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Rocks in Your Head

Leonid Meteor Storm 1833

This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 9, which is available for sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK. Darklore 9 features essays from Alan Moore, Mike Jay, Robert Schoch and others, on topics ranging from hidden history to the occult.

(Printable typeset PDF available here)

On the 15th of February, 2013, a meteor tore through the sky above the southern Ural region of Russia at a speed of roughly 40,000 miles per hour. As it descended to an altitude of about 15 miles above the city of Chelyabinsk, the massive air pressure being exerted on the 7000 ton object caused a spectacular air-burst – since estimated as the equivalent of a 500 kiloton explosion – that blew in doors and shattered windows in the city below.

We all believe that this incident occurred as described – not so much on the basis of 'hearsay' testimony from witnesses, but instead mainly because of the high number of Russian vehicles that now carry dash-cams. Unlike the Tunguska blast of a century previous – which remains an event shrouded in mystery – the Chelyabinsk fireball was filmed from multiple angles for much of its short but violent life, from its initial appearance to the later shockwave which threw amateur videographers to the ground in fear. What’s more, we also happily believe that a rock from space caused the incident, because through science we have come to understand and accept the fact that rocks from space, of various sizes and shapes, regularly bombard our planet.

It therefore comes almost as a shock to find out that the cosmic origin of meteors has only been an accepted fact in Western science for barely two centuries. Indeed, when Yale chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman proposed an extraterrestrial source for a meteor that exploded over the town of Weston in 1807, Thomas Jefferson is famously claimed to have retorted “I would more easily believe that [a] Yankee professor would lie than that stones would fall from heaven.” As it turns out, the exact quote may be apocryphal – an embellishment by Silliman’s son. But there is little doubt that, at that time, Jefferson was skeptical about the provenance of the Weston meteorite, writing that…

…a thousand phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain, but where facts are suggested, bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet known to us, their verity needs proofs proportioned to their difficulty. A cautious mind will weigh well the opposition of the phenomenon to everything hitherto observed, the strength of the testimony by which it is supported, and the errors and misconceptions to which even our senses are liable.

At the time, while sightings of fireballs streaking across the sky were common enough that they were accepted by science as occurring, they were believed to be a still-mysterious atmospheric phenomenon similar to lightning, unconnected to tales of rocks falling from the sky (indeed, the word meteor comes from the Greek word for ‘atmosphere’, hence the naming of the profession of ‘meteorologist’). One account attributed their appearance to “the fermentation of acid and alkaline bodies which float in the atmosphere…when the more subtle part of the effluvia are burnt away, the viscous and earthy parts become too heavy to be supported by the air, and then they fall.” Another theory suggested that meteors were “a collection of nitro-sulphureous and fiery vapors, into a sort of a rolling globe, or whirlwind of fire.”

Jefferson’s own leaning toward the ‘atmospheric’ assumption about meteors – and his skepticism that rocks could fall from the sky – is evident in a question he posed concerning the Weston meteorite: “is it easier to explain how it got into the clouds from whence it is supposed to have fallen?”

Jefferson’s view, however, would soon be a relic of the past. Just thirteen years before the Weston meteorite fall the ... Read More »

Ending the World, For Science! Should We Start Regulating 'Ultra-Hazardous' Research That Has the Potential to Destroy Us?

It's the End of the World (and I feel fine)

On July 16, 1945, some of the greatest minds on Earth gathered together in the New Mexico desert to watch the first test of a nuclear weapon. As the tension mounted prior to the 5.30am detonation, physicist Enrico Fermi joked with other scientists present - including Richard Feynman and Robert Oppenheimer - by saying "Let's make a bet whether the atmosphere will be set on fire by this test".

Fermi's joke was underpinned by a serious query, made during the first months of the Manhattan Project by Edward Teller: In exploding a nuclear fission weapon, was there a chance that the temperature of the blast could fuse together nuclei of light elements in the atmosphere, releasing further huge amounts of atomic energy (the reaction which would be used in later, larger nuclear weapons)? If so, a run-away chain reaction might occur, through which the entire atmosphere of planet Earth could be engulfed in a nuclear fusion explosion.

The proposition was taken seriously, even though subsequent calculations would show that the chain reaction was an 'impossibility'. It is said that was also one of the reasons the Nazis baulked at building their own nuclear weapon, also in 1942. According to Albert Speer:

Professor Heisenberg had not given any final answer to my question whether a successful nuclear fission could be kept under control with absolute certainty, or might continue as a chain reaction. Hitler was plainly not delighted with the possibility that the Earth under his rule might be transformed into a glowing star.

Hitler did see the macabre, surreal humour of needing to even pose the question though, sometimes joking that "the scientists in their worldly urge to lay bare all secrets under heaven might some day set the globe on fire".

The Nazi leader's off-hand joke glosses over an extraordinary insight: 1942 marks an important time in the history of humanity, a turning point - a moment when our quest for knowledge reached a point where we wondered whether we now had the god-like ability to destroy the entire Earth.

In the intervening three quarters of a century, the further advancement of science has provided more fears of humanity creating its own apocalypse: the advent of genetically engineered 'superbug' bioweapons; the 'grey goo' scenario of runaway molecular nano-machines consuming everything on Earth; the suggestion that particle colliders might destroy the Earth via the creation of black holes or strange matter; the advent of a malevolent, super-intelligent Artificial Intelligence (the 'Skynet' scenario).

And as time goes on, these scenarios will not only further proliferate, but the technology required to achieve them will move closer to 'off-the-shelf' rather than being rare and expensive. So is it time that research into some of these areas was carefully monitored and regulated?

These concerns are at the heart of a new paper posted at arXiv.org, "Agencies and Science Experiment Risk", authored by Associate Professor of Law Eric E. Johnson:

There is a curious absence of legal constraints on U.S. government agencies undertaking potentially risky scientific research. Some of these activities may present a risk of killing millions or even destroying the planet. Current law leaves it to agencies to decide for themselves whether their activities fall within the bounds of acceptable risk. This Article explores to what extent and under what circumstances
the law ought to allow private actions against such nonregulatory agency endeavors. Engaging with this issue is not only interesting in its own right, it allows us to test fundamental concepts of agency competence and the role of the courts.

Johnson notes that the Acts which govern much of this research were written in the 1940s, and thus "never comprehended today’s exotic agency hazards". Furthermore, he says, this legal gap "might be less troubling if it were not for insights from behavioral economics, neoclassical economics, cognitive psychology, and the risk-management literature, all of which indicate that agency scientists are prone to misjudging how risky their activities really are."

Johnson is astounded that, given "the exotic agency-science risks discussed here constitute a truly elite set of menaces", it is "all the more remarkable that our legal structure refrains from engaging with them."

As examples for discussion, he concentrates on two scenarios: particle colliders creating strange matter, and a plutonium-fueled spacecraft crashing into the Earth. Both of these have already had real-world public concerns about the possible dangers - the 1999 concerns over 'strangelets' being created at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC); the latter with the 'Stop Cassini' protest in the lead-up to that probe's 1997 launch. Johnson digs into the debates that occurred regarding the risks of both of these scenarios, and shows quite clearly that self-evaluation by the agencies involved can not be trusted: "when it comes to low probability/high-harm scenarios occasioned by an agency’s own conduct, that agency is unlikely to adequately safeguard the public interest."

For instance, NASA calculated the possible deaths resulting from a Cassini fly-by crash at 5000, while other notable scientists estimated numbers from 200,000 to 40 million. And Sir Martin Rees criticised a paper dismissing the risks of strangelets by saying the theorists “seemed to have aimed to reassure the public . . . rather than to make an objective analysis.”

In summary, Johnson notes:

These sorts of ultrahazardous-risk issues are unlikely to go away on their own. To the contrary, we should expect them to proliferate... Thus, a refusal of the law to deal with agency-created risk becomes
increasingly undesirable.

What other end-of-world scenarios should we be looking out for? And what are your thoughts on regulating these areas more carefully?

(h/t Norman)

Is Ball Lightning a Portal to Another Universe?

Ball Lightning

Ball lightning is weird. Not just in the capricious way it appears unexpectedly, and thus largely remains a mysterious phenomenon, but also in other strange aspects of its behaviour. For example:

  • It can move independently of the atmosphere, such as gliding externally to an airplane traveling at many hundreds of kilometres an hour without being affected by the high level of air movement.
  • It can move through windows and walls unimpeded.
  • It sometimes causes no damage, and other times great damage.
  • There appears to be little or no correlation between its appearance (size, colour, luminosity) and the energy it emits.

Most of the current theories about ball lightning struggle to explain at least some of the points above. So now Peter Sturrock, emeritus professor of applied physics at Stanford University, has suggested what seems to be a fairly off-the-wall idea: that ball lightning is just a portal to another 'space', through which the energy flows - like the power point in your house is not the source of energy, but just a port for energy from elsewhere.

In a paper on arXiv.org, "A Conjecture Concerning Ball Lightning", Sturrock - one of the founders of the Society for Scientific Exploration - explains his thoughts:

(a) Since there is no known way for the required energy to be stored in the ball lightning, there must be a reservoir of energy remote from the ball lightning (presumably related to the electrical energy responsible for lightning).
(b) Since the reservoir is remote from the ball lightning, there must be some way to transfer energy from the reservoir to the ball lightning. We therefore conceive of a duct that connects the reservoir to the ball lightning.
(c) A ball lightning may now be regarded as a port through which energy in the duct can be released into the atmosphere.

These points, Sturrock says, "suggest the following hypothesis: A ball lightning is a port connecting our overt space to a covert space with with similar but not identical properties."

Seems a fairly out there idea - but even if you don't agree with it, it's still a worthwhile read simply for some of the weird ball lightning accounts it discusses.

Paper: "A Conjecture Concerning Ball Lightning"

(h/t Norman)

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New Study Finds That Major Earthquakes Are Likely Caused by Lunar Forces

Moon rising over Glastonbury Tor

No the Moon and planetary bodies are not able to influence human behaviour, so shut up astrologists and full-moon fever theorists. They can only exert tiny forces, and thus can only be blamed for causing little things such as major earthquakes...

An almost-full, half-pie, waxing moon hanging lopsided in the night sky has long been a symbol of things to come. Now scientists have a new symbolism for the lunar phase we call first quarter: a looming risk of earthquakes.

...Studying data from the past two decades, Satoshi Ide and colleagues from the University of Tokyo measured the timing of high tides and reconstructed the amplitude of the moon’s pull at those times, focusing on the two weeks prior to large earthquakes. They measured the amplitude of the tides against the timing of those quakes, and found some of the largest and most devastating earthquakes in recent memory happened when the Earth’s crust was under the highest tidal stress.

...The mechanisms underlying this connection are not clear, however. The moon’s pull causes tidal disruptions that are orders of magnitude lower than those experienced in an earthquake. And not every change in tide comes with an attendant earthquake. Part of the problem is that scientists still don’t know exactly what causes a major earthquake. But one theory holds that they begin as smaller fractures that build up via a cascading process.

Link: More Evidence that the Moon Contributes to Earthquakes

Fear and Loathing In Russia: Artificial Intelligences Made To Feel Emotions

Image

If you're afraid of artificial intelligences, like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, the tables are about to get turned. Researchers at Kazan Federal University made an artificial rat brain feel fear and disgust, and they're hoping to model more emotions soon.

An interdisciplinary team led by Maxim Talanov are modelling emotional states in a simulated rat brain using Lővheim's cube of emotion. Along the three axes of the cube of emotion are the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline with eight emotions at its corners. According to this theory emotions arise as neurotransmitters fluctuate; for example high levels of dopamine but low serotonin and noradrenaline cause fear.

In the case of Talanov's artificial rat brain, emotions are simulated by redistributing computer power between data storage processes and decision-making. So far the easiest emotions to provoke have been disgust and fear. Talanov and his team are certain other emotions, like joy and excitement, will be simulated in 2-3 years.

Which raises some ethical issues about the status of artificial intelligences. If an A.I. feels the whole spectrum of human emotions, should we consider it conscious and afford the entity the same rights as us? Would a smartcar be considered culpable for murder because it felt road rage, its lawyer arguing "It was programmed that way" or hacked with a 'rage' virus?

Talanov acknowledges there's much more to be done since there's not enough computing power available to model the human brain. "This simluation is about a thousand times smaller than the real work of the cerebral cortex, and the brain only needs 20 watts of power to do its job" he told Nikita Statsenko of Rusbase.ru.

Maybe next time you hear someone peddling the horrors of A.I., take heart that they're probably just as afraid of you as you are of them.

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Why Does Our Universe Seem to be Fine-Tuned for the Existence of Life?


A continuing bone of contention in modern physics is the strange manner in which our universe seems perfectly tuned to give rise to life. For some, it is evidence that our existence is no accident, while more skeptical thinkers have suggested that the thinking is back to front - and we only see things as perfectly tuned because life was what arose under the conditions of our universe.

The video above is from a recent discussion hosted by the Institute of Art and Ideas titled "A Goldilocks World", featuring philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, M-Theorist and author of Universe or Multiverse? Bernard Carr, and Oxford constructor theorist Chiara Marletto:

Is the universe finely tuned for life? Copernicus and Darwin taught us to be skeptical of feeling we were special. Yet from the size of the electron to the cosmological constant our universe is strangely fine-tuned for life. Is this a spectacularly fortuitous accident? Has the universe been tailored for us or do the theories just make it look that way?

New Theory Attempts to Explain Ball Lightning Anomaly

Ball Lightning

The phenomenon of ball lightning remains largely a mystery to modern science, although it has at least largely become an accepted, if little understood phenomenon. One of the anomalies of ball lightning that have kept it on the outer margins of scientific respectability has been the seeming 'impossibility' of its manifestation and movement - sometimes apparently appearing within buildings and aircraft, or passing through closed windows.

A new theory from Chinese scientist H.-C. Wu, of Zhejiang University, may hold a possible answer to this strange behaviour. Wu has proposed that ball lightning might be 'microwave bubbles' formed from radiation emitted by storms, and this could explain their ability to appear or move within enclosed spaces:

Wu theorizes the microwaves arise from a bunch of electrons accelerated to speeds approaching the speed of light when the Earth is struck by lightning. Specifically, the electrons are accelerated by the strong electric field created as a channel of electrons moves stepwise from the base of a cloud toward the ground, just prior to the bright flash we know as a lightning bolt. “At the tip of a lightning stroke reaching the ground,” Wu says, “a relativistic electron bunch can be produced, which in turn excites intense microwave radiation.”

Regardless of their source, the atmospheric microwaves produce plasma by charging up the surrounding air. The radiation exerts sufficient pressure to push the plasma outward into a bubble, which we see as ball lightning. Microwaves trapped inside continue to generate plasma and so maintain the bubble for its brief lifetime. The ball lightning eventually fades as the radiation held within the bubble is dissipated. On the offhand chance the bubble is ruptured, microwaves can leak out and cause the ball to come to an explosive end.

The presence of microwaves and plasma as components of ball lightning can explain several of its properties. For example, microwaves can pass through panes of glass, which is why windows don’t bar the entrance of ball lightning. Microwaves also tend to make an audible noise when they encounter a person’s inner ear, and the plasma they produce will in turn generate acrid-smelling ozone from atmospheric oxygen.

What sets Wu’s microwave origin theory apart is that it explains how ball lightning can appear inside an aircraft. Electrons, being tiny relative to atoms, are able to pass through the metal shell of an aircraft after being accelerated outside of it via a lightning strike. Microwaves are then emitted by the suped-up electrons inside where they form ball lightning. The electron-microwave-plasma pathway also explains the size of ball lightning, since the length of the electron bunch sped up by a lightning strike matches up with the typical 20-50 centimeter diameter of the resulting microwave bubble.

Link: A New Explanation for One of the Strangest Occurrences in Nature: Ball Lightning

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EdgeScience #26

Issue 26 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available to download from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). In the new issue:EdgeScience 26

  • "Hypnosis, Trance, and Human Evolution", by Adam Crabtree.
  • "The Deep Mystery of the Prime Number", by Owen O'Shea.
  • "The Temporal Architecture of Life: A Survey of Environmental Dynamics in Human Health", by Kenneth Smith.

Grab the free PDF of EdgeScience 26 from the SSE website, or purchase a printed copy from MagCloud for just $4.95. Please consider a small donation to help the EdgeScience team continue with this excellent publication, via the link on the right-side of the webpage. And join the SSE if you want to keep up with the latest academic research into the 'edgier' areas of science.

Modern Magic: Using Acoustic Waves to Levitate Objects

Legends abound of ancient people building their monumental megalithic structures by levitating the massive blocks into place. While such ideas don't seem to have any real evidence to back them up, modern science has figured out one way to pull off this levitation 'magic': by using acoustic waves. Though, rather than 200 ton stones, researchers are using - rather disappointingly - styrofoam balls and water droplets.

Nevertheless, it's a cool effect, and the science behind it is fascinating to boot. Destin Sandlin of the excellent Smarter Every Day YouTube channel walks us through it all in the embedded video above.

(h/t Kat)

Atlas Robot Thoughts

When we recently saw that amazing video of Boston Dynamics' new Atlas robot being tested to the max, most of us felt empathy for them being 'bullied'. For those that were wondering what the Atlas was actually thinking during testing, the above video may clear things up...