‘They can’t scare me if I scare them first.’ –Lady Gaga


New scientific research raises the possibility that advanced versions of T. rex and other dinosaurs — monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans — may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe. “We would be better off not meeting them,” concludes the study, which appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. (…)

“An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D-amino acids and L-sugars. Such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth.”

{ ACS | Continue reading }

Solar power has been the next big thing for forty years


Philosophically, a realist is someone who holds that our theories are descriptions of how the world really is. Yet realist explanations of the behaviour of elementary particles face a fundamental challenge. Although electrons, for example, would seem to be simple entities – they have no internal structure – a satisfactory description of their behaviour in classical Newtonian terms, as if they were little balls, proved impossible. Theorists therefore turned to building mathematical models which could predict electron behaviour rather than explain electrons in realist terms.

Instrumentalism is this view that theories are useful for explaining and predicting phenomena, rather than that they necessarly describe the world. Yet the mathematical apparatus underpinning such instrumentalism, such as Dirac’s use of infinite-dimensional Hilbert [abstract mathematical] spaces, and Feynman’s sums-over-all-possible-histories, are so powerful, and so beautiful, that the lack of a convincing realist alternative has so far not proved to be a significant handicap in the development of quantum physics and its technological applications. In fact, quantum theory in its instrumental form has provided the most successful explanation of all time, by being the most powerful of all scientific theories. But Deutsch wants a realist quantum theory.

{ Philosophy Now | Continue reading }

artwork { Olaf Brzeski, Dream, Spontaneous Combustion, 2008 }

Refuse to admit defeat


Several theories claim that dreaming is a random by-product of REM sleep physiology and that it does not serve any natural function.

Phenomenal dream content, however, is not as disorganized as such views imply. The form and content of dreams is not random but organized and selective: during dreaming, the brain constructs a complex model of the world in which certain types of elements, when compared to waking life, are underrepresented whereas others are over represented. Furthermore, dream content is consistently and powerfully modulated by certain types of waking experiences.

On the basis of this evidence, I put forward the hypothesis that the biological function of dreaming is to simulate threatening events, and to rehearse threat perception and threat avoidance.

To evaluate this hypothesis, we need to consider the original evolutionary context of dreaming and the possible traces it has left in the dream content of the present human population. In the ancestral environment, human life was short and full of threats. Any behavioral advantage in dealing with highly dangerous events would have increased the probability of reproductive success. A dream-production mechanism that tends to select threatening waking events and simulate them over and over again in various combinations would have been valuable for the development and maintenance of threat-avoidance skills.

Empirical evidence from normative dream content, children’s dreams, recurrent dreams, nightmares, post traumatic dreams, and the dreams of hunter-gatherers indicates that our dream-production mechanisms are in fact specialized in the simulation of threatening events, and thus provides support to the threat simulation hypothesis of the

{ Antti Revonsuo/Behavioral and Bain Sciences | PDF }

‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ –Faulkner


Discoveries of modern biology are forcing a re-evaluation of even the central pillars of neo-Darwinian evolution. Anthropologists study the processes and results of biological and biocultural evolution, so they must be aware of the scope and nature of these changes in biology. (…)

Three decades of intense microbiological, biochemical, and genome research have resulted in significant new understanding of the evolutionary process. Central to this understanding has been the sequencing and functional decoding of the genomes of many species, including Homo sapiens sapiens. In short, biology is currently negotiating a synthesis of the same gravity as the modern synthesis of mid-20th century.

In 2009 E.V. Koonin wrote that “in the post-genomic era, all the major tenets of the modern synthesis have been, if not outright overturned, replaced by a new and incomparably more complex vision of the key aspects of evolution.”

{ eJournal of
Anthropological and Related Sciences | Continue reading

photo { Graham Smith }



The idea that our universe is embedded in a broader multidimensional space has captured the imagination of scientists and the general population alike. 

This notion is not entirely science fiction. According to some theories, our cosmos may exist in parallel with other universes in other sets of dimensions. Cosmologists call these universes braneworlds. And among that many prospects that this raises is the idea that things from our Universe might somehow end up in another.

A couple of years ago, Michael Sarrazin at the University of Namur in Belgium and a few others showed how matter might make the leap in the presence of large magnetic potentials. That provided a theoretical basis for real matter swapping. 

Today, Sarrazin and a few pals say that our galaxy might produce a magnetic potential large enough to make this happen for real. If so, we ought to be able to observe matter leaping back and forth between universes in the lab. In fact, such observations might already have been made in certain experiments.

{ The Physics arXiv Blog | Continue reading }

photo { Adam Lampton }

Let me buy a brick and get the other on cossimy

Benford’s Law, also known as the rule of first-digits, is a rule that says in data sets borne from real-life (perhaps sales of coffee or payments to a vendor), the number 1 should be the first digit in a series approximately 30% of the time, instead of 11% as would happen had a random number between one and nine been generated.

The rule was first developed by Simon Newcomb, who noticed that in his logarithm books the first pages showed much greater signs of use than those pages at the end. Later the physicist Frank Benford collected some 20,000 observations to test the theory, which he too stumbled upon.

Benford found that the first-digits of a variety of things in nature, like elemental atomic weights, the areas of rivers, and the numbers that appeared on front pages of newspapers, started with a one more often than any other digit.

The reason for that proof is the percentage difference between consecutive single-digit numbers. Say a firm is valued at $1 billion. For the first digit to become a two (or to reach a market cap of $2 billion), the value of the firm will need to increase by 100%. However, once it reaches that $2 billion mark, it only needs to increase by 50% to get to $3 billion. That difference continues to decline as the value increases.

{ Business Insider | Continue reading }

Shines like gold


Stanford math professor Keith Devlin talks about two new books that call into question the entire idea of string theory.

The theory states that tiny vibrating strings make up everything, but some scientists say there is no way to prove or disprove it.

{ NPR | audio/transcript }

related { A simulation of the early universe using string theory may explain why space has three observable spatial dimensions instead of nine. }

photo { Nikki Ormerod }

The best color on a horse is fat


If one could rewind the history of life, would the same species appear with the same sets of traits? Many biologists have argued that evolution depends on too many chance events to be repeatable. But a new study investigating evolution in three groups of microscopic worms, including the strain that survived the 2003 Columbia space shuttle crash, indicates otherwise. When raised in a lab under crowded conditions, all three underwent the same shift in their development by losing basically the same gene. The work suggests that, to some degree, evolution is predictable.

{ Nature | Continue reading }

images { Jesse Richards | Susan Rothenberg }

How do I look? You look ready.


According to Maslow we have five needs [diagram]. However, many other people have thought about what human beings need to be happy and fulfilled, what we strive for and what motivates us, they have come up with some different numbers. (…)

David McClelland (1985) proposed that, rather than being born with them, we acquire needs over time. They may vary considerably according to the different experiences we have, but most of them tend to fall into three main categories. Each of these categories is associated with appropriate approach and avoidance behaviours.

Achievement. People who are primarily driven by this need seek to excel and to gain recognition for their success. They will try to avoid situations where they cannot see a chance to gain or where there is a strong possibility of failure.

Affiliation. People primarily driven by this need are drawn towards the achievement of harmonious relationships with other people and will seek approval. They will try to avoid confrontation or standing out from the crowd.

Power. People driven by this need are drawn towards control of other people (either for selfish or selfless reasons) and seek compliance. They will try to avoid situations where they are powerless or dependent. (…)

Martin Ford and C.W. Nichols seem to have gone a bit overboard. Their taxonomy of human goals has two dozen separate factors.

{ Careers in theory | Continue reading }

A circle of mirrors containing loose, colored objects such as beads or pebbles and bits of glass


People directly experience only the here and now. It is impossible to experience the past and the future, other places, other people, and alternatives to reality. And yet, memories, plans, predictions, hopes, and counterfactual alternatives populate our minds, influence our emotions, and guide our choice and action. How do we transcend the here and now to include distal entities? How do we plan for the distant future, understand other people’s point of view, and take into account hypothetical alternatives to reality? Construal level theory (CLT) proposes that we do so by forming abstract mental construals of distal objects.

Thus, although we cannot experience what is not present, we can make predictions about the future, remember the past, imagine other people’s reactions, and speculate about what might have been. Predictions, memories, and speculations are all mental constructions, distinct from direct experience. They serve to transcend the immediate situation and represent psychologically distant objects.

Psychological distance is a subjective experience that something is close or far away from the self, here, and now. Psychological distance is thus egocentric: Its reference point is the self, here and now, and the different ways in which an object might be removed from that point—in time, space, social distance, and hypotheticality—constitute different distance dimensions.

According to CLT, then, people traverse different psychological distances by using similar mental construal processes.

{ Construal-Level Theory of Psychological Distance | PubMed | Continue reading }

artwork { Morten Hemmingsen }

Another day wastes away, and my heart sinks with the sun


It wasn’t so long ago we thought space and time were the absolute and unchanging scaffolding of the universe. Then along came Albert Einstein, who showed that different observers can disagree about the length of objects and the timing of events. His theory of relativity unified space and time into a single entity - space-time. It meant the way we thought about the fabric of reality would never be the same again.

But did Einstein’s revolution go far enough? Physicist Lee Smolin at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, doesn’t think so. He and a trio of colleagues are aiming to take relativity to a whole new level, and they have space-time in their sights. They say we need to forget about the home Einstein invented for us: we live instead in a place called phase space.
If this radical claim is true, it could solve a troubling paradox about black holes that has stumped physicists for decades. What’s more, it could set them on the path towards their heart’s desire: a “theory of everything” that will finally unite general relativity and quantum mechanics.

{ NewScientist | Continue reading }

Never ask a barber if you need a haircut


‘Multiverse’ theory suggested by microwave background

The idea that other universes — as well as our own — lie within “bubbles” of space and time has received a boost.

Studies of the low-temperature glow left from the Big Bang suggest that several of these “bubble universes” may have left marks on our own.

This “multiverse” idea is popular in modern physics, but experimental tests have been hard to come by. The preliminary work, to be published in Physical Review D, will be firmed up using data from the Planck telescope.

{ BBC | Continue reading }

In our Solar System, planets fall into two types. First, there are the rocky planets like Earth, Mars, and Venus, which are similar in size and support gaseous atmospheres. Then there are the gas giants, like Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. These huge puff balls are two or more orders of magnitude bigger than their rocky cousins.

Perhaps strangest of all, there are no planets in between; nothing that sits on the borderline between rocky minnow and gas giant.

This sharp distinction has driven much of astronomers’ thinking about planet formation. One of the main challenges they have faced is to come up with a theory that explains the formation of two entirely different types of planet, but no hybrids that share characteristics of both.

That thinking will have to change. It now looks as if we’ve been fooled by our own Solar System. When astronomers look elsewhere, this two-tiered planetary division disappears.

Astrophysicists have now spotted more than 500 planets orbiting other stars and all of these systems seem entirely different to our Solar System. They’ve seen entirely new class of planets such as the Super-Jupiters that are many times larger than our biggest planet with orbits closer than Mercury.

But the one we’re interested in here has a mass that spans the range from Earth to Uranus, exactly the range that is missing from our Solar System.

Astronomers are calling these new types of planet Super-Earths, and so far they have found more than 30 of them.

{ The Physics arXiv Blog | Continue reading }

Tell me what’s on your mind when you’re alone


What Thomas Young considered his greatest achievement (and he had a few) was overthrowing Newton’s century-old notions of light. In its place, he argued that light was not made up of particles, but was instead a wave, quite like the ripples on the surface of water.

At first, he met with huge resistance to his ideas. But in 1803, Young convinced his skeptics with a simple, game-changing experiment. (…)

So Young performed this experiment with light. To everyone’s surprise (but his), he found that light doesn’t act like the bullets of a machine gun. What he saw on the screen was an interference pattern – alternating bands of light and dark. The interpretation was unambiguous – light behaves like a wave, not like a bunch of particles. (…)

And so the wave theory of light took over for the next century, until no less a figure than Albert Einstein came onto the scene. In his amazing year 1905, Einstein explained a famous experiment – the photoelectric effect – by invoking the idea that light is made of particles that carry energy. He would later win the Nobel Prize for this achievement. Somewhat embarrassed by Newton’s corpuscles, physicists rebranded these particles with a new name – photons.

And soon after, engineers were building devices that could make noises whenever they detected light. Rather than hearing some kind of continuous splish-splosh that you may expect from a wave, they would hear a sound like individual raindrops – tick, tick, tick. Each of those ticks was an individual photon striking the detector.

Now, if you’re with me so far, this is a point where you can stop and scratch your head. On the one hand, Young proved that light is a wave. But then you have Einstein and these detectors. They’re practically screaming in our ears that light is a particle. So what’s really going on here?

This is the dilemma that gave rise to quantum mechanics – depending on what experiment you do, light seems to behave like a wave, or like a particle. It turns out, as physicists later discovered, that this is true for any kind of stuff, not just light.

{ Empirical Zeal | Continue reading }

And never stop fighting


A link between quantum mechanics and topology implies the existence of an entirely new state of matter. And physicists have already found the first example. (…)

A key point here is that the circles in a flat 2 dimensional plane cannot form a Borromean ring.

{ The Physics arXiv Blog | Continue reading }

Crackers’ll put ya in chains, box’ll drive you insane


Nobel prize nominee Umberto Veronesi raised some controversy a couple of years ago when he stated that he believed humanity was moving towards a bisexual future. The famous oncologist was not just looking to raise havoc. He actually had some good points to make. For example, he cited the scientific fact that the vitality of male reproductive cells has gone down by 50% since the end of World War II.

Based on evidence about the dissociation between sexuality and reproduction, the endless possibilities of artificial fertilization, and the fact that men and women are producing less and less hormones every day, Veronesi predicted that, as sexual interaction will lose its mainly reproductive function, bisexuality will become the norm rather than the exception.

{ Brain Blogger | Continue reading }

‘The True is the whole. But the whole is nothing other than the essence consummating itself through its development.’ –Hegel


Because of accelerating technological progress, humankind may be rapidly approaching a critical phase in its career. In addition to well-known threats such as nuclear holocaust, the prospects of radically transforming technologies like nanotech systems and machine intelligence present us with unprecedented opportunities and risks. Our future, and whether we will have a future at all, may well be determined by how we deal with these challenges. (…)

An existential risk is one where humankind as a whole is imperiled. (…)

We shall use the following four categories to classify existential risks:

Bangs – Earth-originating intelligent life goes extinct in relatively sudden disaster resulting from either an accident or a deliberate act of destruction.

Crunches – The potential of humankind to develop into posthumanity is permanently thwarted although human life continues in some form.

Shrieks – Some form of posthumanity is attained but it is an extremely narrow band of what is possible and desirable.

Whimpers – A posthuman civilization arises but evolves in a direction that leads gradually but irrevocably to either the complete disappearance of the things we value or to a state where those things are realized to only a minuscule degree of what could have been achieved.

Armed with this taxonomy, we can begin to analyze the most likely scenarios in each category. The definitions will also be clarified as we proceed.

{ Nick Bostrom, Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards, 2002 | Continue reading }

The lady’s got potential


Why does a child grow up to become a lawyer, a politician, a professional athlete, an environmentalist or a churchgoer?

It’s determined by our inherited genes, say some researchers. Still others say the driving force is our upbringing and the nurturing we get from our parents.

But a new child-development theory bridges those two models, says psychologist George W. Holden at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Holden’s theory holds that the way a child turns out can be determined in large part by the day-to-day decisions made by the parents who guide that child’s growth.

Parental guidance is key. Child development researchers largely have ignored the importance of parental “guidance,” Holden says. In his model, effective parents observe, recognize and assess their child’s individual genetic characteristics, then cultivate their child’s strengths.

{ EurekAlert | Continue reading }

My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories.


A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder.

It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains–that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant.

{ PubMed }

related { A startling proportion of the population, the existentially indifferent, demonstrates little concern for meaning in their lives. }

photo { Rob Hann }

But yo, nothin’ definite


Circular patterns within the cosmic microwave background suggest that space and time did not come into being at the Big Bang but that our universe in fact continually cycles through a series of “aeons.” That is the sensational claim being made by University of Oxford theoretical physicist Roger Penrose, who says that data collected by NASA’s WMAP satellite support his idea of “conformal cyclic cosmology”. This claim is bound to prove controversial, however, because it opposes the widely accepted inflationary model of cosmology.

According to inflationary theory, the universe started from a point of infinite density known as the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago, expanded extremely rapidly for a fraction of a second and has continued to expand much more slowly ever since, during which time stars, planets and ultimately humans have emerged. That expansion is now believed to be accelerating and is expected to result in a cold, uniform, featureless universe.

Penrose, however, takes issue with the inflationary picture and in particular believes it cannot account for the very low entropy state in which the universe was believed to have been born – an extremely high degree of order that made complex matter possible. He does not believe that space and time came into existence at the moment of the Big Bang but that the Big Bang was in fact just one in a series of many, with each big bang marking the start of a new “aeon” in the history of the universe.

{ PhysicsWorld | Continue reading }

related { In an experiment to collide lead nuclei together at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider physicists discovered that the very early Universe was not only very hot and dense but behaved like a hot liquid. }

photo { Young Kyu Yoo }




{ The Scale of the Universe }

All your scribbled love dreams are lost or thrown away


If the world is going to hell, why are humans doing so well?

For decades, apocalyptic environmentalists (and others) have warned of humanity’s imminent doom, largely as a result of our unsustainable use of and impact upon the natural systems of the planet. After all, the most recent comprehensive assessment of so-called ecosystem services—benefits provided for free by the natural world, such as clean water and air—found that 60 percent of them are declining.

Yet, at the exact same time, humanity has never been better. Our numbers continue to swell, life expectancy is on the rise, child mortality is declining, and the rising tide of economic growth is lifting most boats.

So which is it? Are these the best of times or the worst of times? Or both? And how imminent is our doom really? In the September issue of BioScience, a group of scientists attempts to reconcile the conflict and answer the question: “How is it that human well-being continues to improve as ecosystem services decline?”

{ Scientific American | Continue reading }