News Briefs 06-05-2008

Time for a nice cuppa.

Thanks Greg

Quote of the Day:

My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London

The Michelangelo Code

We've all had quite enough of that Da Vinci guy this decade - but now a new book suggests that Michelangelo also hid messages in his artwork, most notoriously in the Sistine Chapel Fresco. In the book The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican. (Amazon US and UK), authors Roy Doline and Rabbi Benjamin Blech claim...

...that Michelangelo embedded powerful and even dangerous messages in the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, that he encoded these messages using his knowledge of mystic Jewish texts and that he intended some images as insults to the pope.

...According to Doliner and Blech, Kabbalah is the key to cracking the code of many of Michelangelo's hidden messages. But their first clue didn't come from an art historian. Rather, it came from a tourist from Indiana who looked up at the famous panel of "The Creation of Adam," and was reminded of something else.

"In the late 1970s, a surgeon went into the Sistine Chapel, took a look at this [fresco]. He said to himself, wait, this is Anatomy 101.… This is actually a cross-section of the brain, the right hand side of the brain," Blech said.

An interesting comment on the similarity to a brain cross-section - see the ABC News picture gallery for this story to a visual guide. Not a sacred feminine in sight though...

Cycles of Destruction

Saw this story at Science-a-GoGo and wondered why it wasn't being reported more widely:

A new computer model of our solar system's movement relative to the Milky Way indicates that it "bounces" up and down through the plane of the galaxy; a cycle that scientists say is a "beautiful match" with the mass extinction events that occur periodically on Earth.

Writing in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the scientists at the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology that built the computer model say that during certain periods in the bounce, gravitational forces from surrounding gas and dust clouds could dislodge comets from their paths. These comets could then plunge into our solar system, some of them colliding with the Earth.

Worth noting is that one of the scientists involved, Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, is a pioneer of the theory of Panspermia. Just now he's added a bit of "destroying life" to his theory of "seeding life" I guess!

Though the story ends with the apocalyptic hint that we're due for another 'bounce', at least with the 35 million year time frame the phrase "give or take a million" has some serious meaning...

News Briefs 05-05-2008

Blast from the past -- a mostly-history edition.
But first, just to keep you on your toes, here's a blast from the future that's in the past (2nd Indy trailer), and from the past that's in the future (new Star Trek prequel movie). ;-)

  • Vikings: from ram-raiders to fishmongers.
  • Wraps come off Westminster Abbey's carpet of stone -- a medieval mosaic foretelling the end of the world.
  • Neanderthals were separate species, says new human family tree.
  • Is our fragile relationship with Nature simply a feature of the modern age, or a recurrent feature of the last ten millennia of farming? What if we look back further still – were things more stable when there were only hunters and gatherers in the world? Martin Jones' book, Feast: Why Humans Share Food, is available at Amazon US & UK.
  • African rock art: The continent's true history.
  • The pharaoh Akhenaten - so strange-looking his family kept him hidden from public view until he ascended the throne - is to be the focus of this year's Historical Clinicopatholoical Conference, held each year to diagnose disorders that afflicted prominent historical figures.
  • Scientists chip away at mystery of Stonehenge.
  • Evoking the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Ark of the Covenant is crated and carted into obscurity inside a cavernous government archive, artifacts from a $10m archaeological dig now languish in storage.
  • In his knockout book The Jesus Sayings: The Quest for His Authentic Message (Amazon US & UK), author Rex Weyler sorts myth from history, and explains why we need both.
  • Having undergone massive renovations over the past year, the oldest archaeological site in North America - the Rockshelter at Meadowcroft - is to reopen to the public on Saturday. More.
  • Corporate jollies to oust 'cultural fuddy-duddies' from Pompeii ruins.
  • Did LSD change Britain?
  • Rainforest seeds revive lost paradise.
  • Off Chile, signs of hope for whales.
  • Sinking without a trace: Australia's climate change victims.
  • Straight out of Hitchcock (and maybe Earthfiles): Huge flocks of ravens are on a killing spree, attacking defenceless victims and eating them alive.
  • The world's first bionic sea creature.
  • Ape Genius reveals depth of animal intelligence.
  • 3-Foot-Diameter Sphere Retrieved By Ambulance in Decatur, Alabama. "...the best I can describe it is a giant pearl - a shiny, white sphere."
  • Strange aerial lights like Texas -- but now photographed in Indiana, Illinois, and Massachusetts.
  • Who knows what evil lurks? Tourism Bureau offers $50,000 reward for definitive answer.
  • Is that lettuce really out to get you?

Quote of the Day:

Thirty thousand years ago there were at least four species of Homo alive on earth. When reflecting on our own evolutionary success, it is salutary to remember that our close relatives have not shared in that success. To be blunt, the hominid line as a whole has been short-lived and is mostly extinct. We are the exceptions, and are so because we are avid experimenters, compulsive chancers. That is how, in an epoch when the climate has grown more changeable, and Nature more fickle, we have spread to all latitudes and all parts of the globe.

Martin Jones, George Pitt-Rivers Professor of Archaeological Science at the University of Cambridge

Charles Fort - Jim Steinmeyer

We all grew up hearing those "believe it or not" tales of spontaneous combustion, frogs and fish falling from the sky, and other strange phenomena. Most of the general public don't know, however, that these impossible anecdotes originated not from scientific studies, but from the research of one man: Charles Fort. Spending untold hours in libraries, scanning newspapers and journals for strange happenings, Fort's work was so groundbreaking and far-ranging that these phenomena are now known by the simple appellation, 'Fortean'. However, while the word Fortean may be well-known, even appearing in the Oxford dictionary, the man himself remains a mystery to most.

Publishing house Tarcher Penguin have gone a long way to remedying this oversight however, with the simultaneous release (in the U.S.) of two books which - together as a compendium - offer a wonderful path to understanding more about the origins and subject matter of Forteana: Jim Steinmeyer's biography Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural (Amazon US and UK), and the anthology The Book of the Damned: The Collected Works of Charles Fort (Amazon US and UK). The latter is made up of Fort's four best-known books - Lo!, New Lands, Wild Talents, and the Book of the Damned - and features an introduction by Steinmeyer as well.

One can't underestimate the task Jim Steinmeyer takes on in telling the life story of the "mad genius of the Bronx". An intensely private man, Fort spent most of his adult life researching in libraries, writing at home, or relaxing with his wife Annie - hardly the makings of a cracking read. But if you can make the Statue of Liberty disappear - Steinmeyer is a renowned magical designer and historian, whose credits include the invention of David Copperfield's famous New York illusion - then illuminating the life and works of this one, strange American man shouldn't be too much of a step up.

He accomplishes this task through the words of the man himself. Using autobiographical notes, book excerpts and correspondence, Steinmeyer explores the harsh childhood Fort endured, his growth into a career in journalism and writing, and the formation of personal philosophies related to Monism - seeing connections between all things - and yet at the same time an exceptional skepticism of anything orthodox or authoritarian. Even when Fort began (unintentionally) attracting his own 'devotees' - the Fortean Society - he felt the urge to poke fun at the institution:

Magicians and the Paranormal

If you fake magic, do you believe in real magic? Skeptic and paranormal researcher Dr Richard Wiseman has surveyed over 400 performers of stage magic to see what their opinion is of the paranormal, and written about the results in an interesting article for Skepchick (with more details on his own website).

Magicians make their living by performing the impossible. Night after night they employ sophisticated sleight of hand and technological wizardry to make objects vanish into thin air, read minds, and generally defy the laws of physics. So, when it comes to the paranormal, you might expect them to be somewhat skeptical. Even a brief glance at the history books would confirm such expectations, with several well known magicians taking time out from their busy schedules to pour cold water on psychic claims.

Dr Wiseman is playing to his audience somewhat here, as such a "brief glance at the history books" could perhaps give you completely the opposite impression - see George Hansen's article "Magicians Who Endorsed Psychic Phenomena" for details.

The poll ended up showing that around 1 in 4 magicians believe paranormal phenomena may exist (and much the same number even said they had experienced paranormal phenomena themselves). The only surprising thing about this number really is that it is much lower than previous surveys have suggested. One might argue that this decrease is only natural in light of the 'hipness' of magicians (and skeptics) Penn and Teller, Randi etc at this point in time. (It would also be good to see a list of the sources employed by Dr Wiseman, to check for possible biases either way - he says only that "the link to the online survey was placed on various magic-related sites and discussion groups".)

I did have to laugh though when I read this rather ironic short quote:

Of course, it is always possible that the answers given by some performers do not reflect their genuine beliefs and experiences (after all, this is a group that deceive for a living!)

Now, I'm assuming that Dr Wiseman here is offering a possible 'out' as to whether the performers really did have these paranormal "experiences". But Richard Wiseman is himself a magician, therefore...

Weekend Blogscan 03-05-2008

A few things to keep you busy over the weekend...


PerfectLand... Not!

I just found these animated shorts, and I think it would be of interest for the TDG community. They are part of a series called 'PerfectLand', directed by Benjamin Meinhardt for the Mtv network.

Coming from a source like Mtv, it does feel like a hypocrite message, especially since they are also sponsored by a cell phone company called boostmobile, and I guess the marketing wizards o Mtv have never bothered to study how enviromentally hazardous cell phones are —consider also that many of the music videos that run today are promoting some new hot cell phone, so they are indirectly imprinting the message of throwing your old boring 6-month-obsolete mobile to the trash can in favor of the newest gadget to the younger audiences.

Nevertheless, I really liked these shorts, and I think you'll enjoy them too. It's a nice reminder that if you mess with Motha' Neichur, she's eventually gonna have the last laugh...

Expelled, Evo-Devo and Nazism

Alan Boyle has posted a review/commentary of the Intelligent Design movie Expelled on his 'Cosmic Log'. Alan's always posting great stuff over there, and this is another example of that - but I thought I'd give it a mention here as it served (passively) as a bit of a fulcrum to my reading this week.

Firstly, Alan talked to evolutionary biologist Sean B. Carroll about the movie, and coincidentally I had just finished reading Steve Talbott's Antimatters article "Can the New Science of Evo–Devo Explain the Form of Organisms?". The article references Carroll as an authority on new developments in evolutionary theory, in discussing the 'design' aspects of living creatures and whether orthodox science really does explain how 'form' imposes itself upon physical creations.

When evolutionary biologists hear someone express wonder over the mammalian eye or peacock’s feathers, and when this wonder shades into incredulity about the usual sort of explanation for such things, all too often the biologists’ immediate assumption is that they’re up against an antagonist who doesn’t believe the eye or feather can be understood scientifically and who therefore wants to invoke some extra-scientific, and perhaps miraculous, explana-tion. And in fact some of the critics of evolution want to do exactly this.

More promisingly, we can step out of that fractious dispute and view the battlefield from a new level, where it becomes possible to grant the legitimate concerns of both sides. The scientist is absolutely justified in demanding unexceptioned respect for lawful, normal physical and biological process. Any attempt to introduce violations of this process leads immediately to nonsense.

But at the same time the incredulity the critic feels when contemplating the wonders of biological form is fully and emphatically justified. We should look at the eye and feather with disbelief in the usual manner of explanation. This, however, is not because we need miracles or violations of physical law. No, what we are disconcerted about is the claim that form has been explained by a description of processes from which considerations of form have been excluded as far as possible. Our unease is with the incommensurability between the explanation and what it is supposed to explain. The incommensurability, as I’ve tried to show above, results from the attempt to explain form by reference to mechanisms assumed to be both independent of form and the causes of it — when in fact we can make sense of the so-called “mechanisms” only by reference to the form we are supposedly explaining.

Secondly, another of the key points in Alan's article - disputing the portrayal in Expelled of a link between evolutionary thinking and Nazism/fascism - was also discussed in another article I read this week, "The Atheist Delusion" by John Gray (which I linked to yesterday). Gray took the 'new Atheists' to task for ignoring obvious historical instances of atheism being at the centre of evil deeds, and made some good points.

I found both these articles (and Alan's as well) to be balanced, insightful and thought-provoking, but also critical at appropriate times. In short, intelligent articles well worth reading and discussing.

The Sounds of Paranormal...Meteors?

Readers of Darklore Volume 1 will (hopefully!) have perused my article "Her Sweet Murmur: Exploring the Aural Phenomenology of Border States" (aw heck, for all you cheapskates - it's also available as a free PDF download at the Darklore website). In it I note how various 'paranormal' phenomena seem to be preceded by certain sounds. As such, I was very interested to read Colin Keay's article in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Volume 7, Issue 4), "Progress in Explaining the Mysterious Sounds Produced by Very Large Fireballs":

For about ten percent of those who do witness a very luminous meteor fireball, the mental impression is heightened by strange swishing, hissing and popping noises coincident with its passage across the sky. Such sounds are quite anomalous in that they imply acoustic propagation at the speed of light. This anomaly was first recognized more than two centuries ago, and has defied explanation until quite recently.

To clarify the 'anomaly' part - these bolides are often more than 50km away, so no noise should be hear (or if so, at the very least it should be delayed by a significant time due to the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound.

Keay catalogues various historical instances of these strange sounds - including 'swishing'/wind blowing and 'buzzing' aural phenomena, similar to those I listed in my article, preceding strange sightings of UFOs, entities and 'the Virgin Mary'. Additionally, sometimes only certain people in a group of witnesses reported 'hearing' the sounds - again, another point of intersection with my article.

I'm certainly not saying that these fireballs were paranormal events. In fact, Keay points out that James Oberg has noted a similar effect in witnesses to Space Shuttle re-entries. He also points out that 'rushing' sounds have also been documented preceding earthquake events. This suggests that the mechanism underlying paranormal events (at least, those that I concentrated on which were preceded by a certain noise) may be the same as that which lies behind meteor and earthquake phenomena. Keay's conclusion is that this is ELF/VLF electromagnetic radiation (which would probably go far to explaining various other aspects of UFO close encounters).

Dr Michael Persinger has already explored some of these avenues, but there's not really space here to discuss in detail. But, as I mention in my Darklore article, there are still questions as to how such a 'prosaic' explanation (relatively speaking) can explain other aspects of paranormal encounters - not least, when groups of people see the same thing.

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say...