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

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Earth angel

To round out the week in an appropriately surreal fashion, today we consider one of the most pressing issues facing mankind, to wit:

Is the Earth being controlled by mentally deficient Nordic alien angels?

Angel Playing a Flageolet, by Edward Burne-Jones (1878) [Image is in the Public Domain]

That is the contention of the author of the site, the link for which was sent to me by a frequent contributor to Skeptophilia, and that introduces the concept thusly:
There is far more to this world than taught in our schools, shown in the media, or proclaimed by the church and state.  Most of mankind lives in a hypnotic trance, taking to be reality what is instead a twisted simulacrum of reality, a collective dream in which values are inverted, lies are taken as truth, and tyranny is accepted as security.  They enjoy their ignorance and cling tightly to the misery that gives them identity.
Yup, that's me, clinging to my miserable ignorance, over here.  But what should I believe, then?  We find out a bit under "Key Concepts," which starts out innocuously enough -- some stuff about the nature of God, spirit, souls, and so on, not too very different than you might find on a number of religious or quasi-religious sites.  But then we hit the concept "Evolution," there's the sense of an impending train wreck:
  • physical evolution is due to natural selection, random mutation, conscious selection, and conscious mutation
  • human evolution is mostly artificial; either DNA mutates to conform to alien soul frequency, or else DNA is artificially altered through advanced genetic engineering by certain alien factions
  • because body must match soul, the death of a species means loss of compatible bodies for purposes of reincarnation. Thus physical life seeks physical survival and propagation of genes.
  • the purpose of physical evolution is to accommodate and serve spiritual evolution
If I could evolve consciously, I'd evolve wings.  Great big feathery wings from my shoulder blades.  I know it'd make it hard to put on a shirt, but that's a downside I'd be willing to accept.  I don't like wearing a shirt anyhow, and I'd happily give them up in order to be able to fly.  I mean, how absolutely badass was this guy?

Speaking of wings and flying, we really get into deep water when he starts talking about angels.  Because according to the website, angels are real -- again, not thus far so very different from what a lot of people believe.  But wait until you hear what he thinks angels are.  (Do NOT attempt to drink anything while reading this.  I will not be responsible for ruined computer screens or keyboards.  You HAVE been warned.)
Mankind is unwittingly caught in a war between hidden superhuman factions who select, train, equip their human agents to participate in that war...  There is warring among these beings, indicating they are not all unified.  At the very minimum they are polarized into opposing sides, if not split into numerous independent factions.  Some factions have a strong fascist orientation.

The Nordic aliens are genetically compatible with us, and some of their females have engaged human males for sexual encounters and even long term relationships.  Through interbreeding their genes can enter our gene pool and vice versa.  Therefore some human individuals and bloodlines would have more of their DNA than others, and their angelic alien DNA would likely show under analysis to be basically human, albeit rare and unusual.
So, we could tell that a human had angelic alien DNA because if we analyzed his DNA, we'd find it was... human?

Alrighty then.

We then hear about what these beings are not: these misidentifications include hoaxes (don't be silly), "metaphysical entities," members of the Galactic Federation, and Super Nazis.  So thank heaven for that, at least.

We also get to read lots of stories about alien abductions, many of which include some serious bow-chicka-bow-wow with blond-haired Nordic aliens aboard their spaceships, and which presumably allowed the lucky abductee to claim membership in the Light-Year-High Club.  But then we hear the bad news, which is that the aliens who have visited us, and who have apparently engaged in a great deal of cosmic whoopee with humans, are actually mentally challenged:
The members of the Nordic alien civilization are not all homogenous in standing or understanding.  Composition ranges from a two-tier system of “lower retarded ones” and “higher advanced ones” to caste-like systems with many tiers similar to the Indian caste system.

The retarded members of their kind are the ones who interact with the most advanced of humans.  Why?  Maybe because of their evolutionary closeness, and also because such an interaction could be mutually beneficial.  Despite their seeming superhuman qualities, those aliens who interact most with select humans may, in fact, be the most flawed of their race.

The problem... is that their most flawed ones are not only the creators and users of demiurgic technology, but they are also most involved in human affairs.  This means we suffer their errors, which are graver in consequence than any mistake we could commit, just as our errors are more severe than those possible by animals.  The consequences of these errors and grave transgressions have cascaded back and forth throughout the timeline.  They are now converging toward a nexus point representing the potential for a cataclysmic shift.  Alien factions who were responsible for initiating these consequences are likely the same ones who are now involved in the final outcome.  A thread of continuity exists between the most ancient and modern of human-alien encounters.  The alien disinformation campaign is an effort by one set of such factions to prepare mankind for enthusiastic acceptance of their overt control.
Well, hell.  This is even worse than the Illuminati-run-the-government thing, or the Evil-Reptilian-Alien thing, or even the jet-contrails-contain-mind-altering-drugs thing.  We're being controlled by mentally deficient aliens, who can screw things up even worse than plain old humans could?  All because they've come to Earth looking for some hot human/Nordic alien action?

I don't know about you, but I don't like this at all.

There is more on the website, of course, including stuff about the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, the North Pole, Adam and Eve, alchemy, dimensional portals, the ether, the Pyramids, zombie computers, and snakes.  I encourage you to peruse it.  I would have read more myself, but it seems a little early in the day to start drinking, and I just don't think I could have managed it without a glass of scotch.

So, anyway, there you have it.  As if we didn't have enough to worry about, now we find out that the rulers of the world are blond-haired moronic alien angels, and (worse still) that some of us are descended from them.  I'm guessing I'm not, though.  I am blond, but I've got my family tree pretty well mapped out, and I haven't run into any records that show my great-great-great grandma getting knocked up by the Archangel Derpiel.  That's okay with me, honestly.  If I don't get wings out of the bargain, then fuck it.


Friday, March 29, 2024

Leaps of faith

Sometimes my searching for topics for Skeptophilia leads me down some very peculiar rabbit holes.  Like yesterday, when (while looking for something else) I stumbled upon a link to a Wikipedia page called "Levitation of saints."  So of course I couldn't resist having a look at that.

And... wow.

Apparently there's a long tradition in Christianity that holy people can fly, or at least float.  I was raised in a staunchly Roman Catholic family, and as befits such an upbringing, I read the Bible and other religious texts regularly, but I had no idea about this.  Some of the stories don't come from the Bible directly but from hagiography (writings by and/or about saints), which understandably lead some people to take them with a substantial grain of salt (me, I take it all with a substantial grain of salt, but I suspect you already knew that).

In any case, apparently there were a good many saintly types who, if they didn't exactly fly, engaged in falling with style.  Here's an eighteenth-century engraving of a guy named Joseph of Cupertino, for example:

[Image is in the Public Domain]

Is it just me, or does he look kind of freaked out by this?  From his expression it seems like he was out one day for a nice quiet walk through the Italian countryside, and suddenly WHOAAAA HOLY FUCK WHAT'S HAPPENING he got picked up bodily and hoisted aloft.  Joseph (who was, by the way, a real guy, and lived from 1603 to 1663) was a mystic and seer whom the local Franciscans didn't particularly like.  They thought he was a bit of an uneducated rube; one of the more literate church leaders of the time said Joseph was "remarkably unclever."  They finally admitted him to their order, albeit somewhat reluctantly.  It's clear they were kind of embarrassed by the whole claims-of-flying thing, but couldn't find a good reason to turn him away, so he joined up and spent the rest of his life as a Franciscan monk.

Skeptic Joe Nickell, after checking out contemporaneous writings describing Joseph of Cupertino's airborne acrobatics, was predictably unimpressed:
Joseph's most dramatic aerial traverses were launched by a leap—not by a simple slow rising while merely standing or kneeling—but, moreover, I find that they appear to have continued as just the sudden arcing trajectories that would be expected from bounding.  They were never circuitous or spiraling flights like a bird's.  Invariably, Joseph's propulsions began with a shout or scream, suggesting that he was not caused to leap by some force but chose to.

So I guess the only miracle here was his impressive hang time.  If the whole monk thing hadn't worked out for him, maybe he should have tried out for the local track-and-field team.

You'd have thought that the Franciscans would have been more accepting of Joseph of Cupertino's leaps of faith, though, because the founder of their order -- Saint Francis of Assisi -- supposedly did the same thing.  While praying, Francis sometimes was suspended in the air at a height of "three, or even four, cubits" (a meter and a half, give or take).  A century later, Saint Catherine of Siena also floated around the place while praying, and a priest reported that when he gave her Holy Communion, the host flew from his hand straight upward onto Catherine's tongue, an image I find bizarre and strangely hilarious.

Sort of a sanctified version of the chefs at the hibachi grill tossing cooked shrimp for customers to try to catch in their mouths.

So there's a long tradition of floating saints, apparently.  The problem was, there was another group of people who were thought by the religious authorities to be able to fly, and that was witches.  So how do you tell good flying from bad flying?  Even back in biblical days this was a problem, if you believe the story in the Acts of Peter (one of the books of the biblical apocrypha).  There was this guy named Simon Magus, who was impressing the hell out of everyone in the Roman Forum by levitating, and told the crowds that he was a god.  Well, the Apostle Peter was having none of that, so he prayed for God to put an end to it, and Simon suddenly fell to the ground and broke both his legs.  The crowds (who were evidently a bit on the fickle side) immediately stoned Simon Magus to death.

Which hardly seems fair.  I mean, the guy had been flying, right?  It was hardly Simon's fault that Peter the Killjoy got involved and spoiled the show.

In any case, the religious powers-that-be never seemed particularly comfortable with people levitating.  By the sixteenth century, the Inquisition kind of decided it was all bad, and discouraged flying for everyone.

Because forbidding something that no one can actually do is pretty much a sure bet.

In any case, these days none of the hyperreligous types are claiming they can levitate.  Which I think is kind of a shame.  Hey, if Joseph of Cupertino, Francis of Assisi, and Catherine of Siena could do it, you'd think Franklin Graham, Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen, and Jerry Falwell, Jr. should be able to.

At least I'd like to see them try, wouldn't you?


Thursday, March 28, 2024

The origins of the story

I'm always interested in looking into where tales of the paranormal get started.  We've seen a number of examples here at Skeptophilia, each with its own peculiar provenance.  There are ones that have the feel of Scary Tales Told Around A Campfire, and which probably have little connection to reality other than the setting, like the legend of 50 Berkeley Square and the famous tumbling coffins of Barbados.  Others come from works of fiction that were misinterpreted (or misrepresented) as fact, and afterward took on a life of their own, such as the tragic tale of Christopher Round.  There are stories for which the basic facts are clearly true, but which picked up paranormal overtones by virtue of being unexplained, such as the odd phenomenon of the Devonshire footprints.  Last, and most common, there are ones for which the main players are definitely real people with a decent amount of credibility, and who seem to have had no particular reason to lie other than perhaps relishing getting a chuckle from scaring the absolute shit out of their friends, such as the weirdly open-ended tale of Nurse Black (still my all-time favorite "true ghost story"), the story of the haunting of Hinton Ampner, Lord Dufferin's terrifying premonition, and the much-retold legend of the screaming skulls of Calgarth.

More interesting to me, though, are ones where the story itself has no obvious point of origin.  One of these for which I've spent an inordinate amount of time digging, and come up absolutely empty-handed, I know about because of the book Haunted Houses, by Bernhardt J. Hurwood, which I've owned (courtesy of the beloved Scholastic Book Club) since shortly after it was published in 1972.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Harald Hoyer from Schwerin, Germany, The Haunted House Das Geisterhaus (5360049608), CC BY-SA 2.0]

Hurwood gave the story the rather lurid name "The Mystery House of Horror," and it was one of a handful in the collection that completely freaked me out when I read it as a highly imaginative, impressionable twelve-year-old who was absolutely convinced that if I left even the slightest gap in the curtains of my bedroom at night, someone or *gulp* something would watch me through the window while I slept.  You'd think monsters would have better stuff to do at night than to squint at a sleeping kid, but you never know, with monsters.


Of course right.

In any case, "The Mystery House of Horror" is about a manor house in Kensington, England that had a sinister reputation.  No one, we're told, has any information about when it was built or by whom, which right away seems a little strange for a culture so absolutely obsessed with keeping track of the minute doings of the landed gentry.  All Hurwood tells us is that the unnamed original owner was a "man of ill repute" who hanged himself in the house rather than waiting for the law do it first, and after that, the house and the gardens that surrounded it were definitely a Very Bad Place.

It was rented for a time by a family with the last name of Trent, but that tenancy came to an abrupt end when something tried to smother Mrs. Trent in her sleep with a pillow.  Her husband leapt to her aid, and found himself in a wrestling match with something strong, slimy, invisible, and giving off a horrible stench.  For some reason, even after this incident they stayed on a few more weeks.  This is more than I'd have done -- if that happened to me, all you'd see is a comical, Looney Tunes-style blur as I ran away screaming, my feet not even touching the ground.  But during those weeks, Mr. and Mrs. Trent were plagued by something slamming doors, and occasionally violently shaking their beds at night.

Eventually, though, they had enough, and left.

The next tenant was a Mrs. Cattling, who moved in with eight small dogs, four dachshunds and four Pomeranians.  The dogs obviously hated the place right from the get-go (a common trope in paranormal stories is dogs being more sensitive to hauntings than humans are), and one night their fear was realized as something attacked them, killing one of the Pomeranians.  What happened next is, to me, the scariest part of the entire story:

She was about to pick up the limp little form when something made her whirl around.  To her horror she saw one of the pillows on the bed lift itself up and stand on end.  Frozen to the spot, she watched as it compressed itself into the shape of some hideously unfamiliar beast with a long muzzle, sharp teeth, and monstrously evil gleaming eyes.  For a moment she stared at it in morbidly rapt fascination, like a bird at a snake about to devour it.  Then, summoning all her strength, she rushed to the bed, seized the pillow and flung it to the floor, jumping on it with both feet and screaming, "You killed my dog!  You killed my dog!"
Quite the badass, that Mrs. Cattling.  The tale is reminiscent of the absolutely terrifying short story "O, Whistle and I'll Come for You, My Lad," by M. R. James, in which a malevolent and invisible spirit creates a body for itself out of whatever happens to be around -- a bedspread, curtains, clothing hanging on a line.  *shudder*

After Mrs. Cattling (and her surviving dogs) left, the house went through various other tenants, none of whom stayed long.  One saw a "gaunt, cadaverous figure" standing by the end of the bed.  Another saw a man in "peculiar old-fashioned dress" tinkering with the gas mantle.  She assumed her husband had called a repairman, but the husband hadn't done any such thing, and when the woman returned to the kitchen she found it filling up with a dangerous level of natural gas -- the result, we're led to believe, of one of the house's resident ghosts trying to do away with its living tenants.

Even when it was unoccupied, strange things happened.  A pair of young lovers looking for a quiet place to have a nice snog found their way into the house's garden one evening, but before they could get down to the business at hand the young man noticed that despite the house being empty, there was an eerie golden light in one of the upstairs windows.  As they watched, it changed to a "ghastly bluish-green," and a "tomblike chill" descended over them.  But finally we have people showing some degree of common sense -- the couple hauled ass out of the place and vowed never to come near it again.

Understandably, the house got such a bad reputation that no one would rent it. "Some time between World War I and World War II," we're told, it was torn down, and "when the last scraps of debris were hauled away, the residents of the neighborhood breathed a collective sigh of relief."

So it's a very creepy story, and going back through it to write this post I had a couple of moments where I had an honest shiver.  (Fortunately, as I write this, it's a bright sunny morning, my dogs are all safely asleep on their own personal sofa, and there are no peculiar-looking repairmen working on the gas line.  The latter is largely because we don't have a gas line, but still.)

But where did the story come from?

I've done a significant amount of research trying to find anything but Hurwood's account, and had zero success.  You'd think that a house with this kind of story behind it would merit mention somewhere, but if there is, I haven't been able to find it.  All of the references I've come across ultimately lead back to Hurwood himself.

So as compelling as the story is, I think the answer is that it came from Hurwood's own imagination.

I kind of get the draw, you know?  As a novelist, I want my own imaginary creations to get as much notice as they can, and if I were writing a True Tales of the Supernatural sort of collection, it'd be mighty tempting to throw one of my own stories in there just for fun.  And I suspect that's what Hurwood did.  The Mystery House of Horror, I'm afraid, never existed.

I might be wrong, of course.  If one of my readers knows the provenance of this story (other than Hurwood's anthology), please let me know in the comments.  Maybe there was a haunted house in Kensington, and that'd be worth knowing about.

Although I'd be just as happy if invisible, slimy, smelly creatures didn't exist.  Even if all they did was watch me through gaps in the curtains at night.


Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The asymmetrical universe

I'm currently reading the 2006 book Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions, by the brilliant theoretical physicist Lisa Randall.  As you might imagine from the title, it's a provocative and mind-blowing read.  And although it's written for laypeople, with most of the abstruse mathematics removed -- theoretical physics is, honestly, 99% math -- I must admit that a good chunk of it is going so far over my head that it doesn't even ruffle my hair.

The rest, though, is way cool.

The heart of the book is the consideration of superstring theory as a model for the way the universe is built.  The idea -- at least at the level I understand it -- is that the fundamental building block of matter and energy is the string, a one-dimensional structure that can either be open-ended or a closed loop, and the various manifestations we see (particles, for instance) are the different vibrational modes of those strings.  But deeply embedded in this model is the idea that the universe has fundamental symmetries, which unify seemingly disparate forces and allow you to make predictions about what exists but is as yet undiscovered based upon what might be necessary to complete the symmetry of the theory.

This search for underlying patterns in what we see around us drives a lot of theoretical physics.  And certainly there are times the approach pays off.  It was that mode of inquiry that allowed Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam, and Steven Weinberg to come up with electroweak theory, which showed that at high enough energy the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces act as a single force.  (It was later experimentally confirmed, and the three won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 for the discovery.)  Carrying this approach to its extreme are people like Garrett Lisi, whose eight-dimensional model of particle physics (based upon a mathematical structure called a Lie group) tries to unify everything we know from experimental results into a symmetrical whole based upon it seeming to fit into a pattern that is "too beautiful not to be true."

The superstring model, too, makes predictions of particles and forces, largely based upon arguments of symmetry and symmetry breaking.  Each of the particles in the Standard Model should, the math tells us, have a "supersymmetric partner" -- each known fermion paired with a boson with the same charge and similar interactions, but a higher mass, and vice versa.

Experimental confirmation, of course, is the hill on which scientific theories live or die, and what the theorists need is hard evidence that these predicted particles exist.  Randall's book is peppered with optimistic statements such as the following:

In a few years, CERN will be the nexus of some of the most exciting physics results.  The Large Hadron Collider, which will be able to reach seven times the present energy of the Tevatron, will be located there, and any discoveries made at the LHC will almost inevitably be something qualitatively new.  Experiments at the LHC will seek -- and very likely find -- the as yet unknown physics that underlies the Standard Model.

Randall's book was published in 2006; the LHC came online in 2008.

And in the sixteen years since then, not a single particle has been found confirming superstring theory -- no superpartners, no Kaluza-Klein particles, nothing.  It did find the Higgs boson, which was a coup, but that was already predicted by the Standard Model, and didn't explain anything about the fundamental messiness of particle physics; why particles have the masses they do, forces have the strength they do, and (most vexing) why the extremely weak gravitational force seems to be irreconcilable with the other three.

This understandably bothers the absolute hell out of a lot of particle physicists.  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.  Instead, we have a model that works, but has a lot of what seem like arbitrary parameters.

But the fact is, every one of the efforts to get the Standard Model to fit into a more beautiful and elegant theoretical framework 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.  Just to give one recent example, a paper last year in Physical Review Letters described a set of experiments showing that a test of the Standard Model passed with a precision that beggars belief -- in this case, a measurement of the electron's magnetic moment that 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."


Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The shadow knows

One of the most terrifying sleep-related phenomena is sleep paralysis.

I say this only from hearing about the experiences of others; I have never had it happen to me.  But the people I've talked to who have had episodes of sleep paralysis relate being wide awake and conscious, but unable to move -- often along with some odd sensory experiences -- such as feelings of being watched or having someone in the room; hissing, humming, or sizzling noises; a tingling in the extremities that feels like a mild electric shock; a feeling of being suffocated; and (understandably) the emotions of fear and panic.

The reason all of this comes up is an article that appeared over at the site Mysterious Universe about "Shadow People."  The piece was by Nick Redfern, whose name should be familiar to anyone who is an aficionado of cryptozoology; Redfern has been involved in a number of investigations of the paranormal, and is the author of books such as The Roswell UFO Conspiracy, Shapeshifters: Morphing Monsters and Changing Cryptids, The Real Men in Black, The New World Order Book, and a variety of other titles I encourage you to peruse.

So Redfern has a pretty obvious bias, here, which is why I was already primed to view his piece on the Shadow People with a bit of a jaundiced eye.  Let me let him speak for himself, though.  Redfern tells us that there are these entities that we should all be on the lookout for, and then tells us the following:
Jason Offutt is an expert on the Shadow People, and the author of a 2009 book on the subject titled Darkness Walks: The Shadow People Among Us.  He says there are eight different kinds of Shadow People – at least, they are the ones we know about.  He labels them as Benign Shadows, Shadows of Terror, Red-Eyed Shadows, Noisy Shadows, Angry Hooded Shadows, Shadows that Attack, Shadow Cats, and the Hat Man.
Shadow Cats?  Why only cats?  Cats, in my experience, are already conceited enough that they don't need another feather in their caps.  Of course, the positive side is that Shadow Cats wouldn't be very threatening. The cats I've owned specialized in two behaviors: Sitting Around Looking Bored, and Moving Closer To Where We Are So We'll Appreciate How Bored They Are.  If their Shadow versions are no more motivated, it's hard to see why you'd even care they were around, since Shadow Cats presumably don't eat, drink, or use a litter box.  They'd kind of be a low-impact paranormal home décor item.

On the other hand, I'm just as glad there are no Shadow Dogs, because then we'd have yet another source of the really obnoxious noise that dogs make when they are conducting intimate personal hygiene, a sound my wife calls "glopping."  Our three dogs glop enough, there's no need for additional glopping from the spirit world.

But then there's "Hat Man."  On first glance, that seemed fairly non-threatening, but Redfern tells us that Hat Man is the scariest one on the list:
I sat and listened at my table [at a conference, speaking to an attendee] as he told me how, back in July of this year, he had three experiences with the Hat Man – and which were pretty much all identical – and which were very familiar to me.  He woke up in the early hours of the morning to a horrific vision: the outside wall of his bedroom was displaying a terrifying image of a large city on fire, with significant portions of it in ruins.  It was none other than Chicago.  The sky was dark and millions were dead.  Circling high above what was left of the city was a large, human-like entity with huge wings.  And stood [sic] next to the guy, as he watched this apocalyptic scenario unravel from his bed, was the Hat Man, his old-style fedora hat positioned firmly on his head.  The doomsday-like picture lasted for a minute or two, making it clear to the witness that a Third World War had begun.  On two more occasions in the same month, a near-identical situation played out.  It’s hardly surprising that the man was still concerned by all this when we chatted at the weekend.
So he talked to some other people, and more than one person mentioned seeing Hat Man, and always associated with images of doom and destruction.  Toward the end, he mentions the fact that one of the people who'd seen Hat Man suffered from sleep paralysis... which kind of made me go, "Aha."

In a paper by Walther and Schulz back in 2004 entitled, "Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis: Polysomnographic and Clinical Findings," it was found that people who suffered from sleep paralysis showed abnormal patterns of REM and non-REM sleep, and (most interestingly) fragmentation of REM.  REM, you probably know, is associated with dreaming; suppressing or disturbing REM causes a whole host of problems, up to and including hallucination.  Another paper -- Cheyne, Rueffer, and Newby-Clark, in 1999, "Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Hallucinations during Sleep Paralysis: Neurological and Cultural Construction of the Night-Mare" -- has another interesting clue, which is that during sleep paralysis, cholinergic neurons (the neural bundles that promote wakefulness and REM) are hyperactive, whereas the serotonergic neurons (ones that initiate relaxation and a sense of well-being) are inhibited.  This implies that the mind becomes wakeful, but emotionally uneasy, before the brain-body connection comes back online.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

The problem here is that if you're in sleep paralysis, or the related phenomenon of hypnagogic experiences (dreams in light sleep), what you are perceiving is not reflective of reality.  So as creepy as Shadow People are -- not to mention "Hat Man" -- I'm pretty certain that what we've got here is a visual hallucination experienced during a dream state.

Not sure about the Shadow Cats, though.  I still don't see how that'd work.  Given my luck at trying to get cats comply with simple rules such as "Stay The Hell Off The Kitchen Counter," my guess is that even feline hallucinations wouldn't want to cooperate.  If you expected them to show up and scare some poor dude who was just trying to get a good night's sleep, they'd probably balk because it wasn't their idea.  Shadow Dogs, on the other hand, would be happy to climb on the sleeping dude's bed and glop right next to his ear.  They're just helpful that way.


Monday, March 25, 2024

Dog days

Our new dog, Jethro, is in the middle of a six-week puppy obedience class.

After three weeks of intensive training, he reliably knows the command "Sit."  That's about it.  The difficulty is he's the most chill dog I've ever met.  He's not motivated to do much of anything except whatever it takes to get a belly rub. 

Jethro in a typical position

Otherwise, whatever he's doing, he's perfectly content to keep doing it, especially if it doesn't require any extra effort.  In class a couple of weeks ago I finally got him to lie down when I said, "Down," but then he didn't want to get up again.  In fact, he flopped over on his side and refused to move even when I tried tempting him with a doggie treat.  After a few minutes, the instructor said, "Is your dog still alive?"

I assured him that he was, and that this was typical behavior.

After a few more futile attempts, I gave up, sat on the floor, and gave him a belly rub.

Jethro, not the instructor.

So after working with Jethro in class and at home, I've reached three conclusions:

  1. He has an incredibly sweet, friendly disposition.
  2. He's cute as a button.
  3. He has the IQ of a PopTart.

When we give him a command, he looks at us with this cheerful expression, as if to say, "Those are words, aren't they?  I'm pretty sure those are words."  Then he thinks, "Maybe those words have something to do with belly rubs."  So he flops over on his back, and his lone functioning brain cell goes back to sleep, having accomplished its mission.

Jethro in a rare philosophical mood

I couldn't help but think of Jethro when I read a study out of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, which looked at how an electroencephalogram trace changes when dogs are told the names of things (rather than commands to do things), and it found that the parts of the brain that are involved in mental representations of objects activate in dogs -- just as they do in humans.  The upshot is that dogs seem to form mental images when they hear the names of the objects.

"Dogs do not only react with a learned behavior to certain words," said study lead author Marianna Boros, in an interview with Science Daily.  "They also don't just associate that word with an object based on temporal contiguity without really understanding the meaning of those words, but they activate a memory of an object when they hear its name."

Interestingly, this response seemed to be irrespective of a particular dog's vocabulary.  "It doesn't matter how many object words a dog understands," Boros said.  "Known words activate mental representations anyway, suggesting that this ability is generally present in dogs and not just in some exceptional individuals who know the names of many objects."

"Dogs are not merely learning a specific behavior to certain words, but they might actually understand the meaning of some individual words as humans do," said Lilla Magyari, who co-authored the study.  "Your dog understands more than he or she shows signs of."

Well, okay, maybe your dog does.  With Jethro, the best response he seems to be capable of is mild puzzlement.  I wish he'd been one of the test subjects, but my fear would be that when they'd say a word to him, the response on the EEG would be *soft static*, and the researchers would come to me with grave expressions and say, "I'm sorry to give you the bad news, Mr. Bonnet, but your dog appears not to have any higher brain function."

Of course, I have to admit that it's hard to discern between "I don't understand what you're saying" and "I don't give a damn about what you're saying."  Yesterday when my wife was trying to teach him to catch a foam rubber frisbee, and he repeatedly allowed the frisbee to bonk off of the top of his head, it might be that he knew perfectly well what she wanted him to do and just didn't want to do it.  So perhaps Lilla Magyari's right, and he's smarter than we think he is. 

Given how often he's persuaded us to give up on all the "Sit," "Down," and "Stay" bullshit and just give him a belly rub, maybe he's not the one who's a slow learner.


Saturday, March 23, 2024

Twisted faces

One of the most terrifying episodes The X Files ever did was called "Folie à Deux."  In the opening scene, a man sees his boss not as a human but as a hideous-looking insectile alien who is, one by one, turning the workers in the company into undead zombies.

The worst part is that he's the only one who sees all of this.  Everyone else thinks everything is perfectly normal.

The episode captures in appropriately ghastly fashion the horror of psychosis -- the absolute conviction that the awful things you're experiencing are real despite everyone's reassurance that they're not.  In the show, of course, they are real; it's the people who aren't seeing it who are delusional.  But when this sort of thing happens in the real world, it is one of the scariest things I can imagine.  As I made the point in my neuroscience classes, your brain is taking the information it receives from your sensory organs and trying to assemble a picture of reality from those inputs; if something goes wrong, and the brain puts that information together incorrectly, that flawed picture becomes your reality.  At that point, there is no reliable way to distinguish reality from hallucination.

I was, unfortunately, reminded of that episode when a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link yesterday to a story in NBC News Online about a man with prosopometamorphopsia, a (thank heaven) rare disorder that causes the patient's perception of human faces to go awry.  When he looks at another person, he sees their face as grotesquely stretched, with deep grooves in the forehead and cheeks.

Computer-generated images of what the patient describes seeing [Image credit: Antônio Mello, Dartmouth University]

Weirdly, it doesn't happen when he looks at a drawing or a photograph; only actual faces trigger the shift.  A moving face -- someone talking, for example -- accentuates the distortion.

Some people with prosopometamorphopsia (PMO) have it from birth; most, though, acquire it through physical damage to the brain, such as a stroke or traumatic brain injury.  The patient who was the first subject of this study shows up in MRI images with a lesion on the left side of his brain that is undoubtedly the origin of the distorted perception.  As far as the origin of that, he had a severe concussion in his forties (he's now 59), but also suffered from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning four months before the onset of symptoms.  Which of those is the root cause of the lesion, or if it's from something else entirely, is unknown.

At least now that he knows what's going on, he has been reassured that he's not going insane -- or worse, that he's seeing the world as it actually is, and like the man in "Folie à Deux," become convinced that he's the only one who does.  "My first thought was I woke up in a demon world," the patient told researchers, regarding how he felt when the symptoms started.  "I came so close to having myself institutionalized.  If I can help anybody from the trauma that I experienced with it and keep people from being institutionalized and put on drugs because of it, that’s my number-one goal."

I was immediately reminded of a superficially similar disorder called Charles Bonnet syndrome. (Nota bene: Charles Bonnet is no relation.  My French great-grandfather's name was changed upon arrival in the United States, so my last name shouldn't even be Bonnet.)  In this disorder, people with partial blindness, often from macular degeneration, start putting together the damaged and incomplete information their eyes are relaying to their brains in novel ways, causing what are called visual release hallucinations.  They can be complex -- one elderly woman saw what appeared to be tame lions strolling about in her house -- but there's no actual psychosis.  The people experiencing them, as with PMO, know (or can be convinced) that what they're seeing isn't real, which takes away a great deal of the anxiety, fear, and trauma of having hallucinations.

So at least that's one upside for PMO sufferers.  Still, it's got to be disorienting to look at the world around you and know for certain that what you're seeing isn't the way it actually is.  My eyesight isn't great, even with bifocals, but at least what I am seeing is real.  I'll take that over twisted faces and illusory lions any day.


Friday, March 22, 2024

Leading the way into darkness

New from the "I Thought We Already Settled This" department, we have: the West Virginia State Legislature has passed a bill, and the Governor is expected to sign it, which would allow the teaching of Intelligent Design and other "alternative theories" to evolution in public school biology classes.

It doesn't state this in so many words, of course.  The Dover (PA) decision of 2005 ruled that ID is not a scientific theory, has no place in the classroom, and to teach it violates the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.  No, the anti-evolutionists have learned from their mistakes.  State Senator Amy Grady (R), who introduced the bill, deliberately eliminated any specific mention of ID in the wording of the bill.  It says, "no local school board, school superintendent, or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussing and answering questions from students about scientific theories of how the universe and/or life came to exist" -- but when questioned on the floor of the Senate, Grady reluctantly admitted that it would allow ID to be discussed.

And, in the hands of a teacher who was a creationist, to be presented as a viable alternative to evolution.

I think the thing that frosts me the most about all this is an exchange between Grady and Senator Mike Woelfel (D) about using the words "scientific theories" without defining them.  Woelfel asked Grady if there was such a definition in the bill, and she said there wasn't, but then said,  "The definition of a theory is that there is some data that proves something to be true.  But it doesn’t have to be proven entirely true."

*brief pause for me to scream obscenities*

No, Senator Grady, that is not the definition of a theory.  I know a lot of your colleagues in the Republican Party think we live in a "post-truth world" and agree with Kellyanne Conway that there are "alternative facts," but in science you can't just make shit up, or define terms whatever way you like and then base your argument on those skewed definitions.  Let me clarify for you what a scientific theory is, which I only have to do because apparently you can't even be bothered to read the first paragraph of a fucking Wikipedia article:

A scientific theory is an explanation of an aspect of the natural world and universe that can be (or a fortiori, that has been) repeatedly tested and corroborated in accordance with the scientific method, using accepted protocols of observation, measurement, and evaluation of results.  Where possible, some theories are tested under controlled conditions in an experiment... Established scientific theories have withstood rigorous scrutiny and embody scientific knowledge.

Intelligent Design is not a theory.  It does not come from the scientific method, it is not based on data and measurements, and it makes no predictions.  It hinges on the idea of irreducible complexity -- that there are structures or phenomena in biology that are too complex, or have too many interdependent pieces, to have arisen through evolution.  This sounds fancy, but it boils down to "we don't understand this, therefore God did it."  (If you want an absolutely brilliant takedown of Intelligent Design, read Richard Dawkins's book The Blind Watchmaker.  How, after reading that, anyone can buy ID is beyond me.)

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Hannes Grobe, Watch with no background, CC BY 3.0]

And don't even get me started on Young-Earth Creationism.

What gets me is how few people are willing to call out people like Amy Grady on their bullshit.  People seem to have become afraid to stand up and say, "You are wrong."  "Alternative facts" aren't facts; they are errors at best and outright lies at worst.

And if we live in a "post-truth world" it's because we're choosing to accept errors and lies rather than standing up to them.

As historian Timothy Snyder put it, in his 2021 essay "The American Abyss":

Post-truth is pre-fascism...  When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place.  Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves.  If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions...  Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth.

But Carl Sagan warned us of this almost thirty years ago, in his brilliant (if unsettling) book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking.  I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

People like Amy Grady are leading the way into that darkness, and it seems like hardly anyone notices.

We cannot afford to have a generation of children going through public school and coming out thinking that ignorant superstition is a theory, that sloppily-defined terms are truth, and that pandering to the demands of a few that their favorite myths be elevated to the status of fact is how science is done.  It's time to stand up to the people who are trying to co-opt education into religious indoctrination.

In the Dover Decision, we won a battle, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that we have not yet won the war.


Thursday, March 21, 2024

Crown jewel

A white dwarf is the remnant of an average-to-small star at the end of its life.  When a star like our own Sun exhausts its hydrogen fuel, it goes through a brief period of fusing helium into carbon and oxygen, but that too eventually runs out.  This creates an imbalance between the two opposing forces ruling a star's life -- the outward thermal pressure from the heat released by fusion, and the inward compression from gravity.  When fusion ceases, the thermal pressure drops, and the star collapses until the electron degeneracy pressure becomes high enough to stop the expansion.  The Pauli Exclusion Principle states that two electrons can't occupy the same quantum state, and the force generated in order to prevent this happening is sufficient to counterbalance the gravitational pressure.  (At higher masses, even that's not enough to stop the collapse; the electrons are forced to fuse with protons, generating a neutron star, or at higher masses still, a black hole.)

For a star like our Sun, in a single-star system, that's pretty much that.  The outer layers of the star's atmosphere get blown away to form a ghostly shell called a planetary nebula, and the white dwarf -- actually the star's core -- remains to slowly cool down and dim over the next billion-odd years.  But in multiple-star systems, something far more interesting happens.

White dwarfs, although nowhere near as dense as neutron stars, still have a strong gravitational field.  If the white dwarf is part of a close binary system, the gravitational pull of the white dwarf is sufficient to siphon off gas from the upper atmosphere of its companion star.  The material from the companion is heated and compressed as it falls toward the white-hot surface of the white dwarf, and once enough of it builds up, it suddenly becomes hot enough to fuse, generating a huge burst of energy in a runaway thermonuclear reaction.

The result is called a nova -- a "new star," even though it's not new at all, it has merely flared up enough to see from a long way away.  (The other name for this phenomenon is a cataclysmic binary, which I like better not only because it's more accurate but because it sounds badass.)  Once the new fuel gets exhausted, it dims again, but the process merely starts over.  The siphoning restarts, and depending on the rate of accretion, there'll eventually be another flare-up.

Artist's concept of a nova flare-up [Image courtesy of NASA Conceptual Image Lab/Goddard Flight Center]

The topic comes up because there is a recurrent nova that is due to erupt soon, and when it does, a "new star" will be visible in the Northern Hemisphere.  It's in the rather dim, crescent-shaped constellation of Corona Borealis, between Boötes and Hercules, which can be seen in the evening in late spring to midsummer.  The star T Coronae Borealis is ordinarily magnitude +10, and thus far too dim to see with the naked eye; most people can't see anything unaided dimmer than magnitude +6, and that's if you've got great eyes and it's a completely clear, dark night.  But in 1946 this particular star started to dim even more, then suddenly flared up to magnitude +2 -- about as bright as Polaris -- before gradually dimming over the next days to weeks back down to its previous near-invisibility.

And the astrophysicists are seeing signs that it's about to repeat its behavior from 78 years ago.  The best guesses are that it'll flare some time before September, which is perfect timing for seeing it if you live in the Northern Hemisphere.  If you're a star-watcher, keep an eye on the usually unremarkable constellation of Corona Borealis -- at some point soon, there will be a new jewel in the crown, albeit a transient one.

You have to wonder, though, if at some point the white dwarf in the T Coronae Borealis binary system will pick up enough extra mass from its companion to cross the Chandrasekhar Limit.  This value -- about 1.4 solar masses -- was determined by the brilliant Indian physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar as the maximum mass a white dwarf can have before the electron degeneracy pressure is insufficient to halt the collapse.  At that point, it falls inward so fast the entire star blows itself to smithereens in a type-1a supernova, one of the most spectacular events in the universe.  If T Coronae Borealis did this -- not that it's likely any time soon -- it would be far brighter than the full Moon, and easily visible in broad daylight, probably for weeks to months.

Now that I would like to see.