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

The Roots of Plant Intelligence

Here's a fascinating TED talk by Stefano Mancuso, a founder of the study of plant 'neurobiology', which explores how plants communicate, or "signal," with each other, using a complex internal analysis system to find nutrients, spread their species and even defend themselves against predators.

Watching this presentation prompts a number of questions for me. If consciousness is 'simply' an emergent phenomenon of a network of neurons, is it possible that other networks (roots, mycelia, even the Internet) could be self-aware too? Are we deceived mainly by the static nature of plants (or at least, their less noticeable movement) more than any other factor in thinking of them as vegetative? And once again, I am reminded of Dennis McKenna's psychedelic experience under the influence of ayahuasca (as told by Daniel Pinchbeck in his excellent book, Breaking Open the Head):

When Dennis McKenna, Terence's botanist brother, drank ayahuasca with the Uniao do Vegetal, a Brazilian syncretic religion that uses ayahuasca as its sacrament, he was turned into a sentient water molecule in the jungle soil, pulled up through a vine's roots to experience the miraculous molecular processes of photosynthesis in its leaves. "Somehow I understood - though no words were involved - that the Banisteriopsis vine was the embodiment of the plant intelligence that embraced and covered the earth," he recalled. At the end of his vision, a voice told him, "You monkeys only think you're running things."

Observant readers would have noted that McKenna's monkey line is the footer to my comments here on TDG. Some have assumed previously that it's meant as a moderator tagline about who is in charge here on the site, but in fact it's there simply as a reminder against anthropocentric hubris and assuming too much about our current state of knowledge. Will we have a completely different outlook (and relationship) with plants in two thousand years time? And if we find that plants are sentient, where does that leave vegans?

Quantum Woo

I have posted regularly in the past about some cutting edge philosophical and scientific ideas based on quantum physics (such as Henry Stapp's speculation on an afterlife based on modern physics). But such ideas obviously aren't endorsed by 'mainstream' physicists, and so I recommend (as with most things we post here) that readers keep their wits about them, and educate themselves to the various opinions on these controversial debates. On this particular topic, Alan Boyle's recent interview with physicist Lawrence Krauss over is a good start:

Krauss worries that a lot of people can be fooled by appeals to the admittedly weird world of quantum physics — a world in which particles are said to take every possible path from point A to point B, in which the position and velocity of particles are necessarily cloaked in uncertainty, in which the mere act of observation changes the thing being observed.

In the last of a series of columns written for Scientific American, Krauss says "no area of physics stimulates more nonsense in the public arena than quantum mechanics." His list of "worst abusers" includes inspirational author Deepak Chopra, the best-selling book "The Secret" and the whole field of Transcendental Meditation. So what constitutes quantum quackery?

For those interested in following up on this interview, you can read a number of Krauss's articles for various publications via his website.

Previously on TDG:

The Future Can Influence the Past

Sorry, I know it's Monday and your brain is probably already struggling. But this brain bender is too good not to share: A series of quantum experiments has shown that measurements performed in the future can influence the present.

Tollaksen’s group is looking into the notion that time might flow backward, allowing the future to influence the past. By extension, the universe might have a destiny that reaches back and conspires with the past to bring the present into view. On a cosmic scale, this idea could help explain how life arose in the universe against tremendous odds. On a personal scale, it may make us question whether fate is pulling us forward and whether we have free will.

Tollaksen's research was inspired by the work of physicist Yakir Aharanov, who came up with a fresh interpretation of quantum mechanics that allowed it to remain deterministic:

Aharonov accepted that a particle’s past does not contain enough information to fully predict its fate, but he wondered, if the information is not in its past, where could it be? After all, something must regulate the particle’s behavior. His answer—which seems inspired and insane in equal measure—was that we cannot perceive the information that controls the particle’s present behavior because it does not yet exist.

“Nature is trying to tell us that there is a difference between two seemingly identical particles with different fates, but that difference can only be found in the future,” he says. If we’re willing to unshackle our minds from our preconceived view that time moves in only one direction, he argues, then it is entirely possible to set up a deterministic theory of quantum mechanics.

The article finishes by discussing the implications of the theory being correct - not least, that the Universe has a fixed destiny, and whether we can detect its 'influence' upon us now. Research into this question is actually being undertaken by famous cosmologist Paul Davies and colleagues at Arizona State University:

Cosmologists have long been puzzled about why the conditions of our universe — for example, its rate of expansion — provide the ideal breeding ground for galaxies, stars, and planets. If you rolled the dice to create a universe, odds are that you would not get one as handily conducive to life as ours is. Even if you could take life for granted, it’s not clear that 14 billion years is enough time for it to evolve by chance. But if the final state of the universe is set and is reaching back in time to influence the early universe, it could amplify the chances of life’s emergence.

....“The goal is to find out whether Mother Nature has been doing her own postselections, causing these unexpected effects to appear,” Davies says.

I wonder if this provides any support or mechanism for the positive results for the presentiment research performed by Dean Radin and Dick Bierman, in which individuals seem to have emotional reactions to future events.

'Telepathic' Computer Interface

How long until the computer mouse is seen as an archaic piece of equipment? Tan Le's human-computer interface reads the brainwaves of a user, enabling them to control virtual objects and physical electronics via their thoughts alone. Here she is discussing the headset at TEDGlobal earlier this month, as well as giving a practical demonstration of the technology at work:

To me, this seems like just the beginning of some brilliant enabling technology for physically disabled people. And further down the road, you can image the virtual reality immersion possibilities...

Ball Lightning Research

Some interesting research at the University of Florida into the possible source of 'ball lightning' reports:

Using tethered rockets to trigger and direct lightning to the ground and through a wide variety of materials, lightning researchers at the University of Florida at Gainesville have managed Lightning Researchto create some short-lived balls of fire that have a lot in common with the naturally-occurring floating balls of light.

...Some previous laboratory experiments have also managed to ignite floating wisps of silicon into something that resembles ball lightning. The actual lightning experiments duplicated that effect repeatedly, said Hill.

These experiments point to one possible explanation of ball lightning: that it isn't actually lightning at all. Rather, it is some material that has been vaporized and ignited by lightning. It burns briefly and then blinks out. But is it really ball lightning?

"What it demonstrates is that it is possible to produce luminous events at the surface that to an untrained observer looks like ball lightning," said Richard Orville, professor and director of the Cooperative Institute for Applied Meteorological Studies at Texas A&M University.

For more interesting thoughts on scientific research into ball lightning, see "A Social History of Ball Lightning".

Previously on TDG:

Kurzweil's Singularity

Late last month I posted a story about the "Singularity Backlash", with links to some critical pieces on the 'cult of posthumanism'. To balance things up, here's a link to the proponents of the singularity speaking their mind: "Reaching for Immortality", another excellent article/interview by Alan Boyle over at his Cosmic Log, in which he speaks with Ray Kurzweil about some of the negative spin on the idea of post-humanism:

[T]here is intertwined promise and peril in all technologies. That's always been the case. There are dangers in these new technologies that I've talked extensively about. There's no simple pat answer, but the right answer is twofold: Have ethical standards for responsible practitioners, like the Asilomar guidelines for biotech, which have been very successful. And have a rapid-response system for irresponsible practitioners, like terrorists, so we can respond to them and protect ourselves.

We've been a technological species for tens of thousands of years, and it's been the case that the technologically superior species has prevailed. There's discussion now why Cro-Magnon man prevailed over Neanderthals, and it appears to be due to fairly subtle differences in our tool use. Our tools were more advanced than the Neanderthals' and that's always what prevails. We've been a human-machine civilization ever since we picked up a stick to reach a higher branch. We've extended our reach with our tools, physically, mentally. We've already done that with our health. Life expectancy was 23 a thousand years ago. I recently told some gifted middle-school kids that if it hadn't been for this progress they all would be senior citizens.

And here's some snippets of Kurzweil (and his detractors) in the trailer for the documentary about his singular(ity) dream, Transcendent Man:

Though going by the votes in the singularity poll here on TDG, most Grailers are rather skeptical about whether such a thing will ever happen...

Previously on TDG:

Sheldrake in July

'Maverick biologist' Rupert Sheldrake recently gave a talk at Schumacher Colleger about his research into animal telepathy. For those interested, you can view this talk online (almost an hour and a half long), and I've embedded it below for convenience.

For a shorter exploration of his research, Fortean Times have posted an online version of Rupert's article from FT265, "Instant Messaging: Psychic pets and twin telepathy". And for the more technically minded, over at his website you'll find the full text of last year's Journal of Scientific Exploration article, "An Automated Test for Telepathy in Connection with Emails".

On the other hand, if you're feeling more right-brained and looking for a meandering conversation on the crossovers between science and esoterica, have a listen to the latest 'Trialogue' uploaded to Sheldrake Online, "The Heavens" (44 mins).

EdgeScience #4

Issue 4 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration, and I'm sure Daily Grail readers will find plenty to sink their teeth into in the new release. EdgeScience 4Professor Henry Bauer responds to irate reader letters regarding his article in Issue 3, "HIV Does Not Cause AIDS", René Verreault discusses pendulum anomalies during eclipses, Thomas M. Dykstra investigates a mystery regarding insects' sense of smell, and Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne recount their research into mind-machine interactions. Also in this issue, Jim Tucker reviews Satwant K. Pasricha‘s Can the Mind Survive Beyond Death?, and Billy Cox discusses the possible aeronautical dangers of UFOs.

Don't forget: if you enjoy the mag, send a bit of love via the PayPal button to help ensure the future of this excellent free e-zine (or alternatively pick up a paper copy for $5.95). Note too that there is now an app for viewing the PDF release on the iPad.

Death Ray? Check!

Forget the flying car...this is what you really wanted from the future:

A video released at the biannual aerospace convention in Farnborough, UK, today, shows a laser mounted on a warship's gun turret obliterating a remotely piloted drone.

Built by Raytheon Missile Systems of Tuscon, Arizona, the 32-kilowatt infrared laser is shown illuminating and heating the wingtip and then the underside of what looks like a radar-seeking drone – until its remote pilot loses control and the aircraft catches fire and plummets into the ocean.

"Three similar drones were also successfully engaged at militarily significant distances by the solid-state laser" in May and June, says Mike Booen, the firm's vice president. "It's a world first over open sea."

Imagine what we could achieve if all that money and inventiveness was sunk into creating things rather than blowing them up...

Italian Earthquake Lights

Here's an interesting recent paper on an often disputed phenomenon - "The earthquake lights (EQL) of the 6 April 2009 Aquila earthquake, in Central Italy". Face-to-face surveys with over 1000 people in the wake of the Aquila earthquake turned up a large number of reports of EQL-like sightings...although the paper also showed the difficulty in establishing which of those reports were EQL, rather than more mundane explanations:

Many people reported seeing peculiar sightings of light glows, flashes, lightning, flames and fireballs, all of which were considered candidates for EQL. Three eyewitness reported observing high flames which were later identified as explosions of gas cylinders. Tens of sightings were reported as being particularly luminous points in the sky which, through their collected positions, revealed utilising astronomical software to be the planet Venus. The meteorological situation was also taken into consideration for Aquila so as to discard luminous events of a meteorological nature. Some of such events were observed above the mountains around Aquila and may have originated behind them. For this motif, time and direction of such lightning and the meteorological conditions in Central Italy were also compared. Several atmospheric lights were associated with thunder-storms.

Roughly one hundred sightings were linked with natural phenomena such as sunsets, moon halos and fog illuminations. For example, many witnesses reported seeing a strange moon light which appeared red and was surrounded by a small red halo. This phenomenon was observed at nearly all the locations, from Amatrice to San Pio delle Camere. In this study this phenomenon was considered to be atmospheric. Additionally, eyewitnesses reported observing the breakdown of electrical lines. Many flashes were also compatible with relatively small discharges coming from the ground during the main shock. Being so, the flashes could have been short circuits, given that the area in and around Aquila is highly urbanised. All of these sightings which were identified as being of a natural or anthropogenic source, were excluded from the collection of luminous phenomena.

Nevertheless, after removing the bogus sightings, some 241 reports remained which were suggestive of an EQL phenomenon - including luminous clouds and vapours, aurora-like 'streamers', electrical discharges, columns of fire, and luminous funnels. The conclusion of the report is interesting in its practicality:

Luminous events were observed before the main shock without the ground shaking and were very similar to those reported about two centuries ago. Given this, they could be considered premonitory phenomena...the experience of Carlo Strinella, who had knowledge of EQL, [and who] took measures to protect his family after interpreting some flashes he had sighted before the main shock...suggests that educating the general population about EQL phenomena could help save lives.

For some more interesting reading on the topic, make sure you check out Geoff Falla's Darklore 3 article "Shaking Stars" (available as a free PDF sample on the Darklore website). Thanks to Rick for the heads-up.