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

Water on Mars: Score One for Amateur Research

Unless you were captured by the Mole people and just recently released --I heard Molemaids are hot, bro!-- you've probably read the news from NASA announcing the discovery of liquid water on the south pole of Mars; something which *exponentially* increases our chances of finding extraterrestrial life on our sibling planet in the near future.

Director Ridley Scott, who is about to release his newest film 'The Martian', claims he knew about the flowing water on Mars "about two months ago", when the head of NASA showed him the photographs that were released yesterday to the rest of the world.

But there was someone who knew the dark stains streaking across the Martian landscape was evidence of liquid water more than 14 years ago. That person was amateur astronomer Efrain Palermo.

Efrain, who resides in Portland, is what NASA scientists would call an 'armchair researcher.' He holds no degrees in Physics, Astronomy or Geology; but nonetheless has a passion for Science and Space. And like many other civilians, he likes to go through the thousands of publicly-released images taken by NASA's probes orbiting the Red Planet for almost 2 decades.

It was in one of those archival images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor --which has been charting the planet's surface since September of 1997-- in 2000-2001, when Efrain came across an image showing black streaks, which at that time were interpreted as 'dust slides' by NASA. However, Efrain became convinced by casual observation the streaks were water-related.

After gleaning through thousands of images, I had collected over 400 that had streaks in them. [Software engineer] Jill England joined me, and wrote a program to look for duplicate images taken at different times of the year, and she found images which showed flow activity in present time.

Richard Hoagland suggested plotting the images, and when we did so it became evident that the streaks were all in the equatorial zone of Mars, which is the warmest part of Mars and therefore likely candidates for liquid water.

Efrain and Jill partnered with Harry Moore --a geologist for the Society for Planetary SETI Research(SPSR) , Blaine, Tennessee-- who also had an interest in water on Mars, and brought sound geology to the table. Together they wrote a short paper --which you can read here-- and presented it at the 4th International Mars Society Convention, at Stanford University, in August 2001.

Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, had this to say about Palermo et al and yesterday's anouncement on his Facebook page:

This is remarkable, Moore, England, and Palermo are amateur astronomers who went over the MGS data on their own to make the discovery, 14 years before NASA's announcement today.

Asked for a comment, Efrain showed diplomacy albeit tainted with justified frustration, because his work wasn't given its due recognition in yesterday's landslide of Mars-related articles:

The recent news announcement was validating; even though we did not have access to spectroscopic tools ,and we're working with the much lower resolution of the Mars Orbital Camera, we still arrived at the same conclusions 14 years ago. The information has been on my website since 2001, and I presented my seeps paper at the 2001 Mars Society Convention at Stanford U. While it has been gratifying to have NASA validate that work, it is also frustrating that no credit was given to the paper and its authors.

Frustrating, indeed. On the one hand NASA and the US government are always trying to keep the public interested in space exploration --after all, that's how they gain the necessary funding for future missions-- and yet when a group of amateurs make a substantial contribution to Science, they get silently swept under the rug without even a kudos.

Is it because they lacked the 'right' kind of credentials, and this is the typical reaction an 'outsider' receives when it comes knocking at the doors of Academia's ivory tower? Or maybe because they are guilty of associating themselves with someone like Richard Hoagland, who is by now synonymous with kooky claims about Martian civilizations who left the surface of their planet littered with all sorts of pareidolic artifacts?

With regards to the former, you'd think Astronomy would be more welcoming with amateurs, since they have been credited with all sorts of discoveries --e.g. the Shoemaker-Levy comet.

As for the latter, well… there's no getting around the fact that there arepeople in this field who stared at the Void far longer than they should have, and that for every Palermo or Hancock making astounding claims which are still not outside the realm of possibility, there are also folks finding Bigfoot on Mars, or selling Lemurian headbands...

Either an honest mistake or a blatant omission, NASA should do well in crediting people like Efrain Palermo*. Because he's an example that when it comes to space exploration (as with several other fields) it is amateurs --i.e. people not directly associated with government space agencies or academic institutions-- the ones who are now pushing the envelope and helping us expand our horizons.

And it will be amateurs like himself, Zubrin and Elon Musk, the ones which will probably determine our future as a space-faring civilization in the years to come.

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(*) Efrain also happens to be the discoverer of Phobos' monolith; you know, the one Buzz Aldrin was so excited about?

To further know more about Efrain's work on Mars, listen to his interview on The Grimerica Show.

Efrain and Jill England also discussed the recent NASA news last night (Sept. 28) on Richard Hoagland's radio show The Other Side of Midnight.

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UPDATE: In an interview for CNN to discuss NASA's anouncement, Robert Zubrin sets the record straight on the (not-so-recent) discovery of flowing water on Mars, and mentions Palermo et al's work.

Schrödinger's Bacterium: Researchers Plan to Put a Living Organism in Two Places at Once

Microbes

Eighty years ago Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger put forward a now-famous thought experiment demonstrating the 'absurdity' of quantum physics. He (theoretically) placed a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detected the radioactivity from a single atom decaying, the poison would be released into the box, killing the cat. But in the weird world of quantum mechanics (or at least the 'Copenhagen Interpretation') the cat would supposedly remain in a state of 'superposition', both alive and dead, until an observation or measurement was made by an external observer opening the box, collapsing the wavefunction.

Schrödinger did not see his thought experiment as a serious possibility - instead, it was meant to show the problems with the Copenhagen interpretation. But eight decades on two researchers have put forward a serious suggestion to place a living organism - albeit a tiny bacterium, rather than a cat - in a state of superposition, effectively making it exist in two places at the same time. The proposed experiment builds on a 2013 paper in which the successful superposition of a macroscopic aluminium membrane was detailed.

According to the researchers, they propose...

...to create quantum superposition and entangled states of a living microorganism by putting a small bacterium on top of an electromechanical oscillator, such as a membrane embedded in a superconducting microwave resonant circuit. Our proposal also works for viruses. Since many biologists do not consider viruses as living organisms, we focus on small bacteria in this paper. [M]ost microorganisms can survive in the cryogenic environment that is required to achieve ground state cooling of an electromechanical oscillator. Although microorganisms are frozen in a cryogenic environment, they can be still living and become active after thawing. Cryopreservation is a mature technology that has been used clinically worldwide. Most microorganisms can be preserved for many years in cryogenic environments.

...This will be remarkably similar to Schrödinger initial thought experiment of entangling the state of an entire organism (‘alive’ or ‘dead’ state of a cat) with the state of a microscopic particle (a
radioactive atom).

In an interview with The Guardian, Tongcang Li of Purdue University noted that “in many fairy tales, a fairy could be at two different locations or change locations instantly. This will be similar to that. Although it will be a microbe instead of a fairy.”

“It will be the first experiment to put an organism into a quantum superposition state,” he added.

Related:

Do Weird Quantum Effects Hold the Key to Solving Biological Mysteries?

For a long time, the weird world of quantum effects was thought to reside only at the nanoscale level. However, as nuclear physicist Jim Al-Khalili points out in the video above, a new field of research - 'quantum biology', has begun to ask the question: do quantum effects also play a role inside the living cell?

And on investigating this question, scientists are finding that the answer appears to be 'yes'. For example:

Some years ago, the world of science was shocked when a paper was published showing experimental evidence that quantum coherence takes place inside bacteria, carrying out photosynthesis. The idea is that the photon, the particle of light, the sunlight, the quantum of light captured by a chlorophyll molecule, is then delivered to what's called the reaction center, where it can be turned into chemical energy. And in getting there, it doesn't just follow one route; it follows multiple pathways at once, to optimize the most efficient way of reaching the reaction center without dissipating as waste heat. Quantum coherence taking place inside a living cell. A remarkable idea, and yet evidence is growing almost weekly, with new papers coming out, confirming that this does indeed take place.

To explore these topics in more detail, see Jim Al-Khalili's book with Johnjoe McFadden, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology.

Best Seats in the House! Aurora Seen From Space

Here's a spectacular short clip of the Northern lights, as seen from the vantage point of the International Space Station. Just Wow.

The vid was recorded by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly during his 141st day aboard the ISS --only 222 more days to go, chief!

With an office view like that, who would mind working inside a cramped, smelly room with NO cigarette breaks?

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Previously:

Are We Living in a Fake Universe?

Is it possible that the universe we appear to live in is a fake? An artificial reality, a simulation like, a super-advanced first-person shooter (just for most of us, a whole lot more boring one in which we go do a job)?

Philosopher Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, describes a fake universe as a "richly detailed software simulation of people, including their historical predecessors, by a very technologically advanced civilization."

It's like the movie "The Matrix," Bostrom said, except that "instead of having brains in vats that are fed by sensory inputs from a simulator, the brains themselves would also be part of the simulation. It would be one big computer program simulating everything, including human brains down to neurons and synapses."

Bostrum is not saying that humanity is living in such a simulation. Rather, his "Simulation Argument" seeks to show that one of three possible scenarios must be true (assuming there are other intelligent civilizations):

  1. All civilizations become extinct before becoming technologically mature;
  2. All technologically mature civilizations lose interest in creating simulations;
  3. Humanity is literally living in a computer simulation.

His point is that all cosmic civilizations either disappear (e.g., destroy themselves) before becoming technologically capable, or all decide not to generate whole-world simulations (e.g., decide such creations are not ethical, or get bored with them). The operative word is "all" — because if even one civilization anywhere in the cosmos could generate such simulations, then simulated worlds would multiply rapidly and almost certainly humanity would be in one.

Link: Is Our Universe a Fake?

EdgeScience #22

Issue 22 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 22

  • "Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality: A Brief History of the 'Sursem' Project", by Edward F. Kelly
  • "The Sirius Mystery: Time for a Reevaluation?", by Anthony Mugan.
  • "The Stralsund Incident of 1665", by Chris Aubeck and Martin Shough.
  • "Looking for a Revolution", by Andrew May.

Grab a free PDF or order a print version of EdgeScience 22 from the SSE website, and 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 'edgier' areas of science.

China Establishes Earthquake Early-Warning Centre Based on Changes in Animal Behaviour

Fault-line (Image by Ikluft, Creative Commons licence)

Seismologists in China have established an official 'early-warning centre' for earthquakes that will monitor seven farms full of animals looking for odd changes in behaviour:

One of the seismic stations is an ecological garden in Yuhuatai district, containing 200 black boars, 2,000 chickens, and a 2 square kilometers of fish pond. Cameras are installed around the animals' living environment to observe their behavior.

Their feeders report to the seismological bureau twice a day on any abnormal behavior that professionals will analyze for whether a possible earthquake is imminent.

Advance notice of impending earthquakes remains the holy grail of seismology, as there is still no reliable predictor of these sometimes devastating events. I recently noted here on TDG there is a long-held belief in many cultures that a number of animal species can sense an earthquakes coming:

Changes in behaviour have been noted in laboratory mice, daily rhythms of ants have reportedly been disrupted, and cows have been observed to behave unusually (in one case an entire herd of cows was witnessed lying down in unison before an earthquake struck). There were reports of elephants and flamingos heading to higher ground before the 2004 Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami, and more recently of zoo animals acting strangely before an earthquake that struck Washington, D.C. One of the earliest reports of animal behaviour predicting earthquakes is from Greece in 373 BC, when rats, weasels, snakes, and centipedes were said to have left their usual homes several days before it struck. that appeared to provide support for the idea that animals can sense earthquakes in advance.

In that same post I also discussed a recent scientific study which appears to support this idea. Researchers monitored nine 'camera traps' in Yanachaga National Park in Peru to monitor the movements of animals in the park, and found correlations between the number of animals and earthquake activity.

China is a hotspot for earthquake activity, so it might not be long until we find out whether this new 'outside-the-box' early-warning system works effectively.

Related stories:

True Hallucinations: This is Your Brain on Shrooms

From the people of ASAP Science, a cartoony description of the neurochemical effect psylocybin has on the human brain. Obviously this is explained from a materialistic POV, but let's not forget we're still on the stage of building bridges between Science and Spirituality --and part of that process is interesting more people about the potential benefits of psychedelics.

In other news, a new scientific study found no higher risk of psychosis caused by the consumption of LSD:

In the first study, clinical psychologists Pål-Ørjan Johansen and Teri Suzanne Krebs, both at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, scoured data from the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an annual random sample of the general population, and analysed answers from more than 135,000 people who took part in surveys from 2008 to 2011.

Of those, 14% described themselves as having used at any point in their lives any of the three ‘classic’ psychedelics: LSD, psilocybin (the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms) and mescaline (found in the peyote and San Pedro cacti). The researchers found that individuals in this group were not at increased risk of developing 11 indicators of mental-health problems such as schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, anxiety disorders and suicide attempts. Their paper appears in the March issue of the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

So I guess now Syd Barrett will no longer be exploited as a cautionary tale --by people who didn't like his music in the first place?

[H/T Disinfo]

EdgeScience #21

Issue 21 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 21

  • "Does Consciousness Continue Beyond Death? A Search for Certainty", by Michael Urheber with Rhonda Drake.
  • "Theoneurology: A New Model for Spiritual Experience", by Rick Strassman.
  • "Moving Targets: Religious Studies and the Paranormal", by Joseph P. Laycock.
  • "Phenomena Rich, But Science Poor" - Book review by Serena Roney-Dougal of Erlendur Haraldsson's Modern Miracles: Sathya Sai Baba: The Story of a Modern Day Prophet.
  • "Professor Bottazzi's Toolkit", by Michael Schmicker.

Grab a free PDF of EdgeScience 21 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 'edgier' areas of science.

They Hacked a Mouse's Brain and Made New Memories...Sort Of

Scientists have hijacked the memories of mice as they slept.  That’s the headline they’re going with, and it is rightly quite sensational, as mainstream media is wont to be.  It may not be entirely accurate though – to our great surprise.

I’m talking about a paper that was published yesterday in the scientific journal Nature (Neuroscience).  It expounds on a breakthrough experiment whereby researchers from the National Center for Scientific Research (CRNS) in France claim to have implanted conscious memories into mice as they slept.[1]  That requires a bit of explanation though.

The group, led by Karim Benchenan of the CRNS Brain Plasticity Unit’s MOBs Team, achieved this astounding breakthrough by implanting electrodes into the brains of mice, specifically targeting a type of brain cell called place cell neurons.  Place cells, which were discovered in 1971, are a specialised type of neuron that are key to remembering where one is and where one has been.  They act as a sort of map inside your head, with individual cells firing when you’re at a certain location, creating a memory of that spot, so that you can find your way back there in the future, should you need to.

Now, when you – or any of us – sleep our brains undertake to review the memories we’ve made during our waking day.  That process entails a firing of the neurons involved in those memories, just as when the original experience occurred, and scientists can monitor this process.

By comparing neural scans of the mice from a period of exploration in a maze, to their later subconscious review of the associated memories, paying attention to place cell neurons, they were able to identify which neurons were associated with memories of which places inside the maze.  Once identified, they used the electrodes implanted in the mouse’s hippocampus, to stimulate a pleasant feeling at the same time as targeted place cell neurons fired during recall.  They effectively created an association between the memory of whatever location was involved and a pleasant feeling, or a reward so to speak.

The interesting thing is, once the mice woke from their short nap, they immediately headed straight for the location now associated to the pleasant feeling, as though looking to recreate the experience.

This research has obvious potential to transform treatments for post-traumatic-stress-disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and even schizophrenia and depression, by allowing clinicians to alter memories, building positive associations where traumatic or problematic ones once existed.

Benchenane insists, and it seems Nature’s peer-reviewers agree, that the mice’s behaviour following the procedure is proof that they have artificially created a conscious memory.  They qualify it by calling it an “association between a particular place and a reward [that] can be consciously access by the mouse.”  But is adding a sensory association to an already existing memory really creating a conscious memory?

The same effect has been sought, and variably achieved, through behavioural conditioning by various means, but the product in that case is always a subconscious association.  As seen with smokers trained to associate cigarettes with the smell of rotten eggs.  The difference seems apparent, but it might be an illusion.

The sole reason Benchenane and his colleagues believe this is the first example of an artificially induced conscious memory is the fact that the mice actively sought out the location associated with the memory and reward upon waking.  Benchenane states, had the mice wandered randomly and simply stopped and focused on that key location once they stumbled upon it, that would have represented a subconscious memory.

This seems like a little semantic word play, as I see it.  I don’t really question the notion of conscious recognition, so much as the idea that a memory was implanted in the first place.  Here’s my reasoning: the researchers simply added an association to a memory that already existed.  The mouse’s natural cognitive machinery created the memory the same way all of its memories are created, by experiencing stimulus.  The question is, is an association the same as a memory?  Clearly, connecting bits of sensory information is a key part of the memory making process, but isn’t a memory a little bit more than just the sum of its parts?  If we are to properly call this the artificial creation of a conscious memory, then I would expect a more direct influence on the origin of the memory, not simply the introduction of another sensory input to be associated to an already existing memory.

I suppose you could reduce this to the argument between dualism and reductionist materialism (no pun intended).  If consciousness, and therefore memory, are nothing more than emergent properties of the biomechanical processes of the brain, then perhaps Benchenan et al are correct.  It certainly appears that their ability to manipulate memories and sensory input supports the notion of emergent consciousness, but reductionist materialism is by no means a foregone conclusion, not yet at least.

But where does that leave us in the dualism camp?  I don’t have the answer.

No matter your philosophical bent in this case, or even in the case of dualism vs. reductionist materialism, Benchenan’s research is indeed a valuable step forward, and has real potential to drastically change the lives of people suffering with debilitating mental illness.  Even if we can’t agree on exactly how or why it works.


[1] Karim Benchenane, Gaetan de Lavilléon, Marie Masako Lacroix, Laure Rondi-Reig. Explicit memory creation during sleep demonstrates a causal role of place cells in navigation. Nature – Neuroscience March 9, 2015. doi:10.1038/nn.3970