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

Talking to Plants: Does It Make Them Grow Better?

Mythbusters Talking to Plants Online Experiment

Do plants grow better if you talk to them? The idea is pervasive in modern society, although it probably has its roots (no pun intended) in the work of Dr. Gustav Fechner, a German experimental psychologist, who in 1848 suggested that plants would thrive if given attention and talked to. Since then, opinion (and experiments) seems to have alternated between confirming and debunking the idea, though that hasn't stopped keen gardeners (such as Prince Charles) from having a chat with their gardens.

The Mythbusters team have always been happy to investigate this sort of folklore, and a number of years ago when they tested this they returned a verdict of 'Plausible' based on their experimental findings. Here's the episode in question:

Now, for those that are interested in the topic, the Mythbusters currently have an interactive, online experiment running in which two plants are being monitored, one of which is being 'talked to' by a synthesized voice which is reading aloud tweets sent to the plant. It's not exactly scientific, given it seems to be a sample of only two plants, but a neat set-up all the same:

Does talking to plants help them grow? Become a MythBuster and find out. Tweet a message, and your words will be read aloud to the plant. Go ahead, get something off your chest, wish it well, or just pass along today's musings. The plant doesn't care; it just wants to hear from you.

As I write this, it seems that plant being talked to has definitely grown more than the plant sitting in silence. Is there an effect, or is it pure chance? If there is an effect, what causes it? Do sound waves encourage growth (see this recent story for more)? Is it any sound, or only certain sounds or frequencies? Or is it a magnetic field from the speakers surrounding the plant? What do you think?

Link: Talk to a Plant

Astronomer: We'll Hear From ET By 2037


We will hear from extraterrestrials within the next 25 years. The audience was skeptical, but astronomer and SETI boss Seth Shostak was very confident when he made the bet at a recent Boing Boing live event. The thing is, he may be right. Watch Seth's talk below to find out why it's a safe bet. Of course, there's also evidence we've already heard from our galactic neighbours.

Via Boing Boing.

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...