News Briefs 18-06-2008

Nothing beats drinking from the Grail to the sound of sublime cello.

Thanks Greg and Kat.

Quote of the Day:

T]he existence of mind in some organism on some planet in the universe is surely a fact of fundamental significance. Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no minor byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here.

Paul Davies

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” 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...

Paul Davies Abducted by Aliens?

Professor Paul Davies is recognised as an extremely eloquent and open-minded thinker on scientific topics, having authored more than twenty books on subjects from quantum physics to astrobiology, and cosmological speculation which sometimes borders on religious philosophy.

Alien Worlds magazine managed to score an interview with Davies recently, and were treated to some fascinating revelations from the respected cosmologist. He told how he had experienced lucid dreams, and related it to the 'alien abduction' experience:

The one situation where I do feel I have an understanding of what’s going on is with alien abduction, which I think are closely related to lucid dreams.

If you don’t know you are dreaming, I think these lucid dreams can be very scary and have all of the hallmarks of an abduction experience. I think that is easily the most plausible explanation for what’s going on there.

The upshot of all this is, in principle we could be being visited but I don’t think we are. I don’t think it is happening now and if it is, I’m very disappointed in ET.

You can read further extracts from the interview - which are equally as fascinating - on the Alien Worlds blog:

As scientists I think we should be open minded and be prepared to look at the evidence and in the case of UFOs, I’m one of the few scientists who has actually looked at the evidence. I’ve read the Condon Report which came out of Project Blue Book and talked to witnesses. Obviously people see things in the sky all the time and the vast majority of sightings are just misperceptions or atmospheric phenomena of various sorts.

Then there’s a tougher residue that’s harder to explain and I would say two things about those. One is that these are real experiences - I don’t think anyone is lying. The second thing is that to me, they don’t have the hallmark of extraterrestrial visitation and it is not what I would expect from ET. So whatever lies behind this, and there may be different explanations for different things, I don’t think will be extraterrestrial visitation will be one of them.

The full interview can be found in Issue 3 of Alien Worlds - purchasing/subscription details can be found on the AW website.

News Briefs 17-06-08

More weirdness.

Thanks Greg

Quote of the Day:

Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.

Mark Twain

Tuesday Blogscan 17-06-2008

A strange assortment to get you through the week...


Special Effects Wizard Passes

Special effects wizard Stan Winston passed away yesterday, aged 62. Winston was the creator of some of the modern era's greatest sci-fi 'monster' characters, working on Aliens, Terminator, Predator and Jurassic Park, among many other movies (and winning Oscars for a number of them). Such an amazing body of work, one of science fiction's greatest in my opinion (those writers always get all the credit, time to change that).

Mars lander may have found ice

The Mars Phoenix lander has found a patch of what looks like ice after scraping away a thin layer of soil. NASA scientists are being coy and cautious about the discovery, but this jaw-dropping photograph says a thousand words. I certainly don't need to write any more about it, just click the link and prepare to be amazed. Is it ice, salt, rock... or bone? If only the lander was mounted with a flame-thrower. This is amazing news, stay tuned.

News Briefs 16-06-2008

To paraphrase Pogo...
We have met the space aliens and they are us.

Quote of the Day:

Is the house of the soul a mere bungalow with a cellar? Or does it have an upstairs above the ground floor of consciousness as well as a garbage-littered basement beneath?

Aldous Huxley

Life from the Heavens?

Ten years ago we were hit with the hype surrounding the 'Martian meteorites', believed to have brought life to Earth. After subsequent events, all has gone quiet on the 'panspermia' front - however, the details of a story posted at Yahoo News this weekend may have a significant impact (pardon the pun).

Genetic material from outer space found in a meteorite in Australia may well have played a key role in the origin of life on Earth, according to a study to be published Sunday. European and US scientists have proved for the first time that two bits of genetic coding, called nucleobases, contained in the meteor fragment, are truly extraterrestrial...

...A team of European and US scientists showed that the two types of molecules in the Australian meteorite contained a heavy form of carbon -- carbon 13 -- which could only have been formed in space.

"We believe early life may have adopted nucleobases from meteoric fragments for use in genetic coding, enabling them to pass on their successful features to subsequent generations," Martins said.

It's important to note that these are just chemicals that have been found - though important ones in the building blocks of life on Earth. So it certainly doesn't offer proof that life here on Earth originated elsewhere (see Bad Astronomy for some cautionary notes). Still, it's very interesting news and certainly gives panspermia advocates some evidence to argue from. (Thanks Rick)

Expelling Sheldrake

Biologist P.Z. Myers has become somewhat of an Internet phenomenon on account of his ascerbic blog Pharyngula, on which he often attacks those who dispute the theory of evolution (generally grouped by Myers under the one heading, 'Creationists'). Though his blog was already insanely popular, his star fully rose when he was kicked out of a preview showing of the Intelligent Design movie Expelled (ironically, Richard Dawkins attended with him, but was let in).

In a posting this week on Pharyngula, Myers turned his attention to psi research, with a diatribe aimed at Rupert Sheldrake. In it, he labeled Sheldrake as being "nuts", going on to say "I've read enough of Sheldrake's work to know what a godawful load of substanceless bollocks he can spew at will." Apart from the personal attacks, Myers also said Sheldrake's experiments "are exercises in gullibility, anecdote, and sloppy statistics....You can't just simply carry out a Fortean exercise in collecting odd anecdotes and unexplained phenomena."

I spoke to Rupert Sheldrake about the Pharyngula post yesterday, and here's what he had to say in response:

[W]ith such a farrago of prejudice, ignorance and arrogance, it’s hard to know where to begin. It doesn’t really seem worth replying to people who aren’t interested in the facts but simply in venting their rage.

Myers has not taken the trouble to read any of my experiments on telephone telepathy nor any of my other research on the subject and is obviously as bigoted as Dawkins himself. For example when he refers to my experiments as "exercises in gullibility, anecdote and sloppy statistics" the only thing he refers to is an attack by some sceptics on my staring research based on a fallacious argument which I’ve already refuted in the Skeptical Inquirer.

He has not taken the trouble to look at the telephone telepathy or email telepathy experiments, published in peer-reviewed journals, which are based not on anecdotes but on randomized controlled tests. Then he accuses me of not proposing any theory for telepathy, which in fact I have done. But there’s nothing one can do about ranters of this kind, who are beyond the reach of science and reason.

Some of the comments following his blog are equally sad and remind me of the low level of debate found on the Dawkins website where people vie with each other in their prejudice, sneering and nastiness.

Personally, I have to say I find this attack by Myers to be off-base, and in some ways, confused. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, he attacks Sheldrake based on an article which is - quite simply - a rather shocking indictment of Richard Dawkins...and Myers doesn't have a word of criticism for Dawkins (or, at the very least, the production company behind the 'Enemies of Reason' series). Additionally, it's unclear whether Myers even read the article, as he claims Sheldrake simply indulges in "Fortean exercises collecting anecdotes", despite Sheldrake pointing out in the article (to Dawkins) that his experiments have been published through peer-review.

Also, Myers fails to mention anything about Sheldrake's detailed and intelligent rebuttals to criticism of his experiments, such as this one - which inspired the editor of The Skeptic to introduce Sheldrake's response by saying "Is it possibly the case that Sheldrake is even more sceptical than the sceptics?"

P.Z. Myers seems to see enemies everywhere, insidious in their attempts to overthrow science - often betrayed by the loaded language of his post (e.g. "Notice the devious twist?"). He fails to distinguish between Sheldrake's scientific research, and his enjoyable speculations (as can be found in the 'Trialogue' series with Terence McKenna and Ralph Abraham). And instead of laying out his problems with the evidence collected by Sheldrake, he relies on an ad hominem attack, with plenty of straw men to boot.

Sheldrake has collected some intriguing evidence of anomalies in science. Whether his results will be confirmed in further tests is still to be seen (though there have been some negative and positive replications thus far). But Sheldrake - probably the most eloquent of spokespersons for research into anomalies - has faced up to attacks for the past couple of decades now, and some his previous words are probably a good response to P.Z. Myers' post on Pharyngula:

To accept [the existence of psi] would not involve the abandonment of science and reason, and the collapse of civilization as we know it; rather it would extend the scope of science and of evolutionary understanding....I am a sceptic, but of a different kind. His scepticism is directed towards anything he regards as "paranormal", taking as normal that which lies within the limits of current scientific understanding. My scepticism is directed towards the assumption that we know enough to proclaim what is possible and what is not.

Certainly would be interesting to see a debate between Sheldrake and Myers.