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

Nukes in Spaaaaace

I see your July 4th fireworks, and raise you a nuclear explosion in space:

If you are wondering why anybody would deliberately detonate an H-bomb in space, the answer comes from a conversation we had with science historian James Fleming of Colby College:

"Well, I think a good entry point to the story is May 1, 1958, when James Van Allen, the space scientist, stands in front of the National Academy in Washington, D.C., and announces that they’ve just discovered something new about the planet," he told us.

Van Allen described how the Earth is surrounded by belts of high-energy particles — mainly protons and electrons — that are held in place by the magnetic fields. There are two Van Allen radiation belts that circle the Earth: an inner belt and an outer belt. The belts are contained by the Earth’s magnetic field.

Today these radiation belts are called Van Allen belts. Now comes the surprise: While looking through the Van Allen papers at the University of Iowa to prepare a Van Allen biography, Fleming discovered "that [the] very same day after the press conference, [Van Allen] agreed with the military to get involved with a project to set off atomic bombs in the magnetosphere to see if they could disrupt it."

Wow, sounds like a great plan! Go science! Go military!

In the words of Professor Fleming, "this is the first occasion I've ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up."

Singularity Backlash

In the past decade many futurists have embraced the concept that we are approaching a 'Technological Singularity' - a point at which technological development reaches a stage where machine intelligence surpasses current human potential, Singularityand being able to improve upon itself this intelligence grows exponentially, thus changing civilisation rapidly and irrevocably into a state which we probably cannot even conceive. In the words of mathematician and author Vernor Vinge, "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended."

Last week The New York Times ran an article about the new 'Singularity University', at which 'students' recently gathered for a nine-day, $15,000 course (there is also a separate 10-week 'graduate' course for $25,000). One of the more interesting facets of the article - though only touched on briefly - is the 'techno-Utopianism' that permeates the thinking of those involved:

Both courses include face time with leading thinkers in the areas of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, energy, biotech, robotics and computing.

On a more millennialist and provocative note, the Singularity also offers a modern-day, quasi-religious answer to the Fountain of Youth by affirming the notion that, yes indeed, humans — or at least something derived from them — can have it all.

“We will transcend all of the limitations of our biology,” says Raymond Kurzweil, the inventor and businessman who is the Singularity’s most ubiquitous spokesman and boasts that he intends to live for hundreds of years and resurrect the dead, including his own father. “That is what it means to be human — to extend who we are.”

I find the idea of the 'Singularity' both intriguing and also frightening - it's the stuff good science fiction novels are made of, and I think many of the arguments for and against are more a matter of personal moral judgement than objective debate.

The criticism I do have is more reserved for the plausibility of a Singularity. Firstly, I'd have to say that I don't believe technology is advancing at the rate that the likes of Ray Kurzweil say it is...certainly, while there have been significant advances in the last decade, I don't think we have seen anywhere near the advance that the Singularity has predicted via Moore's Law (and it's worth noting that Kevin Moore is a skeptic of an imminent singularity).

Secondly, there is the tricky question of intelligence vs consciousness. While Ray Kurzweil may think he'll be downloading his consciousness within a couple of decades to make himself immortal, I'm not sure many consciousness researchers would feel the same. For all the talk about finding neural correlates for various experiences and emotions, the 'hard problem' remains.

Here we can find signs of what I think is the inception of a materialist religion (of sorts), replete with charismatic leaders and transcendence of death. The latter perhaps is a driving force - without the 'crutch' of a religious belief in an afterlife, the Singularity becomes the salvation of the materialist facing their own mortality (this certainly seems to be how it is in Kurzweil's case). An interesting bit of speculation might be to consider the (fringe science) possibility that consciousness lies beyond the brain (a la transmission theory), and that it not only survives death, but is in fact set free from the body by the experience. To borrow an analogy from the mystical literature, could 'Singulatarians' in fact be the equivalent of a caterpillar desperately trying not to be become a butterfly?

The religious parallels in the Singularity movement are, however, not going unnoticed. In the wake of the NYT article, respected science writer John Horgan has responded with a scathing attack on 'Kurzweil's cult' in an opinion piece for Scientific American. At Biopolitical Times, Pete Shanks suggests that techno-Utopians revise their history for important lessons, in his article "A Singular Kind of Eugenics". And our good friend Alan Boyle has commented at Cosmic Log that while "it's nice to have such optimism in technology, but there's also something oddly off-putting about all this... It's the same spidey-sense tingle I get about Nietzschean supermanism and Scientology."

It's a fascinating topic, and one that will only become more prominent as the years go by. What do you think - is the Singularity imminent? And is it a good idea? Add a comment below, and/or vote on our new poll on the front page.

Acupuncture - Points of Disagreement

Possible vindication for some in the alternative medicine industry with a new scientific study on acupuncture getting positive results, and which also might have finally found the mechanism through which the ancient Chinese treatment works - at least in terms of its analgesic effects (if indeed it does actually work). Though alt-med folk may not be as impressed to learn that rather than 'Qi', vital forces or similar, the mechanism is more the prosaic bodily chemical adenosine, which surges in concentration after physical trauma and is linked to pain suppression.

There's been plenty of mainstream attention for the news - here's some quotes from The Telegraph:

Dr Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester, New York, said: "Acupuncture has been a mainstay of medical treatment in certain parts of the world for 4,000 years, Ancient Acupuncture Guidebut because it has not been understood completely, many people have remained sceptical. In this work, we provide information about one physical mechanism through which acupuncture reduces pain in the body."

"What we found is that adenosine, a natural pain killer, is released during acupuncture and that adenosine may be the primary way acupuncture reduces pain. The most important observation is that acupuncture worked almost three times as long if we gave a drug that slow down the removal of adenosine."

Adenosine, which also helps to regulate sleep and keep the heart healthy, becomes active in the skin after an injury to inhibit nerve signals and ease pain.

However, to temper any (tabloid news induced) suggestion that acupuncture is now 'proven' beyond doubt, head over to Not Exactly Rocket Science or Stuff and Nonsense. Although when reading those accounts I had the distinct feeling there was as much bias in the opposite direction as they claim there is in the newspaper stories and research paper.

It will be interesting to see how it plays out with skeptics in general - on the one hand, the research offers support for a long-time 'nemesis' in alt-med; on the other, it offers support for a physiological (materialist) explanation for a 'mystical' medicine (and yes, I *am* suggesting that 'skeptics' in general will use results to support their own viewpoint, rather than be scientifically objective...you should know that by now).

One thing in the criticisms of the paper that I don't particularly get. Is it really necessary to control for placebo in mice? Do they believe when scientists stick needles in their legs that it's likely it will get rid of their pain? Anybody able to enlighten me?

Full text: "Adenosine A1 receptors mediate local anti-nociceptive effects of acupuncture"

Nuke That Slicker

The ongoing ecological disaster that is the BP oil spill in the gulf continues . Here's an idea out of left-field...in fact, so far left, it's Commie:

Komsomoloskaya Pravda, the best-selling Russian daily, reports that in Soviet times such leaks were plugged with controlled nuclear blasts underground. The idea is simple, KP writes: “the underground explosion moves the rock, presses on it, and, in essence, squeezes the well’s channel.”

Yes! It’s so simple, in fact, that the Soviet Union, a major oil exporter, used this method five times to deal with petrocalamities. The first happened in Uzbekistan, on September 30, 1966 with a blast 1.5 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb and at a depth of 1.5 kilometers. KP also notes that subterranean nuclear blasts were used as much as 169 times in the Soviet Union to accomplish fairly mundane tasks like creating underground storage spaces for gas or building canals.

While the knee-jerk reaction would be to say this is madness, I've heard from a number of quarters that the ecological impact would be less than allowing the leak to continue. Still not sure about the precedent it would set though (although if a civilisation-killing asteroid was incoming I'm sure we'd all be more than happy to send a nuke up).

Interesting to note too how many nuclear blasts there have been on Planet Earth of which we remain largely oblivious.

Society for Scientific Exploration Conference 2010

The Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE) will be holding it's annual conference from June 10-12 in Boulder, Colorado, and any Grailer worth their salt should be interested in attending. The SSE is a leading professional organization of scientists and scholars who study unusual and unexplained phenomena which often cross mainstream boundaries, such as consciousness, UFOs, survival of death and alternative medicine. The public is more than welcome to participate - the registration fee to attend is $185 ($75 for students). From the press release:

This year's meeting will feature three themes: advanced propulsion, cutting-edge energy concepts, and anomalous phenomena. Among the several invited speakers for advanced propulsion is Dr. Eric W. Davis of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin and CEO of Warp Drive Metrics. As a technical consultant and contributor to NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project and co-editor of the new book "Frontiers of Propulsion Science," he will give an overview of the newest developments in his field.

Cutting-edge energy concepts will have several thrusts, including low-energy nuclear reactions (LENL), zero-point (vacuum) energy, and challenges to the second law of thermodynamics. Over the last 15 years it has become apparent from a theoretical perspective that the second law can probably be violated and, if so, the possible implications for science and society -- especially for energy generation -- are enormous. In the last few years experimental tests have become feasible. Among the several speakers on this thrust, Dr. Daniel P. Sheehan from the Physics Department of the University of San Diego will discuss experimental test of the second law.

SSE will also host a number of researchers concerned with anomalous phenomena. Dr. Roger Nelson (PEAR Lab) will discuss the newest findings from the Global Consciousness Project and John Alexander will present "The Real Story of Goats," a scientific discussion on the anomalous phenomena at the heart of the recent movie "The Men Who Stare at Goats."

More information here. I just received my latest issue of the Journal of Scientific Exploration, so I guess that'll have to substitute for a flight half-way around the world to an uber-cool event.

EdgeScience #3

Issue 3 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration, and the latest release has some truly fascinating articles. Professor Henry Bauer runs through his reasoning for believing that "HIV Does Not Cause AIDS", Dr Julie Beischel gives some insight into her ongoing 'afterlife experiments' in "The Reincarnation of Mediumship Research", and Chief Anomalist Patrick Huyghe unveils the little-known "Reports of Luminous Seas". Also in this issue, Deborah Blum (author of the excellent Ghosthunters) reviews Stacy Horn's Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory, Michael Prescott ruminates on "The Gift of Doubt", and Steve Hammons asks if 'Weird science news' can transform science. Really enjoyed all of those, I recommend you get on over there and download Issue 3 (and 2 and 1, if you haven't already) pronto.

And 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).

Afterlife in the Quantum Realm?

The enigmas of quantum physics always provide fertile ground for fascinating science stories, as well as a good springboard into ontological and epistemological speculation. In recent weeks we've had interesting news about quantum coherence in biological systems and also yesterday's headline of quantum effects being seen in a visible object for the first time (RPJ also linked to a wonderful summary of recent 'quantum science' by Alan Boyle on his Cosmic Log).

Most physicists though are very careful not to be seen departing from the strange concepts inherent in the quantum world, into the (seemingly extended) area of metaphysics. Henry Stapp though is not one of those - a physicist with a distinguished history (having studied/worked under Pauli, Heisenberg, and other luminaries), Stapp disagrees with a purely materialist view of the cosmos, instead seeing consciousness as being of extreme importance via its role in the collapse of the wave-function. And, while reading a recent interview he did with EnlightenNext Magazine (PDF download), I was very interested to see the following comments:

[R]espectable theorists hold a wide variety of views as to how to understand quantum mechanics. That theory accommodates a large variety of phenomena that are not allowed by classical mechanics. The key point here is this: If something like [William] James’ fantastic laws of clinging do exist, and they are sufficiently strong, then aspects of a personality might be able to survive bodily death and persist for a while as an enduring mental entity, existing somewhere in Descartes’ world of mental things, but capable on rare occasions of reconnecting with the physical world. I do not see any compelling theoretical reason why this idea could not be reconciled with the precepts of quantum mechanics. Such an elaboration of quantum mechanics would both allow our conscious efforts to influence our own bodily actions, and also allow certain purported phenomena such as “possession”, “mediumship”, and “reincarnation” to be reconciled with the basic precepts of contemporary physics.

These considerations are, I think, sufficient to show that any claim that postmortem personality survival is impossible that is based solely on the belief that it is incompatible with the contemporary laws of physics is not rationally supportable. Rational science-based opinion on this question must be based on the content and quality of the empirical data, not on the presumption that such a phenomenon would be strictly incompatible with our current scientific knowledge of how nature works.

You can read more about Stapp's ideas on this in his paper "Compatibility of Contemporary Physical Theory with Personality Survival" (downloadable Word document), and for a more comprehensive overview see his book Mindful Universe. For video of Henry Stapp explaining some of his ideas, make sure you head over to the 'Closer to Truth' website (one of the greatest websites I've ever had the good fortune to find) and search through the videos for his intriguing interviews with Robert Lawrence Kuhn.

Previously on TDG:

Sean Carroll: The Arrow of Time

If there is one thing that is nearly always on my mind, it is time. Trying to cram 30 hours into 24 hours each day tends to do that. But beyond constantly thinking of our own personal time issues, the actual subject of 'time' is one of the deepest and most difficult concepts to define and understand. One person trying to do that right now is physicist Sean Carroll.

A gifted communicator of difficult cosmological concepts, Carroll summarised where he's coming from in a recent article in Wired:

I’m trying to understand how time works. And that’s a huge question that has lots of different aspects to it. A lot of them go back to Einstein and spacetime and how we measure time using clocks. But the particular aspect of time that I’m interested in is the arrow of time: the fact that the past is different from the future. We remember the past but we don’t remember the future. There are irreversible processes. There are things that happen, like you turn an egg into an omelet, but you can’t turn an omelet into an egg.

And we sort of understand that halfway. The arrow of time is based on ideas that go back to Ludwig Boltzmann, an Austrian physicist in the 1870s. He figured out this thing called entropy. Entropy is just a measure of how disorderly things are. And it tends to grow. That’s the second law of thermodynamics: Entropy goes up with time, things become more disorderly.

But there’s a missing piece...which is, why was the entropy ever low to begin with? Why were the papers neatly stacked in the universe? Basically, our observable universe begins around 13.7 billion years ago in a state of exquisite order, exquisitely low entropy. It’s like the universe is a wind-up toy that has been sort of puttering along for the last 13.7 billion years and will eventually wind down to nothing. But why was it ever wound up in the first place? Why was it in such a weird low-entropy unusual state? That is what I’m trying to tackle.

Carroll goes into much more depth on the topic in his recently released book, From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time (Amazon US and UK). You'll also have your mind hurt nicely by these TED videos of Carroll discussing the arrow of time at the University of Sydney in December 2009: Part 1, and Part 2 (I originally embedded them here, but it seems they autoplay so I removed them). Not exactly light viewing, but fascinating stuff.

EdgeScience #2

Issue 2 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration. The latest edition has a special section on 'New Energy', including an article on the latest developments in cold fusion research, as well as a piece on healing through intention and a nice article from Peter Sturrock on the place of anomalies in science. Edited by our good friend Patrick Huyghe (The Anomalist), and with contributions from the likes of Steve Braude and Michael Grosso, it's the thinking man's magazine for scientific anomalies (no centerfolds!). If you enjoy the mag, don't forget to send a bit of love via the PayPal button to help ensure it's future (or pick up the paper version for $4.95).

Edge Science Magazine

The Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE), producers of the wonderful Journal of Scientific Exploration (articles for download here), are also now publishing a 'popular' magazine devoted to heretical/fringe science ideas: Edge Science:

Why EdgeScience? Because, contrary to public perception, scientific knowledge is still full of unknowns. What remains to be discovered—what we don't know—very likely dwarfs what we do know. And what we think we know may not be entirely correct or fully understood. Anomalies, which researchers tend to sweep under the rug, should be actively pursued as clues to potential breakthroughs and new directions in science.

You can download the first issue for free as a PDF file to get a feel for the mag, or alternately get a print version for $3.95, details at the website. The editor of the magazine is our good friend from The Anomalist, Patrick Huyghe - with Patrick and the SSE behind this, you know it's going to be quality.