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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Supreme Breakthrough: A Science Fiction Story

Dave was madly in love with Sandra, and he boldly asked her to marry him. But Sandra had a reservation.

"Dave, you know I adore you," said Sandra. "And it's been wonderful dating you for the past six months. But marriage is a big step."

"But we're so right for each other," said Dave. 

"I'm a little worried about whether you can provide me with the kind of financial support I would like from a husband," said Sandra. "Your current job situation sounds a bit precarious."

"But Sandra, I have a good job as a radio astronomer," said Dave. 

"Yes, but you admitted that you rely on some funding that will run out at the end of the year," said Sandra. "What will happen then? It sounds like a radio astronomer has to live from one little research grant to the next. It doesn't sound like a very stable income." 

"Sandra, let's make a deal," said Dave. "If you come and visit my research office, I will remove all doubts you may have about my future career success."

Sandra agreed. The next day Dave drove her to his research office about 60 miles north of New York City. Sanda had never seen it before. She was very impressed by the big radio telescope dish next to the office. 

"I analyze data picked up by that giant radio telescope dish," explained Dave.  Dave took Sandra into his office near the radio telescope dish.  The office had a big screen that looked like a TV screen. 

"Let me play you something," said Dave. 

The big screen showed what looked rather like scenes from some big-budget science fiction movie. There were stunning scenes showing what looked like some city on another planet, a planet with an orange sky.  The city was populated by strange creatures that looked like very tall blue humanoids that were kind of half electronic. 

"Why are you playing some science fiction movie at work?" asked Sandra. "You might get in trouble for loafing."

"What you are seeing is no science fiction movie," explained Dave. "This is the real thing. These are images from another civilized planet."

"Are you joking?" asked Sandra.

"No, I am not," said Dave. "I told you I was involved in SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  The search has finally succeeded. I've picked up radio signals sent by a civilization on another planet." 

"But the screen doesn't have sound -- it has images," said Sandra. "How could you have got such images by radio?"

"You can send images by radio," explained Dave. "It just requires a coding scheme in which particular radio blips represent pixels on a grid. I had to play around with the data in 1000 different ways before I finally discovered the coding scheme the radio signals were using. Then, poof, I was able to transform the radio messages into images -- images from another civilized planet."

"Whoever discovered this must be a genius," said Sandra. 

"I'm that genius," said Dave proudly. "I made this discovery all by myself. I pointed the radio antenna at the right star, a star 500 light-years away. I figured out the algorithm that would transform what seemed like meaningless radio blips into stunning images of a civilization on another world. No one knows about this discovery but you and me."

"Why didn't you tell anyone else?" asked Sandra. "Why did you keep your discovery secret?"

"I'm waiting for the big scientific SETI conference next month," explained Dave. "I'm going to spring this sensational result on all the scientists who come for that conference. What a surprise that will be!  By next month, I'll be world famous. My picture will be on magazine covers, and my name will become a household name. I'll be a cinch for the Nobel Prize. This is the greatest scientific discovery in history.  My work finally proves there is intelligent life somewhere else in the universe." 

"It's clear I was all wrong about your prospects," said Sandra. "Come to think of it, I would be a fool not to marry you."  Dave and Sandra enjoyed a long passionate kiss. 

"Now that I've come to your workplace, maybe you should come visit my workplace," said Sandra. "It's worth coming just to see the breathtaking view from my office." 

Dave agreed to visit Sandra's workplace the next day. After taking an elevator high up to the top of a very tall skyscraper, he met Sandra at her office.

"I can't believe the fantastic view you have from your office," said Dave. "What's that really tall building I see out the window?" 

"That's the other World Trade Center tower," explained Sandra. "We're in the North Tower, and that is the South Tower." 

It was the morning of September 11, 2001. 

Suddenly there was a very loud noise, and everyone on Sandra's floor felt a tremendous jolt. Dave looked out the windows and saw all kind of flames, sparks and smoke.  A hijacked jet had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers, the tower Dave and Sandra were in. 

"Let's get out of here!" screamed Sandra. "Head for the stairs!" 

Dave and Sandra entered the stairwells, and tried to walk down to the ground level. Before they could go very far, they found the stairwell was blocked by massive destruction.  The two tried another stairwell, and found that it also was blocked by the destruction caused by the collision of the hijacked jet. 

Very worried, Dave and Sandra went back to Sandra's floor. They soon found that a nearby fire was spreading.  The floor was starting to fill up with smoke. 

Dave got some office chairs, and smashed open a window. The fire continued to spread.  The fire engulfed more and more of Sandra's floor.

"We're trapped!" cried Dave. "There's no way out!"

"We'll have to jump," said Sandra. "It's better than burning to death. Maybe the fire department will have some rescue nets below." 

Dave gave Sandra a final kiss. Holding each other's hands, the two lovers jumped out the window. When they hit the pavement far below, they both died. 

The two lovers got a burial, but one stranger and sadder than any they imagined possible. The South Tower was also hit by a hijacked jet, and both of the World Trade Center towers collapsed entirely, burying the bodies of Dave and Sandra in a huge heap of dust and rubble. 

The only people who knew of Dave's epic space discovery had died. But there was still one hope that the greatest discovery in science history would not be lost to posterity. There was still a record of Dave's monumental discovery on the computer in Dave's office. That computer had the image files Dave had shown to Sandra, the images showing extraterrestrials and their strange cities on a distant planet. 

A week later two scientists spoke about what to do with Dave's computer. 

"It's so sad about Dave dying," said the first scientist. "When I heard he left a message that he would be at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, I could hardly believe it." 

"So what do want to do with Dave's computer?" said the second scientist. "Do you want to examine his work by looking at the files on his computer? Or should I just erase all his files right now?"

"Well, I just started a kind-of-silly busywork project that requires lots of disk space," said the first scientist. "I sure could use all that disk space on Dave's computer.  So why don't you just erase all his files right now, so that I can use his computer for my crummy little chore." 

Friday, July 3, 2020

Homochirality Is Accidentally Unachievable, With or Without Cosmic Rays

Chemicals such as amino acids and sugars can be either left-handed or right handed. A left handed amino acid looks like a mirror image of the right-handed amino acid, and a right-handed sugar looks like the mirror image of the left-handed sugar. Homochirality is the fact that in living things essentially all amino acids are left-handed, and all sugars in DNA are right-handed. But when such things are synthesized in a laboratory, or produced in experiments simulating the early Earth, you see equal amounts of left-handed and right-handed amino acids and equal amounts of left-handed and right-handed sugars.

Based on the fact that it is just as easy for left-handed amino acids to form in the laboratory as right-handed amino acids, and just as easy for left-handed sugars to form in the laboratory as right-handed sugars, we would expect for there to be a symmetry in the handedness of amino acids, with an equal amount of left-handed and right-handed amino acids. We would also would expect a symmetry in the handedness of sugars, with equal amounts of left-handed sugars and right-handed sugars. But what we see is an asymmetry, with living things having only left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars in DNA.

I can give an analogy for why homochirality is such a mystery. Let us imagine a very large box filled with 5000 cards, each displaying one of the letters in the alphabet. On one side of each card is a letter. For example:

On the back side of each card is the mirror image of the letter on the front side of the card. For example:

Now, let us suppose that someone dumped this large box of cards from the top of a tall building. Imagine that the cards fell to the ground, forming a set of useful instructions that was 5000 letters long, and that none of those letters were the mirror  images of the letters in the alphabet. 

We would have two gigantic difficulties in explaining this outcome.  The first problem would be in explaining how we accidentally got a useful and intelligible set of instructions 5000 characters long.  The second problem would be in explaining how the 5000 cards all ended up showing the card side with the regular English letter, with none of them showing the mirror image of the letter on the opposite side of the card. 

The origin of life is as hard-to-explain as the falling cards event just described.  A team of 9 scientists wrote a scientific paper entitled, “Essential genes of a minimal bacterium.” It analyzed a type of bacteria (Mycoplasma genitalium) that has “the smallest genome of any organism that can be grown in pure culture.” The paper concluded that 382 of this bacteria's protein-coding genes (72 percent) are essential. So we can conclude that any self-reproducing cell would need a minimum of at least 50 types of proteins (each coded by a separate gene), and that such proteins would have an average amino acid length of at least 100 (the average amino acid length of the proteins in the most primitive prokaryotic cells is more than 150).  50 times 100 is 5000. 

So you need at least 5000 amino acids arranged in just the right way to get a self-reproducing cell. The chance of such a thing occurring accidentally would be comparable to the chance of someone dumping a very large box with 5000 characters cards from a tall building, and those cards accidentally forming into a useful, coherent 5000-character set of instructions.  And just as it would be fantastically improbable that dumping such a set of 5000 character cards from a tall building would ever result in the cards only showing the regular version of a letter on the front of each card, and never showing the mirror image of a letter on the back of each card, it would be fantastically improbable that you would end up with a cell containing about 5000 amino acids that were all left-handed, as in living things. 

We can calculate this probability using a large exponents calculator. The probability of you getting 5000 amino acids that were all left-handed from a random set of amino acids that was equally left-handed and right-handed is 1 in 2 to the 5000th power.  As we can see in the screen below (using this large exponents calculator), such a probability is less than 1 in 10 to the 1500th power, less than 1 in 101500.

This probability of less than 1 in 101500 is only one of two miscroscopic probabilities involved in the origin of life.  There is an equally tiny probability involved in having all of the amino acids spelling out functional fine-tuned proteins.  That probability is not as easy to exactly calculate. But you can a rough idea of that probability by realizing that the probability of 5000 amino acids randomly forming into 50 functional proteins is comparable to the probability of 5000 letter cards dropped from a tall building falling to the ground and forming into a useful 5000-letter instruction (such as an instruction on exactly how to build a car or a human).  

I haven't even discussed the improbability of getting all the sugars in RNA and DNA molecules to be right-handed, which is an additional explanatory nightmare every bit as bad as the one just discussed. In fact, the improbability is far worse if we consider things from a DNA perspective.  The DNA to specify 5000 amino acids requires three nucleotides to specify each amino acid, and each one of those nucleotides involves a sugar that is always right-handed.  


To get 15,000 sugars that are all right-handed, given random sugars that can have an equal likelihood of being left-handed or right-handed, you need some luck with a probability of 1 in 2 to the fifteenth thousandth power.  That is a likelihood of less than 1 in 104500, as we can see below. 

Recently in the science news there was mention of a new attempt to explain the problem of homochirality, the problem of how we got life that uses only left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars.  The attempt is very goofy, because instead of making homochirality easier to explain, the attempt makes homochirality many, many times harder to explain. 

The attempt to explain homochirality was made in the paper "The Chiral Puzzle of Life" by Noemie Globus and Roger D. Blandford (and another similar paper by the same authors).  The authors imagine two different types of life existing in the early Earth: what they call "live" life (like the life that we know), and what they call "evil" life. The "evil" life they imagine is the mirror image of known life, with an inverse homochirality. So instead of having sugars that are all right-handed, the "evil" life would have sugars that are only left-handed. And instead of having amino acids that are only left-handed, the "evil" life would have amino acids that are only right-handed.  There is zero evidence that any such "evil" life ever existed, and scientists do not typically maintain or believe that any such "evil" life (with an inverse homochirality) ever existed. 

The authors discuss some far-fetched scenario by which cosmic rays might have caused the "live" life to have an advantage over the imagined "evil" life. In a nutshell, this attempt at an explanation is the story that "homochiral life defeated its mirror-image competitor, with some help from cosmic rays."

There are two gigantic problems with this attempt at an explanation. The first is that it does nothing at all to explain the gigantically improbable appearance of the "live" life with homochirality. The second is that the attempt at an explanation requires us to believe that there was also this "evil" life existing with an inverse homochirality that was the mirror image of life's homochirality, something for which there is no evidence. The probability of the appearance of such "evil life" with inverse homochirality is just as microscopic as the probability of the appearance of the "live life" with regular homochirality. 

So instead of requiring us to believe in one accidental homochirality miracle of luck with a likelihood of less than 1 in 101500 the Globus and Blandford scenario requires us to believe in two accidental homochirality miracles of luck, each with a likelihood of less than 1 in 101500  (less than 1 in 10 to the 1500th power)  Instead of making biological homochirality easier to explain, the Globus and Blandford scenario makes homochirality more than 101500 times harder to explain.  Under the Globus and Blandford scenario, the improbability of homochirality becomes less than  1 in 101500 multiplied by less than 1 in 101500, which is  less than 1 in 103000Talk about marching in the wrong direction. 

It does not help at all if you consider only the origin of a DNA molecule, without even considering proteins made from the genes in such a molecule.  A DNA or RNA molecule could not be the beginning of life if it had fewer than 5000 nucleotides (enough to specify about 1700 amino acids). Each one of those nucleotides includes a sugar that might randomly be either left-handed or right-handed (all sugars in DNA are right-handed). The chance of you getting sugar homochirality (nothing but right-handed sugars) with 5000 random nucleotides (each having a sugar of random handedness) is less than 1 in 101500,  and the chance of you getting some "evil life" with inverse homochirality is also less than 1 in 101500. The chance of having both the homochirality and the inverse homochirality (as in the Globus and Blandford scenario) would be less than 1 in 103000

But our hype-heaving science news sites have promoted the Globus and Blandford scenario as a "possible explanation for homochirality." This merely proves that the goofiest kind of attempt at an explanation can be trumpeted by our yearning-to-say-some-progress-was-made science news media, which has a ravenous appetite for clickbait teaser headlines that can increase web page clicks and advertising revenue.  But at least one of these summary stories gives us a hint that "there's no there there" in the Globus and Blandford account for homochirality.  After giving us a misleading headline of "Cosmic Rays May Explain Life’s Bias for Right-Handed DNA," the story in Quanta magazine confesses, "The theory doesn’t address, for example, how 'live' organisms and 'evil' organisms managed to materialize from a primordial smoothie containing both right- and left-handed building blocks." Which means it does nothing to solve the homochirality problem. 

Homochirality in living things is something so unlikely to occur by chance that we can rightly call it accidentally unachievable.  The only way to naturally explain it would be to discover some causal factors which excluded all right-handed amino acids in the early earth, and excluded all left-handed sugars.  No one has presented any such explanation. Whenever sugars or amino acids are created in the laboratory or during experiments simulating the early earth,  left-handed sugars appear as frequently as right-handed sugars, and left-handed amino acids appear as frequently as right-handed amino acids. 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Still More Cases of Veridical Apparitions

In the eight posts below I have described or quoted about 160 cases of someone experiencing something like a suprising apparition of someone, only to soon later learn that the corresponding person had died, usually at about the same time the apparition was seen. The eight posts are below:

25 Who Were "Ghost-Told" of a Death

25 More Who Were "Ghost-Told" of a Death

Scientific American's Very Lame "Ghost Explanations"

They Also Were "Ghost Told" of a Death"

In this post I will discuss additional cases of this type.  The links I will give will usually take you to the exact page of an account that I discuss or quote. 

On page 10 of Volume 6 of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research,  we can read the following account of a man who saw an apparition of his brother very close to the time his brother died in an accidental cannon firing:

"I was surprised to see my brother coming to meet me. He
had on his velveteen shooting jacket, and walked in his usual manner. It was quite light, and I distinctly saw him. I turned my eyes away for a moment to look at the gate, and then he was gone....I was much struck with the apparition, but I passed it off my mind and went to the cliff, and heard some people singing for about half an hour when a boy said to me, "Have you heard of the accident to your brother at Northrepps Hall?' I replied, 'No, but if an accident has happened to my brother, I know he is dead.' "

On page 15 of the same volume, we read about a sister basically learning of her brother's death from an apparition:

"Miss M. W. P., who was in no anxiety about her brother, was wakened by hearing his voice call her several times. She sat up and saw him standing at the foot of Jier bed. Apparition said :
'I could not go without telling you good-bye,' and
disappeared. Miss P.'s sister testifies that the above was mentioned to her and to several schoolfellows next day. About six weeks later, news arrived of the brother's death by drowning..."

On page 74-75 of Volume 6 of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, we read the following account by A. McDougall:

"I met no one on the road till I came to the Greystoke pillar, about a mile from Penrith. There, driving slowly as I was about to turn into a narrow lane, I was deeply shadowed from behind, and upon looking back to see what caused the shadow I saw my friend Broome, bending over me with an expression of the most tender affection upon his countenance. I spoke to him, pulled up the horse, and alighted. I walked round the gig, called him by name, begged him not to play tricks at midnight, but to come to me and come home with me. I had, of course, to go without him. At home
I inquired if Mr. Broome had called. The answer was No. I then told my wife that I had seen him near the Greystoke pillar, that he must be in the town, and would be sure to call in the morning. Three days passed, when we received intelligence that Mr. Broome was [dead], and strange to tell he had died at the very hour at midnight at which I had seen him near the Greystoke pillar."

On page 172 of Volume 6 of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, we read about two cases:

"Miss M. E. Godwin, when a child, was walking out with a friend when both of them saw a gentleman whom she knew well ; she spoke to him, and he answered. Next day they heard that he had died from the effects of an accident exactly at the time she had seen him....Mr. and Mrs. Cleverley hear footsteps, and Mrs. C, going out to investigate, sees apparition of her son in another room. He was drowned at the same time by the sinking of the ship Eurydice,"

On page 244 of Volume 20 of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, which you can read here, we read the following account which doesn't quite qualify as being "ghost-told," because no apparition was seen. 

"The writer then describes how on September 2, 1916, between 10 and 11 a.m., whilst in her room dressing, she was suddenly seized with a sensation of terrible distress accompanied by a feeling of suffocation. She said to her daughter that some great disaster had befallen her son, Rene. Two days later she was informed by the chief of his squadron that her son, a pilot in the flying corps, had disappeared over the German lines near Verdun on the day and at the hour of her distressing experience."

On page 100 of Volume 22 of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, we have the following November 1913 account by C.H. Thornton:

"On the evening of October 20th, 1913, between ten and eleven,
I was lying in bed at Duff House, Banff....I was lying on my left side, reading a novel, when the feeling of a presence in the room made me turn on my back. There standing at the bottom of the bed on the right side was a figure. I thought I saw the head and shoulders of a man outlined against the white wall-paper and clothed in a long and shapeless black garment. I could see no face, owing I thought to my short
sight, but the shape of the head and shoulders was, I believed, that of my husband, and I felt no doubt at all that it was he. He gazed at me and I gazed at him for some seconds...The next morning Dr. Spriggs came to break the news to me that my husband had died suddenly while doing duty at St. Edward's Church, Cambridge, on Sunday evening, Oct. 19th."

On page 91 of Volume 3 of the Proceeedings of the Society for Psychical Research, we have the following account that does not involve a visual apparition, but which does seem to rather qualify as a case of being 'ghost-told' of a death:

"On the evening of Sunday, August 20th, 1874, I was strolling on the downs skirting Marlcombe Hill, composing a congratulatory letter, which I proposed to write and post to my very dear friend W., so that he might have it on his birthday, the 22nd, when I heard a voice saying, 'What, write to a dead man ; write to a dead man!' I turned sharply round, fully expecting to see some one close behind me. There was no one. Treating the matter as an illusion, I went on with my composition. A second time I heard the same voice, saying, more loudly than before, 'What, write to a dead man ; write to a dead man!' Again I turned round. I was alone, at least bodily. I now fully understood the meaning of that voice ; it was no illusion. Notwithstanding this, I sent the proposed letter, and in reply received from Mrs. W. the sad, but to me not unexpected, intelligence, that her husband was dead."

On page 92 of Volume 24 of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, we have the following account:

"The evening before I was to go, I was sitting by the fire in my small parlour about 5 p.m. There was no light in the room except what proceeded from the fire. Beside the fireplace was an armchair, where my cousin usually sat when she was with me. Suddenly that chair was illuminated by a light so intensely bright that it actually seemed to heave under it, though the remainder of the room remained in semi-darkness. I called out in amazement, ' What has happened to the chair '.  In a moment the light vanished and the chair was as before. In the morning I heard that my cousin had died about the same time that I saw the light."

On page 133 of Volume 25-26 of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, we have the following account by a Mrs. Finniecome, regarding a Baroness who died on April 29:

"Now I must tell you that a very strange thing happened to me on the night of April 29th...On the Tuesday evening I went to bed feeling very tired about 9 p.m. and fell sound to sleep. About ll p.m. I awoke with some one pressing a kiss on my forehead, and on looking up, I saw the Baroness standing by the side of the bed, she looked as though she desired to say something, or was waiting for me to speak or answer, but I was so startled, not to say, afraid, I was speechless, so after gazing at one another for a minute or two, the Baroness turned and vanished. Her expression was so sad and enquiring I cannot forget it. What I have just written you is not an hallucination but real fact. I related it to Mr Finniecome on the Wednesday morning, and he said ' you were dreaming.'  However now the news has come of the Baroness's death, Mr Finniecome is convinced that really I saw what I related to have seen. I only wish I knew what it was the Baroness wished to ask or tell me—for I am sure she wanted to know something....I really saw the Baroness as clearly as I see the paper I am now writing on and I was wide awake."

On page 135 of the same volume, we are told, "The time of Baroness Liebieg's death (11.20 p.m.) therefore corresponds exactly with the time fixed by Mrs. Finniecome for her vision."

On page 35 of Volume 27 of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, we have the following account by a W. W. Grundy: 

"On Saty. [Saturday] last (Nov. 15) my wife was upstairs in bed with a cold. I was out of doors somewhere and my wife's sister was quietly reading a novel downstairs, awaiting tea. Suddenly she had a vision of her aunt, an old lady of 81, in the doorway : she had known this aunt to have been ill recently although she had got over many such attacks before and the recent news has been on the whole v. [very] reassuring.  She looked at her watch : it marked 4.45.  That evening—about 7.30. we received a wire handed in at
6.29 p.m. saying that her aunt had passed away ' this afternoon.'  By this (Monday) morning's post at 11.00 a.m. a letter arrived to say that her aunt had passed away at exactly 4.45 p.m. on Saturday."

Next is something that may not be strictly speaking a ghost sighting, although it qualifies as an apparition sighting. On page 72 of Volume 33 of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, we have the following account:

"The vision seen was of Mr Eustace Neville Craig, a close friend of Mrs Dick-Cunyngham. The latter, writing to Mr Fawcett recently, said in reference to her experience : 'I did not even know that he had been suddenly taken ill (operation). One Sunday I had gone to church in London with my mother. Suddenly I got the clearest vision I have ever seen. It was like a shutter opened slowly and then closed again slowly.  For two seconds I saw Eustace lying quite motionless on a bed. His eyes were closed, he was as white as a sheet. There were two nurses in white caps ; one was advancing holding a glass of medicine. Then the vision vanished. I came home and said to Dickson [her maid], I believe Mr Craig is ill '. The following Tuesday his death was in the Times. Afterwards I heard he had never recovered consciousness after an operation.' "

On page 207 of Volume 6 of the Journal of the Society of Psychical Research, we read the following: 

"Mr. J. R. S. when a boy saw an old schoolfellow, B. M., standing in his bedroom. They had agreed some years previously that whichever of them died first should appear to the other. The apparition was seen by gaslight. B. M. died at the time, Mr. S. not knowing that he was ill."

On page 280 of Volume 6 of the Journal of the Society of Psychical Research, we read the following: 

"A sister of mine went to South America, and married there. One morning I was in bed about 11 o'clock, when there was a knock at ray door ; thinking it was the house-maid with hot water, I said  'Come in.' No one came in. There was another knock ; again I said 'Come in,' and turned to- wards the door. My sister was standing there. I, thinking she had returned unexpectedly, said 'What, you, Elsie ?' She then vanished. When I went downstairs I told my husband, who said 'Don't tell your mother, or she will think something has happened to her.' We heard a month later that she
had died, after a few hours' illness, about that time."

On page 9 of Volume 5 of the Journal of the Society of Psychical Research, we read the following account by J. H. Kennedy:

"My cousin, Miss Amy Flint, passed by the side of my bed several times from the foot, disappearing at the head, and carrying in her hand, with her arm stretched out, a virgin's lamp. After she had passed several times I started up in bed...I dismissed the thing from my mind, till about 10 o'clock, when my cousin's brother called to say his sister had passed away just at the time of my vision."

On the next page of the same volume, we read the following account by a Mr. Myers: 

"On the 7th June, between one and three o'clock in the morning, I woke with the sensation that half my life had been taken from me (I can only describe the feeling in this vague way). I sat up and pressed my side in wonder at what was happening. I then saw
most beautiful lights at the end of the room ; these lights gave place to a cloud, and after a few moments the face of a dear sister, then living (as I believed), appeared in the cloud, which remained a little while and then gradually faded away. I became much alarmed and at once felt I should hear bad news of my sister, who was living in London and had been very ill, though the last accounts we had received had been better. I told my husband what had happened, and when a telegram was brought by a friend at 8 o'clock that
morning I knew what its contents must be. The telegram contained the news of my sister's death during the previous night."

On page 14 of the same Volume 5 of the Journal of the Society of Psychical Research, we read the following: "Mr. G. Fitzmaurice tells us in 1889 that his grandmother, Mrs. Watkins, saw the apparition of Miss Griffiths coincidently with that lady's sudden death," and also that "the Rev. J.J.Dyson tells us in May, 1887, that a rector's wife told him that her grandmother saw the apparition of an absent son at the time of his death."

A very substantial case of being literally "ghost-told" of a death can be found near the end of the appendices to Chapter IV (page 376) in Frederick Myers "Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death." I will quote from that book (which can be read here) an account written by Karl Dignowtty:

Dober und Pause, Schlesien, December 12th, 1889.
About a year ago there died in a neighbouring village a brewer called Wünscher, with whom I stood in friendly relations. His death ensued after a short illness, and as I seldom had an opportunity of visiting him, I knew nothing of his illness nor of his death. On the day of his death I went to bed at nine o'clock, tired with the labours which my calling as a farmer demands of me....I fell asleep as soon as I lay down. In my dream I heard the deceased call out with a loud voice, "Boy, make haste and give me my boots." This awoke me, and I noticed that, for the sake of our child, my wife had left the light burning. I pondered with pleasure over my dream, thinking in my mind how Wünscher, who was a good-natured, humorous man, would laugh when I told him of this dream. Still thinking on it, I hear Wünscher's voice scolding outside, just under my window. I sit up in my bed at once and listen, but cannot understand his words. What can the brewer want? I thought, and I know for certain that I was much vexed with him, that he should make a disturbance in the night, as I felt convinced that his affairs might surely have waited till the morrow. Suddenly he comes into the room from behind the linen press, steps with long strides past the bed of my wife and the child's bed; wildly gesticulating with his arms all the time, as his habit was, he called out, "What do you say to this, Herr Oberamtmann? This afternoon at five o'clock I have died." Startled by this information, I exclaim, "Oh, that is not true!" He replied: "Truly, as I tell you; and, what do you think? They want to bury me already on Tuesday afternoon at two o'clock," accentuating his assertions all the while by his gesticulations. During this long speech of my visitor I examined myself as to whether I was really awake and not dreaming.{376}
I asked myself: Is this a hallucination? Is my mind in full possession of its faculties? Yes, there is the light, there the jug, this is the mirror, and this the brewer; and I came to the conclusion: I am awake. Then the thought occurred to me, What will my wife think if she awakes and sees the brewer in our bedroom? In this fear of her waking up I turn round to my wife, and to my great relief I see from her face, which is turned towards me, that she is still asleep; but she looks very pale. I say to the brewer, "Herr Wünscher, we will speak softly, so that my wife may not wake up, it would be very disagreeable to her to find you here." To which Wünscher answered in a lower and calmer tone: "Don't be afraid, I will do no harm to your wife." Things do happen indeed for which we find no explanation—I thought to myself, and said to Wünscher: "If this be true, that you have died, I am sincerely sorry for it; I will look after your children." Wünscher stepped towards me, stretched out his arms and moved his lips as though he would embrace me; therefore I said in a threatening tone, and looking steadfastly at him with a frowning brow: "Don't come so near, it is disagreeable to me," and lifted my right arm to ward him off, but before my arm reached him the apparition had vanished. My first look was to my wife to see if she were still asleep. She was. I got up and looked at my watch, it was seven minutes past twelve. My wife woke up and asked me: "To whom did you speak so loud just now?" "Have you understood anything?" I said. "No," she answered, and went to sleep again.
I impart this experience to the Society for Psychical Research, in the belief that it may serve as a new proof for the real existence of telepathy. I must further remark that the brewer had died that afternoon at five o'clock, and was buried on the following Tuesday at two.—With great respect,
Karl Dignowtty
(Landed Proprietor).

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Is "Ignore All Improbabilities" the New Rule of Astrobiologists?

Intelligent life may be common in the universe if there is some teleology driving its appearance. But if there is no such teleology, the odds are very, very poor. Among the many improbabilities involved in intelligent life accidentally appearing on another planet are the following:
  • The improbability of nucleotide precursors of RNA and DNA  appearing (no nucleotides have been produced in experiments realistically simulating the early Earth)
  • The improbability of most amino acids precursors of proteins appearing (no more than two of the twenty amino acids used by life have been produced in experiments realistically simulating the early Earth)
  • The improbability of DNA appearing
  • The improbability of protein molecules appearing (see below for some discussion of this)
  • The improbability of homochirality, a gigantically improbable coincidence apparently needed for life
  • The improbability of a first prokaryotic cell appearing
  • The improbability of the leap from a prokaryotic cell to a eukaryotic cell (seemingly harder than a horse cart accidentally turning into a sports car)
  • The improbabilty of multicellular life appearing (the appearance of large organized organisms is not predictable from the mere appearance of microscopic cells)
  • The improbability of organisms with manual dexterity appearing
  • The improbability of intelligent life appearing

A recent paper by astronomer David Kipping estimated the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence. But the paper paid no attention to any of the improbabilities involved in extraterrestrial life appearing. The paper also paid no attention to any of the improbabilities involved in extraterrestrial intelligence appearing.  Kipping's paper fails to even use the word "cell" or "protein" or "genome" or "DNA" or "complexity." He seems to have paid zero attention to the complexity of life.

A few weeks later there appeared another paper estimating the chance of extraterrestrial civilizations. The paper by Tom Westby and Christopher J. Conselice (entitled "The Astrobiological Copernican Weak and Strong Limits for Intelligent Life") also seemed to follow an approach paying no attention to biological unlikelihoods. Again, we have a paper estimating the chance of extraterrestrial life that fails to use the word "cell" or "protein" or "complexity" or "DNA" or "genome." 

Very strangely, the paper evoked the principle that we should simply assume that other habitable planets have been as fortunate as Earth has been.  Under such a principle, you ignore all of the improbabilities involved in life appearing and intelligent life appearing, and simply assume that intelligent life has appeared on other habitable planets that have existed as long as our planet as existed. So, for example, if there is an Earth-sized planet the right distance from a sun-like star,  then you simply assume that intelligent life appeared on such a planet, if the planet has existed as long as the Earth. 

Of course, such a principle is ludicrous. If you have reason to believe that very unlikely luck occurred, you have no business assuming that such luck would always occur. If you fall out of a high-flying airplane, and luckily land safely on a haystack, it would be absurd for you to assume that other people falling out of airplanes must have the same luck you had.  And if you are lucky enough to win 100 million dollars after buying five $1 lottery tickets, you would be foolish to think that anyone buying five $1 lottery tickets will have the same luck you had. 

We can understand the appeal of this "ignore all improbabilities" principle that some of our astrobiologists seem to be following. The attraction is that things become so much easier for the astrobiologist.  Suddenly it becomes okay if our astrobiologist does not know a single thing about cells or proteins or genomes.  Now some planetary astronomer can call himself an astrobiologist even if he never took a course in biology, and does not know the difference between an amino acid and battery acid, or does not know the difference between a cell and a cell phone. 

But I should not suggest that these astrobiologists taking this "ignore all improbabilities" approach are very different from ordinary mainstream biologists. By taking an "ignore all improbabilities" approach, such astrobiologists are pretty much conforming to the behavior of regular mainstream biologists. For while biology professors have never explicitly advocated a policy of "ignore all improbabilities," they have been pretty much following such a policy for a very long time. 

Charles Darwin's works paid no real attention to improbabilities. He simply evoked some principle he called survival of the fittest or natural selection, and assumed that such a principle (along with a principle of "sexual selection") could explain almost all wonders of biology, without calculating the improbabilities involved. In the nineteenth century you could try to justify such ignoring of improbabilities by claiming that it is too hard to calculate the odds of biological innovations. 

However, by about the middle of the twentieth century scientists had learned enough to have a good mathematical basis for calculating some of the improbabilities involved if an accidental biological innovation were to occur.  Scientists learned that the basic building blocks of cells are protein molecules, and that such molecules are typically built from hundreds of amino acids.  Humans have more than 20,000 different types of protein molecules, each fine-tuned to serve some particular function.  There are twenty types of amino acids used by living things.  The twenty types of amino acids are like the twenty six letters of the alphabet, and a protein molecule is like some functional paragraph. 

The median number of amino acids in a protein molecule has been calculated as 361. Referring to random tiny changes in the amino acids in a protein (mutations), a scientific paper stated, "We predict 27–29% of amino acid changing (nonsynonymous) mutations are neutral or nearly neutral (|s|<0.01%), 30–42% are moderately deleterious (0.01%<|s|<1%), and nearly all the remainder are highly deleterious or lethal (|s|>1%).”  This amounts to an estimate that a random change to the amino acid sequence of a protein has about a 30% chance of breaking the protein's functionality. Similarly, the paper "Protein tolerance to random amino acid change" suggests that a random mutation will have about a 34% chance of breaking the functionality of a protein molecule in which it occurs. 

Given such facts, some elementary improbability calculations can be done.  Since it is known that a random small change in a protein molecule will have about a 33% of making the molecule non-functional, it is reasonable to assume that at least half of the amino acid sequence of a protein molecule must exist for the molecule to be functional.  Half of 361 (the median amino acid length of a eukaryotic protein) is about 180. Given twenty possible amino acids in any position in the amino acid sequence of a protein molecule, the probability of getting a functional protein molecule can be roughly calculated as 1 in 20 to the 180th power.  That is a probability of about 1 in 10 to the 234th power, which  is 1 in 10 followed by 233 zeroes.  That's about the probability of you correctly guessing the full 10-digit phone numbers of twenty-three consecutive strangers. 

So for you to get a functional protein molecule by chance requires a miracle of luck. The odds of it are so small that we should never expect it to occur by chance even given billions of years of random chemical combinations.  If we are to believe that earthly life has appeared through accidental processes, we must believe that such a miracle of luck has occurred not just once, but many millions of different times. For in the animal kingdom there are many millions of different types of protein molecules, each a complex invention serving a different function.  

This is only one of innumerable cases in which improbability calculations indicate that prevailing biological explanations cannot be correct.  Those who teach such explanations ignore such difficulties by typically following an "ignore all improbabilities" policy.  

The lack of relevant probability calculations by Darwinist professors bothered the eminent physicist Wolfgang Pauli, discoverer of the subatomic Pauli Exclusion Principle on which our existence depends. Pauli stated the following:

"I should like to critically object that this model has not been supported by an affirmative estimate of probabilities so far. Such an estimate of the theoretical time scale of evolution as implied by the model should be compared with the empirical time scale. One would need to show that, according to the assumed model, the probability of de facto existing purposeful features to evolve was sufficiently high on the empirically known time scale. Such an estimate has nowhere been attempted though."

Pauli also stated the following about Darwinist biologists:

“In discussions with biologists I met large difficulties when they apply the concept of ‘natural selection’ in a rather wide field, without being able to estimate the probability of the occurrence in a empirically given time of just those events, which have been important for the biological evolution. Treating the empirical time scale of the evolution theoretically as infinity they have then an easy game, apparently to avoid the concept of purposesiveness. While they pretend to stay in this way completely ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’, they become actually very irrational, particularly because they use the word ‘chance’, not any longer combined with estimations of a mathematically defined probability, in its application to very rare single events more or less synonymous with the old word ‘miracle’.”

Were our biology professors to start paying adequate attention to probability, they would acknowledge the very important principle that the improbability of a complex innovation appearing accidentally usually rises exponentially and geometrically as the number of parts needed for that innovation undergoes a simple linear increase,  in most cases when a special arrangement of the parts is required. Similarly, the improbability of you throwing a handful of cards into the air and having them all form into a house of cards will rise exponentially and geometrically as the number of cards in your hand undergoes a simple linear increase.  Getting a two-card house of cards by accident isn't too hard, by having two cards lean together diagonally. But if all the humans in the world spent their whole lives throwing a deck of cards into the air, none of these random throws would ever produce a 40-card house of cards by accident.  Similarly, the improbability of a typing monkey producing a functionally useful 100-word paragraph is not merely 100 times greater than the improbability of the typing monkey producing an English word; the improbability is more than quadrillions of times greater. 

Because the improbability of a complex innovation appearing accidentally usually rises exponentially and geometrically as the number of parts needed for that innovation undergoes a simple linear increase, in most cases when a special arrangement of the parts is needed,   fine-tuned protein molecules consisting of hundreds of amino acids arranged in just the right way to achieve a functional effect are accidentally unachievable. The infinitely more complex arrangements of matter in cells and DNA molecules are also accidentally unachievable.  No machines in any conceivable factory could ever assemble molecule by molecule the functional intricacy of a human organism. The fine-tuned biochemistry of living things is functionality more complex than any machine humans have ever built. The visual below helps to illustrate why it makes no sense to believe that such immensely organized arrangements of matter appeared because of accumulations of random mutations. 

complex biological innovation

If it were true that Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone tended to be as fortunate as Earth in regard to intelligent life appearing, our galaxy would be teeming with intelligent life, and would probably have many millions of civilizations. Intelligent life  on some planets would become extinct, but the tendency of long-lived civilizations to spread around to other planets and solar systems would tend to make up for such extinctions. But 60 years of attempts to detect signals or signs of other civilizations in our galaxy have been completely unsuccessful.  This suggests that the kind of wildly optimistic assumptions made by Westby and Conselice are not correct.  Westby and Conselice seem to be ignoring not only biology, but also the history of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. 

Postscript: Another science paper similar to the two papers I mentioned regarding the fragility of protein molecules is the paper "Robustness–epistasis link shapes the fitness landscape of a randomly drifting protein," which you can read here.  Figure 1 of the paper has a graph suggesting that the fitness of a protein molecule will decline by about 80% after 4 random mutations, and that the molecule will have no fitness (and become useless) after about 12 mutations.  Since eukaryotic proteins have a median amino acid length of about 360, that 12 mutations is a mere 3% of the amino acid sequence. The amino acid sequences in proteins are comparable to the sequences of letters in a functional paragraph, but the protein molecule is more sensitive to changes than the paragraph.  A paragraph will become unintelligible and useless after about 10% of its characters are randomly changed, but a smaller change in a protein molecule will be enough to make it useless. Protein molecules seem to be almost as sensitive to random changes as computer code. Making random changes in only a very small percent of the characters in a computer program will cause the whole program to become nonfunctional because the code is rejected by the compiler that reads it.  

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Twentieth-Century Evidence for Psi

In previous posts (here, here, here and here) I have discussed experimental evidence for extrasensory perception (ESP). In other posts (here, here and here) I have discussed nineteenth century or early twentieth century anecdotal evidence for ESP. Let us now look at some anecdotal evidence for psi from the twentieth century. 

On pages 16 to 17 of Louisa Rhine's book Hidden Channels of the Mind, we have an account by a woman named Marion who was contemplating suicide. Suddenly she heard "as clearly as if it were in the room" a voice saying, 'Don't do that, Marion !' " She recognized the voice as being that of a friend living far away. Soon she received an air mail special delivery letter from that very friend, who said she been "wakened in the middle of the night by the urgent sense" that Marion needed help, and who said that she had "arisen and prayed for" Marion until dawn.  Most ESP accounts are merely "one-way" accounts that tell of one person who seems to get the thought of another, but in this account we seem to have a "two-way" transmission of thought from Marion to her friend, and also from the friend to Marion. 

On pages 20-21 of the same book, we have an account of a husband who finds a lost jewelry item after looking in the exact place he saw in a dream. On page 24 we read of a grandmother who had a dream of her baby grandson smothering in his blankets. She called her son-in-law at 3:45 AM, warned him of the smothering, and was told that he had just discovered such a problem. On pages 33-34 we have an account of a daughter who was raped, and then told a few days later by her mother of a dream which "was practically word for word what happened."  The daughter had not yet told the mother about what had happened. 

On page 46 we have this account that sounds like something in a "soap opera" drama:

"In North Carolina, in 1945, the waitress in a cafe had as a patron a handsome young man who began to pay attention to her. He said he was a salesman from Boston, single, and asked her to go to a movie with him. After several dates, she began to fall in love with him, and soon they talked of marriage. One evening he said he would have to make a quick business trip back to Boston, but would return in a week and they would then set the date. The night after he left she had a dream. A sad, frail woman with dark brown hair and in the last stages of pregnancy appeared to her, and said she was the man's wife. The next day the waitress learned, from someone who had overheard a telephone conversation, that it was not a business trip to Boston that had recalled her friend, but a call from his wife who was about to have a baby. The man returned in a week, and when confronted with the story that had been revealed by the telephone conversation, admitted his duplicity, and that the description of the woman in the dream fitted his wife."

On page 55 we read this striking account of a dream that seemed to very exactly match reality occurring at the same time as the dream (and also predict some words that were soon spoken):

"I awoke from a terrible nightmare. I saw my husband standing in the bedroom door, his face all bloody and beaten up, clothing covered with blood and he was saying, 'Don't be alarmed, Mother. I just had a little accident.' I jumped out of bed, turned on the light and there was no one there. So I looked at the clock and the time was nearly ten-thirty p.m. I went back to bed; around midnight I was awakened again, and there standing in the bedroom door was my husband, face all beaten up, clothing all bloody, looking just like I had seen him two hours before and he said, 'Don't be alarmed, Mother. I've just had a little accident.' I said, 'What time did this happen?' He said, 'Around ten-thirty p.m.' "

On page 64 we have an account of a divorced mother meeting with her daughter. Suddenly the mother had a "expression of astonishment" and stated to the daughter "your father is getting married." The daughter said that was impossible, that she had got a letter from her father a short time ago in which no such thing was mentioned.  But it was later found that the father had indeed remarried on the very night in which the mother had the strange thought. 

On page 65 we have an account of a mother who had the strange feeling that her son Harold (long away in the Merchant Marine) would make a surprise return at long last on a Sunday: 

"I knew Harold was coming Sunday and someone must be home to greet him. My sons knew I had not heard from him. They acted as if they thought I was losing my mind....On Sunday morning I put the house in order and sat down to wait for Harold. At last it was four-thirty and I began to feel a little let down, when I heard someone come running upstairs, two at a time — and in came Harold! I said, 'Well, it's about time. I've been waiting all afternoon for you.'  He looked so puzzled. 'How did you know I was coming? I didn't write.' I said, 'Oh, I just knew it.' "

On page 70 we have this account:

"A salesman in Arkansas, whose home was in St. Louis, went to bed one night tired out and expecting a good night's rest. It did not work out that way, however. Instead of sleeping, he found himself wider awake by the minute. Finally, as he says: 'At about three o'clock I began to have a peculiar urge to return to St. Louis, an urge such as I had never before experienced. It seemed as if, regardless of plan or reason, I simply must return to St. Louis. The more I thought of it, the more I tried to call it foolish, the stronger became the urge. Then I remembered that about four o'clock the train to St. Louis came through. At that, my urge became unbearable and a short time later I was aboard the train. I went directly to my home in the suburbs of St. Louis, and my brother met me in the yard saying, 'I am glad you got my telegram.' 'What telegram?' I asked. 'I didn't get any telegram. What has happened?' 'Well,' said my brother, 'Papa died just an hour ago.' " 

On page 92 of the same book we have this account of a dream that proved to be remarkably accurate:

"During World War II the fiance of a girl in New York was stationed in England. For over a week she had not heard from him. Then one night she saw him in a dream, as she says, 'sitting at a typewriter in an office full of empty desks looking troubled and with perspiration dripping from his face. I awoke weeping and "knowing" that he was ill. The next day I wrote him about the dream and my letter crossed in the mail with his, telling me that for several days he had been assigned to work in the office, and that on the day of my dream he had been given the task of typing top-secret troop movement orders. For this he was required to stay at his desk alone and unable to leave the office until the work was finished. He worked far into the night even though, he wrote me, he was sick with a fever. He felt he should finish the job and so told no one how badly he felt. He nearly had pneumonia.' "

On pages 93-94 of the same book, we read a story of a man whose female love interest was imprisoned during the incredibly harsh Stalinist persecutions of the 1930's. The man had a dream of the lady being in a cell playing chess with another person, which was a most improbable thing given the harsh conditions suffered by the imprisoned during such a time.  After the woman was released, the man learned that the woman had actually played chess with another prisoner, using chess pieces made from black bread. 

On page 169 of the same book, we read this account:

"In North Dakota one night, a woman whose son was in a boys' school two-hundred miles away, was walking into her living room when she suddenly heard the son call, 'Mom,' so clearly she turned around in surprise to see if he were behind her. A letter a few days later told how he had broken his arm in basketball that evening. She learned that at the time she heard him call, his pain was so intense he thought he could not bear it."

On page 179 of the same book we read a rather similar account involving a worse outcome a little after 11 o'clock:

"It occurred on the night of October 27, 1948. 1 was in bed resting, reading a little. My husband was lecturing at a school some miles away. Finally I turned off the light and was falling asleep when I was brought back to full consciousness by my heart suddenly beginning to beat like a sledge hammer. I turned on the light. It was a few moments after eleven. I lay down again, only to have the furious beating get worse still. It felt as if my heart was leaping out of my body. I couldn't imagine what was happening, and got very frightened. But after a little time the wild beating ceased and I dozed off. At twelve-thirty the doorbell rang. Two policemen were there to tell me my husband had died of a cerebral hemorrhage at a little after eleven."

On page 236 of the same book we read an account of a psychic experience which has a happier ending:

"I was almost at the center of Patterson when I knew — but I cannot explain how I knew — that I had to get home very quickly. I simply was filled with panic. I got off the bus and immediately took a return bus home. I found that my husband and daughter had decided to nap on the sofa in the living room and the house was filling with gas. My daughter had played at the stove and had turned on all the gas jets while my husband napped. Then she had lain down beside him and fallen asleep, too. I can remember nothing more than the feeling of panic and the need to forget shopping and return home."

Below we have a video that may be evidence for precognition, an anomalous sensing of the fugure. In the clip from the late twentieth century, the mighty Tigers hitter Cecil Fielder knocks a baseball out of Tiger Stadium.  Hitting a ball out of a major league stadium is so rare I can never recall seeing it done in all of the countless baseball games I've watched on television. What is interesting is the sports announcer's comment around the 52 second mark in the clip. Just after Cecil hits a totally routine and not-at-all-impressive "foul back" sending the ball straight behind him (a very routine and measly result no sane hitter would ever brag about), the announcer for some very strange reason states that if Cecil had got a better swing on the ball, he might have hit the baseball out of the stadium.  Two pitches later Cecil does just precisely that, literally hitting a ball out of the stadium.  It is as if the announcer somehow had some paranormal premonition that just such a thing was about to happen. 

Postscript:  Today I was talking to my two daughters, and one of them was mentioning some online gaming system. As she spoke I was thinking of the very old board game Clue, and was remembering the little cards and envelopes in that game (which I haven't played in many, many years). Before I could mention the game Clue, my daughter mentioned that you could play Clue online. I told her I was thinking of just that game before she mentioned it. I asked her if she had played that game online, and she said she had not.  This is one of several cases in which it seemed like telepathy between me and her.  You can read of two other cases here.  

A recent experiment made use of the ganzfeld technique for testing ESP (which has been highly successful in the past). The new experiment reports a success rate of 39% with 110 subjects, which is far above the expected chance result of 25%.