News Briefs 16-04-2015

I'm sure in many parallel worlds donating to the Grail would be tax deductible.

Thanks to Grail-Seeker.

Quote of the Day:

"People are too eager to say "This legendary person had flaws!" instead of, "Wow, this flawed human being managed to do something legendary.""

~ Mishell Baker ‏(@mishellbaker )

Hubble @ 25: Quantum-Leaping Our Knowledge of the Cosmos since 1990

NASA Director: This could be the worst disaster NASA's ever faced.
Gene Kranz: With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.

The above quote was part of the blockbuster film Apollo 13, but it could have been easily applied to the Hubble space telescope. Launched in April 24th of 1990, the mission started out as a huge embarrassment for NASA and their partners in the European space agency (ESA), when it was realized their $2.5 billion baby had been born with myopia, due to a faulty mirror --that mistake was even exploited as a conspiracy plot in the 1996 sci-fi film The Arrival, starring Charlie Sheen.

After a one-week repair mission in 1993, the Hubble was finally able to open its eyes to the Universe, and during its 25 years of service not only has it managed to become one NASA's most successful projects, but thanks to the spectacular images it has captured many cosmological theories have been completely revolutionized in the span of a single generation, rightly turning it into one of the greatest technological achievements in the history of our species.

Because of all this, the two agencies have launched a webpage to celebrate Hubble's 25th anniversary next week, and many other events are being planned to commemorate its fruitful career. At the same time, many scientists are already looking to the future, and starting to envision the space telescope's replacements: Instruments so sophisticated and powerful, they might be able to detect biological activity on faraway exoplanets.

No doubt Hubble's successors will pose a challenge as great or even greater to NASA than the venerable telescope, especially considering how science-driven missions are "less sexy" than manned exploration, and thus harder to sell to the public. In a time when contenders are starting to get ready for presidencial race, here's hoping the American public will force them to make a serious commitment to support Astrophotography; that we may be able to continue looking far, far away, in order to contemplate ourselves from a different perspective.

In the meantime, feast your eyes --and you imagination-- with some of Hubble's best pictures, as chosen by the scientists who've worked on the project:

The Butterfly Nebula

“The Butterfly Nebula shows what happens to a star at the end of its life, when it loses all of its gas and dust to its surroundings. Not only is this a reminder to the eventual fate of our own Sun and Solar System, but Hubble's unique ability to witness this event in a star's long life cycle sheds light on how stars evolve.” ~Jason Kalirai, project scientist, James Webb Space Telescope, Space Telescope Science Institute

The Helix Nebula

“These shells expelled by dying stars are fragmenting in tight knots of condensed gas. To me that’s fascinating because it means this material going out into the interstellar medium, the material from which new generations of stars form, already has this condensation, this tantalizing possibility of being seeds for planetary formation.” ~Robert O’Dell, astronomer, Vanderbilt University

The Pillars of Creation

“This is one of the iconic images. You see the columns of gas that signify a region where stars have recently formed and are still forming. We have a marvellous newer image with a newer camera, which gave us a visual clue as to how young stars that have recently formed are interacting with the dense gas remaining behind.” ~Jennifer Wiseman, senior project scientist, Hubble, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


On Alien Abductions and Exploding Heads

Exploding Head Syndrom

In 1876, physician Silas Weir Mitchell described how he was treating two men who suffered from strange “sensory discharges”: being woken from their sleep by the seemingly illusory sound of "loud bells" or a “gunshot”. Provocatively named 'exploding head syndrome', a modern sufferer describes his own symptoms as a "sudden crescendo of noise, then a profound and jarring explosion of sound, electrical fizzing and a bright flash in my vision, like someone has lit a spotlight in front of my face."

Despite its strangeness (or perhaps because of it?), there has been relatively little research into the disorder. A new theory has however been put forward by Assistant Professor Brian Sharpless of Washington State University:

Several ideas have been proposed, including ear disorders and partial epileptic seizures. But the most compelling theory comes from a handful of studies in which people with the condition have had their brain activity monitored overnight. These small studies suggest that there may be a burst of neural activity in the brain that coincides with the reported explosion.

Normally, when we go to sleep our body shuts down and becomes paralysed so that we don’t act out our dreams. During this transition from wake to sleep, the brain usually turns off bit by bit, says Sharpless.
However, in exploding head syndrome, there is a hiccup in the 'reticular formation' – the part of the brain responsible for overseeing this general shut-down – which results in a delay in switching off some areas.

This delay is associated with a suppression of alpha brainwaves that are normally responsible for drowsiness, and a sudden burst of neural activity in the areas of the brain responsible for processing sound. “We think the neurons are all firing at once,” he says, which results in the sensation of an explosion in your head.

Sharpless says that the syndrome's similarity to another neurological disorder, 'sleep paralysis' - both appear to arise from problems in the transition between wakefulness and sleep - may also tie it to some 'paranormal' experiences:

Take a look at these supernatural or alien stories, says Sharpless, and sometimes you can see hints of both sleep paralysis and exploding head syndrome. “People can sense these strange explosions in their head, and they may think they’ve had something implanted in their brain. Or they feel this surge of electricity and they think they’ve been shot by some kind of new energy weapon. They can’t move, but hear and see strange things and think they’ve been abducted.”

For more detailed discussion about the sounds heard during paranormal experiences, be sure to have a read of my Darklore article "Her Sweet Murmur".

Link: 'I have Exploding Head Syndrome'

Related: "Her Sweet Murmur: Exploring the aural phenomenology of border experiences"

News Briefs 15-04-2015

What's happening?

Quote of the Day:

While many things are too strange to be believed, nothing is too strange to have happened.

Thomas Hardy

Scientists Find More Evidence that Animals Can Sense Earthquakes Before They Happen

Fault-line (Image by Ikluft, Creative Commons licence)

It has long been suggested that animals 'know' when an earthquake is about to occur: changes in behaviour have been noted in laboratory mice, daily rhythms of ants have reportedly been disrupted, and cows have been observed to behave unusually (in one case an entire herd of cows was witnessed lying down in unison before an earthquake struck). There were reports of elephants and flamingos heading to higher ground before the 2004 Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami, and more recently of zoo animals acting strangely before an earthquake that struck Washington, D.C. One of the earliest reports of animal behaviour predicting earthquakes is from Greece in 373 BC, when rats, weasels, snakes, and centipedes were said to have left their usual homes several days before it struck.

Skeptics on the other hand have suggested that these reports can be dismissed as examples of confirmation bias, where incidental correlations between animal behaviour and earthquakes are remembered and falsely attributed to the existing folk belief, while the many non-manifestations of such behaviour are forgotten.

A particular skeptical mantra is that 'the plural of anecdote is not data' - a comment on the non-evidential value of anecdotal reports. When it comes to animal behaviour before earthquakes, however, a new study has gathered actual data on the topic, and perhaps may have even contributed to substantiating the long held belief that animals can sense an earthquake coming.

The researchers took advantage of nine 'camera traps' being used in Yanachaga National Park in Peru to track the movements of rarely seen animals. Each time these traps' motion sensors are triggered, they take a picture, capturing an image of the animal that is moving past the field of view.

Analysing the images over a 30 day period leading up to the 2011 magnitude 7.0 Contamana earthquake, (and comparing with a 'control' period not associated with an impending earthquake), they found that the camera traps usually 'captured' up to 18 animals a day. However, this number dropped off to much lower numbers consistently around 23 days before the earthquake, and then reduced further just over a week from it striking. In fact, only three animals in total were photographed in the last six days before the earthquake struck, with rodents - the most abundant animal in the forest environment - almost completely disappearing.

Animals captured by camera-trap before earthquake, compared to control

In the paper, the researchers theorise that the changes in behaviour might be caused by the sub-surface grinding of rocks in the lead-up to an earthquake, creating an electric charge that has a number of effects which might be sensed by animals:

  • Emission of ultra-low frequency (ULF) electromagnetic waves that may affect biochemical reactions and disrupt circadian rhythms.
  • Oxidisation of soil organics, creating toxic and/or irritating trace gases, such as carbon monoxide.
  • Ionisation of air molecules - which has been reported to cause blood serotonin levels to increase in animals and humans.

The researchers concluded:

An enhanced air ionisation at the ridge prior to the magnitude 7 Contamana earthquake may have caused the animals to escape to lower altitudes, where they would have been exposed to fewer positive airborne ions. The pre-earthquake anxiety, restlessness and escape reactions of domestic or captive animals, reported anecdotally for many decades, even centuries, may simply be due to the fact that confined animals tend to panic when they are unable to move away from aversive stimuli in their environment. If this correlation can be substantiated by systematically monitoring a wider range of reported pre-earthquake phenomena, this would lead to a better understanding of the premonitory abilities of animals.

Source: "Changes in Animal Activity Prior to a Major (M=7) Earthquake in the Peruvian Andes"

News Briefs 14-04-2015

Mama mia!

Thanks to @SPR1882.

Quote of the Day:

Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.

Jim Morrison

Jeff Kripal at TedX Houston: The Art of Making the Impossible Possible

For some reason this video fell off our radar when it was released in 2013 (but it's never too late to correct that mistake): Jeffrey Kripal, professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Rice University, and the author of Mutants and Mystics and Authors of the Impossible, spoke at TedX Houston in 2012 about the literary quality of what we call 'paranormal' phenomena, and how these experiences tend to disrupt the either/of logic we are conditioned to use in our modern world, because they have an external component as well as an internal one --often deeply personal and meaningful to the experiencer.

It is because of this ambiguity that many great artists are drawn and inspired by these kind of events, which also hint at the pivotal role Consciousness may play in the scaffolding of Reality itself.

  • Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred [Amazon US & UK]
  • Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal [Amazon US & UK]


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Aliens in the Microwave: Mysterious Radio Signals Found to Have an Earthly Source

Radio Telescope Scans the Sky

Are alien civilisations out there, sending us signals? If they are, it seems we can scratch one candidate off the list of possibilities: the previously mysterious 'perytons', strange radio bursts that have been recorded at a few radio telescopes around the globe. Though perytons have always been shrouded in doubt: they're named after a mythological creature that casts the shadow of a human, appearing as something it is not - a reference to the way in which perytons seemed very much like 'Fast Radio Bursts', except FRBs appear to come from deep space, while perytons were likely to come from an Earthly source.

Earlier this month, however, a paper was published which seems to have solved the peryton mystery. Rather than an advanced alien civilisation communicating through time and space, the radio bursts appear to be coming microwaves:

There have been dozens of reported perytons, some dating back to the 1990s, and theories about the signals’ origin included ball lightning, aircraft, and components of the telescopes themselves.

...[Emily Petroff of Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology] and her colleagues discovered the source of perytons after they installed a real-time radio interference monitor at the Parkes telescope. In January, the telescope detected three of the signals – and the interference monitor picked up three simultaneous interference signatures. The team recognized the interloping frequencies as possibly belonging to a microwave oven.

When Petroff and her colleagues tested their hypothesis, they found they could create perytons on demand simply by opening the oven door before the timer had dinged.

Link: Rogue Microwave Ovens Are the Culprits Behind Mysterious Radio Signals


News Briefs 13-04-2015

The Daily Grail: always answering the big questions for you...

Thanks to @owenbooth and @johnreppion.

Quote of the Day:

Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.

Albert Einstein

Replica of Chauvet Cave Open to the Public

Archeology and Tourism have always had a thorny relationship. On the one hand, everybody wants important historical sites to be preserved as best as humanly possible, for the benefit of future generations (unless you're fundamentalist a-hole, but let's not go there), but on the other hand, archeologists recognize that allowing tourists to visit those sites ensures the monetary resources they desperately need to continue their investigations.

A compromise is thus needed, and most of the time the solutions are quite inelegant: On Chichen Itzá for example, visitors are no longer allowed to climb on top of the famous pyramid of Kukulcan. Gone are also the days when one could walk among the standing rocks of Stonehenge during public opening hours. If preserving megalithic structures presents a challenge however, it doesn't even compare to how difficult it is to preserve the oldest representations of artistic creativity --cave paintings.

Many people desire to admire the delicate artwork left by our ancestors tenths of thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, the very breath expelled by visitors severely deteriorates the pigments and charcoal strokes left by the prehistoric artists, which is why the Spanish authorities decided to close access to the famous Altamira caves in 1977. Facing a similar problem with the Chauvet cave, which contains the earliest forms of paleolithic painting in the world, the French authorities decided to emulate their Spaniard colleagues, and spent 55 million euros to build an exact replica of Grotte Chauvet, which will be opened to the public later this month:

The designers of the replica cave worked in close collaboration with the scientific team, the challenge was to reproduce the cave and its 8,500 square metres while at the same time maintaining the perception of the originals.

3-D modeling was used and some 6,000 images were overlapped in developing sketches. The paintings have been reproduced on a shotcrete structure with resin coating using natural oxide pigments and Scots pine charcoal.

All the paintings have been done by experienced artists using natural pigments and bonding material in order to remain as faithful as possible to the originals.

“The walls, the geology has been replicated exactly as it is and the paintings are also very precise. They can stir emotions. So I think the first reaction of the public will be amazement while I think they will also be surprised,” explained Professor Jean Clottes, Cave Art Specialist.

So if you're planning to visit France this Summer, you might want to include this attraction in your schedule. You can also visit the Altamira cave right now without leaving your chair, by clicking here.