Monthly Archives: March 2013

March 2013 Revisit: UFO’s Regrow Teeth Using Facebook… Or Something

Three cool updates to close out March.  The first actually calls back to a February post, wherein WDTM? speculated that the stunning footage of the Russian Chelyabinsk meteor, shot from multiple sources, angles and locations, should make UFO enthusiasts queasy, as the modern ubiquity of worldwide camera technology has somehow not yet provided similar spectacular evidence of something they claim to be continually happening.  We found out in the February revisit, instead, that the Russian populace had gone gaga with woo-woo over the incident.  Oops.

Of course in science, one incident is not indicative of a trend, as shown in the newest issue of Intelligent Life magazine, from the publishers of The EconomistThe article, boasting the unfortunately confrontational title “Twilight of the Gullible,” highlights the morose musings from a November 2012 meeting of the British-based Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP), at which science writer Ian Ridpath explained that UFO sightings were indeed following a drastic downward trend, despite the fact that nearly everyone in the western world now carries a video camera in their pocket.  In fact, cases reported to the Association have dropped a staggering 96% since 1988.

UFOsWhere are the real versions of this photo?  Image from travelandleisure.com

When commenting to The Daily Telegraph prior to the conference, Sheffield Hallam University professor David Clarke echoed what we noted in the February revisit, that “[t]he reason why nothing is going on is because of the internet. If something happens now, the internet is there to help people get to the bottom of it and find an explanation.”  ASSAP’s chairman, Dave Wood, further explained that, “When you go to UFO conferences it is mainly people going over these old cases, rather than bringing new ones to the fore.”  Sound familiar, Bigfoot enthusiasts?  The same lack of progress that pegs a pseudoscience.

Coming back down to Earth, the future of human body part regeneration seemed comparably dreary, unless you count the flicker of hope provided by African spiny mice.  Well, the mice make nice again, this time with teeth!  In a March issue of the Journal of Dental Research, Paul Sharpe’s King’s College London team described their work in combining human gum cells with those from the molars of fetal mice to grow new teeth, roots and all.  Of course, the teeth are human/mouse hybrids and such procedures are far, far removed from clinical use, but hey!  It’s a start!

Finally, we tried to prove that Facebook is good for your brain, or at least that the WDTM? page is.  The research of Jeff Hancock and Catalina Toma, published in the March issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, seems to support that assertion.  The authors tested how experiment participants reacted to negative feedback and found that those who soon after checked their Facebook profiles became less defensive.  This is contrary, however, to other studies published about a year ago that argue reading other people’s positive status updates can make a person feel worse about themselves.

 WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

The truth may be out there, but UFO believers might not want to hear it.  You shouldn’t dump your dentures in the hopes of getting rodent replacements anytime soon.  And, as always, Facebook is a tool whose benefits and detriments will depend on how you interact with it.

April starts off with a look at just how the hell astrophysicists can figure out the age of the universe, to be followed later in the month with a discussion on whether cloning can bring long last animals back from extinction.  Join the conversation in the comments section or on Facebook!  I swear it’s okay!

Science vs. Pseudoscience: Bigfoot Teaches Us the Difference

After a brutal family engagement Saturday evening, I decided to plop down on the couch, pop a couple cold ones, and find some mind-numbing entertainment.  Bigfoot shows never disappoint.  Destination America, a Discovery Channel station, brought me a delicious delight named “Southern Fried Bigfoot,” an independently produced documentary on the Sasquatches seen south of the Mason Dixon line, such as Florida’s Skunk Ape, Louisiana’s Honey Island Swamp Monster, and the Boggy Creek Creature of Arkansas, the last of which inspires stories so silly as to be lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  You can’t expect much scientific rigor on these programs, and this tasty treat was no exception, as the evidence presented encompassed recalled anecdotes recorded (for some reason) with night vision cameras, and the irrefutable proof of the smell of a wet deer (in the woods!  Impossible!).

That’s good fun, but what really twisted my yambag came near the show’s conclusion, during the required “why we still believe” segment that always seems to bookend these things.  The quote may not be exact, as my mind had been partially muddled by a 9% Sierra Nevada stout at this point, but the music swelled and one guy said something to the effect of, “No one can prove that it doesn’t exist, so that gives me a leg up in believing that it does.”  Sorry hoss, but that’s not how it works.  You’re right; it’s virtually impossible to prove something’s nonexistence, that’s why the burden of proof is always placed on the person making the claim.  In science, one typically starts with the null hypothesis, the idea that nothing strange or different is going on, a stance that can only be rejected when sufficient evidence to the contrary is obtained.

The so-called best evidence for the beast’s existence has been refuted innumerable times, perhaps no more succinctly than in Daniel Loxton’s two part summation in the pages of Junior Skeptic, of all places, so I won’t rehash it here.  It’s the lack of answers for certain questions that expose the endeavor as a field that is simply not concerned with determining the actual truth.  Why is there no fossil evidence of apes in North America, and why are Bigfoot carcasses never found?  What about scat?  Are mommy and daddy Bigfeet curbing their kids?  Considering that, as super skeptic Ben Radford has pointed out, there must be tens of thousands of individuals to provide a sufficient breeding population, why are they not seen more often?  Why has a rabid Bigfoot, not in control of its faculties, never broken the treeline and wandered into a neighborhood?  In a country where wolves were nearly wiped out due to their impact on livestock, why has a starving Sasquatch never been caught nabbing a farm animal?

“He knows that’s our food.”  Hand to God, that was the answer of Matt Moneymaker, head of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) and star of Animal Planet’s ratings juggernaut Finding Bigfoot, when asked that last question by the program’s token pseudo-skeptic, Ranae Holland.  Even she rolled her eyes at that one.  The group’s official website further betrays them, as it asserts the BFRO to be “the only scientific research organization exploring the bigfoot/sasquatch mystery,” while claiming in the “About” section, “It has always been the policy of the BFRO to study the species in ways that will not physically harm them.”  You can’t presuppose the existence of something unverified and call yourself “scientific.”  You can’t dismiss the null hypothesis with way-out, illogical answers and substandard evidence like a few eyewitness reports and potentially misshapen or fabricated footprints.  There’s an old aphorism in science about doing everything you can to sink your own ship, so that you know it’s sturdy.  Bigfooters prefer to ignore the gaping hole in the hull and play on like the orchestra of the Titanic.

 WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Despite the purported desires of the people involved and the use of technical sounding jargon and fancy instruments to lend a feigned air of sophistication, Bigfoot “research” is simply not science.  “But what about the Melba Ketchum DNA study released in February?  That was published in a scientific journal!”  Yeah, a journal CREATED by the author because no one else would accept it!  (Sharon Hill at Doubtful News has been all over this one)

Bigfoot teachesEven Harry knows it don’t add up.  Awesome image from drawception.com

A “pseudoscience” is defined as a claim, belief or practice which is presented as scientific, but does not adhere to a valid, scientific method.  You can spot a pseudoscience by its lack of openness to testing by other experts (as with the Ketchum paper), an absence of progress (still no body?) and, as seen in the examples here, an over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation.  “He knows that’s our food” and other similar, bonkers assertions show that folks who follow the ‘Foot are not looking to find out *IF* it exists, but are out to prove *THAT* it exists.  Real science fits the theory to the evidence, not the other way around.

Keep these things in mind the next time “UFO’s Abducted My Grandma” or “The Bermuda Triangle Causes Global Warming” comes on the tube late at night.  With a strong nightcap, those shows can be entertaining, but the trappings surrounding them are anything but scientific.

WDTM? Comes to Facebook. Helping or Hurting?

The official What Does This Mean? Facebook page went up yesterday.  What does that mean?  Well, it means that all these blog entries will be posted there for easier access, along with other interesting science-y tidbits.  But really… is it part of the solution or part of the problem?  Is there a problem?  What effects do the the modern super social connectivity and the Internet’s ability to access nearly all knowledge with a few keystrokes have on our minds and brains?  Try to avoid reading in an F-pattern and we’ll see.

One of the Internet’s first functions (besides distributing free porno) was to share information between UCLA, the Stanford Research Institute, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah.  There’s a lot more out there now than just the goings-on at four different institutions, so much so that people don’t even feel the need to remember anymore.  A 2011 study led by Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow showed that experiment participants were less likely to recall presented statements if they were told the information would be accessible to them later on, and that they were more likely to remember where to find the information rather than the content itself.  As we begin to treat the web as our own external, mental hard drive, 84% of us can’t bear to be without our smartphones for even a day.

Okay, we’re in the middle of the “F.”  Still with me?  Good, because you should know it’s not just the trivia questions that keep us clicking.  It’s chemical.  Dopamine, the neurotransmitter in our brains that causes us to seek out satiation, whether that be from food, sex or text, kicks into overdrive with the instant gratification of every e-mail and info nugget we receive, spurring us to want more and more as each desire is rewarded.  Why is it never enough?  Stasis is the bane of evolution and survival.  A happy organism is a complacent one that doesn’t strive or fill new ecological niches.  The chase really is better than catch, and now it can be repeated almost endlessly.

And don’t fool yourself into thinking you can finger your phone and get your work done at the same time.  Research has shown that performing two or more tasks simultaneously or switching back and forth from one thing to another can reduce productivity by up to 40%, and that it may make distractions harder to tune out, leading to mental blocks.  In fact, the people who identify themselves as heavy multitaskers actually perform worse at certain mental plasticity tests, according to a University of Utah study.  The dopamine connection is evident here again, as those same people tend to be the most impulsive and sensation-seeking.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Best throw out your phone and nuke your Facebook.  *Wait, NO! *  Um, there are tangible advantages from social networking… yeah.  It appears that the benefits derived from traditional social groups, such as the propagation of desirable behavior and the feeling of belonging, are still present in online networking.  And it makes your brain bigger!  Well, Robin Dunbar, the anthropologist regarded for his assertion that a person can never really “know” more than a 150 people (so start trimming those friend lists), discovered with his colleagues that the size of a person’s social network is directly related to the volume of the orbital prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved with decision-making.  It is currently unknown whether accepting those requests actually jacks up your gray matter or if folks so gifted are just naturally gregarious and friendly.

273774-facebook-brainOrwellian image via pcmag.com

Hey, bottom of the “F!”  Not that I’ve got your attention back, it’s probably trivial to point out that the Internet and social networks are simply tools that can be used beneficially or can cause harm, just like anything else.  Understanding how we think and why fancy gadgets sometimes lead us down an unproductive path can help push the needle further toward the former.

 

The Morning After St. Patrick’s Day: Am I Gonna Die or Am I Stronger than Ever?

patty drink

Holy shit, what time is it, man?  St. Paddy’s was awesome, but I’ve gotta get to work.  And I’m still wasted!  FUCK!  Quick, get me some of those enzyme nanocomplex pills developed by UCLA researchers that have been shown to lower blood alcohol content and reduce liver damage.  What?  It’s only ever been tested on mice and isn’t yet available for human use?  SHIT!  Well, at least Mickey D’s should help with the hangover.  Stop laughing!  The cysteine in the egg of my “McMuffin” breaks down acetaldehyde, the toxic byproduct of alcohol metabolism that can cause headaches and vomiting, and the fructose in the OJ will help replenish the sugars I pissed out, mitigating fatigue and loss of coordination.  And if I can score some fries, I’ll get back some sodium and potassium, electrolytes needed for nerve and muscle function.

I feel like hell, but at least I can rest assured that alcohol doesn’t actually kill brain cells.  In fact, there may be surprising health benefits from alcohol consumption!  Small amounts of ethanol itself extended the lives of nematodes from 15 days to 40 days in a recent UCLA study.  Yeah, I guess it must be an awesome party school.  Alcohol can also reduce your risk of developing heart disease, by up to 25%!  And all the soluble fiber in that Guinness we drank will help lower our LDL cholesterol.  The hops can slow the release of bone calcium, limiting kidney stones.

Maybe we should switch to wine, though.  The resveratrol from the grapes may further extend lifespan.  There are also hundreds of reports that it may protect against cancer, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  Even hearing loss!  And wine’s purported ability to stave off colon cancer is a nice boost after the fast food, amirite?!

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Shit, we should start drinking more.  No?  Whaddya mean, the hazards outweigh the benefits if you have more than two drinks per day?  And that while alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells, binge drinking may decrease the production of new neurons in the hippocampus by up to 40%?  Wait, almost no human, clinical trials of resveratrol have been conducted?  If the implications of the animal studies hold for people, we’d have to drink upwards of a thousand bottles of wine a day to receive those benefits?  You’re a fucking buzzkill, ya know that?  I’m drinking alone next weekend.

I know that bananas would be better than the french fries!  JESUS!

Mighty Marvels of Regeneration: Could We Heal Like Comic Book Characters?

The best science fiction and fantasy is rooted in reality.  Arthur C. Clarke’s classic 2001:  A Space Odyssey showed what could happen if our current computers developed human-like intelligence and emotion.  Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park captured the imaginations of kids and the young-at-heart with a seemingly plausible parable on how to resurrect long-extinct dinosaurs (look for a post on this possibility in the future).  And as in Marvel’s Fantastic Four comics, the universe’s planets are often threatened with consumption by a peckish giant in a purple skirt.

Okay, maybe scratch that last one, but what about some of the superhuman feats of our more grounded champions?  Comic characters get beat up a lot, yet they always seem to come back for more merely a month later.  While a healthy suspension of disbelief is required to account for most of that, some of our favorites have built-in mechanisms to explain their near-miraculous recoveries.  How realistic are these regenerative capabilities?  Might they even translate to human applications?

The world famous Wolverine, star of the breakthrough X-Men movies as well as his own solo venture (with a sequel on the way), is the king of stitching himself back together.  His mutant healing factor rapidly regrows enormous amounts of tissue, at one point in his serial even regenerating an entire body around his metallic skeleton after the explosive villain Nitro seared away his flesh.  After his amazing ability was supercharged, he was even able to bring himself back from a single drop of blood!

wolverine skeletoncover image of Wolverine (Volume 3) #48

Such stunts will never be within our grasp, but the concept itself is not unheard of.  Planarians, commonly called “flatworms,” are simple critters less than an inch long that typically live in ponds and rivers.  They themselves are famous for coming back from extreme situations, spawning multiple complete organisms when cut into pieces.  In one mind-blowing study, a planarian was irradiated so that none of its cells could reproduce and it would slowly die.  A single, solitary c-Neoblast (an undifferentiated unit akin to stem cells) was transplanted from a donor into the victim’s tail, and subsequently grew all the former tissues back to create a new, functional animal!  Too bad people are not planarians.

Sure, coming back from a single cell or a little bit of blood is literally incredible.  How about something simpler?  Like, I don’t know, decapitation?  Wolverine’s final foe in the X-Men:Origins film was the regeneratin’ degenerate known as Deadpool, a product of the same super secret government program and perhaps the only dude bad enough to rival our hero in the healing department.  The creep’s head was shown to still be conscious after being removed from his body, a fate the comic book counterpart has suffered on numerous occasions, proving it to be little more than a minor inconvenience.

deadhead

The many-headed, mythologic Hydra would regrow two heads for every one lopped off, and the tiny creature for which it’s named is not far behind.  Composed of a basal disc used to adhere, a tubular body and a mouth opening surrounded by thin tentacles, the bitty beast will actually regrow its “head” when lost, thanks to constant mitosis (cell reproduction) in the body.  If a hydra is chopped up in a blender (who came up with that experiment?), a centrifuge can be used to reaggregate it and bring it back to life, much like Deadpool returned from being smashed to bits by the sinister Iceman in “Uncanny X-Force #16″.  I wouldn’t try this one at home.

All right, all right, no one’s expecting that we’ll ever be able to regrow a head or our entire musculature, but something like limb regeneration seems just feasible enough.  So much so that Dr. Curt Connors, an ordinary scientist, tried to restore his departed right arm with a serum inspired by reptilian recuperative tactics.  The treatment succeeded, but side effects included skin irritation, spontaneous tail appearance and a beatdown from the Amazing Spider-Man.

the-amazing-spiderman-movie-lizard-poster

Similar to a scene in the cinematic adaptation of 2012, there are lizards called skinks whose tails snap off when grabbed by predators, allowing the animal to escape.  Amphibians are better known for regrowing limbs, but the potential for human use recently took a less optimistic turn.  It has long been thought that such recuperation was a skill developed early in evolution, and that the ability had been “switched off” in mammals and birds.  New studies of the red-spotted newt, however, show that many of the newt’s RNA transcripts that code for proteins used in the process are unique to the organism, i.e. not found in other things like us.  That innate ability may just not be there for people, and no magic potion is likely to instill it.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

You should take any story of human regeneration with a grain of salt.  In 2008, hobby store owner Lee Spievack claimed to regrow a lost fingertip by applying a powder derived from pig bladders, an assertion called “junk science” by University of Leeds professor Simon Kay, adding that, “If you could regenerate body parts like this, your first port of call would be a serious science journal like Nature because it would be a Nobel prize winning revolution.”  A similar if not as spectacular story was reported by Californian Deepa Kulkarni, but closer examination suggests it was the proper dressing of the wound to prevent the growth of scar tissue that restored the finger’s appearance, and not a sprinkling of “pixie dust.”

But perhaps the cause is not completely lost.  African spiny mice were found in 2012 to have brittle skin that tears off when attacked; skin they can regenerate complete with hair follicles and sweat glands.  The regrowth begins from a clump of cells comparable to the blastemas employed by salamanders.  People aren’t mice, either, but at least mice are closer cousins than a minuscule, glorified gut tube.  The precedent is now there in mammal physiology, so that one day we may learn how to become superhuman.  Ya know, like a lizard.

Killer Sinkholes: Could It Happen to You?

The geologic term “karst” is used to refer to a characteristic type of topography in regions underlain with carbonate (typically limestone) rocks, which chemically weather to produce hilly features or depressions at the surface and sometimes spectacular caves beneath, such as Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky.  Beauty can turn to tragedy, however, if those chambers collapse to form sinkholes, as in the sad and surprising story of Jeffrey Bush, whose Florida home was partially swallowed by such a structure while he was sleeping on the evening of February 28th.  Mr. Bush unfortunately did not survive the experience, which may lead some to wonder, could it happen to me?  How dangerous is this phenomenon?  Well, it depends on where you live.

Sinkhole map

The above map, developed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), shows a generalized distribution of karst features within the United States.  Why is Florida so riddled with cavities?  The state’s land mass was underwater for much of its history, so that most of its basement rock is composed of limestone (chemical formula CaCO₃), formed by the deposition and lithification of corals and the hard parts of other marine organisms.  Those limestone formations, hundreds or even thousands of feet thick, were then covered with much thinner layers of sand and clay thanks to the erosion and transportation of material from the Appalachian Mountains.

Rainwater can pick up carbon dioxide (CO₂) as it passes through the atmosphere and then the soil, forming a weak carbonic acid (H2CO3) that can act to dissolve the limestone bedrock.  The process is exacerbated by man-made acid raid, which often comes in the form of the more reactive hydrochloric acid (HCl).  Hydrochloric acid’s reaction with calcium carbonate is so violent that introductory geology students use it to help identify limestone and related rocks.

Of course the diagnostic solutions are more highly concentrated than what falls from the sky, but it can help you imagine what goes on beneath your feet.  The effects of pollution from the industrialized mid-west are felt on the east coast thanks to the jet stream.

Sinkholes are then more common after rain events, but they can be produced by droughts as well, as in the Bush case.  Florida State Geologist Jonathan Arthur notes that dry conditions can cause overlying soil to collapse.  Human extraction of groundwater can have the same effect, as 65 sinkholes appeared in Florida after overuse by strawberry farmers in 2010.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

About 20% of the United States is underlain by karst terrain, making it susceptible to subsidence and sinkholes.  While they often appear quickly and without warning, basic geologic principles tell us that past is a good prediction of future.  Just as Californians know to always expect earthquakes, spots currently plagued by sinkholes will likely continue to endure the uncertainty.  Know your local geology and what potentially hazardous effects you might be able to expect.  If you live in an area prone to sinkholes, learn to note the signs, such as muddied well water, new ponds, or slumping features.

sinkhole1

More generally, we have to continue our staggeringly slow realization that what we do affects the world and environment around us.  Acid rain doesn’t just kill a few fish; it can destroy property and even take human lives.  Overuse of resources not only puts strain on the local ecology but could do irreparable damage to our neighbors.  When couched in more practical terms like that, maybe stewardship isn’t quite so hard to swallow.  And maybe something good can come from otherwise senseless deaths.

Invisible Chaos Engines: How a Black Hole Could Wreck Your Day

The legends said they loom silently in the darkest depths of outer space.  Growing.  Accreting.  Devouring.  Grandpappy Einstein would spin mathematical yarns about collapsed stars so dense not even light could break free from their inescapable grasp, but he never really believed the stories were true.  “Now don’t fret,” he’d conclude, bouncing the cosmological community on his knee.  “The material within would have to reach orbital velocities equal to the speed of light, and we all know that can’t happen.  Black holes aren’t real.”

He was wrong.  Dead wrong.  Now we estimate there must be around 100 million of the ebon annihilators in our galaxy alone.  And the biggest, baddest mofo of them all lies right in the center, snacking on asteroids while we all helplessly circle it.  But that’s 26,000 light years away.  And the closest stellar-size black hole isn’t any nearer than 1,500 light years.  They can’t possibly hurt us way out here, right?  Wrong again, chump!  Even if you don’t get close enough to be torn apart like a piece of spaghetti by the black hole’s gravity gradient, the monsters can still find ways to reach out and wreck your shit!

The very birth of a black hole could ironically kill many of us.  The little-understood phenomenon of gamma ray bursts (GRB) are thought to result from the implosion of a rapidly rotating, high mass star, which leads to the creation of neutron stars or black holes.  Gamma rays are the most energetic of all electromagnetic radiation, even more potent than X-rays, and the giant blasts emitted by black hole-birthing supernovae are the brightest events in the universe.  If a star within 10,000 light years of us went pop, a directed GRB could fry off up to a quarter of the Earth’s ozone layer, leaving us underprotected from harmful solar emissions, causing extinctions and radiation sickness.

black_hole_spin-580x326image courtesy of NASA

The supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy formed long ago, so it’ll have to take a different tact if it wants to strike at us.  Maybe it’ll just start chucking stars our way.  As of 2012, 16 so-called “hypervelocity stars” had been identified in the Milky Way, zooming through at 2 million miles per hour, and six as big as our sun have been newly discovered.  The solar speed demons are presumed to have been slingshotted away from Sagittarius A* when the block hole greedily gobbled their companion stars.  Needless to say, if one of those nuclear-powered projectiles was flung in our direction, the immediate effects would impact more than just the atmosphere.

And if that doesn’t work, hell, maybe it’ll just come for us itself!  NASA announced last year they had identified what seemed to be a supermassive black hole being ejected at high speed from its host galaxy.  Astronomers suggest that when the galaxy collided with another, the two black holes at their respective centers also merged, creating titanic gravitational waves that kicked the new super-entity out of the neighborhood.  A body bearing down on us with a mass millions of times that of the Sun is… literally unimaginable.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Fortunately, we don’t have to spend a lot of time imagining these things.  While they could and perhaps should make for great science fiction fodder, the likelihood of any of the aforementioned disasters occurring is essentially nil.  A gamma ray burst, emanating only from two opposing ends of a supernova, would have to be pointed directly at us to have a devastating effect, and a GRB close enough to cause significant damage is only thought to happen every 5 million years or so.  Warren Brown of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics thinks that there lurks only one hypervelocity star for every 100 million ordinary ones.  The Milky Way’s supermassive black hole shouldn’t be able to go mobile until we collide with the oncoming Andromeda galaxy in 4 billion years.  Black holes do have tantalizingly destructive consequences, but they’re unlikely to bother us in the near term.

That goes for the theorized “micro black holes,” too.  Some predictions expect that tiny versions of the beasts may have existed shortly after the Big Bang, and more far-out ponderings wondered if they could also be created by the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.  It hasn’t happened, as far as we know, and even if it did, the microscopic miscreants would evaporate before they could do any damage.  It may be fantastic to think about, but on the list of potential cosmic catastrophes, black hole destruction should fall far behind things like asteroid impact, which could be more easily avoided if predicted ahead of time.

“Do you know how fast you were going?” Law-abiding neutrinos give a glimpse at the scientific process

Neutrinos are funny things.  Their existence was first hypothesized in 1930 by Wolfgang Pauli as a way to explain how a certain kind of radioactive decay doesn’t violate well-established physical principles.  Ironic then that 80 years later the poor little guys would themselves be fingered as lawbreakers.  We already knew that neutrinos zip around at ridiculous speeds, close to that of light, enabled by their nearly non-existent mass, but could they actually surpass that cosmic speed limit?  Of course it’s since been confirmed that the original, supernaturally suggestive findings from the OPERA detection project in Gran Sasso, Italy were erroneous, but could the relativity reprisal have been real?  What implications would that have?  And what does the huge, hollow hubbub tell us about how science is done and how it’s reported?

Einstein

The Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA) detector, which finished construction in 2008, was designed to measure the phenomenon of neutrino oscillation.  It turns out that being the smallest and fastest particles in the universe isn’t enough for the bewildering bastards, as they ratchet up the weirdness by actually changing between their three different types while traveling through space.  This realization solved a major problem in the standard model of how the Sun operates, as earthbound measurements only observe between a third and half of the electron neutrinos predicted to be produced by solar activity.  Who would’ve guessed they’d be altering their identities on the way here?!

So that’s two cosmic mysteries the mighty yet tiny neutrino had helped to clear up.  Okay, their presence actually kind of precipitated the “solar neutrino problem” but hey, they were vindicated in the end.  The roguish particles seemed poised to make history again when OPERA announced in September of 2011 they had measured the arrival times of neutrinos produced at the CERN supercollider in Switzerland to be 60 nanoseconds faster than if they had been traveling at light speed.  That might seem like a small discrepancy, but in physics a few billionths can make the difference between ordinary and iconoclasm.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

The error was identified in March of 2012 as a faulty GPS cable connection, but that’s only part of the story.  It does show that scientists are human and capable of making mistakes like the rest of us, as with the embarrassing unit conversion mishap that scuttled the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999.  Don’t be fooled though; awry equipment isn’t always the answer when measurement discrepancies have amazing implications.  The original confirmation of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the best piece of evidence we have for the Big Bang, was attributed to an accumulation of bird shit before the antenna was cleaned and the experiment repeated.

And that’s one of the primary tenets of science.  Reproducibility.  Fool us once, Universe, shame on you.  We’ll work harder and come together so we won’t be fooled again.  The real story here is how tentative the potentially revolutionary results were presented, and how the physics community proceeded.  Relativity is one of the most robustly supported theories in science.  Its mathematical confirmation helped give Einstein the celebrity status he still enjoys today.  Your GPS wouldn’t work right without it.  So instead of immediately proclaiming the king to be dead, the OPERA scientists asked the rest of the community, “Uh, could you take a look at this?  It doesn’t look right.”  Sure enough, three different experiments refuted the new data, and even OPERA’s numbers came back to reality once the equipment issue had been resolved.  This is not just a clear-cut victory for Einstein, but for the scientific process itself.

If there are victors in this instance, we can’t ignore the losers.  Antonio Ereditato, OPERA’s spokesperson, resigned after the flap following a “no confidence” vote from other project leaders, even though he himself had criticized the media for over-sensationalizing the initial story.  It’s plain to see that the disconnect between how science works and how it’s communicated is still in effect.  We should take mainstream reports of scientific findings with a grain of salt and try to look for primary sources and accounts whenever we can, as too often our journalists seem to prefer getting it fast to getting it right.

And the cranks banging out homemade manifestos on how relativity is wrong should probably give it a rest.  If billions of dollars of equipment and the brightest minds in the world can’t do it, chances are you didn’t stumble upon revolution from your studio apartment.