The Skeptical Facilitator — A Resource for Getting Things Done

Skeptics tend to be do-it-yourselfers. It’s kind of a core tenet of skepticism — asking your own questions and not relying on others. That serves us well when parsing fiction from (something likelier to be) fact. Sadly, that DIY attitude can also make it difficult to find help when we need it.

What if there were a website or database that could connect skeptical content-creators with the skilled or knowledgeable people eager and able to help bring projects to life?

There are people out there who want to communicate about skeptical topics but think they don’t have the technical know-how to make their work presentable, or don’t know how to market it once it’s done. Everyone is an expert in something, and every something has some kind of woo that infiltrates it, just waiting to be exposed — think of the pseudoscience in high-end audio or automobile equipment for example. Those stories need to be told, and more importantly, they need to be heard.

expert_coverEthan Winer brings skepticism to the audio realm. Who will fill other niches?

On the other hand, there are plenty of people out there with highly technical skills that WANT to get involved in the skeptical movement, but maybe don’t know how they can best contribute their abilities. Folks who would love to be utilized if given the chance. Here’s the almighty anecdotal evidence to prove it!

At a SkeptiCamp promoted by the New York City Skeptics in December, at the end of a presentation on individual activism, I tentatively brought up an idea that I had just started formulating, that I gave the descriptive but clunky title of “the Facilitator.” I had talked about exposing the pseudoscience in your hobbies or career, and had mentioned that certain skill types will always be sought after by conscientious content-creators. I then left a spreadsheet open during a break in the session, saying if anyone would like to be part of something that could connect all these people and help them work together to make things happen, they could express interest by adding their contact information.

I expected only a couple people would jump in, but by the end of the day, nearly half of the 40 people in attendance had offered themselves up. And the first people to get involved? They were the ones I had warned would be in the highest demand. A video editor. A graphic designer. A software developer. A professional animator. All eager to help make the world a better, more rational place.

deepakPresentation is important. The bad guys have us beat. From deepakchopra.com

Some others expressed interest, but thought their skills weren’t a good fit. A social worker told me he didn’t want his phone ringing off the hook, which is understandable. But what else is he into? A niche form of structural art, he told me. Man, dangle that worm out there and I promise some creative person will find a way to utilize it. A professional psychologist with a book deal thought her opinion wouldn’t be of use. Really? As a credible, visible and published expert source?  They both agreed to take part after conversations that teased out how they wanted to contribute, and how they’d best be able to do so.

Journalists have beaten us to the punch on ways to get expert opinions, and even Hollywood has their own network of over 2,000 scientists that they tap to consult on projects. We have the Skeptics Stack Exchange, where people can crowdsource opinions, but that isn’t quite as good as going straight to an expert. Maybe Facilitator volunteers could list their credentials and what they’re available to consult on. Of course that’s only one function of a service that could be used to hook people up with anyone willing and able to help with anything. Point being, the precedent for this type of organized cooperation exists.

So something like this could work — upgrading to “Do it with some expert help” from “Do it yourself” — if enough people were involved. There would certainly be logistical issues to figure out (security, volunteer vs. small fee, whether people would contact each other directly or go through an intermediary, etc.), but all that is moot if there isn’t enough interest to begin with. My one-room experiment is too small a sample size, so I’d like to bring this to the attention of as many people as possible.

If you think there’s possibility in this idea and you’ve got a podcast, let’s talk and see what your audience thinks. Or contact me directly if you’re an individual interested in taking part, once something gets off the ground. Alternatively, if you’ve been in the movement for a long time, and want to tell me exactly why this wouldn’t work, please feel free to save me the time and effort. :)

And hey, if you want to utilize my knowledge of geophysics (bachelor’s degree), journalism (certificate) or geek culture (over 150 pieces on AiPT! and elsewhere), that’s how I can volunteer myself. Let’s make something happen.

Email:  skepfac[at]gmail.com
Twitter:  @russdobler46

What is “practical skepticsm”? Sharon Hill and others explain

“They really want answers, and they deserve answers,” says Sharon Hill, operator of the questionable claim aggregator Doubtful News. You might think the “they” she’s referring to is the kind of skeptics who visit her site for the more critical view on hot news stories, but it’s actually the people who tend to genuinely accept those tall tales as real.

Doubtful News provides scientifically-based rebuttals to the usual targets of modern skepticism, like creationism and anti-vaccine hysteria, but it also includes a healthy dose of “Bigfoot skepticism.”

sharonSharon Hill, from Wikimedia Commons

“I got a lot of shit for that,” says Hill of her decision to continue hammering on monsters and ghosts, topics many of today’s skeptics consider too silly to bother with. Hill still sees value in addressing those issues.

“There are so many people who invest so much time, money and effort into searching for Bigfoot, looking for ghosts and chasing UFOs,” Hill says. “There has to be a counter voice for that.”

Getting the right information into people’s hands is the kind of “practical skepticism” that Hill highlighted while leading a panel discussion at the 13th annual Amaz!ng Meeting, sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation, this July. Joining her were British physicist Simon Singh, famous for fighting a lawsuit that eventually led to reform in the U.K.’s libel laws, and Susan Gerbic, best known for her Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) campaign.

Singh, who now heads up the hands-on Good Thinking Society,  spoke of his legal victory over the British Chiropractic Association, as well as his first effort to “do something about bad science,” in which he exposed the lack of concern exhibited when alternative medicine practitioners suggested homeopathic remedies to prevent malaria.

singhSimon Singh gives the TAM crowd the low-down. Photo by Brian Engler.

Singh also described his simplest action that led to better public education:  complaining. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) ran a television series on alternative medicine in 2006 that demonstrated the frightening practice of using acupuncture as an anesthetic during surgery. Many scientists who participated in the program thought the final product misrepresented what had actually happened, so Singh filed a formal complaint with the BBC. They didn’t buckle immediately, but several news articles and appeals later, the BBC finally admitted that some scenes “could have misled the audience.”

“It goes to show how one complaint can make a difference,” Singh said.

“We are out to change the world,” Susan Gerbic told the crowd. But rather than fighting City Hall, Gerbic prefers to get the best information in front of the greater public by making sure it’s on the world’s seventh most-viewed website, Wikipedia.

“We have to have it in a place to get beyond the choir,” Gerbic said.

One of the main goals of Gerbic’s Guerrilla Skepticism is to beautify, in a sense, the Wikipedia pages of prominent skeptics and skeptical conferences. That means building the pages into more than just stubs, making sure they’re well-written (in many different languages) and even including the best photographs possible.

gerbicSusan Gerbic is Big Pharma Shilling (in case you couldn’t read the shirt). Photo by Brian Engler

Anyone can volunteer for GSoW, and those are the kinds of tasks the newest members will be trained to tackle. After getting their feet wet, volunteers might move on to editing the pages of actual fringe topics to make sure the information presented is accurate, well-cited and neutral. It’s not enough to just clean up the skeptics’ pages.

“We also need to make sure the crap is off all the other ones,” Gerbic said.

“Most of what I spend my time on is aimed at the general audience,” Hill said, explaining that Doubtful News is meant to confront strange ideas in the mass media directly. Those stories could be bad interpretations of studies or ones that use “sciencey” sounding language to prop up spurious claims. Sadly, the Internet is not always kind to the skeptical perspective.

“Search engines end up kind of the becoming the mirrors of society,” Hill said, and pro-paranormal stories are almost always at the top of search engine results. Still, some presence is better than no presence.

“All I can do is put out that extra skeptical view and hope somebody reads it,” Hill said.

And if that doesn’t work, take it to the streets. Hill even goes that extra step and interacts with paranormal groups in person, with mixed results.

“They don’t usually like me around,” Hill says.

In addition to Doubtful News, Sharon Hill started the website Practical Skepticism this year to more directly address these kinds of issues.

The Role of Role Models: Massimo Pigliucci at TAM! 2015

What if it came out that Neil deGrasse Tyson believed in Bigfoot? Or that Richard Dawkins was all about astrology? Maybe Bill Nye is anti-GMO. What’s that? Oh.

Yes, Bill Nye the Science Guy, bowtied slinger of truth to a generation of children, was once a GMO skeptic — in the strictest sense of the term. Many people who describe themselves that way are actually better characterized as deniers. They see all the evidence that there’s nothing dangerous or icky about the genetic modification process itself, but refuse to accept it. Maybe they think the research is tainted, or there needs to be even more testing.

When Bill Nye finally saw those studies, he did something remarkable — he adjusted his viewpoint based on the evidence. That’s not an easy feat. Now the science advocate stands as a living example of how skepticism is done. If you say “show me” and the other side brings the goods, you’d better be ready to give up your old position. There’s no shame in saying, “I was wrong.” Nye responded in the only logically appropriate way he could have.

But what if he didn’t? What if the man who lectures against climate change denial, a hero of science communication, had doubled down on his faulty argument? What kind of message would that have sent to people outside the skeptical community, or to self-described skeptics themselves?

A True Scotsman

Not much of one, CUNY philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci might argue. He doesn’t like the word “hero,” because everyone is fallible, and seeing a hero fall short of ideals can cause those who look up to that person an unwarranted crisis of conscience.

massimoMassimo Pigliucci at TAM! 2015. Photo by Jonathan Nelson

Pigliucci prefers the term “role model,” as he told the attendees of the 2015 James Randi Educational Foundation’s Amaz!ng Meeting! (TAM!) in Las Vegas, Nev., this July. He and several other prominent figures in the skeptical community were there to honor the late Martin Gardner, one of the pioneers of the organized skepticism movement which began in the mid-20th century.

“I’m going to use him as a role model, or [a] role model about role models in skepticism,” Pigliucci said.

Gardner’s only degree was a bachelor’s of arts in philosophy, but he became widely known for the mathematical puzzles he regularly published in Scientifc American magazine. He was a founding member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the country’s first organized group for skeptics, and published over 100 books on pseudoscience, magic, math and other topics over the course of his life.

“Gardner epitomized the very ideal of a public intellectual,” read one of Pigliucci’s slides.

And yet, some of the views Gardner held might surprise a lot of skeptics. For instance, Gardner believed in mathematical Platonism, the idea that everything is actually made up of mathematical constructs. That sounds kind of off, and it can’t really be proven empirically, but plenty of mathematicians and philosophers believe something similar.

“Gardner’s position was weird, but not crazy,” Pigliucci said.

It gets weirder. Gardner also subscribed to mind “mysterianism,” meaning he thought the fundamental nature of human consciousness may be unknowable. Again, that might not seem so out there at first blush, but what made him think that? Have we observed anything specific that would make addressing the issue of consciousness unavoidably impossible? Not really. Mysterianism is pretty much just an assumption based on the problem appearing to be difficult. But lots of difficult-looking problems have been solved; why should this one be any different?

gardnerMartin Gardner, from cscicop.org

Pigliucci’s final hard-to-defend belief of Gardner’s was probably the toughest one for the average skeptic to swallow. Gardner was a philosophical theist. He didn’t belong to an organized religion, but he still believed in a personal god. In seeming defiance of his otherwise universal skepticism and desire for evidence, Gardner admitted that the atheists had all the best arguments and he was left without much of a defense for this stance. Gardner said he believed simply because it made him feel better.

Feet of Clay

Are there any lessons to be learned here?” Pigliucci asked the crowd. “I think there are three.”

Firstly, Pigliucci explained, skepticism is an attitude, not a checklist of positions everyone has to adhere to. Skeptics are taught to think for themselves, the opposite of falling in lockstep with a crowd of any kind. It’s also crucial to realize, as we’ve all seen with Bill Nye’s early misunderstanding of GMOs, role models (not “heroes”) are as fallible as everyone else, and shouldn’t be held to impossible standards. You can point to a  a person as a role model, someone whose way of thinking you’d like to emulate, but don’t despair when they turn out to be a human being like everyone else.

Perhaps most importantly, skeptics also need to admit that people can have questionable positions, ones that they came to for less-than-rational-reasons, and not be kicked out of the club. Is it so bad for the rest of the world to see a skeptic stumble now and then? It could show the community’s sympathetic side by saying, “We know this is tough; it even is for us.” The alternative of excluding anyone with a hole in their game from public participation would leave a lot fewer skeptics in a time when they might be most needed. Even one of the best ever wouldn’t qualify.

Mind Over Masters: The World Science Festival’s Strange Decisions on Free Will

The World Science Festival doesn’t shy away from heady topics. Through their “Big Idea Series,” every year they examine some of the most fundamental and often puzzling problems that science can address. On the evening of May 30, physician and journalist Emily Senay led a discussion on the concept of free will — specifically, whether we have it or not. Well, not exactly.

“The way you answer that question may say more about you than it says about whether or not free will actually exists,” she said. Given the panelists thoughts on the subject, you could tell pretty clearly none of them are physical scientists.

“I’m sort of the set up person, so I’ll start with a set-up,” said philosopher Alfred Mele, before describing the work of physiologist Benjamin Libet. Up until recently, Libet was one of the few people to experimentally test the idea of free will, and thus his research from the 1970s is brought up — and, by some, torn down — whenever the subject is mentioned.

Libet wanted to know if you could look at someone’s brain activity and tell when they were about to make a decision. It turns out you can, and that this apparent “readiness potential” actually occurs about 300 milliseconds before the person is even aware they’re making a decision.

 

readinessThe obvious implication there is that something in our brains is already “deciding” before we even know we’ve made a choice. Some researchers have interpreted the result differently, though, arguing that when a person realizes they’ve made a decision has no bearing on how it was made. Libet himself didn’t think his experiment smashed the facade of free will, believing that a person can “veto” a decision during the fraction of a second between the observed ramp-up of electrical activity and the action itself. He never really explained how that would work.

Neuroscientist Kristoff Koch upped Libet’s ante, describing a recent experiment that utilized electrodes implanted in the brains of epilepsy patients, which can be helpful in the treatment of severe cases. Removing the noise of an electroencephalogram and going to straight to the source replicated Libet’s result, and even pushed the time between “decision” and “realization” to a second and a half.

Despite that, Koch and Mele both insisted on their belief in free will, with Koch later quoting Invictus that he is the captain of his soul. Poetry aside, the pair made it clear they don’t actually expect there’s some non-physical entity inside us, overruling biochemistry on a whim. That’s not a trivial clarification, considering the World Science Festival is sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, an organization mistrusted by some for the perception that they try to slyly legitimize religious belief with a veneer of science.

So what’s their hang-up? Why do they continue to cling to an idea that has the evidence piling up against it? Are they worried about potential social consequences?

“What does a post-free will world look like?” asked psychologist Azim Shariff. If everyone stopped believing in it, would we “descend into some sort of lawless dystopia,” in which people indulge in bad behavior and blame it on fate?

shariffAzim Shariff, from worldsciencefestival.com

According to Shariff, studies show that when people are told there is no free will, they do indeed tend to cheat and steal more, and be more aggressive. But on the other hand, test subjects are also less likely to want retribution when wronged, seeking to address the cause of the problem and not punish the perpetrator as much. That’s gotta be a good thing, right?

Whether or not free will actually exists, it’s clear we all experience the feeling that it does, and that starts early in life.

“All of this begins before children can even talk,” says developmental psychologist Tamar Kushnir. Her research shows that 4-year-olds understand they can’t choose to jump and never come down, but they do believe they can choose to, say, stand rather than sit.

A typical 4-year-old does think some decisions are per-ordained, though. When presented with a tasty dish, for example, it must be consumed.

“You have to eat the noodles because it’s yummy,” one test subject revealed. But once kids reach about six years old, Kushnir says, they begin to understand they’re not powerless against tempting starches.

kushnirTamar Kushnir, from worldsciencefestival.com

Shariff and Kushnir were more noncommittal about the reality of free will, but all four panelists seemed to agree that if free will doesn’t exist, it’s at least a useful fiction the dispelling of which could lead to grave problems.

Of course those who don’t want to accept evolution often say something similar — if people believe in evolution, we’ll all start acting like animals. Or we’ll use the theory to justify something even more ghastly, like eugenics. Those are silly arguments to most, but are they any worse than those that defend the propping up of free will to avert anarchy?

Obviously, how humans react to a fact doesn’t make it any more or less real. If the evidence points in a particular direction, you’re kind of stuck, whether you like the consequences are not. At least if you face up to it, you can make reasoned decisions (or maybe just the appearance of such) about how to handle it. Over time, (most) people have gotten over a lot of hard truths — from not being the center of the universe to not being all that different from beasts. But a little lack of agency will wreck the whole system? That thought says more about the panelists’ confidence in humanity than it does the reality of free will.

Watch the whole discussion right here!

Wizard of Odds: Rolling the Dice at the World Science Festival

“Probability – what’s hard about that?” opened John Hockenberry, journalist and moderator for the World Science Festival’s Wizard of Odds panel discussion on Saturday, May 30. As many skeptics understand, that’s a seemingly natural question that can cause a lot of problems.

People aren’t always good at thinking about numbers intuitively, and might not automatically account for newly provided information. Hockenberry noted some folks’ disbelief when he tells them he’s the father of two sets of twins.

“What are the odds of that?” they often ask. “In my house,” Hockenberry responds, “100 per cent.”

Hockenberry’s story alludes to the idea of Bayesian statistics, which was introduced to the crowd in a prior, humorous animation. Bayesian statistics incorporates prior probabilities and additional information to refine potential outcomes as time goes on.

Unfortunately, that’s not much of a help when it comes to quantum mechanics. The first panelist, Masoud Mosehni, explained his work at Google on quantum computing, which takes advantage of the inherent probabilistic nature of particles.

quantum-computing-chipA Google quantum computing chip, from Business Insider

“It’s unlike anything you’ve experienced,” he said. Mosehni referred to the fan-favorite Schrödinger’s Cat analogy when describing how a tiny particle can be in a state of “superposition,” between two outcomes, until it’s measured. If perfected, a quantum computer could offer greatly increased data-crunching speeds compared to conventional machines, by spreading the work out over all the possibilities.

Mosehni’s research specifically aims to force superposition onto macroscopic objects, like metal rings. This can be done by cooling them to temperatures just above absolute zero, the point at which all atomic motion stops. Hockenberry worried how this might affect future smartphones, asking what the chance was that Google devices could leak liquid nitrogen and “freeze our nipples.”

“I would say zero,” Mosehni replied.

Second panelist Leonard Mlodinow, physicist and author of the book The Drunkard’s Walk:  How Randomness Rules Our Lives, tried to bring Bayes back.

“The scheme that Bayes came up with is still used today,” he said, pointing out that Mosehni’s employer utilizes Bayesian algorithms to find advertisements you might be more interested in, based on your browsing history.

Mlodinow then moved on to more familiar stories of misunderstood probability, like the Monty Hall problem. Cartoon depictions of three doors were projected behind the panel, and audience volunteer Lauren guessed that the big prize was hidden behind door number three. When the second door opened to reveal a gag prize, in classic “Let’s Make a Deal” fashion, Hockenberry asked if Lauren would like to stick with her choice or switch to door number one.

monty

“I’m gonna stay with three,” Lauren answered, drawing groans from the crowd.

“You know too much!” Mlodinow told them.

As the audience realized, the odds are actually more in your favor if you switch. Think about it. Your chance of guessing right initially is one of out three. Of course Monty Hall will reveal a gag prize, so that means, with the additional information in this case, the probability that door number #1 hides the prize has rocketed up to 50%. Better than your initial guess. Most people stick with their first choice, and that’s how game shows stayed in business through the 1980s.

Physician and genomics researcher Robert C. Green was up next, to talk about Bayesian statistics applied to biology, A.K.A “prior probability.” He spoke of misleading data, such as in a public service announcement that claims one in eight women will develop breast cancer. Green emphasized that probability is applied for your entire lifetime, and increases the older you get. For instance, a woman in her 50s only has a one in 44 chance of developing breast cancer in the next 10 years, but a woman in her 70s has a one in 26 chance.

Hockenberry asked how much Green’s field of genomics can help a given patient. You can probably guess his response.

“A lot, but almost not at all,” Green said.

Green used his own sequenced genome as an example, showing how numbers without context can unnecessarily panic people. The testing results show he’s twice as likely to be afflicted with celiac disease as the average person. That sounds scary if you don’t realize the chance of anyone getting celiac disease is vanishingly small, and doubling a tiny number doesn’t increase the total risk much. Overall, Green has less than a 1% chance of having his wheatcakes taken away.

Some disorders are easily pinpointed – if you have the genetic marker for Huntington’s disease, you’ve got Huntington’s disease – but most are like celiac, meaning environmental factors have to be taken into account when assessing probabilities. Testing for everything probably isn’t practical, and could lead to false positive diagnoses.

Mlodinow jumped in to tell the story of how he was diagnosed with HIV in the ‘80s, even though he didn’t partake in risky behaviors. His doctor didn’t know the rate of false positives, and waiting for additional results to come in caused a very anxious couple of weeks for Mlodinow.

“That’s a nightmare,” Hockenberry said. “Let’s talk about another nightmare – driverless cars.”

The stage was thus set for electrical engineer Richard Alan Peters, who said that cars are deterministic devices operating in a probabilistic world.

“Or like my room as a teenager,” Peters said. “Things could be anywhere.”

Peters explained that a driverless car constantly collects data and updates its assumptions based on what’s actually observed – always narrowing the probability of what’s going on around it and adjusting.

dogsFrom the BBC

A video of some truly remarkable adjustments was shown, in which what appeared to be robotic dogs were forced to navigate difficult terrain, and were even kicked, without breaking stride.

Hockenberry was more amazed by what wasn’t happening, asking “why they don’t sniff each other’s butts?”

Molodinow had the last word of the afternoon, suggesting that in the face of these realities, all of us should probably (see what I did there?) recognize that our own successes and failures are often governed by cold numbers, too, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“We should realize that, be humble, and just chill a little,” he said.

Watch the entire presentation right here!

The Earth and the Moon: A Match Made in the Heavens

The Moon’s a pretty darn awesome thing to have.  Look at all it gives us.  A way to track the days, the majesty of the tides, crackpot prognostication in the daily newspaper … and eclipses!  How cool are eclipses?!  Life would be a lot more boring if it weren’t for the Moon.  The thing that’s not immediately recognizable, though, is that life might not be at all if it weren’t for the Moon.

The Earth’s moon seems to have formed in a similar fashion as the satellites belonging to the other planets in our solar system, but with a key difference.  Recent studies suggest that moons form when material within ring systems, like Saturn’s, coalesce to form the rocky companions.  It’s thought that ring systems of the outer planets were comprised of leftover material from the accretion of each protoplanetary disk, but the debris that encircled the Earth and condensed to create our Moon probably had a different source.  Namely Theia, the postulated, Mars-sized planetoid that smashed into the early Earth and launched a large chunk of it into orbit.

It might sound like a crazy idea, but there’s a decent amount of evidence for it.  There are still kinks to be worked out, like why the Moon’s oxygen isotopic ratios are almost identical to those of the Earth instead of a hodgepodge of ours and the impactor’s, but other similarities in composition actually bolster the hypothesis.  Then you’ve got all the lunar evidence of its impactful origin.  The crystal structure of many of the Moon’s minerals point to a molten beginning, which is hard to come by for a small body without the injection of large amounts of energy, e.g. being blasted off of somewhere else.  Zinc isotopes in particular seem to have been fractionated and volatilized, processes that don’t occur during run-of-the-mill geologic conditions.

And thank goodness it happened.  If the Earth had cooled without disturbance, most of the useful and precious (heavy) metals should have drifted down into the core.  The fact that we have significant amounts of iron, silver and gold so close to the surface is more evidence that something annihilated itself against Earth, leaving its core materials down below, allowing us to make things like cars, computer chips and keychains that make fart noises.  All of which would be useless if life hadn’t come together in the first place, which some think, amazingly, can also be attributed to the Moon.  Shorter, stronger tidal cycles 4 billion years ago may have provided the right changing environments to teach the first “protonucleic acids” how to replicate, leading to the formation of DNA and RNA, the building blocks of us all.

“I just wanted to say … thanks for being there, man.”  Image credit to universetoday.com

But the Moon didn’t stop exerting its beneficial influence there.  Once life got chugging along, the tides may have continued to force adaptations by hurling the fledgling organisms into unfamiliar territory.  Those strong early tides also squeezed and stretched the Earth itself, causing surface displacements up to a kilometer a day, kinetic energy that would slow the planet’s cooling and keep plate tectonics — and thus the carbon cycle — moving.  The Moon’s gravity also helped stabilize our axial tilt, which may have varied wildly without it.  An irregular wobble could have prevented the normal seasons we’re used to and hence made it difficult for complex organisms, that can’t adapt rapidly, to develop.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

While it may not mystically control your personality, the Moon has gone a long way into making you who you are.  With all the mentions of it here, have you figured out why the tides were more frequent and stronger in the ancient past?  The Earth was rotating faster, only to be slowed gravitationally by that big hunk of cheese.  So you can also thank the Moon for a weekend that’s twice as long.  The tides were stronger because the Moon was actually closer to us back then.  Its orbit expands as time goes on.  We live at the exact right time for eclipses to occur!  Pretty darn awesome.

Much of the information here was taken from the very informative “How Earth and the Moon interact” from Astronomy Today.

What Does an Atom Look Like? See For Yourself

How do you know when something’s real?  Is it enough that its existence is predicted mathematically?  What if you use an instrument to measure its effects on other things?  Or is seeing truly the only path to believing?  Atomism, the idea that all matter is made of fundamental, discrete, indestructible units, has been around for ages, at least since ancient Greece.  Back then, it was more of a philosophic idea rather than anything that could actually be tested.  The evidence for atoms began to stack up in the 1800′s, but they couldn’t actually be imaged until 1951, facilitated by the technique of field ion microscopy.

Today, showing off atoms is almost a novelty, as IBM has proven able to maneuver single bits of carbon around to create images and even a stop-motion film.  There’s no denying that atoms exist, baby.  The proof is in the pudding.  But is there pudding in the atom?  That’s what one historic model predicted.  Despite the romantic notions of foregone generations, atoms are not the indestructible bases for everything; there are other little scraps of matter that come together to form them.  So what does it look like inside the atom?  It’s been a subject of debate (and calculation), but thanks to an international team of researchers, we’ve finally been given our first real glimpse.

Still image from “A Boy and His Atom,” the nearly inconceivable stop-motion carbon atom film by IBM

John Dalton is credited by most as the originator of modern atomic theory, as he noticed that chemical elements always react in ratios of whole numbers.  That wouldn’t be necessary if a substance could be broken into infinitely small parts.  But that didn’t prove atoms weren’t themselves made up of smaller things.  In 1897, J. J. Thompson discovered that cathode rays are actually composed of tiny, negatively charged particles (eventually dubbed “electrons), and he hypothesized that they originated from within atoms, casting doubt on the indivisibility issue.  Since atoms have no net electrical charge, Thompson suggested as a counterbalance that electrons were distributed through a sea of positively charged material within the atom, as if they were raisins suspended in plum pudding.  A delicious yet ultimately inaccurate view.

A Christmas treat or the basic building block of everything?

Ernest Rutherford took the next high profile shot in 1909, hurling positively charged alpha particles at gold foil sheets, playing a hunch that bet against the Thompson model.  Sure enough, Rutherford saw what he wanted when most of the alpha particles slipped right through the foil, with a few being deflected at extreme angles J.J. wouldn’t have expected.  Like charges repel, so for the majority of alpha particles to pass through undisturbed, the positively charged parts of the gold atoms had to be almost vanishingly small compared to their atomic radius.  The plum pudding was dumped and we were left with the unsettling conclusion that most of the atom was nothing at all; negatively charged electrons orbiting a positively-charged nucleus at a distance much vaster than the particles’ sizes.  Turns out there’s not much more to see than empty space.

Niels Bohr continued the “solar system” idea of an atom, but with an important and freakish difference.  If an electron circling a proton (which is pretty much a hydrogen atom) were subject to regular electrostatic forces, it would rather rapidly spiral into the nucleus and we’d have no atoms at all.  Bohr instead proposed in 1913 that there were certain stable orbital paths surrounding the nucleus in which the electron wouldn’t lose energy and could perpetually stay put unless excited to a higher state.  The mind-numbing implication here is that when an electron changes energy levels (orbits), it literally DOES NOT EXIST from the time it leaves one and reappears at the next.  Planets don’t pull that kind of shit.  This was one of the first inklings of the revolutionary science of quantum mechanics and appears to reflect genuine reality, as Louis de Broglie mathematically refined the idea in 1924.

Don’t look for those electrons in-between.  From thephysicsmill.com

But it gets even weirder!  The probability function of the Schrodinger Equation, the meat and gristle of quantum mechanics, predicts not circular but a SPHERICAL shell for the innermost electron orbit.  In fact, as you might have surmised from the term, you can only really guess at where the electron might be on that spherical shell, not really where it is at any one point.  That’s just the beginning, though.  Further orbitals take on completely unintuitive shapes with rings and squashed lobes.

How can you believe any of this stuff?  These are all necessary, mathematical consequences of quantum mechanics, a discipline the predictions of which are just too accurate to deny.  It’s so hard to contemplate because it’s alien compared to anything we’re used to seeing up here in our macroscopic world.  As mentioned above, IBM has taken the lead in imaging the infinitesimal, so that maybe it’ll all seem more real if we can actually see it for ourselves.  They obtained the first complete image of a molecule in 2009, molecular orbitals in 2011 and atomic bonds themselves last year, but they were scooped a couple weeks ago.

The First Image Ever of a Hydrogen Atom's Orbital Structure

That right there is a hydrogen atom’s electron wavefunction captured by Aneta Stodolna, Marc Vrakking and company using what’s called a quantum microscope.  They were able to produce the image through interference patterns after the hydrogen atoms were ionized.  Not quite like what Niels Bohr imagined, but probably still fitting for the 100 year anniversary of his model.

What Does This Mean?

If mathematical predictions aren’t enough for you, and you really have to see it to believe it, then there ya go.  We’ve gone from viewing atoms themselves all the way down to the fuzzy electron probabilities around the outside.  Our perception doesn’t always match reality, so it’s nice to know that with a little ingenuity, we can still see some fundamental truths for ourselves.

May 2013 Revisit: Roadkill Amphibians from Atlantis… or Something

Lots of updates this month, so let’s get to it!

In March we took a look at the most spectacular feats of regeneration in the animal kingdom while simultaneously realizing such superpowers are likely beyond our reach.  Enter the axolotl salamander and its mighty macrophages.  The specialized immune cells are present in human beings too, but in the axolotl they seem to foster the regrowth process in ways ours don’t.  Amphibious amputees depleted of their macrophages by an Australian group developed stumps and scarring like we do, instead of brand new limbs.  When the stump itself was lopped off and the macrophages reintroduced, voila!, the magic was back!  There’s obviously something else at work here that we don’t quite understand, but seeing the role that similar cells play in another animal’s miraculous recovery at least drives our prospects from “impossible” to “really goddamn unlikely.”

Earth and planetary scientist Michael Wysession sees something fishy about the “Brazilian Atlantis,” and not just the way its discoverers went about publicizing the find.  He quibbles with the interpretation that the uncovered continental crust submerged when Africa split off from South America, noting that it could have alternatively been brought to that location by ice rafts or glaciers.  But hey, there is a lost underwater city off the coast of Suffolk, England, or at least what’s left of it.  Much like Hurricane Sandy deposited New Jersey’s Jet Star roller coaster in the Atlantic, storms in the 1200′s brought down much of the port city of Dunwich.  The burgh was abandoned in the 1400′s and its buildings continued to slip away as erosion ran unabated.  New surveys show the ruins  in greater detail than ever.  Obviously a very slow disappearance, and not one involving the fracturing of crust.

Despite the tricky tactics of the cliff swallow, it seems roadkill rates may actually be rising, according to numbers provided by the Insurance Information Institute.  And that’s just the big stuff; the animals that do enough damage for a claim to be filed.  Not many people care about turtles and some of the other guys least likely to get a quick evolutionary boost.  That’s why Matt Aresco made the problem a priority in Florida.  He and supporters were eventually able to leverage the state into employing engineering controls such as high roadside fencing and additional crossing culverts to facilitate the reptiles’ safe transport, dramatically reducing turtle death on the highway.  If nature can’t give its critters a fast kick in the pants, we may have to take it upon ourselves to devise other solutions.

Going back to February, new research may show that a protein-lipid complex found in human breast milk may actually make antibiotic resistant bacteria more vulnerable again.  And if that doesn’t work, we might be able to send OTHER bacteria against their malevolent brethren.  Fight fire with fire!

MRSA may soon meet its match.  From the-scientist.com

On a more personal note, I had the opportunity to practice what I preach earlier this month.  I had been burdened by throat and chest congestion for over a week before finally breaking down and seeing the doctor.  Not being able to tell if my infection was caused by bacteria or a virus, the young physician handled the situation admirably.  She wrote me a prescription, but told me to wait and only take it if I hadn’t “turned the corner” in a couple days.  Sure enough, I was feeling much better two days later, and I let the scrip set.  Conversely, if she had just blindly given me antibiotics without thought… what would I have done?  I may have made the wrong decision.  This was instead a great example of doctor and patient working together to avoid unnecessary drug consumption.  We can all manage that!

June starts off on Monday with an actual look at an electron orbital!  No shit!

James McCormick and the ADE 651 Bomb Detector: Don’t Think It Can’t Happen Here

This one hits close to home, mostly for reasons unrelated to my geographic location.  In fact, the sad and frustrating story takes place on the other side of the world, although I do see the same dangerous attitudes in the course of doing my own job far too often.

A little background on me, first.  I work in the field of underground detection, using electromagnetic instruments to locate subsurface utilities and other items of possible interest, such as storage tanks or building foundations, in support of future remediation or construction projects.  The principles behind these devices have been understood for hundreds of years and they pass trials every time an excavation is done to remove an identified gasoline tank or to repair a traced utility.  Most of the machines rely on the conductivity of the metallic objects to carry a signal, although the oft-touted ground penetrating radar (GPR) is also useful in finding non-metallic targets. The instruments unfortunately have unavoidable detection limits, as the resistance of the ground works to attenuate the signals.

So we laugh when we receive flyers for impossible products that claim to detect any material at preposterous depths, with no explanation of how such a miracle is performed.  It’s not so funny when similar “devices” are used in a FUCKING WAR ZONE to detect BOMBS at security checkpoints.  Such was the ADE 651, a plastic handgrip with a swiveling antenna and no electronics beyond a $20 novelty golf ball finder, that was sold to the Iraqi army by the despicable James McCormick for as much as $40,000 apiece.  McCormick was sentenced by a British court to 10 years in prison on fraud charges earlier this month, and at least 7 million pounds (almost 10 million dollars) of his over 75 million dollar fortune will be distributed to victims and surviving relatives of those killed by bombs that slipped by.  Hollow solace, to be sure, especially to the “hundreds and thousands” of Iraqi civilians who also perished.

The ADE 651 was supposedly powered by the user’s “static electricity,” and could detect nearly anything, including explosives, drugs and money, from thousands of feet away, simply by inserting the appropriate “programmed substance detection card” that could “tune in” to the particular material’s “frequency,” whatever that means.  Science-y sounding nonsense that tries to move something into the realm of “plausible” from “too good to be true.”  The ADE 651 doesn’t work.  It can’t work, unless they also change the laws of physics as they function.  Yet, as the Wall Street Journal notes, the Iraqi military still employs them!  And they’re not the only ones!  How can anyone continue to believe in their efficacy?

Does this look like a device that can locate ANYTHING?  From the BBC

Benjamin Radford offers some explanations.  Chief among them perhaps is that after spending a small fortune on the props, the officials no doubt want them to work.  They’re literally and figuratively invested in their performance.  It’s easy to say, “well, we haven’t had many bombings since we got it” when there aren’t many bombs to begin with, and when something does evade detection?  “Hey, no system’s perfect.”  Or the guy wasn’t using it right.  Operator error.  But man, you find one bomb (which can sure happen if you search enough people), and that confirmation bias kicks in, assuring you that the plastic stick can somehow do magic.

But if it doesn’t work, how were the “positive readings” even obtained?  The so-called antenna is mounted loosely and can easily swing when prompted, consciously or unconsciously.  The same phenomenon driving the spooky Ouija board, the ideomotor efffect, is likely to blame.  It’s been shown that a person’s expectations can subconsciously influence small, almost unnoticeable motions, in favor of what you want to find.  And I’ve seen it in person.  Many times, baselessly confident guys with “witching sticks, ” essentially two bent metal rods, have gone over what I’ve done and “confirmed” it when the pins pivot together.  “Yep, there it is!”  Funny how they’ve never tried that before I put paint on the ground for them to see.  Not once.

Well, except for when similar dowsers are EMPLOYED by the TOWN to mark utilities.  I’ve seen that, too.  Several years ago I was tasked with investigating multiple gas stations in a New Jersey city, and found that the publicly-funded water service markouts were often wildly inaccurate, sometimes not even entering the site building on the same side as depicted.  I offhandedly mentioned this to another public locator, and he confirmed the worst.  Tax dollars spent on the easily disproven and, more importantly, huge potential for damage and even loss of life fostered.

Image proudly promoted on dowsers.com.  Would you trust your life to these?

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

We’re good at fooling ourselves when we want something to be true, and there are terrible people who leap at the chance to take advantage of that.  James McCormick got 10 years in jail, but how is that enough when so many have died at his hands?  People often ask “what’s the harm” in believing unsubstantiated or improbable claims.  I can’t imagine a starker example.

And as unlikely as it may seem, such things can hit close to home.  The dowsers I encounter are completely convinced that their “methods” work, and no amount of reason or recounting of failed tests will convince them.  They’ve seen it, so they know!  We must all remain eternally vigilant in our own ways to keep crazy from endangering us and others.

Special thanks to Sharon Hill and Doubtful News for continuing to hound this story while it simmered in the background


Does size really matter? What’s so special about our brains?

Closing out an evolutionary trifecta for May.  Our ramshackle remodeling has brought us a big, beautiful brain, but is it really the size that gives us our smarts?  If overall mass were all that mattered, you’d have to open an underwater chapter of MENSA, as the sperm whale’s brain swells past all others at nearly 20 pounds.  Ours, by comparison, is only about 3 pounds.  It should be obvious, though, that absolute size can’t be the dominant indicator, as a lot of that real estate is needed just to communicate with a body that big.

That’s why a better rule is the ratio of brain size to body size.  We start to sit a lot prettier from that viewpoint, as primates boast brains 5 to 10 times larger than the “average” animal proportion.  Then again, a person’s brain size to body size ratio is just about the same as that of a mouse.  Birds and ants actually come out ahead of us.  There must be something else yet still at play.

 Is it how the organ is organized?  A March study from Jeroen Smaers and Christophe Soligo of the University College of London seems to show, through analysis of 17 primate species that span 40 million years of evolutionary history, that we really started to take off with an accelerated growth of a specific region of the brain, namely the prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal cortex, part of the frontal lobe, is accepted to be where our thoughtful “executive functions” take place.  In other words, the bit that makes us human.

Three pounds of goo that makes you you.  From scientificamerican.com

Hold on a second, say Robert Barton and Chris Vendetti in an even more recent study!  With their data they counter that, contrary to popular wisdom, the size of our frontal lobes isn’t any bigger than what you’d expect for our bodies.  They argue that previous investigations didn’t tackle the “scaling” issue properly.  Instead, the pair propose we take a closer look at our heightened connectivity between different brain areas.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

What was once “common sense,” that a big brain makes for a brighter being, hasn’t been taken seriously for a while, and even the ideas that supplanted it, like size ratios and organizational complexity, have come under criticism.  We’re not lacking for new ideas on the subject, as British researchers Seth Grant and Richard Emes once presented yet another alternative hypothesis, that it’s the number of different protein interactions in our synapses that set us apart from the rest.

It goes to show just how knotty the study of intelligence can be.  What seems obvious isn’t always true and each successive assertion needs to scrutinized by the community.  New ideas are always cropping up and should be considered.  Our thoughts have gotten us far, but how we got them is still not completely certain.