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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Duplication Plethora: A Science Fiction Story

In the year 2052 Marcia Griffin made her first trip to New York City, to meet a college friend of hers named Monique who had got a job in the city. Marcia got out of the train station around noon, and walked into a crowded little cafe near Times Square, to get some lunch.

After sitting down to eat at a table with two chairs, she was soon approached by a man about 30 years old, who asked, “Mind if I sit here?” Before she could say anything, the man sat down. The man started to talk, telling Marcia all about himself.

I work for a financial firm, and make damn good money, if I do say so myself,” said the man. “My friends all say that I'm the most intelligent person they ever met. So I'm sure you'd find it extremely interesting to have dinner with me, and I'd treat you to a real nice meal. How about giving me your hologram number so we can set something up.”

Not interested in this pushy egotist, Marcia said, “No, thanks.” She picked up the rest of her food, and left the cafe. Using her wristband, she summoned a driverless taxi to take her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The museum was much more computerized than in the old days, when the Greek section would only have old sculptures and vases. Marcia entered a holographic projection room in the Greek section, and saw the walls kind of appear to dissolve. She now was in a holographic projection that gave her a 360 degree view showing just what it looked to be outside the Parthenon in Athens just after it had been built.

The man next to her began to talk, saying, “You know, I have a master's degree in history, and I know all about this history stuff.” Marcia looked to her right. The man looked exactly like the same man she had seen in the cafe. But now his clothes looked different.

I went to one of the absolute top universities, and got a master's degree in art,” said the man, carelessly changing his story. “Got top-notch grades. What do you say we see the rest of the museum together? I could give you all kinds of fascinating insights.”

No, thanks,” said Marcia. Another brassy egotist, she thought to herself. She saw some more of the museum, and then left. After walking around in Central Park, she decided to walk to the subway, which she had never been on before.

It was now rush hour, and the subway was very crowded. The commuters were packed together tightly. On the subway Marcia was surprised to see right next to her a man whose face looked just like that of the man she had talked to in the cafe and the man she had talked to in the museum.

You're giving me that kind of 'I've seen his face before' look,” said the man. “I know what you're thinking. You're thinking you're so lucky to be seeing me again."

Marcia felt the man's hand moving up her skirt, and squeezing her behind. Marcia slapped the man's face.

Keep your filthy paws to yourself!” Marcia barked. “How dare you take such liberties!”

What are you talking about?” said the man. “I never even touched you.”

Marcia got off on the next stop, and walked up to the street. She thought to herself: I can't believe the bad luck I'm having with men here in New York City.

Marcia asked herself: how could the same man have appeared in three different places in the city?

Then she remembered something that made her anxious. She remembered an old episode of the television series The Twilight Zone. In the episode a woman was driving her car, and kept seeing the same creepy hitchhiker, no matter where she drove. The woman finally found out that she was dead, and that the hitchhiker was actually Death itself, who had come to pick her up. Marcia thought to herself: maybe something similar has happened to me. Maybe I've died, and this sleazy pick-up artist I keep seeing is really Mr. Death here to pick me up and take me away to the realm of the dead.

When Marcia met her friend Monique, she mentioned her experiences that day, and told what she had thought. She asked Monique: “Do I look kind of pale or transparent, like someone who died?”

Don't be silly, that wasn't Mr. Death you were seeing,” said Monique. “You merely ran into a few of the Trump clones. They're all over the city, many thousands of them.”

The Trump clones?” asked Marcia.

Way back in the days, decades ago, one of the last things that Donald Trump did as president was to sign the Cloning Authorization Act making the cloning of humans legal,” explained Monique. “After Trump died, they examined his will. It specified that most of his money should be used to make 50,000 genetically identical clones of himself, so that there could be Donald Trump clones on television for the next 80 years. No one was very surprised when they found this out.”

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Recent Press Stories Distort Near-Death Experiences

A recent LiveScience article was entitled “Are 'Flatliners' Really Conscious After Death?” The story quoted Sam Parnia, a doctor who has researched near-death experiences, in which people give amazing accounts after having a close brush with death. Although it didn't give us the full story, and kind of filtered out some of the most important facts, the LiveScience story was mainly accurate. But there was a serious inaccuracy in the article's statement that “Recent studies have shown that animals experience a surge in brain activity in the minutes after death.” There was only one such study, and it showed a spike in a single type of brain wave at a moment 30 seconds after a rat's head had been severed, not “minutes after death.”

The LiveScience story made clear that we should absolutely not expect brain activity for more than a few seconds after someone's heart stopped. It states, “The brain's cerebral cortex — the so-called "thinking part" of the brain — also slows down instantly, and flatlines, meaning that no brainwaves are visible on an electric monitor, within 2 to 20 seconds.” This is brain wave activity. Unconsciousness occurs within 6 seconds after the heart stops. At this web site, a cardiology expert tells us, “The interval between last heart beat and passing out can vary from 3 seconds to about 6 seconds.”

The LiveScience article quotes Parnia discussing what are called veridical near-death experiences:

Substantial anecdotal evidence reveals that people whose hearts stopped and then restarted were able to describe accurate, verified accounts of what was going on around them, he added. “They'll describe watching doctors and nurses working; they'll describe having awareness of full conversations, of visual things that were going on, that would otherwise not be known to them," he explained. According to Parnia, these recollections were then verified by medical and nursing staff who were present at the time and were stunned to hear that their patients, who were technically dead, could remember all those details.

But the LiveScience story completely fails to tell us anything about the duration of these recollections. Were these merely patients remembering the first 10 seconds after heart failure, as their brain activity faded out? We can't tell from the LiveScience story. The answer is actually: no. People lose consciousness within six seconds after their heart stops, not long enough to report details of medical resuscitation efforts.

A patient giving an account of a veridical near-death experience will sometimes describe minutes of medical activity during the efforts of medical personnel to restart his heart. Such a thing was reported by Pam Reynolds and in a case reported by Sam Parnia in his Aware study. In both cases we had patients report lots of things that were going on when their hearts were stopped, a sequence of events lasting minutes. Quite a few other similar cases are discussed in this post. The Aware study is now hidden behind a paywall, making it hard for people to learn about its more startling paranormal details (which are barely hinted at in the study's abstract). See here for a discussion of these details.

What the LiveScience story also fails to mention is that when such veridical near-death experiences occur, a person will typically report floating out of his body, something that is completely at odds with current scientist dogmas claiming that consciousness is purely a product of the brain. The person reporting the experience will not report lying in his body while resuscitation efforts occurred. He will typically report being above his body, looking down on it. 

The LiveScience story spurred the appearance of similar stories in the press, some of which had headlines that were unfounded. Newsweek.com had a story entitled “What Happens After You Die? The Brain Keeps Working Long Enough for Thoughts to Form.” No, studies of near-death experiences (including Parnia's research) do not justify any such claim, and are consistent with the idea that your brain shuts down within a few seconds after the heart stops. Such research is not a story of “the brain continuing to work after the heart stops” but a story of “consciousness continuing after the brain has shut down.”

The worst mangling of the LiveScience story and the research it is based on was a story in the British tabloid The Sun, which had the headline, “After you die, your brain knows you're dead, terrifying study reveals.” Again, the research is not telling us anything about conscious brain activity continuing after the heart has stopped. And the research isn't terrifying. You should hardly be terrified by an account of someone whose heart stopped and who reported floating out of his body, and witnessing medical resuscitation efforts. Such stories suggest that the soul survives death.

We have in some of these stories a case of writers trying to hammer the round peg of near-death experiences into the square hole of neurological dogmas that consciousness is equivalent to brain activity. It's a mismatch that won't work, no matter how hard you hammer.

The idea of the mind continuing after the brain has shut down should not come as a big surprise to anyone who has noticed the great disarray of scientists in their efforts to explain how the most basic mind activities could be produced by brains. Neuroscientists have no plausible tale to tell of how brains could produce abstract thoughts, or how brains could instantly recall distant memories. If some small part of your brain stores an obscure memory, in some tiny neural location, how could your brain know where that exact storage spot was, in order to retrieve the information instantly? Our scientists cannot answer this most basic question, discussed here.

When it comes to how memories could be stored in the brain, our neuroscientists are flip-flopping all over the place. A recent MIT article tells us some researchers have offered a “new theory of memory formation” different from the “strengthening of synapses” theory that has been the standard story for decades. Their theory is that memories are stored in a “pattern of connections.” The “strengthening of synapses” theory is indeed untenable, mainly because the protein molecules involved in such strengthening are very short-lived, lasting only a few weeks. But a theory of a storage in the pattern itself is equally untenable. For such a theory to be true there would have to be some grand neuron coordinator precisely coordinating connections over many different neurons to make such a pattern correspond to a memory. Nothing like that is known to exist, and we cannot plausibly imagine it existing. A memory can be formed instantly, but neuron connections form slowly. We have some experience of information being stored in binary form and in DNA, but no one has any plausible model of how it could even be possible to store information in a “pattern of connections” between brain cells.

But despite such huge explanatory shortfalls, those who have been indoctrinated in the dogmas of modern academia will continue to speak as they have been conditioned, and will mostly speak like Twin 1 in the imaginary dialog below between two yet-to-be born twins in the womb.

Twin 1: It looks like our happy time here in the wet womb is almost over. It's almost time for that fatal event known as “birth.”
Twin 2: I don't believe that birth will be our end. I believe in what I call “life after birth.”
Twin 1: Life after birth? Preposterous! When birth occurs, we will be severed from the umbilical cord that is the sole source of our nourishment. Death must soon follow.
Twin 2: I'm not so sure. Maybe there's some way we can survive. Somehow I think there is some mysterious reality beyond this familiar womb we have known all our existence.
Twin 1: A reality beyond the womb? What could possibly make you think of such extravagant nonsense?
Twin 2: I sometimes seem to get faint, irregular signals. It's as if I could occasionally hear faint voices coming from beyond the womb we live in.
Twin 1: Oh, so you think you've picked up paranormal signals? It's all just in your mind.

The faint voices occasionally heard by Twin 2 (the voice of parents) may be analogous to the irregular indications humans seem to get of a reality beyond our physical reality, through things such as medium activity, apparition sightings, deathbed visions, near-death experiences and the appearance of mysterious orbs in photos

Postscript: In response to my point about memory recall, a person might argue that the brain doesn't need to know the exact location of some tiny spot where it recalls a memory; since all cells are connected, the brain can scan until it finds what it is looking for. But that is not how memory recall seems to work. If you say the name of a famous person such as John Kennedy, I do not have some mental experience of searching through memory like someone flipping the pages of an encyclopedia. I do not see in my mind's eye many images flashing until I finally reach the image of John Kennedy. Instead, you suddenly say "John Kennedy," and I instantly retrieve nothing at all except the image of John Kennedy.  How could that work so quickly, if the image is stored in, say, brain location #834,342,430, and I have no way of remembering that the image is stored in that location, in a brain that has no coordinate or addressing system allowing exact brain addresses? Nor will it work to claim that the image is stored everywhere in my brain, an idea that becomes rather ridiculous as it leads to thinking that there are billions of brain places I am storing the image of Spongebob Squarepants.  It seems that there is no plausible detailed theory of brain storage of memory compatible with our experience of instantaneous recall of obscure memories, little bits of information learned long ago and thought about never or almost never since that time.  Attempts at such theories never properly explain instantaneous recall or the wonder of hyperthymesia.  It seems that memory must involve something more than just the brain, an idea compatible with the phenomenon of near-death experiences, a phenomenon suggesting that something like a soul exists.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Stigma-Seeking Psychology Experiments Are a Waste of Research Dollars

There is a type of psychology experiment that we can call a stigma-seeking psychology experiment. This type of experiment is typically designed by some experimenter who is offended by some belief that others may hold. The experimenter (who we may call the stigma-seeker) runs an experiment designed to find some psychological defect in those who hold the belief he is offended by. The stigma-seeker's goal is to be able to say something like, “Aha, those type of people believe such things because they have this type of glitch in their minds.”

For example, if you are a Democrat psychology professor, you may run some experiment designed to show that Republicans believe some thing because of a glitch in their minds; and if you are a Republican psychology professor, you may run some experiment designed to show that Democrats believe some thing because of a glitch in their minds. Similarly, if you an atheist you may some run some experiment designed to show that people believe in God because of some glitch in their minds; and if you are a theist you may run some experiment designed to show that people do not believe in God because of some glitch in their minds.

An example of this type of weaponized psychology experiment was recently published. The stigma seekers are Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Karen M. Douglas, and Clara De Inocencio. They have aimed their arrows at the target of people who believe in the paranormal. That is probably a majority of the people in the United States, as studies show that more than 50% of Americans believe in one or more things that can be called paranormal.

These psychologists have done a joint study on believers in the paranormal and conspiracy theorists. This is the same kind of crude “smear by bad association” trick one might do if you were to try to smear Democrats by doing a joint study on the thought habits of Democrats and flat earth believers, or if you were to try to smear Catholics by doing a joint study on the behavior of Catholics and arsonists.

Our stigma-seeking psychologists start out in their paper by very aggressively attempting to portray belief in the paranormal or supernatural as something irrational and dangerous. This is a dead giveaway as to their hostility and bias on the topic, something very different from the objectivity which a researcher should have. I may note the weakness of their reasoning designed to show that belief in the supernatural is harmful, such as this claim: “Supernatural beliefs may lead people to consult spiritual healers instead of qualified medical specialists to treat dangerous illnesses, or to base important life decisions (e.g., whether to buy a house, or get a divorce) on information derived from horoscopes or a random draw of tarot cards.” But that's peanuts compared to the oceans of death and pain delivered by people who did not believe in the supernatural, such as the atheist Joseph Stalin who sent many millions to their deaths or to prison work camps in Siberia.

The psychologists did five experiments, which all used the same approach. Each experiment was done using only a few hundred anonymous online subjects who the psychologists never even met. The subjects used an online site (something called Crowdflower), and did little quickie tests running about 15 or 20 minutes. As part of such testing, the subjects were asked to fill out online questionnaires asking about their beliefs about the paranormal and conspiracy beliefs. The subjects received a small payment of 75 cents, meaning they were paid at the rate of about $3 an hour.

Since they were online tests, why could our experiments not have waited until thousands had finished the tests? An online experiment with a few hundred anonymous subjects is hardly a way to produce an effect that we should have any confidence will be replicated reliably.  The results reported are not very strong, and the reported correlations are almost all weak, most much less than 50%.

The hypothesis the psychologists were trying to show was that belief in the paranormal results from a tendency to see patterns where there are none. This hypothesis does not make sense. There is almost no belief in the supernatural or paranormal that can be plausibly explained in such a way.

Let's consider some examples. People may believe in God because of the universe's unexplained beginning, and the extraordinary fine-tuning and order in the universe's physics and organisms. Others may simply believe in God because they believe what their religion teacher told them. Such belief has nothing to do with a pattern. People may believe in ghosts or Bigfoot because they saw a ghost or saw what looked like Bigfoot, or they may believe witnesses whose accounts were written up in a book. Again, this has nothing to do with pattern interpretation. Belief in near-death experiences is based on the accounts of people who had such experiences, and has nothing to do with pattern interpretation. People may believe in ESP (extrasensory perception) because they read about the very convincing laboratory experiments which have shown such a thing, or because they had some memorable experience in which they seemed to know the thoughts of someone in a way that seemed inexplicable. Again, this does not involve pattern interpretation. People may believe in UFOs after they saw something dramatic and inexplicable in the sky, or read lots of accounts about other people seeing dramatic and inexplicable lights in the sky. This has nothing to do with pattern interpretation.

There is a general rule that the larger the size of a belief group, the more that belief group will tend to have average mental characteristics. In some tiny belief group you might see aberrant mental characteristics; but in some group with a size such as 50 million you will see mental characteristics very close to average mental characteristics. In the case of belief in the paranormal or the supernatural, the belief group is actually a majority of humanity, which makes any type of mental aberration hypothesis (such as that of our stigma-seeking psychologists) very implausible.

For someone eager to show some psychological defect in people they are studying, there are two advantages to running an online study paying test subjects “slave wages” of only $3 an hour, such as this study did. The first advantage is that you can pay less than $100 for 200 20-minute subjects, meaning if necessary you can very inexpensively keep repeating the experiment until it produces the desired effect. The second advantage is that pretty much the only people who will work for these “slave wages” (must less than the minimum legal US wage) are the financially desperate; and if you're getting only such subjects, you maximize your chance that some psychological defect will show up in the subjects you are studying.

An earlier scientific paper done by different scientists, based on tests with hundreds of subjects, stated “This paper argues against the theory that people interpret unusual coincidences as paranormal because they misunderstand the probability of their occurring by chance.” This scientific paper found that when only those with college educations were chosen, there was no tendency for believers in the paranormal to over-estimate patterns. 

It might be rather easy to turn the tables on our stigma-seeking psychologists trying to show some glitch in the mind of believers in the paranormal. You could design psychological experiments that might show that rejection of convincing evidence for the paranormal or supernatural correlates with unreasonable stubbornness, observational bias, or refusal to accept reliable and highly repeated testimony. But it would be pointless to do such a thing, because all stigma-seeking psychology experiments are a waste of research dollars. If you don't agree with someone's opinion on a topic, it is best to argue why such an opinion is wrong, and why your opinion on the topic is right. Attempting to fight an opinion by trying to experimentally demonstrate mind glitches in those who hold it is just a fancy version of the ad hominem fallacy. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Why ET Civilizations in Our Galaxy Should Be Either Very Abundant or Very Rare

In the article I discussed in my previous post, astronomer Seth Shostak cites estimates that there are between 10,000 and one million civilizations in our galaxy. But there is a strong reason for rejecting such estimates, and for thinking that the number of civilizations in our galaxy should be either very high (many millions) or very low (fewer than 100). 

A spiral galaxy similar to our galaxy (credit: NASA)

The reason has to do with interstellar colonization. Let us imagine that there was a single civilization that was interested in colonizing the galaxy, which contains more than 100 billion stars. Such a civilization could spread throughout the galaxy in a time span of less than 100 million years.

You do not defeat such a conclusion by arguing that interstellar travel is impossible. It is quite possible that none of the fancy space warps or warp drives of science fiction will ever be created. It is also possible that there are practical engineering reasons why interstellar spaceships may never travel faster than an average of about five percent of the speed of light. But even if the fastest interstellar spaceship takes a century of more to travel from one star to another star, interstellar travel should be possible. A civilization would merely need to create relatively slow multi-generation ships to travel between the stars. Such ships might be manned by one generation as the ship left a solar system, and then when the ship finally reached another solar system, the ship might be manned by the descendants of the descendants of the descendants of the original crew members.

Two mathematicians have estimated how long it would take for a civilization to colonize the galaxy, using very conservative assumptions. They assumed a very slow rate of colonization, in which it takes 1000 years for one solar system to colonize another solar system about five light years apart. The mathematicians reached the conclusion that it would take about 50 million years for a civilization to spread across the galaxy.

That may seem like a vast amount of time, but it isn't very long compared to the age of the universe. The universe is believed to be some 13 billion years old. It seems that intelligent life might have appeared in our galaxy at any time in the past billion years. So there would have been plenty of time for such a galaxy-wide colonization effort to have occurred (a billion years is 20 times longer than 50 million years).

Some have tried to use this type of reasoning to argue that we must be the only civilization in our galaxy, on the grounds that if another civilization had arisen, it would have already colonized Earth. But such an argument seems weak, on two grounds. First, it is possible that there exist a very small number of extraterrestrial civilizations, none of which has any interest in colonizing the galaxy. Second, there is always the possibility that our planet has been preserved as a kind of zoo or nature reserve. Humans themselves have established quite a few nature reserves around the world, so extraterrestrials might have done that also; and our planet may be part of some “do not colonize” zone.

Let's suppose that one civilization had spread throughout most of the galaxy, something that seems likely if there originally arose a hundred or more extraterrestrial civilizations. Would it be correct to refer to all of the far-flung colonies arising from such a civilization as being parts of a single civilization? It would seem not. The speed of light would seem to make it very likely that these far-flung colonies (separated by many light years) would break up to become a very varied set of civilizations, rather than anything that could be called a single civilization.

Once a civilization had been established light-years away from its parent solar system, the parent solar system would have only a weak degree of control or influence over its colony. As each new colony was created in solar systems farther and farther away, this cultural attenuation effect would increase.

We can imagine a typical colonization progression:

  1. Home world colonizes a solar system 5 light-years away, colonizing Planet A. That colony is only 80% similar to the civilization that it was derived from.
  2. Planet A colonizes a solar system 5 light-years away, colonizing Planet B. That colony is only 80% similar to the civilization that it was derived from.
  3. Planet B colonizes a solar system 5 light-years away, colonizing Planet C. That colony is only 80% similar to the civilization that it was derived from.
  4. Planet C colonizes a solar system 5 light-years away, colonizing Planet D. That colony is only 80% similar to the civilization that it was derived from.

You can see the general trend here. As the colonies are established farther and farther out in galactic space, these colonies tend to differ more and more from some ancestral world that they are descended from. By the time planets are colonized hundreds or thousands of light-years away from the planet that started the wave of colonization, each of these planets is really becoming its own distinct civilization, with its own distinctive customs, philosophy, ethics, and so forth. So it's not really a case of a single civilization spreading across the galaxy. It's like some microorganism that mutates into a thousand different strains as it spreads across the world.

So if one extraterrestrial civilization were to spread to millions of different planets over the course of millions of years, by the time that process had finished we should really say that there would be millions of diverse civilizations in the galaxy, rather than saying these colonies are all a single civilization.

There seem to be only two plausible possibilities:
  1. Galactic civilizations are very rare. It might be that there are fewer than 100 civilizations existing on fewer than 100 planets in our galaxy. In such a case, it is quite possible that none of them (other than our civilization) was interested in colonizing the galaxy. For example, if there were only 50 other civilizations in the galaxy, it could be that ten of them have moral objections to galactic colonization, that 30 of them are inward-looking or absorbed with activities on their home planets, and that the other ten lack the confidence or drive to colonize the galaxy.
  2. Galactic civilizations are extremely common. It could be that the galaxy is teeming with civilizations, partly because of widespread galactic colonization. The total number in our galaxy could be in the hundreds of millions, or perhaps even more than a billion. It could be that our planet has been preserved as some kind of nature reserve or laboratory or zoo, which might explain the fact that our planet has not been colonized.

Due to the galactic colonization factor, it does not seem plausible that there are a medium number of civilizations in our galaxy – some number such as 10,000 or 100,000 or a million. If there were that many civilizations, some of those civilizations would have started colonizing the galaxy, leading to a situation where hundreds of millions of planets became occupied by civilizations. It strains credulity to imagine that fewer than 1 in 10,000 civilizations would be interested in colonizing the galaxy (conversely, it doesn't seem too implausible to guess that something like only 1 or 2 percent of civilizations are interested in colonizing the galaxy).

It's rather like this. Imagine you wake up from a 10-year coma, and are told only that there is smallpox in a distant city. We know that smallpox is extremely contagious. So your best guess (based on this limited information) is that either very few people in the city had smallpox, or that smallpox had spread all over the city. Given how contagious smallpox is, it would not make sense to assume that a medium number of people in the city had smallpox (such as one twentieth of the population). In a similar vein, on a time-scale of a billion years, civilizations are highly “contagious” (in the sense of being prone to spread from one solar system to another). So it seems that the best guess would be that civilized life has either spread though the galaxy, or that there are so few civilizations that such a “contagion” has not occurred.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

SETI Success Before 2035 Is Very Unlikely Unless There Is Teleology

In my favorite spot for finding unwarranted claims by scientists (the Nautilus web site), there is a recent post by astronomer Seth Shostak entitled “Why We’ll Have Evidence of Aliens—If They Exist—By 2035.” Shostak tries to argue that the great big pie-in-the-sky of “signals from extraterrestrials” will be delivered within a decade or two. But his argument is very unconvincing.

Shostak's argument essentially boils down to merely saying something kind of along the lines of we're looking real hard, in more ways, in more places, and with more frequencies, and that will do the trick. Shostak mentions optical SETI, the search for optical pulses from extraterrestrials (a bit like getting a flashlight signal across the stars). The way he describes things, you might think that this type of search was in its infancy. But, to the contrary, a scientific paper not mentioned by Shostak reported on a search for optical signals coming from sun-like stars. Almost 5,000 such stars were searched over the course of two years, but no such signal was found.

Shostak also tells us, “There is a completely different approach that has yet to be explored in much detail: to look for artifacts—engineering projects of an advanced society.” From the way he writes, you'd think that no one had done such a search. But Shostak fails to mention a search of 100,000 nearby galaxies looking for signs of extraterrestrial engineering, a search that came up empty.

The main way of searching for extraterrestrial civilizations is to attempt to pick up radio signals from other planets. Shostak tells us, “Within two decades, SETI experiments will be able to complete a reconnaissance of 1 million star systems, which is hundreds of times more than have been carefully examined so far.” Hundreds of times more? That would only be true if fewer than 5000 stars had been searched so far. But this paper alone discusses 9293 stars that were unsuccessfully searched for extraterrestrial signals. Were we to add up the total number of stars searched for radio signals by astronomers, in 50 years of SETI efforts, it would be a number much greater than 9293.

Shostak talks about two approaches to searching for extraterrestrial signals: “One is to scan as much of the sky as possible; the other is to zero in on nearby star systems.” He suggests the second approach is better, saying that if extraterrestrials live on planets, “It’s better to devote precious telescope time to examining nearby star systems.” But a 2006 article says, “Recent work confirms long-standing suspicions that star-by-star targeting should be abandoned in favor of scanning the richest star fields to encompass very large numbers of stars, even if most of them are very far away.” That's the approach that has already been taken by projects such as the SERENDIP project. But they came up empty.

Shostak then states the following:

SETI practitioners from Frank Drake to Carl Sagan have estimated that the galaxy currently houses somewhere between 10,000 and a few million broadcasting societies. If these estimates are right, then examining 1 million star systems could well lead to a discovery. So, if the premise of SETI has merit, we should find a broadcast from E.T. within a generation.

Such estimates are just examples of picking numbers out of a hat, and both of the people Shostak sites were astronomers, not people with degrees in biology. There are very strong reasons for believing that unless there is something special going on in terms of cosmic teleology, something to better the long odds, the chance of extraterrestrial civilizations arising anywhere else in our galaxy are very low.

Lets consider some of the things that need to go right in order for a communicating civilization to arise on another planet:
  1. Life has to begin, consisting of cells that would have to be very complex for even the simplest life.
  2. At about the same time, a genetic code has to somehow arise.
  3. Life has to progress from the simplest cells (prokaryotes) to the vastly more complicated cells called eukaryotes.
  4. Life has to progress to macroscopic life with complicated organ systems.
  5. Macroscopic life has to evolve into intelligent life.
  6. Intelligent life has to develop both language and limbs sufficient to make tools, as well as the advanced consciousness and abstract thinking needed for a species to have an interest in communicating with other species on other planets.
The first of these things is something that seems so unlikely to occur by chance that we should not assume it has accidentally occurred even one other time on billions of other planets in our galaxy. Darwinian ideas are of no value in explaining life's origin, since natural selection can only occur when life exists. Even the most primitive microorganism known to us seems to need a minimum of more than 200,000 base pairs in its DNA (as discussed here).

The origin of even the simplest life seems to require fantastically improbable events. Protein molecules have to be just-right to be functional. It has been calculated that something like 1070 random trials would be needed for a functional protein molecule to appear; and many such protein molecules are needed for life to get started. And so much more is also needed: cells, self-replicating molecules, a genetic code that is an elaborate system of symbolic representations, and also some fantastically improbable luck in regard to homochirality. Homochirality is the fact that in a laboratory the components of sugars and amino acids are chemicals that are “left-handed” or “right-handed” in equal numbers, but in living things essentially all sugars are made of “right-handed” components and all proteins made of “left-handed” components – a situation that seems fantastically unlikely to have occurred by chance.

If by some miracle life were to arise on a planet, from a naturalistic perspective it seems extremely likely that cells would simply stay stuck in a prokaryotic state, rather than making the leap to the much more complicated eukaryotic cells. The prevailing theory (or perhaps one should say “fairy tale”) on how such a leap occurred is not even a Darwinian explanation, but a very far-fetched endosymbiosis story involving “incorporation by ingestion” that tries to kind of say, “Cells got vastly more complicated by eating other cells.” We are asked to think that a biological organism could become vastly more complex just by gobbling up other things. In the recent book Aliens, biologist Matthew Cobb gives a description of current thinking on this topic, emphasizing the improbability of it:

What happened on Earth – known as eukaryogenesis – was not the product of random mutation and the subsequent sifting of acquired characters that have differential fitness (the essence of natural selection). Instead there appears to have been a single event of mind-boggling improbability, for it involved two life forms interacting in a most novel way....Prior to that moment, all life had consisted of small microbes with no cell nucleus and no mitochondria. Everything changed when one unicellular life form, known as an archaebacterium, ended up inside another, called a eubacterium.

On another page Cobb says this:

We could in principle calculate the probability of the appearance of eukaryotes, but we would soon run out of zeros...That weird hybrid was our ancestor, and its existence – and therefore ours – was incredibly improbable. As far as we are aware, no such event happened before or since.

It also seems extremely likely that life would just stay in a microscopic state rather than making the leap to multi-cellular life forms consisting of multiple layers of organization such as cells, tissues, organs and organ systems. On Earth this seems to have happened in a sudden burst, at about the Cambrian Explosion about 540 million years ago. Scientists have never adequately explained this sudden blossoming, in which most major phyla of animals suddenly appeared.

To plausibly explain the appearance of large, multi-cellular, macroscopic life consisting of cells, tissues, limbs, organs, and organ systems, we would need a theory explaining gigantic amounts of biological organization. But we don't have that – merely something vastly less, the theory of accumulation that is Darwinism (a theory of the accumulation of favorable random mutations). 

To clarify the difference between the two (organization and accumulation), below we see a depiction of organization, the metabolic pathways in the human body:

    Credit: US Department of Energy

And here is an example of accumulation:

Then there are the difficulties of explaining the appearance of intelligent life, the type of life that might be interested and capable of interstellar communication. In the case of humanity, we have a species with about 10 fundamental mental characteristics that separate us from the animals: things such as abstract thinking, language ability, mathematical ability, philosophical ability, spirituality, ethics, altruism, self-consciousness, and intellectual curiosity. As argued here, none of these things increased the ability of humans to survive in the wild, so we cannot explain such things as being due to natural selection. 

In moments of candor, some evolution experts such as George Gaylord Simpson and Ernst Mayr argued that the appearance of humanity was such a fluke that we should not at all expect it to happen on any other planet in the galaxy. In the recent book Aliens, biologist Matthew Cobb states that “a study of the key points in life's history” leads us to the pessimistic conclusion that “there are no alien civilizations.”

You can summarize the situation as follows: based only on what we currently know for sure, if an extraterrestrial planet existed the right distance from its sun, with overwhelming likelihood no life would arise on the planet; and if life did by great luck appear on the planet, it would with overwhelming likelihood stay in the simple prokaryotic microscopic state; and if the vastly more complex eukaryotic microscopic state did by great luck arise, with overwhelming likelihood the planet would never see multi-cellular life with limbs and tissues and organ systems; and if by great luck very organized multi-cellular life arose, it would with overwhelming likelihood not reach anything like the consciousness, linguistic fluency and manual dexterity needed for interstellar communication.

Given such a reality, there is no basis for the estimates Shostak cites for the number of communicating civilizations in our galaxy (between 10,000 and a million). If we realistically consider things based purely on known biology and chemistry, without assuming anything special helps life along, our best guess should be that there is no other civilization in our galaxy. There are billions of other galaxies, so such an estimate would not preclude there being many other civilizations scattered across the universe's galaxies. But the chance of communicating with a civilization in another galaxy is remote. The fact that SETI has been searching for extraterrestrial civilizations for decades without finding anything is consistent with an estimate that we are the only civilization in our galaxy, and is rather inconsistent with claims that there are 10,000 or more extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy.

But there is one reason for thinking that there might be many civilizations in our galaxy. Given the seemingly terrible odds of intelligent life appearing even once in a galaxy, it may be best to assume that there must have been some special “X factor” that helped intelligent life appear. We can use the vague term “cosmic teleology” to describe such a thing. A kind of “big umbrella” term that can cover many possibilities, the term “cosmic teleology” covers everything from the possibility of deliberate supernatural assistance to the possibility that there is some kind of cosmic life-force that causes biological life to become progressively more organized. The fact that many a biologist has declared such a concept to be taboo and forbidden is no reason at all why we should avoid it.

A believer in cosmic teleology can be a believable optimist when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). For example, such a person might maintain that we will succeed in finding extraterrestrials within 50 years, because there is some cosmic life-force that acts throughout the galaxy, causing life to appear on every habitable planet, and also causing life to become  ever-more organized. But someone who has not articulated any doctrine of cosmic teleology is not a believable short-term optimist about SETI. Similarly, if you have for some reason a compelling theory you can count cards or read minds or influence the rolls of dice with mind-over-matter, you might have a good basis for optimism about going to Las Vegas and coming back with $100,000 in winnings; but if you have no such theory, you have no business being optimistic about such an outcome.

As for Shostak's claim that we will make contact with intelligent extraterrestrials within 20 years (because the search technology is getting better and better), it seems no more convincing than the claim that we will be able to telephone the dead within 20 years, because smartphones are getting better and better. 50 years of SETI failure suggests that if extraterrestrial civilizations exist, they are very hard to find, and that it is unlikely that we will find any extraterrestrial civilizations within the next 20 years.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Very Strong Effect of Repeating Patterns in Mysterious Striped Orbs

Post updated in September 2018 to have the latest observations numbers. 

Orbs are mysterious circular anomalies that appear in photographs without any obvious explanations. Such anomalies have been appearing in photographs taken around the world for decades, with equal frequency indoors and outdoors (where the air is much cleaner than indoors). There is no relation at all between the appearance of such anomalies and the cleanness of air. In almost all cases such anomalies show up in photographs taken in completely ordinary air.

Skeptics claim that such orbs are merely out-of-focus dust particles. Before discussing and showing a consideration that completely defeats such a claim (a very strong effect of recurring patterns in mysterious striped orbs), I will briefly discuss the general reasons for rejecting the skeptical “orbs are just dust” explanation. Most of the more remarkable orbs that have been photographed cannot be explained as dust, because they are either too big to be dust, too bright to be dust, too fast-moving to be dust, too colorful to be dust, too regularly observed to be dust, too surrounded by clean air to be dust, or having too many sharp, clear details to be dust. When you actually look into the size of dust particles in ordinary air, you will find that they are thousands of times too small to produce orbs of the size frequently seen in the better orb photographs.

Orb photographers often publish photos showing orbs that are about 10% to 15% of the width or height of the original photos. To produce such an orb, a particle in front of the camera would need to block more than 1% of the area in front of the camera lens. But dust particles in ordinary air (being only about 1 micron outdoors and 10 microns indoors) are only big enough to block about a millionth of the area in front of a camera lens (about 100 million microns). If it were true that dust particles in ordinary air were sufficient to produce orbs, then people would constantly be getting orbs in their flash photos. But fewer than 1 percent of photographers get orbs in their photos. It is true that you can get small unimpressive-looking dust orbs in photos by vigorous efforts such as by putting a shirt under your bed and then whipping the shirt around, but that proves nothing to discredit photos taken in ordinary air (because when you do such a drop-and-shake stunt you are briefly raising the average particle size in the air by a hundred-fold). Then there is the fact that mysterious orbs photographed indoors often show what looks exactly like extremely fast motion, of a type we would never see from dust particles (which move at only 2 miles per hour indoors) – a kind of “string of pearls” motion (shown here) in which we can seem to see multiple position states of an object hurtling at incredible speeds. Skeptics have a variety of ingenious explanations to try to explain away such photos, but none of these attempts work, for the reasons discussed in detail here

The fact that mysterious orbs so often appear with colors of blue, pink, purple, green, orange, red, and yellow is another fact completely inconsistent with a dust explanation.  For example, I have photographed more than 1400 mysterious blue orbs both indoors and outdoors, as well as more than 400 mysterious purple orbs (as shown here).  Attempts to naturally explain such colors do not work, for reasons discussed here

Before noticing recurring patterns in mysterious orbs I photographed, I started to get a striping effect in mysterious orbs that is in itself sufficient to rule out a dust explanation. The effect I saw was that again and again mysterious orbs that I photographed would have sharp, clear stripes, often stretching from one side of the orb to the other. A large fraction of the stripes were straight, but just as many of the stripes were curved. I may note that prior to the time I reported this effect in 2015, no one ever reported seeing stripes in any type of airborne particles. So you can't say “those were just dust stripes” – because if it is possible to photograph stripes in airborne dust, how could it be that no one reported such a thing prior to 2015?

By now I have photographed more than 700 mysterious orbs with stripes, all photographed in dry air. You can see all of these photos (posted between July 2015 and the present) by using this link and continuing to press on the “Older Posts” button at the bottom. One reason why such orb stripes cannot be explained through any type of dust explanation is that such stripes are an example of clear, sharp details – and such clear, sharp details are exactly not what we would expect to see in out-of-focus particles appearing near the camera.

Things got even more interesting when I started to notice many repeating patterns in mysterious orbs that I photographed. I have so far noticed 32 of these repeating patterns in striped orbs I have photographed. The best way to see examples of all of these patterns is to look at the long blog post here, which includes two or more examples of each of these patterns (in some case as many as 47 examples of a particular pattern). If you are not energetic enough to click on the link and scroll down, you can instead merely look at the grid below, which combines many of these photos. The best way to see the grid below is to click on it to open it in a separate browser tab (which will show the grid in higher resolution).

repeating patterns

None of the items we see above are patterns that showed up in consecutive photos. So I am sure that none of these photos was caused by some camera irregularity (such as cracks or lines on the camera lens). Such an irregularity would cause a photo anomaly that would show up in consecutive photos; but none of these anomalies appeared in consecutive photos.

Within the blue rectangle in this grid, you see 10 examples of a pattern I call the umbilical cord pattern (it also rather resembles a pig tail or a cul-de-sac seen from above). A  close-up example of the extremely distinctive pattern is below:

Within the red rectangle of the grid, we see 8 examples of an inverted-Y pattern. Inside the yellow rectangle of the grid, we see 10 examples of a curved stripe pattern appearing either at the top or the bottom of an orb. Within the purple rectangle of the grid, we see 13 examples of a horizontal stripe pattern, in which we see a belt-like stripe on an orb.

Inside the green rectangle of the grid (at its lower left part), and the row below it, we see 7 T-shaped stripes, three of them having a break between the lines and a slanted top. Inside the pink rectangle we see three r-shaped stripes. Inside the light blue rectangle at the bottom left of the grid we see three J-shaped stripes. Inside the orange rectangle of the grid, we see 8 cases of a pattern consisting of a vertical stripe stretching down from the top of the orb, with a little circular feature directly underneath that stripe.

The pattern appearing most often is shown inside the green rectangle of the grid, where we see 28 examples of mysterious orbs with a stripe stretching from the top right corner of the orb down to the opposite side of the orb, on the bottom left corner.

Assuming that only natural particles were being photographed, how often would a photographer expect to see this many pattern repetitions? Not once in a thousand reincarnated lifetimes. That's simply because there are so many ways in which random marks might be arranged within natural or random particles.

Consider the following math. Imagine there are two strangers in different houses who are each told to randomly arrange 23 black tiles on a scrabble board that is a 15 by 15 grid. There are 225 places for the first person to arrange his first tile, so the chance that they will both place the first tile in the same spot on the grid is 1 in 225. The chance that they both will put the second tile on the same spot on the 15 by 15 grid is 1 in 224, because now one of the spots on the grid is already filled. We can calculate the chance of the two strangers randomly positioning their tiles on exactly the same 23 spots on the 15 by 15 grid as follows: it is (1/225) *(1/224) *(1/223)*(1/222)*(1/221)*(1/220)*(1/219)*(1/218)*(1/217)*(1/216)*(1/215) *(1/214) *(1/213)*(1/212)*(1/211)*(1/210)*(1/209)*(1/208)*(1/207)*(1/206)*(1/205) *(1/204) *(1/203).

This equals 1 in 2 x 1054 -- which is about 1 chance in 1 followed by 54 zeroes. This is about the chance of you meeting 6 strangers, and correctly guessing all of their 9-digit Social Security numbers on the first try.

This calculation simply gives us a hint of how fantastically improbable it is that two random patterns will coincidentally match. Given that type of math, we absolutely should not expect for a single photographer in the world to get even a single case of distinctive random patterns repeating 8 times or more in mysterious orbs he photographed. The chance of anyone getting 32 repeating patterns, with some repeating as many as 47 times, is some probability so microscopic it can scarcely be calculated.

Here's another example to show how improbable is that random patterns might match, but in this example an exact match will not be required. Let's imagine 3000 people in a large auditorium. What is the chance that even two of them would have a Social Security number differing by only one digit?

A Social Security number is 9 digits. There are 81 different 9-digit numbers that differ by only one digit from any Social Security number. We can consider these “matching patterns.” There are about a billion possible Social Security numbers. So the chance that one person will have a Social Security number with a pattern matching that of the person next to him (considering a 1-digit deviation as a pattern match) is about 1 in a billion divided by 81, or 0.000000081. But with 3000 people in the auditorium, the chance that one particular person will have a Social Security matching the pattern of another person in the auditorium is about 0.000000081 multiplied by 3000, or 0.000243.

But what about the probability that as many as 25 of these 3000 people would have a Social Security number with the same pattern (differing by less than one digit)? To calculate that you would need to use a thing called a binomial probability calculator. When we use the one at StatTrek.com, which you can access here, it tells us that the chance of this is less than 1 in a million.

The StatTrek calculator actually won't show any probability less than 1 in a million, and simply displays such a probability as less than .000001. I have a Java binomial probability calculator that I have tested successfully with benchmarks. When I try this example, it tells me that the probability is 2.6177844832578667E-28, which is roughly 1 in 10 to the twenty-eighth power (about than 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000).

The example here very roughly corresponds to the probability of some orb photographer taking 3000 photos of mysterious orbs (such as I have), and getting a matching pattern on 28 of them (such as I have done in the case of orbs with a stripe stretching from the top right corner to the lower bottom corner, as you can see in the green rectangle of the grid above). But the probability of getting so many matching patterns as I have got would actually be much smaller, since the chance of getting a matching pattern on a Social Security number (with a match of 8 out of 9 digits) is actually much greater than the chance of getting a matching pattern on a circular object which might have marks or lines arranged in any of a trillion quadrillion different ways. So the chance of getting only the pattern recurrence shown in the green rectangle in the grid above seems to be less than 2.6177844832578667E-28 (about 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000), and the chance of also getting all of the other pattern matches in addition seems like some number even more microscopic.

The math above merely hints that the chance of getting as many pattern repetitions as I have got is essentially zero, if only chance was involved. The same thing is suggested by human experience with snowflakes. These are natural objects that can have a vast variety of appearances. But no one ever observes the same pattern repeated.

On two days I have twice photographed the exact same pattern repeating on the same day. Below is one example (reported here) showing a “T” letter inside two mysterious orbs I photographed. Note how both "T" shapes have the same distinctive look, with a slanted top.

spirit orbs

Below is another example (reported here) in which we see an “H” letter in two orbs I photographed on the same day. In both cases the right “leg” of the “H” letter curves upward.

repeating orbs
In both of these cases I took many ordinary photos between the photo on the left and the right, and such ordinary photos showed no such pattern.

The repeating patterns phenomenon described here seems to be a novel and unprecedented observational effect, and seems to have been reported by no previous observer. Given the extremely high degree of pattern repetition in these photos I have taken of mysterious striped orbs, there is a great temptation to interpret these dramatically repeating patterns as being some mysterious signaling effect. But if a person makes such a guess, he should add to that guess the last line of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey:...its origin and purpose: still a total mystery.”

Postscript: Below is a 26-minute youtube.com video I created, compiling more than 500 photos I have taken of mysterious striped orbs. Click on the icon at bottom right to watch the video in full screen mode. 

The photos here show a dramatic case of an orb pattern that repeated within the same hour. Photos taken between the times listed showed no such anomaly. 

mysterious event

Below is another very dramatic case of a repeating orb pattern, with the pattern repetition occurring within 90 minutes. The pattern at the top resembles a stick figure of a leaping dancer. 

orb reappearance

Post-postscript: By the end of 2020 I have taken 800 photos of such mysterious striped orbs. You can see them all by using the link here, which takes you to a free online book of mine with very many photos. 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Facebook Is Great for Venting and Buy-Bragging, Not So Good for Thoughtful Essays

Let us imagine a Facebook user named Jack who decides to think very deeply about some topic – perhaps a moral topic or a philosophical topic. Let us suppose that Jack does quite a bit of research and reflection on the topic, and then writes a 2000-word essay displaying some original thinking on the topic. Then Jack posts his essay on Facebook. He imagines that his Facebook friends will recognize the depth of thought in his essay, and respond with quite a few likes or comments.

But Jack will have no control over the way this essay appears on the Facebook feeds of his friends. He will be at the mercy of Facebook's news feed presentation algorithms. Facebook will treat this essay in a way that almost guarantees it will receive little attention. On their news feeds, Jack's friends will see a little block of text giving a few words from the start of Jack's long reflective post, with a little link at the bottom leading to a page giving the entirety of the text. But these friends of Jack's will be given no initial indication of how long Jack's post is. So unless they click on the link, Jack's friends won't know that Jack has bothered to put down 2000 words of deep reflection on some topic. Probably almost all of them won't bother to click on the link, and will suppose that the link only gives a few more words, rather than many paragraphs of prose. Facebook will do nothing to highlight Jack's long post in the news feeds of Jack's friends. Jack's long essay will be given the same size in those feeds as trivial little 50-word posts, and may get smaller space in those news feeds than trivial run-of-the-mill selfies.

Jack will then probably find that his thoughtful 2000-word essay has been largely ignored. But if instead he puts up some shallow little post with a photograph (perhaps a selfie or a picture of some little thing he bought), he will probably get just as much attention as he got from his long thoughtful post.

Before long, Jack will kind of realize that Facebook is not a platform that does much to reward complex reflective thinking, and that he can get much more “bang for his buck” by putting up shallow little “look where I was” or “look what I bought” posts. Jack won't be likely to put up many more deep, reflective posts. Looking at how his friends post almost nothing but short, shallow posts, Jack will probably follow that way of using Facebook, rather than being a “Facebook oddball” who posts long, thoughtful posts.

Facebook is a good platform for expressing emotion, particularly short-lived emotions caused by events in the news. Facebook is good for venting little bursts of anger at things that annoy you, by writing tiny little posts like this:

The Giants blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. How much can a fan take?!

Facebook also can be good for expressing sadness at things that happen in your personal life. Facebook is also an almost ideal platform for anyone who spends lots of money, and who wants to brag about his conspicuous consumption by posting lots of little “look what I bought” posts and “look where I went” posts.

A typical "buy-brag" social media post

You might put it this way: Facebook is a fine platform for feelers and spenders, but it's not a very good platform for thinkers. Particularly appalling is the lack of control a Facebook user has over his own Facebook page. If you happen to have written a long Facebook post detailing your philosophy of life, there is no way for you to highlight that post so that it always appears prominently to anyone who comes to your page. Such a post will get “lost in the stream” after you post ten or twenty trivial little posts and photos.

If Facebook may encourage us to produce short and shallow social media contributions, the same thing can be said about Twitter. By limiting the length of a tweet (a message posted on Twitter) to 140 characters, Twitter has rather been encouraging people to make short soundbites about topics, rather than deep, complex reflections. This problem has only been slightly alleviated by the fact that Twitter recently increased its maximum tweet length to 280 characters. It's all but impossible to state an argument of any depth or complexity using only 280 characters.

A platform such as Twitter is ideal for someone who rose to public prominence despite a lack of depth, a type of person who might cringe at the idea of writing a complex thousand-word essay, but who enjoys the opportunity to vent his ire at various people or things that annoy him, by tweeting short little bursts of angry prose.

Thankfully we still have the blogosphere, where people can write posts that appear in a way that the author can control, without being at the mercy of some automatic formatting process that makes everything you post look like some blip in a stream of consciousness, with most people seeing your stream of consciousness getting all mixed up with other people's stream of consciousness. If you want to do some serious online writing about something, put it in your own blog, using easy-to-use tools like blogger.com,  rather than relying on Facebook presentation algorithms that disfavor the reflective thinker and favor instead short little brags and outbursts. 

 The blogosphere is deeper