Latest news from those kinky scientists who live out on the edge. Damn heretics.

Ball Lightning Research

Some interesting research at the University of Florida into the possible source of 'ball lightning' reports:

Using tethered rockets to trigger and direct lightning to the ground and through a wide variety of materials, lightning researchers at the University of Florida at Gainesville have managed Lightning Researchto create some short-lived balls of fire that have a lot in common with the naturally-occurring floating balls of light.

...Some previous laboratory experiments have also managed to ignite floating wisps of silicon into something that resembles ball lightning. The actual lightning experiments duplicated that effect repeatedly, said Hill.

These experiments point to one possible explanation of ball lightning: that it isn't actually lightning at all. Rather, it is some material that has been vaporized and ignited by lightning. It burns briefly and then blinks out. But is it really ball lightning?

"What it demonstrates is that it is possible to produce luminous events at the surface that to an untrained observer looks like ball lightning," said Richard Orville, professor and director of the Cooperative Institute for Applied Meteorological Studies at Texas A&M University.

For more interesting thoughts on scientific research into ball lightning, see "A Social History of Ball Lightning".

Previously on TDG:

Kurzweil's Singularity

Late last month I posted a story about the "Singularity Backlash", with links to some critical pieces on the 'cult of posthumanism'. To balance things up, here's a link to the proponents of the singularity speaking their mind: "Reaching for Immortality", another excellent article/interview by Alan Boyle over at his Cosmic Log, in which he speaks with Ray Kurzweil about some of the negative spin on the idea of post-humanism:

[T]here is intertwined promise and peril in all technologies. That's always been the case. There are dangers in these new technologies that I've talked extensively about. There's no simple pat answer, but the right answer is twofold: Have ethical standards for responsible practitioners, like the Asilomar guidelines for biotech, which have been very successful. And have a rapid-response system for irresponsible practitioners, like terrorists, so we can respond to them and protect ourselves.

We've been a technological species for tens of thousands of years, and it's been the case that the technologically superior species has prevailed. There's discussion now why Cro-Magnon man prevailed over Neanderthals, and it appears to be due to fairly subtle differences in our tool use. Our tools were more advanced than the Neanderthals' and that's always what prevails. We've been a human-machine civilization ever since we picked up a stick to reach a higher branch. We've extended our reach with our tools, physically, mentally. We've already done that with our health. Life expectancy was 23 a thousand years ago. I recently told some gifted middle-school kids that if it hadn't been for this progress they all would be senior citizens.

And here's some snippets of Kurzweil (and his detractors) in the trailer for the documentary about his singular(ity) dream, Transcendent Man:

Though going by the votes in the singularity poll here on TDG, most Grailers are rather skeptical about whether such a thing will ever happen...

Previously on TDG:

Sheldrake in July

'Maverick biologist' Rupert Sheldrake recently gave a talk at Schumacher Colleger about his research into animal telepathy. For those interested, you can view this talk online (almost an hour and a half long), and I've embedded it below for convenience.

For a shorter exploration of his research, Fortean Times have posted an online version of Rupert's article from FT265, "Instant Messaging: Psychic pets and twin telepathy". And for the more technically minded, over at his website you'll find the full text of last year's Journal of Scientific Exploration article, "An Automated Test for Telepathy in Connection with Emails".

On the other hand, if you're feeling more right-brained and looking for a meandering conversation on the crossovers between science and esoterica, have a listen to the latest 'Trialogue' uploaded to Sheldrake Online, "The Heavens" (44 mins).

EdgeScience #4

Issue 4 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration, and I'm sure Daily Grail readers will find plenty to sink their teeth into in the new release. EdgeScience 4Professor Henry Bauer responds to irate reader letters regarding his article in Issue 3, "HIV Does Not Cause AIDS", René Verreault discusses pendulum anomalies during eclipses, Thomas M. Dykstra investigates a mystery regarding insects' sense of smell, and Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne recount their research into mind-machine interactions. Also in this issue, Jim Tucker reviews Satwant K. Pasricha‘s Can the Mind Survive Beyond Death?, and Billy Cox discusses the possible aeronautical dangers of UFOs.

Don't forget: if you enjoy the mag, send a bit of love via the PayPal button to help ensure the future of this excellent free e-zine (or alternatively pick up a paper copy for $5.95). Note too that there is now an app for viewing the PDF release on the iPad.

Death Ray? Check!

Forget the flying car...this is what you really wanted from the future:

A video released at the biannual aerospace convention in Farnborough, UK, today, shows a laser mounted on a warship's gun turret obliterating a remotely piloted drone.

Built by Raytheon Missile Systems of Tuscon, Arizona, the 32-kilowatt infrared laser is shown illuminating and heating the wingtip and then the underside of what looks like a radar-seeking drone – until its remote pilot loses control and the aircraft catches fire and plummets into the ocean.

"Three similar drones were also successfully engaged at militarily significant distances by the solid-state laser" in May and June, says Mike Booen, the firm's vice president. "It's a world first over open sea."

Imagine what we could achieve if all that money and inventiveness was sunk into creating things rather than blowing them up...

Italian Earthquake Lights

Here's an interesting recent paper on an often disputed phenomenon - "The earthquake lights (EQL) of the 6 April 2009 Aquila earthquake, in Central Italy". Face-to-face surveys with over 1000 people in the wake of the Aquila earthquake turned up a large number of reports of EQL-like sightings...although the paper also showed the difficulty in establishing which of those reports were EQL, rather than more mundane explanations:

Many people reported seeing peculiar sightings of light glows, flashes, lightning, flames and fireballs, all of which were considered candidates for EQL. Three eyewitness reported observing high flames which were later identified as explosions of gas cylinders. Tens of sightings were reported as being particularly luminous points in the sky which, through their collected positions, revealed utilising astronomical software to be the planet Venus. The meteorological situation was also taken into consideration for Aquila so as to discard luminous events of a meteorological nature. Some of such events were observed above the mountains around Aquila and may have originated behind them. For this motif, time and direction of such lightning and the meteorological conditions in Central Italy were also compared. Several atmospheric lights were associated with thunder-storms.

Roughly one hundred sightings were linked with natural phenomena such as sunsets, moon halos and fog illuminations. For example, many witnesses reported seeing a strange moon light which appeared red and was surrounded by a small red halo. This phenomenon was observed at nearly all the locations, from Amatrice to San Pio delle Camere. In this study this phenomenon was considered to be atmospheric. Additionally, eyewitnesses reported observing the breakdown of electrical lines. Many flashes were also compatible with relatively small discharges coming from the ground during the main shock. Being so, the flashes could have been short circuits, given that the area in and around Aquila is highly urbanised. All of these sightings which were identified as being of a natural or anthropogenic source, were excluded from the collection of luminous phenomena.

Nevertheless, after removing the bogus sightings, some 241 reports remained which were suggestive of an EQL phenomenon - including luminous clouds and vapours, aurora-like 'streamers', electrical discharges, columns of fire, and luminous funnels. The conclusion of the report is interesting in its practicality:

Luminous events were observed before the main shock without the ground shaking and were very similar to those reported about two centuries ago. Given this, they could be considered premonitory phenomena...the experience of Carlo Strinella, who had knowledge of EQL, [and who] took measures to protect his family after interpreting some flashes he had sighted before the main shock...suggests that educating the general population about EQL phenomena could help save lives.

For some more interesting reading on the topic, make sure you check out Geoff Falla's Darklore 3 article "Shaking Stars" (available as a free PDF sample on the Darklore website). Thanks to Rick for the heads-up.

Nukes in Spaaaaace

I see your July 4th fireworks, and raise you a nuclear explosion in space:

If you are wondering why anybody would deliberately detonate an H-bomb in space, the answer comes from a conversation we had with science historian James Fleming of Colby College:

"Well, I think a good entry point to the story is May 1, 1958, when James Van Allen, the space scientist, stands in front of the National Academy in Washington, D.C., and announces that they’ve just discovered something new about the planet," he told us.

Van Allen described how the Earth is surrounded by belts of high-energy particles — mainly protons and electrons — that are held in place by the magnetic fields. There are two Van Allen radiation belts that circle the Earth: an inner belt and an outer belt. The belts are contained by the Earth’s magnetic field.

Today these radiation belts are called Van Allen belts. Now comes the surprise: While looking through the Van Allen papers at the University of Iowa to prepare a Van Allen biography, Fleming discovered "that [the] very same day after the press conference, [Van Allen] agreed with the military to get involved with a project to set off atomic bombs in the magnetosphere to see if they could disrupt it."

Wow, sounds like a great plan! Go science! Go military!

In the words of Professor Fleming, "this is the first occasion I've ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up."

Singularity Backlash

In the past decade many futurists have embraced the concept that we are approaching a 'Technological Singularity' - a point at which technological development reaches a stage where machine intelligence surpasses current human potential, Singularityand being able to improve upon itself this intelligence grows exponentially, thus changing civilisation rapidly and irrevocably into a state which we probably cannot even conceive. In the words of mathematician and author Vernor Vinge, "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended."

Last week The New York Times ran an article about the new 'Singularity University', at which 'students' recently gathered for a nine-day, $15,000 course (there is also a separate 10-week 'graduate' course for $25,000). One of the more interesting facets of the article - though only touched on briefly - is the 'techno-Utopianism' that permeates the thinking of those involved:

Both courses include face time with leading thinkers in the areas of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, energy, biotech, robotics and computing.

On a more millennialist and provocative note, the Singularity also offers a modern-day, quasi-religious answer to the Fountain of Youth by affirming the notion that, yes indeed, humans — or at least something derived from them — can have it all.

“We will transcend all of the limitations of our biology,” says Raymond Kurzweil, the inventor and businessman who is the Singularity’s most ubiquitous spokesman and boasts that he intends to live for hundreds of years and resurrect the dead, including his own father. “That is what it means to be human — to extend who we are.”

I find the idea of the 'Singularity' both intriguing and also frightening - it's the stuff good science fiction novels are made of, and I think many of the arguments for and against are more a matter of personal moral judgement than objective debate.

The criticism I do have is more reserved for the plausibility of a Singularity. Firstly, I'd have to say that I don't believe technology is advancing at the rate that the likes of Ray Kurzweil say it is...certainly, while there have been significant advances in the last decade, I don't think we have seen anywhere near the advance that the Singularity has predicted via Moore's Law (and it's worth noting that Kevin Moore is a skeptic of an imminent singularity).

Secondly, there is the tricky question of intelligence vs consciousness. While Ray Kurzweil may think he'll be downloading his consciousness within a couple of decades to make himself immortal, I'm not sure many consciousness researchers would feel the same. For all the talk about finding neural correlates for various experiences and emotions, the 'hard problem' remains.

Here we can find signs of what I think is the inception of a materialist religion (of sorts), replete with charismatic leaders and transcendence of death. The latter perhaps is a driving force - without the 'crutch' of a religious belief in an afterlife, the Singularity becomes the salvation of the materialist facing their own mortality (this certainly seems to be how it is in Kurzweil's case). An interesting bit of speculation might be to consider the (fringe science) possibility that consciousness lies beyond the brain (a la transmission theory), and that it not only survives death, but is in fact set free from the body by the experience. To borrow an analogy from the mystical literature, could 'Singulatarians' in fact be the equivalent of a caterpillar desperately trying not to be become a butterfly?

The religious parallels in the Singularity movement are, however, not going unnoticed. In the wake of the NYT article, respected science writer John Horgan has responded with a scathing attack on 'Kurzweil's cult' in an opinion piece for Scientific American. At Biopolitical Times, Pete Shanks suggests that techno-Utopians revise their history for important lessons, in his article "A Singular Kind of Eugenics". And our good friend Alan Boyle has commented at Cosmic Log that while "it's nice to have such optimism in technology, but there's also something oddly off-putting about all this... It's the same spidey-sense tingle I get about Nietzschean supermanism and Scientology."

It's a fascinating topic, and one that will only become more prominent as the years go by. What do you think - is the Singularity imminent? And is it a good idea? Add a comment below, and/or vote on our new poll on the front page.

Acupuncture - Points of Disagreement

Possible vindication for some in the alternative medicine industry with a new scientific study on acupuncture getting positive results, and which also might have finally found the mechanism through which the ancient Chinese treatment works - at least in terms of its analgesic effects (if indeed it does actually work). Though alt-med folk may not be as impressed to learn that rather than 'Qi', vital forces or similar, the mechanism is more the prosaic bodily chemical adenosine, which surges in concentration after physical trauma and is linked to pain suppression.

There's been plenty of mainstream attention for the news - here's some quotes from The Telegraph:

Dr Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester, New York, said: "Acupuncture has been a mainstay of medical treatment in certain parts of the world for 4,000 years, Ancient Acupuncture Guidebut because it has not been understood completely, many people have remained sceptical. In this work, we provide information about one physical mechanism through which acupuncture reduces pain in the body."

"What we found is that adenosine, a natural pain killer, is released during acupuncture and that adenosine may be the primary way acupuncture reduces pain. The most important observation is that acupuncture worked almost three times as long if we gave a drug that slow down the removal of adenosine."

Adenosine, which also helps to regulate sleep and keep the heart healthy, becomes active in the skin after an injury to inhibit nerve signals and ease pain.

However, to temper any (tabloid news induced) suggestion that acupuncture is now 'proven' beyond doubt, head over to Not Exactly Rocket Science or Stuff and Nonsense. Although when reading those accounts I had the distinct feeling there was as much bias in the opposite direction as they claim there is in the newspaper stories and research paper.

It will be interesting to see how it plays out with skeptics in general - on the one hand, the research offers support for a long-time 'nemesis' in alt-med; on the other, it offers support for a physiological (materialist) explanation for a 'mystical' medicine (and yes, I *am* suggesting that 'skeptics' in general will use results to support their own viewpoint, rather than be scientifically should know that by now).

One thing in the criticisms of the paper that I don't particularly get. Is it really necessary to control for placebo in mice? Do they believe when scientists stick needles in their legs that it's likely it will get rid of their pain? Anybody able to enlighten me?

Full text: "Adenosine A1 receptors mediate local anti-nociceptive effects of acupuncture"

Nuke That Slicker

The ongoing ecological disaster that is the BP oil spill in the gulf continues . Here's an idea out of fact, so far left, it's Commie:

Komsomoloskaya Pravda, the best-selling Russian daily, reports that in Soviet times such leaks were plugged with controlled nuclear blasts underground. The idea is simple, KP writes: “the underground explosion moves the rock, presses on it, and, in essence, squeezes the well’s channel.”

Yes! It’s so simple, in fact, that the Soviet Union, a major oil exporter, used this method five times to deal with petrocalamities. The first happened in Uzbekistan, on September 30, 1966 with a blast 1.5 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb and at a depth of 1.5 kilometers. KP also notes that subterranean nuclear blasts were used as much as 169 times in the Soviet Union to accomplish fairly mundane tasks like creating underground storage spaces for gas or building canals.

While the knee-jerk reaction would be to say this is madness, I've heard from a number of quarters that the ecological impact would be less than allowing the leak to continue. Still not sure about the precedent it would set though (although if a civilisation-killing asteroid was incoming I'm sure we'd all be more than happy to send a nuke up).

Interesting to note too how many nuclear blasts there have been on Planet Earth of which we remain largely oblivious.