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

The Eclipse Mystery: Pendulum Anomaly During Solar Eclipses Could Rewrite the Laws of Science


Next month, on August 21, a total solar eclipse will take place across the United States, viewable from locations sitting on a 100km wide path that will stretch from coast to coast. And while most people will take in the awe-inspiring spectacle by looking at the sky, a small group of scientists will likely spend their time watching a pendulum, seeking an anomaly that could turn physics upside down.

In 1954 French polymath Maurice Allais performed an experiment in which he release a Foucault pendulum every 14 minutes for an entire month. (A Foucault pendulum is one that, at its hinge point, is free to move in any direction. French physicist Léon Foucault used the device in 1851 to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth: because it can move in any direction, as the Earth rotates the pendulum's motion slowly shifts relative to the Earth beneath it. )

Maurice Allais' 30 day experiment happened to coincide with the 1954 solar eclipse, and he was shocked to find that during the eclipse, the pendulum's angular motion suddenly changed. There was no physical law which would suggest this effect, so Allais was baffled. Allais repeated the experiment in during another solar eclipse in 1959 to check his result, but again recorded an anomalous movement. This change in the motion of the pendulum during an eclipse came to be known as the Allais effect, or Allais anomaly. Suggestions for the cause have ranged from dark matter through to gravitational anomalies.

As with most other scientific anomalies, orthodox science has largely dismissed the Allais effect as likely being due to poor experimental set-up. Results by other experimenters have been inconclusive, with some finding positive results, others finding nothing, adding to the mainstream view that the Allais effect is bogus:

Variations of the experiment have been done with a torsion pendulum (basically a horizontal bar suspended on a wire), and some verified the result and others didn’t. In 1991 a precise torsion experiment was done, and found no effect. Because of this the common view is that the effect isn’t real, but there are still experiments that claim to confirm the Allais effect. Since the effect requires a total eclipse, you can’t do the experiment very often, and you need to have a setup portable enough to do on site. So getting good, consistent results is difficult at best.

The debate over the Allais effect still lingers. Some argue that it isn’t a real effect, some argue that it’s a real effect, but is due to external factors such atmospheric changes of temperature, pressure and humidity which can occur during a total eclipse. Others argue that it’s a real effect, and is due to “new physics.” This latter view has become popular among supporters of alternative gravity models. Allais himself claimed that the effect was the result of new physics, though never proposed a clear mechanism. As a result, the experiment has become “tainted” by fringe science to the point that mainstream scientists don’t really do the experiment any more. The 1991 result is pretty clear, and Allais’ results are likely due to experimental error.

Ironically, while many supporters believed Allais would eventually win a Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of this anomaly - with implications that could rewrite the laws of science - he actually went on to win the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics for completely unrelated work.

Sadly, in recent years internet discussion of the Allais effect seems to have been hijacked somewhat by Flat-Earth proponents (yes, they still exist), who see the anomaly as a possibly way of disputing that pesky Foucault pendulum experiment that showed the Earth was a rotating globe. But hopefully there's some good science done during the upcoming eclipse, and we see honest discussion of any anomalous results that might be recorded.

Handle: A New Boston Dynamics Robot That Has Legs with Wheels

Just when you thought you could survive the coming robot revolution by outrunning them, Boston Dynamics have released video of their latest invention, 'Handle': a 6 and a half foot tall humanoid style robot which can travel 9mph via the wheels on the end of its legs. Oh, and it can jump 4​ ​feet vertically while its motoring along too...

​It uses electric power to operate both electric and hydraulic actuators, with a range of about 15 miles on one battery charge. ​​​Handle uses many of the same dynamics, balance and mobile manipulation principles​ found in the quadruped and biped robots we build, but with only about 10 actuated joints, it is significantly less complex. Wheels are efficient on flat surfaces while legs can go almost anywhere: by combining wheels and legs Handle can have the best of both worlds.

Joking aside though, this latest robot looks to have amazing potential for simple carrying/moving/delivery jobs.

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Felines are Fine: New Research Finds No Evidence that Owning a Cat Might Make You Psychotic

Toxoplasma gondii

In recent years there has been a surge in interest in the idea that human behaviour might be sometimes manipulated by microscopic parasites, as this has been observed happening in many other species. Perhaps the most famous example is the brain parasite toxoplasma gondii, which manipulates rodents' behaviour to make them less fearful of cats. It does this because toxo only reproduces inside a cat's stomach - by making the rodents less fearful, they are more likely to be eaten and 'deliver their payload' to where it needs to be.

Some have suggested that humans too might be affected by toxo, an idea that sounded even more plausible when last year researchers found that chimpanzees with toxo seem to be less fearful of a feline predator, the leopard. Previous to that study, other research had implicated toxo as the possible cause of a range of psychological effects in humans, from delayed reaction time right through to suicidal thoughts.

But a new piece of research has now thrown doubts over that idea, with scientists finding no evidence that cat ownership contributes to mental health problems in teenagers:

Congenital or early life infection with Toxoplasma gondii has been implicated in schizophrenia aetiology. Childhood cat ownership has been hypothesized as an intermediary marker of T. gondii infection and, by proxy, as a risk factor for later psychosis. Evidence supporting this hypothesis is, however, limited.

We used birth cohort data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) to investigate whether cat ownership in pregnancy and childhood (ages 4 and 10 years) was associated with psychotic experiences (PEs) in early [13yo] and late [18yo] adolescence, rated from semi-structured interviews. We used logistic regression to examine associations between cat ownership and PEs, adjusting for several sociodemographic and socioeconomic factors, household characteristics and dog ownership.

Cat ownership during pregnancy was not associated with PEs at age 13 years or 18 years. Initial univariable evidence that cat ownership at ages 4 and 10 years was associated with PEs at age 13 years did not persist after multivariable adjustment. There was no evidence that childhood cat ownership was associated with PEs at age 18 years.

The researchers concluded that while pregnant women "should continue to avoid handling soiled cat litter, given possible T. gondii exposure", overall the study "strongly indicates that cat ownership in pregnancy or early childhood does not confer an increased risk of later adolescent PEs."

So there's one less excuse to use when your child asks you for a kitten...

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New Research Into the Mystery of Anomalous Meteor Sounds

Leonid Meteors

In our most recent Darklore release (Volume 9), I wrote about the history of the scientific anomaly/controversy known as "electrophonic meteors" (my full article, "Rocks In Your Head", is available at the Darklore website). In short, throughout history, people have reported hearing meteors at the same time as seeing them - despite this appearing to be impossible, given any sound originating from meteors should be delayed by a quite long period as they are generally many miles distant.

For a couple of centuries, respected astronomers rubbished such reports, but in recent decades the phenomenon has become more accepted, with some scientists suggesting that the sounds were caused by radio frequency emissions, possibly from the plasma of the meteor's fireball. Now, a new experiment - published in Nature, no less - has suggested that the mechanism creating the sounds is photoacoustic coupling:

The meteors of interest typically have initial speeds below 40 km/s and burn durations longer than 2 s. These optical pulse trains, if converted to sound, often have time characteristics consistent with the popping, swishing, or sizzling noises reported by observers1–3. We suggest that each pulse of light can heat the surfaces of natural dielectric transducers. The surfaces rapidly warm and conduct heat into the nearby air, generating pressure waves. A succession of light-pulse-produced pressure waves can then manifest as sound to a nearby observer.

...For fireballs, the sound pressure waves track the time history of the illumination, and the amplitude depend on the irradiance. Also important to the generation of sound are the thermal conductivity, specific heat, and density of both the dielectric solid and the air as well as the light penetration depth into the solid.

...[T]he most efficient light-to-sound transducer materials have high absorption coefficients, so the light is absorbed near the surface. They also have low thermal inertia characterized by low conductivity, which minimizes heat flow, and low volumetric heat capacity, which maximizes the temperature rise. This combination of properties is found in most dark-colored dielectric materials. Likely candidates for producing photoacoustic sound are dark paint, fine hair, leaves, grass, and dark clothing – all of which we tested.

Our test setup consisted of a 10 cm square white-light LED array producing a peak flux of E=5W/m2 on the test sample, the sample, and a scientific grade laboratory microphone. The setup was placed inside a plastic dome located in an anechoic chamber. Outside, we located a signal generator and linear amplifier to drive the LEDs and a spectrum analyzer to record the signal from the microphone.

Their testing was successful in producing sounds via photo-acoustic coupling (see their recording of the song "Greensleeves" being transmitted in this way), leading the researchers to conclude that their "calculations and experiments are consistent with how observers have described the concurrent sounds
associated with fireballs".

Paper: Photoacoustic Sounds from Meteors

Further reading: Rocks In Your Head - The Strange History of a Scientific Anomaly

Mark Your Calendars For The 2022 Nova!

Think you know the night sky like the back of your hand? Around the year 2022 some astronomers are pretty certain a new star will join the firmament after two stars collide near the constellation of Cygnus.

A new paper submitted to The Astrophysical Journal concerns KIC 9832227, a contact binary, and how it will brighten ten thousandfold sometime in the near future. What's happening is this pair of stars are spiralling in towards each other, becoming so close that they now share the same stellar atmosphere. Lawrence Molnar and his colleagues reckon we'll witness this spectacular collision, and subsequent nova, within our lifetimes.

Right now KIC 9832227 is a magnitude 12 star, too faint for the naked eye, in the neighborhood of Delta Cygni. Even with perfect stargazing conditions, an observer will need at least an 8 inch / 203 mm telescope to catch its light. When KIC 9832227 finally explodes it will be as bright as Polaris, or Alpha Hydrae for our Australian friends, burning at second magnitude. While that brightness is hardly remarkable, unlike the immanent Eta Carinae supernova, keep in mind this pair is ~1,800 light years from us. KIC 9832227's aftermath as a luminous red nova will glow in our skies for only a few weeks, or months, before fading away. Best of all, it will be visible from both hemispheres.

For more details, check out the preprint for the Prediction of a Red Nova Outburst in KIC 9832227.

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EdgeScience #28

Issue 28 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 28

  • "The Paranormal Future is Now", by Darryl V. Caterine
  • "Columbus-Come-Lately: An Overview and Update of the Ancient-Transoceanic-Contacts Controversy", by Stephen C. Jett
  • "The Scientific Zig-Zag: On the Value of "Crazy" Ideas", by S. D. Tucker
  • "Unequivocal Spontaneous Psi", by By Douglas M. Stokes

Grab the free PDF of EdgeScience 28 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.

Dinosaur's Feathery Tail Found Preserved In Amber

Dinosaur tail feathers amber

Come on, let me see you shake your tail feather. Announcing their discovery in the journal Current Biology, scientists found a 99-million-year-old dinosaur tail covered in fine feathers, including bones and soft tissue, perfectly preserved in amber. While individual feathers have been found in amber, and other evidence captured in fossil impressions, this is the first time scientists have been able to study feathers still attached to a dinosaur.

We're extremely lucky palaeontologist Dr Lida Xing was searching an amber market in Myanmar last year, near the Chinese border, where he spotted the relic. The tail fragment is believed to be from a young sparrow-sized dinosaur that lived in the Cretaceous period.

More info and photos at National Geographic. And I managed to go the entire post without referencing Jurassic Park!

dinosaur tail feathers amber

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, "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, "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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