken to -- cause others to perceive them as less likable, more standoffish, aloof, and superior, and less authentic.

Which, of course, is the most vicious of vicious cycles.  I know I do all of those things, not to mention finding an excuse to leave early.  I also have a tendency to get tongue-tied when people do speak to me directly, which probably is why in short order they decide that they'd be better off finding someone else to chat with.

Both studies had me saying, "Yeah, exactly."  Even so, I'm glad these sorts of papers are appearing in well-respected journals.  All of it is a step not only toward finding out what underlies mental illness, but toward reducing the stigma.  Sufferers from disorders like depression and social anxiety aren't simply weird, and we're certainly not doing it for attention (something I was accused of pretty much continuously when I was a kid).  We're just struggling, in the same way that someone with a physical illness might struggle.

I have some hope that the stigma is diminishing.  I've been heartened by the support Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania has received following his revelation that he was entering the hospital for treatment for clinical depression.  We still have a long way to go -- there are still people who look at Fetterman's actions as evidence of weakness or instability -- but far more are responding with empathy, with an understanding that we sufferers from mental illness are every bit as deserving of compassionate care as someone dealing with any other kind of illness.

And while understanding that won't cure us, it certainly goes a long way to making us feel like we're not so alone.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: if you, or someone you know, are considering self-harm, please call the Suicide Hotline number now.  The number is 988, and there are people there who can help you and provide the emotional support you need.)


Saturday, February 18, 2023


AI systems like ChatGPT have a lot of people worried, but I just bumped into a story about a group who wouldn't have occurred to me -- pastors.

Apparently, there's been a sudden spike of interest in (and concern over) the use of ChatGPT for sermon-writing.  As you might imagine, the uneasiness creative people feel about AI producing prose, poetry, art, and music is amplified a hundredfold when the issue starts to encroach on religion.

The article is well worth a thorough read, and I won't steal the writer's thunder except to mention a handful of quotes from pastors to give you the all-too-predictable flavor of their responses to AI-generated sermons:

  • It lacks a soul -- I don't know how else to say it.  (Hershael York, Southern Baptist)
  • ChatGPT might be really great at sounding intelligent, but the question is, can it be empathetic?  And that, not yet at least, it can’t. (Joshua Franklin, Orthodox Jewish)
  • While the facts are correct, there’s something deeper missing.  AI cannot understand community and inclusivity and how important these things are in creating church.  (Rachael Keefe, United Church of Christ)
  • When we listen to the Word preached, we are hearing not just a word about God but a word from God.  Such life-altering news needs to be delivered by a human, in person.  A chatbot can research.  A chatbot can write.  Perhaps a chatbot can even orate.  But a chatbot can’t preach. (Russell Moore, Southern Baptist)
To make my own stance clear right from the get-go, I'm what the philosophers call a de facto atheist -- I'm not a hundred percent sure there's no higher power (mostly because I'm not a hundred percent sure of anything), but the complete lack of hard evidence tilts me in the direction of disbelief.  As far as spiritual concerns, like the existence of a soul (or at least "something more" than our physical being), I'm an agnostic.  There is a great deal of weird shit out there that might be explainable by virtue of some sort of non-materialistic model -- but it might just as well have to do with a combination of our own flawed cognitive processes and incomplete understanding of science.  (If you have five minutes, watch this video by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder about why quantum wackiness doesn't support the existence of souls.  I'm not as convinced as she is, but wherever you're starting, belief-wise, it'll get you thinking.)

Apropos of AI, this lands me squarely in Alan Turing's camp.  How on earth am I supposed to judge if a particular AI system "really is intelligent" other than its output -- given that I don't have any access to the inner workings of another human's brain, and barely have access to my own?  The only way to judge intelligence is by what you see externally.  So is ChatGPT intelligent?  In my opinion, the question is honestly not so much difficult as it is meaningless.  It implies that intelligence is some kind of either-or, a threshold that you cross irrevocably, whereas it really seems to be more like a gradually-shifting gray area.  Coming up with a final answer regarding ChatGPT (or any other AI) is drawing an arbitrary line in the sand and then arguing over which side of that line something falls.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons mikemacmarketing, Artificial Intelligence & AI & Machine Learning - 30212411048, CC BY 2.0]

Interestingly, one person on the r/atheism subreddit asked ChatGPT if it wanted to buy his soul.  Here's how it responded:
I'm sorry, but as an AI language model, I don't have the ability to buy or own anything, including souls.  Moreover, the concept of selling one's soul is often used in literature or mythology, but in reality, it's not a valid transaction that can be made.  Your soul is a metaphysical concept that is not subject to exchange or monetary value.  It's important to focus on living a meaningful and fulfilling life rather than trying to sell or trade something that's intangible and invaluable.
I'm not sure whether to laugh or shudder.

In any case, you can understand why the pastors are concerned, given that they don't share my agnosticism over souls and spirits and whatnot, and the prevailing attitude is that there is a qualitative difference between human intelligence and any potential artificial intelligence, no matter how clever it gets.  They're backed into a corner; presented with a sermon written by ChatGPT, they have no choice but to claim that it "lacks a soul" -- because, after all, they think the computer it came from lacks one, too.

Me, I wonder how accurate that view would turn out to be.  It'd be interesting to run a Turing-test-style experiment on some pastors -- give them a bunch of sermons, half of them written by qualified pastors and half written by ChatGPT, and see if they really could detect the lack of soul in the ones from AI.  I suspect that, like all too many other AI applications, we're getting to the point that it'd be a damned difficult determination.  And if they couldn't figure it out, what then?  I'm reminded of the quote from Spock in the James Blish novel Spock Must Die: "A difference that makes no difference is no difference."

Given the rate at which this is all moving forward, we're embarking upon an interesting time.  Although I'm not religious, I empathize with the pastors' dismay; I have a strong sense that the fiction I write has some ineffable something that an AI could never emulate.  But how much of that certainty is simply fear?  I'm not sure my "oh, no, an AI won't ever be able to write a novel like I can" is any different from Reverend Moore's statement that "a chatbot can't preach."  We all get territorial about different things, perhaps, and fight like hell to keep those boundaries secure.  Maybe at heart, the fervor of the religious and the passion of the creatives are really manifestations of the same thing.

I wonder what ChatGPT would have to say about that.