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

Flurb #6

The latest edition (#6) of Rudy Rucker's "webzine of astonishing tales", Flurb, has been released. Sometimes it's good to unplug and read some good speculative/science fiction (though I'm sure some 'skeptics' might say we do that every day here on TDG) - and it doesn't come much more fun and mind-bending than Flurb (and, of course, it's free).

Fringe Science

Here we go again: those of a rationalist bent are getting over-excited about a fictional television series' portrayal of science: Fringe (official website here). IO9 ran with a a sensationalist headline to their interview with the creators of Fringe, sure to provoke supporters of science (read the quote and compare it to the headline). And Popular Mechanics has posted a feature questioning myriad aspects of J.J. Abrams' new show: "From LSD Brain to Dead Autopilot, Fringe Premiere Skirts Reality":

When it comes to fringe science—that occasionally dubious study of mind control, teleportation, invisibility and reanimation—the only true expert might be Dr. Frankenstein. That is, until J.J. Abrams moved beyond the sci-fi-bending universe of Lost—the Large Hadron Collider, time travel and all—and set out to create Fringe, the new X-Files-esque show that debuted last night on Fox. Now, he’s trying to convince the disbelievers that science and technology have advanced to the point where anything is possible.

Personally, I'd imagine J.J. Abrams is trying to entertain, and make a truckload of money in the process. But that's just my opinion: the folks at Popular Mechanics felt moved enough to call in real-world experts in various branches of science to deconstruct the pilot "and separate the science from science fiction". I feel safer already - now I'm just waiting for PM to deconstruct the other 6 days, 23 hours and 100 channels of TV...

Perhaps one of the more controversial elements of the show was the segment in which a drug coctail including LSD and a sensory deprivation tank are used to enable "synaptic transfer" - a shared dream state. Now this was obviously fiction...we all know that they should have been using pure Ketamine, as LSD just doesn't cut it!

On a more sober note, when the article quotes neurologist Dr. Mark Milstein as saying "There is no current science that allows two people to share information directly between their brains, though admittedly, ketamine and LSD—both major hallucinogenic drugs—might make the user think she was sharing someone else’s dreams and memories", they're not really delving too deeply into the 'real' fringe science going on out there. Surely they could have noted the success of the Maimonides Dream Telepathy experiments (see Dream Telepathy - Amazon US and UK), or if they wanted something more modern, this 2003 review in the Journal of Consciousness Studies of subsequent dream-telepathy studies which concluded that "combined effect size estimates for both sets of studies suggest that judges could correctly identify target materials more often than would be expected by chance using dream mentation." Or perhaps this recent Dutch study by Professor Dick Bierman (PDF file) studying the effect of psychedelics on psi (not conclusive, but certainly suggestive)?

At least someone's making some money from the topic of fringe science...

Large Science Collider

I love science. I love technology. Quite a shock, I know, to all those skeptics who think people like me are "science-haters". My concern with science, is that sometimes it becomes more akin to a religion, rather than the very handy (and in some ways, limited) tool that it is. On the other hand (and, sometimes as a direct result of the foregoing) there are too many people out there who fear (and even hate) science, which is something that I don't really understand.

A recent post on Bad Astronomy might be a worthy case study in how science can be treated like a religion - in particular, how apostates to the accepted dogma are treated. Phil Plait posted a video and short comment on how Professor Brian Cox (quite literally a 'rock star' physicist) had opened "a can of intellectual whoopbutt" (Phil Plait's words) on Sir David King, current President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in regards to their short debate on whether the science of the Large Hadron Collider was worth the financial cost of building and running it.

There's a lot to like about Brian Cox (see this TED talk he gave on the LHC for a look at how well he handles himself) - he's the sort of spokesman that can bring science to the masses. But David King is no slouch either, especially in terms of knowledge in this debate - he is an extremely well-qualified scientist, and has extensive experience in liaising with governments on science funding and policy.

In the short video debate posted on BA, King openly conceded the LHC was exciting, and that he was eager to see the results. He called Brian Cox “brilliant”, and wasn’t obnoxious at all - he remained quietly spoken even when Cox kept talking over the top of him. He simply tried to make a point about the allocation of research money - something he’s very familiar with - and whether the theoretical nature of the LHC experiments could justify their expense, considering the numerous imminent threats to humanity that science funding could be directed at helping to solve.

To view the comments at BA though one would think that King had asked for all science funding to be stopped - perhaps inspired by Phil Plait's original statement about Cox opening "a can of whoopbutt" on King. "Always a perverse pleasure to be had from seeing a pompous stuffed shirt get smacked down," says one commenter. "Administrator, meet … excuse me, did your head just come off?" says another. There's a certain 'flock' mentality happening here, with very few asking whether King had something worth discussing. It appears he has been deemed apostate, and therefore shall now be excluded from the congregation.

However, one very good point made in the comments is that the LHC funding is dwarfed by military spending around the globe, and so it is quite daft to say too much is being spent on this project. King though, I think, is maintaining a practical line here - he knows that 'defence' spending is not going to change, and that limited funds are available to science - he is, after all, very experienced in this area. (It's also quite ironic that many of Cox's statements about spin-off technology could equally be applied to military spending.) But it is a point worth keeping in mind when dissing funding of science - it is but a drop in the bucket compared to how much is spent on destructive technology, and so it is an absurdity to take science to task when there are real decisions we could make about advancing humanity rather than continuing to behave like territorial savages. As our good friend Michael Grosso once commented: "The current U.S. military budget is roughly $350 billion, all dedicated to the technology of death. Contrast this with the funds available to do research on the conscious survival of death. Did I hear an amused snicker?"

Note that I am simply discussing the debate at hand here. I am not conversant with David King's thoughts and opinions - I may well have very different views to him in numerous areas. But I do think, in this case, that he is being treated rather unfairly, and that it has arisen from a group 'religious fervour' that has deemed it blasphemy to question (no matter how politely) scientists. I find that worthy of comment. Quite apart from that, it's great to see two top-line scientists discussing this topic in a civil manner on television.

One final note: in supporting Cox, Phil Plait sums up by saying "All science has spinoffs, and sometimes powerful ones. Not only that, we don’t know what they will be in advance (usually) so, guided by our wisdom, it pays to let basic research go wherever the science will lead it." I'm glad to see the new president of the JREF is in support of parapsychology research by the likes of Dean Radin...

Other LHC features worth checking: Alan Boyle reports on the controversial start-up in "Big Bang Sparks Big Reaction". And MSNBC also has Professor Michio Kaku discussing the "nightmares and dreams" surrounding the LHC.

Addendum: Synchronistically, this IO9 story was the next thing I came across this morning...

LHC-Watch!

We all know those crazy scientists are willing to risk it all by starting up the Large Hadron Collider. Play your part in keeping an eye on them, via these live webcam feeds.

Well, a little humour to start the weekend is always good...

Antimatters 2:3

Missed this last week when I was struggling with the flu: the latest issue of Antimatters (Volume 2, Issue 3) is now available for reading online. Some of the fresh content includes Ulrich Mohrhoff's article "Evolution of consciousness according to Jean Gebser", Willis Harman's "The scientific exploration of consciousness: towards an adequate epistemology", Frank Joseph's "Synchronicity: the key to destiny", and even an article by me (originally from New Dawn magazine), "The atheist delusion: answering Richard Dawkins" (not sure how it ended up in there?!). Antimatters is devoted to "addressing issues in science and the humanities from non-materialistic perspectives", so there's some excellent reading on the crossover points between science and spirituality. Check it out.

Exploring the 4th Dimension

A group of mathematicians and graphic designers have created a series of videos helping to visualise 4-dimensional space. Head to the 'Dimensions' website to access/download/purchase the video tutorials:

Mathematicians, freed in their imaginations from physical constraints, can conjure up descriptions of objects in many more dimensions than that. Points in a plane can be described with pairs of numbers, and points in space can be described with triples. Why not quadruples, or quintuples, or more?

There is the minor difficulty that our nervous systems are only equipped to conjure images in three dimensions. But that doesn’t stop Étienne Ghys of the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France, from visualizing the four-dimensional dynamical systems he studies: “I live in dimension four,” he says.

The narration is a bit dry and slow, and the constant rotating geometrics tended to confuse me more than anything (when he says "It's easy, isn't it", I'm tending to reply "Er, no...") But great stuff for bending your brain a little and thinking outside your normal perceptions - see how you go with it. (And I'd love to hear how 'trippers' out there relate to the 3D manifestations of 4D objects...something very "self-transforming" about them).

For old school multi-dimensional thinking, you can always check out Edwin Abbott's brilliant Flatland. And Michio Kaku's Hyperspace (Amazon US and UK) has a nice little summary of how extra-dimensional thinking fascinated early 20th century society - he quotes Linda Dalrymple Henderson as saying "[T]he fourth dimension had become almost a household word by 1910...Ranging from an ideal Platonic or Kantian reality - or even Heaven - the answer to all of the problems puzzling contemporary science, the fourth dimension could be all things to all people."

Compassion Heals?

Parapsychology researcher Dr Dean Radin has posted a summary of a newly published scientific paper (which he co-authored) to his blog: "Compassionate Intention as a Therapeutic Intervention by Partners of Cancer Patients" (subtitle: "Effects of Distant Intention on the Patients' Autonomic Nervous System"):

Objective: This double-blind study investigated the effects of intention on the autonomic nervous system of a human “sender” and distant “receiver” of those intentions, and it explored the roles that motivation and training might have in modulating these effects.

While it's a little strong to use the word "healing", the results of this study do seem to suggest that 'intention' may have an effect on the autonomic system of the 'target':

Results: Overall, receivers’ skin conductance increased during the intention epochs (z = 3.9; p < 0.00009, two-tailed). Planned differences in skin conductance among the three groups were not significant, but a post hoc analysis showed that peak deviations were largest and most sustained in the trained group, followed by more moderate effects in the wait group, and still smaller effects in the control group.

Conclusions: Directing intention toward a distant person is correlated with activation of that person’s autonomic nervous system. Strong motivation to heal and to be healed, and training on how to cultivate and direct compassionate intention, may further enhance this effect.

The full paper is published in the July/August edition of Explore.

Templeton Passes Away

Sir John Templeton, founder of the eponymous Templeton Foundation, has passed away aged 95. He created his Foundation partially in an attempt to bridge the divide between science and religion:

His Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for research and discoveries relating to what scientists and philosophers call the Big Questions. We support work at the world's top universities in such fields as theoretical physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and social science relating to love, forgiveness, creativity, purpose, and the nature and origin of religious belief.

The Templeton Prize (for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities) is awarded each year to "a living person who, in the estimation of the judges, best exemplifies "trying various ways for discoveries and breakthroughs to expand human perceptions of divinity and to help in the acceleration of divine creativity."

Beyond the Prize, some controversy has surrounded the awarding of 'Fellowships' and grants to institutions, researchers and journalists. Author John Horgan has written of his guilt in accepting money and travel, due to his "misgivings about the foundation's agenda of reconciling religion and science", and perhaps also due to the fact that the Foundation is now run by John Templeton Jr, "an evangelical Christian [who] is the chairman of Let Freedom Ring Inc., which raises funds for conservative causes.". Though Horgan and many others ended up accepting the grants/fellowships, some have not:

At least one scientist has publicly refused to accept money from the foundation. Sean M. Carroll, a physicist at the University of Chicago, declined an invitation to speak at a Templeton-sponsored conference held last fall, which featured 16 Nobel laureates and was endorsed by the American Physical Society. Carroll explained in his blog that "the entire purpose of the Templeton Foundation is to blur the line between straightforward science and explicitly religious activity, making it seem like the two enterprises are part of one big undertaking." An atheist, Carroll did not want his name to be "implicitly associated with an effort I find to be woefully misguided." Yet Carroll admitted that he had been tempted by the foundation's offer of a $2,000 honorarium.

Personally, I think the aims of the Templeton Foundation are laudable. Hopefully, in the wake of Sir John Templeton's death, no ideologies will be imposed upon either the Foundation, or those whom it supports.

Lyall Watson Passes Away

Missed this news last week: Lyall Watson, author of the best-selling book Supernature - massively influential in the 'alternative' genre - passed away on June 25th, aged 69.

A radical thinker operating at the margins of accepted science, Watson was an apparent polymath who might have sprung fully-formed from a Victorian adventure by Jules Verne or H Rider Haggard. A dapper, shimmering figure, often dressed for the tropics in a safari suit of white linen, he led the first scientific journey up the Amazon river, and was the first white person seen by headhunters in Papua New Guinea.

Supernature, his most successful book, dealt with mysterious and inexplicable natural phenomena. It became a 1970s student essential, and was acclaimed for its stimulating treatment of exotic and unexpected scientific facts and discoveries.

Some were fascinated by Supernature's coverage of apparently amazing scientific breakthroughs, such as Cleve Backster's work with plant 'emotions', but others found it all to be credulous claptrap. Watson's work was later dismissed out-of-hand by many skeptics on account of his 'invention' of the now legendary "100th monkey" hypothesis in his 1979 book Lifetide:

Watson's tale was that an unspecified number of monkeys on the Japanese island of Koshima were washing sweet potatoes in the sea. But the addition of a further monkey – the so-called hundredth – apparently carried the number across some sort of threshold, pushing it through a kind of critical mass, because by evening almost every monkey was doing it. Moreover the habit seems to have jumped natural barriers and to have appeared spontaneously in monkey colonies on other islands and on the mainland.

Although it seemed a good story, the part about spontaneous transmission, at least, was not true. Watson, however, was blamed only for "myth-making" rather than confabulation. "It is a metaphor of my own making," he admitted in 1986, "based on very slim evidence and a great deal of hearsay. I have never pretended otherwise." Although the hundredth monkey theory occupied only a few paragraphs of his total output, it bulked disproportionately large in critical studies of his work. Watson himself remained unrepentant, however, and declared on his website: "I still think it's a good idea!"

Regardless of the reader's opinion of Watson's books (25 in all!), one thing is sure - his seminal Supernature had a vast influence on young minds looking for fresh ideas in science.

The Rapture for Nerds

In the wake of the recent IEEE Spectrum feature on the 'Singularity', science fiction author Warren Ellis set transhuman tongues a-waggin' when he described the speculative scenario as a techno-religion:

The Singularity is the last trench of the religious impulse in the technocratic community. The Singularity has been denigrated as "The Rapture For Nerds," and not without cause. It’s pretty much indivisible from the religious faith in describing the desire to be saved by something that isn’t there (or even the desire to be destroyed by something that isn’t there) and throws off no evidence of its ever intending to exist. It’s a new faith for people who think they’re otherwise much too evolved to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or any other idiot back-brain cult you care to suggest.

Ellis' comments drew a swift rebuke from transhumanist pundit George Dvorsky, on his Sentient Developments blog: "The day is coming, my friends, when Singularity denial will seem as outrageous and irresponsible as the denial of anthropogenic global warming." I'm not sure whether that's a worthwhile analogy just yet, but anyhow...

Ellis has not been a lone voice in expressing his doubts about salvation through Singularity. Last week, author Douglas Hofstadter took a pot-shot at the movement's prophet, Ray Kurzweil, in an interview:

I am very glad that we still have a very very long ways to go in our quest for AI. I think of this seemingly “pessimistic” view of mine as being in fact a profound kind of optimism, whereas the seemingly “optimistic” visions of Ray Kurzweil and others strike me as actually being a deeply pessimistic view of the nature of the human mind...

...I think Ray Kurzweil is terrified by his own mortality and deeply longs to avoid death. I understand this obsession of his and am even somehow touched by its ferocious intensity, but I think it badly distorts his vision. As I see it, Kurzweil's desperate hopes seriously cloud his scientific objectivity.

In any case, the vision that Kurzweil offers (and other very smart people offer it too, such as Hans Moravec, Vernor Vinge, perhaps Marvin Minsky, and many others — usually people who strike me as being overgrown teen-age sci-fi addicts, I have to say) is repugnant to me. On the surface it may sound very idealistic and utopian, but deep down I find it extremely selfish and greedy... I don't even like thinking about this nutty technology-glorifying scenario, now usually called “The Singularity”...it just gives me the creeps.

The Hofstadter interview is well worth a full read - there's lots of interesting ideas and debates swirling around in that one...