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

V'ger Has (Finally!) Left the Building

Looks like this is it, folks: After a lot of false alarms, Voyager 1 has officially become the 1st man-made object to leave our cosmic backyard, venturing into the unknown depths of interstellar space --cue the Star Trek soundtrack.

OK, so why has this been so hard to determine? Let's have the JPL Voyager team explain it to us N00bs:

"We have been cautious because we're dealing with one of the most important milestones in the history of exploration," said Voyager Project Scientist Ed Stone of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "Only now do we have the data -- and the analysis -- we needed."

Basically, the team needed more data on plasma, which is ionized gas, the densest and slowest moving of charged particles in space. (The glow of neon in a storefront sign is an example of plasma.) Plasma is the most important marker that distinguishes whether Voyager 1 is inside the solar bubble, known as the heliosphere, which is inflated by plasma that streams outward from our sun, or in interstellar space and surrounded by material ejected by the explosion of nearby giant stars millions of years ago. Adding to the challenge: they didn't know how they'd be able to detect it.

"We looked for the signs predicted by the models that use the best available data, but until now we had no measurements of the plasma from Voyager 1," said Stone.

Voyager's plasma sensor, which would have helped settle the debate more easily, stopped working in 1980. Hence the JPL were left to detect the plasma flow indirectly, by way of analizing the direction of the magnetic fields --the solar plasma would have a field emanating from the center of the heliosphere, whereas interstellar plasma would point from the opposite direction.

Add to it the fact that most computational models were just that: models calculated based on what the scientists were expecting to find, in contrast to how deep space particles actually behave --one thing Gene Roddenberry failed to tell us: "boldly going where no man has gone before" can often translate into lack of consensus on what you discover; but then the series would have turned into 40 minutes of dragging debate, with only 30 seconds or so for Kirk to rushedly kiss an Orion slave girl...

So, can we safely assume Voyager is now well on its way to becoming V'ger?

"What we can say is Voyager 1 is bathed in matter from other stars," Stone said. "What we can't say is what exact discoveries await Voyager's continued journey. No one was able to predict all of the details that Voyager 1 has seen. So we expect more surprises."

But hopefully not the kind of surprise that makes us realize we're all part of an interstellar Truman Show!

 

... Although you gotta admit, that would explain a lot of things.

 

Scientists Capture Rare Photographs of 'Red Lightning' Near the Edge of Space

Red Lightning Photographed

Discovered just 25 years ago, 'red lightning' (or 'sprites') are electrical discharges that appear for just milliseconds as bursts of red light above clouds during thunderstorms. Due to their height and their transient nature, they are not easily detected or photographed - but a new research study has captured fantastic rare images of this fascinating phenomenon:

A sprite is a kind of upper atmosphere electrical discharge associated with thunderstorms. A large electric field, generated by some lightning strokes, ionizes the air high above the cloud, which then emits the light we see in the pictures. They obviously beg comparison to the regular lightning bolts we see all the time, but I like to point out that the sprites are much higher, with the tops reaching up to around 100 kilometers, and higher. A lightning bolt might stretch around 10 kilometers from the cloud to the ground, but a sprite can reach 50 kilometers tall.

Link: "Scientist Capture Rare Photographs of Red Lightning

EdgeScience #15

Issue 15 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available to download from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). In the new issue:EdgeScience 15

  • Robert M. Schoch discusses "Göbekli Tepe and the Origins of Civilization: Rethinking Our Distant Past".
  • Aaron Dabbah notes how "Everyday Anomalies Unearthed in Archaeology Get No Respect".
  • James Clement van Pelt goes "In Quest of Experiential Anomalies: Obstacles, Passages, and What Beckons Beyond".

Grab a free PDF of EdgeScience 15 from the SSE website, or the print version from MagCloud. If you do grab the free PDF, please consider a small donation to help the EdgeScience team continue with this excellent publication, via the button on the webpage. There's also a link to join the SSE on that page if you want to keep up with the latest academic research into the fringe areas of science.

Fantastic Fungi

If you knew that every breath you took could save hundreds of lives in the future, had you walked down this path of knowledge, wouldn't you run down that path of knowledge as fast as you could?

Paul Stamets is an unabashed fan of fungi, and with his expert knowledge is actively involved in research into the medicinal and bioregenerative properties of these alien-like organisms. In the above video, excerpted from a documentary feature on Stamets' work by Louie Schwartzberg, a wonderful monologue by Stamets (full transcript below) is accompanied by some fantastic time-lapse footage of various fungi species emerging from the forest floor.

Mushroom mycelium represents rebirth, rejuvenation, regeneration. Fungi generate soil that gives life.

The task that we face today is to understand the language of nature. My mission is to discover the language of nature, of the fungal networks that communicate with the ecosystem. And I in particular believe that nature is intelligent. The fact that we lack the language skills to communicate with nature does not impugn the concept that nature is intelligent; it speaks to the inadequacy of our skillset for communication.

We have now learned that there are these languages that are occurring, and communication between each organism. If we don't get our act together, and come into commonality and understanding with the organisms that sustain us today, not only will we destroy those organisms but we will destroy ourselves.

We need to have a paradigm shift in our consciousness. What will it take to achieve that?

If I die trying, but I'm inadequate to the task, to make a course change in the evolution of life on the planet...okay, I tried. But the fact is: I tried. How many people are not trying?

If you knew that every breath you took could save hundreds of lives in the future, had you walked down this path of knowledge, wouldn't you run down that path of knowledge as fast as you could?

I believe nature is a force of good. Good is not only a concept, it is a spirit - and so, hopefully, the spirit of goodness will survive.

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Our Tiny Slice of Reality

Washington D.C. with visual wi-fi

We tend to fall into the trap of assuming that 'reality' consists of what we sense around us via our sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. But of course that is not true: we only 'see' electromagnetic waves in the range from around 430 to 790 THz, we only hear audio waves between roughly 20Hz and 20kHz, and so on. Artist Nickolay Lamm has addressed that assumption in his work by imagining what the National Mall in Washington D.C. would look like if we could see Wi-Fi signals. Lamm consulted with M. Browning Vogel, an astrophysicist and former NASA employee, as well as a map of wireless coverage in the D.C. area, in order to bring some realism to his art, although obviously there has to be some artistic licence in visualising things beyond our brain's capability.

Lamm's artwork brought to mind some quotes by others on the way in which we reduced our concept of 'reality' to only a tiny slice of it. And even when embracing the tools of science, we still perhaps make assumptions about the extent of our discoveries. For instance, as Buckminster Fuller said:

Up to the Twentieth Century, reality was everything humans could touch, smell, see and hear. Since the initial publication of the chart of the electromagnetic spectrum, humans have learned that what they can touch, smell, see, and hear is less than one-millionth of reality.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman uses the German word umwelt (meaning 'environment', or 'surroundings') to describe that tiny slice of reality that we are aware of, but which we often take for the entirety of existence:

Each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entirety of objective reality. Until a child learns that honeybees enjoy ultraviolet signals and rattlesnakes see infrared, it is not obvious that plenty of information is riding on channels to which we have no natural access. In fact, the part of the electromagnetic spectrum visible to us is less than a ten-trillionth of it. Our sensorium is enough to get by in our ecosystem, but no better.

There are two topics that branch off from these thoughts that interest me greatly. First, is the idea of augmentation: humans getting magnets embedded in their fingers so that they can sense magnetic fields, augmented reality apps that might show other parts of the spectrum to us via Google Glass-type hardware, and so on. The other topic is what might lie beyond our current science. For example, theoretical physicist Andrei has pondered the question of whether "consciousness may exist by itself, even in the absence of matter, just like gravitational waves, excitations of space, may exist in the absence of protons and electrons?" Linde compares the manner in which Einstein's discoveries changed forever our assumption of the independence of space, time and matter. "The standard assumption is that consciousness, just like spacetime before the invention of general relativity, plays a secondary, subservient role, being just a function of matter and a tool for the description of the truly existing material world. [But] could it be that consciousness is an equally important part of the consistent picture of our world?"

And this of course relates back to my post of a couple of days ago, with Robert Anton Wilson discussing reality tunnels. Fun topics!

Link: "If We Could See Wi-Fi, Washington, D.C., Would Look Like This"

EdgeScience #14

Issue 14 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available to download from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). In the new issue:EdgeScience 14

  • Loyd Auerbach considers how to 'harness' the paranormal community.
  • David Pratt debates "Sunken Continents versus Plate Tectonics".
  • Michael Prescott reviews The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes.
  • Robert L. van de Castle considers "The Concept of Porosity in Dreams".

Grab a free PDF of EdgeScience 14 from the SSE website, or the print version from MagCloud. If you do grab the free PDF, please consider a small donation to help the EdgeScience team continue with this excellent publication, via the button on the webpage. There's also a link to join the SSE on that page if you want to keep up with the latest academic research into fringe science.

Do Plants Talk To Each Other?

Feed me Seymour

Do plants talk to each other using sound? That's the surprising hypothesis put forward by researchers who have found that symbiotic relationships between plant species continue even when the two different types of plants are sealed off from each other with plastic, removing the possibility of chemical interactions. According to Monica Gagliano and Michael Renton of the University of Western Australia, "the answer may involve acoustic signals generated using nanomechanical oscillations from inside the cell which allow rapid communication between nearby plants."

Over at Cosmic Log, Alan Boyle goes into detail. The acoustic hypothesis, he says...

...seems to fit with other findings on plant communication. Corn roots, for example, give off regular clicking sounds in the range of 220Hz (which corresponds to an A below middle C). Gagliano and her colleagues found that when young corn roots are suspended in water, they tend to lean toward the source of a continuous 220Hz tone transmitted through the water. The researchers suggested that acoustic signals could knit plants into an underground network of friends and foes.

But as Gagliano points out, no one has yet identified the precise mechanism by which one plant hears what another plant is saying. That's one of the reasons why other researchers haven't wholeheartedly embraced the idea that plants are talking to each other.

"Although the idea of plants communicating by sound is intriguing, there is still a long way to go before we know whether, and if so to whom, the woods sing!" the University of Leiden's Carel ten Cate wrote last December in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

Link: "How plants respond to positive vibes: 'Talking' mechanism is a mystery"

Speed of Light May Vary

It seems the Universe has a sense of humour, as hot on the heels of the TEDx fiasco in which talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock were removed from YouTube, comes some scientific backing for one of Sheldrake's claims: that the speed of light may actually not be a constant, but vary:

Two forthcoming European Physical Journal D papers challenge established wisdom about the nature of vacuum. In one paper, Marcel Urban from the University of Paris-Sud, located in Orsay, France and his colleagues identified a quantum level mechanism for interpreting vacuum as being filled with pairs of virtual particles with fluctuating energy values. As a result, the inherent characteristics of vacuum, like the speed of light, may not be a constant after all, but fluctuate.

Meanwhile, in another study, Gerd Leuchs and Luis L. Sánchez-Soto, from the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Light in Erlangen, Germany, suggest that physical constants, such as the speed of light and the so-called impedance of free space, are indications of the total number of elementary particles in nature.

Someone send the memo to Jerry Coyne...

TED to 'Reframe' Arguments Against Talks by Hancock and Sheldrake

TED - Ideas Worth Censoring

An update to last week's post about TED's removal (from YouTube) of talks by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake: after a weekend of being slammed for both the removal of the videos, and the manner in which they handled it (ie. making up complaints about the talks), TED have edited the page to include a blistering response from Rupert Sheldrake, and retracted the comments originally made (by striking through the text, rather than simply deleting the text). They have also issued a follow-up response to the controversy, which will be clarified further in the next day.

Update: TED have posted separate pages for viewing the videos and discussing them further:

I've posted excerpts below, with a few points that I think TED need to address further:

When Sheldrake and Hancock’s talks were flagged, the majority of the board recommended we remove them from circulation, pointing out questionable suggestions and arguments in both talks. But there was a counter view that removing talks that had already been posted would lead to accusations of censorship. It’s also the case that both speakers explicitly take on mainstream scientific opinion. This gives them a stronger reason to be listened to than those who simply use scientific sounding language to make nonsensical claims. So we decided we would not remove the talks from the web altogether, but simply transfer them to our own site where they could be framed in a way which included the critique of our board, but still allow for an open conversation about them.

What happened next was unfortunate. We wrote to the TEDx organizer indicating our intention and asking her to take the talks off Youtube so that we could repost. She informed the speakers of what was coming, but somehow the part about the talks staying online got lost in translation. Graham Hancock put out an immediate alert that he was about to be “censored”, his army of passionate supporters deluged us with outraged messages, and we then felt compelled to accelerate our blog post and used language that in retrospect was clumsy. We suggested that we were flagging the talks because of “factual errors” but some of the specific examples we gave were less than convincing.

We would like to try again.

RE "specific examples we gave were less than convincing". Actually they were fictions. Don't couch them in terms as if they weren't the most convincing reasons you could have used. They. Were. Fiction. This is a serious matter. It also gets to the heart of the action - were these fictions the reasons given by the 'scientific board', or were they the unfortunate actions of whomever put up the blog (which I find hard to believe, that they would be given the freedom to make up reasons and attribute them to the science advisory board). Whomever is to blame, are they being disciplined for defaming Hancock and Sheldrake? Why is there no apology in this post for such an unprofessional course of action - I hope the subsequent post includes one.

RE "somehow the part about the talks staying online got lost in translation." I think most people considered the removal from YouTube (and therefore ability to be embedded...y'know, the whole "ideas worth spreading bit"?) to be the main part of the action. People commenting on the post were well aware that the videos had been reposted, but still felt offended. Additionally, I think most of the "outraged messages" from supporters of Hancock were in reaction to the fictional complaints that TED inserted into the post. Going through those comments, there are even a number of people who specifically said they were *not* supporters of the pair, but were still outraged.

We plan to repost both talks in individual posts on our blog tomorrow, Tuesday; note a couple of areas where scientists or the community have raised questions or concerns about the talks; and invite a reasoned discussion from the community. And there will be a simple rule regarding responses. Reason only. No insults, no intemperate language. From either side.

RE: "note a couple of areas where scientists or the community have raised questions or concerns about the talks". I'm hoping the "scientists" mentioned include the 'scientific advisory board' for TED, seeing as they were apparently the ones who decided the talks had to come down for some specific reason. And again, if you want "reasoned responses", it would be best to start with truth rather than fictional slurs against the authors.

We will use the reasoned comments in this conversation to help frame both our guidelines going forward, and our process for managing talks that are called into question.

If this is true then I welcome the discussion. I hope it will be more than just paying lip service to disgruntled TED viewers (seeing as the initial 'community consultation' on the talks appears to have completely ignored the majority view that they should be kept in circulation.

We don’t want to hear from a parent whose kid went off to South America to drink ayahuasca because TED said it was OK.

ZOMG won't somebody think of the children?! Seriously, if a kid can travel to South America and get their hands on some ayahuasca, I'm pretty certain they're at a stage of life where they should be taking (and hopefully want to be taking) responsibility for their own actions, rather than blaming a TED talk. And you better send a memo to Wade Davis for his talks as well...

But we do think a calmer, reasoned conversation around these talks would be interesting, if only to help us define how far you can push an idea before it is no longer “worth spreading.”

As I mentioned in my previous post, TED has previously set certain marks via talks by Wade Davis, Elizabeth Gilbert and others. I think they will find it difficult to rationalise their decision if these two talks are compared to some of those on any criteria, from 'unscientific ideas' through to drug use.

Hopefully TED's post tomorrow clarifies things better, and perhaps starting with a proper apology might help as well...

TED Deletes Talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock

Last month I posted videos of two recent thought-provoking TEDx talks by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake. However, if you visit either of those stories today, you'll find that the videos are no longer accessible. The reason? Complaints were made to the TED organisation - for example, by atheist blogger Jerry Coyne, and of course, P.Z. Myers - about the lectures being unscientific and full of 'woo'. Under pressure from these bloggers and their readers (and others), TED set up a conversation page to get input from TED viewers about these talks.

Subsequently, TED made a final decision to pull the videos from their YouTube channel. This provoked a storm of anger towards TED on social networks about censorship, and perhaps because of this the videos have now turned up in their own special blog post on the TED site where they can be viewed (though they can no longer be externally embedded on other websites). Responding to the criticism, TED staff claimed "We’re not censoring the talks. Instead we’re placing them here, where they can be framed to highlight both their provocative ideas and the factual problems with their arguments."

Now firstly, I want to say that I think censorship is a slightly extreme description of what has happened. TED are a brand, and though I haven't seen a TED contract I'd imagine they are not compelled to post video of every talk that is hosted under their banner. If they don't like a talk, they have the right to remove it. What others think of them doing so is another matter – it's certainly not far from 'censorship', at least of certain ideas, in my book (as one commenter quipped on the TED website, "You’re correct, it isn’t censorship. It’s just cowardly and patronising"). But I think they *have* created a real issue now, by reposting the videos within a blog post that frames them with introductions saying they contain "serious factual errors", and I'd like to quickly go over some of these points to clarify why I think this is a problem. I'm going to concentrate on Graham Hancock's talk, because I don't have the free time at the moment to go over both talks point by point.

I have watched Graham Hancock's talk a number of times, breaking down the points, and I simply cannot find the "serious factual errors" in it that TED claims as the reason for taking it down (I've embedded a re-uploaded copy of his talk above - not sure whether TED will have this taken down at some stage though). The TED blog that frames Graham Hancock's talk puts forward these complaints about his talk as reasons for the video being pulled:

"He misrepresents what scientists actually think. He suggests, for example, that no scientists are working on the problem of consciousness."

"Hancock makes statements about psychotropic drugs that seem both nonscientific and reckless."

"He states as fact that psychotropic drug use is essential for an "emergence into consciousness"

"[He states] that one can use psychotropic plants to connect directly with an ancient mother culture."

"He seems to offer a one-note explanation for how culture arises (drugs), it's no surprise his work has often been characterised as pseudo-archaeology."

These are amazing statements from the TED staff, because I can find absolutely no evidence in Graham's talk for any of these accusations. Go ahead and watch the talk over, looking for these supposed statements or claims in it. So misleading are they, that I can only assume they haven't even watched the talk and are simply repeating accusations from some of the emails sent to them by the obnoxious, whining bloggers involved. Let me be clear by saying it again: the accusations against Graham Hancock which have been given for the pulling of his talk are completely without basis. The TED staff should be questioned on these claims (and as a consequence, the pulling of the video altogether) and be held to account by posting supportive evidence for them, or simply remove them (and perhaps reinstate the videos).

Graham is actually very careful to frame any speculation - moreso than many other TED talks I've watched, ironically. For instance, ... Read More »