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

Idle Tentacles Are The Devilfish's Playthings


Living in a fishbowl isn't all it's cracked up to be. Three squares a day, moody lighting, and a never-ending parade of ugly-but-clever apes tapping on the glass. But life gets dull. There are only so many hiding spots, the gravel is only so deep, and that plastic diver isn't getting any more attractive.

Combining their mad Houdini skills with unearthly intelligence, octopodes are notorious for causing mischief. Many FOAFtales litter the internet of nightly jaunts to snack on neighbors. They use tools, care for their young, and show empathy. Take this passage from Sy Montgomery's delightful The Soul of an Octopus. Anna, a volunteer with Asperger's Syndrome at the New England Aquarium, is having a hard time coping after her best friend's suicide, and the staff encourages her to play with a wild-caught octopus named Octavia.

She was working that Wednesday in Cold Marine when Dave suggested she might want to play with Octavia. "At that point," Anna wrote me, "I had already taken her out more times than I could count, and I felt like I knew her pretty well. I think she sensed something was wrong. She was a lot gentler than she usually was, and she had her tentacles on my shoulders. It's hard to explain why I think she understood... After interacting with an animal lots of times, you get to understand what the usual behavior is and what it does in different situations.

Observations and anecdotes like these suggest there's something more going on than mere instinct and conditioning. Patrick Lee at The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco respects their intelligence, knowing happy critters mean happy visitors. He illustrates his maverick approach to engaging the strange in the video below.

So, maybe, the next time you're out for sushi, give the takoyaki a pass. There's a chance octopodes might return the favor when human sashimi is on the menu.

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Parallel Possibilities: Are We Remembering Other Universes?


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Quantum suicide is one of the most horrifying thought experiments proposed by Hans Moravec. To be brief, rig up a gun to a device measuring the spin value of a proton every ten seconds. The spin value randomly creates a quantum bit as 1 or 0. When the trigger's pulled and the quantum bit comes up 1, the gun fires, killing the subject. Zero? The subject survives, and will survive subsequent attempts should Hugh Everett's many-worlds interpretation prove correct. It's a riff on Schrödinger's cat, where kitty is in a superposition of being alive and dead at the same time.

But who wants to risk their lives despite the prospect of quantum immortality? Isn't there a safer way to test this?

Enter Daniel Filan and Joseph Hope, two of the Australian National University's brightest, addressing the question, "What would it have looked like if it looked like I were in a superposition?" Their theory has nothing to do with conspiracy theories, disinformation, nor dodgy memories but remembering events from parallel universes, harkening to Fiona Broome's Mandela Effect.

In case you've been living under a rock, the most popular example of this theory is the Berenstain Bears controversy. Rap duo Run The Jewels, and many others, insist the children's book series was originally spelled "Berenstein".

Filian and Hope discover it's impossible to find definitive proof, but their paper describes how to detect if a person was in a state of superposition. It's a non-lethal take on quantum suicide. The experimenter enters a machine with pen and paper to record the state of an electron as "yes" or "no". After noting their observation, they exit the machine, leaving the data on a table. After, say, 100 tries, the data is reviewed. Should the compiled results be roughly 50/50, then the person wasn't in superposition. If all the results are the same, the experimenter was in superposition.

"We also note that this test relies crucially on both the 'memory loss' experienced by the experimenter, and the knowledge of the phase of the initial superposition. The full quantum state of the experimenter, including their memories, is being generated by the machine. This means that it is possible for them to have any memories at all, but we have shown that they must be identical across multiple branches of the superposition, and therefore cannot be correlated with the actual relevant measurement results."

What if these memories only appear identical, and the differences are so insignificant where realities are indistinguishable from another? For example, the differences between a pair of realities might be an atom resonating at a lower energy than its parallel doppelgänger. Over these iterations, based upon the experimenter's measurements, a universe with a significant difference like Berenstain/Berenstein could crop up and conflict with "reality".

The possibilities are endless, like our infinite universes.

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(h/t Norman R.)

UPDATED: Pluto is Alive... With Blue Skies & Red Ice!


Pluto Blue Skies New Horizons NASA

The new New Horizons images are out and they reveal Pluto has blue skies and red water ice! The blue is caused by a mysterious mix of particles scattering blue light when sun light reaches them, and the layers of haze extend to 100 miles above Pluto's surface. And on the surface? Red-coloured water ice. This might not be exciting to some, but it raises very big questions in the search for Earth-like planets. Pluto was expected to be as barren as our own moon, but everything New Horizons has beamed back to Earth has blown the minds of the NASA scientists studying the data. Dr Stern and his colleagues have every right to hype this up, 2015 is absolutely a year for the science text books. And the quality of the images... this was the stuff of dreams when I was a kid. Just look at that!

Pluto planet solar system extraterrestrial NASA

This world is alive. It has weather, it has hazes in the atmosphere, active geology. Every week I am floored. Nasa won’t let me tell you what we’re going to tell you on Thursday. It’s amazing.

This is what Dr Alan Stern, one of NASA's lead researchers, told a packed lecture hall at the University of Alberta in Canada on Monday. Pluto, once a planet and then demoted to an insignificant dwarf rock at the edge of our Solar System, is proving to be as interesting as Mars. Only 10 percent of the data captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has been downloaded, so what has NASA seen that has Dr Stern giddy as a schoolboy?

We'll find out today, when NASA releases new images and data from the New Horizons spacecraft. Or will the news be about Pluto's moon, Charon? After the huge announcement of flowing salt water on Mars, what could have NASA even more excited about a little planet & its moon at the edge of our solar system? Will Matt Damon gear up for The Plutonian?

Read more at The Guardian.

Beautiful image of Pluto & Charon below from NASA's New Horizons page.

Pluto Charon New Horizons NASA

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The Secrets of Cetacean Communication Revealed

"They like you, but they're not the hell your whales"

In 1966 military sound engineer Frank Watlington heard something weird while recording underwater explosions.

Whale song.

Frank passed the recordings off to biologist Roger Payne. After a few listenings, he discovered these weren't random sounds but complex vocalizations by creatures possibly as smart as humans. Recordings weren't the only data Payne shared with the world, He printed out sonograms of whale song, illustrating their structure as units, phrases, and themes.

Ever since Payne's discovery of whale song's properties, humans fascination with whales has flourished. If it wasn't for his discovery, these great beasts could've become a fond memory, hunted to extinction. Fortunately whales still swim among us, singing to each other, tantalizing us with the prospect of interspecies communication.

Eerily, the sonograms resembled the sheet music for Gregorian chants. These neumes evolved into today's musical notes. Now David Rothenberg and Mike Deal have standardized whale song notation for human consumption.

Sonograms and whale song musical notes.

The top row contains individual examples of each unit. The colored glyphs below were created by tracing the “averaged” shapes that resulted from overlaying the many occurrences of the same unit across Knapp’s recording.
Because standard musical notation is, in essence, made of timelines of note symbols plotted against a vertical axis of pitch frequencies, we can match the whale sounds to their corresponding frequencies on the musical staves. Hopefully this gives the whale sound shapes a more familiar context.

This isn't humanity's first attempt to put whale song into an anthropomorphic context. Marc Fischer uses wavelets, a mathematical function used in signal processing, to visualize sound. Over at Aguasonic Acoustics, he's imaged whale and dolphin song into gorgeous mandalas like the one below. Best thing about them, they still show "rhymes" and the units of speech that excited Payne.

Humpback song mandala

Going a step further into the fringe, look at the soundwaves in the blue whale song video. If you squint, you can make out a face in parts of the sonogram. This might be a clue to the method of communication between whales. Whales use sound not only to communicate, but also to hunt and navigate with active sonar. Sonar is the use of sound waves and listening for the echo to "see" the world. Sonar's pretty sensitive, as dolphins can differentiate fish with their clicks and whistles.

But what if these vocalizations aren't language as we know it, but images or sonic holograms.

Each moan, groan, click, and whistle, adjusted for pitch, rhythm and tempo, could generate an image or animation. Instead of saying "A pod of orca killed ol' Humphrey", the witnesses would create the scene in a song. As the song propagates through pods, variation does occur.This might be evidence of whales collaborating, embellishing, or entropy akin to a game of Telephone. That's a huge leap of logic, but how could one test the hypothesis of whale song as an image?

Putting whale song back into a human context, consider each unit of whale song as a pixel. With enough pixels, an image will form, but only if one knows the correct pattern for the raster. Take the Arecibo message as an example. It's 73 rows by 23 columns, making up 1679 pixels. If earthlings didn't give those dimensions to aliens, they might screw up the image as below.

23 by 73, not 73 by 23, Zorlak!

In this case, the correct dimensions are just transposed rendering the message as gibberish. If audio engineers play with the whale song, tuning it to whale-specific frequencies, an image might emerge. In short, humans need to think like a whale rather than a human brain in a whale's body. If we are able to communicate with cetaceans, this'd be a huge step for SETI should we ever intercept their communications.

All that Water on Mars is Off Limits

With the discovery of flowing water on the surface of Mars, it's fair to say it's been quite a week for Science and astronomers all over the world --particularly so for armchair researcher Efrain Palermo with this vindication of his 14-year-old findings, as I reported last Tuesday.

"Great!" all those space enthusiasts may be thinking; "now NASA will know where *exactly* to send future drone missions to look for signs of life on Mars."

Well, here's the thing: Legally they can't.

NASA, as a government agency, is bound to obey the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which is part of the international agreements intended to govern the conduct of member nations of the United States with regards to activities and/or exploitation of outer space, the Moon and other celestial bodies.

The Outer Space Treaty was opened for signature in the United States, the United Kingdom and the former Soviet Union on January of 1967 --while the Space Race was in full swing, and there was a serious concern that the Cold War could extend beyond the surface of our planet-- and entered into force on October of 1967. As of 2013, 103 countries are parties of it.

The treaty (which you can download here) binds all signature parties to conduct space exploration solely for peaceful scientific purposes; it forbids the national appropriation of the Moon or other planets (asteroids included) or the placing of either weapons or military bases in any of them, nor on orbit around the Earth.

Article IX states:

[...]State Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination [emphasis mine] and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.

Ever wondered why Curiosity and the rest of its rover siblings always seemed to be sent to the most BORING parts of Mars, where there was little chance they could actually find a living Martian microbe? Well, now you know why.

As Bec Crew explains on his article for Science Alert, NASA's current sterelization methods for the equipment they send out to outer space or other planets are not 100% reliable, hence there's still a tiny risk of contaminating the surface of these other worlds with alien life --i.e. Earthling microbes.

Not that NASA couldn't sterilise the crap out of its rovers if it wanted to. As UNSW astrobiologist Malcolm Walter told The Sydney Morning Herald, they could blast Curiosity with crazy amounts of heat and radiation that would wipe out anything and everything that managed to survive the journey from Earth without a shadow of a doubt, but then they'd be wiping out the rover's internal electronics in the process. Not exactly practical.

"In order to be completely sterile, they'd have to use really powerful ionising radiation or heat, both of which would damage the electronics," says Walter. "So they go as far as they dare."

The treaty sure throws a bucket of cold, briny water not only to our hopes of finally finding extraterrestrial life within our lifetime, but also on the possibility of fulfilling a manned mission to Mars. Deposits of H2O on the world you want to visit is a great asset, because it means you can use the water not only for consumption, but also to extract breathable oxygen and event convert it into rocket fuel, which you could use for the trip back home.

Oh, and that awesome trip to Europa concocted by real-life Tony Stark? Fuhgeddaboutit! Unless he becomes a citizen of Guatemala, or other non-party state of the Outer Space Treaty --although with his dough he could probably buy one of those in the future...

Of course, back in 1967 there were a lot of things we didn't know about the resilience of extremophiles, which are now been found to resist the harshest environments imaginable, like the core of nuclear reactors or even on the windows of the space station (apparently); which is why Akshat Rathi of Quartz concludes there's no guarantee NASA's or other space agency's missions hadn't already contaminated Mars forever --Beagle 2 anyone?

Should we worry that much, though? We know Earth and Mars have been exchanging meteorites for millions of years, so sending up more microbes hitching a ride on our equipment or astronatus could be seen as a continuation of a natural panspermic process.

We could always revise the treaty, making it more lenient with regards to the 'harmful contamination' of the Moon and othe celestial bodies, or maybe even abolish it entirely due to its impracticality --after all, seems to me the Air Force has been bending the rules somewhat with that secretive X-37B space plane which can orbit the Earth for months doing god-knows-what!

But of course, if the treaty goes, so too the assurance that we won't have nuclear warheads zipping over our heads like an orbital Damocles sword...

But hey, if everything fails to prevent the safe and unpolluting exploration of outer space, just remember: There's always remote viewing.

Water on Mars: Score One for Amateur Research

Unless you were captured by the Mole people and just recently released --I heard Molemaids are hot, bro!-- you've probably read the news from NASA announcing the discovery of liquid water on the south pole of Mars; something which *exponentially* increases our chances of finding extraterrestrial life on our sibling planet in the near future.

Director Ridley Scott, who is about to release his newest film 'The Martian', claims he knew about the flowing water on Mars "about two months ago", when the head of NASA showed him the photographs that were released yesterday to the rest of the world.

But there was someone who knew the dark stains streaking across the Martian landscape was evidence of liquid water more than 14 years ago. That person was amateur astronomer Efrain Palermo.

Efrain, who resides in Portland, is what NASA scientists would call an 'armchair researcher.' He holds no degrees in Physics, Astronomy or Geology; but nonetheless has a passion for Science and Space. And like many other civilians, he likes to go through the thousands of publicly-released images taken by NASA's probes orbiting the Red Planet for almost 2 decades.

It was in one of those archival images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor --which has been charting the planet's surface since September of 1997-- in 2000-2001, when Efrain came across an image showing black streaks, which at that time were interpreted as 'dust slides' by NASA. However, Efrain became convinced by casual observation the streaks were water-related.

After gleaning through thousands of images, I had collected over 400 that had streaks in them. [Software engineer] Jill England joined me, and wrote a program to look for duplicate images taken at different times of the year, and she found images which showed flow activity in present time.

Richard Hoagland suggested plotting the images, and when we did so it became evident that the streaks were all in the equatorial zone of Mars, which is the warmest part of Mars and therefore likely candidates for liquid water.

Efrain and Jill partnered with Harry Moore --a geologist for the Society for Planetary SETI Research(SPSR) , Blaine, Tennessee-- who also had an interest in water on Mars, and brought sound geology to the table. Together they wrote a short paper --which you can read here-- and presented it at the 4th International Mars Society Convention, at Stanford University, in August 2001.

Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, had this to say about Palermo et al and yesterday's anouncement on his Facebook page:

This is remarkable, Moore, England, and Palermo are amateur astronomers who went over the MGS data on their own to make the discovery, 14 years before NASA's announcement today.

Asked for a comment, Efrain showed diplomacy albeit tainted with justified frustration, because his work wasn't given its due recognition in yesterday's landslide of Mars-related articles:

The recent news announcement was validating; even though we did not have access to spectroscopic tools ,and we're working with the much lower resolution of the Mars Orbital Camera, we still arrived at the same conclusions 14 years ago. The information has been on my website since 2001, and I presented my seeps paper at the 2001 Mars Society Convention at Stanford U. While it has been gratifying to have NASA validate that work, it is also frustrating that no credit was given to the paper and its authors.

Frustrating, indeed. On the one hand NASA and the US government are always trying to keep the public interested in space exploration --after all, that's how they gain the necessary funding for future missions-- and yet when a group of amateurs make a substantial contribution to Science, they get silently swept under the rug without even a kudos.

Is it because they lacked the 'right' kind of credentials, and this is the typical reaction an 'outsider' receives when it comes knocking at the doors of Academia's ivory tower? Or maybe because they are guilty of associating themselves with someone like Richard Hoagland, who is by now synonymous with kooky claims about Martian civilizations who left the surface of their planet littered with all sorts of pareidolic artifacts?

With regards to the former, you'd think Astronomy would be more welcoming with amateurs, since they have been credited with all sorts of discoveries --e.g. the Shoemaker-Levy comet.

As for the latter, well… there's no getting around the fact that there arepeople in this field who stared at the Void far longer than they should have, and that for every Palermo or Hancock making astounding claims which are still not outside the realm of possibility, there are also folks finding Bigfoot on Mars, or selling Lemurian headbands...

Either an honest mistake or a blatant omission, NASA should do well in crediting people like Efrain Palermo*. Because he's an example that when it comes to space exploration (as with several other fields) it is amateurs --i.e. people not directly associated with government space agencies or academic institutions-- the ones who are now pushing the envelope and helping us expand our horizons.

And it will be amateurs like himself, Zubrin and Elon Musk, the ones which will probably determine our future as a space-faring civilization in the years to come.

(*) Efrain also happens to be the discoverer of Phobos' monolith; you know, the one Buzz Aldrin was so excited about?

To further know more about Efrain's work on Mars, listen to his interview on The Grimerica Show.

Efrain and Jill England also discussed the recent NASA news last night (Sept. 28) on Richard Hoagland's radio show The Other Side of Midnight.

UPDATE: In an interview for CNN to discuss NASA's anouncement, Robert Zubrin sets the record straight on the (not-so-recent) discovery of flowing water on Mars, and mentions Palermo et al's work.

Schrödinger's Bacterium: Researchers Plan to Put a Living Organism in Two Places at Once


Eighty years ago Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger put forward a now-famous thought experiment demonstrating the 'absurdity' of quantum physics. He (theoretically) placed a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detected the radioactivity from a single atom decaying, the poison would be released into the box, killing the cat. But in the weird world of quantum mechanics (or at least the 'Copenhagen Interpretation') the cat would supposedly remain in a state of 'superposition', both alive and dead, until an observation or measurement was made by an external observer opening the box, collapsing the wavefunction.

Schrödinger did not see his thought experiment as a serious possibility - instead, it was meant to show the problems with the Copenhagen interpretation. But eight decades on two researchers have put forward a serious suggestion to place a living organism - albeit a tiny bacterium, rather than a cat - in a state of superposition, effectively making it exist in two places at the same time. The proposed experiment builds on a 2013 paper in which the successful superposition of a macroscopic aluminium membrane was detailed.

According to the researchers, they propose... create quantum superposition and entangled states of a living microorganism by putting a small bacterium on top of an electromechanical oscillator, such as a membrane embedded in a superconducting microwave resonant circuit. Our proposal also works for viruses. Since many biologists do not consider viruses as living organisms, we focus on small bacteria in this paper. [M]ost microorganisms can survive in the cryogenic environment that is required to achieve ground state cooling of an electromechanical oscillator. Although microorganisms are frozen in a cryogenic environment, they can be still living and become active after thawing. Cryopreservation is a mature technology that has been used clinically worldwide. Most microorganisms can be preserved for many years in cryogenic environments.

...This will be remarkably similar to Schrödinger initial thought experiment of entangling the state of an entire organism (‘alive’ or ‘dead’ state of a cat) with the state of a microscopic particle (a
radioactive atom).

In an interview with The Guardian, Tongcang Li of Purdue University noted that “in many fairy tales, a fairy could be at two different locations or change locations instantly. This will be similar to that. Although it will be a microbe instead of a fairy.”

“It will be the first experiment to put an organism into a quantum superposition state,” he added.


Do Weird Quantum Effects Hold the Key to Solving Biological Mysteries?

For a long time, the weird world of quantum effects was thought to reside only at the nanoscale level. However, as nuclear physicist Jim Al-Khalili points out in the video above, a new field of research - 'quantum biology', has begun to ask the question: do quantum effects also play a role inside the living cell?

And on investigating this question, scientists are finding that the answer appears to be 'yes'. For example:

Some years ago, the world of science was shocked when a paper was published showing experimental evidence that quantum coherence takes place inside bacteria, carrying out photosynthesis. The idea is that the photon, the particle of light, the sunlight, the quantum of light captured by a chlorophyll molecule, is then delivered to what's called the reaction center, where it can be turned into chemical energy. And in getting there, it doesn't just follow one route; it follows multiple pathways at once, to optimize the most efficient way of reaching the reaction center without dissipating as waste heat. Quantum coherence taking place inside a living cell. A remarkable idea, and yet evidence is growing almost weekly, with new papers coming out, confirming that this does indeed take place.

To explore these topics in more detail, see Jim Al-Khalili's book with Johnjoe McFadden, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology.

Best Seats in the House! Aurora Seen From Space

Here's a spectacular short clip of the Northern lights, as seen from the vantage point of the International Space Station. Just Wow.

The vid was recorded by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly during his 141st day aboard the ISS --only 222 more days to go, chief!

With an office view like that, who would mind working inside a cramped, smelly room with NO cigarette breaks?


Are We Living in a Fake Universe?

Is it possible that the universe we appear to live in is a fake? An artificial reality, a simulation like, a super-advanced first-person shooter (just for most of us, a whole lot more boring one in which we go do a job)?

Philosopher Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, describes a fake universe as a "richly detailed software simulation of people, including their historical predecessors, by a very technologically advanced civilization."

It's like the movie "The Matrix," Bostrom said, except that "instead of having brains in vats that are fed by sensory inputs from a simulator, the brains themselves would also be part of the simulation. It would be one big computer program simulating everything, including human brains down to neurons and synapses."

Bostrum is not saying that humanity is living in such a simulation. Rather, his "Simulation Argument" seeks to show that one of three possible scenarios must be true (assuming there are other intelligent civilizations):

  1. All civilizations become extinct before becoming technologically mature;
  2. All technologically mature civilizations lose interest in creating simulations;
  3. Humanity is literally living in a computer simulation.

His point is that all cosmic civilizations either disappear (e.g., destroy themselves) before becoming technologically capable, or all decide not to generate whole-world simulations (e.g., decide such creations are not ethical, or get bored with them). The operative word is "all" — because if even one civilization anywhere in the cosmos could generate such simulations, then simulated worlds would multiply rapidly and almost certainly humanity would be in one.

Link: Is Our Universe a Fake?