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

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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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


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

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...

Your DNA is the Size of the Solar System

DNA Coding

When it comes to humility, science can dish it out with a big spoon: we've often heard of the inconsequential nature of human beings compared to the size of the cosmos (and in fiction, Douglas Adams riffed on this idea in coming up with the Total Perspective Vortex in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).

While there's plenty of criticism that could be directed at this idea - that physical size is the be-all and end-all of importance (vs intelligence, imagination, purpose etc) - an interesting aside is the fact that, while our bodies seem like specks of dust, they contain systems that are cosmic in size.

One such example is human DNA: our body contains approximately five trillion cells, with 'long' strands of DNA immaculately folded into the tiny space within the cell walls. If you were to take all the DNA in just one person, straighten it out and put it end to end, it could stretch from the Sun to beyond the heliosphere (which some use as the demarcation of the 'edge' of our Solar System). Or to put it another way, the DNA molecules in your body could be stretched out to cover the distance from the Earth to Jupiter and back, ten times over.

But perhaps an even more amazing aspect is the way in which this massive length of DNA molecules is compacted within our tiny cells - it needs to be folded via biological origami in specific ways, so that our genes can work together in different ways.

If you have a gene it is often controlled - like, turned on or off - by another piece of DNA, that can be located very, very far apart from this gene. The chromosome is folded in such a way that the switch which turns the gene on or off is actually touching the gene. So all the DNA in between is looped.

These amazing aspects of DNA are discussed in the fascinating science short below, presented by the esteemed science writer Carl Zimmer:

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I CAN HAZ ACCENT? Cats Might Have Dialects

Maybe it's the Toxoplasmosis gondii talking, but humans love cats. The feeling is mutual since, according to Carlos Driscoll of the University of Oxford, cats domesticated themselves 12,000 years ago in hopes of mooching off unsuspecting Homo sapiens. [1] Charmed by their inscrutible personalities, we talk back to our feline companions by imitating their vocalisations. Arabs greet kitties with "mawa", the Japanese famously intone "nyan", French and Germans say "miaou" and "miau" respectively. Are these different onomatopoeias representative of human dialects, or are cats of faraway lands influenced by their humans's language?

Cat language is not such a silly prospect to consider. Last year scientists claimed a group of chimpanzees altered their vocalizations after being moved from a Dutch safari park to the Edinburgh Zoo, suggesting they have accents. [2] Less contentious are the accents of whales, evinced by a study published in the Royal Society Open Science illustrating how whalesong differs between populations of these magnificent beasts. [3] So why not cats?

Susanne Schötz from Lund University in Sweden is spearheading this maverick study. She told Josh Hrala at Science Alert, "We know that cats vary the melody of their sounds extensively, but we do not know how to interpret this variation. We will record vocalisations of about 30 to 50 cats in different situations - e.g. when they want access to desired locations, when they are content, friendly, happy, hungry, annoyed or even angry - and try to identify any differences in their phonetic patterns. We want to find out to what extent domestic cats are influenced by the language and dialect that humans use to speak to them, because it seems that cats use slightly different dialects in the sounds they produce".

It's going to be a long five years 'til the results are published.

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  1. Why Do Cats Hang Around Us? (Hint: They Can't Open Cans)
  2. Debate over chimpanzee 'accent' study -
  3. Individual, unit and vocal clan level identity cues in sperm whale codas -