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

Zoo Animals Sense Earthquake in Advance

There's a long-held belief that animals sense earthquakes in advance, although the evidence is largely 'anecdotal' and thus many scientists remain skeptical. Well, here's some more anecdotes to add to the list: the Smithsonian Zoo in Washington, D.C. has released a post-earthquake update in which it describes some of the unusual animal behaviour in the lead up to yesterday's 5.9 quake:

The red ruffed lemurs sounded an alarm call about 15 minutes before the quake and then again just after it occurred.

...About five to ten seconds before the quake, many of the apes, including Kyle (an orangutan) and Kojo (a Western lowland gorilla),Red-ruffed lemur abandoned their food and climbed to the top of the tree-like structure in the exhibit.

About three seconds before the quake, Mandara (a gorilla) let out a shriek and collected her baby, Kibibi, and moved to the top of the tree structure as well.

Iris (an orangutan) began “belch vocalizing” — an unhappy/upset noise normally reserved for extreme irritation — before the quake and continued this vocalization following the quake.

...The Zoo has a flock of 64 flamingos. Just before the quake, the birds rushed about and grouped themselves together. They remained huddled during the quake.

Dr. Don Moore, the zoo's associate director for animal care sciences, theorized that the animals were picking up on sounds or vibrations below the level of human perception. "I think given that they're sensing it beforehand, they must be sensing the pre-rumbles that create some kind of vibration in the ground," Moore said, "or hearing something we can't hear."

However, one interesting facet of the report is the revelation that the zoo's pandas "did not appear to respond to the earthquake" - previous reports from earthquakes in China have suggested that the iconic bear species may have some 'pre-quake perception'. Another fascinating behavioural insight from the report: the ducks and beavers jumped in the water at the onset of the earthquake and stayed in there until well after it was finished.

Dark Matters

Grailers might enjoy this upcoming series on The Science Channel, which looks at various fringe/heretical/abominable science topics: Dark Matters, hosted by Fringe star John Noble ('Dr Walter Bishop'):

Dark Matters premieres on August 31 - check your TV guide for times. According to Noble, the stories in the show "are as outlandish as a great sci-fi script or as disturbing as a classic horror tale — the only difference is that they’re all true... The series offers a glimpse into the dark side of science, as well as human nature."

Read more at Entertainment Weekly.

Shaking Stars

This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 3, which is available for sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK. The Darklore anthology series features the best writing and research on paranormal, Fortean and hidden history topics, by the most respected names in the field: Robert Bauval, Nick Redfern, Erik Davis, Loren Coleman, and Daniel Pinchbeck, to name just a few. Darklore's aim is to support quality researchers, so it makes sense to support Darklore.

You can read more sample articles from the Darklore series at the Darklore website.

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Shaking Stars
The Remarkable Guernsey Meteor and Earthquake of 1843

by Geoff Falla

Meteors or ‘shooting stars’ are not that uncommon, and most of us must have seen these at some time or another. Those of us who are interested in astronomy, and look at the night sky more often, will have seen meteors quite frequently. Usually seen as just a brief streak of light, lasting perhaps for a second or so, a meteor can be missed if we happen to be looking in just a slightly different direction at the time. Some meteors are much more spectacular, very bright and leaving a luminous trail in the sky, fading away after a short time. Even these occasional, much brighter meteors are not expected to be in view for more than perhaps five or ten seconds at most.

Meteors are not usually thought of as being related to earthquakes in any way. After all, meteors are a phenomenon of the sky, with only some of the larger ones continuing down to the ground as meteorites. Earthquakes are a result of movements in the Earth’s crust, mostly happening near ocean margins and in areas of geological fault lines.

Earthquakes or earth tremors of any intensity are fortunately rare in the Channel Islands, but they do happen very occasionally. The most significant event of this kind was recorded in Guernsey in 1843, and was preceded by what was thought to be a large and very slow moving meteor. However, all meteors travel at great speed as they burn away in the atmosphere. There is occasionally a report of a large ‘fireball’ type of meteor which remains visible for longer than normal, because of its size and the time taken to burn away, but meteors of any kind are certainly not known for slow progress across the sky.

The luminous object seen over Guernsey in December 1843 was something really exceptional.

EdgeScience #8

Issue 8 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:

  • Paul Smith takes an inside look at the field of 'Remote Viewing'.
  • Roger Nelson offers an update on the Global Consciousness Project.
  • Ron Westrum examines the incidence of 'hidden events' via a case study of battered children.
  • Robyn Lindley dives into the evolution debate and asks: was Lamarck also right?

More content as well as that listed above, plus all seven 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.

Numbers in Nature

The whole area of 'sacred geometry' is one that interests me greatly, and a sub/related branch of that field of study is how these numbers can be found at the heart of various aspects of nature. So I found this video, "Nature by Numbers" by Cristóbal Vila, to be both visually breathtaking and also strangely moving:

You can find out more about this short film - from the basics of the math, to how the film was created - at the website of Etérea Studios. Thanks to @grailseeker for the heads-up.

Thinking From a Different Point of View

We all live in our own reality tunnels, and become accustomed to thinking that the way we see things is how they are 'in reality'. So much so, that often it's disconcerting - sometimes even shocking - when we suddenly see things from a new perspective. Take for instance, how a hula hoop sees the world...

This commitment to thinking outside the box is one of the driving forces behind this website - asking ourselves 'what if' questions regarding our own beliefs, and the assumptions made in the current scientific and historical paradigm, and trying to inspire new ways of thinking about certain topics. Sometimes, that can take you down dead end streets, and other times it can bring wonderful insights. But at the end of the day, the important thing is that we don't isolate ourselves in our own reality tunnels, and definitely don't force others to live in there with us.

Here's the great physicist Richard Feynman (in the 1970s) on taking the world from a new point of view:

By 'getting outside' your normal point of view you are able to challenge, and perhaps overthrow if necessary, long in-grained beliefs. By getting outside your normal point of view you get new insights that may lead to new discoveries and ways of being. And perhaps most importantly, by getting outside your normal point of view you are able to see things from others' perspective, and thus treat them with the individual dignity and respect that each of them deserves (h/t's to Manjit Kumar's website and this NPR article).

Uncovering the Secrets of The Mayans

Mexican archeologists keep making exciting discoveries. Last year members of INAH (the National Anthropology Institute) successfully managed to insert a small robot in a tunnel deep inside a pyramid in Teotihuacan. Now another group of researchers managed to capture images of a burial chamber in the mayan capital of Palenque, sealed for the last 1500 years, by using a tiny videocamera the size of a matchbox:

[BBC News]Inside, the camera revealed nine black figures painted on blood-red walls, along with jade and shell fragments, which are believed to be part of a funerary costume.

But unlike in other tombs in Palenque, no sarcophagus has been found. "It is very probable that the fragmented bones are lying directly on the stones of the floor," Inah said. Experts say the tomb probably dates to between AD431 and 550, and could belong to the first ruler of Palenque - K'uk Bahlam I.

Another theory is that it could even belong to Ix Yohl Ik'nal, the city's early female ruler. Archaeologist Martha Cuevas said the tomb's proximity to other burial sites suggested it may be part of a royal necropolis.

The city of Palenque, located in the southeast of Mexico, gathered international attention thanks to the tomb of another Mayan leader, lord Pakal, and Erick Von Däniken's theory that the monolithic burial slab that covered his tomb was evidence of extraterrestrial visitors in the ancient past. This new burial chamber would be even older, though.

Considering Mexican scientists operate on a shoestring budget compared to the rest of their colleagues, findings like these are real credit to them; and it also shows that what's been discovered so far is just the tip of the iceberg.

To learn more about this new discovery, check this video at the BBC website.

[Thanks to Susan]

Do You Choose to Believe in Free Will?

Scientist, writer and outspoken atheist Sam Harris has posted a series of blog entries recently discussing the topic of "free will", in the context of the 'science and morality' topics he explores in his recent book The Moral Landscape (Amazon US or UK). In "Morality Without 'Free Will'" Harris says plainly that...

...the concept of free will is a non-starter, both philosophically and scientifically. There is simply no description of mental and physical causation that allows for this freedom that we habitually claim for ourselves and ascribe to others.

In a follow-up post, "Free Will (And Why You Still Don't Have It)", Harris notes that many readers had written him "to share the Good News that quantum mechanics has liberated the human mind from the prison of determinism". However, Harris doesn't subscribe to the idea, pronouncing that "it is pure hand-waving to suggest that quantum indeterminacy renders the concept of free will scientifically intelligible".

Reading through these posts, including the third instalment "You Do Not Choose What You Choose", I get the feeling that Harris is sometimes conflating "free will" with 'complete freedom to make choices without any previous context or contributing factors'. He also seems to set up a straw man for "what you choose", often using subconscious intrusions (e.g. using "rabbit" rather than "elephant" in his third post) to illustrate 'choice', rather than considered, binary, yes vs no decisions. By combining these two fallacies, his argument looks solid - but I don't think it actually gets at the heart of the problem.

In an addendum, "My Friend Einstein?", Harris quotes the great scientist in support of his cause (whilst thoroughly denying 'argument from authority', no less). But given Einstein's (incorrect?) opinions on quantum indeterminacy ("God does not play dice"), his view is hardly a surprise. Though Harris says that free will is a 'non-starter' scientifically, there certainly are a number of prominent scientists who believe quite the opposite. For instance, Michio Kaku comes out directly in this video and says "Einstein was wrong":

Physicist Henry Stapp is another who believes that quantum indeterminacy provides an opening for free will. In his fascinating book Mindful Universe (Amazon US or UK), Stapp describes the philosophical upheaval that is inherent in the 'new physics' and, (perhaps presciently) notes how many modern-day intellectuals still seem to be stuck in a worldview that became obsolete 80 years ago). On indeterminacy, he says:

The most radical change wrought by this switch to quantum mechanics is the injection directly into the dynamics of certain choices made by human beings about how they will act. Human actions enter, of course, also in classical physics. But the two cases are fundamentally different. In the classical case the way a person acts is fully determined in principle by the physically described aspects of reality alone. But in the quantum case there is an essential gap in physical causation. This gap is generated by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which opens up, at the level of human actions, a range of alternative possible behaviors between which the physically described aspects of theory are in principle unable to choose or decide. But this loss-in-principle of causal definiteness, associated with a loss of knowable-in-principle physically describable information, opens the way, logically, to an input into the dynamics of another kind of possible causes, which are eminently knowable, both in principle and in practice, namely our conscious choices about how we will act.

All in all, a fascinating (and at times, mind-bending) discussion - from all parties. What are your thoughts (or, if you prefer, what are the thoughts emanating from your mind that were always going to do so)?

Quantum Weirdness in the Everyday World

We've talked often in the past about the weirdness of the quantum world, and related topics such as the theory of parallel universes and the idea of 'quantum consciousness'. For a long while, any suggestion that such weirdness could cross over into the 'macro' world (ie. big things, rather than at quantum scales) was rebutted quickly - quantum effects were said to exist only in the quantum world. However, that assumption has been challenged over the years, and could possibly be refuted entirely by the work of Aaron O'Connell, as he explains in this TED talk: "Making sense of a visible quantum object".

[I]n an experiment remarkable both for it’s conceptual simplicity and technical difficulty, O’Connell was the first person to measure quantum effects in an object large enough to see with the naked eye. Named Breakthrough of the year by Science Magazine, the experiment shattered the previous record for the largest quantum object, showing decisively that there is no hard line between the quantum and everyday worlds.

Thanks to my 'lil Sis for the heads-up.

Update: Kat also pointed out this TED blog:

Struggling with quantum logic: Q&A with Aaron O’Connell

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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