News Briefs 16-05-2016

Duty called...

Quote of the Day:

"More human than human" is our motto.

Eldon Tyrell (Blade Runner)

News Briefs 13-05-2016

“The methods of science aren't foolproof, but they are indefinitely perfectible.”

With thanks to Kat!

Quote of the Day:

“The distinction between responsible moral agents and beings with diminished or no responsibility is coherent, real, and important.”

Daniel Dennett

News Briefs 12-05-2016

The first rule of Dunning-Kruger Club is...

Thanks Kat.

Quote of the Day:

There’s enough [UFO] stories out there that I don’t think everybody is just sitting in their kitchen making them up."

Hillary Clinton

I Know What I Saw: On the 'Unreliability' of UFO Eyewitnesses

I Want to Believe

Over on her blog at National Geographic, science writer Nadia Drake - the daughter of SETI pioneer Frank Drake - has taken Hillary Clinton to task for recent comments made about UFOs. "There’s enough [UFO] stories out there," Clinton remarked during an FM radio show interview, "that I don’t think everybody is just sitting in their kitchen making them up."

Drake notes her disappointment "that influential people are helping fan the flames of conspiracy theories", saying it was "unhelpful and irresponsible for Clinton" to be "teasing the public". Hillary, she says, is wrong to put any stock in eye-witness reports:

Check out the decades of research that have been done on the reliability of witnesses testifying in court. In these situations, our brains often fill in or edit details based on preconceived biases or post-encounter information—and then we subconsciously convince ourselves that our memories are accurate when in fact, they’re not.

This is where Clinton’s reasoning about people sitting in their kitchens making stuff up falls apart. Beliefs are potent. The brain is a powerful tool, and it can lead us to some incredibly wrong recollections and conclusions. And in these situations, assuming there’s safety in numbers is foolish (for more on that topic, start with the Salem witch trials).

Drake is right, of course, that eye-witness testimony can be flakey, and we should be very cautious in trusting it. However, to swing to the extreme and simply write off the vast number of sightings is also misguided.

Consider, for example, the eye-witness reports a few hundred years ago of an obviously ridiculous 'phenomenon': that rocks fell from the sky. For a very long time these reports of meteorite falls were dismissed as fanciful, or at the very best a confused sighting of some other phenomenon. It wasn't until a confluence of factors around 1800 - ranging from influential publications to bizarre meteor showers - that opinion began to shift towards the belief that rocks did indeed fall from the sky.

One of those incidents was the 'Wold Newton Meteorite' fall in England in 1795, near the home of magistrate Major Edward Topham. Topham was acutely aware of the controversial nature of such incidents at that time, and thus “as a magistrate, I took [the witnesses] accounts upon oath”. Topham had some choice words for those who chose to dismiss these reports. “I mean not to enter into any literary warfare with those sceptics, who think it much easier to doubt every word of this account than to believe such an event could take place,” he remarked. “There is no shorter way of disposing of any thing than to deny or disbelieve it”.

Once the reality of meteorite falls became established, the historian Eusebius Salverte pointed out that scientists' failure to recognise the truth of the matter for so long was borne out of "a predetermination to see nothing, or to deny what we had seen."

And another meteor controversy that ran parallel with the 'rocks from the sky' debate was also often dismissed based simply on the supposed fallibility of eye-witnesses. When a large fireball tore across the sky over England in 1719, a witness reported that it...

...made so strong a light while it was in its greatest extent, that for a moment the Moon, which was above a day past the first quarter, and all the stars, seem'd to disappear by the superiority of this new light; and at that moment one might have read the smallest print by it. While it was throwing itself into this beautiful stream, I thought I heard a noise of hissing, like what is made by the flying of a large rocket in the air, but I heard no other noise.

Others too heard similar noises when the bolide lit the sky that night. But the famous and influential astronomer Edmund Halley (whom Halley’s Comet is named after) was quick to dismiss these claims as “pure fantasy”. Halley’s reasoning was based in hard science: from various ground observations of the bolide’s flight, he had been able to triangulate the height of the fireball. At more than 60 miles distant, Halley noted that it would have been impossible for anybody to hear the fireball at the same time as seeing it: as sound travels at ‘only’ around a fifth of a mile per second, it would have taken some five minutes to hear anything related to the event.

But over the years, people kept reporting this same 'impossible' thing. In 1784 Thomas Blagdon gathered a number of similar reports, but suggested that they might best be explained psychologically, as being the result of “an affrighted imagination”. And yet the reports kept coming. Almost 200 years after Halley's 'debunking', the famous astronomer W.F. Denning would note that "hissing and similar noises…may be dismissed as imaginary…[an] observational illusion… They are either imaginative or due to causes not directly connected with the phenomena observed". In 1932, C.C. Wylie, Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa, illustrated once again the dangers of using the words “without doubt” when he wrote that “the explanation [for meteoric sounds] is without doubt psychological”. In fact, even after the turn of the 21st century, I have seen skeptics dismissing these reports as nonsense.

But it turns out that these noises are real, and have even been recorded. Much is still unknown about them, but these 'electrophonic meteors' are now theorised to emit VLF (Very Low Frequency) electromagnetic waves - which travel at the speed of light - and transduce sound in objects near the witness, or perhaps even within their head.

Why did it take more than 200 years - during the great age of science no less - for scientists to recognise that witnesses were reliably reporting the phenomenon, and it was they who were wrong? Firstly, electrophonic meteors were said to exhibit impossible behaviour (instantaneous sounds). Also, they occurred suddenly, without notice, usually to witnesses alone or in small groups, often in remote areas and/or in the middle of the night, who provided the often dismissed 'anecdote' rather than more desired 'evidence'. They were extremely capricious in the manner in which multiple witnesses in the same group might report different sounds (or no sound at all). And for a long time, the fireballs themselves were unidentified objects - without a solid understanding of what they actually were (i.e. rocks falling from the sky), the mechanism behind the production of such anomalous sounds remained a mystery.

Sound familiar?

I'm all for being skeptical of eyewitness reports of UFOs. But let's not be so silly to dismiss them all out of hand without investigating the truly perplexing ones. Otherwise we might be missing out on something very important (and that certainly doesn't have to mean 'alien craft').

News Briefs 11-05-2016

I'm sure there's a turtle-y reasonable explanation…

  • NASA just detected oxygen in the Martian atmosphere.
  • Oldest known axe discovered in Australia, claim researchers.
  • Does the brain filter out a wider awareness?
  • Lessons from 'living cadavers'.
  • Will we ever know why Nazi leader Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland in the middle of World War II?
  • New evidence may help solve famous Rendlesham UFO incident.
  • Earth's mantle moves up and down 'like a yo-yo'.
  • Severe droughts explain the fall of the Maya.
  • NASA's Kepler Mission announces largest collection of planets ever discovered.
  • Japanese diver tends an underwater shinto shrine for 25 years, makes friends with a local fish. (h/t @metaleptic)
  • Psychedelic activists aren't the LSD-dropping hippie flakes you think they are.
  • Literally "knowing by heart": Signals from heart to brain prompt feelings of familiarity.
  • Russia's 'Satan II' missile to be deployed by 2018.
  • Why are Russia's journalists so prone to conspiracy theory? (Entertainingly bad English)

Quote of the Day:

Science is a turtle that says that its own shell encloses all things.

Charles Fort

Damned Facts: Fortean Essays on Religion, Folklore and the Paranormal

Damned Facts Book Cover

Forteans, take note: a new book, edited by our good friend Jack Hunter (Paranthropology, Talking With the Spirits), provides a fascinating anthology of essays that are sure to be of interest to you. Damned Facts: Fortean Essays on Religion, Folklore and the Paranormal (Amazon US/Amazon UK) features contributions from the likes of Jeff Kripal, David Clarke, David V. Barrett and others, covering topics ranging from William James to John Keel's Mothman.

Here's Gary Lachman's summary of the book:

Jack Hunter's Damned Facts, a collection of well-researched and closely argued essays into all things anomalous, presents some delightful, fascinating, and eye-brow raising evidence that there are more things in heaven and earth-and anywhere in between-than are dreamed of in practically anyone's philosophy. Taking their cue from the original anomalist, Charles Fort, who argued that mystery begins everywhere, Hunter and his contributors plunge headfirst into some deep waters and drag up to the surface enough oddities to satisfy even the most discerning taste in the unusual. It's my bet that Fort himself would have been damned proud.

Links: Purchase Damned Facts: Fortean Essays on Religion, Folklore and the Paranormal at Amazon US or Amazon UK.

News Briefs 10-05-2016

Earth is an alien planet...

Thanks Baldrick.

Quote of the Day:

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it.

Edith Wharton

Alien Planet Passes in Front of Our Sun

Just in case you needed reminding of how knee-tremblingly epic our Sun is, NASA has released video of yesterday's Mercury transit as shot by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. And it is full. Of. The. Awes.

Less than once per decade, Mercury passes between the Earth and the sun in a rare astronomical event known as a planetary transit. The 2016 Mercury transit occurred on May 9th, between roughly 7:12 a.m. and 2:42 p.m. EDT.

The images in this video are from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO.

Music: Encompass by Mark Petrie

For more info on the Mercury transit go to: http://www.nasa.gov/transit

The music is excellent, but can someone also do a version with John Murphy's 'Adagio in D Minor' from the Sunshine soundtrack?

Has a Lost Maya City Been Found By a 15-Year-Old Based on Ancient Star Maps?

Is this a lost city of the Maya

Almost three decades after Robert Bauval made headlines - and generated plenty of discussion and debate - with his controversial 'Orion Correlation Theory' (the suggestion that pyramids in Egypt were sited in particular locations in order to resemble the stars in the constellation of Orion), a new story is hitting headlines around the world today claiming that a 'lost' Maya city has been located in the Americas, through the matching of star locations to the placement of ancient cities.

What makes the story even more incredible is that the discoverer is a 15-year-old school student! William Gadoury from Quebec was perplexed as to "why the Maya built their cities away from rivers, on marginal lands and in the mountains", and "as they worshipped the stars" wondered if they might have chosen the location of its towns and cities to mirror the imagery of the sky.

He found Mayan cities lined up exactly with stars in the civilization's major constellations. Studying the star map further, he discovered one city was missing from a constellation of three stars.

Using satellite images provided by the Canadian Space Agency and then mapped on to Google Earth, he discovered the city where the third star of the constellation suggested it would be.

The similarities to Bauval's work don't end there. According to a French-language Wikipedia page the constellation that Gadoury identified with the star that had no corresponding city was the Maya version of Orion. "Three of the stars of this constellation form a triangle, are: Alnitak ( Zeta Orionis ), Rigel (Beta Orionis) and Saiph ( saiph )", it notes, with two of those corresponding to the ancient Mayan cities of Calakmul and El Mirador. But the third star did not correspond to any known Maya site, leading him to assume that - if his city/correlation theory was correct - there would be a 'lost' city hiding in that position. And, using high-resolution satellite imagery, courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency, Gadoury claims to have found exactly that.

Others with more substantial credentials have agreed:

Doctor Armand La Rocque, from the University of New Brunswick, said one image showed a street network and a large square which could possibly be a pyramid. He told The Independent: "A square is not natural, it is mostly artificial and can hardly be attributed to natural phenomena. "If we add these together, we have a lot of indication there might be a Mayan city in the area.".

Sounds exciting as hell, and if true is a stunning discovery about the importance of the night sky to ancient people. But let's also stop and breathe a little. The 'discovery' is currently based on seemingly geometric figures spotted on a satellite photograph - nobody has actually visited the area yet to confirm there is actually a lost city there. Furthermore, even if ancient ruins are discovered where Gadoury claims they should be, does it confirm the constellation correlation theory, or is it just a matter of there being so many sites in the Americas that you can 'join the dots' any way you like? (Though personally, that seems a bridge too far given the amount of corresponding sites he has claimed to have found already.)

What seems a little odd is that this isn't actually a new story - Gadoury first got media attention for his theory as a 13-year-old in 2014 and began searching for the 'lost city' later that year. CBC spoke to Daniel De Lisle of the Canadian Space Agency, who noted that the CSA first came into contact with Gadoury at a conference in 2014 - "at that time William won [a science] exposition, and one of the prizes was for him to present his project at this international conference...his booth was right beside ours; we just chit-chatted with him, and realized there was a high potential for him to make an interesting discovery, and we decided to support him":

William did a first project trying to make a correlation between the locations of the stars with the different constellations, and tried to understand how they could identify the various cities - and he made an almost 90% correlation between the fact that the stars locations could pinpoint the cities.

And one of the studies he did, he found a constellation that had no specific location on the ground. So what the space agency did was provide him with a few images over the area of interest...so he could see with the high-resolution imagery that we provided him with to try and locate this hidden or unknown city.

It could be that archaeologists just haven't treated the claim as a genuine one in the intervening time - given both the 'fringe' nature of the theory, and that it is coming from a teenager. But the coverage being given to the story now should guarantee that it gets more serious investigation.

The next logical step would seem to be to get out there and see if those geometric figures truly are a lost city. If it is...game on!

Update: Gizmodo have posted an article on this same topic, and in recent updates have included skeptical comments by archaeologists and anthropologists. One of those is Mesoamerican expert David Stuart, who in a Facebook post labeled the lost city claim as "false":

The whole thing is a mess -- a terrible example of junk science hitting the internet in free-fall. The ancient Maya didn't plot their ancient cities according to constellations. Seeing such patterns is a rorschach process, since sites are everywhere, and so are stars. The square feature that was found on Google Earth is indeed man-made, but it's an old fallow cornfield, or milpa.