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

Spontaneous Human Combustion Explained?

Last year an Irish coroner made headlines by ruling the death of a pensioner as having been caused by "spontaneous human combustion". Though there have been reports of the phenomenon for some 500 years, spontaneous combustion has long inhabited the edges of science, with many writing if off as a spurious mystery. Others though have attempted to solve the mystery scientifically, such as research biologist and author Professor Brian J. Ford. In the wake (no pun intended) of the Irish case, last November Ford put forward his own idea as to how SHC occurs, based around a specific medical note in the case:

The cue comes from the coroner's account of Michael Faherty, who reported that the dead man had been diabetic. Many of the victims of SGC have been obese, and obesity can trigger Type 2 diabetes. The disordered metabolism results in ketone bodies, like acetone; Possible SHC Case of Helen Conwayindeed the tell-tale odour on the breath is often indicative of the disorder... It is a highly inflammable gas: as little as 2.6% in air can explode and its flashpoint is -17.8 degrees C. It can also cause flashback, where a trail of methane can lead ignition back to the source. Acetone is miscible with lipids and could surely render body fat - itself combustible - into a highly flammable compound.

In my view, this offers the perfect explanation. A patient experiences ketosis; acetone and its allies form a reserve in teh fatty tissues of the body and collect in gaseous form under the clothing; the patient is thus potentially inflammable. A static spark from fabric or combing the hair could set off fierce combustion. The energy required to trigger an explosion of gaseous hydrocarbons is as little as 0.02mJ, which falls below the threshold of human perception, whereas static sparks from clothing can produce a painful jolt.

The reported cases support my proposal perfectly. Many of the victims have high levels of body fat, which provide the fuel depot and the likelihood of ketosis. The relatively fat-free extremities often survive the conflagration relatively intact, likewise the heart and intestines. The areas that are consumed are centred around the abdomen, which is where primary fat deposits accumulate.

This is a proposal that should now be investigated.

Since that time, Ford himself has done exactly that, as illustrated in the video lecture excerpts above. He took abdominal tissue from pigs and marinated it in acetone, then made scale models of humans from it and dressed them in clothes. Upon lighting, the models burned to ash within 30 minutes, leaving only protruding limbs - a similar facet to actual reports of SHC, as noted by Ford himself.

The Animal Mind Is More Complex Than Some Think

An influx of news headlines today give food for thought over the way we conceive (and treat) animals. One can only wonder at how continued research in these areas might change the status of animals in future centuries - note the tone of the linked PDF in the story directly below.

Octopuses Gain Consciousness (According to Scientists’ Declaration)

Elephants cooperate to solve problems. Chimpanzees teach youngsters to make tools. Even octopuses seem to be able to plan. So should we humans really be surprised that “consciousness” probably does not only exist in us?

This privileged state of subjective awareness in fact goes well beyond Homo sapiens, according to the new Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (pdf), which was signed last month by a group of cognitive neuroscientists, computational neuroscientists, neuroanatomists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists who attended the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals at Cambridge University in the U.K.

“The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness,” the scientists wrote. “Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

Bonobo genius makes stone tools like early humans did:

Kanzi the bonobo continues to impress. Not content with learning sign language or making up "words" for things like banana or juice, he now seems capable of making stone tools on a par with the efforts of early humans.

Curious Incident of a Dead Giraffe

A curious incident of a deceased giraffe has reopened the question of whether animals mourn their dead.

Zoologists have witnessed a giraffe mother investigating and refusing to leave the body of her dead calf, the third such incident on record.

Other social animals such as elephants and chimpanzees are known to investigate their dead, especially the bodies of their close relatives.

Such behaviour raises the prospect that animals have a "mental model" of death.

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake Explains the Ten Dogmas Holding Science Back

'Maverick biologist' Rupert Sheldrake thinks there is a big problem in science, caused by those who employ it as a belief system, rather than using it as a method of inquiry. He thinks science is being held back by the former, and in his soon-to-be-released book Science Set Free (already available in the UK as The Science Delusion) he offers the "ten dogmas of science" that he thinks need to be treated with more suspicion than they currently are:

  1. That nature is mechanical.
  2. That matter is unconscious.
  3. The laws of nature are fixed.
  4. The totally amount of matter and energy are always the same.
  5. That nature is purposeless.
  6. Biological inheritance is material.
  7. That memories are stored as material traces.
  8. The mind is in the brain.
  9. Telepathy and other psychic phenomena are illusory.
  10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

The 'science delusion' is the uncritical belief in these dogmas, treating them not as beliefs but as truths... Science is much more fun, much more interesting, much more free, when we turn these dogmas into questions.

See the video at the top of this post for Sheldrake's more detailed explanation of these ten dogmas, or better still pick up the book for the complete argument.

US: Science Set Free (released Sept 4, 2012)
UK: The Science Delusion (available now)

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Kickstarter: Let's Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum

Tesla Museum Pitch

There's no shortage of readers of this blog who are interested in the research of Nikola Tesla. So this new IndieGoGo crowd-funding campaign is surely one that Grailers will be interested in: Matthew Inman, creator of the popular webcomic The Oatmeal, is aiming to build a Tesla Museum on the site of the famed scientist's last research lab:

Tesla's final laboratory is located in the sleepy town of Shoreham, New York. It's known as Wardenclyffe and it's where Tesla attempted to build a tower that would provide free wireless energy to the entire earth. Unfortunately, Tesla lost his funding before the project was completed and in 1917 the Wardenclyffe tower was demolished. Subsequently, the land was sold to a film and paper manufacturer.

However, the land, laboratory, and foundation beneath the tower are still there and very recently went up for sale. And right now a non-profit is trying to buy the property and turn it into a Nikola Tesla Museum. The property is listed at $1.6 million, and this non-profit has received a matching grant from New York State of up to $850k. This means that if we can raise $850k, New York State will match us for that same amount -- putting the total raised at $1.7 million.

There is currently another offer on the table from someone who wants to purchase the property potentially tear it down or turn it into a retail establishment. There is no Tesla museum in the United States, despite Tesla's extraordinary accomplishments. If we can outbid this other person and buy the land it will permanently be protected as a historic site and eventually converted into a Nikola Tesla Science Center.

I don't know much about the non-profit that the funds are going to, or if there are already other organizations aiming to preserve Tesla's legacy, or even if the overall goal has merit (here's one critical piece) - so, as always, I urge personal research if you care where your money is going. But if you're happy to go ahead, then chip in - unbelievably, at the time of writing the campaign is only $100,000 short of it's $850,000 goal.

Operation Let's Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum

Controversial Cold Fusion Chemist Dies

British chemist Martin Fleischmann, one of the two scientists involved in the initial, controversial claim of 'cold fusion' back in 1989, has passed away aged 85. Along with his partner Stanley Pons, Fleischmann claimed to have achieved a fusion reaction at room temperature in an experiment at the University of Utah - a breathtaking result that, if true, would have massive implications for future energy production.

However, after a flurry of widespread media attention, further research and replications by other scientists failed to find enough evidence for the cold fusion claim to be accepted. In the absence of support from further testing, Fleischmann and Pons' positive results were soon turned against them, with accusations of shoddy science gaining enough momentum to eventually make 'cold fusion' a heretical topic in scientific circles, and turn the scientists involved into 'poster boys' for pseudo-science. In 2005, Fleischmann described the whole affair as "a terrible experience". Nevertheless, some anomalous cold fusion results have continued to provoke interest in the topic, not least from the U.S. Department of Energy.

One wonders if one day, with future research into the topic, Fleischmann's reputation may be reinstated.

Fleischmann was born in Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis occupied the country in 1938, the family fled to England. To gain legal status for the move, Fleischmann was adopted by a British bachelor.

He studied chemistry at the Imperial College in London, and became known for a strong grasp of mathematics and an imagination unusual for a chemist. He took over the chemistry department of the University of Southampton in 1967 and gave it an international reputation. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, Britain's Academy of Sciences.

After retiring from the university, he spent a lot of time in Salt Lake City, collaborating on experiments with his friend Pons, an American. Together, they decided to revive an idea Fleischmann had years ago. He had speculated that something interesting, perhaps a nuclear reaction, could be achieved by taking advantage of the peculiar behavior of hydrogen atoms infused in palladium, a precious metal.

Source: Associated Press

Four-Dimensional iPad

I've used my iPad for gaming, for eBook reading, for taking notes and doing art. But I haven't yet used it to enter the fourth dimension. Until now...

The Fourth Dimension is a new app for iPad and iPhone. This app is a 30-page interactive book that explains the fourth dimension and lets you directly manipulate a 4D object called a tesseract using a unique touch-based interface.

This is the closest you will ever get to holding a chunk of the fourth dimension in your hand without using dangerous, expensive, and prohibitively theoretical lab equipment.

More information, and a link to the App Store, at the app's website. Love the app's icon too.

EdgeScience #11

Issue 11 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 #11

  • Dr Ian Rubenstein on how he transitioned from an atheistic worldview to becoming a spirit medium.
  • Guy Lyon Playfair explores the science and stories about twins and telepathy.
  • Garret Model ruminates on how to build a machine that could see into the future.
  • Andrew May explains the controversy over "scalar waves".
  • Stephen C. Jett reviews Alice Beck Kehoe's book, "The Kensington Runestone: Approaching a Research Question Holistically".

Don't forget also: 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 $4.95). According to a recent email from the organisation, the SSE "is in serious financial trouble", and so the future of EdgeScience, and the Journal of Scientific Exploration, may well be in doubt. If you value researchers willing to go out on a limb and investigate the fringes of science, then please do support both EdgeScience with a donation, and the SSE with membership/subscription to JSE.

EdgeScience #10

Issue 10 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 10

  • Rupert Sheldrake on the 'Experimenter Effect'.
  • Dean Radin on consciousness research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS).
  • Jack Hunter on anthropology's encounters with the supernatural.

More content as well as that listed above, plus all nine previous issues remain available to download from the website. Remember too that there is an iPad app for viewing the PDF release if you prefer to read it on your favourite Apple device, and you can also 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 $4.95).

Charge of the Quadrotor Army

When the musical robotic quadrotors come for you and your family, will you march to their beat (or at least, their James Bond theme song?

That buzzing sound they make is the sound of humanity's ultimate downfall...

Outcast of Science

Though we posted it in the news briefs last week, I wanted to bring attention to this profile of scientific 'heretic' Rupert Sheldrake in The Guardian. It is, I think, a nice little insight into the life and thinking of a particularly fascinating man, without getting too deeply into the arguments about his research and theories:

Sheldrake is the same age as Dawkins – 70 this year – and though their careers began in an almost identical biochemical place, they could hardly have ended up further apart. If Sheldrake's ideas could be boiled down to a sentence, you might borrow one from Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Richard, than are dreamt of in your philosophy…"

"What we have in common," Sheldrake says, "is that we are both certain that evolution is the central feature of nature. But I would say his theory of evolution stops at biology. When it comes to cosmology, for example, he has little to say. I would take the evolutionary principle there, too. I think that the 'laws of nature' are also prone to evolve; I think they are more like habits than laws. Much of what we are beginning to understand is that they clearly have evolved differently in different parts of the universe."

The comments below the article are another matter. Which ironically perhaps illustrate Sheldrake's criticisms of 'scientific fundamentalism' better than even he can.