Archive for the ‘Science’ Category
Well, an acquaintance showed me some exciting video the other day. It was of Kanzi, a Bonobo that has learned to communicate with humans by pointing at symbols. Kanzi knows thousands of symbols, and videos of him are all over youtube. It’s pretty impressive stuff. Kanzi can give and understand a vast array of commands, and interacts with his handlers regularly using the symbols. To primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who has been studying Kanzi all Kanzi’s life, Kanzi exhibits “advanced linguistic aptitude.” Kanzi has even been interviewed on TV, heck, how many people can say that? Is the Kanzi the breakthrough primatologists have been striving for for decades, have humans and an animal learned to communicate? Well, yes. The more important question though is this, is Kanzi the the holy grail of animal communication research, has Kanzi learned to speak?
Alas, while there is a lot to be learned from Kanzi research, don’t place any pre-orders for handy Bonobo house servants. Let’s start from the beginning. In 1969 a chimpanzee named Washoe rocked the scientific world, the first chimp to learn sign language. Washoe was a media sensation, and launched a whole raft of primate sign language research. People everywhere loved the idea that chimps could talk. Sure, their vocal cords can’t pronounce human words, but with sign language, that barrier was broken! Unfortunately, upon closer examination, Washoe well, washed out. Her handlers had been wildly optimistic about their interpretations of many of her hand movements. Even one of her most famous examples of “speech,” her making the signs for water and bird upon seeing a swan, isn’t particularly amazing. A swan is a bird, and it was on water, all it really showed was that Washoe knew the signs for water and bird. Science moved on, and while a few researchers went forward, other than in the popular perception, signing chimps were a dead end.
Then, along came Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Kanzi. No messing around with ambiguous hand movements, by learning actual symbols, his communications were clear. Kanzi learned thousands of symbols, and could use them to signal his wants and even to some extent communicate his internal states. Watching the videos of him is pretty amazing, at least on a superficial level. Kanzi can hear complex commands and act on them, surely that means he is using language similar to how humans do. Had Sue Savage-Rumbaugh done it, was Kanzi the first animal to speak with a human?
Alas, no. There’s a number of problems with the “Kanzi is speaking” scenario. The first is how he acquired language. When human babies start learning words, they almost immediately begin constructing sentences out of them. And as they learn more words, their sentences get longer and more complex. When Kanzi (or other “talking” chimps) start to learn words, they pretty much don’t make sentences out of them. And as they learn ever more words, their sentence construction remains at their initial very modest levels. Kanzi’s average sentence length is … 1.15 words. In other words, Kanzi for the most part uses exactly one symbol to express himself. And while Kanzi’s understanding of symbols might seem impressive, it’s more substance than real. Yes, Kanzi seemingly can understand commands involving several words, but that is not necessarily language. IE if one tells Kanzi to “put the doll in the bucket in the other room” all Kanzi really has to know is that he is expected to manipulate the doll, the bucket, and the room. That’s not language.
More accurately, Kanzi does not appear to understand grammar at all. Grammar is how words strung together modify each other, the essence of language. IE take these two sentences, “Man bites dog.” and “Dog bites man.” A human child can understand the clear distinction between these two sentences almost as soon as they start learning to speak. Kanzi can’t, when carefully tested with simple sentence pairs like this, his “understanding” doesn’t rise above chance levels. Despite learning language for decades, Kanzi is 26, he doesn’t understand grammar at all. As one primatologist puts it, no ape has ever asked a question or expressed an opinion.
Will humans ever communicate with animals? Not looking good, human’s facility with language most definitely is something that no animal, no matter how clever, has ever demonstrated. Is there a lesson here? Of course, I’m always illustrating some point or other. The main point being how people’s public perception of science is often at odds with reality. Most people one talks to about signing and symbol using chimps are absolutely convinced that indeed, these animals are “speaking.” I suspect this is a combination of wishful thinking; both on the part of the public, the media, and on the part of the very sincere researchers involved. Sadly, just because a handful of researchers and the public thinks that something is a scientific reality, doesn’t actually make it so.
Lastly, Kanzi is a curious example of borderline research. Nothing is ever black and white, the boundaries between science and nonsense aren’t as clear cut as many would believe. Talking apes aren’t pseudoscience, actual scientists are working in the field. And they sincerely believe they are onto something. I suspect the amount of research devoted to this will decline over time, that’s usually the case with unproductive lines of research. Still, all this talking chimp research has at least cleared up one thing: Chimps can’t be taught to talk.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. I got it from this fine site, which presumably holds the credit and copyright. And yes, I have been ill. I have returned and am blogging again. That’s good or bad depending on one’s perspective I suppose.)
No, this picture wasn’t it. I suspected it might be an explanation for what I saw, but I don’t think so now. I digress. I’ve had a handful of experiences in my life for which I have found no really satisfying explanation. A lot of people have had similar, I’ve certainly heard a few stories in my time. And since I find mysteries fascinating, I will share the few I’ve experienced. Partly just for fun, partly to show that mysterious things do happen, and partly in hopes that someone says “I know what you saw!” So far no one has even come close with this one, I’m still baffled and it happened over twenty years ago.
So, 1990 or so, Washington State. A friend and I were camping for the weekend and drove around much of Saturday looking for an open campground. We eventually found a place where we could park the car, and hike down into a canyon with a nice secluded camping area by a stream. While people obviously went there occasionally, there was sort of a path down the hill, there was no one there that weekend. There were a lot of old cans and bottles from the 1930s scattered about, someone had spent a summer or two camped there back then. It really was a sweet spot, but you couldn’t drive to it and it was hard to find. We got lucky.
There was a well trodden game trail along the creek, just fine for humans. A few feet wide, packed earth surface. We were car camping, not backpacking, so we had to make several trips up and down the canyon side to get our stuff to the campsite. It was afternoon in the shade, but full summer, and even in the canyon it was still full daylight. Ahead of me on the path as I’m walking I see something. It was maybe an inch tall or so, and it was solid white. I couldn’t make out its shape, this all happened very quickly. I saw it on the trail, then it opened a little trapdoor, popped into the hole, and pulled the trapdoor shut. I was surprised, but stared at the spot where it had disappeared as I walked up, and poked around with a stick. I didn’t find anything but solid packed earth. I was puzzled, but didn’t know what else to do. I seem to recall thinking that it must have been a big bug of some sort, but it was pure white, I’d never seen a white bug.
And that’s the story. I recently did some research on trapdoor spiders, and the image above made me wonder if I’d seen one of them, and somehow the white of the trapdoor was the white I had seen, the incident did happen very fast. Alas, from what I can tell, trapdoor spiders aren’t found anywhere above central California. That pretty much rules them out. I’ve never heard of a big white bug that has a trapdoor in the ground, but who knows. Ring a bell with any reader? Is there any sort of bug or animal that fits this bill? I’d love to hear about it.
There is always the possibility that this never happened, or at least not the way I am remembering. Science has shown that memory is a very sketchy thing, and easily modified or induced. Maybe I dreamed this for example, I often have vivid dreams when camping. It seems odd to me now that I didn’t investigate further at the time, it was right outside the camp. On the other hand, I can see myself deciding to leave it be, since I wouldn’t want to hurt it by scraping around looking for it … whatever it was. We all have false memories, and we all misremember things. Memory is a story we tell ourselves.
Lastly, I suspect it’s experiences like this that have seeded, so to speak, a lot of folklore through the ages. It wouldn’t be too hard to convince myself I had seen a humanoid figure, heck, I’d be lying if I said I was sure it wasn’t. In earlier times when the world was more mysterious, the idea that there were other humanoids living around us wouldn’t be all that odd, why not? And the brain, our wonderful human brain, is a pattern recognizer. The best ever in fact, there’s thinking that this is one of the things that makes us uniquely human. And in many cases, it works too well, and sees patterns that aren’t even there. Jesus on a piece of toast nowadays, back then fairies and elves in the woods. And Gods?
(The image above is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. Credit and copyright: Darlene. I met a perfectly sober fellow once who claimed he had met and talked to a leprechaun for lack of a better word, I’ll post on that some day.)
Spontaneous human combustion and Bigfoot, two favourite weird topics from my youth. And in fact big favourites of all sorts of people who like to read about weird things, numerous books have been written about both. And it’s safe to say that many people are firmly convinced of the reality of both. And that’s where I recently discovered common ground between the two, in both cases, like Oakland, there is no there there. I know, this is turning into a distressingly skeptical blog. If the gentle reader wants to continue believing in the reality of Bigfoot or SHC, it’s probably safest to stop reading now. The older I get the more I realize that almost everything in print online and off has little or no actual bearing on reality. I don’t think most people could find reality even if they had a map. Or worse, they think things like the Bible and the Koran are the map. I digress.
Moving right along, spontaneous human combustion (SHC.) This is when a human body is found where the body has almost been completely destroyed by fire, with no evidence of how the fire occurred, and often little to no fire damage to surrounding items. And no doubt it would be mysterious to find someone burned to a crisp in their living room with little fire damage to other items in the room. The phenomena is definitely real in that the finding of such bodies is well documented and continues to occur occasionally. And is even sometimes officially classified as spontaneous human combustion. Though it is done so because the cause of the combustion was undetermined, not that there was anything weird or supernatural about the deaths.
That’s the first thing to understand about SHC is that while it sounds superficially implausible that a human body could burn to a crisp without setting a room on fire, in fact this isn’t particularly mysterious. Humans, and this is especially the case in SHC victims, have a lot of body fat. Think candle. Tests with pig cadavers that once a body begins to burn, it will indeed burn up over a period of time without undue damage to other items ion the room. The flames aren’t particularly hot, and they are confined to the fallen person’s body and clothing. And it’s not particularly hard to ignite a body, any open flame will do, especially if clothing catches fire. Pretty gruesome, but not mysterious.
It gets worse. How is it that someone can catch fire and then just do nothing and let it burn? Well, undoubtedly some SHC cases are people who died of natural causes while they were smoking. The classic case though is found on a kitchen or bathroom floor, as if the victim was felled instantly somehow and began to burn. In fact that’s exactly what happened, though the other way around, they caught on fire and were felled instantly. What made them drop dead? Their clothing on fire. How does that kill someone instantly? Easily as it turns out, which I didn’t know. What does one do if one looks down and their shirt is on fire? In many cases people panic. They run for a bathroom and kitchen, and in some cases they look down and inhale at the same time. And if someone gets flames into their lungs … they drop dead. Well, they pass out I guess, but the effect is the same. Yes, another mystery of life that has a prosaic explanation. Back to the drawing board.
Or, in this case, Bigfoot. Someone mentioned something about that I wish I had thought of. Bigfoot tracks, still found all the time. A friend asked, why don’t they just have dogs follow the trail? Hmm. Not just a good point, a damning point. People hunt with dogs in Bigfoot country all the time. In fact all sorts of people with dogs, hunting or not, travel in Bigfoot country. A Bigfoot can outrun a dog or a pack of dogs? Not if it’s a flesh and blood animal. Granted the Bigfoot coffin was already firmly nailed shut, but this objection is really hard to explain away. Impossible really considering how long humans and dogs have been wandering around the USA.
Fortunately the world is still full of imponderable mysteries. Like how come Americans never learn from their foreign policy mistakes? Have a great weekend everyone!
(The above image is a still from a movie called Curse of Bigfoot. I’m claiming it as Fair Use under US copyright law. Since it’s available as a free download (it was that good apparently) I think it’s safe to use an image from it in a not-for-profit way. And it is the only image of a flaming Bigfoot I could find on line. The Internet is a wonderful thing, how could I have found such an image before?)
Diffuse Interstellar Bands. (DIBS) What are they? No one knows. Where are they? In deep space. Were they the inspiration for Pink Floyd? I seriously doubt it. What am I talking about? Diffuse Interstellar Bands. Sheesh, pay attention.
OK, let’s start at the beginning, the early 20th century to be exact. Scientists by then were studying the light of stars. A spectrum is the light emitted by a star or bright object passed through a prism. Molecules in and near a star will block some of the spectrum, making dark stripes as seen above, these are called absorption or spectral lines. Thus scientists can tell what a star is made of. It even works with reflected light, this is how they tell what planets and asteroids are made of. This is all of course terribly simplified, because I have a very dim grasp of it all myself. All well and good until 1922, scientists happily studied what stars were made of. However, in 1922 astronomer Mary Lea Heger discovered some absorption lines that were much more diffuse than the typical lines in a star’s spectrum. She also found that the lines were associated with the galactic interstellar medium, not stars.
This was a head scratcher. People commonly think that space is a perfect vacuum. It isn’t, it varies widely, but one atom per cubic centimetre is the “average” density of interstellar space. It was thought this matter was so diffuse that while it might dim an entire spectrum slightly, it wouldn’t make lines. Well, sciencists were wrong, some molecules in interstellar space were apparently common enough to cause absorption lines. Mary discovered a few such lines, and by 1975 about 25 had been discovered. By 1994 when the first conference on DIBs was held, about 50 were known. Today about 300 have been discovered, illustrated above. The reason it’s a head scratcher is because no one knows exactly what molecules are creating these lines. Despite scientist’s best efforts, they have not been able to replicate the lines experimentally, or even come up with a theoretical calculation that explains the lines.
This is a major scientific mystery and has been for decades. For reasons I don’t understand, let alone can explain, it does seem pretty certain that the lines are caused by molecules, not single atoms. And it also is clear that numerous different molecules are involved, a single type of molecule couldn’t produce over 300 DIBs. The best guess is that they are being caused by long chain molecules. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, long carbon-chain molecules, and fullerenes are all strong suspects. And that’s that. Somehow our galaxy contains dust or gas of unknown origin or composition, what it is and how it is created is still a complete mystery.
Is this important? In a practical sense, no, figuring this out isn’t going to change our lives. Not figuring it out will have the same effect. It’s important though to understand that there are plenty of complete mysteries in our scientific understanding of the Universe. A lot of people, especially certain religious types, don’t seem to understand that. Science can’t currently explain everything, and there doesn’t appear to be any chance that it will ever explain everything. This isn’t a failure of science, th0ough it is oft presented as such by science-deniers, it is one of science’s greatest strengths. So whenever I stumble across an unsolved scientific mystery, I am impressed by the mystery itself, and I’m impressed by the fact that science even uncovered the mystery. Is there any chance that the solution to DIBs will force a re-examination of other aspects of science? Possibly, but I don’t know how possible. When it comes right down to it, our understanding of the cosmos is still in its infancy.
One last little observation is that I am always curious that science deniers miss things like this. If one was going to construct logical sounding attacks on science, mysteries like this would be a great place to start. Instead, the science deniers seem to make very little effort to find new arguments, and simply recycle old arguments. Some of the “objections” raised about evolution date from the nineteenth century for God’s sake. And while some of them were valid concerns then, a hundred years later they have long been laid to rest. I suppose it’s further evidence that science deniers are in actual denial about science, since few of them seem to take the time to even understand it well enough to construct modern arguments against it. Or it could mean that when people study science hard enough they realize its true, they are converted to science and reason?
Pause for laughter. Beats me. The older I get the more I find people and their motivations both painfully predictable … and painfully puzzling. It’s a conundrum it is.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. I got it off of Wikipedia so it’s safe to say that non-commercial use of the image is OK. And I left the copyright information on the image itself. Next a furniture history post, or a post about the recent discovery that the Universe is flat.)
Interesting, nu? I got a lot of guesses on Facebook. A new planet, water going down a drain, a newly discovered galaxy, and my favourite: a cake mix gone horribly wrong. No, it’s not a cake mix gone horribly wrong. Many people did guess it was some sort of astronomy photo, and they were on track. The white things are indeed clouds, this is the surface of a planet photographed from space. Not Earth though, in fact six Earths could fit inside the hexagon. This is one of the gas giant planets, Saturn. It’s the clouds surrounding the North pole of Saturn. Note the hexagon shaped cloud, what’s up with that?
No one knows. It was first observed when Voyager went by Saturn in 1980 and 1981. No one had a clue then. In 2004, more than 20 years later, the hexagon was still there when the Cassini Probe arrived at Saturn. So it’s a persistent feature. And nothing else like it has been observed anywhere else in the Solar System. Scientists think the hexagon cloud formation is created by a jet stream whipping along at over 200 mph. The hexagon formation rotates with the planet, and its latitude doesn’t change either. Yes, a permanent, or at least remarkably stable, hexagon shaped torrent of wind whipping around Saturn’s pole. Cassini recently has been getting much better pictures of the hexagon lately as Saturn’s northern hemisphere has moved into sunlight, so scientists hope to begin to unravel the mystery soon.
Why so interesting? (Honestly, any reader thinking that has likely long ago abandoned my blog of scientific and historical weirdness in search of blogs about “The Shove.”) The hexagon is interesting from a number of perspectives. Scientists are interested in it because they can’t yet explain it. That’s kind of the whole point of science. Looking at stuff and figuring out why it is so. This hexagon is one of the big mysteries of the Solar System. It’s an example of no matter how much we know, we are always finding things no one expected or predicted. That’s one of the beauties of the scientific method, knowledge is never complete, and it always has to be modified or expanded in light of new discoveries. Kinda the opposite of most philosophies and religions, that for the most part start with a conclusion and then shoehorn new discoveries into it. That’s getting pretty ridiculous now considering some of these religions started in the Bronze Age. Science put man on the Moon, religion put man on a cross.
Philosophical concerns aside, study of Saturn’s hexagon could prove valuable insights about Earth. This is because the hexagon is a weather and climatic phenomena, and studying how weather and climate works on other planets can prove an interesting comparison to how it works on Earth. And of all the things scientists study, weather and climate are certainly near the top when it comes to practical application. When it comes right down to it, scientific investigation of any topic can yield valuable and practical insights about the world around us. That’s one of the silliest and destructive myths about scientists, that many of them study obscure stuff of no use to anyone. Scientists are studying reality, and everyone is connected to reality. How much more practical can it get?
Personally I just think space exploration is the shiznit. I loved exploring as a kid, and never outgrew it. Go somewhere one hasn’t been, see something one hasn’t seen before. And space exploration is the ultimate place to go and see stuff no one has seen before. “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Granted that’s questionable grammar and not exactly a feminist way of phrasing it, but fun none the less. And who knew Leonard Nimoy could play the guitar anyhow? OK, it’s been a long hard week and this is devolving into gibberish. Enough.
Have a great weekend everyone!
(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law. Well, pretty much so, it’s a NASA image and can’t be used in such a way that indicates NASA supports or endorses the party that uses the image. NASA in no way, shape, or form supports or endorses Doug’s Darkworld. Only my miserable day job does that. On the plus side it keeps me in the right downbeat mood to keep blogging.)
I feel almost guilty writing this post. I used to be such a fan of paranormal mysteries. Loch Ness, UFOs, ancient aliens, and other curious little corners of reality. I’m still a fan, but I have grown more skeptical over the years. Sadly this is because I’ve realized that the signal-to-noise ratio is rather low in these areas. Worse, cashing in on the credulous has grown mainstream, and now things like the History Channel are shamelessly spreading paranormal nonsense to make a buck. Still, just because there’s a lot of fraud, poor scholarship, and pseudo-science doesn’t mean it’s all nonsense. A UFO could crash on the White House lawn tomorrow. Not bloody likely, but not impossible. And in the vein of keeping my toe in the paranormal water so to speak, here’s a brief rundown of recent developments on the fringe.
UFOs: OK, the big recent news is that the Russian PM said that if Obama doesn’t come clean about aliens living among us, Russia will. He made the remark in the context of a joke about the Men In Black movies. Some in UFO circles took it seriously. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Obama’s announcement. Ufology is a very active field, but it mostly concerns itself with blurry videos of lights in the sky. Or anecdotal reports. Nothing with actual evidence. And the field is always rife with some rumor about how all is going to be revealed soon. A peculiar class of belief not limited to ufology by any means. I also did some recent research on Roswell, and it’s not looking good. One of the biggest “researchers” on the case was shown to be a fraud, all of his “discoveries” are suspect, and some main stream ufologists no longer think Roswell involved aliens or an alien craft. Well, crap.
Bigfoot: Oh, the usual crop of blobsquatch videos. There was a claim awhile ago that Bigfoot DNA had been obtained. It’s generally considered to be a hoax at this point. There’s a recording of Bigfoot screeches making the rounds. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that this is evidence of nothing. Animals make a vast array of sounds, this will more than likely be eventually explained as normal wildlife noise. At this point, well, it’s hard to understand why a bigfoot hasn’t shown up as roadkill. Maybe they are smart enough not to cross roads? In other words they are smarter than people? Wouldn’t that be wild if Bigfoot was the true intelligent species on the planet, and they were just hiding and biding their time until we destroyed ourselves? Stranger things have happened. Sarah Palin for example.
Loch Ness Monster: Exciting news on this front. None less than Megan Fox believes in the Loch Ness Monster! Who is Megan Fox? Damned if I know. That’s about it on the Loch Ness monster. I’m assuming the whole silly thing is dead since I pointed out that no sightings preceding the 1930s is impossible to explain. You can thank me later for clearing this one up.
Baigong Pipes: Someone brought to my attention the Baigong Pipes, supposed iron pipes that predate human civilization by tens of thousands of years. Well, two problems. The first of which is saying someone laid all these pipes, but left no other evidence? That’s a little hard to swallow. Secondly, scientists believe (backed with actual evidence) that the Baigong pipes are natural formations that are created when buried tree trunks get replaced by iron deposits. Examples are found in a number of locations around the world. Scientists would be thrilled to find evidence of ancient alien technology. Think of the research grants and fame and getting laid by cute ancient aliens chicks that would result in. So when scientists say: “Um, no, these are natural formations.” I think we can believe them.
Infinite Universes: It’s long been a popular meme that since there may be infinite universes, then there are infinite versions of each of us on said universes. IE if you got up and decided to wear a blue shirt today, there is a universe where someone identical to you chose to wear a red shirt. Ad infinitum. Well, some scientists (yes, that matters) have taken a look at this idea and pointed out that it is “highly speculative.” In other words, science fiction. For one thing, the idea that our universe is infinite is by no means the accepted scientific view. Secondly, they point out that if there are infinite possibilities for life, then each planet with life could and should be unique. Crap. And I was so hoping to exchange places with a richer me in one of these universes.
Quantum Birds: Well, it turns out that quantum physics may play a role in biology. A big role actually. This is a revolutionary idea, but it is gaining credence as experiments suggest it is the case. It almost certainly plays a role in photosynthesis. It’s also suspected to play a role in small and animal navigation. Research continues, but this could be the “new biology” of the 21st century. It would take me a whole post to explain quantum physics, and even then I might get it wrong. OK, probably would get it wrong, quantum physics is hard to grasp.
“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine – it is stranger than we can imagine.” — J.B.S. Haldane
(The above image is of Saturn taken from the Cassini Orbiter. The Sun is directly behind it. It’s legal to use this image non-commercially. Credit and copyright: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Space Science Institute, Cassini Imaging Team. I chose it because it’s a beautiful spooky image … and an example of the incredible frontiers science is still advancing on. NASA rocks.)
The conventional answer is yes, yes they did. In fact a quick web search will reveal any number of web sites touting this or that Neanderthal burial. They were almost human, they had stone tools and other implements of human culture, they were clearly human enough to mourn their dead. Apes, dolphins, and elephants mourn their dead. Neanderthal skeletons have been found in what appear to be graves, what’s the problem? The problem is that some academics with excellent credentials challenge the view that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead in the manner of humans. The claim is that because we bury our dead in a ritualistic fashion, we have projected that behavior onto the scant evidence that exists for Neanderthal burials.
So, what is the evidence? Well, here is where the crux of the debate is. There are a few dozen cases where deceased Neanderthals appear to have been wholly or partially buried. The problem is that none of these cases is a “smoking gun” case. There is no such thing as a Neanderthal grave that was indisputably a grave. IE, body carefully laid out surrounded by tools, adornments, food, and other obvious items placed with the the dead in their grave:
The is the Amesbury Archer. Pretty hard to call that anything but a grave. There is no comparable Neanderthal site. Some of their graves might have had flowers and such buried with the body, but even that is debatable. A few did have a few grave goods, but again, it’s debatable. Worse, much worse in my opinion, there isn’t even a Neanderthal grave where it is clear a hole was dug, the body placed inside, and the hole refilled with the dirt from the hole. In what cases were properly investigated (archeology has made a lot of progress since the 19th century,) the bodies appear to have been placed in natural depressions, and the dead weren’t always completely buried. Well, what does it matter? It matters because scientists are trying to answer the age old question, were Neanderthals human? IE could a typical Neanderthal have learned English and conversed with us? I’ve blogged about the Neanderthal speech debate here. If Neanderthals buried their dead as humans do, wouldn’t this mean they also believed in an afterlife of some sort? At the very least it would seem to indicate an understanding of individuality and life and death in a way that humans do. That’s the argument as I understand it, and the majority of Neanderthal researchers find it reasonably compelling.
The counter argument? The Neanderthals may have been simply disposing of the bodies. Aside from the smell, they would attract carnivores and scavengers. The picture is also muddied by the fact that Neanderthal skeletons have been found with marks where meat was carved from the bone. Cannibalism or ritual defleshing? No one knows. It’s also possible that the burial-like Neanderthal “graves” that have been discovered might simply have been Neanderthals mimicking their far more successful cousins, Homo sapiens, with no clear intent other than a vague idea that copying what they do might lead to more success for their hunts. Of course this gets into another muddy area, why did the Neanderthals eventually get wiped out when they came into contact with Homo sapiens? Current thinking, which is by no means definitive, is that they simply couldn’t compete with Homo sapiens much more sophisticated hunting and food gathering abilities.
In any event there’s no overarching point to this post, other than to point out that what we know about our closest known cousins in the human lineage is still subject to debate. And while the current consensus is that Neanderthals were humans (speaking figuratively,) it’s by no means cut and dry. Complicating the debate about Neanderthal cognizance even further, they had bigger brains than humans. Yet somehow their tool use remained rather simple and primitive right up to the very end. And then of course there is the messy business of humans and Neanderthals breeding with each other. Most people alive today have some Neanderthal genes, and we didn’t get them through cannibalizing Neanderthals. What was up with that?
Maybe someday, a post on recently discovered Neanderthal art as a follow up to this post about a Neanderthal “sculpture.” More posts on weird weapons of war are definitely coming up. And no, not a single person caught the smurf reference joke. I will not be posting about smurfs.
(The above images are claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. They aren’t being used for profit and are central to illustrating the post. For the top image, credit and copyright: Shanidar Burial. Image: JohnConnell, Flickr. The second image, I don’t know who holds the copyright, it’s posted all over the web. I’m guessing credit and copyright: Wessex Archeology. For more thinking on Neanderthal cognizance, this is interesting.)
This argument that has been repeated endlessly since at least 1961. Anyone who has any interest in space exploration and science generally is so familiar with it that for all practical purposes it is a matter of faith. Even such luminaries as Neil Degrasse Tyson, famous astrophysicist and science communicator, has uttered a version of it, helpfully illustrated above. Myself, I get tired of hearing it repeated uncritically. And there’s no question, it is repeated uncritically by many people, most of whom have no idea where the argument originated, and are often vague as to what the idea really means. The original Drake Equation was about intelligent tool-using life such as humans, ET as it were. The above is about life in general. Let me restate the argument in a way that is easier to parse:
“Considering the vast size of the Universe, with at least 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, statistically speaking, Earth cannot be the only planet where life evolved.”
That, in a nutshell, is the oft repeated sentiment that aliens must be out there somewhere. The problem I have with this argument is that it is neither scientific nor logical. There are other other problems with how Mr Tyson chose to word his argument above, but I degrasse. (You were warned about my sense of humor.)
The big flaw, in fact fatal flaw, in the argument is this. We don’t know how likely the formation of life is from natural ambient chemistry. We’ve never seen Abiogenesis in the wild, we’ve never achieved it in the lab. We have a lot of theories, and we know about the creation of self-replicating molecules, and we certainly haven’t come up with any good reason why DNA life couldn’t have evolved in some primordial soup. We know it happened once, because here we are. However, in any scientific, statistical, or logical sense, one data point is the equivalent of zero data points. If the creation of DNA life is unlikely enough, it may have only happened once. No matter how big the Universe is, there is also no end to how low the odds on an event occurring are.
The typing monkeys demonstrate this. How likely is it that a monkey sitting at a keyboard randomly hitting the keys will type Hamlet by chance? Essentially zero of course. However, if we convert all mass in the Universe into typing monkeys, typing for the lifetime of the Universe, how likely is it that one of them will type Hamlet by chance? Still, for all practical purposes, zero. Is the creation of life as likely as a monkey typing Hamlet by chance? No one knows. And until we have a definitive answer to this question, speculating about life elsewhere is just that, speculation. Note I’m not saying there isn’t other life out there, I’m just saying that the affirmation that there must be other life out there is wrong.
And when it comes to intelligent language using life such as ourselves, the situation gets worse. First, the odds clearly have dropped. Of the as many as 40 billion species that have evolved on Earth, only one has evolved tool-using, language, and intelligence. So humans may have been an unlikely fluke. Secondly, we don’t even know if our kind of intelligence is a good idea or not. Humans do seem to have some very self-destructive tendencies, and our species has only been around an eye-blink of time, maybe species such as ours quickly destroy themselves? Human intelligence may be an evolutionary dead end, until we find others like us that have been around awhile, or we last a few million years, we simply can’t say.
Lastly there’s the science of it all. Again, bad news, SETI has come up with nothing so far. And despite Mr Tyson’s pronouncement above, SETI has covered a lot of territory at this point. If there are beings like us out there, no evidence of their existence has been found. Granted SETI has a lot of ground to cover still, and some excellent new ideas have been proposed recently, but at the very least the 1950s idea that the galaxy was teeming with intelligent aliens is now wishful thinking at best. Worse, we are starting to get a good picture of solar systems around other planets, and it turns out our solar system and Earth itself seem to be unusual. Again, a blow to the 1950s, Star Trek, and all that follows:
Picard: “We’ve entered the system Data, what do you see?”
Data: “Two hot Jupiters, and two giant super hot Earths.”
Picard: “Any sign of life?”
Data: “No Captain, another sterile system, like the previous 8,792.”
Picard: “If we don’t find life soon, even a slime mold, I’m going to snap.”
Data: “Sixteen other Star Fleet captains have been relieved of duty this year because they suffered psychological breakdowns due to boredom.”
Picard: “Worf, toss Data out the airlock.”
It kinda gets even worse if one steps back a bit further. What if DNA life isn’t really life? What if DNA was invented by real life for information storage, real life which we haven’t ever encountered? We’re just a lab spill that didn’t get cleaned up? Or in the analogy above, we examine a cup of water from the ocean that a scuba diver dropped his watch into, will that watch teach us anything about the ecology and biology of life in the sea? Mr Tyson, and people who make this argument, are in essence saying they can use the cup of water to prove their theory about what is or isn’t in the rest of the ocean, but other people’s theories make no sense. Excuse me? The bottom line is we don’t know how life appeared on Earth, so speculation about what is out there is just that, speculation. Speculation is never certainty.
I rest my case.
(The above image was lifted from Facebook and falls into a category that’s probably years or decades behind the law. I’m claiming it as Fair Use, and am in no way making commercial use of the image, and will remove it instantly if the original copyright holder asks. Many of the other things Mr Tyson says are right on, so no one should take this as an attack on him. In fact the guy is pretty smart, and his statement above is a beautifully crafted edifice of false arguments, so I wonder if he did it deliberately wondering if someone would call him on it?)
May 11th, 1950. on a farm about nine miles from McMinnville, Oregon. Evelyn and Paul Trent saw a strange object flying in the sky. Mr Trent retrieved his camera and took the two photographs above. Click on them for the full size version, and I do mean full size version. The pictures eventually went public and became well known, being published in LIFE magazine. The Trents grew old and died, but the case lives on. It’s one of the most well known UFO cases of the 1950s, just behind Roswell. It even has its own annual gathering of UFO buffs, again, just like Roswell. So what did the Trents see and photograph that morning? No one knows. See, quick post, Merry Christmas everyone!
OK, the photographs have been analyzed seven ways from Sunday. The negatives have been analyzed. They all concluded the same thing. They are real pictures of real objects in the sky. Alien spacecraft, a top secret military prototype, or a truck rear view mirror. Basically so little is known about the shooting conditions, camera settings, and weather that people can come to any conclusion they want. It’s safe to say that no one has discovered anything definitive in the pictures that proves or disproves them. The Trents have also been extensively analyzed. There’s nothing that screams hoax, but there’s nothing that rules it out either.
Basically, people who believe in UFOs find the Trent case to be one of the best UFO cases. People who don’t believe in UFOs think it’s a hoax. It’s not so much of a debate, as it is people searching for evidence that supports their assumption. IE the UFO believers interpret it all as support for their belief, the skeptics find aspects of it to be skeptical about. If the gentle reader wants to get into the nuts and bolts of it, a good place to start is the Wikipedia article. Personally I think the pictures are the best bet to go on. They are certainly the only solid evidence. That’s why I uploaded the huge versions above, so people can see for themselves. I couldn’t see anything, but granted I only spent a few minutes peering at them and comparing them.
OK, my analysis, intellectually dishonest as it is apparently: My first question, could they be faked? Hmm, toss a disk shaped object into the air, photograph it. Take two pictures for verisimilitude. Piece of cake. I don’t see how this is debatable. However, I don’t see how the idea that the Twin Towers collapsed as a result of aircraft impact and fires is a possibility is debatable, but some vociferously disagree with me. Could the photographs be real? Absolutely. No one has come up with a definitive argument proving its a hoax. “UFOs aren’t real, therefore it’s a hoax” is not an argument, it’s just circular reasoning. Maybe it was another hoaxer flying a UFO shaped balloon. Maybe it was a military experimental aircraft. Maybe it was an extra-terrestrial probe. In other words, examining the possibilities has gotten us nowhere.
In other words, examining the nuts and bolts of this case is fruitless. Let’s step back and look at it as part of a bigger picture. In context as it were. And this is where I’m troubled. This isn’t just “another” UFO sighting. This was a golden age for UFO sightings. The Kenneth Arnold sighting in 1947, the sighting that propelled the idea of flying saucers into the national consciousness, was just three years before the Trent sighting. UFOs were big news, the still famous Mariana UFO incident was in August of 1950, just a few months earlier. Lots of flying saucers were seen in those years. Many were photographed, some were hoaxes. Were there any flying saucer sightings and photos before the Arnold flap in 1947? No. How long did people see them afterwards? About a decade. Do people still see and photograph them today? No.
This leaves two possibilities. There were flying saucer type objects of unknown genesis flying around the earth in the 1950s (the UFO flap spread world wide,) or this was all a mass social and cultural phenomena. People saw what they were primed to see, and plenty of people were happy to provide “proof.” Since no further evidence has surfaced that would support the flying saucer idea, I think the second possibility is by far the stronger explanation. It’s by no means definitive, but I think a strong argument can me made from the historical context, that of course the Trent photos were a hoax. It’s the simplest explanation that explains the evidence.
I’d be happy to be proved wrong. I think the future of SETI lies in analyzing the surface of the Moon and Mars, not old photos from the 1950s. Merry Christmas everyone!
(The above images are claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. They are not being used for profit, are central to illustrating the post, and are arguably historically important images. Credit and copyright: Paul Trent. By fair means or foul, I don’t know, the Trents are historical figures, a thousand years from now images of them and their story may still be around. Who would have thunk it?)
I saw a fascinating show the other day. Well, part of a show. Ancient Aliens Debunked. It was a far more interesting show than I had imagined. I not only recommend it for people who have seen Ancient Aliens, but also for people who haven’t. Ancient Aliens Debunked can be watched at the link I provided. Well, at least for people who have some interest in the ancient aliens theory or just an interest in the ancients. I found the show fascinating for a number of reasons. (Quelle surprise.)
OK, background and refresher for noobs to the topic. The ancient aliens theory is a theory that in the past humans had contact with aliens. Erich von Däniken would be the most well known proponent of this theory, from his 1968 book “Chariots of the Gods.” The History Channel came out with a series about the theory called … Ancient Aliens. It’s inspired at least two blog posts on my part, here and here. Basically the series was very disappointing to me. It played fast and loose with the facts, and was clearly meant to give credence to the ancient aliens theory without actually examining it critically. In other words, anyone who was seriously interested in the ancient aliens theory is going to be disappointed by the show. However, the same people should like the Ancient Aliens Debunked show, since at the very least it separates the wheat from the chaff. If you’re gonna promote a theory widely regarded as a crank theory, wouldn’t one want to examine the actual facts in evidence?
And that’s what Ancient Aliens Debunked does. I leaned a number of things I didn’t know. Always good. The one segment I watched was on Pumapunku. Or Puma Punku. This is a large pre-Incan temple complex or monument group in Bolivia. It was built by the Tiwanaku civilization, and surrounded by city and farmland where as many as 400,000 people lived. Around the year 1,000 the civilization abruptly collapsed, possibly due to environmental change. The Incans believed Pumapunku was built by the Gods and was where the world began. Ancient aliens theorists believe Pumapunku was built thousands of years before the conventional dating, and required the use of advanced technology. Evidence for this is that the stones used to build the complex weigh as much as 800 tons, they were made of granite and granodiorite, and carved with incredible precision. The Tiwanaku civilization simply could not have moved such stones, nor carved these stones with the copper tools they had. Not to mention they didn’t even have a written language, how does one coordinate and plan such a massive construction without writing?
All sounds pretty convincing, or at least difficult to explain, right? Not really. It’s easy to make things sound mysterious if one picks and chooses one’s facts, and makes up facts if the real facts don’t fit. Let’s start with the purported age of Pumapunku. The conventional age dates the Tiwanaku civilization the the few centuries prior to 1,000 ad or so. How did ancient alien theorists come up with an age of over ten thousand years? Simple, one “researcher” decades ago calculated the age of Pumapunku by looking at celestial alignments, and concluded that it was built more than ten thousand years ago so that the stars would match the alignments. The problem of course is that any “alignments” in the ruins are purely subjective, and using this method one could “prove” Pumapunku is any age one wants.
OK, the Tiwanakuans didn’t have a written language. Um, so what? They did have language, and they most certainly can draw pictures. It’s not like they had to come up with modern blueprints, we are talking stacked rocks here. But wait, how about the amazing precision of the cut blocks and how they were put together? Again, easy. The idea that these blocks were cut and fitted with fabulous precision is simply … a lie. The blocks exhibit great variety, no two are alike, and their rather crude precision is exactly what one would expect for blocks carved with stone tools.
Wait, how could granite and granodiorite have been carved with stone or soft copper tools? Well, for one thing, the blocks at Pumapunku are not made of granite and granodiorite, they are made of sandstone and andesite. And both of these are relatively soft and easy to work stones. Not to mention that the quarries where these blocks were made have been found, with partially made blocks. And while copper is very soft, Tiwankua was a Bronze Age culture, IE they had discovered how to make much stronger copper alloys by adding other metals to the mix. This isn’t just speculation, archeologists have found many examples of the stone working tools the Tiwankuans made.
Lastly we come to moving these giant 800 ton blocks. Oops, another lie. While some early estimates of the blocks had numbers as high as 800 tons, modern more accurate measurements place the largest block at 113 tons, and the vast majority of blocks are much smaller. And on many of the blocks grooves and other structures have been carved that are clearly meant to attach ropes to the blocks. The illustration at the top of the page shows one such carving. Obviously if one had some sort of alien levitation device, one wouldn’t need to go to the trouble of carving slots and holes for ropes. As a final blow to the levitation idea, all of the blocks clearly have drag marks on one face.
In other words, almost everything that ancient alien theorists say about Pumapunku is a lie, and their “conclusions” are not only unsupported by the evidence, they are contradicted by the evidence. Does this mean that the ancient aliens theory is balderdash? Pretty much. At least until actual evidence of contact with aliens in the past is discovered. So far, no luck. However, I still recommend the Ancient Aliens Debunked series because I learned a lot about history and how ancient stone structures are made from just this one episode. In fact I saw a picture of Stonehenge the other day and I could clearly see the distinctive ripple pattern made when shaping a stone with stone tools. So I not only learned something about Pumupunku, I learned something applicable to any megalithic structure.
Was there any purpose to the is post besides sharing my enthusiasm about a TV show? Not really. I do find it fascinating that people can cling to and promote beliefs that are, well, silliness. It seems to be the nature of humans. As many have observed, this may be why the aliens haven’t contacted us yet, there’s no intelligent life down here. Next up, ten ways atheism is a religion. Or maybe something else.
(The above image came from Wikipedia: Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled GNU Free Documentation License. For those interested in ancient stone cutting techniques, this seems to be a good link: Ancient Egyptian Stone Technology.)