News Briefs 04-08-2016

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Quote of the Day:

The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Culture Next Door: Tabby's Star Remains Strange... And Unique


Also known by its designation KIC 8462852, Tabby's Star continues to perplex astronomers and mainstream science bloggers.

News broke in September 2015 after citizen scientists noted the abrupt, non-periodic dimming of this distant F-type star. F-type stars are like our sun, but bigger and hotter. Hard line skeptics dismissed the phenomenon as comets, but evidence has yet to emerge supporting this hypothesis. Currently astronomers and cosmologists can't imagine how ~648,000 giant comets could coordinate their orbits to dim a star over the last hundred years.

Bradley Schaefer of Louisiana State University combed through Harvard's archive of astronomical plates from the last century, finding there's been a steady dimming of Tabby's Star. Faced with a deepening mystery Michael Hippke, self-proclaimed (and cringey) "gentleman scientist", and Vanderbilt University doctoral student Michael Lund earnestly tried, and failed, to disprove Schaefer's discovery. There's nothing wrong with the Kepler observatory that first imaged KIC 8462852, nor Harvard's plates, and Schafer's methodology is watertight.

Spicing up the story is Penn State's Jason Wright, suggesting the dimming's cause might be an alien megastructure like a Dyson swarm or sphere. The invocation of aliens by straightlaced scientists without outright dismissal by their peers means more money from ad impressions, and angry flame wars in comment sections around the web. Also aliens?

To puzzle out this anomaly, the only sensible course of action is to continue surveying the sky, and reviewing past data for other stars with similar characteristics. Should one be found, astronomers can study it, compare it, then begin narrowing down the suspects behind the strangeness 1,480 light years away from us.

This search might take longer than hoped. Daryll LaCourse, profligate Kepler data miner, announced to the internet how Tabby's Star is unique.

The Kepler spacecraft is now observing a series of new ecliptic fields (K2) and has accumulated observations of ~165,000 additional targets. Continued visual inspection of these public data has failed to recover an analog to KIC 8462852. Lack of such a detection suggests that the aperiodic dimming indeed represents a rare astrophysical phenomenon, regardless of the true root cause mechanism involved.

For now Homo sapiens should content themselves with Tabetha Boyajian's successful Kickstarter to continuously monitor her star, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

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News Briefs 03-08-2016

Alternative history

Quote of the Day:

If you want to understand consciousness, you’ve got to study psychedelics.

Professor David Nutt

Use The Force, Mate! Atheist Empire Not Happy With Jedi Rebellion Over Census

In a country far, far away (Australia), a war is brewing over census data. The Atheist Empire is unhappy with rebel scum who put down "Jedi" as their religion. The Atheist Empire argues it will skew the results and make Australia seem more religious than it really is, leading to bad things with public services.

In 2011's census, 64,390 Australians put “Jedi” down as their religion, which increased from 58,053 Jedi in 2006. Some are just donkey voting, sticking the middle finger up at authorities, but some sincerely worship the Force. The Atheist Empire thinks the Force is woo, and doesn't see the funny side, and wants to crush the rebellion with rational thinking. They even made this cuter than an ewok poster to convince people they should all think like they do.

Jedi atheist census Australia Force Waaahmbulance

Wait, the government using census data to wisely spend our tax dollars? The AFA is worshipping at the Temple of Woo themselves if they believe that (pun intended)! This year's census also brings a major change that raises serious privacy concerns. In previous years, it was optional to include your name and address; now it's compulsory. That is a huge leap and the ABS has been highly unconvincing in their reasons for the change.

Now excuse me, I'll be at the local cantina, learning to force choke a beer can like a proper Aussie Jedi... or a scruffy-looking nerf herder.

News Briefs 02-08-2016

Only 3 days left before we pick a winner for this signed Alan Moore comic...get in!

Thanks Kat, Ray and Michael.

Quote of the Day:

Policymakers who deny basic scientific truths should be denied penicillin, horseless carriages, and airtime on the magic box of shadows.

Joss Whedon

An Introduction to Anomalistic Psychology, with Professor Chris French

In the video above, well-known skeptic Chris French (Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London) introduces the field of 'anomalistic psychology', and how it can be of use in understanding strange beliefs in the paranormal and conspiracies.

Ever since records began, in every known society, a substantial proportion of the population has reported unusual experiences many of which we would today label as ‘paranormal’. Opinion polls show that the majority of the general public accepts that paranormal phenomena do occur. Such widespread experience of and belief in the paranormal can only mean one of two things. Either the paranormal is real, in which case this should be accepted by the wider scientific community which currently rejects such claims; or else belief in and experience of ostensibly paranormal phenomena can be fully explained in terms of psychological factors. Chris French provides an introduction to the sub-discipline of anomalistic psychology, which may be defined as the study of extraordinary phenomena of behaviour and experience, in an attempt to provide non-paranormal explanations in terms of known psychological and physical factors.

There's plenty in the talk that a smart Fortean should take on board when evaluating evidence for strange phenomena, even if sometimes the full skeptical viewpoint can wear a little. Overall, a great little talk though.

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News Briefs 01-08-2016

Only five days left to get in on a chance at winning this signed Alan Moore comic (and help support the Grail at the same time)!

Thanks Kat.

Quote of the Day:

It's easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.

Mark Twain

Nightmares of the Present: Anthrax Outbreak in Russia Came From a 75-Year-Old Frozen Reindeer Carcass Thawed by Heatwave


A horror scenario straight out of a science fiction story appears to have come to life in Russia, with an outbreak of anthrax - which has killed 1500 reindeer and hospitalized a number of humans - being blamed on a frozen 75-year-old reindeer carcass that has been thawed by a recent heatwave:

According to the Siberian Times, officials initially thought that the reindeer deaths and human illnesses were the result of a heat wave, after uncommonly high temperatures of up to 95 degrees F swept through the region. And, in a way, it seems they were: Officials with the Russian Ministry of Agriculture believe the cause of infection is the thawing of the frozen carcass of a reindeer that died 75 years ago. Reindeer, weakened by the heat, may have eaten the carcass, and then passed on the disease to the nomad herders.

Grailers will remember one of Mikey's posts in his "Nightmares of the Future" series touched on the 'climatological horror' scenario depicted in the British TV show Fortitude (if you haven't seen it, spoilers follow). In that case, a thawing mammoth carcass was to blame for bringing back to life an ancient parasite that spreads through the population of a small settlement in Norway.

As our planet continues to warm, and glaciers and other ice packs disappear, hopefully there aren't any greater 'evils' waiting to wake from their slumber...

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Nothin' But Net: Skydiver Free-Falls 25,000 Feet Without a Parachute or Wingsuit, Landing in a Net

Here's your dose of crazy for the day: American skydiver Luke Aikins jumped from a plane at 25,000 feet with no parachute or wingsuit, aiming to freefall the entire distance and land in a (relatively) small net held off the ground by four cranes.

Spoiler alert: He's still alive.