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

Friday, June 30, 2023

Ripples in the cosmic pond

Springboarding off yesterday's post, about a mysterious flare-up of Sagittarius A* (the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy), today we have an even more momentous discovery -- a background thrum of gravitational waves from supermassive black holes in orbit around each other.

Gravitational waves are created when massive objects accelerate through space.  They're actually pulsed fluctuations in the fabric of space-time that propagate out from the source at the speed of light.  The idea has been around for a long time; English mathematician Oliver Heaviside proposed them all the way back in 1893.  Once Einstein wrote his paradigm-overturning paper on relativity in 1915, Heaviside's proposal gained a solid theoretical underpinning.

The problem was detecting them.  They're tiny, especially at large distances from the source; and the converse difficulty is that if you were close enough to the source that they were obvious, they'd be big enough to tear you to shreds.  So observing from a distance is the only real option.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser, Artist’s impression of merging neutron stars, CC BY 4.0]

The result is that it took a hundred years to get direct evidence of their existence.  In 2015 the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) successfully detected the gravitational waves from the merger of two black holes.  The whirling cyclone of energy as they spun around their center of mass, then finally coalesced, caused the space around the detector to oscillate enough to trigger a shift in the interference pattern between two lasers.  The physicists had finally seen the fabric of space shudder for a moment -- and in 2017, the accomplishment won the Nobel Prize for Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish.

Now, though, a new study at the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) has found a whole different kind.  Instead of the sudden, violent, there-and-gone-again waves seen by LIGO, NANOGrav has found a background "hum" in the universe -- the stirring of spacetime because of the orbiting of supermassive black holes around each other.

The accomplishment is made even more astonishing when you find out how long the wavelengths of these waves are.  Frequency is inversely proportional to wavelength, so the "nanohertz" part of the name of the observatory might have given you a clue.  The gravitational waves detected by NANOGrav have wavelengths measured in light years.  So how in the hell do you detect a wave in which -- even traveling at the speed of light -- the trough of the wave doesn't hit you until a year after the crest?

The way they did it is as clever as it is amazing.  Just as you can see a pattern of waves if you look across the surface of a pond, the propagation of these gravitational waves should create a ripple in space that affects the path of any light that travels through them.  The scientists at NANOGrav measured the timing of the light from pulsars -- the spinning remnants of collapsed massive stars, that because of their immense mass and breakneck rotational speed flash on and off with clocklike precision.  And sure enough, as the waves passed, the contraction and expansion of the fabric of space in between caused the pulsars to seem to speed up and slow down, by exactly the amount predicted by the theory.

"The Earth is just bumping around on this sea of gravitational waves," said astrophysicist Maura McLaughlin, of West Virginia University, who was on the team that discovered the phenomenon.

It's a little overwhelming to think about, isn't it?  Millions of light years away, two enormous black holes are orbiting around a common center of gravity, and the ripples that creates in the cosmic pond flow outward at the speed of light, eventually getting here and jostling us.  Makes me feel very, very small.

Which, honestly, is not a bad thing.  It's always good to remember we're (very) tiny entities in a (very) large universe.  Maybe it'll help us not to take our day-to-day worries quite so seriously.


Thursday, June 29, 2023

The glowing death spiral

One of the things that always blows my mind about astronomy is how good we've gotten at using indirect evidence to figure out what's going on up there.

In a way, of course, it's all indirect, at least in the sense that everything we're seeing is (1) wicked far away, and (2) in the past.  I remember how weirded out I was when I first ran into the latter concept, back when I was maybe twelve years old.  My first inkling of it happened when I was out on a walk with my dad, and down the street there was a guy using a sledgehammer to pound in a fence post.  The strange thing was, I saw the hammer's head strike the post, and then, a second or two later I heard the bang of the strike.  I asked my dad why that was.

"Well," he said, after a moment's thought, "the sound takes a moment to get to your ears.  It's why we always see the lightning before we hear the thunder.  And the farther away it is, the longer the delay.  So as we get closer to the guy, the delay should get smaller."

Which, of course, it did.

After I'd had a minute to process that, I said, "But light takes time to get to your eyes, too.  A very short amount of time, but still, some time.  So does that mean you're not seeing things as they are, but as they were in the past?"

My dad agreed that must be so.

Upon learning some more physics, I found out that the Sun is far enough away from the Earth that it takes a bit over eight minutes for light to travel the distance in between.  So if the Sun suddenly vanished -- an unlikely eventuality, fortunately -- we not only wouldn't know it for eight minutes, there is no possible way to know it.  Einstein showed that information can't travel any faster than the speed of light -- it really is the ultimate speed limit.

The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.25 light years, so we're seeing it as it was 4.25 years ago, and have no way of seeing what it looks like right now.  Given that it seems to be a fairly stable star, it probably looks much the same; but the fact remains that we can't know what its current appearance is.  The most distant objects we've seen through our most powerful telescopes are some of the quasars, at thirteen billion light years distant (and thus, what they looked like thirteen billion years ago).  So what those quasars look like right now -- where they are, if they even exist any more -- is impossible to know.  We're seeing them as they looked shortly after the universe began; what they are today is anyone's guess.

Impressively far away, but at least still in our own galaxy, is Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.  It's 26,000 light years distant.  But despite how far away it is -- and the fact that massive dust clouds lie between it and us, obscuring what light it does emit -- we've been able to find out an astonishing amount about it.

Sagittarius A*, as imaged by NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory (Image is in the Public Domain]

This, in fact, is why the topic comes up today -- some research out of the Université de Strasbourg that found evidence of a sudden flare-up of Sagittarius A*, around two hundred years ago.  For such a behemoth, it's been relatively quiet since its discovery in 1990.  But astrophysicist Frédéric Marin has found a cosmic glow that resulted from a brief, powerful flare of x-rays, during which Sagittarius A* was radiating a million times brighter than it is now.

The x-rays caused the clouds of dust surrounding the black hole to fluoresce; from the distance of those clouds from the event horizon of the black hole, Marin and his team determined that they must have been hit by a strong blast of x-rays about two hundred years ago.  (Keep in mind that because of the time-lag effect I described earlier, these times are all as seen from Earth; the actual flare-up occurred 26,200 years ago, or thereabouts.)

What caused the burst isn't known, but is surmised to be the sudden swallowing by the black hole of a denser blob of cosmic dust and gas.  As material goes into a death spiral toward the event horizon of a black hole, it speeds up, and electrons are stripped from atoms, leaving a whirling funnel cloud of charged particles.  These particles radiate away some of that energy in the form of x-rays -- the "smoking gun" that allows us to see black holes, which otherwise would be entirely invisible.

If you get a little nervous about such astronomical violence, there's no cause for alarm; neither Sagittarius A* nor any of its radiation blasts pose any sort of danger to us.  We'd only be in trouble if we were a great deal closer to the galactic center.

So we can just sit back and appreciate the amazing capacity the astrophysicists have for sifting through data and painting us a picture of what the universe looks like.  In this case, the last blaze of glory for a dust cloud that got sucked into a supermassive black hole 26,000 light years away.


Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Rodents of unusual size

My writer friend Vivienne Tuffnell, of the lovely blog Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking, frequently amuses her friends with photos of the antics of her pet guinea pigs.  Her love for her little pals is undoubtedly what prompted her to post a somewhat more alarming photo a couple of days ago:

She captioned it, "Guinea pigs and guinea biggers?"

What's most amazing about this is that the smaller animal isn't even a guinea pig; it's a capybara, the largest living rodent species.  On this scale, your typical guinea pig would about fit in the space underneath the capybara's belly.

So, who's the big guy?

That's Josephoartigasia, a Pliocene (five million to one million years ago) animal from southeastern South America that is thought to be the largest rodent species ever.  From skulls found in Uruguay, a full-grown Josephoartigasia weighed something like five hundred kilograms -- heavier than an adult grizzly bear.

It's hard to talk about this thing without lapsing into superlatives.  The one that blew me away was a calculation of its bite force, putting it at an estimated 950 Newtons, which is right around what an adult jaguar can exert.  Because of this, its skull was heavily reinforced; the more powerful the muscle contraction, the stronger the bones have to be (given that bones provide anchorage and leverage for the pull of the muscles).

What it needed this kind of bite force for is a matter of conjecture.  It's possible it was just for gnawing things.  Like granite outcrops, or something.  On the other hand, South America during the Pliocene was replete with huge predators including Xenosmilus, a sabre-toothed cat, and phorusrhacids -- the aptly-named "terror birds" that looked like a cross between an ostrich and a velociraptor.  So it's possible its fearsome bite was defensive.

When food is abundant and there are lots of large carnivores around, there is a significant evolutionary pressure favoring large body size, and that seems to be what happened here.  Back then, South America's fauna resembled what now lives in southern Africa -- abundant wildlife and lots of very big animals.  Josephoartigasia would have shared the habitat with giant ground sloths, glyptodonts (think "an armadillo on steroids"), toxodonts (the Pliocene answer to hippos), and the giant peccary Platygonus

So it was a world of megafauna, and Josephoartigasia fit right in.

But we're used to thinking of large ungulates; even giant ground sloths are familiar to anyone who's seen a kid's book on prehistoric animals.

But rodents the size of an adult longhorn steer are a little hard to imagine.

So thanks to Vivienne, who has provided cool topics for Skeptophilia before and definitely didn't fail me this time.  Me, I'm just as glad Josephoartigasia is not around any more.  I have enough of a hard time keeping squirrels out of the birdfeeder.

Having a cow-sized squirrel that could eat the birdfeeder would be another thing entirely.


Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Le comte éternel

When I was a kid, the high point of my year was the two-week trip my dad and I took every August to Arizona and New Mexico.  He was an avid rockhound and lapidary, so his goal was collecting agate and turquoise and jasper to bring home and make into jewelry.  Mine, on the other hand, was wandering in the beautiful, desolate hills that were so unlike the lush near-jungles of my native southern Louisiana.

Another thing I loved about that part of the country was the abundance of peculiar little curio shops.  Some were clearly tourist traps, but some were run by honest-to-goodness old-time eccentric southwesterners, and filled with weird and wonderful oddities.  One of these I recall well was in Alpine, Texas, and was mostly a used book store, but had all sorts of other stuff (including, to my dad's delight, rocks).

That's where I picked up a copy of Richard Cavendish's book The Black Arts, about the history of occultism.  At that age (I was about thirteen at the time) I was absolutely fascinated with this stuff.  And it was in The Black Arts that I first ran across the peculiar character known as the Comte de Saint-Germain.

Saint-Germain is one of a handful of people who are, supposedly, immortal.  Here's the passage about him from Cavendish's book:

One of of the most famous of all those who are supposed to have possessed the Elixir of Life is the Count of Saint-Germain.  "The Comte de Saint-Germain and Sir Francis Bacon," says Manly P. Hall, the leading light of the Philosophical Research Society of Los Angeles, "are the two greatest emissaries sent into the world by the Secret Brotherhood in the last thousand years."  The Secret Brotherhood is a group of Masters, whose headquarters are said to be in the Himalayas and who are attempting to guide mankind along higher paths.

Saint-Germain hobnobbed with the highest social circles in France, winning the favour of Madame de Pompadour in 1759 with his "water of rejuvenation."  Immensely erudite and enormously rich, he was a skillful violinist, painter, and chemist, had a photographic memory, and was said to speak eleven languages fluently, including Chinese, Arabic, and Sanskrit...  He was believed to be over two thousand years old...  He delighted in reminiscing about the great ones of the past with whom he had been on familiar terms, including the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra.  He was a wedding guest at Cana when Christ turned the water into wine.  There is a pleasant story of him describing a dear friend of long ago, Richard the Lionheart, and turning to his manservant for confirmation.  "You forget, sir," the valet said solemnly.  "I have only been five hundred years in your service."

Saint-Germain attributed his astonishing longevity to his diet and his elixir...  He is supposed to have died in Germany in 1784, but occultists believe that he was probably given a mock burial... It is said that he was frequently seen alive in the next century and was known to Bulwer-Lytton.

It's a curious story, to say the least.  In Umberto Eco's brilliant novel Foucault's Pendulum, his character of Agliè coyly hints that he's the latest rebranding of the Comte de Saint-Germain -- but when the main character, Casaubon, tries to tell this to his psychologist, and that Agliè/Saint-Germain is at the center of a gigantic and murderous conspiracy, the doctor gives him a level look and says, "Monsieur, vous êtes fou."  ("Mister, you are crazy.")

Reading about this stuff can definitely leave you feeling that way, but there's no doubt Saint-Germain was a real guy.  He left behind a number of surviving musical compositions, and two extant written works are attributed to him.  He was employed on diplomatic missions by French King Louis XV.  Voltaire met him, and despite Voltaire's generally skeptical view of things, he apparently at least halfway believed the Comte's grandiose tales.  He called Saint-Germain "the Wonder-Man -- a man who does not die, and who knows everything."  Prince Charles of Hesse-Kassel called him "the greatest philosopher who ever lived."  

Giacomo Casanova, however, wasn't so impressed, although he had to admit to some grudging admiration for Saint-Germain's ability to lie so convincingly:

This extraordinary man, intended by nature to be the king of impostors and quacks, would say in an easy, assured manner that he was three hundred years old, that he knew the secret of the Universal Medicine, that he possessed a mastery over nature, that he could melt diamonds, professing himself capable of forming, out of ten or twelve small diamonds, one large one of the finest water without any loss of weight.  All this, he said, was a mere trifle to him.  Notwithstanding his boastings, his bare-faced lies, and his manifold eccentricities, I cannot say I thought him offensive.  In spite of my knowledge of what he was and in spite of my own feelings, I thought him an astonishing man as he was always astonishing me.

Throughout his life (assuming he did actually die!), Saint-Germain's ability to astonish kept him the darling of high society.  His portrait hangs in the Louvre:

[Image is in the Public Domain]

So who was he?

This is where it gets even more interesting, because no one knows for sure.  In fact, no one even knows his real name; he had a dozen or more by which he was regularly known.  He claimed to be the son of Francis II Rákóczi, Prince of Transylvania, but keep in mind that the guy also claimed to be thousands of years old, so that should be taken with a large handful of salt.  Rákóczi did have a son, named Leopold George -- but the records indicate Leopold died at age four.  The occultists, of course, have an answer for that (they seem to have an answer for everything, don't they?) -- they say that Rákóczi kept his son's survival a secret to protect him from the scheming Habsburgs, which accounts for Saint-Germain's education and wealth (and penchant for secrecy).  All through his life he wove a web of mystery around himself, and reveled in the cachet it gave him with the aristocracy.  

P. T. Barnum, though, in his 1886 book The Humbugs of the World, clearly wasn't having any of it:

The Marquis de Créquy declared that Saint-Germain was an Alsatian Jew, Simon Wolff by name, and was born at Strasbourg about the close of the 17th or the beginning of the 18th century; others insist that he was a Spanish Jesuit named Aymar; and others again intimate that his true title was the Marquis de Betmar, and that he was a native of Portugal.  The most plausible theory, however, makes him the natural son of an Italian princess and fixes his birth at San Germano, in Savoy, about the year 1710; his ostensible father being one Rotondo, a tax-collector of that district.

Barnum was an expert on fooling the gullible; there's the sense here that he wasn't fond of the competition.

Whoever Saint-Germain was, there's no doubt he was a fascinating character.  Predictably, I'm not buying that he was thousands of years old, nor that somehow, he's still alive.  And many of his claims are somewhere between "implausible" and "ludicrous."  But there's no doubt that he was an accomplished and skilled trickster, and relished the air of mystery his stories gave him.  It'd be nice to have some answers to the questions he surrounded himself with, but the truth is, he was too good at covering his tracks -- and like the more famous mystery of Jack the Ripper, we'll probably never know his identity for sure. 


Monday, June 26, 2023

Advanced elegance

I think it's a natural human tendency to be awed by what we don't understand.

I know when I see some abstruse concept that is far beyond my grasp, I'm impressed not only by how complex the universe can be, but that there are people who can comprehend it.  I first ran into this in a big way when I was in college, and took a class called Classical Mechanics.  The topic was the mathematics of why and how objects move, how that motion affects other objects, and so on.

It was the first time in my life I had ever collided with something that regardless of my effort, I couldn't get.  The professor, Dr. Spross, was a very patient man, but his patience was up against a classical-mechanics-proof brain.  On the first exam, I scored a 19.


And I'm convinced that he had dredged up the 19 points from somewhere so I wouldn't end up with a single-digit score.  I ended that class with a C-, which I think Dr. Spross gave me simply because he didn't want me back again the following semester, spending another four months ramming my poor physics-deficient head up against a metaphorical brick wall.

There's one memory that stands out from that experience, over forty years ago, besides the overwhelming frustration.  It was when Dr. Spross introduced the concept of the "Hamiltonian function," a mathematical framework for analyzing motion.  He seemed so excited about it.  It was, he said, an incredibly elegant way to consider velocity, acceleration, force, momentum, and so on.  So I thought, "Cool!  That sounds pretty interesting."

Following that cheerful thought was an hour and a half of thinking, "I have no fucking idea what any of this means."  It was completely opaque.  The worst part was that a number of my classmates were nodding their heads, writing stuff down, and seemed to get it with no problem.

So either I was the only complete dunderhead in the class, or they were just better at hiding their dismay than I was.

Anyhow, I think that was the moment I realized a career in research physics was not in the cards for me.

To this day, the "Hamiltonian function" remains something that in my mind symbolizes the Unknowable.  I have deep and abiding admiration for people for whom that concept makes sense (first and foremost, William Rowan Hamilton, who developed it).  And I'm sure it is elegant, just as Dr. Spross said.  But experiencing that elegance was (and probably still is) entirely beyond me.

It's this tendency to find what we can't understand awe-inspiring that has led to the idea of the God of the gaps -- in which gaps in our scientific knowledge are attributed to the incomprehensible hand of the divine.  Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized what the problem with this was, at least for people who are religious:
How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge.  If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat.  We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know.
Anyhow, that was a long-winded preamble as an explanation of why all of this comes up in today's post.  I immediately thought of the awe-inspiring nature of what we don't understand when I read an article yesterday about two researchers at the University of Rochester, Tamar Friedmann and Carl Hagen, who found that a method for calculating the energy levels of a hydrogen atom generates the well-known number pi.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

It turns out to have something to do with a mathematical function called the Wallis product, which says that you can generate π/2 by a simple series of multiplications:
π/2 = (2/1) x (2/3) x (4/3) x (4/5) x (6/5) x (6/7) x (8/7) x (8/9)....
The pattern is that the numerators of the fractions are 2, 2, 4, 4, 6, 6, 8, 8... and the denominators 1, 3, 3, 5, 5, 7, 7, 9, 9...  And the cool thing is, the more terms you add, the closer you get to π/2.

Now, as for why this is so... well, I tried reading the explanation, and my eyes started spinning.  And I've taken lots of math courses, including calculus and differential equations, and like I said earlier, I majored in physics (as much of a mistake as that turned out to be).  But when I took a look at the paper about the energy levels of hydrogen and the Wallis product and gamma functions, I almost could hear Dr. Spross's voice, explaining it in a tone implying it would be immediately clear to a small child, or even an unusually intelligent dog.

And all of those feelings from Classical Mechanics came bubbling up to the surface.

So I'm left with being a little in awe about it all.  Somehow, even though I have no real understanding of why, the same number that I learned about in geometry class as the ratio between a circle's circumference and its diameter shows up in the energy levels of hydrogen atoms.  Predictably, I'm not inclined to attribute such correspondences to the hand of the divine, but they do seem to be (in Dr. Spross's words) "elegant."  And even if I never get much beyond that, I can still appreciate the minds of the people who can.


Saturday, June 24, 2023

The mystery plague

Ever heard of cocoliztli?

In one way, it's shocking if you haven't, and in another, hardly surprising at all, because the vast majority of its victims were the indigenous people of Mexico and Central America, and history has a way of ignoring what happened to brown-skinned people.  Cocoliztli is the Nahuatl name for a contagious, usually fatal disease that struck Mesoamerica repeatedly, with the worst recorded outbreaks in the sixteenth century, killing an estimated ten million people.  This puts it in fifth place for the worst pandemics known, after the Black Death (estimated one hundred million casualties), Justinian's plague (fifty million), HIV/AIDS (forty million), and the Spanish flu (thirty million).  [Nota bene: if we're adding up total death toll, one of the worst is smallpox, but as that was endemic and widespread, I'm not counting that as a true pandemic.  In eighteenth-century Europe, for example, it's estimated that four hundred thousand people died of smallpox per year; and its introduction into the Americas decimated Native populations.  It's likely we'll never know for sure how big the death toll was, but it was huge.]

The symptoms of cocoliztli were awful.  Severe headache, high fever, vertigo, jaundice, and abdominal cramps.  The worst was the hemorrhaging -- victims bled from every orifice including the tear ducts.  Most of the victims died, usually between four and seven days after onset.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

There are two curious things about cocoliztli.  The first is that there hasn't been a confirmed case of it since 1813.

So where has it gone?  Ordinarily, infectious diseases occur at low rates until a confluence of events triggers a more widespread outbreak.  Consider, for example, the Black Death.  Bubonic plague (caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis) has been present in humans for millennia, but a perfect storm occurred in the mid-fourteenth century that caused the most devastating pandemic in history.  First, it was the beginning of the Little Ice Age, and the lower temperatures drove rats (and the fleas they carried) indoors, and into contact with humans.  Second, trade throughout Europe, and with Asia (via the Silk Road), had really just started to gear up, and rats are notorious for stowing away on ships.  And third, the population had risen -- and larger, more crowded cities facilitate disease spread.

Cocoliztli, though, hit Mesoamerica hard, and seemingly out of nowhere.  Repeated outbreaks in 1545, 1576, 1736, and 1813 killed millions, but in between, we don't know where it went -- or why after 1813 it apparently vanished completely.

The second odd thing is that we still don't know what caused it.

The bones of presumed victims have offered up only debatable information.  Back in 2018, Johannes Krause, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, found DNA in bones from victims of the 1545 outbreak that seems to come from a Salmonella enterica strain called Paratyphi C, but that doesn't mean that's what killed them -- and one epidemiologist has pointed out that typhoid fever, which is caused by S. enterica, doesn't have the same symptoms as cocoliztli.  Others suggest that its symptoms are more consistent with a viral hemorrhagic fever like Ebola, Lassa, and Marburg, but there are no viruses known that are endemic to the Americas and cause symptoms like that.

A rather sobering possibility is that the pathogen, whatever it is, resides in an animal vector -- that is, it's a zöonotic disease, one that exists in an animal population and is reintroduced to humans periodically upon contact.  If so, it's unknown what that vector might be -- but the jungles of Central America are a big place, and there are lots of animals there in which a pathogen might hide.

Whatever causes it, and wherever it went, it's to be hoped it's gone for good.  This would put it in the same class as the mysterious European sweating sickness, that caused repeated outbreaks in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and then vanished, apparently permanently.  It, like cocoliztli, was highly infectious -- but the pathogen remains unidentified.

Cocoliztli left its mark on history.  The population of Mexico collapsed in the sixteenth century, largely due to the outbreaks, dropping from an estimated twenty-two million in 1500 to two million a hundred years later.  This undoubtedly contributed to the Spanish takeover -- something that reverberates to the present day.

It's also an enduring mystery.  How such a virulent disease could strike so hard, decimating an entire region, and then vanish utterly is bizarre.  But it does highlight how important epidemiological research is -- helping us to understand how pathogens cause disease, and how they jump from one host to the other.  Giving us, it is to be hoped, the tools for stopping the next pandemic before it happens.


Friday, June 23, 2023

Stolen voices

AI scares the hell out of me.

Not, perhaps, for the reason you might be thinking.  Lately there have been scores of articles warning about the development of broad-ability generative AI, and how we're in for it as a species if that happens -- that AI will decide we're superfluous, or even hazardous for its own survival, and it'll proceed to either enslave us (The Matrix-style) or else do away with us entirely.

For a variety of reasons, I think that's unlikely.  First, I think conscious, self-aware AI is a long way away (although it must be mentioned that I'm kind of lousy at predictions; I distinctly recall telling my AP Biology class that "adult tissue cloning is at least ten years in the future" the week before the Dolly the sheep research was released).  For another, you have to wonder how, practically, AI would accomplish killing us all.  Maybe a malevolent AI could infiltrate our computer systems and screw things up royally, but wiping us out as a species is very hard to imagine.


I'm seriously worried about AI's escalating impact on creative people.  As a fiction writer, I follow a lot of authors on Twitter, and in the past week there's been alarm over a new application of AI tools (such as Sudowrite and Chat GPT) that will "write a novel" given only a handful of prompts.  The overall reaction to this has been "this is not creativity!", which I agree with, but what's to stop publishers from cutting costs -- skipping the middle-man, so to speak -- and simply AI-generating novels to sell?  No need to deal with (or pay) pesky authors.  Just put in, "write a space epic about an orphan, a smuggler, and a princess who get caught up in a battle to stop an evil empire," and presto!  You have the next Star Wars in a matter of minutes.

If you think this isn't already happening, you're fooling yourself.  Every year, the group Queer Science Fiction hosts a three-hundred-word flash fiction contest, and publishes an anthology of the best entries.  (Brief brag; I've gotten into the anthology two years running, and last year my submission, "Refraction," won the Director's Pick Award.  I should hear soon if I got the hat trick and made it into this year's anthology.)  J. Scott Coatsworth (a wonderful author in his own right), who manages the contest, said that for the first time this year he had to run submissions through an algorithm to detect AI-generated writing -- and caught (and disqualified) ten entires.

If people are taking these kinds of shortcuts to avoid writing a three-hundred-word story, how much more incentive is there to use it to avoid the hard work and time required to write a ninety-thousand-word novel?  And how much longer will it be before AI becomes good enough to slip past the detection algorithms?

And it's not just writing.  You've no doubt heard of the issue with AI art, but do you know about the impact on music?  Musician Rick Beato did a piece on YouTube about AI voice synthesis that is fascinating and terrifying.  It includes a clip of a "new Paul McCartney/John Lennon duet" -- completely AI-created, of course -- that is absolutely convincing.  He frames the question as, "who owns your voice?"  It's a more complex issue than it appears at first.  Parodists and mimics imitate famous voices all the time, and as long as they're not claiming to actually be the person they're imitating, it's all perfectly legal.  So what happens if a music producer decides to generate an AI Taylor Swift song?  No need to pay the real Taylor Swift; no expensive recording studio time needed.  As long as it's labeled "AI Taylor Swift," it seems like it should be legal.

Horrifyingly unethical, yes.  But legal.

And because all of this boils down to money, you know it's going to happen.  "Write a novel in the style of Stephen King."  "Create a new song by Linkin Park."  "Generate a painting that looks like Salvador Dalí."  What happens to the actual artists, musicians, and writers?  Once your voice is stolen and synthesized, what need is there for your real voice any more?

Of course, I think that creatives are absolutely critical; our voices are unique and irreplaceable.  The problem is, if an AI can get close enough to the real thing, you can bet consumers are going to go for it, not only because AI-generated content will be a great deal cheaper, but also for the sheer novelty.  ("Listen to this!  Can you believe this isn't actually Beyoncé?")  As an author, I can vouch for the fact that it's already hard enough to get your work out to the public, have it seen and read and reviewed.

What will we do when the market is flooded with cheap, mediocre-but-adequate AI-generated content?

I'm no legal expert, and I don't have any ready solutions for how this could be fairly managed.  There are positive uses for AI, so "ban it all" isn't the answer.  And in any case, the genie is out of the bottle; any efforts to stop AI development at this point are doomed to failure.

But we have to figure out how to protect the voices of creatives.  Because without our voices, we've lost the one thing that truly makes us human.


Thursday, June 22, 2023

A new field

I was fortunate enough that the day-job of my bandmate of many years, Kathy Selby, was working as a physicist at Cornell University.

As you might suspect, our conversations while traveling to gigs were pretty interesting.

One time we were on our way to play for a dance in Rochester, and I asked her what she thought about dark matter and dark energy -- which according to current models make up, respectively, 27% and 68% of the mass-energy content of the universe.  [Nota bene: the use of the word "dark" in both names does not mean that they are in any sense the same thing.  Dark matter is a name for the observation that the gravitational attraction of conventional matter is insufficient to account for the measured velocities of galaxies and galaxy clusters; there must be some other, unseen matter there that does not interact with ordinary matter electromagnetically, or else our model for gravity is incorrect.  Dark energy, on the other hand, is a theoretical energy inherent in space itself that might explain the accelerating expansion of the universe.]

So yes, only five percent of the universe is the regular stuff we see around us on a daily basis.  The other 95% is largely unexplained, and is yet to be detected directly.

In any case, I asked Kathy what her opinion was about the rather uncomfortable situation of having the vast majority of the universe thus far inaccessible to scientific study.

"In my opinion," she said, "we're in a situation a bit like physicists were in the late nineteenth century.  They knew light had strange properties.  It acted like a wave much of the time, so they'd postulated a medium -- the luminiferous aether -- through which the wave was propagating.  The problem was, every attempt to detect the aether failed.  Then Michelson and Morley came along and showed that the prediction of an 'aether drag' caused by the motion of the Earth through space didn't exist, suggesting very much that the aether didn't either.  The speed of light in a vacuum seemed to be the same in all reference frames, which was unlike any other wave ever studied.  Then Einstein said, 'Well, let's start by assuming that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same regardless of your reference frame, and see what happens,' and the aether became unnecessary.  Of course, what came out of that shift in perspective was the Theories of Relativity.

"What I think," she concluded, "is that we're waiting for this century's Einstein to tell us that we've been looking at everything the wrong way -- and suddenly the problems of dark matter and dark energy will evaporate, just like the aether did."

Well, we may have just gotten a glimpse at one possibility for that shift in perspective, courtesy of physicist Lucas Lombriser of the Université de Genève.

A paper published two weeks ago in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity started by looking at what has been called "the worst prediction in physics" -- the value of the cosmological constant, which sets the expansion rate of the universe.  The prediction by theoretical physicists of what the cosmological constant should be given what we know about matter, and what we actually measure it to be, differ by 120 orders of magnitude -- that's 1 followed by 120 zeroes.

Oops.  Major oops.  This is what gave rise to the mysterious dark energy, some peculiar property of space itself that solves the mismatch.  But as far as what exactly this dark energy might be, physicists have come up empty-handed, so more and more it's seemed like a placeholder to cover up for the fact that we don't really understand what's going on.

This, Lombriser says, is because -- like with Einstein's solution to the aether -- we're starting out with the wrong assumption.

Maybe the universe is flat and static, as Einstein himself believed (after the discovery of red shift and the expansion of the universe, Einstein was forced unwillingly to accept an expanding universe and a cosmological constant -- which he later called "the greatest blunder of my career").  Perhaps space isn't expanding; it's the masses of particles that have changed over time.  The altered masses change the gravitational field that permeates space, and that's what generates red shift and the appearance of expansion.  So there is a cosmological constant, but it comes from the particles themselves, and the field in which they reside, evolving.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Original image by User:Vlad2i, slightly modified by User:mapos., Gravitational red-shifting2, CC BY-SA 3.0]

This new take solves three problems at once.  It does away with the cosmological constant mismatch; dark energy pretty much disappears completely; and the field itself that's responsible for the mass change could account for dark matter, as it shares many properties with an axion field, and axions are one of the leading candidates for the constituents of dark matter.  

This simultaneous solution of three vexing problems is certainly intriguing.  But the question is, is Lombriser right?  "The paper is pretty interesting, and it provides an unusual outcome for multiple problems in cosmology," said physicist Luz Ángela García, of the Universidad ECCI Bogotá, who was not involved in the research.  "The theory provides an outlet for the current tensions in cosmology.  However, we must be cautious.  Lombriser's solution contains elements in its theoretical model that likely can't be tested observationally, at least in the near future."

Which, of course, is the issue, and is all too common in this branch of science.  Even though Einstein's Theories of Relativity did a good job of accounting for various anomalies in the properties of light, the first precise confirmation of his predictions didn't occur until 39 years after he wrote his seminal paper in 1915.  How to detect the fluctuating field Lombriser postulates -- and, more importantly, how to distinguish its effects from the current model of expanding space -- is currently beyond us.

So maybe Lombriser is what my bandmate Kathy called "this century's Einstein."  Or maybe his ideas will prove to be just another unverified or (worse) unverifiable hypothesis.  But I have to say, when I read about what he's proposing, my ears did perk up.  It has the feel of a paradigm shift -- just what we've been waiting for.

And you can bet that the physicists are going to be all over this, looking for ways either to confirm or refute what he's saying.


Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Rock recall

First, we had a "Quantum Pendant" that was supposed to realign your chakra frequencies (or something like that), but was recalled when the authorities found the rock it was made from was actually radioactive.  Then we had the warning issued because people with ear wax impactions were sticking lit candles in their ears to "suck out the wax," which resulted in several hospitalizations and at least one person setting their house on fire. Yet another warning was put out by doctors when the woo-woos started recommending taking off all your clothes and exposing your butthole to direct sunlight, risking a sunburn that I don't even want to think about.  Then there were the homeopathic "remedies" that were taken off the shelves because, by some horrific mistake, they turned out to have some actual active ingredients.

So you'd think after all this -- and, allow me to say, I didn't make any of the above up -- either (1) the general public would realize that the woo-woo alt-med types are full of shit and stop listening to anything they say, or (2) I'd stop being surprised by what new idiotic "natural health" fads crop up.

Neither of those, in fact, has happened.

This comes up because of a loyal reader of Skeptophilia who sent me a link to a story out of Australia about a company that distributes chunks of a rock called rough serpentine to stores specializing in woo-woo crystal nonsense.  Serpentine is common -- it's a characteristic rock found in areas that once were part of oceanic plates -- but it's pretty enough.  It often has green and black bands, and occurs in two main forms, a shiny, smooth "platy" variety (sometimes nicknamed "false jade"), and a fibrous, grainy "rough" variety.  If you're curious about what they claim serpentine can do, one source says that it "is believed to help establish control over one's life.  According to metaphysical beliefs, serpentine provides a clearing of thought to better facilitate meditation.  Serpentine is said to clear clouded areas of the chakras and stimulate the crown chakra, promoting spiritual understanding and psychic abilities."

Pretty impressive, no?

There's a wee problem with rough serpentine, though.

It contains asbestos.

Rough serpentine [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Tiia Monto, Talk on Serpentine, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Asbestos exposure, as I probably don't need to mention, is associated with lung cancer, emphysema, and mesothelioma.

"Consumers should immediately stop using this product and wrap it in thick sturdy plastic or a heavy duty sturdy plastic bag where the seal cannot be broken," said a spokesperson for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.  "The supplier – Alliz Trading Pty Ltd – will contact consumers to provide advice about safe disposal of the stones and arrange a full refund."

I really shouldn't be surprised this happened.  It's all part and parcel of the "if it's natural, it must be good for you" mentality, which conveniently ignores the fact that strychnine is all-natural and 100% organic.

For what it's worth, this was completely natural, too.  I'm guessing the dinosaurs' chakras were pretty fucking clouded afterward, though.  Pity no one was around to give them some serpentine.

In any case, it brings home the fact that modern science and medicine have done a good job of improving our lives.  Yes, they're far from perfect.  I'm aware of the issues with the pharmaceuticals industry, and the ongoing health insurance mess here in the United States.  I know that modern technology has created a good many problems itself.  But on balance, we live longer, healthier lives, and more of our children survive to adulthood, than ever before, and that's not because more of us are waving crystals around, taking "remedies" that have been diluted to the point that there's basically nothing left but water, or (heaven forfend) exposing our nether orifices to direct sunlight.

So learn a little science, okay?  And stay away from rocks containing asbestos.  Those things are dangerous.


Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Out of line

Every so often, I run into a claim that some archaeological site aligns with a particular astronomical object, and all too often, everyone decides that the alignment is why the site was built where and how it was.

Trying to parse the motives of long-dead people who left nothing in the way of written records is a dicey business.  In fact, sometimes it's hard enough even when you're talking about extant cultures.  This was brilliantly lampooned in Horace Miner's rightly famous 1956 article "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema," which appeared in American Anthropologist, and took a rigorous and scholarly look at the mysterious "shrines" we all have in our houses...

... better known as "bathrooms."  And, of course, reached the wrong conclusions about the purposes of nearly everything in them.

The problem arises because the human brain is a pattern-finding device, so it's often hard to resist our tendency to see a pattern when there is none there.  This is the origin of the phenomenon of ley lines -- which I wrote about twelve years ago, in one of my earliest Skeptophilia posts -- the claim that towns, cities, and religious sites are laid out along "lines of power" generated by some unknown forces in the Earth itself.  There are a couple of completely prosaic reasons this alignment happens:

  1. Populated sites in areas with relatively flat topography are frequently connected by straight lines, because as Papa Euclid taught us, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.
  2. More interestingly -- and germane to the pattern-finding tendency referenced above -- if you aren't given any constraints about what particular places you're trying to connect, you can almost always find completely accidental correlations that look like deliberate alignment.

The latter is why the whole topic comes up, because of a fun site I stumbled on called Spurious Alignments: Bad Archaeoastronomy At Your Fingertips.  What this site does is allow you to overlay various astronomical benchmarks (e.g. sunrise on the Winter Solstice, the northernmost point on the horizon where Jupiter rises, and so on) on top of particular geographic locations -- and see what correlations you can find.

One of the best ones anyone's found so far is the airport in Palermo, Italy.  Here are a few of the relevant discoveries:

  • Runway 07/25 tracks the relative motions of the Moon.
  • Runway 02/20 aligns with the rise of the star Capella.
  • Taxiways Bravo and Charlie align with the setting of the star Procyon.
  • Taxiway Delta points directly toward the setting of the star Arcturus.
From this, we can clearly see that the Palermo Airport is a site built by ancient astronomers, and the whole complex is an observatory, or possibly the center of a sky-worshiping cult.

The difficulty, of course, is some sites were created because of astronomical alignments.  Many of our distant ancestors knew the motions of the skies better than your average person does today.  A good example, not really explainable any other way, is the famous Sun Dagger on Fajade Butte in New Mexico.  A spiral design carved into the side of a rock facing is across from a crack between two stones, and -- only on the Summer Solstice -- this crack allows light from the Sun at midday to form a "dagger" that perfectly bisects the spiral.

The Sun Dagger is pretty clearly a solstice marker, allowing people to keep track of the seasons in a climate that was hostile to say the least.

But as for most of the other "ancient astronomical observatory" claims -- well, maybe.  It's too easy to find spurious correlations and alignments, especially when there are no rules about what you're trying to get the site to align to.

Or, maybe, the people who built the Palermo Airport really were trying to tell us something.  You never know.