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

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.

The Roots of Plant Intelligence

Here's a fascinating TED talk by Stefano Mancuso, a founder of the study of plant 'neurobiology', which explores how plants communicate, or "signal," with each other, using a complex internal analysis system to find nutrients, spread their species and even defend themselves against predators.

Watching this presentation prompts a number of questions for me. If consciousness is 'simply' an emergent phenomenon of a network of neurons, is it possible that other networks (roots, mycelia, even the Internet) could be self-aware too? Are we deceived mainly by the static nature of plants (or at least, their less noticeable movement) more than any other factor in thinking of them as vegetative? And once again, I am reminded of Dennis McKenna's psychedelic experience under the influence of ayahuasca (as told by Daniel Pinchbeck in his excellent book, Breaking Open the Head):

When Dennis McKenna, Terence's botanist brother, drank ayahuasca with the Uniao do Vegetal, a Brazilian syncretic religion that uses ayahuasca as its sacrament, he was turned into a sentient water molecule in the jungle soil, pulled up through a vine's roots to experience the miraculous molecular processes of photosynthesis in its leaves. "Somehow I understood - though no words were involved - that the Banisteriopsis vine was the embodiment of the plant intelligence that embraced and covered the earth," he recalled. At the end of his vision, a voice told him, "You monkeys only think you're running things."

Observant readers would have noted that McKenna's monkey line is the footer to my comments here on TDG. Some have assumed previously that it's meant as a moderator tagline about who is in charge here on the site, but in fact it's there simply as a reminder against anthropocentric hubris and assuming too much about our current state of knowledge. Will we have a completely different outlook (and relationship) with plants in two thousand years time? And if we find that plants are sentient, where does that leave vegans?

Quantum Woo

I have posted regularly in the past about some cutting edge philosophical and scientific ideas based on quantum physics (such as Henry Stapp's speculation on an afterlife based on modern physics). But such ideas obviously aren't endorsed by 'mainstream' physicists, and so I recommend (as with most things we post here) that readers keep their wits about them, and educate themselves to the various opinions on these controversial debates. On this particular topic, Alan Boyle's recent interview with physicist Lawrence Krauss over is a good start:

Krauss worries that a lot of people can be fooled by appeals to the admittedly weird world of quantum physics — a world in which particles are said to take every possible path from point A to point B, in which the position and velocity of particles are necessarily cloaked in uncertainty, in which the mere act of observation changes the thing being observed.

In the last of a series of columns written for Scientific American, Krauss says "no area of physics stimulates more nonsense in the public arena than quantum mechanics." His list of "worst abusers" includes inspirational author Deepak Chopra, the best-selling book "The Secret" and the whole field of Transcendental Meditation. So what constitutes quantum quackery?

For those interested in following up on this interview, you can read a number of Krauss's articles for various publications via his website.

Previously on TDG:

The Future Can Influence the Past

Sorry, I know it's Monday and your brain is probably already struggling. But this brain bender is too good not to share: A series of quantum experiments has shown that measurements performed in the future can influence the present.

Tollaksen’s group is looking into the notion that time might flow backward, allowing the future to influence the past. By extension, the universe might have a destiny that reaches back and conspires with the past to bring the present into view. On a cosmic scale, this idea could help explain how life arose in the universe against tremendous odds. On a personal scale, it may make us question whether fate is pulling us forward and whether we have free will.

Tollaksen's research was inspired by the work of physicist Yakir Aharanov, who came up with a fresh interpretation of quantum mechanics that allowed it to remain deterministic:

Aharonov accepted that a particle’s past does not contain enough information to fully predict its fate, but he wondered, if the information is not in its past, where could it be? After all, something must regulate the particle’s behavior. His answer—which seems inspired and insane in equal measure—was that we cannot perceive the information that controls the particle’s present behavior because it does not yet exist.

“Nature is trying to tell us that there is a difference between two seemingly identical particles with different fates, but that difference can only be found in the future,” he says. If we’re willing to unshackle our minds from our preconceived view that time moves in only one direction, he argues, then it is entirely possible to set up a deterministic theory of quantum mechanics.

The article finishes by discussing the implications of the theory being correct - not least, that the Universe has a fixed destiny, and whether we can detect its 'influence' upon us now. Research into this question is actually being undertaken by famous cosmologist Paul Davies and colleagues at Arizona State University:

Cosmologists have long been puzzled about why the conditions of our universe — for example, its rate of expansion — provide the ideal breeding ground for galaxies, stars, and planets. If you rolled the dice to create a universe, odds are that you would not get one as handily conducive to life as ours is. Even if you could take life for granted, it’s not clear that 14 billion years is enough time for it to evolve by chance. But if the final state of the universe is set and is reaching back in time to influence the early universe, it could amplify the chances of life’s emergence.

....“The goal is to find out whether Mother Nature has been doing her own postselections, causing these unexpected effects to appear,” Davies says.

I wonder if this provides any support or mechanism for the positive results for the presentiment research performed by Dean Radin and Dick Bierman, in which individuals seem to have emotional reactions to future events.

'Telepathic' Computer Interface

How long until the computer mouse is seen as an archaic piece of equipment? Tan Le's human-computer interface reads the brainwaves of a user, enabling them to control virtual objects and physical electronics via their thoughts alone. Here she is discussing the headset at TEDGlobal earlier this month, as well as giving a practical demonstration of the technology at work:

To me, this seems like just the beginning of some brilliant enabling technology for physically disabled people. And further down the road, you can image the virtual reality immersion possibilities...

Ball Lightning Research

Some interesting research at the University of Florida into the possible source of 'ball lightning' reports:

Using tethered rockets to trigger and direct lightning to the ground and through a wide variety of materials, lightning researchers at the University of Florida at Gainesville have managed Lightning Researchto create some short-lived balls of fire that have a lot in common with the naturally-occurring floating balls of light.

...Some previous laboratory experiments have also managed to ignite floating wisps of silicon into something that resembles ball lightning. The actual lightning experiments duplicated that effect repeatedly, said Hill.

These experiments point to one possible explanation of ball lightning: that it isn't actually lightning at all. Rather, it is some material that has been vaporized and ignited by lightning. It burns briefly and then blinks out. But is it really ball lightning?

"What it demonstrates is that it is possible to produce luminous events at the surface that to an untrained observer looks like ball lightning," said Richard Orville, professor and director of the Cooperative Institute for Applied Meteorological Studies at Texas A&M University.

For more interesting thoughts on scientific research into ball lightning, see "A Social History of Ball Lightning".

Previously on TDG:

Kurzweil's Singularity

Late last month I posted a story about the "Singularity Backlash", with links to some critical pieces on the 'cult of posthumanism'. To balance things up, here's a link to the proponents of the singularity speaking their mind: "Reaching for Immortality", another excellent article/interview by Alan Boyle over at his Cosmic Log, in which he speaks with Ray Kurzweil about some of the negative spin on the idea of post-humanism:

[T]here is intertwined promise and peril in all technologies. That's always been the case. There are dangers in these new technologies that I've talked extensively about. There's no simple pat answer, but the right answer is twofold: Have ethical standards for responsible practitioners, like the Asilomar guidelines for biotech, which have been very successful. And have a rapid-response system for irresponsible practitioners, like terrorists, so we can respond to them and protect ourselves.

We've been a technological species for tens of thousands of years, and it's been the case that the technologically superior species has prevailed. There's discussion now why Cro-Magnon man prevailed over Neanderthals, and it appears to be due to fairly subtle differences in our tool use. Our tools were more advanced than the Neanderthals' and that's always what prevails. We've been a human-machine civilization ever since we picked up a stick to reach a higher branch. We've extended our reach with our tools, physically, mentally. We've already done that with our health. Life expectancy was 23 a thousand years ago. I recently told some gifted middle-school kids that if it hadn't been for this progress they all would be senior citizens.

And here's some snippets of Kurzweil (and his detractors) in the trailer for the documentary about his singular(ity) dream, Transcendent Man:

Though going by the votes in the singularity poll here on TDG, most Grailers are rather skeptical about whether such a thing will ever happen...

Previously on TDG: