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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, December 29, 2014

When Rhine and Pearce Got “Smoking Gun” Evidence for ESP

In the new book The Improbability Principle, mathematician David J. Hand spends a good deal of time attacking evidence for ESP (extra-sensory perception, commonly known as telepathy). His attack is something of a textbook example of the dubious rhetorical tricks and glaring omissions that a typical skeptic will use in addressing that topic.

In Chapter 2 of the book Hand looks at the research done by Joseph Rhine at Duke University during the 1930's, research which seemed to provide very compelling evidence for ESP. Hand begins by making the totally unconvincing suggestion that there may have been something wrong with dice Rhine used for some of his experiments, that they might not have rolled as randomly as casino dice. If there had been such a problem (such as a dice that preferentially rolled the number 6), it would have been noticed by any competent researcher. Hand then makes the insinuation that Rhine may have erred by searching around for talented subjects, stopping testing with subjects who showed no evidence of ESP. This, Hand insinuates, may have been some “selection effect” which might have skewed Rhine's results.

This criticism is invalid because it would only apply to tests involving a small number of trials, but all of Rhine's more convincing studies involved very large numbers of trials. Imagine I test 20 people for ESP, using only 20 attempts at guessing the symbol on a card that can have 5 possible values. If I throw out the 19 worst performers, and publish only the results of the person who did best, then purely by chance I might get something a little above what we would expect by chance. Purely by random chance, the best performer might guess 10 out of 20 cards correctly. 

  Zener cards used in ESP testing

But imagine if I use a very large number of trials, having each subject try guessing the symbols on 10000 cards. Then, according to a mathematical law very well known to Hand (the law of large numbers), it should make little difference if I select the best of 100 performers (assuming the non-existence of ESP), because all performers should get results close to what one would expect by chance. All of the performers should have close to 2000 correct guesses out of 10000.   

With a little programming, it is possible to simulate these type of trials, using some software code that makes use of a random number generator. I did just that, simulating 500,000 participants who each tried guessing 10,300 cards that can have one of five symbols. The best out of the 500,000 simulated participants scored 2256 successes, which isn't very much better than the expected chance result of 2060 successes.

What about Rhine's research – did he use a small number of trials, which might make Hand's “selection effect” criticism fair? No, he didn't. His most dramatic results involved very large number of trials, showing very dramatic deviations from chance far, far beyond anything that can be accounted for by imagining a selection effect.

Some of Rhine's most dramatic results were produced using Hubert E. Pearce Jr. as a subject. The research is described in detail here. The link mentions 10,030 trials in which Pearce scored 3746 successes (despite an expected chance result of only about 2060 successes). That is a result way, way better than the best result (2256 successes) that was achieved from my 500,000 computer-simulated guessers (each guessing 10,300 times). Such a result is very strong evidence for extra-sensory perception .

Of course, back in the 1930's Rhine was doing his research before the Internet was invented, working with a small staff, so we cannot assume that he tried testing anything like 500,000 people before coming on a result such as Pearce (or even 1 percent of that number). And even if he had, the odds would have been incredibly low that any of them would have scored by chance with a result anywhere near as good as Pearce's result (as my computer simulation indicates).

Hand mentions the case of Pearce, and he tries to leave the impression that Pearce's results were due to trickery.

Hubert Pearce Jr. guessed correctly around 32 percent of the time in hundreds of card-guessing experiments, compared with a chance expectation of 20 percent. Except, that is, when a magician watched him guess the cards, at which point his expectation fell to chance levels.

Clearly Hand wants you to draw the conclusion that Pearce was cheating, but he provides no clue as to how anyone could have cheated in such experiments (which had a protocol described below). In fact, Hand's claim is misleading. The link I just provided gives a table showing Pearce's performance in front of a succession of witnesses. When the magician was present, Pearce scored 92 out of 400 successes, a success rate of 23% that was above the expected chance result of 20 per cent (the results in front of all the other witnesses were much better). The link also reports, “Pearce was somewhat ill with tonsilitis on the day the magician was present,” which can easily explain the dip in his performance while the magician was present.

In the above link we also read these details about this magician witness:

The magician, Mr. Wallace Lee, tried a few series himself with only chance average results. He said frankly that he was convinced. It appeared that he was, at least as far as we all are, "mystified".

The experimental protocol is described below by Rhine, and it is not a protocol in which he can imagine any opportunity for cheating over a long series of trials.

The working conditions were these: observer and subject sat opposite each other at a table, on which lay about a dozen packs of the Zener Cards and a record book. One of the packs would be handed to Pearce and he be allowed to shuffle it. (He felt it gave more real "contact".) Then it was laid down and was cut by the observer. Following this Pearce would, as a rule, pick up the pack, lift off the top card, keeping both the pack and the removed card face down, and, after calling it, he would lay the card on the table, still face down. The observer would record the call. Either after 5 calls or after 25 calls,—and we used both conditions generally about equally—the called cards would be turned over and checked off against the calls recorded in the book. The observer saw each card and checked each one personally though the subject was asked to help in the checking by laying off the cards as checked. There is no legerdemain by which an alert observer can be repeatedly deceived at this.

The table below (from the link here) summarizes the results of Rhine's experiments with Pearce. These are tests in which the expected success rate is 5 out of 25, or 1 in 5. There is no way to work in some hypothesis of cheating with the results reported here. The table shows that Pearce got the same super-dramatic results even in a series of 650 trials when he was looking away from the cards, and also in a series of 300 trials in which there was a screen separating the cards and Pearce.

We can use the very handy binomial probability calculator at this site to calculate the likelihood of these results. The calculator gives a probability of simply 0 when we type in the overall results, so let's use a subset to try to get some non-zero result. Let's use only rows 2 and 6, involving either Pearce looking away from the cards or a screen between Pearce and the cards, either one of which should have ruled out any possibility of cheating. When I type these results in the binomial probability calculator, I get a result with a chance probability of 5 chances in 100 trillion, which we can round to be 1 chance in 10 trillion. This is a result we should never expect to get by pure chance even if we tested with every single person in the human race.

What we have in the case of Pearce and Rhine is a very well-documented case of experimental results far, far in excess of what chance can account for, what is basically “smoking gun” evidence of ESP. Mr. Hand is not at all able to debunk it. There is not the slightest reason for thinking that Pearce had any ability in magic, or that he could have used magic or fraud to achieve his results. Pearce went on to become a minister, and many years later sharply rebuked Martin Gardner when he asked (without any basis) for Pearce to confess to cheating.

What does Hand have to say about ESP experiments after Rhine? He tries to create the misleading impression that more recent experiences have not been as successful, by completely omitting discussion of the dramatic results of the ganzfeld experiments, and referring to, “the comments made by the believers in ESP and parapsychology as successive experiments failed to demonstrate the existence of the phenomena.”

The actual truth is very different. After Rhine's death, experimenters developed a protocol called the ganzfeld protocol, which involved ESP tests while a user had sensory deprivation such as halved ping-pong balls taped over their eyes. As described here, fifty-nine repetitions of such tests by various researchers produced an average successful match rate of about 30%, much higher than the 25% rate expected by chance. Rather than being a rare result that you only got with a few gifted subjects, such a result was repeated over and over again with a wide range of subjects. The odds of such results occurring by pure chance are similar to the odds of the Pearce results occurring by chance -- basically zero. 

What does Page have to say about such experiments, which are the main type of recent ESP experiments? He says nothing. Instead, he wastes time on trying to debunk other ESP experiments no one has heard of. It's the old skeptic's strategy: if you don't have an explanation for some evidence for something you are arguing against, just ignore that evidence, and hope no one notices.

Page does put in a little sales pitch for the multiverse (the idea of a vast collection of universes). A good question for Mr. Page is: why would you have us believe in a multiverse (an infinitely complicated, boundlessly extravagant fantasy for which there is not the slightest bit of evidence), but discourage us from believing in ESP (a nice simple hypothesis for which there is abundant good experimental evidence that you haven't succeeded in debunking)? 

Postscript: The original version of this post didn't even mention two other astounding cases nvolving Pearce. One was the Pearce-Pratt series of tests, conducted by Rhine's assistant J. Gaither Pratt. In this test, Pratt dealt out one card a minute from a shuffled deck. Pearce (located in a building far away) recorded his guesses as to the cards, at the same time. 1850 cards were dealt, and the expected chance success rate was about 370 cards. Instead, Pearce got 558 correct guesses. The chance probability of such a result was less than 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. In another informal test conducted in front of Rhine,  Pearce correctly guessed 25 cards in a row. The chance of that? One in three hundred quadrillion.

Postscript: See this post for my rebuttal of a skeptic's arguments against this evidence.  See this post for a discussion of an ESP test that got results even better than any test with Pearce  -- a phenomenal 73% accuracy rate on a test involving 1850 cards.

Friday, December 26, 2014

They Seemed to Know of Deaths They Should Not Have Known Of

I always find it interesting to read about or experience a case when a mind seems to have some knowledge or idea that we would not expect it to have. There was such a case the other day in my personal experience. I saw my adult daughter leaving, and I thought to myself, "I'll say to her: see you later, alligator." But then I thought to myself: I don't think a young lady would like being called an alligator. So I simply said, "See you later" in a flat voice. She then immediately replied, "See you later, alligator," an expression I can never recall hearing her use before. Cases such as these may be evidence for human abilities such as ESP, which is also supported by laboratory experiments skeptics are unable to explain away.

A more interesting case of anomalous cognition comes when a person seems to know of someone's death when that person should have had no such knowledge. Bruce Greyson made a study of such cases, which he called "Peak in Darien" experiences. Below is a list of some interesting cases documented in Greyson's paper.

  • A woman had a dying vision of four of her brothers, only three of whom were known by her to be dead. The fourth brother was in India, and was thought to be alive. Not long after she died, a letter arrived announcing the death of the fourth brother.
  • There were two brothers who died of scarlet fever. The death of the first brother was kept secret from the second brother. Just before the second brother died, he claimed to see a vision of the first brother, calling to him.
  • John Alkin Ogle was on his deathbed and saw a vision of his dead brother and a man named George Hanley. Ogle had not yet learned that Hanley had died ten days earlier.
  • Two schoolmates named Jennie and Edith died from diptheria. The death of Jennie was kept secret from Edith. Just before dying, Edith had a vision of Jennie, saying, “Oh Jennie, I am so glad you are here.”
  • A woman on her deathbed saw a vision of her deceased father, who was next to her sister Vida. The woman did not know that her sister Vida had died three weeks earlier.
  • While dying a woman named Eleanor called out the names of deceased loved ones she could see, and mentioned a cousin named Ruth, asking, “What's she doing here?” Ruth had unexpectedly died a short time earlier, and Eleanor had not been told.
  • When Horace Wheatley went into a coma, he had a vision of a local government officer. Unknown to him, the government officer had recently died.
  • A man had a near-death vision of two of his brothers, the second of whom had died two days earlier, unknown to the man. Only after his recovery did he learn about the death of the second brother.
  • A 93-year-old woman dying of cancer had a vision of her sister calling him to join her. Unknown to the woman, the sister had died of cancer two days earlier.
  • Two childhood friends named Ralph and Steve died at about the same time in different places. Just before he died, and just after Steve had died, Ralph had a vision of Steve.
  • A dying man told his family that he had a vision of his dead grandmother, his dead mother, and his sister. He had not been told that his sister had recently died.
  • A dying English woman reported hearing angelic voices, and then said she could see an old acquaintance of hers named Julia. The next day the newspaper announced Julia's death.
  • On her deathbed a Mrs. Hicks had a vision of her son Eddie. Shortly after her death, the family learned that Eddie had died about the same time the mother had the vision.
  • A woman had a near-death experience in which she saw a friend named Tom. Shortly thereafter, her husband learned that Tom had died in an auto accident.
  • A native American woman was hit by a car. Asked by someone whether there was anything he could do, the dying woman instructed the man to tell her mother that she was “very happy because I am already with my dad.” The man found the woman's mother, who told him that her husband (the father) had died of a heart attack one hour before the auto accident.
  • After his mother died in an auto accident, a son dying from the same auto accident told a doctor, “Everything is all right now. Mommy and Peter are already waiting for me.” The son died, and the doctor then learned that his brother Peter had died a few minutes earlier in another location.
  • A man having a near-death experience reported that he saw his sister, who told him it was too soon for him to die. Later he told doctors that his sister must be dead. They assured him that she was alive. He told them to check, and they found the sister had indeed died.
  • A young dying patient named Peggy saw her aunt, who lived in another state, appear right next to her. It was later found that the aunt had died at the same time.
  • Having a feverish close encounter with death, a young boy named Eddie Cuomo reported seeing dead relatives in heaven, and being told by his sister Teresa that he must go back. Very shortly thereafter, his parents checked on the status of Teresa, and found out she had died while attending college.
  • A woman had a near-death experience in which she reported seeing a vision of her brother, a brother she had never known of. Her father then confessed that she did have a brother, whose existence she had never learned of.

Some skeptics attempt to explain away near-death experiences through some hypothesis about the mind constructing some vision to match its expectations. Such an explanation does not work for cases such as these, because in each such case we have some unexplained report or vision which proved to be consistent with the unknown death of a person, but which did not match the assumption that we would expect to have been in the mind of the person who made the report.

 "The Final Doorway"

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Prospects of Colonizing the Skies of Venus

Ken Kalfus has written a long post called the The Folly of Mars, trying to throw cold water on the idea of exploring and colonizing Mars. But don't worry, space enthusiasts. Even if there are difficulties in colonizing Mars, there is another local possibility: colonizing Venus.

The idea of colonizing Venus may seem crazy to any person familiar with the basic facts about the planet. The surface of the planet is insanely hot (about 735 degrees Kelvin), so hot that it would quickly kill any human who tried to walk on it, even if he had a very good space suit. But there is another possibility. We could colonize the skies of Venus, by creating floating balloon cities there.

In this paper written by a NASA expert, it is proposed that we could create floating colonies about 50 kilometers above the surface of Venus. At this level the atmospheric pressure and gravity is roughly equal to that of Earth. Temperatures are also between 0 and 50 degrees Centrigrade (between 32 degrees and 122 degrees Fahrenheit), similar to temperatures on Earth.

The floating colonies would not be big balloons themselves, but would be suspended by giant balloons that might have an inner-tube structure, as shown in my visual below:

Venus colony

Floating colonists couldn't actually breathe the atmosphere of Venus, which is mainly carbon dioxide. But it would be easy to get oxygen for breathing, by extracting oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Such an operation could be easily powered by the abundant solar energy available on Venus, where it's easier to get solar energy.

What kind of life would colonists have in such a colony? The heavy winds on Venus would no doubt cause a frequent rocking of the colony. This would be something of a drawback. It might result in sea-sickness even worse than you would experience on a long sea voyage. Perhaps NASA would first need to develop some kind of super-effective sea-sickness tablet. Or perhaps it could create some type of fancy air-jet stabilization technology that would prevent the suspended colony from rocking too much.

I imagine it might be hard to recruit colonists for such a colony. I can only imagine the recruiting posters that NASA might produce:

Someone becoming a colonist would have to resign himself to living forever in some artificial space habitat, without ever again being able to walk on the surface of a planet. But there might be one cool perk for colonists. NASA could develop shuttle vehicles for transporting cargo between the different floating colonies. Imagine the fun of riding around in such a vehicle, shuttling between different floating Venus colonies. This might be the “hook” that could lure in many a potential thrill seeker.

air car

Saturday, December 20, 2014

“Galaxy Is Our Playground” Thinkers Would Probably Not Rethink Views If Mars Life Found

There is a certain type of thinker who indulges in the idea that our galaxy of more than 100 billion stars is just waiting to be taken over by humans. I may call such thinkers the “galaxy is our playground” thinkers. According to this view, we are the only planet in our galaxy with intelligent life. Some day, according to such thinkers, we will spread throughout the galaxy, colonizing it entirely. According to such thinkers, the galaxy is like some huge gift waiting for the human species, a gigantic inheritance which we can explore and exploit at our leisure without competition. 

Galaxy greed: the fantasy of a galaxy ripe for conquest

People who have such a view try to support it by bringing up Fermi's Paradox, the issue of why we do not yet have clear evidence of extraterrestrial life. On this blog I have several times rebutted this argument. Some of the main reasons why “we are alone in the galaxy” arguments based on Fermi's Paradox are not convincing is the severe difficulty of interstellar travel, the significant chance that interstellar colonization may be relatively rare, and the possibility that our planet may be part of a kind of nature preserve set aside by extraterrestrials (who could be expected to create such nature preservation areas just as our species does on our planet).

Just recently there were some exciting NASA findings that may be relevant to this issue. NASA finally found organic compounds on Mars, a prerequisite of life NASA has long sought on Mars. NASA also found strong spikes of methane on Mars, and one of the most plausible causes of such spikes could be biological activity, possibly from bacteria.

We could be on the verge of discovering life on Mars. How would such a discovery affect the “galaxy is our playground” thinkers? Will we see some revision of thought such as the hypothetical one below?

I used to think that we are the only planet in our galaxy with intelligent life. My opinion was based on the incredible difficulties of life getting started billions of years from mere chemicals. But now that we have discovered microbes on Mars, I have revised this opinion. Since life has evolved on two out of two planets where it had the chance, it is only logical to assume that life exists throughout our galaxy, and that on some good fraction of these planets, intelligent life has arisen.

No, I don't think the “galaxy is our playground” thinkers would go in such a direction. There is a strange tendency in the human mind that often works like this: when someone has committed himself to a particular position, he may tend to regard evidence against such a position as all the more reason to believe in the position. We see this when a fundamentalist zealot says something like, “Your discovery of 100 new 'transitional fossils' is simply all the more proof that Satan is deceiving us by planting such things,” or when a skeptic says something like, “This book of 50 new 'paranormal photos' is just all the more proof that such photos can easily be faked.” It's a weird kind of tendency whereby the human mind attempts to make a silk purse when it has been given a sow's ear, a kind of “make lemonade when you get lemons” thing. We don't like to revise our opinions, and we would rather transform (however implausibly) a new finding or set of observations into another reason for believing in our existing opinions rather than going through the painful process of revising our opinions.

So I imagine that if Mars life was discovered, the “galaxy is our playground” thinkers might react to the finding along these lines:

Why this finding of Mars life simply makes our original vision of the human conquest of the galaxy even more enthralling! Before we thought that the origin of life was rare, perhaps occurring only on our planet. But if the origin of life is common, that means the whole galaxy is probably filled with life-bearing planets for humans to explore and conquer. Rather than having ahead of us the not-so-thrilling task of taking over an all but barren galaxy with almost no life, we will instead have before us the even more thrilling job of taking over and conquering a galaxy filled with all kinds of exotic plants and animals (of course, none of them as intelligent as us).

Meanwhile, as such thinkers indulge in such pleasant fantasies, minds that are to our minds like our minds are to the insects may well be pondering whether to soon squash us like bugs at their feet or keep watching us for a few more centuries.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Junk Logic of a “Junk Science” Accusation

Regular readers of this blog may know that I sometimes criticize some scientists for various things such as herd thinking, being too infatuated with heavy hardware projects, jumping the gun in interpreting preliminary results, having too much hubris in regard to the level of their understanding, engaging in dubious speculations or overselling such speculations, or being too narrow-minded in excluding various unexplained phenomena. But these minor sins are no doubt outweighed by the virtues of the typical scientist. Let me make clear that all in all, I think almost all scientists are fine people who do excellent work.

This is why I don't like to see a group of scientists get smeared by a dubious hatchet job. One such lamentable putdown we see today is when global warming deniers claim that scientists are faking their results in order to get more grant money from the government. This story has little plausibility. With a world of exciting things to research, with 1001 potential possibilities for research, why would someone need to fake something to come up with a compelling research grant proposal?

While mentioning dubious smear jobs against a group of scientists, I should also mention yesterday's blog post on the site realclearscience.com, one which featured an attack against a large distinguished team of scientists and doctors. The post in question listed the AWARE study of near-death experiences on a list of “The Biggest Junk Science of 2014.” Now the term “junk science” is an incendiary term. As the hillbilly expression goes, “them's fightin' words.” By accusing this study of “junk science,” realclearscience.com is impugning the reputations of every single author of this study.

How many authors were there? Let me list them. They were Sam Parnia, Ken Spearpoint, Gabriele de Vos, Peter Fenwick, Diana Goldberg, Jie Yang, Jiawen Zhu, Katie Baker, Hayley Killingback, Paula McLean, Melanie Wood, A. Maziar Zafari, Neal Dickert, Roland Beisteiner, Fritz Sterz, Michael Berger, Celia Warlow, Siobhan Bullock,Salli Lovett, Russell Metcalfe Smith McPara, Sandra Marti-Navarette, Pam Cushing, Paul Wills, Kayla Harris, Jenny Sutton, Anthony Walmsley, Charles D. Deakin, Paul Little, Mark Farber, Bruce Greyson, and Elinor R. Schoenfeld. This is a very distinguished group of scientists, medical doctors, and PhD's which hail from leading institutions such as Emory University Medical School, the University of Virginia, and Stony Brook Medical Center. So charging a lineup such as this of doing “junk science” is quite an amazing charge. Does realclearscience.com have any evidence or reasoning to back this charge up?

No, they don't. But realclearscience.com has made up some stuff. Referring to the AWARE study, their post states the following:

The researchers behind the study interviewed 140 survivors of cardiac arrest, and apparently one of those people reported memories of events during the cardiac arrest while they were unconscious. The researchers considered this lone instance strong evidence for a near-death experience in which the conscious mind or spirit separates from the body.

There are two misrepresentations here. First, the authors of the AWARE study did not at all claim that any of their findings are “strong evidence for a near-death experience in which the conscious mind or spirit separates from the body.Some of their findings may actually be such evidence, but the authors have not at all drawn any such conclusion. They've made no conclusion at all about whether the mind or spirit ever does separate from the body. Secondly, rather than the researchers finding only one near-death experience, a single “lone instance” out of 140, they reported that 9% of the 140 reported near-death experiences. For example, besides a case of a 57-year-old person who reported floating out of his body and witnessing doctor's attempts to revive him (with details that were corroborated), the study reported a case of a person who reported a very vivid “trip to heaven” kind of near-death experience.

So realclearscience.com misrepresents the facts. Now what do they say to back up their claims of “junk science”? They complain that the interviews with the people who had the near-death experiences were conducted “days, weeks, or even months” after the cardiac interest, and claim that therefore the memories were likely “heavily altered.”

This is junk reasoning. Almost all testimony made in our legal  system is made “days, weeks, or even months” after the reported event. We rely on such reports so much that we send people to jail for life if a particular report identifies someone as a murderer. There is no reason to think that testimony of cardiac arrest experiences made “days, weeks, or even months” after an event will be any more “heavily altered” than any other testimony made of a past occurrence. If we followed the implications of this reasoning – that testimony made a while after an event cannot be relied on – then we would have to free most of the murderers now in prison, who are there typically because of eyewitness testimony made recalling events that occurred months earlier.

The strongest part of the AWARE study was the testimony of a 57 year-old man who reported floating out of his body during a cardiac arrest, and observing medical persons trying to revive him. The study reports the case as follows:

A 57 year old man described the perception of observing events from the top corner of the room and continued to experience a sensation of looking down from above. He accurately described people, sounds, and activities from his resuscitation (Table 2 provides quotes from this interview). His medical records corroborated his accounts and specifically supported his descriptions and the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED)

The post at realclearscience.com tries to support their charge that this is junk science by quoting a neuroscientist who makes the following farfetched claim:

We need to consider what the odds are that one of the 140 people would have a memory (almost certainly contaminated, as no procedure was in place to prevent contamination) that matched events during cardiac arrest in some arbitrary details. This certainly sound [sic] consistent with random background noise in the data, and is therefore not evidence of anything.

You need only read the AWARE paper to see that this insinuation of “random coincidental agreement” is  implausible. The 57-year-old reported that while floating above his body he saw a chunky fellow (with a bald head, a blue hat, and blue scrubs) working on reviving him, a nurse saying “dial 444 cardiac arrest,” a nurse pumping on his chest, his blood pressure being taken, and his blood gases and blood sugar levels being taken. So I can answer the “what are the odds” question raised by the neuroscientist.

The odds of anyone having a memory of his experiences during the middle of a cardiac arrest are very low, because people lose consciousness during a cardiac arrest. Given a million people suffering a cardiac arrest, we might expect that only a very few of them (or perhaps none of them) would have any memory of having lived through the experience. Assuming that some of these hallucinated, we would not expect that any (or more than one or two) of this small number would make a report of having floated out of their body (as there are a 1001 possible hallucinations one can have, almost all not involving floating out of the body). And we certainly would not expect that even 1 in a million would give an account of floating out of his body, with the results being verified. The case is therefore very strong evidence of something important, and cannot with any credibility be portrayed as “random background noise in the data” that is “not evidence of anything.” As for the neurologist's comments trying to raise a suspicion about “contamination” (without supplying any supporting facts), it's the same shady trick used by the O.J. Simpson lawyers.

Does realclearscience.com give any other reasoning to back up its incendiary charge that a major scientific study is “junk science​?” No, it doesn't. Their attack is therefore a dud. It's kind of like when some gunman pulls out a gun and fires it at someone without killing him, because the gunman forgot to load the gun. Such an event shows great hostility and clumsiness, but doesn't have any force. 

Will you one day view your body like this?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Riddle of Existence

The dream I had the other day was the only dream I can ever recall having had about a philosophical topic. The philosophical topic it touched on was the most profound philosophical question of all: the question of why is there something rather than nothing.

In my dream I was simply at some cocktail party where I spotted a cosmologist. Then I thought to myself: I'll ask him why does there exist something rather than nothing. Then the dream ended.

It's somewhat amazing to have had a dream about a philosophical topic, considering that I can't ever recall hearing about other people having such dreams. It's not as if you hear someone saying at the water cooler, “I had a dream last night about the mind-body problem.” But it's not too surprising that I should have a dream about this particular philosophical topic, because I spent many hours pondering it as a teenager (oddly enough).

The riddle of existence can be stated as the simple question of why is there something rather than nothing. In this context something means anything whatsoever (such as the universe, God, or anything at all), while nothing means absolutely nothing – no matter, no universe, no God, no energy, just an absolute absence of anything.

The riddle of existence perplexes us when we consider how absolutely plausible is the concept of complete eternal nonexistence. By complete eternal nonexistence I mean a state of affairs in which nothing whatsoever existed, now, in the past, or in the future. Such a concept is counter-factual, something that we know to be incorrect. But nonetheless it seems to have a great plausibility, because of its perfect simplicity. A state of affairs in which absolutely nothing exists in the past, present, or future is one that seems to be very plausible because there are zero explanatory difficulties associated with it. One can only have an explanatory difficulty if there is something to explain, but there is nothing to explain if nothing existed in the past, present, or future.

If it seems hard to get your arms around the concept of something being counter-factual but plausible, consider the case of a basketball player who stands at one end of the basketball court, and is given only one chance to throw the ball across the entire court, into the opposite net. Suppose he takes that one chance, and sinks the ball successfully in the basket at the other end of the court. Such a player may consider the case of him missing the shot on his only try, and not sinking the ball in the basket. Such a case is counter-factual, because he knows he actually sunk the shot. But nonetheless such a case is very, very plausible.

Similarly, although we know we exist, it seems all too plausible that we might not exist, and also all too plausible that absolutely nothing should exist. The most plausible “alternate universe” narrative is a blank page.

Some cosmologists claim to have some possible answers to the question of why there is something rather than nothing. The reasoning goes something like this: a vacuum is unstable because of quantum mechanics – so a vacuum may have actually fluctuated or decayed into a state where matter existed.

To understand what is wrong with this reasoning, we need to understand the difference between a vacuum and nothingness. Matter and energy can be thought of as just two forms of the same thing, which is mass-energy. A vacuum is defined as some space in which no matter exists. But in modern physics, a vacuum is not at all a state of nothingness. Modern physics holds that a vacuum actually has quite a bit of energy in it, because what are called virtual particles are always popping into existence and out of existence because of quantum fluctuations. In fact, a physicist may consider certain types of vacuums that have very large amounts of energy. Under some possibilities considered by the modern physicist (particularly when considering the cosmological constant or possible conditions of the early universe), a vacuum may have more mass-energy in it (per cubic meter) than a block of steel.

So basically any “vacuum decay” or “vacuum transformation” reasoning is a sham and a “word trick” deceit if it s used to address the question of why there is something rather than nothing. A vacuum teeming with energy isn't nothing – it is something. Without understanding the details of any equations of a theoretical model, it is easy to determine whether a claim of a “universe from nothing” through some physical process is misleading us when it refers to nothing. If the model actual depicts something coming out of the “nothing,” then the “nothing” being talked about wasn't actually a nothing but a something. A real nothing could never give rise to anything. Please don't try to rebut this reasoning by referring to quantum mechanical laws, as such laws themselves are a something that would not exist if there was actually nothing.

Trying to solve the problem of existence by defining a high-energy vacuum as “nothing” is an empty word trick, rather like trying to solve the problem of poverty by defining a poor person as someone who starves to death because of no money, and that therefore there are no poor people in the USA.

Another attempt to solve the problem could involve the idea of a “universe spinner.” We imagine a spinner like one of the spinners used in a board game. There are different possibilities involving different universes, and one of the possibilities (the black pie slice) is no universe at all (the possibility of eternal nothingness). The visual below illustrates the idea, although the idea might actually involve an infinite number of pie slices on the spinner, all but one representing a different universe.

Now given such a spinner, one could argue that there is something rather than nothing simply because there are an unlimited number of slots on the spinner for actual universes, but only one slot for the nonexistence of a universe (eternal nothingness). So, the reasoning goes, some form of existence is therefore more likely than eternal nonexistence.

But this reasoning doesn't work, because if there existed such a spinner (or any situation corresponding to such a spinner), that would itself involve something rather than nothing. So by imagining such a spinner, we are really imagining something rather than nothing. One doesn't explain why there is something rather than nothing by imagining some type of “spinner” situation which is itself something. You don't explain anything when you start out by assuming the thing you are trying to explain.

So we are left with the mystery of why there is something rather than nothing. I once pondered this riddle at length, thinking about it for many hours. I was convinced that if you could only figure this out, the doors of wisdom would be opened, and you would have the answer to a dozen deep mysteries. I still tend to think that is true, but I doubt that any human is able to exactly understand why there is something rather than nothing. To truly understand the answer to this question probably requires understanding beyond the capabilities of the human mind, and insight beyond that which can be expressed using our current vocabulary. We can perhaps get a faint intimation of the solution by thinking about concepts such as necessity and a transcendent ground of being, but the full understanding of the solution seems to require something beyond the power of our little minds.
We can only hope that in some afterlife we may climb some lofty mountain of knowledge, some Everest of understanding, and at its summit we might gain some deep illumination into the eternal nature of things, some luminous insight that causes us to think: now that is the reason why there is something rather than nothing.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Big Toy" Science Takes On the Origin of Life

When science teachers want to encourage students to become scientists, they sometimes make a pitch like this: “It won't pay as much as Wall Street, but think of the cool toys you'll get to play with!” Yes, our modern scientists do get to play with cool, big, expensive “toys” – big, shiny, impressive-looking machines. In fact, it seems they sometimes spend too much time playing with such things, without much results.

Perhaps the ultimate case of “big toy science” was the Apollo moon mission. In that case, there was one of the coolest toys ever – the Saturn 5 rocket. But the scientific results were pretty meager. Can anyone tell us: what exactly did we learn from bringing back those moon rocks?

Another example of big toy science was the 300 million dollar LIGO project, which involved creating miles-long vacuum and laser tunnels in a search for gravitational waves. Total gravitational waves found: zero.

The scientist Nicholas Tesla said that when science began to study non-physical phenomena, it would make more progress in a decade than all of the previous years of its existence. There are certainly some types of reported phenomena that scientists could investigate at low cost, with a great potential for “bang for the buck.” I can think of five or ten unorthodox projects that could be done for $30,000, with a great potential for knowledge breakthroughs. But such possibilities don't seem to interest most of today's scientists, who prefer to work with projects involving big, expensive equipment.

I wonder whether there is some kind of “mine is bigger than yours” Freudian context involved when scientists construct ever bigger machines, often involving projects of dubious scientific merit. Perhaps the latest example was a project involving a 490-foot long laser, an experiment designed to shed light on the origin of life.

The scientists' idea was to zap some chemicals with a very powerful laser, supposedly to simulate the effects that an asteroid collision might have had billions of years ago. The underlying thinking is that asteroid collisions may have helped to spur the origin of life billions of years ago.

The laser used in the experiment (Credit: Dagmar Civisova)

The underlying thinking seems pretty ridiculous. We have been told many times that asteroid collisions are deadly perils that cause the massive obliteration of life, and that the spot where an asteroid strikes is like the ground zero of a nuclear explosion. So how in blazes could an asteroid collision have been some help in the origin of life? The idea of simulating an asteroid collision with a laser is also objectionable, since a laser blast is something very different from an asteroid collision. But why think about such objections when you have a chance to play with a cool 490-foot-long laser?

To get results other than a total bust, the scientists used what seems like a bit of a “cheat” or a fudge. Rather than just zapping water and ordinary soil or rock, they zapped a chemical called formamide, a liquid rather similar to ammonia. There's not much reason to think that this chemical was lying around in great amounts in the early Earth, so testing with that was rather dubious. Scientist Jeffrey Bada says, “Is the presence of pure formamide plausible on the prebiotic Earth? The answer is probably no.”

What was the result? The “base pairs” of RNA were produced, although one was produced in such small amounts that one scientist quoted in the AP article claims that the results are not very relevant. Moreover, we already knew that the base pairs of RNA could be created from zapping formamide with sufficient force. The book Practical Aspects of Computational Chemistry III says, “All five nucleobases and their analogues have been synthesized from formamide in the presence of various catalysts."

To create an RNA molecule, you need these “base pairs” as well as ribose sugars (not produced in the laser experiment). These also must combine in meaningful ways so that very long molecules are created which become self-replicating and serve as an expression of a genetic code, the origin of which is very mysterious. The chance of that all happening because of an asteroid collision: basically zero.

So the results, design, and assumptions of the experiment are all dubious. But I shouldn't be such a killjoy, and I should just let scientists like this have fun playing with their big laser toys, kind of like little boys playing with those Star Wars laser toys.

Monday, December 8, 2014

What Kind of Minds Could Plausibly Exclude the Paranormal?

Many a skeptic rules out paranormal phenomena in a perfunctory, dismissive manner, taking a kind of “things like that just can't happen” type of attitude, in which claims of the paranormal are automatically associated with fraud, error, or superstition. Is that type of attitude appropriate? To shed light on this question, we can consider: what type of mind could plausibly rule out paranormal claims in this type of automatic manner? In other words, what type of mind in what type of environment would be justified in saying things like “I don't even need to look closely at that kind of report,” when getting a report of a paranormal phenomenon?

First, let's consider where such a mind might live. Many reports of paranormal phenomena involve UFOs or extraterrestrials, and a mind would never be justified in ruling out such reports dismissively if the mind lived on a planet like our planet, within a plausible transit time of thousands of potential solar systems in the light years around us. This is because any mind living in such a location could not plausibly exclude the possibility of far away visitors, just as a person living in a city cannot plausibly rule out the possibility that someone may knock on his door one day. But we can imagine one type of location where a mind would be justified in excluding any possibility that some phenomenon was caused by extraterrestrials from some other planet. One such location would be in a planet revolving around a star that had somehow formed in lonely isolation, in the vast empty space between galaxies. Such a star might exist by itself perhaps 500,000 light years from any galaxy such as ours (which is about five times the length of our galaxy). There might be no stars nearby. Travel between galaxies (not to be confused with travel between stars) is probably impossible, and even if it is possible, it would be very, very unlikely that any spaceship traveling between galaxies would ever stop at a star midway between galaxies (simply because of the huge amount of empty space between galaxies).

So if a person lived on such a planet, he could plausibly dismiss any claims of extraterrestrial visitors (some spaceship coming from outside of his planet). Such a person could argue with some plausibility that the chance of such visitors arriving at the incredibly remote location of his home planet would be almost zero. 

Inhabitant of an isolated planet, far outside of a galaxy

What about other claims of the paranormal – claims such as ESP or apparitions? To imagine a mind that could plausibly exclude such claims dismissively, without even examining them, we must imagine some mind that is part of some culture vastly older and more advanced than ours. Over the eons such a civilization might have unraveled all the mysteries of mind and brain function that we are just beginning to investigate. Understanding exactly how consciousness works, and fully understanding all the mysteries of how the brain works, a mind that was part of such a culture might then theoretically be able to rule out various possibilities involving life and death or mysterious human powers, assuming that the culture had achieved a complete understanding of exactly how consciousness could exist based on purely on material factors and brain activity.

We must also imagine that this culture vastly older and more advanced than ours had achieved over the eons a complete understanding of time, space, and other mysteries that confuse and confound us. Such an understanding would be necessary for a mind to be able to authoritatively dismiss claims involving unusual phenomena related to time, claims such as precognition.

So is this all that we need to imagine to get a mental picture of a mind that could plausibly exclude paranormal phenomena dismissively? No, we must imagine one more thing. We must also imagine that the culture had existed for ages during which paranormal phenomena had not been reported. For one cannot dismissively reject reports of a phenomenon unless you can say with plausibility that “things like that just don't happen,” and you can't really persuasively say that “things like that just don't happen” unless a huge length of time has passed in which an alleged phenomenon has not been reported. For example, if someone reports that a giant shining fairy appeared in front of his house, you can rather convincingly dismiss it with a claim such as “things like that just don't happen” (given that no has ever reported such a thing), but you can't convincingly use such a claim to dismiss a claim of ESP, a type of claim that people make all over the world every year.

So now we have completed our rough sketch of minds that could plausibly wave away reports of paranormal phenomenon in a dismissive and perfunctory manner. They would be minds living in some incredibly remote planet so remotely located that it would have no chance of visitors. They would be godlike minds part of some culture many thousands of years more advanced than ours, a culture that had figured out all the main mysteries of time, space, mind, biology, brain function and consciousness many ages ago. Their culture would be one in which reports of paranormal phenomena had not been made for many thousands of years.

Such minds bear no resemblance to any minds on our planet.

We, of course, live on a planet that is not remotely located, and that is a plausible travel target for visitors from other planets. Far from having figured out all the main mysteries of time, space, brain function and consciousness, we have barely begun to ponder such mysteries, having only created really organized sciences a few centuries ago. Do we even understand such limited, simple things such as matter and energy? No, not at all, as scientists say that most of the energy in the universe is some mysterious “dark energy” we don't understand at all, and most of matter is some mysterious “dark matter” that we know basically nothing about. Having merely a fragmentary knowledge of matter and energy, we cannot plausibly claim to understand all or most of the forces which may be working in the universe. We don't even understand how our brains store memories, or how the brain produces consciousness, or whether the brain is even the sole producer of consciousness or the sole storage agent of memories. Far from having had ages of no paranormal phenomena to use as something to support a claim such as “things like that can't happen,” we have had an extremely wide range of paranormal phenomena abundantly reported throughout human history, often by credible investigators backed up by photos or experiments.

Living on such a planet, being part of a species befuddled by a thousand unsolved mysteries of time, space, and mind, the person who dismissively rejects paranormal phenomena is therefore someone acting with a misguided intellectual hubris. When faced with anomalies and mysteries of mind and nature, an appropriate attitude is one of humility rather than hubris. We have traveled only a few miles on the vast winding road that may lead ages hence to understanding the true nature of reality.

Postscript: Speaking of people who dismissively reject paranormal phenomena, the Daily Mail has a revealing expose of one famous skeptic, one that claims to debunk the king of the debunkers.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Models of the Future the One Percent Want You to Believe

In the United States we are facing an increasing shrinkage of the middle class, as the top one-percent gobble up more and more of the nation's wealth. Imagine you are one of the lucky super-rich, trying to greedily hoard a larger and larger slice of the nation's wealth, to the detriment of more and more people who are struggling to just get by. What would your strategy be? One strategy might be to distract people with meaningless elements of popular culture, so that the average person paid more attention to gossip, celebrities, and fleeting fads and fancies than their dashed economic hopes. Another strategy might be to make people think that their votes will reverse the decline of the middle class, while helping to make sure that both of the candidates in the next election are loyal servants of the wealthiest elites. Then there is the strategy we saw in 2008 of declaring a “sky is falling” financial emergency, claiming that it can only be averted by shoveling trillions to the wealthiest corporations.

But the best strategy might be: make people think that their future is bright (regardless of the economic reality), by feeding them rosy technological progress scenarios. Below is a discussion of three of these scenarios, along with a discussion of why America's wealthiest would like you to believe them.

Model 1: The Singularity

The idea behind the Singularity is that before long there will be an “intelligence explosion” in which machines become super-intelligent. Singularity enthusiasts have said that this will involve all kinds of astounding things such as men merging with machines or digital immortality involving people uploading their minds into computers.

The conversation below helps to illustrate the value that such a scenario may have as a kind of opiate to soothe the anger of those who have to settle for crumbs while the richest gorge on ever more extravagant feasts.

James: I got out of college with a ton of debt, and could only find a job paying much less than I thought I'd get. To cover costs and the high rents, I had to charge lots of money on my credit card. I'm paying insane interest charges on my card, plus there's all those college loans to pay off. All my debt is killing me. And what kind of future can I look forward to? I'm just scraping by, so how can I ever save enough to retire? At this rate, I'll have to be running on the corporate hamster wheel until I'm 90 years old.

John: Don't worry about it! In another 25 years we'll all be uploading our minds into supercomputers. Who cares about what kind of house you'll have 25 years from now? By then we'll be spending all our time roaming around in ultra-realistic virtual worlds generated by super-intelligent computers. And think of how rich you'll get in a few decades, after you triple your intelligence by using brain nanobots!

We see the value of the Singularity concept as a kind of glistening “castle in the air” to plant in the minds of the economically damaged, to get them to overlook their diminishing prospects, while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The Singularity also comes in handy if a person complains about government officials being virtually owned by the wealthiest one percent. Such a person can be told: why even worry about government when super-intelligent machines are soon going to take over the world? 

The average man's paycheck, also known as "chump change"

Model 2: Radical abundance

The concept of radical abundance is that before too long things like homes, cars, and consumer goods will all become super-cheap and super-abundant, because of breakthroughs in nanotechnology. The idea has been advanced in a book by nanotechnology expert K. Eric Drexler.

The conversation below helps to illustrate the value that such a scenario may have as a kind of opiate to soothe the anger of those who get a raw deal in today's world, as the super-rich grab a larger and larger share of the national wealth.

Jane: How the hell is someone supposed to afford a house in this city? I've been working my butt off 60 hours a week at my crummy sweatshop of an office, and I'm still struggling to make the rent. How come all the white men have no trouble getting promotions, but not me?

John: Don't worry about it! Just wait a decade or two until we have precise molecular manufacturing and other wonders of nanotechnology. Nanobots will then be able to assemble you a new home or a new car almost instantaneously, using the raw materials in rocks and trash you gather. It will be an age of plenty, in which every man and woman lives like a billionaire!

Get the idea? The name of the game is: pie in the sky. It used to be that religion was the main source of promises of future bliss (commonly called “pie in the sky.”) Now it seems like the main ideas of “pie in the sky” are technological projections offered by futurist visionaries.

While they grab up a larger and larger share of the world's wealth, the super-rich would like you to believe that radical abundance is around the corner. That way you won't be upset about your ever-shrinking slice of the pie. They hope you won't look at studies involving oil, water, and metals suggesting that there is strong reason to fear an eventual “age of shortages” rather than an age of radical abundance.

Model 3: Extraterrestrial Exodus

The concept of extraterrestrial exodus is basically the idea that our planet is getting worse and worse, so we need to flee to elsewhere in space – perhaps to giant space colonies orbiting the earth, or perhaps to the planet Mars.

The conversation below helps to illustrate why a very rich person might want you to embrace such an idea.

Todd: I'm so upset about the way the big corporations are harming our environment, plundering the land for energy and often leaving behind a landscape that resembles a desolate moonscape. But what really gets me is how we're letting global warming get worse and worse.

John: Such environmental concerns are so outdated. Within a few decades, the best and brightest will shake off this crummy planet like a man might shake off the dust on his shoes. The grand space exodus will begin. Mankind will leave its planetary cradle, and people will head out into space to seek fame and fortune, just like the covered wagons left for the California gold rush.

Such an idea is very convenient for a billionaire who wishes to live like a king, with a total carbon footprint of 5000 Africans. He can tell himself that his carbon footprint really doesn't matter too much, since planet Earth is just mankind's “old home” rather than his “new home” in outer space or Mars or some planet revolving around another star. The same person can tell himself that it doesn't matter too much if the corporation he invests in is turning some lovely natural area into an ugly wasteland, on the grounds that our descendants or grandchildren will be born in outer space, far away from the toxic sludge left behind by the company.

Fight for social justice and your fair share of the pie, and do not be tranquilized by enchanting tales of future fortunes that may be told to keep you pacified while your future is being stolen, your planet is plundered, and you are slowly turned into a modern day serf.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Our Existence May Depend on Undiscovered Cosmic Layers

Let us imagine a very young child who is given one of those little Android tablets, a special one that has a simplified touch-screen interface to make it easy to use by small children. Let us also suppose that the parents are too busy or distracted to teach the child about how to use the device, or how it works. The child may experiment with the device for quite a while, with frustrating results. But then finally he might figure out how to get some functionality by touching different parts of the screen.

The child might tell himself something like this:

Now I know it all real well! When I touch this part of the screen, I get my funnest web site. When I touch this part, I get my animal game. When I touch this part, I get my racing game. When I touch this part, I get my TV shows.

The child really understands only one part of the system: the external hardware interface that he uses when he touches the screen. But this is only one layer in the system. For it to work, many other layers must also work. Here I am using the term “layers” as it is used in the computer industry, to mean a particular aspect of the overall functionality.

The child knows nothing of other layers such as these: a software layer on the tablet device that makes it work effectively; an internal hardware layer inside the machine; a WI-FI layer that allows the device to access the internet; an internet hardware layer needed for external servers to work, like the one that hosts the child's games and web sites; a database layer that allows the internet to store user's data; an internet software layer needed for programs to run on those external servers; a television production layer needed to produce the TV programs; and a television network layer needed to distribute the TV programs.

All of these complicated things are needed for the child to experience what he experiences. But blissfully ignorant of such complications, the child thinks it's all real simple – you just press a particular part of the screen, and you get some cool thing like a game, a TV show, or a web site.

I suspect that many of our modern scientists are very much like this little child. They are guilty of the same mistake, one of the easiest mistakes to make – the mistake of requirements underestimation. Requirements underestimation comes when one assumes that something that requires many layers can be explained by assuming only one or two known layers.

The modern scientist knows of basically two layers that help make possible a habitable universe in which conscious self-aware beings like us exist. Those layers are a particle layer (consisting mainly of protons, neutrons, electrons, and photons), and a particle force layer (consisting mainly of the four fundamental forces including electromagnetism and gravitation). In a gigantic example of requirements underestimation, the modern scientist assumes that these two layers are sufficient to explain marvelous things such as the origin of cosmic structure, the origin of life and the origin of self-conscious creatures such as humans.

I saw an example of this thinking the other day on one of those science shows on cable TV. I don't have the exact quote, but some astronomer or physics professor was saying something like this: “It's amazing to consider that all of the infinite complexity of human civilization and the human mind all come merely from the simple interactions of a few basic particles and forces.” The next time you hear someone spouting a quote like that, remember that it's not science, but philosophy – a very dubious philosophy called reductionist materialism. 

Contrary to such reductionist claims, we have every reason to suspect that the existence of self-conscious creatures such as us requires that numerous layers of cosmic functionality be working in just the right way. There may be many layers of cosmic functionality that are completely undiscovered by us. Such layers may be as necessary for our existence as a software layer and a database layer are necessary for an internet.

One of those currently unknown layers may have been involved when the universe escaped the incredibly density, heat, and chaos of the Big Bang, and began improbably forming into beautiful orderly galaxies. Another currently unknown layer may have been involved when there first occurred the formation of the genetic code and self-replicating molecules. Our current story of the origin of those two things – the mere chance combination of chemicals – is laughably inadequate. Another layer may have been involved when self-aware beings with all the higher human qualities arose long ago, with many advanced capabilities (such as wonder, spirituality, morality, and esthetic appreciation) that are hard to explain through natural selection alone.

These undiscovered layers may be mainly physical; or perhaps one or more of them may be information layers as suggested here; or perhaps one or more of them may be some kind of spiritual layers. But the latter thought is taboo to the modern physicist, who unreasonably is quite willing to warmly discuss speculative theories of an infinity of other completely unknown and hidden physical realities, but absolutely refuses to entertain the idea of even one hidden spiritual reality.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Faulty Conclusion of a Gloomy Cosmic Study

A recent scientific paper concluded that life can only exist in about 10% of galaxies. But that conclusion is not warranted from either the facts or reasoning discussed in that paper.

The paper (by Tsvi Piran and Raul Jiminez) was entitled “On the role of GRBs on life extinction in the universe,” and the title referred to gamma-ray bursts. Gamma ray bursts are tremendously strong bursts of gamma rays, the most intense type of radiation. Astronomers detect about one gamma ray burst a day, all from outside our galaxy. A satellite found that these bursts come equally from all directions of the sky, which indicates that they are coming from distant sources outside of our galaxy. The nearest detected gamma ray burst was about 100 million light years away, hundreds of times the length of our galaxy.

Being a very powerful form of energy, gamma ray bursts have probably been a significant trouble maker for the evolution of life in the universe. But how big an effect have they had? Estimating that requires that we estimate two huge unknowns: the rate at which planets get zapped by gamma rays, and the degree to which such radiation bursts might wipe out all or most of the life on a planet.

How Much of a Threat to Life Would Gamma Ray Bursts Be?

First, let us look at the biological effects of different intensities of gamma ray bursts. Following the paper of Piran and Jiminez, we can distinguish between a gamma ray burst that strikes a planet with an energy of 100 kilojoules per square meter (which I'll call for convenience a “class 100” burst), and a burst that strikes a planet with an energy of 1000 kilojoules per square meter (which I'll call for convenience a “class 1000” burst).

Piran and Jiminez say that the “class 100 burst” would cause a 91% depletion of the ozone layer, and that a “class 1000” burst would “wipe out nearly the whole atmosphere.” Piran and Jiminez did not do any independent calculations or research to reach the latter conclusion, because that would involve atmospheric science, which is not their field of study. To support this claim that the “class 1000” burst would “wipe out nearly the whole atmosphere,” they say they are “following Thomas,” and cite two papers by Brian C. Thomas and others, one here, and the other here.

But, in fact, this seems to be a faulty reference, a case of claiming that a scientific paper says something that it doesn't actually say. I examined these two papers by Brian C. Thomas and the rest, and I could find no statement that a gamma ray burst of the “class 1000” type (with an energy of 1000 kilojoules per square meter) would wipe out almost the whole atmosphere. To the contrary, on page 11 of the paper “Gamma-Ray Burst and the Earth: Exploration of Atmospheric, Biological, Climatic, and Biogeochemical Effects,” the authors say this: “Our model is probably not capable of correctly handling the chemistry, heating, and transport for a burst of much higher fluence than 100 kJ m2 [kilojoules per square meter].” That's a level of energy ten times less than the “class 1000” case.

The paper by Thomas and the rest discusses mainly lesser effects such as ozone depletion, and says that the ozone depletion would only last for a decade. The paper also makes clear that the ozone depletion would only be globally catastrophic in the worst way if the gamma ray burst occurred over the equator. Their paper says:

Note that for polar bursts, even in the long term, effects are isolated to the respective hemisphere. Similarly, even for bursts at 45 the opposite hemisphere experiences much less intense effects.

These points are not trivial to the matter being discussed here (whether gamma ray bursts make only 10% of galaxies habitable), because the case of Piran and Jiminez depend heavily on this claim that a “class 1000” burst would “wipe out nearly the whole atmosphere.” In fact, they do not supply any citation or research that backs up such a claim, which is not actually stated by the papers they cite.

I may also note that any galaxy would have plenty of planets or moons that could take the “class 1000” gamma ray hits with relatively little harm. Examples of such places would include planets with thicker atmospheres (which could afford to lose a large fraction of the original ozone and oxygen), and life-bearing moons rotating gas giants, which might be entirely shielded from gamma ray bursts by the gas giants they rotated around. There would also be many planets that would have an inclination or tilt that would result in the gamma ray burst not striking in the equatorial region but in some other region where much less damage would be done. Also, many planets would be protected by dust clouds lying between the planets and the gamma ray bursts.

Cosmic dust (the dark brown bands) tends to block gamma rays

What about the less lethal “class 100” gamma ray bursts? They would have the effect of removing some of the ozone layer in an atmosphere, which would temporarily increase the amount of ultraviolet radiation. The paper by Thomas and others says that this ozone depletion would only last for about a decade. That would be a setback for the evolution of life, but there is no reason to think that it would wipe out even 100 million years of evolutionary progress. Such a “class 100” gamma ray burst might cause a mass extinction, causing many species to become extinct. But such an event would still very probably leave many advanced species surviving. In fact, these “class 100” gamma ray bursts have little relevance to whether a galaxy is habitable.

How Often Would the “Class 1000” Bursts Occur?

Now, let's look at how often these events would occur. On page 5 of their paper, Piran and Jiminez say, “In total 90, 40 and 5% of the exoplanets in the MW would be exposed to a fluence of 10, 100, and 1000 kJ/m2 from GRBs within a period of 1 Gyr.” Here MW refers to the Milky Way galaxy, 100 refers to the “class 100” gamma ray bursts previously discussed, 1000 refers to the “class 1000” gamma ray bursts previously discussed, and 1Gyr refers to a period of a billion years. These numbers are guesses, since we don't really know for sure what causes gamma ray bursts.

These numbers are not particularly gloomy from the standpoint of the prospects of the evolution of life. According to these numbers, there is a chance of only 5% per billion years that a particular planet in our galaxy would get the “really bad” type of “class 1000” gamma ray burst during a billion year period. There would be a 40% chance of a planet in our galaxy getting a “fairly bad” blast from a “class 100” gamma ray burst, but such a blast would be unlikely to set back evolution on that planet by very much.

Let's also remember that Thomas and the others make clear (in the previously cited paper) that gamma ray bursts are only really devastating if they occur over the equator of the planet, and the chances are 80% that such a blast would not occur over the equator of any particular planet. That means the chance of a planet getting zapped really bad by gamma rays is not the 5% per billion years that Piran and Jiminez cite, but an actual net effective chance of only 1% per billion years.

Also, since different solar systems have different planes of inclination, and different planets have different tilts, even the worst type of gamma ray burst would never wipe out life throughout all the planets in a large fraction of a galaxy, because only some of those planets would experience the gamma ray burst above their equators.

Given also the fact (as I discussed before) that Piran and Jiminez have only a faulty reference to back up their insinuation that the “class 1000” gamma ray burst would wipe out most of the atmosphere of a planet, overall these conclusions fail to back up any conclusion that gamma ray bursts are an overwhelming obstruction to the evolution of life in this galaxy or any other large galaxy.

So given that Piran and Jiminez state in the abstract of their paper the gloomy conclusion that “life can exist in only ~10% of galaxies,” how do they justify that conclusion? Very simply, they don't. Oddly, this conclusion is made in their abstract at the beginning of their paper, but is never actually derived or deduced or mentioned in the body of their paper (which violates the rule that abstracts are only supposed to summarize conclusions made and justified in the paper). In their last paragraph, their paper merely says, “We have found that GRBs and in particular LGRBs are life threatening in a large part of the Milky Way as well as in many other locations in the Universe.” But that's a much, much weaker conclusion than the claim that such gamma ray bursts are such a big factor that that they prevent life in 90% of the universe's galaxies.

There is actually no basis for such a claim. Given the wide variety of different habitats that life could have (such as a planet with a thick atmosphere or a moon shielded from gamma rays by the gas giant it orbits or a planet protected by cosmic dust clouds), given the lack of any scientific papers showing that typical gamma ray bursts will wipe out a planet's atmosphere, given the quick recovery time of a decade following ozone depletion by a gamma ray burst, and given only about a 20% chance of a particular gamma ray burst occurring over any particular planet's equator, we have no good basis for concluding that any substantial fraction of the universe's larger galaxies cannot evolve life because of gamma ray bursts. 

Trackback: http://arxiv.org/trackback/1409.2506