Well that'll teach me for going to work on Monday instead of calling in sick. I missed this spectacular cloud formation appear above my neck of the woods in Gippsland, Australia. The cat was home at the time though, and I bet she had something to do with it. Or God decided at the last second not to crush that house beneath His foot. However, the rare atmospheric phenomena has a more earthly explanation. Known as a Fallstreak Hole, or more commonly a hole punch cloud, it's formed by ice crystals that concentrate in one part of a cloud. ABC news has more photos of this stunning Gippsland hole in the clouds. And for all sorts of castles in the sky, check out the Cloud Appreciation Society's website.
I missed this beauty, but my luck was with me last year.
Via ABC news. Photo submitted by David Barton.
As I've discussed previously, we tend to fall into the trap of assuming that 'reality' consists of what we sense around us via our sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. But the truth is that we only see electromagnetic waves and hear audio waves from a tiny section of their entire spectrums. In the video above, neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman discusses this topic, noting that this tiny slice of reality that we mistake for the totality of our environment is labeled our 'umwelt'. Our umwelt is determined by the physical apparatus we have at our disposal to take in sensory data - which to this point has largely been our biological sense organs.
But Eagleman also points out that the brain is hugely adaptable in terms of interpreting signals and forming the perception of the outside world from it:
The thing to understand is that your eyes and ears aren't doing the seeing in the first place. Your brain's doing the seeing, and the thing to appreciate is that it is locked in silence and darkness in the vault of your skull. So all the brain ever 'sees', are electrical signals coursing around in giant populations of neurons...that's all the brain ever experiences. It's not seeing the light or the dark out there, or the colours. It's not hearing the conversations. This is all that the brain is experiencing and nothing more.
But the brain is so tremendously flexible that what it's really good at doing is saying "okay well, I've got these data cables coming in...I don't know what information is carried on them." I mean we call those data cables the optic nerve and the auditory nerve, but it doesn't know what it is. All it sees is this kind of stuff, but it's really good at extracting patterns, and figuring out what to do with them, and eventually - amazingly - how to have a direct perceptual experience that it constructs about the outside world.
...It turns out that the brain doesn't care what the peripheral devices are that you plug in. These organs that we know and love like eyes and ears and fingertips - these are plug and play peripheral devices, and you can put anything you want into the system and the brain will figure out how to use it.
These two factors: the limited environment (umwelt) that we perceive through our biological sense organs, and the brain's adaptability to interpreting data fed into it, leads us to an exciting area of the future - augmentation. With the continual growth in technological power - and the continual shrinking in size of that technology - we have now entered an age where we can augment our natural sense organs with new data streams, feeding these new additions to our umwelt into our brains via our current sensory channels.
Eagleman currently has a Kickstarter project running which looks at augmentation as a means to cover the gap left by the failure of a sensory channel - in this case, the hearing impaired, via a sensory substitution vest which converts audio data into tactile data. This allows the brain to gain access to an 'information channel' which normally can't reach it. And as Eagleman explains, the brain quickly learns to recognise patterns from this 'new' data source and make sense of it.
This is just the beginning however - as Eagleman explains, we could feed any data source we wanted into the vest, as long as we have access to it in some way. From invisible radiation sources to stock prices and Twitter trends, we could 'jack' these information channels directly into our brains via augmented devices - in this case a vest, but the possibilities go much further than that - in order to expand our umwelt beyond our current limitations.
In the 1960s a ground-breaking idea emerged: that freezing people soon after their death might preserve brain structures, and that in the future advanced technology and know-how might allow these frozen cadavers to be resuscitated and given extended life. Fifty years later, more than 250 people have undergone cryopreservation procedures following their passing (though contrary to what you may have heard, Walt Disney is not one of them), with a small 'cryonics' industry storing their bodies (or in some cases, just their heads) awaiting future salvation.
The above documentary, We Will Live Again, takes a look inside "the unusual and extraordinary operations of the Cryonics Institute", following Ben Best and Andy Zawacki, the caretakers of 99 deceased human bodies stored at below freezing temperatures in cryopreservation. It's a strange and thought-provoking exploration of mortality, and our attempts to avoid it, well worth a watch.
Wow. Just wow. My own face almost fell off at 1:18.
Omote is the result of collaboration that was led by artist Nobumichi Asai, featuring contributions from CGI experts, graphic designers and make-up artists.
Asai has worked in the past with major companies such as Subaru to project computer graphics onto subjects. However, the locations where the graphics are projected onto in the past were all stationary, so the ability of the Omote to follow the person's face as it moves and adapt its projections accordingly is a huge development for the system.
Essentially, Omote can be viewed as electronic make-up, with the ability to project practically anything on a person's face.
Is Schrödinger's Cat immortal? And by extension, does that mean that both you and I will live forever as well?
In the famed thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects the radioactivity from a single atom decaying, the poison is released into the sealed box, killing the cat. But in the weird world of quantum mechanics - or more specifically in this case, the 'Copenhagen interpretation' of quantum mechanics - the cat would supposedly remain in a state of 'superposition', both alive and dead, until an observation or measurement is made by an external observer opening the box, collapsing the wavefunction - and finding the cat either alive or dead. Schrödinger did not see this as a serious possibility - instead, his thought experiment was meant to show a problem with the Copenhagen interpretation.
Another interpretation of quantum mechanics, formulated in 1957 by Hugh Everett, removed the problematic wavefunction collapse. In the 'Many Worlds' interpretation, rather than collapsing from superposition into a single reality, the wavefunction branches into multiple realities consisting of each possible outcome. This interpretation of quantum mechanics carries with it the mind-boggling implication that all possible histories exist, each contained within its very own universe (or 'world', as per 'Many Worlds'). Every time a decision is made, another complete universe splits off from this one.
In the Many Worlds interpretation, Schrödinger's experiment has created two completely separate universes...one in which the cat is dead, and another in which it remains alive. The 'collapse of the wavefunction' is an illusion caused by viewing the outcome from only one of the universes. And if Schrödinger carries out the experiment again, he creates another two universes, one with another dead cat, and another with the cat still alive.
Keen observers might note that, in Many Worlds, among the infinite branching of universes, there remains one branch in which the cat continues to be alive. It is claimed that Hugh Everett saw his theory as guaranteeing immortality to conscious beings: at each branching of universes between death and living, a being's consciousness is bound to continue following the living path (given that consciousness, according to orthodox modern science, does not continue beyond death).
[See this fantastic documentary on Hugh Everett and Many Worlds Theory, as explored by his rock-star son, Mark Everett of Eels, for more insights]
The 'quantum suicide' thought experiment, devised in the 1980s as the Many Worlds parallel of the Schrödinger's Cat thought experiment, illustrates the concept:
A physicist sits in a chair with a gun pointed at his head. The gun is attached to a machine that measure the spin of a quantum particle. Every time the trigger is pulled, the spin of the particle is measured. If the particle spins clockwise, the gun fires, killing the physicist. If the particle spins anti-clockwise, the gun won’t fire – there’ll only be a click.
The physicist keeps running the experiment, but all he ever hears is a click – the gun never goes off. Because each time the trigger is pulled, the universe splits, creating two universes – one where the physicist dies and one where he lives. From the living physicist’s point of view, the gun just keeps clicking. But in all the other universes, there’s a dead body.
The implication is that, among the infinity of universes being created, we will all follow the particular branch that guarantees our immortality. That's not to say you haven't died though. We will all experience the deaths of our friends and family at some point, as they - at some point - diverge from our personal 'branch of immortality' and follow their own. That car accident where you can't understand how you weren't killed? You were in another universe, but not the one you're in now. In that other universe, your family grieved your passing, while in this one we carry on.
But before you begin celebrating your god-like quantum immortality, note that the theory has been criticized. Physicist Max Tegmark has explained that life and death situations are not always dependent on binary events like the quantum experiment. And it's difficult to understand how, as aging beings, we can overcome the ticking clock of time in slowly destroying our physical body and brain.
Unless maybe in your branching universe you discovered the secret to eternal youth...
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Back in March Science Writer and blogger Ed Yong gave a TED talk on the subject of parasites and the fascinating ways in which they can sometimes "subvert and override the wills of their hosts" (a full video of the talk posted here on DG). In his talk Yong spoke about how rodents infected with the brain parasite toxoplasma gondii effectively become “cat-seeking missiles”; seeking out felines and getting themselves eaten just so that toxo can then develop and reproduce inside the cat. As much as one third of the global human population may be infected with toxo. Although mild flu-like symptoms occasionally occur during the first few weeks following exposure, toxo generally produces no symptoms in healthy human adults (toxoplasmosis can be fatal to infants and those with weakened immune systems, however). Opinions are currently divided among researchers as to what, if any, influence toxo has on the behaviour of infected humans (although links to schizophrenia are amongst the effects which have been hypothesised ). But, says, Yong in his TED talk, even if it isn’t from toxo, “Given the widespread nature of such manipulations [of hosts by parasites], it would be completely implausible if humans were the only creature not under the same thrall.”
While the idea of mind control via a parasite may seem like science fiction, there is an example we're all already familiar with: rabies. The rabies virus induces aggressive, violent behaviour in the infected, increasing the chances of the host biting other animals. The rabies virus is transmitted via the saliva of the infected into a new host. It's a somewhat crude (and oversimplified) example but its one that is pretty much universally accepted and understood.
Not all parasites make themselves so conspicuous however, in fact it may come as a surprise to you that there may be as many as ten times more bacterial cells in your body than there are human cells . 90 trillion or so microbes are your constant passengers; you are a walking ecosystem . The human microbiome (to give it its proper scientific name) is the aggregate of micro-organisms that reside on and inside us; from between our toes, to the tips of our eyelashes, to our gastrointestinal tracts. Some of these organisms perform tasks which are known to be beneficial to us, the host, but the majority have thus far been too poorly researched for us to understand what, if any, role they play in shaping our lives . That however is changing, especially when it comes to the gut–brain axis.
The gut–brain axis refers to the biochemical signalling taking place between the gastrointestinal tract and the nervous system, involving intestinal microbiota (gut bacteria) which have been shown to play an important role in brain function. Changes in gut bacteria are now being investigated as possible contributors to, or triggers for the worsening of, autism . A 2013 study carried out by the University of California found that subjects who regularly ingested beneficial "probiotic" bacteria showed altered brain function . Earlier this year researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Arizona, Tucson published that they had found that people living in cold, northern latitudes have bacteria in their guts that may predispose them to obesity . How we process information, how we interact with others and the world around us, even our outward appearance, may all be controlled to some degree by our microbiome. Gut bacteria has even been proven to alter sexual preference (although only in fruit flies thus far) . How much of what we think of as "us", might actually be "them"?
At the beginning of July 2014 a paper entitled Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis: is there a microbial component to religious rituals? was posted on the open access, peer-reviewed online journal Biology Direct (full text here). The paper puts forward the following hypothesis:
Some microorganisms would gain an evolutionary advantage by encouraging human hosts to perform certain rituals that facilitate microbial transmission. We hypothesize that certain aspects of religious behaviour observed in human society could be influenced by microbial host control and that the transmission of some religious rituals could be regarded as a simultaneous transmission of both ideas (memes) and organisms. We call this a “biomeme” hypothesis
Practices such as the touching and kissing of holy relics, drinking from or bathing in sacred waters, and ritual flagellation or piercing of the body are postulated as a possible means of transmission of specific parasites. The practice of fasting, "known to reduce total gut bacteria and affect the gut microbiome composition", could have a part to play in a parasite's life cycle, or else its effect upon the host. The veneration, or eschewing, of certain domestic animals could be a means of controlling which parasites the host is exposed to. Even celibacy in holy men and women could be linked to parasitic passengers; "it has been noted that many parasites eliminate their hosts reproductive potential as they channel all available resources to maximize their own reproductive success."
The hypothesis is completely unproven. It is mere leap of logic or flight of fantasy, depending on your own perception. Responding to one of their learned reviewers (all of whom seem entertained by the hypothesis but highly sceptical), the paper's authors state "We also agree with Dr. Koonin that our hypothesis is outrageous and may be incorrect, however we believe that it’s still an interesting one and worth considering. [...] What makes our hypothesis perceived as more outrageous [than others] is that religion is indeed a taboo subject in human society."
This response seems to suggest that the idea of parasitic control being a factor in some acts of religious behaviour would be inherently anti-religious; that it would somehow undermine the previously perceived purpose of those acts. But, why should that be the case? If proven to be true, would it not demonstrate that ritualistic religious behaviour had a provable, physical root? If the feelings of community, of belonging, and so on that people get from religious participation were proven to be caused by parasites controlling their hosts (just as the tapeworm Flamingolepis liguloides turns brine shrimp from solitary into social creatures ) would that not make them all the more real? No longer mere traditions, superstitions, or "brainwashing" as some would have it, these acts would have a concrete demonstrable cause and purpose. Some would argue it could be the death of religion, others would call it proof of a creator.
If we, the host, could in fact be the product of our passengers - those whose cells outnumber our own by ten to one - in so many ways, who is to say which of the behaviours and effects caused by "them" are the real "us"? If ritualistic religious behaviour could be eradicated, say via antibiotics just as an example, then what else would we choose to change? What if non-religious ritualistic behaviour was proven to have a similar root? Would we choose to eradicate peoples' desire to attend football matches? Muddy music festivals? Do we pick and choose which are positive and negative traits? Intelligence, body type, mental health... Do we legislate? Do we immunise? What does a homosapien look and like at the end of all that? What are we without our 90 trillion strong microbiome? Is it still what you and I think of today as human?
I fully acknowledge that is all ridiculous and outlandish speculation on my part, of course; a writer's imagination going into overdrive, but that's because parasitic control is an incredibly inspiring topic. Indeed, in his TED talk, Ed Yong said "I'm a writer and fellow writers in the audience will know that we love stories. Parasites allow us to resist the allure of obvious stories; their world is one of plot twists and unexpected explanations."
Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis... is itself, in effect, a work of speculative fiction; building upon existing research and ideas with a series of "what if"s. One of my favourite passages in the paper reads as follows:
It seems that something like Toxoplasma gondii would be a good preliminary candidate for the role of our hypothetical microbe that promotes religious behavior as it is prevalent and widespread (as religious practices are) and its infection is associated with some behavioral traits and it is capable of latently residing in the human brain. Coincidentally, the sacred status of cats, definitive hosts of Toxoplasma gondii was part of the ancient Egyptian religious tradition for centuries. To our knowledge, no research on the association between toxoplasmosis or similar infections and religiosity has been performed, thus such an association could have been overlooked
The entire great civilisation of Ancient Egypt motivated by cat parasites. That couldn't be true, surely? You just keep telling yourself that when you're checking your Twitter/Facebook/Instagram today and seeing images of cat after cat after cat.
Putting this piece together I was curious as to whether Ed Yong would have read (or even heard about) Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis... so I dropped him an email asking if he'd like to comment upon the hypothesis. He very kindly sent me this response:
It is clear that parasites and microbes can manipulate animal behaviour but it is very hard to confirm such manipulations, even in species that can be experimented upon. Hypotheses like this will remain cute just-so stories until they can actually be verified
The website of Scientific American currently has an excellent feature and interview with 'maverick biologist' Rupert Sheldrake, via science writer John Horgan. Though he considers himself a 'psi skeptic', Horgan's piece is warm and open-minded (we find out that Sheldrake does a good impression of his late friend, Terence McKenna) - very pleasant to see these 'heretical' topics discussed in such a convivial manner for a change.
The article covers many topics, but I thought Rupert's description of his theory of 'morphic resonance' was a very good summary for anybody not intimately familiar with, so have excerpted the relevant parts below. Make sure you head on over and read the entire piece though:
Morphic resonance is the influence of previous structures of activity on subsequent similar structures of activity organized by morphic fields. It enables memories to pass across both space and time from the past. The greater the similarity, the greater the influence of morphic resonance. What this means is that all self-organizing systems, such as molecules, crystals, cells, plants, animals and animal societies, have a collective memory on which each individual draws and to which it contributes. In its most general sense this hypothesis implies that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits.
...The idea of morphic resonance came to me when I was doing research at Cambridge on the development of plants. I was interested in the concept of morphogenetic, or form-shaping, fields, but realized they could not be inherited through genes. They had to be inherited in some other way. The idea of morphic resonance came as a sudden insight. This happened in 1973, but it was a radical idea, and I spent years thinking about it before I published it in my first book, A New Science of Life, in 1981.
...There is a lot of circumstantial evidence for morphic resonance. The most striking experiment involved a long series of tests on rat learning that started in Harvard in the 1920s and continued over several decades. Rats learned to escape from a water-maze and subsequent generations learned faster and faster. At the time this looked like an example of Lamarckian inheritance, which was taboo. The interesting thing is that after the rats had learned to escape more than 10 times quicker at Harvard, when rats were tested in Edinburgh, Scotland and in Melbourne, Australia they started more or less where the Harvard rats left off. In Melbourne the rats continued to improve after repeated testing, and this effect was not confined to the descendants of trained rats, suggesting a morphic resonance rather than epigenetic effect. I discuss this evidence in A New Science of Life, now in its third edition, called Morphic Resonance in the US.
...I would like there to be much more research on morphic resonance and I would like to see a lot more evidence for it. If there were, it would not necessarily refute materialism, but could expand the materialist worldview, which has become excessively dogmatic, as I show in my recent book Science Set Free (called The Science Delusion in the UK). I think something like morphic resonance is necessary to make sense of inheritance, memory, the evolutionary nature of nature, and many other phenomena. Lee Smolin, the theoretical physicist, recently put forward a similar idea, which he calls “the principle of precedence,” and perhaps his hypothesis might mesh in better with established science, since it is formulated in the context of quantum physics. The main question is whether or not the effects predicted by the hypothesis of morphic resonance – or the principle of precedence – actually happen.
P.Z. Myers and company getting frothy at the mouth in 3, 2, 1...
Uh-oh Moscow, who ya gonna call? Photographer Alexander Lukinsky took the incredible image above of strange, ethereal clouds hovering above the Russian capital on Tuesday night. But rather than signaling the impending arrival of Gozer the Gozerian, what Lukinsky caught on his camera was a relatively rare phenomenon known as noctilucent ('night-shining') clouds.
Noctilucent clouds are still surrounded by mystery. There are no recorded observations of them prior to 1885, suggesting they are a relatively new meteorological phenomenon, and possibly linked to global warming. What we do know is that they occur at incredible altitudes: at 76–85 kilometers (46–51 miles) high, they are above the stratosphere. This height helps give them their eerie appearance: the tiny ice crystals from which they are composed are hit by the sun from underneath - giving them a silvery-blue appearance - despite the sun being below the horizon line, meaning the viewer sees these shining clouds from a position of darkness.
While they are rarely sighted, it seems that noctilucent clouds are showing themselves a bit more lately - astrophotographer Christoph Malin captured the time-lapse footage below in London last week, and many other amateur sky-watchers have captured the clouds on camera as well.
Are we truly in control of our actions, or are we being manipulated by unseen beings? It's an idea that is a standard trope of paranoid conspiracy theories, but in the above TED talk, science writer Ed Yong shows how mind control by parasites appears to be almost ubiquitous in nature. And if it happens to so many other species on Earth, then why not humans too...?
(I didn't write this post, the Toxoplasma gondii did)
At least old man Schrödinger let the poor moggie out of the box...