Thursday, April 28, 2016

Goodbye, Doubtful News (yet it lives!)

We say a fond farewell (for good?) to geologist Sharon Hill's superb Doubtful News site, which over nearly 8,000 posts turned the eye of science on all kinds of claimed weirdness.  
Fortunately, Sharon is continuing her efforts on the DN FaceBook page, She is also running the FaceBook page Group of Fort, which she describes thusly: 
"SMART, knowledgable discussion about Fortean topics, natural anomalies, oddities, cryptids, monsters, ghosts, the unexplained. If you don't know who Charles Fort was, this group is probably not for you. This is not your average Facebook group. It is not a group of believers. I'd like it to be heads and shoulders above that. Therefore, please be cautious about posting speculative stuff. Discussion is curated - please post actually interesting things only."
Press on, Sharon!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A thought experiment on "ghosts"

I don't believe in ghosts. No one is reaching out from the grave to send you a message or scare you away from an old hotel. But the sheer age and number of ghost stories and legends makes them interesting to think about.  Certainly sane, sober people - most of us surely know at least one - genuinely believe they've encountered something ghostly.
Can one conjure up (hah hah) a situation where something could be "really there" to an observer? I think George Tyrell, in in his book Apparitions, tried the hardest to think this through.
Assume for a moment there is something an objective observer (someone not in a heightened emotional state just due to the location or recent events) perceives as a ghost. The closest thing to a "rational" possibility seems to be that a ghost is some unknown form of energy that lingers near a death and causes the mind of an observer (not the eyes) to perceive a pattern (this is the only idea that offers a semblance of sense about why you'd see a ghost in human form and clothed). There is no consciousness, and it can affect one observer and not another (somehow).
If we further assume this phenomenon exists, then there's the question of what it could and could not do. I can't come up with a thought experiment that lets me see any sort of manipulation of physical objects, like the bouncing flashlight that's making the rounds of the Internet as "proof." However, one could imagine even very small energies doing all kinds of things to the fragile brain, making it manufacture sounds or smells.  
In my mother's childhood home, built in 1790 in Bangor, Maine, was a main bedroom where people occasionally heard a sound like a man's boot being slid off and dropping to the floor (always one, never two). As that bedroom - indeed, that bed - was where an ancestor had died after being invalided out following wounds at the second battle of Bull Run, it wasn't hard to connect the two. There can be all kinds of noises in old houses, though the coincidence in type of sound is certainly interesting. Could energy that is weaker form just a sense impression that isn't visual? 
My wife worked at a Philadelphia hospital with a "haunted room," where apparitions, shadows of people going by the window (on the third floor, at night - Deb saw this one herself) and other things were reported, most interestingly the habit of a printer at the nurses' station (high tech for the 1970s) to produce a strip of vital signs for a patient in that room when there wasn't any patient. Back in the 1980s I write to British "ghost hunter" Peter Underwood on this, and he said he had another report from the same hospital but, due to privacy, could not share it. Deb, a woman of great intelligence (she later added a law degree to her resume) still doesn't know just what to think of her shadow-figure.
Any "ghost energy" wouldn't work at much of a distance (assuming it works like known energies), given the inverse square law and the way energy drops off sharply with distance. My mother was once awakened by a strong smell of raisin toast - my grandfather's unwavering choice of breakfast - on the morning my grandfather died a continent away. A little far for a blip of unknown energy. However, she placed this event in another category: being Catholic, she presumed it was an "I'm ok" sign God had permitted or caused to be manifested for her. Catholic theology warns people to stay away from all aspects of the paranormal as possibly being Satanic (going to a seance out of curiosity is "a very serious sin" according to one official book) but it doesn't rule out God allowing some kind of vision or even contact on a sort of case-by-case basis.
"Ghost energy" also wouldn't work for "phantasms of the living" as the venerable SPR called them. If you think such events are real, there has to be a quite separate explanation. I think we can pretty confidently ascribe this to "mind playing ticks on you," and the same applies for people who meet our hypothetical ghost energy and think it's interacting directly with them, such as by conversing.
That's about as far as I can take this. I don't believe in ghosts - but are we sure we know everything that can cause a person to believe they've met one?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Could a ground sloth be living today?

What is the mapinguari?
It may sound like an exotic dish on a TV cooking show, but no.  It is, according to Brazilian ornithologist David Oren, a huge, prehistoric ground sloth that still breathes in the forested lands of the Amazon basin.  
In the 1990s, Dr. Oren’s fieldwork as the head of zoology at Emilo Goeldi Natural History Museum brought him in contact with many tales of the mapinguari.  South America’s pre-eminent finder of new mammals, Dr. Marc van Roosmalen, had also heard of the animal and was intrigued.
While some cryptozoologists think these tales refer to a huge primate, Oren was struck by the way descriptions of the red-haired beast corresponded with what we know of the mylodontid ground sloths.  There were several species of ground sloths in the Americas.  The largest, Eremotherium laurillardi, reached the size of a respectable elephant at around three tons.  Some South American species were definitely hunted by early humans and are believed to have been alive only 8,500 years ago.   Also in favor of a sloth identity: there’s no evidence for any primate remotely approaching the size of Homo sapiens in the New World, let alone the size of a ground sloth.
Features of the mapinguari reports which match some ground sloths include general size and appearance, tracks showing clawed toes pointed inward, and the color (samples of ground sloth skin, still flexible, have been found preserved in caves).    
According to the people of western Amazonia, the mapinguari is a shaggy animal weighing over 250 kg.  This would make it one of the smaller ground sloths, but it would still be the largest living mammal native to South America.  Oren believes the mapinguari is nocturnal and vegetarian.  It rears up to a height approaching six feet when startled and is supposedly accompanied by a stench which could gag a jaguar.   Whether the animal is still living or has gone extinct very in the last few years is a question Oren cannot answer, but proving either possibility would be a scientific coup.
In 1995, Oren launched his first expedition into the Brazilian rain forest in search of the mapinguari.   This seems an outlandish pursuit for a man with a Harvard doctorate, but Oren found the eyewitness accounts and eleven-inch tracks compelling.  He was also well aware of the publicity that would accompany the discovery of such a spectacular animal – publicity that would lead to increased protection for the hard-pressed rain forest.  He has devoted enormous effort to the project, persevering through several arduous expeditions and a growing thicket of skepticism from his colleagues.  He has also attracted some assistants.  One is writer Marcelo Volcato, who in 1999 located a new witness in the state of Matto Grosso who described a creature with long reddish hair, standing over five feet tall on its hind legs and smelling very bad.  The man was familiar with regular sloths and saw no resemblance, although his description resembles nothing else known in Brazil either. 
Folklore endows the mapinguari with the power to make people dizzy, and sometimes with a second “mouth” in its stomach: Oren suggests the latter is a scent gland that explains the former. 
Scientific opinion is split, with most of it against Oren.  Professor Paul Martin, an expert on megafaunal extinctions, is one of many who has said Oren is wasting his time.  “I’ll eat my share of sloth dung if this animal is alive,” he opined.  On the other hand, Dr. Glenn Shepard Jr., an anthropologist working with a tribe on the Peruvian stretch of the Amazon, heard tales of the animal but didn’t think much of them until a man who’d been to the natural history museum in the capitol of Lima said he’d seen the same animal on display there as a fossil. Shepard was taken aback on finding out this was a ground sloth.

Giant ground sloths, painted by Charles R. Knight (public domain)

Oren’s work has, at this point, led largely to disappointment despite talking to “a couple hundred” witnesses.  Hair and fecal samples he’s gathered have been identified as those of known animals. (I once talked by phone to an eminent mammologist focused on South America, Dr. Louise Emmons, who was skeptical of the mapinguari and told me concerning one of Oren’s reports, “I can’t believe he didn’t know tapir s--- when he saw it.”) 
Recent years haven’t added a great deal of information. Josh Gates and his Destination Truth team went to Brazil in 2008. They found some new witnesses and heard loud crashing noises, but didn’t get any hard evidence. Biologist Pat Spain took his Beast Hunter show there in 2011, and after earning the trust of a local tribe by passing a ritual involving gloves full of huge, stinging “bullet ants” that had him screaming in pain, was able to talk with numerous hunters who had seen the animal, but that was about it. However, it should be added that Spain was highly impressed by the certainty of the people he spoke with and came away thinking there was some kind of real animal involved.
While Oren has said, “I’ll be the first one to admit the whole idea is rather absurd,” he has also said, correctly, “I’m testing a scientific hypothesis that’s basically reasonable.  This isn’t the Loch Ness monster.”
The beast can’t be said to be disproved yet, not with 5 billion hectares of forest still left in the Amazon basin.  It is unlikely, and the results of 20+ years of work have been disappointing.  But this is one animal in the crypto-zoo that someone, someday, might trip over.  Just hope the giant creature doesn’t trip over you.  

Further Reading: 
Goering, Laurie.  1995.  “Expert says tree sloths have a monster cousin,” Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, January 15.
Holloway, Marguerite.  1999.  “Beasts in the Mist,” Discover, September, p.58.
Holloway, Marguerite. 1993. "Living Legend," Scientific American, December, p.40.
Oren, David.  1993.  “Did ground sloths survive to Recent times in the Amazon region?”  Goeldiana Zoologia (19), (August 20).
Pearson, Stephanie.  1995.  “Load the Stun Gun, Pass the Old Spice,” Outside, November, p.34.
Rohter, Larry.  2007. “A Huge Amazon Monster Is Only a Myth. Or Is It?” New York Times, July 8.  

Sunday, April 24, 2016

No, a "whistleblower" didn't show vaccines are unsafe

Here's a complete, devastating, and convincing takedown of the "CDC whistleblower" claim endlessly repeated by Natural News and its ilk. (Best line I've read concerning Natural News: "There's so much quackery it's like they're cloning ducks over there.")
David Gorski's blog Science-Based Medicine is the place to go for the real science involved in the hype about William Thompson, who was indeed part of CDC studies but has misinterpreted, slanted, and outright lied.
Along the way Gorski shows how idiotic the claims made by one RFK Jr. in this regard really are. Sadly, I don't think the son of a great American leader has ever produced anything on a scientific topic that was not refuted by real scientists.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Thanks to Pikes Peak Writers Club

The annual Pikes Peak Writers Conference was, as usual, a great experience. The emphasis this year was on suspense/thriller writers, like Wendy Corsi Staub and Jeff Lindsay (the Dexter books./series). Four acquiring editors showed up (though none wrote me a giant check, or even a small check), and I learned a lot as always. My particular thanks to Steve Saffel of Titan Books, who (I hope this is OK with him) I think of as my personal Yoda when it comes to tough love and making my work better. So many people here, including authors Kevin J. Anderson and Kevin Ikenberry, spared words of wisdom.
Highlight:  I asked Jeff Lindsay how you get in the head of a character who's overwhelmed by an experience he has no preparation for.  He said, "Smoke some pot and walk into a police station. You'll get it right from then on." (He's not from Colorado, where you can do that and they'll just tell you to stop stinking up the place.)

Thanks to the superb staff and volunteers of the Pikes Peak Writers Club. J.H. Evans, Jason P. Henry, Karen Fox, Laura Hayden (who insists that Alabama and Atlanta accents are different, and so she does not sound like Holly Hunter), and so many more.  It was great to see my old friends  and welcome new ones, including authors like Megan Rutter and Evangeline Denmark I'd known only from FaceBook.

As in all my writing endeavors and activities, thanks are due to my wife, Deb, who encourages and puts up with it all and tended to the houseful of pets who are normally my responsibility on weekends, and to my agent, Cicily Janus, who also believes.

Oh, and if you want to join PPWC, remember it's the only writers' club you're going to find that's FREE.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Yuri's Night

Gagarin’s Night
The night we look at the stars
And remember the first human hand
And human mind
That reached beyond our sea of air
One young man
One mighty effort
One first step
Remembered forever
In a hundred years
When we stand on other worlds
This night

We will still look at the stars.

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, b.1943, d. 1968
First human in space 
(Photo copyright unknown)

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Methane Dwellers

Methane hydrate is truly strange stuff, basically huge masses of methane locked in ice on the seafloor in a molecular lattice known in the chemical world as a clathrate. It's been proposed as a source of power: indeed, Japan took the lead a few years ago by testing recovery of methane hydrate (sometimes called methane clathrate) for its fuel potential.  The stuff also terrifies some climate scientists: the slow warming of the oceans may melt countless tons of ice and release the methane to make its way, eventually,  into the atmosphere.  
The strangest thing of all, though, is what lives in the icy domain of methane hydrate beds.  In 1997, one of the weirdest animals anywhere - a worm living in the frozen methane - was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico. Biologist Charles “Chuck” Fisher of Pennsylvania State University and submersible pilot Phil Santos spotted the “wall of worms” from a submersible over 2,000 feet down.

The methane dweller (NOAA)

The worms (they were originally christened Hesiocaeca methanicola, but that name was rejected by the ICZN for some reason in favor of Sircoe methanicola)  are up to five cm long.  They have stubby pink bodies, pink feet shaped like paddles, and tufts of white bristles all over.  They are members of the huge group called the polychaete worms and live in great numbers on brownish-yellow chunks of hydrate, some 2m feet across in this location, which protrude into the water from huge masses frozen under the sea bed.  For a while scientists were puzzled about how the worms gained nourishment.  Apparently bacteria which can metabolize the methane are present in sufficient numbers to be consumed by the worms.   
Said Fisher, "The old view that the deep sea bottom is a monotonous habitat needs to be discarded. These worms are the major players in a new and unique marine ecosystem... If these animals turn out to be everywhere on shallow seafloor gas deposits, possibly worldwide, they could have a significant impact on how these deposits are formed and dissolve in seawater and on how we go about mining or otherwise harvesting this natural gas as a source of energy,"
In other words, everything in the natural world is connected to bigger issues.  Even worms.

Further reading:
Anonymous.  1997.  “Scientists Discover Methane Ice Worms on Gulf of Mexico Sea Floor,” Pennsylvania State University press release, July 29.
Anonymous.  1997.  “Worms in Ice,” Earth, December, p.14.

Pain, Stephanie.  “1998. “Extreme Worms,” New Scientist, July 25.