Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Probably Comets After All

Back in October, scientists working with the Kepler space telescope identified some sort of anomaly in orbit around a distant star. One possible explanation for the anomaly was that it was some sort of alien megastructure like a ringworld. At the time I noted that while the discovery was potentially exciting, it would most likely turn out to be some kind of phenomenon that did not involve aliens, pretty much like the discovery of pulsars.

A new round of observations seems to have born this out, showing that the "structure" is more likely to be a large collection of cometary fragments rather than any sort of alien-built structure. The study found no evidence of unusual amounts of infrared radiation emanating from the star, which if found would have indicated that the object or objects obscuring the star's light might be technological in origin.

The study, led by Massimo Marengo of Iowa State University and to be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, examined the infrared light from the star. An unusually large amount of such light would indicate that a planetary impact or asteroid collision caused the large object seen blocking the star’s light – and, although not mentioned by the paper, infrared light would also be an indication of the proposed alien megastructure.

But Spitzer didn’t find any such infrared excess. According to the researchers, this favors the idea that a swarm of cold comets first blocked out the star’s light in 2011. In 2013, cometary fragments lagging behind the main group then blocked its light again. By 2015, though, this swarm had passed out of our line of sight.

Aside from the rather fanciful alien theory, the result is disappointing for scientists hoping to see evidence of astronomical dust around stars. "Spitzer has observed all of the hundreds of thousands of stars where Kepler hunted for planets, in the hope of finding infrared emission from circumstellar dust," said Michael Werner, the Spitzer project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement.

I don't necessarily see where the alien hypothesis (note: not "theory") is "fanciful." Statistically speaking, alien lifeforms almost certainly exist. Just because proving the existence of an alien civilization must by necessity involve passing a very high bar, I expect that the events of the last few weeks is exactly how detecting such a civilization would go. First, an anomalous observation agreed upon by the scientific community. Then, more involved testing to rule out any other possible causes.

Just because this observation failed that second round of tests doesn't mean that no aliens are out there. I expect that they are, and that someday we are going to come across an observation that can't be explained any other way. Then, what to do with that information should become a very exciting question.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pope Francis Versus Gnosticism

Pope Francis has gotten a lot of props for his progressive-sounding statements, but it is also important to understand that he has done little to change Roman Catholic theology itself. His statements about compassion for the poor and income inequality are welcome, but it also should be kept in mind that such positions have been advocated by the church for centuries. It's just that since John Paul II it was an issue that received little attention, so it's good to hear Francis bringing it up again now.

While I find Francis to be a vast improvement over his last few predecessors, what would really impress me would be if he began making significant changes to some of the theological points that seem out of touch with the modern world. This he has not done. Recently Francis gave a speech in which he outlined the "two temptations" facing the church, one of which he described as "Gnosticism."

The Pope then identified the second temptation as “Gnosticism.”

Francis said this leads to “trusting in clear, logical reasoning” which “loses the tenderness of the flesh of the brother.” The fascination of Gnosticism — he said — is that of “ a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings” ("The Joy of the Gospel," No. 94).

Pope Francis said that the difference between every form of Gnosticism and Christianity is to be found in the mystery of the incarnation (of God who became man). “Not to put the Word (of God) into practice, not to bring it to reality, means to build on sand, to remain in pure ideas and to degenerate into intimacies that bear no fruit because they make its dynamism,” he said.

Now this is no real surprise because Gnosticism has been considered a heresy by the Roman Catholic Church since the first millenium. It also is true that the Gnostics of that period at least to some extent fit Francis' characterization. I've always found demiurge theology bizarre because it is based on the contradiction between the portrayal of God in the Old versus the New Testament. Put simply, the first millenium Gnostics decided that since the Old Testament God was an asshole and Jesus was cool, the Old Testament God must be a "false God" that they called the demiurge.

However, if you're not a literalist and understand that the perception of God has a more to do with the perspective of the various authors and less to do with what really took place at that time, this apparent contradiction falls apart. The Bible was finally written down after the Babylonian Captivity around 580 BCE. Before that it consisted of nearly a thousand years of oral tradition. The narrative gives a general sense of what the Israelites of the time believed their history to be, but that's about as far as it goes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Pat Robertson Gets It Right

From the "a stopped clock is right twice a day" file, evangelist Pat Robertson has managed to make some sense. This happened once before, back when Robertson pointed out that creationist Ken Ham's embrace of the interpretation-heavy Ussher chronology really didn't jibe with his claims of being a Biblical literalist.

That was three years ago, so I suppose it's about time Robertson got around to making another reasonable statement. On a recent episode of his 700 Club television program, Robertson correctly explained that in fact the "sin of Sodom" had nothing to do with homosexuality - and it says so right in the Bible.

That made it all the more surprising when “The 700 Club” host alluded today to Ezekiel 16:49 to assert that Sodom was destroyed due to pride, not homosexuality: “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.”

“Pride, the Bible says, idleness and abundance of bread, neither were they thankful, that was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah,” Robertson said. “He didn’t talk about homosexuality.”

A number of us who have actually read the Bible cover-to-cover have been pointing this out for years, but it's pretty remarkable to hear it coming from a prominent proponent of modern conservative Christianity. That's because the story of Sodom is one of the main theological weapons that generally gets deployed by said Christians arguing that somehow, being gay is the most horrible sin anyone could ever commit.

Yes, it is a violation of Old Testament law - at least for men. But so are a whole lot of other things that modern Christians just ignore. These days hardly any Christians worry about mixing fibers or eating shellfish or coming into contact with blood, all of which are considered unclean in the exact same way as "a man lying with a man as with a woman."

I would find it profoundly ironic if the Dominionists turned out to be right, except that God really wound up smiting America for inventing poly-cotton blends. Or maybe for promoting shrimp-farming.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Let's Test This Out!

Over the years I've posted numerous stories about African witches who are supposed to be able to transform into goats and other animals. Usually, though, it's in the context of accusations being leveled by superstitious townsfolk. Up until now, I haven't come across a story in which someone claims to be able to actually perform such operations.

But today I found this article from Manica, a province in Mozambique. In the article, a "satanist hooker" apparently confesses to being able to transform into a lion, a goat, or a hyena. Granted, the lurid title of the article doesn't really scream "journalistic integrity," but what if it's true? Not only could teenagers with these abilities make James Randi shit his pants, the applications are potentially endless.

"We are a team of Satanists. It started when I was at a boarding school when we used to meet at midnight at the basketball and tennis courts and change into different animals such as lions, hyenas as well as goats. “We pounced on anyone whom we considered a threat. I can’t tell you the name of the school because they threatened to kill me if I expose them.

“I can turn into a hyena when I am angered. Our leader is a bishop at that school. He changes into a lion. I told my parents all these things and they withdrew me from the school. They no longer want to see me because of this. They are afraid of me. I have been staying here because I have nowhere to go. I have been sleeping with several men who hire my services,” she said.

She could not entertain The Weekender anymore. “I can’t talk to you anymore,” said the teenager. A source privy to matter said the teenager’s brother later came and tried to take her home, but her parents who stay in Darlington medium-density suburb could have none of it. “Her parents are bitter and are actually scared of her. They don’t want to hear about her anymore,” said the woman who requested anonymity.

Church organisations and traditional healers have described the case as strange.

Do you think? To my way of thinking, "strange" doesn't even begin to cover it. And if it does work, I totally want to know how it's done. Not because I necessarily have much interest in turning into an animal, but rather because the forces involved would have to be able to produce incredible probability shifts to accomplish it. Those sorts of shifts could be applied to solving all sorts of practical problems.

Here's just one example. A hyena could be about the same mass as a teenage girl, and so could a goat. But a male lion weighs over 400 pounds. I'm guessing the man mentioned in the story is lighter than that. So all you have to do is put him on some sort of teeter-totter arrangement with a weight between his human and lion weight on the other side. Then, if he transforms back and forth rapidly, you can harness the difference in mass to drive a generator. Perpetual motion!

This must be a rare ability, because otherwise you would think all the African countries where this sort of magick is practiced would have witchcraft-driven power plants. Or, you know, maybe it just doesn't work.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Poor Oppressed Christians Jump the Shark

So I held off on posting this one over the weekend because I wanted to make sure that it wasn't a parody. It sure sounds like one, complete with breathless freaking out about something so pointless it's hard to imagine that anyone could be bothered by it. But the story surprisingly appears to be real. Here's the deal.

For years, Starbucks coffee shops have changed the design of their cups for the Christmas season to designs incorporating red and green with images of snowmen, snowflakes, trees, and so forth. This year, the chain decided to dispense with any wintery images and go with a plain red and green design, shown above. To the Poor Oppressed Christians, the lack of snowmen and snowflakes means that Starbuck's hates Jesus.

Seriously? How stupid are these people?

The coffee chain’s seasonal designs are remixed each year, but this year’s tri-color tone of red, green and white has apparently angered some religious leaders for declaring a so-called “war on Christmas.”

“Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus,” wrote former Arizona pastor Joshua Feuerstein in a viral Facebook post that had at least 8 million views Saturday night.

Student pastor Nate Weaver at the Crosspointe Christian Church in Sarasota, Fla., vowed to never visit Starbucks ever again. “I’m officially banning Starbucks from my life,” Weaver wrote in a Facebook post Saturday.

What this implies is the the Poor Oppressed Christians seriously believe that snowflakes, snowmen, and Christmas trees are Christian symbols. In fact, the Christmas (or Yule) tree is actually pagan, and the others are generic symbols of winter. So I guess they're trying to argue that their religion owns the entire season, and anyone who says otherwise is "declaring war" on them.

It also says to me that they're getting so desperate to relevant to the culture of the modern world that they're willing to feed outrage that is completely pointless. This year, unlike the last few, I'm finally seeing a lot of conservatives commenting on how dumb this is, and maybe if we're lucky this will be the year that the "war on Christmas" finally becomes such a stupid idea that nobody remotely reasonable takes it seriously.

Fingers crossed, folks!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Tutankhamun's Secret Chamber Found?

Back in August I covered the findings of Egyptologist Dr. Nicholas Reeves, who claimed to have found evidence of two hidden doors inside the famous tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun. He speculated that one of the secret chambers might house the tomb of Tut's stepmother, Nefertiti, which has never been found.

Now researchers working inside the tomb have used infrared thermography on one of the areas indicated by Reeves, and found a temperature differential that may in fact indicate the presence of a hidden chamber. Even if the chamber turns out to house additional burial goods rather than Nefertiti's tomb, it would still be a huge discovery. Tut's tomb is so famous because it was discovered undisturbed rather than looted by grave robbers, and many of the most famous Egyptian artifacts were found among the belongings of the "boy king."

A team from Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering and the Paris-based organization Heritage, Innovation and Preservation used infrared thermography to detect the temperature of the walls in the tomb. Preliminary analysis indicates the presence of an area different in its temperature than the other parts of the northern wall—a potential indication of a hidden chamber.

“The experiment lasted for 24 hours,” Egypt’s Antiquities minister Mamdouh Eldamaty said in a statement. In order to certify the results, Eldamaty said, a number of experiments will be carried out to determine more accurately the area showing the difference in temperature. “The team was very impressed and full of emotion to spend the night in the tomb,” Mehdi Tayoubi, founder of the Paris-based Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute, told Discovery News.

The non-invasive search follows a claim by Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist at the University of Arizona, that high-resolution images of the tomb’s walls show “distinct linear traces” pointing to the presence of two still unexplored chambers behind the western and northern walls of the tomb.

I'll be following this story as new developments arise. Because today's archaeologists are far more careful than those exploring Egyptian tombs a hundred years ago, it could be a long time before anyone tries to go through one of hidden doors that Reeves may have identified. But a burial chamber filled with additional Egyptian artifacts of whatever sort would be well worth the wait.

Friday, November 6, 2015

A Psychic Savant?

Ramses Sanguino is a five year old California boy who is a genuine savant. Ramses is on the "high-functioning" end of the autism spectrum - or, in his case, the "superior-functioning" end. He's not neurotypical, he's better. Ramses has already been tested as one of the most intelligent five-year-olds in the world, is learning seven different languages, and can solve reasonably complex mathematical equations.

And according to Dr. Diane Powell, a neuroscientist who trained at Johns Hopkins university, he might even be telepathic. Ramses' mother posted videos of her son in which he seems to be able to guess numbers and playing cards that are out of sight with almost perfect accuracy. Powell has set up a research study to test the boy's abilities, and if they really can be replicated under controlled scientific conditions they will constitute a highly significant finding.

In Ramses's case, he has apparently been able to demonstrate a degree of telepathy with Dr Powell during three meetings. She used a random-number generator to pick numbers for Ms Sanguino to write down and think about, before asking Ramses to try and read his mother's mind to guess them. The little boy did this successfully in the meetings, she said.

Ms Sanguino, who works as an artist, says her son has sometimes been able to recite 38 numbers written out of sight. She vows there is no trickery involved in his 'talent', or her home videos. In another test with Dr Powell, Ramses was able to correctly guess 16 out of 17 numbers hidden out of sight - including one double digit number, according to his mother.

She said: 'I was amazed when we began testing Ramses. We do have a very close bond which may have something to do with his abilities - but this is beyond anything I would have imagined. However, Ms Sanguino's main concern is helping to find a specialist school for Ramses, whom Dr Powell has described as 'one of the smartest five year olds on the planet'.

So there are couple things that need to be ruled out here that I can think of right offhand. The first, which probably would show up in a close analysis of the video is the "clever Hans effect," which is named after a famous performing horse who appeared to be able to understand small numbers, count, and add. But careful testing showed that Hans was simply well-trained to spot his trainer's body language, which would subtly change once the right number was reached. Without the trainer present, the horse's ability vanished.

The second thing to check is that I want to know what "out of sight" means in this situation. Autistic savants often have an almost superhuman sense of space and shapes. Temple Grandin, a well-known writer on the subject who is on the autism spectrum herself, believes that this is because people on the spectrum think in images rather than words. So it's possible that even if Ramses could not see the numbers themselves, he might be able to identify a number being written by reading his mother's arm and hand motions if she is writing in the same room.

A third possibility is a trick like what one person allegedly used back in the 1930's to guess Zener cards in the original Rhine trials. With the way those trials were set up, it was possible to see the symbol on the card reflected in the sender's eye if you looked at it at just the right angle. In addition to their faculty with spatial relations, autistic savants also can be much more aware of such small details in their environments than a neurotypical person generally would be.

Now if all those can be ruled out, though, we might just have something. And if young Ramses really is as accurate as his mother claims, he might turn out to be the subject who finally validates the existence of psychic perception.