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

Paul Davies: From Aliens to Cancer

When recent figures showed that the U.S. government's multi-decade, multi-billion dollar fight against cancer had barely changed cancer survival rates, Anna Barker - the deputy director of the US National Cancer Institute - took an unusual step. She called physicist Paul Davies, and asked him for his help. Not so much because she needed a physicist, but instead because she was looking for "a disruptive agent".

[H]is naivety sometimes makes biologists grit their teeth. ("Aaargh! Physicists!" wrote Paul 'PZ' Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris, in a blog response to Davies' proposal earlier this year that tumours are a reversion to primitive genetic mechanisms that pre-date the dawn of multicellular life.) "But his critics don't appreciate the value of a disruptive agent," says biophysicist Stuart Lindsay, who works closely with Davies at the ASU physics–cancer centre. "It takes someone like Paul, constantly nagging, asking disruptive questions, to get people to take a fresh look at their assumptions."

Love that concept of embracing the disruptive thinker (to a degree, obviously), and Paul Davies is certainly one who will ask some interesting questions. I have a number of his fascinating books right behind me on my bookshelf, discussing everything from the origins of life to the 'mind of God'. His most recent book is The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence (Amazon US or Amazon UK), and last year Davies spoke to BigThink about the concepts in the book, as well as his more recent involvement with cancer research. I've embedded the complete interview below (43 mins); alternatively you can can go to the BigThink site and watch individual questions/episodes as you please.

For more interesting news and articles involving Paul Davies, see the links below.

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Earthquakes in the Air

The phenomenon of 'earthquake lights' has long sat at the fringes of science, though the anecdotal evidence for their occurrence is fairly strong (see this previous story on earthquake lights in Italy for example). But what could be the cause of these mysterious lights in the sky? A new and fascinating paper on Arxiv.org may provide an answer: a connection between ground and atmosphere that sees the ionosphere becoming massively charged with electrons with the onset of an earthquake.

Technology Review has a good wrap-up of the research:

Geologists have long puzzled over anecdotal reports of strange atmospheric phenomena in the days before big earthquakes. But good data to back up these stories has been hard to come by.

In recent years, however, various teams have set up atmospheric monitoring stations in earthquake zones and a number of satellites are capable of sending back data about the state of the upper atmosphere and the ionosphere during an earthquake.

...Today, Dimitar Ouzounov at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland and a few buddies present the data from the Great Tohoku earthquake which devastated Japan on 11 March. Their results, although preliminary, are eye-opening.

They say that before the M9 earthquake, the total electron content of the ionosphere increased dramatically over the epicentre, reaching a maximum three days before the quake struck.

At the same time, satellite observations showed a big increase in infrared emissions from above the epicentre, which peaked in the hours before the quake. In other words, the atmosphere was heating up.

Atmospheric anomalies during Japan earthquake

These observations help to support the hypothesis of the "Lithosphere-Atmosphere-Ionosphere Coupling mechanism", which the paper describes primarily as "the ionization of the air produced by an increased emanation of radon (and other gases) from the Earth’s
crust in the vicinity of active fault... The increased radon emanation launches the chain of physical processes, which leads to changes in the conductivity of the air and a latent heat release (increasing air temperature)".

Fascinating findings, and perhaps a first step towards earthquake prediction (not to mention another possible physical mechanism explaining animal 'earthquake precognition'?).

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Freeman Dyson's Heretical Thoughts

Freeman Dyson is one of the world's greatest minds. He is also a staunch believer in the need for 'heretics' - in this 2005 lecture at Boston University, he argues for the necessity of heretical thinking, and goes on to list his own heresies:

For those without the time or internet connection to view the entire hour-long video, you can also read Dyson's essay for Edge on the same topic.

(h/t Inannawhimsey)

EdgeScience #7

Issue 7 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:

  • Adam Davies goes in search of "A New Primate Species in Sumatra".
  • Stanley Krippner writes about his encounter with Brazilian medium Amyr Amiden.
  • David Nabhan stresses the need for earthquake advisories in California.
  • Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne discuss "The Uses and Misuses of Quantum Jargon".

More content as well, plus all previous issues remain available to download from the website. Don't forget also: 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 $4.95). Note too that there is an app for viewing the PDF release on the iPad as well.

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives

You may or may not have heard the music of the American indie rock band Eels - the creation of multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Mark Oliver Everett (also known simply as "E") - though if you haven't, do yourself a favour. One of the interesting facets of E's life is that his father was Hugh Everett, a mathematics genius who originated the "many-worlds" interpretation of quantum physics, a theory which essentially suggests that each time a decision is made a parallel universe branches off, creating a very large (perhaps infinite) number of parallel universes. Thus, everything that could possibly have happened in our past but didn't, *has* occurred in the past of another parallel universe. Many-worlds is now considered a mainstream theory in quantum physics.

However, Hugh Everett was a very distant father, and he died prematurely in 1982, when Mark Everett was just 19. In a wonderful, witty documentary, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, Mark goes in search of his father and his research into parallel worlds by visiting old friends, talking to modern quantum physicists, and looking through his father's old documents and audio tapes. I highly recommend it - it both educates the viewer about the many-worlds interpretation, and tells an honest (and rather sad) personal story at the same time. It's available in six episodes on YouTube, which I've consolidated into a playlist and embedded below for ease of viewing:

If Mark Everett's life and music (which features throughout the documentary) interest you, you might also like to pick up a copy of his acclaimed book Things the Grandchildren Should Know (Amazon US and US). And definitely grab some Eels albums while you're at it...

Reality of Mind

Yesterday I was browsing the book Science and Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology and Complexity, edited by John Barrow, Paul Davies, and Charles Harper Jr, and came across this interesting passage in the article "Inflation, quantum cosmology, and the anthropic principle" by Andrei Linde (yes, the usual light Tuesday reading for me). There are some really nice insights in there, so it deserves a careful reading - I've highlighted a few sections to point them out explicitly:

[W]e cannot rule out the possibility that carefully avoiding the concept of consciousness in quantum cosmology may lead to an artificial narrowing of our outlook.

Let us remember an example from the history of science that may be rather instructive in this respect. Prior to the invention of the general theory of relativity, space, time, and matter seemed to be three fundamentally different entities.... The general theory of relativity brought with it a decisive change in this point of view. Spacetime and matter were found to be interdependent, and there was no longer any question which one of the two is more fundamental...

Now let us turn to consciousness. 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. Science and Ultimate RealityBut let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. I know for sure that my pain exists, my "green" exists, and my "sweet" exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory. Later we find out that our perceptions obey some laws, which can be most conveniently formulated if we assume that there is some underlying reality beyond our perceptions. This model of a material world obeying laws of physics is so successful that soon we forget about our starting point and say that matter is the only reality, and perceptions are nothing but a useful tool for the description of matter. This assumption is almost as natural (and maybe as false) as our previous assumption that space is only a mathematical tool for the description of matter. We are substituting reality of our feelings by the successfully working theory of an independently existing material world. And the theory is so successful that we almost never think about its possible limitations.

Is it possible that consciousness, like spacetime, has its own intrinsic degrees of freedom, and that neglecting these will lead to a description of the universe that is fundamentally incomplete? ...Is it possible to...investigate a possibility that 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?

...Could it be that consciousness is an equally important part of the consistent picture of our world, despite the fact that so far one could safely ignore it in the description of the well-studied physical processes? Will it not turn out, with the further development of science, that the study of the universe and the study of consciousness are inseparably linked, and that ultimate progress in the one will be impossible without progress in the other?

I've said for quite a while that modern, physicalist science has come to self-define reality by saying that reality consists of those things that we can measure and study objectively through science. And yet I have elsewhere come across similar speculation and suggestions about consciousness from very respected physicists. Paul Davies maintains that mind and culture "will turn out to be of fundamental significance in the grand story of the cosmos":

Somehow, the universe has engineered not only its own self-awareness, but its own self-comprehension. It is hard to see this astonishing property of (at least some) living organisms as an accidental and incidental by-product of physics, a lucky fluke of biological evolution. Rather, the fact that mind is linked into the deep workings of the cosmos in this manner suggests that there is something truly fundamental and literally cosmic in the emergence of sentience

Freeman Dyson also says that "the tendency of mind to infiltrate and control matter is a law of nature."

Sadly, just as Linde's article was getting juicy, this is what followed:

Instead of discussing these issues here any further, we will return to a more solid ground..."

Aww, where's the fun in standing on solid ground!

What is Reality?

If you think you understand what 'reality' is, then you don't. But BBC's Horizon team gave it a shot anyhow: "What is Reality?"

There is a strange and mysterious world that surrounds us, a world largely hidden from our senses. The quest to explain the true nature of reality is one of the great scientific detective stories.

Clues have been pieced together from deep within the atom, from the event horizon of black holes, and from the far reaches of the cosmos. It may be that that we are part of a cosmic hologram, projected from the edge of the universe. Or that we exist in an infinity of parallel worlds. Your reality may never look quite the same again.

Lots of brain-bending goodness in there, tuck in.

EdgeScience #6

Issue 6 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration. EdgeScience 6Jim Schnabel discusses amnesiacs as possible psi subjects, Dominique Surrel looks at the heart and other organs as the seat of emotions, Kenneth Smith investigates the placebo effect and Floco Tausin studies 'eye floaters'. More content as well, plus all previous issues remain available to download from the website.

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 $4.95). Note too that there is now an app for viewing the PDF release on the iPad.

Paranthropology 1:2

The latest issue of Paranthropology (1:2) has been released, and you can download it as a free PDF magazine from the Paranthropology website. The general theme for the new issue is “Paranormal Encounters in the Field”, from the "exotic locales investigated by anthropologists, and the haunted house of the ghost-hunter, to the laboratory setting of parapsychological research." Editor Jack Hunter explains...

By now I have written and talked about my undergraduate
fieldwork experience at the Bristol Spirit Lodge, at differing levels
of detail, in various places. I want this short article, however, to
deal specifically with the most significant event, at least in my
opinion, of my fieldwork experience: the occasion when, during a
trance development session, I lost control of my left arm.

It was normal practice for the Spirit Lodge to conduct mediumship
development sittings when the regular medium was, for whatever
reason, unable to attend. During such sittings all present members were invited to meditate in the Lodge in the hope that spirits might make themselves known through any receptive vessel. Paranthropology 1-2The method, therefore, was simply to meditate and see what happened. At the time I considered this an opportunity to relax in a calming environment, so I closed my eyes and allowed myself to relax, breathing normally.

I wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary to occur, so I just sat back and enjoyed the music. Soon, though, I began to feel my pulse become more pronounced, and my head began to slump forward as though I was falling asleep, despite maintaing an awareness of my body. This was very strange, as I was conscious of the fact that I must have looked quite odd to those with their eyes open, but I was unable to do anything about it: my head slumped forward heavily of its own accord. The sensation of detachment from my body grew and I began to feel as though I was floating just behind my body, but very close to it. I could still feel my body, but was aware that some sort of shift in the location of “myself” had occurred.

At the peak of this peculiar sensation I heard the seance leader say
that she sensed a presence with me, over my shoulder, and sure
enough I sensed it too. It was at this moment I realised that my
left arm was beginning to move: slowly at first, and then increasing
in rapidity until my arm was shaking around erratically. Once again
I was self conscious of the fact that I must have looked quite
strange to the other sitters, and yet despite this I was unable to
stop my arm from doing what it was doing.

This experience (amongst others of a less intense degree) altered
my appreciation of the belief in mediumship. I realised that there
were indeed experiences that could be classed as “mediumistic”,
and that even if there was no paranormal component involved in
the development of mediumship traditions, then at least there was
a physiological basis - experiences that feel as though they are the
product of an external agent influencing the body.

Topics covered include ghostly experiences, the Castaneda controversy, and spirit possession, among other things. Head on over to the Paranthropology website and download the issue for plenty of fascinating reading.

EdgeScience #5

Issue 5 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration, and as with previous issues there's plenty of interest in the new release. EdgeScience 5Vladimir Rubtsov investigates the Tunguska Event and suggests "Maybe It Wasn’t What We Thought", James DeMeo follows the 'red thread' of Wilhelm Reich, and Larry Dossey tells Malcolm Gladwell to wake up and smell the presentiment. More content as well, plus all previous issues remain available to download from the website.

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.