Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A governmental cult

Cult (n.) -- a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object, often involving a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing; a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.
I bring this up so that we can have a working definition right at the outset, because it's a term that has been misused (and in some places overused) to the point that it's lost a lot of its punch.  But two news stories in the past week have brought the word to mind -- apropos of the veneration with which the extreme wing of Trump voters treat the president and his cronies.

Let's start with the less egregious of the two -- an Alabama pastor, Earl Wise, who said in an interview with The Boston Globe that he would vote for accused sexual predator Roy Moore for Senate, even if the allegations against Moore were proven true beyond a shadow of a doubt.

In a tirade that combines "tone-deafness," "misogyny," and "excusing pedophilia" into a truly nauseating confection of venom, Wise said:
I don’t know how much these women are getting paid, but I can only believe they’re getting a healthy sum.  If these stories were true, the women would have come forward years ago...  There ought to be a statute of limitations on this stuff.  How these gals came up with this, I don’t know.  They must have had some sweet dreams somewhere down the line...  Plus, there are some fourteen-year-olds, who, the way they look, could pass for twenty.
So now what a child looks like determines the age of consent?

Make no mistake about it; if we were talking about a Democrat here -- hell, if we were talking about a non-Trump-supporting Republican -- Wise would be recommending crucifixion.  This is a man who thinks that two men in a committed relationship getting married is "an abomination," but a grown man targeting children is "championing conservative religious values."

If you think that's bad, wait till you hear about the other one.  Mark Lee, a Trump voter who participated in a panel discussion on CNN, was talking about how wonderful the president is, how he's "draining the swamp" and "helping the little guy" even though mostly what the president seems to be doing is appointing unqualified cronies to public office, lining his own pockets, and tweeting messages that sound like they came from a petulant and rather stupid fourth grader.  But all of that pales by comparison to a statement Lee made later in the discussion: "If Jesus Christ gets down off the cross and told me Trump is with Russia, I would tell him, 'Hold on a second.  I need to check with the president if it's true.'"

Okay, what?

Isn't the whole idea of traditional, conservative Christianity that Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority?  Because it sure as hell sounds to me like in Mark Lee's mind, Donald Trump has somehow usurped that position.

What I'm most curious about this is what could possibly be the motivation.  Are these people simply siding with the person they think will give them what they want -- pro-life legislation, anti-LGBTQ legislation, conservatives running the courts, religion in school (only the right religion, of course), the Ten Commandments in every government building?  Because that's pretty Machiavellian, but at least I can understand it.  To some extent, most of us make deals with the devil when we vote -- there is seldom anyone who is 100% aligned with our beliefs and interests.

My fear, however, is that this goes way, way beyond pragmatism.  This kind of thing, especially the statement by Mark Lee, smacks of the same kind of single-minded veneration the people of North Korea are supposed to have for Dear Leader.  No, of course the president couldn't be wrong.  About anything.  It's the kind of thinking that inspired this:


Cf. the definition of cult above.

There's a real danger when people start claiming to know the Mind of God.  As Susan B. Anthony put it, "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."  It is far more dangerous, however, when people believe that some flesh-and-blood human is the embodiment of the divine -- and infinitely more so when that person has shown himself to be venial, corrupt, greedy, lecherous, and dishonest.

I'm not at all sure what to do about this.  Once you've ceded your will to anyone or anything else, there's not much anyone can do to help you.  I keep hoping that Robert Mueller will step in and put a stop to the miasma of corruption, cronyism, and nepotism our government has become, but I know that these people won't go down without a fight.

And what absolutely terrifies me is that the Earl Wises and Mark Lees of the world will be right there in the front, very likely well-armed, fighting for the man they've turned into a god.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Pet warp

In recent posts we have dealt with sending a binary message to extraterrestrial intelligence, helicopters in ancient Egypt, and a creature in southern Africa that looks like some bizarre three-way cross between a human, a bat, and a pig.  So I'm sure that what you're all thinking is, "Yes, Gordon, but what about pet teleportation?"

At this point, I should stop being surprised at the things that show up on websites such as the one in the link above, from the site Mysterious Universe.  In this particular article, by Brent Swancer (this is not his first appearance here at Skeptophilia, as you might imagine), we hear about times that Fido and Mr. Fluffums evidently took advantage of nearby wormholes to leap instantaneously across spacetime.

In one such instance, Swancer tells us, a woman had been taking a nap with her kitty, and got up, leaving the cat sleeping in bed.  Ten minutes later, she went back into the bedroom, and the cat was gone.  At that point, the phone began ringing.  It was a friend who lived across town -- calling to tell her that the cat had just showed up on their doorstep.

Another person describes having his cat teleporting from one room in the house to another, after which the cat "seemed terrified:"
All the fur on his back was standing up and he was crouched low to the ground.  He looked like he had no idea what just happened, either.  That was about 10 minutes ago.  He won’t leave my side now, which is strange in itself, because he likes independence, but he is still very unsettled and so am I.
And Swancer tells us that it's not just cats.  He recounts a tale by "the great biologist... Ivan T. Sanderson," wherein he was working with leafcutter ants and found sometimes the queen mysteriously disappears from the ant nest.   "Further digging in some cities within hours," Sanderson tells us, "brought to light, to the dumbfoundment of everybody, apparently the same queen, all duly dyed with intricate identifying marks, dozens of feet away in another super-concrete-hard cell, happily eating, excreting and producing eggs!"

However, in the interest of honesty it must be said that Sanderson might not be the most credible witness in the world.  He did a good bit of writing about nature and biology, but is best known for his work in cryptozoology.  According to the Wikipedia article on him (linked above), he gave "special attention to the search for lake monsters, sea serpents, Mokèlé-mbèmbé, giant penguins, Yeti, and Sasquatch."  And amongst his publications are Abominable Snowman: Legend Come to Life and the rather vaguely named Things, which the cover tells us is about "monsters, mysteries, and marvels uncanny, strange, but true."

So I'm inclined to view Sanderson's teleporting ants with a bit of a wry eye.

What strikes me about all of this is the usual problem of believing anecdotal evidence.  It's not that I'm accusing anyone of lying (although that possibility does have to be admitted); it's easy enough, given our faulty sensory processing equipment and plastic, inaccurate memory, to be absolutely convinced of something that actually didn't happen that way.  A study by New York University psychological researcher Elizabeth Phelps showed that people's memories of 9/11 -- surely a big enough event to recall accurately -- only got 63% of the details right, despite study participants' certainty they were remembering what actually happened.  Worse, a study by Joyce W. Lacy (Azusa Pacific University) and Craig E. L. Stark (University of California-Irvine) showed that even how a question is asked by an interviewer can alter a person's memory -- and scariest of all, the person has no idea it's happened.  They remain convinced that what they "recall" is accurate.

Plus, there's a little problem with lack of a mechanism.  How, exactly, could anything, much less your pet kitty, vanish from one place and simultaneously reappear somewhere else?  I have a hard time getting my dog even to move at sub-light speeds sometimes, especially when he's walking in front of me up the stairs at a pace I can only describe as a cross between a "plod" and a "waddle."  In fact, most days his favorite speed seems to be "motionless."


Given all that, it's hard to imagine he'd have the motivation to accomplish going anywhere instantaneously.

As intriguing as those stories are, I'm inclined to be a bit dubious.  Which I'm sure you predicted. So you don't need to spend time worrying about how you'll deal with it when Rex and Tigger take a trip through warped space.  If they mysteriously vanish only to show up elsewhere, chances are they were traveling in some completely ordinary fashion, and the only thing that's awry is your memory of what happened.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Messages to the stars

Much has been made of the fact that our television and radio signals are expanding outward from the Earth at the speed of light, so the first things that alien civilizations might see from us are 50s music and bad television shows.  The most memorable example of this is the brilliant and absolutely hysterical movie Galaxy Quest, in which the aliens not only intercepted our television signals, but thought they were documenting historical facts.  It led to the following exchange:
Gwen DeMarco (played to the hilt by Sigourney Weaver):  "They're not all historical documents.  I mean, surely you don't think that Gilligan's Island... 
Captain Mathazar:  "Oh, those poor people."
The truth is, any alien civilization who intercepted our signals would have to have their radio telescopes pointed exactly in the right direction, and because of the inverse-square law (the intensity of a pulse of electromagnetic radiation decreases proportionally to the square of the distance covered) the telescopes would have to be mighty powerful, if they had any hope to keep up with the antics of Gilligan and the Skipper.  The immense distances to even the nearest stars are a nearly insurmountable obstacle to any alien hunters -- or, worse, anyone who dreams of voyaging there.

It's different, however, if you are sending a specific message to a specific star, which is what a group called Sónar did last month.  Last Thursday, a spokesperson for Sónar revealed that they beamed a binary message containing scientific and technical information about us, and 33 short musical compositions, directly toward Luyten's Star (also called GJ273), a red dwarf with a planet circling it that is thought to be in the habitable zone.  So if anyone's living there, in a little over twelve years, they'll get our signal -- and twelve years after that, we might get a response.

As exciting as this is, there are a couple of problems with this venture.  The first is that the planet in the habitable zone, GJ273b, orbits its star in only eighteen days -- meaning that it is very likely to be tidally locked (the same side of the planet faces the star during its entire revolution).  In my mind, this significantly decreases the likelihood of there being complex life, as the light side would be too hot and the dark side too cold for water to be in its liquid state.  (It does bring up a possibility that life could exist in the crescent-shaped slivers on either side of the planet that are in constant twilight -- something that would make for an interesting set of problems to investigate in a science fiction story.)

The other issue has more to do with safety than feasibility.  No less a mind than Stephen Hawking has advised against our advertising our presence to alien species, out of pure self-preservation.  "One day, we might receive a signal from a planet like [Gliese 832c, another candidate for hosting life]," Hawking said.  "But we should be wary of answering back.  Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus.  That didn't turn out so well."

Any civilization capable of going to the stars, Hawking said, would be so far ahead of us that they would probably consider us hardly sentient at all -- like a human views the ants in an anthill.

Humorist Dave Barry didn't even like Carl Sagan's idea of sending a plaque with information about Earth out on the spacecraft Pioneer 10.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

As he wrote in his wonderful book Bad Habits:
(W)hen they decided to send up Pioneer 10, Carl sold the government on the idea that we should attach a plaque to it, so that if the aliens found it they'd be able to locate the Earth.   This is easily the stupidest idea a scientific genius ever sold to the government...  (I)t's all well and good for Carl Sagan to talk about how neat it would be to get in touch with the aliens, but I bet he'd change his mind pronto if they actually started oozing under his front door.  I bet he'd be whapping at them with his golf clubs just like the rest of us.
In fact, he even thought the choice of the art work on the plaque was ill-advised:
(The plaque) features drawings of... a hydrogen atom and naked people.  To represent the entire Earth!  This is crazy.  Walk the streets of any town on the planet, and the two things you will almost never see are hydrogen atoms and naked people.  Plus, the man on the plaque is clearly deranged.  He's cheerfully waving his arm as if to say, "Hi!  Look at me!  I'm naked as a jaybird!"  The woman is not waving, because she's clearly embarrassed.  She wishes she'd never let the man talk her into posing naked for this plaque.
I'm of two minds about all this.  It has long been my deepest wish to live to see the day that we have unequivocal proof of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  (The behavior of my fellow humans in the last year has called into question whether we even have intelligent life down here, but that's beside the point.)  On the other hand, attracting the Borg to come in and assimilate the whole lot of us isn't all that appealing.

The good news is that even if there is intelligent life on the second planet of Luyten's Star, it'll be 25 years or so before we could even potentially hear from them, and unless they have access to warp drive or wormholes, it would take orders of magnitude longer for them to get here.  So I'm not losing any sleep over Sónar's message.

I have to admit that sending some music and scientific stuff is a pretty good choice for an introduction, however.  Otherwise, they'd be judging us as a species based on Fibber McGee and Molly and The Beverly Hillbillies, and heaven knows we wouldn't want that.  Eventually they'd get to The Gong Show and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Real Housewives of New Jersey, and at that point the aliens would probably just target us with their photon torpedoes and be done with it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Navigating the imaginary

As many of you know, I've been writing fiction for over four decades.  I won't claim that what I wrote in the first half of that period was good fiction, but it was a long period of honing my skills so that now I can (with all due modesty) tell a pretty good story.

Something my publisher has encouraged me to do in the last three years is to push into what he calls "deep point-of-view."  In deep point-of-view, the reader isn't watching the character act; the reader becomes the character.  The dialogue and narrative are so immediate that you are, effectively, seeing through her eyes and hearing through her ears.

It's not an easy skill to master, and to be honest I'm still trying to learn how to do it effectively. But when done well, it is incredibly powerful, allowing us to feel as if we are actually inhabiting the imaginary worlds that authors create.

Young Man Reading by Candlelight  (Matthias Stom, early 17th century Holland) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This connection between language and our sense of space is why I found some research published last week in the journal Neuroimage so fascinating.  The study, described in the paper "Cortical Networks for Reference-Frame Processing are Shared by Language and Spatial Navigation Systems" by Nikola Vukovic and Yury Shtyrov of Aarhus University in Denmark, looks at the way our arrays of neural structures called "cortical generators" function when we are picturing ourselves finding our way through a crowded space -- and many of the same ones are activated when we interpret either written or spoken language.

Previous research had distinguished between people who are spatially egocentric and ones who are spatially allocentric -- the first primarily mapping the world based on the position of objects relative to their own bodies, the second considering positions as relative to other objects in the surroundings (and therefore independent of the observer's own position).  After performing tasks to sort test subjects into egocentric and allocentric types, Vukovic and Shtyrov had them navigate their way through a computer simulation of a twisty tunnel.  Afterwards, the subjects were asked to match pictures to sentences describing what was happening in them.  The sentences differed, however, in point of view; some were describing action as if it were outside of the test subject ("The man walks up to the door and knocks on it"); others as if the test subject was actually inside the story ("You walk up to the door and knock on it").

During both tasks, subjects were connected to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, which monitored the activity in various parts of the brain.  And interestingly, the egocentric people performed better on the tunnel test; even more interesting was that the regions of the brain active in egocentric people during the tunnel test were the same ones that were active when they were placed inside the story by the wording of the description.

"When we read or hear stories about characters, we have to represent the inherently different perspectives people have on objects and events, and ‘put ourselves in their shoes,’" Vukovic said.  "Our study is the first to show that our brain mentally simulates sentence perspective by using non-linguistic areas typically in charge of visuo-spatial thought."

Shtyrov, who co-authored the study, added, "Brain activity when solving a language task is related to an individual's egocentric or allocentric perspective, as well as their brain activity in the navigation task.  The correlation between navigation and linguistic activities proves that these phenomena are truly connected...  Furthermore, in the process of language comprehension we saw activation in well-known brain navigation systems, which were previously believed to make no contribution to speech comprehension."

As an author, I find this tremendously exciting.  Writers call the creation of their fictional settings "world-building," and this turns out to be true in a very deep way.  By writing so as to put the reader inside the story, we are engaging the same neural circuitry that allows us to navigate the real world. This explains the ability of good fiction to transport us, to feel as if we're right there in medieval France or imperial Japan or Mordor or Tatooine.  When we have this experience, it's because our brain is allowing us to create an inner world -- but one that, at least for a short time, can seem as real as the world around us.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Motivated reasoning

Last week there was a paper released in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences called, "Epistemic Rationality: Skepticism Toward Unfounded Beliefs Requires Sufficient Cognitive Ability and Motivation to be Rational."  Understandably enough, the title made me sit up and take notice, as this topic has been my bread and butter for years.  The authors, Tomas Ståhl (of the University of Illinois) and Jan-Willem van Prooijen (of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), describe their work thus:
Why does belief in the paranormal, conspiracy theories, and various other phenomena that are not backed up by evidence remain widespread in modern society?  In the present research we adopt an individual difference approach, as we seek to identify psychological precursors of skepticism toward unfounded beliefs.  We propose that part of the reason why unfounded beliefs are so widespread is because skepticism requires both sufficient analytic skills, and the motivation to form beliefs on rational grounds...  [W]e show that analytic thinking is associated with a lower inclination to believe various conspiracy theories, and paranormal phenomena, but only among individuals who strongly value epistemic rationality...  We also provide evidence suggesting that general cognitive ability, rather than analytic cognitive style, is the underlying facet of analytic thinking that is responsible for these effects.
The first bit is hardly a surprise, and is the entire raison d'être of my Critical Thinking class.  Skepticism is not only a way of looking at the world, it's a skill; and like any skill, it takes practice.  Adopting a rational approach to understanding the universe means learning some of the ways in which irrationality occurs, and figuring out how to avoid them.

The second part, though, is more interesting, but also more insidious: in order to be a skeptic, you have to be motivated toward rational thought -- and value it.

Aristotle Teaching Alexander the Great (Charles Laplante, 1866) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This explains the interaction I had with one of my AP Biology students many years ago.  Young-Earth creationists don't, by and large, take my AP class.  My background is in evolutionary genetics, so most of them steer clear, sensing that they're in hostile territory.  (I will say in my own defense that I never treat students in a hostile manner; and the few times I have had a creationist take my class, it was a positive experience, and kept me on my toes to present my arguments as cogently as possible.)

This young lady, however, stood out.  She was absolutely brilliant, acing damn near every quiz I gave.  She had a knack for understanding science that was nothing short of extraordinary.  So we went through the unit on genetics, and I presented the introduction to the unit on evolution, in which I laid out the argument supporting the theory of evolution, explaining how it fits every bit of hard evidence we've got.

That day, she asked if she could talk to me after class.  I said, "Sure," and had no guess about what she might have wanted to talk to me about.

I was absolutely flabbergasted when she said, "I just want you to know that I'm a creationist."

I must have goggled at her for a moment -- after (at that point) two decades as a teacher, I had pretty good control over my facial expressions, but not that good.  She hastily added, "I'm not saying I'm going to argue with you, or that I'm refusing to learn the material, or anything.  I just wanted you to know where I was coming from."

I said, "Okay.  That's fine, and thanks for being up front with me.  But do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?"

She said, "Not at all."

So I asked her where the argument I'd presented in class fell apart for her.  What part of the evidence or logical chain didn't work?

She said, "None of it.  It's all logical and makes perfect sense."

I must have goggled again, because she continued, "I understand your argument, and it's logically sound.  I don't disbelieve in the evidence you told us about.  But I still don't believe in evolution."

The upshot of it was that for her, belief and rationality did not intersect.  She believed what she believed, and if rational argument contradicted it, that was that.  She didn't argue, she didn't look for counterevidence; she simply dismissed it.  Done.

The research by Ståhl and van Prooijen suggests that the issue with her is that she had no motivation to apply rationality to this situation.  She certainly wasn't short of cognitive ability; she outperformed most of the students in the class (including, I might add, on the test on evolutionary theory).  But there was no motive for her to apply logic to a situation that for her, was beyond the reach of logic.  You got there by faith, or not at all.

To this day, and of all the students I've taught, this young lady remains one of the abiding puzzles.  Her ability to compartmentalize her brain that way -- I'll apply logic here, and it gives me the right answers, but not here, because it'll give me the wrong answers -- is so foreign to my way of thinking that it borders on the incomprehensible.  For me, if science, logic, and rationality work as a way of teasing out fact from falsehood, then -- they work.  You can't use the same basic principles and have them alternate between giving you true and false conclusions, unless the method itself is invalid.

Which, interestingly, is not what she was claiming.

And this is a difficulty that I have a hard time seeing any way to surmount.  Anyone can be taught some basic critical thinking skills; but if they have no motivation to apply them, or (worse) if pre-existing religious or political beliefs actually give them a motivation not to apply them, the argument is already lost.

So that's a little depressing.  Sorry.  I'm still all for teaching cognitive skills (hell, if I wasn't, I'm seriously in the wrong profession).  But what to do about motivation is a puzzle.  It once again seems to me that like my student's attitude toward faith-based belief, being motivated to use logic to understand your world is something about which you have to make a deliberate choice.

You get there because you choose to accept rational argument, or you don't get there at all.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Duplicating the crone

A pretty common belief in many different cultures is that inanimate objects can have, or can be imbued with, supernatural powers.

It's not like I haven't dealt with this topic before, here at Skeptophilia.  We've had posts about do-it-yourself voodoo dolls, a haunted wine cabinet, a cellphone that received texts from Satan, and a child's doll named "Robert" which shifts positions by itself, not to mention "giggling maniacally."

And that's just scratching the surface.  If you start asking people you'll find everything from the common and fairly innocuous belief in good luck charms (or in items that bring bad luck), all the way up to belief that there are objects that are cursed and/or inhabited by evil spirits capable of serious damage.

So far, nothing too unusual, although still examples of magical thinking that it'd be nice for the human race to jettison.  But just recently, there's been a technological twist added to all of this medieval superstition.

What if someone used a 3-D printer to make a perfect replica of a cursed object?

Of course, it opens up the question of "why would you want to?", but as we've seen over and over, asking that is not sufficient to dissuade people from doing something.

Brent Swancer, over at Mysterious Universe, tells us about some people who decided to copy a cursed object that's been nicknamed "the Crone of the Catskills."  Here's how Swancer describes the object:
[The Crone is] a strange hand-carved statue supposedly found by some hikers stashed away and abandoned, quite possibly hidden, in a dim cave somewhere in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  The doll is creepy to say the least, with a length of filthy cord wrapped around its neck and rusty nails driven into its eyes, and it seems like the sort of thing most people would cringe at and leave lying where it was, but in this case the hikers took it home with them.
According to Swancer, the unnamed hikers lived to regret bringing it back with them, as immediately bad stuff began to happen, like bumps, thuds, and bangs, a feeling of being watched, and worst of all, "odd smells such as that of stagnant water or decay."

If you're thinking "why the hell would they have brought it home?" it bears mention that I did something kind of similar a few years back.  My wife and I were hiking in the Finger Lakes National Forest not too far away from our home, and were a good ways off the beaten path, when I stepped over a log, and noticed that on the end of the log was...

... a Mardi Gras mask.

It was in perfect condition, and in fact looked like it had been placed there only moments before.  It was in October, the weather was cool, and we hadn't seen anyone else in the woods during our entire hike, so it's not like this was exactly a well-traveled part of the National Forest.  So it was pretty bizarre, to say the least.

I said, "Hey, Carol, come take a look at this."

I picked up the mask, and put it over my face.  She regarded me with a raised eyebrow and said, "You do realize that if you were a character in one of your own novels, you'd be about to die right now?"


Undaunted, I brought it home, and hung it on the wall in my office.  I did have a bit of a turn the next morning, when I walked into the room and found the mask in the middle of the floor.

Turned out the elastic loop had come loose.  So I reconnected it, and it's remained there quietly ever since.  No bumps, thuds, or bangs, and the only bad smells are when my dog decides to roll in Eau de Dead Squirrel and then comes to take a nap in my office.

Anyhow, all of this is just to say that if I'd found the Crone of the Catskills, I'd probably have taken it home, too.  The hikers who found her donated the Crone to the Traveling Museum of the Paranormal and Occult, and even afterwards it continued to do spooky stuff.  The Museum's owners, Dana Matthews and Greg Newkirk, report that after the Crone was obtained, furniture was found knocked over, there was the "smell of fetid pond water," and more than once they opened the place up in the morning to find small muddy footprints on the floor leading to and from the case the Crone occupied.

The Crone of the Catskills

So far, so good.  But the next thing that happened I have to admit I find a little baffling.  A pair of paranormal researchers, Karl Pfeiffer and Connor Randal, decided that it'd be a good idea to use a 3-D printer to make a replica of the Crone.

Havoc ensued.  The printer malfunctioned and a part of it "melted."  Other equipment broke down, or went missing entirely.  People in the room with the replica reported "a sense of dread" coming from the thing, and a "burning sensation" from touching it.

So apparently, the 3-D printer hadn't just copied the Crone's appearance, it had also copied its ghostly hanger-on.

Now, as a diehard skeptic, it's to be expected that I think this sounds a little silly.  But allow me to ask any true believers in the studio audience: how exactly could this work?

I mean, even if you accept that an object can be imbued with a "force" (whatever that means), isn't the usually accepted explanation that it's tied to the object itself?  If you made a copy of the object, you wouldn't expect a piece of the "force" to get knocked loose and attach itself to the replica.  Or at least, I wouldn't.  I didn't think that 3-D printers could make copies of ghosts, you know?

Which, honestly, is a good thing.  Just think of what would happen if you put a 3-D printer in a haunted house, and the ghosts got a hold of it and started duplicating themselves.  In short order, you'd have what paranormal researchers call "a shitload of ghosts."  It'd be a catastrophe, much like what happened in the Lost in Space episode "The Space Destructors," wherein Dr. Smith created an android who then began to create more androids, which was especially awful because the machine was programmed to make them look like Dr. Smith, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.


So it'd be unfortunate if the 3-D printer did make a copy of the evil spirit haunting the Crone of the Catskills.  That being said, if Pfeiffer and Randal have any extra copies of the Crone hanging around, I'd love to have one.  I've got a nice space on the shelf in my office where she could reside.  Also, if all she does is push furniture around and leave muddy footprints on the floor, my dog pretty much has that covered as well.

I might even see if I can make a replica of my mysterious Mardi Gras mask, and we can do a swap.  I have to warn you, though, that the mask's antics are even less impressive than the Crone's.  "Falling on the floor once in four years" is really not that much of a superpower.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Advanced elegance

I think it's a natural human tendency to be awed by what we don't understand.

I know when I see some abstruse concept that is far beyond my grasp, I'm impressed not only by how complex the universe can be, but that there are people who can comprehend it.  I first ran into this in a big way when I was in college, and took a class called Classical Mechanics.  The topic was why and how objects move, how that motion affects other objects, and so on.

It was the first time in my life I had ever collided with something that regardless of my effort, I couldn't get.  The professor, Dr. Spross, was a very patient man, but his patience was up against a classical-mechanics-proof brain.  On the first exam, I scored a 19.

Percent.

And I'm convinced that he had dredged up the 19 points from somewhere so I wouldn't end up with a single-digit score. I ended that class with a C-, which I think Dr. Spross gave me simply because he didn't want me back again the following semester, spending another four months ramming my poor physics-deficient head up against a metaphorical brick wall.

There's one memory that stands out from that experience, nearly forty years ago, besides the overwhelming frustration.  It was when Dr. Spross introduced the concept of the "Hamiltonian function," a mathematical framework for analyzing motion.  He seemed so excited about it.  It was, he said, an incredibly elegant way to consider velocity, acceleration, force, momentum, and so on.  So I thought, "Cool!  That sounds pretty interesting."

Following that cheerful thought was an hour and a half of thinking, "I have no fucking idea what any of this means."  It was completely opaque.  The worst part was that a number of my classmates were nodding their heads, writing stuff down, and seemed to get it with no problem.

So I was either the only dumb one in the class, or they were just better at hiding their dismay than I was.

Anyhow, I think that was the moment I realized a career in research physics was not in the cards for me.

To this day, the "Hamiltonian function" remains something that in my mind symbolizes the Unknowable.  I have deep and abiding admiration for people for whom that concept makes sense (first and foremost, William Rowan Hamilton, who developed it).  And I'm sure it is elegant, just as Dr. Spross said.  But experiencing that elegance was (and probably still is) entirely beyond me.

It's this tendency to find what we can't understand awe-inspiring that has led to the idea of the god of the gaps -- in which gaps in our scientific knowledge are attributed to the incomprehensible hand of the divine.  Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized what the problem with this was, at least for people who are religious:
How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge.  If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat.  We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know.
Anyhow, that was a long-winded preamble as an explanation of why all of this comes up in today's post.  I immediately thought of the awe-inspiring nature of what we don't understand when I read an article yesterday about two researchers at the University of Rochester, Tamar Friedmann and Carl Hagen, who found that a method for calculating the energy levels of a hydrogen atom generates the well-known number pi.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

It turns out to have something to do with a mathematical function called the Wallis product, which says that you can generate π/2 by a simple series of multiplications:
π/2 = (2/1) x (2/3) x (4/3) x (4/5) x (6/5) x (6/7) x (8/7) x (8/9)....
The pattern is that the numerators of the fractions are 2, 2, 4, 4, 6, 6, 8, 8... and the denominators 1, 3, 3, 5, 5, 7, 7, 9, 9...  And the cool thing is, the more terms you add, the closer you get to π/2.

Now, as for why this is so... well, I tried reading the explanation, and my eyes started spinning.  And I've taken lots of math courses, including calculus and differential equations, and like I said earlier, I majored in physics (as much of a mistake as that turned out to be).  But when I took a look at the paper about the energy levels of hydrogen and the Wallis product and gamma functions, I almost could hear Dr. Spross's voice, explaining it in a tone that implies that it would be immediately clear to a small child, or even an unusually intelligent dog.

And all of those feelings from Classical Mechanics came bubbling up to the surface.

So I'm left with being a little in awe about it all.  Somehow, even though I have no real understanding of why, the same number that I learned about in geometry class as the ratio between a circle's circumference and its diameter shows up in the energy levels of hydrogen atoms.  Predictably, I'm not inclined to attribute such correspondences to the hand of the divine, but I do think they're (in Dr. Spross's words) "elegant."  And even if I never get much beyond that, I can still appreciate the minds of the people who can.