Physical Ghosts

A nubbins of hooey

Ghost stories and weird sightings have permeated every culture since death was invented. But in our western, rationalist, science-based culture, such tales of the supernatural are considered either charlatanism or a delusional quirk of mass-psychology. As alien reports of the last sixty years coincided with, and were coloured by, people’s fears of Communism and the Cold War, so investigations into the paranormal seem to reflect humanity’s eternal nervousness about death and our love of attention.

The latest bloom of chain-rattling dead relatives and/or Cleopatra inhabiting psychic mediums for consultations, book deals, television programmes and money-minting “ healing events” suggest the spirit world is little more than a tool of the canny to drain the wallets of those obsessed with the uncanny.

Several years ago, highly respected physicians/physicists Stuart Hammeroff and Sir Roger Penrose put forward an idea in The Emperor’s New Mind and Shadows of the Mind regarding microtubules, the nanoscopic structures acting as skeletal structures for organic cells. Hammeroff and Penrose posited that these structures, descending down to nearly quantum-sized smallness, could account for human consciousness because anything quantum is weird enough to account for anything. Furthermore, operating on the quantum level, and therefore as part of the overall fabric of the universe, when a human being dies the microtubules would continue functioning as the fabric of the universe is itself a constant buzz of self-sustaining energy. After reading Penrose’s theory, and his critics responses, it seems unlikely that microtubules actually provide a quantum basis for his theory of ghosts. Microtubules, for a start, are a hundred thousand times too big to play on the Planck Scale playground of quantum mechanics.

However, I have a nubbins of a theory that I’d like to throw out there for general and ravenous consumption:

Everything is made of atoms, and atoms are made of bitsy bits like protons and neutrons, quarks and leprechauns, all composed of, and bound, by various colours and dress-sizes of electromagnetic energy. Everything solid is actually energy. Whizzing amongst and through “solid” matter are even more exotic pips of particles and power, even in the so-called vacuum of space, such as neutrinos and anti-matter. Furthermore, scientists now suggest less than 10% of the universe can be detected by even the most powerful technology, and 90% or more actually consists of invisible Dark Matter and Dark Energy. While String Theory, or M Theory, or The Grand Unification Theory is currently suffering multi-dimensional set-backs in the physics world due to a resounding lack of anybody getting anywhere with it, the notion that reality is “one complicated ol’ onion, dude” is now pretty much established fact.

The human mind is a soggy pink walnut, churning with chemicals and electrical sparks in repeating patterns. The patterns of nerve pathways we lay down through sensory absorption during infancy and childhood, and which subsequently thicken with repeated use through adulthood, are essentially, structurally, the same as other humans. But these patterns are also subtly individually nuanced and unique, based on personal experiences and some genetic predispositions. What if, and it’s a huge and nearly ridiculous what if, but what if these patterns could burn themselves into the electromagnetic ether of this invisible universe, like leaving a thumbprint on a window or a radio wave signal floating about the cosmos? What if this pattern could function, independent of a sustaining power source, to perform limited and repetitive functions?

There is a theory in the pseudo-science of ghost hunting, called the Iron Tape Theory. The idea is that the electricity in the brain of a person who dies possibly imprints itself on any iron existing in the immediate area of death. The iron acts like a tape cassette, and the electricity “records” itself onto the iron. Persons sensitive to such magnetic resonances could then “play back” the recordings, or if the volume of the recording was strong enough, but be heard and seen by anyone who happened to be present at the time of playing. Possibly it could even be the presence their own brain waves which set off the tape. The theory is hooey, as is my own theory, but the fun of science is that even hooey, if considered with an open mind and an enjoyment for thinking wildly, can produce a novel way of looking at the world.

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Appetite For Destruction

WITH YOUR CHOICE OF NOODLES OR RICE

The Guardian is reporting that an abandoned freight ship was discovered near Qingzhou Island off the coast of China containing approximately 5,000 animals, all endangered species, which were on their way to dinner tables in Guangdong. The boat’s engines had died and the crew had left, leaving pangolins, leatherback turtles, monitor lizards and other animals crushed into 200 wooden crates. Despite being starved, dehydrated and smothered amongst themselves for days, many animals were still alive. Presumably, or perhaps hopefully, not still alive were the bears whose paws were found cut off and wrapped in newspaper like fish and chips.

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Appetite For Destruction

with your choice of noodles or rice

The Guardian is reporting that an abandoned freight ship was discovered near Qingzhou Island off the coast of China containing approximately 5,000 animals, all endangered species, which were on their way to dinner tables in Guangdong. The boat’s engines had died and the crew had left, leaving pangolins, leatherback turtles, monitor lizards and other animals crushed into 200 wooden crates. Despite being starved, dehydrated and smothered amongst themselves for days, many animals were still alive. Presumably, or perhaps hopefully, not still alive were the bears whose paws were found cut off and wrapped in newspaper like fish and chips.

Such animals are considered a delicacy in China, and many are used as medicine. For example, the pangolins have their scales stripped off so women can rub them on their nipples to help breastfeeding.

The chef at one restaurant which illegally serves the illegal meat to criminal customers describes the preferred, criminal method for cooking (illegally) a pangolin: “We keep them alive in cages until the customer makes an order. Then we hammer them unconscious, cut their throats and drain the blood. It is a slow death. We then boil them to remove the scales. We cut the meat into small pieces and use it to make a number of dishes, including braised meat and soup. Usually the customers take the blood home with them afterwards.”

Rob Stewart’s beautifully shot but worrying film Sharkwater presented the shark, a much misunderstood and maligned animal, which has shaped the world’s oceans for hundreds of millions of years, as being put on the verge of extinction. Every year thousands upon thousands of sharks are stripped of their fins and left to sink helplessly to the bottom of the sea to die. The completely flavourless fins wind up in soup because of a superstitious belief that sharks are immune to disease, and therefore eating their fins will ward off cancer and tumours. At the 43rd Annual American Society of Clinical Oncology, Dr. Charles Lu of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center declared after a great deal of study that this was ‘hoggledywash’. That’s not a quote, and the word is made up, but the meaning intended is the same. Not only did shark cartilage, also known as AE-941 and Neovastat, not provide any effective treatment for cancer and tumour patients, but also statistically was less effective than the placeboes given to control subjects.

In other words, you are better off stuffing gourmet jellybeans in your face and believing they’re good for you than being given Neovastat. Watermelon-flavoured jellybeans, in fact, are probably also more effective rubbed on your nipples for producing milk than pangolin scales because at least they don’t have sharp edges that can cut. The worst that can happen is you wind up with sticky nips.

The American Century has ended. The Chinese Century is about to begin. At about the midway point, bistros in Guangdong will have to figure out a way to make superstitious snacks out of dirt. At this rate, that’s all that’s going to be left in the world.

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You Must Be This Ignorant To Ride

The first Creationist Museum/Amusement Park has opened in Midwestern America. Huzzah for the burgeoning field of Scientisticalness! The 60,000 foot complex, designed by a former Universal Studios Theme Park director, today welcomes the public and offers to install in them the truth of Intelligent Design over flimsy evolution theory, as only a theme park can.

The $27M museum boasts “A fully engaging, sensory experience for guests. Murals and realistic scenery, computer-generated visual effects, over fifty exotic animals, life-sized people and dinosaur animatronics, and a special-effects theater complete with misty sea breezes and rumbling seats. These are just some of the impressive exhibits that everyone in your family will enjoy.”

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You Must Be This Ignorant To Ride

Theme Park Theology

The first Creationist Museum/Amusement Park has opened in Midwestern America. Huzzah for the burgeoning field of Scientisticalness! The 60,000 foot complex, designed by a former Universal Studios Theme Park director, today welcomes the public and offers to install in them the truth of Intelligent Design over flimsy evolution theory, as only a theme park can.

The park claims to be in Cincinatti, Ohio, although their mailing address is in Hebron, Kentucky and their offices are in Petersburg, KY. A map is provided, and while they aren’t actually on it, patrons are assured the museum is within a day’s drive of 2/3 of the American populace. Please note, firearms and pets are not allowed inside, except for seeing-eye dogs and guns that only shoot bad people.

The $27M museum boasts “A fully engaging, sensory experience for guests. Murals and realistic scenery, computer-generated visual effects, over fifty exotic animals, life-sized people and dinosaur animatronics, and a special-effects theater complete with misty sea breezes and rumbling seats. These are just some of the impressive exhibits that everyone in your family will enjoy.” The animatronic dinosaurs also play banjos and sing songs for the kids about demanding their parents take them to eat pizza with extra cheese at the food court.

It’s wonderful to think human beings will allow the promise of sea breezes and rumbling seats attract them to an exhibit explaining the Grand Canyon must have been formed by the Great Flood because they’re both big. Never mind planting the conviction in people’s minds that a flood, of any degree, could etch such a chasm in just 40 days without simply sweeping away the entire landscape. Ah, but it’s God directing the current, isn’t it? So, that’s scientific. Geology, physics and common sense are the devil’s work anyway.

And dinosaurs! They’re all over the bible. They were there on the ark, next to the unicorns. Canaan was overflowing with sheep and velociraptors, but since all dinosaurs, the exhibit explains, were vegetarians, the ewes and lambies were safe. It wasn’t until the expulsion of Adam and Eve that any animal became a carnivore. Mind you, since all humanity came after Adam and Eve, by the time there was a Canaan, the velociraptors would be… carnivores, no? Presumably the exhibit will make a point of demonstrating how all those six-inch long, razor sharp teeth stuffing the gaping jaws of T-Rex were suitable for munching leaves. Given that the Bible is essentially an historical document, however, you’d think there would be some kind of record of them. Even in the Old Testament. Over the course of four thousand years of noting every minute event, every begetting, every expulsion and bar mitzvah, you would think the Jews might mention the gigantic, ground-shaking, tree devouring, shrieking and bellowing turkeylizards wandering all over the place. Just once.

“Eziah! How goes it then, in your beautiful lemon orchard?”

“Oy vey, don’t get me started already! Every day I go to fetch a couple lemons to make a nice cake with, and these farshtinkener brachiosauruses have eaten everything! But what can you do? If God gives you dinosaurs, get a knife and make boots!”

The $20 price of admission includes a ticket to the museum’s planetarium. There you get to see all the other flat planets of the infinite universe, and the sun, with a smiley face on it, orbiting the earth. I wonder if there will be animatronic angels in the heavens, and clouds, just out past Pluto, which is still a planet, where God lives. An animatronic God waving benevolently at the children, until the eyes light up, the mouth spits flame and the pointing finger crackles with electricity as He reminds them not to grow up homosexual. Ooh! And dragons! Let there be dragons too, please!

Overall, guests will “learn how to answer the attacks on the Bible’s authority in geology, biology, anthropology, cosmology, etc.,” although they will be left singularly unprepared to live in the actual world. The exhibit will focus on what are known as The 7 Cs of History: Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, Cross, Consummation. And, of course, Cash, which will be covered in the gift shop.

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Tiger, Tiger, Burning – Gone

The US National Geographic Society’s 2001 census of tigers remaining in India has proved drastically upbeat. Estimates made just six years ago numbering the giant cats between 5000-7000 is proving actually to be somewhere between 2000 and several hundred. Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India states that these new and officially recognised numbers represent a “major step forward that a government study has finally come to terms with this disastrous decrease in tiger numbers.”

Certainly the tigers must be ecstatic.

You can read more on the Discovery Channel’s website where you can marvel that the story – in fact the entire website – is sponsored by Shell Oil. It would be even funnier if the site was sponsored by Esso, if they had their mascot Petro the Tiger, or whatever his kid-friendly name is, waving in flash animation and telling the kids to remind their parents to buy a tiger-shaped windshield wiper while supplies last. And even funnier still if there was anything fucking funny at all about governments capable of hiccoughing relevant little facts like, “Oh! Sorry, guess the tigers are gone! Whoopsie!”

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Terrible Gizzard

Dr. Mary Schweitzer of North Carolina State University has found protein cells, still spongy and red, in the thigh bone of a once pregnant female Tyrannosaurus rex from 68 million years ago. Apparently, based on initial investigations, the cells don’t resemble lizard so much as chicken, ending age-old speculation in the scientific community. Yes, Virginia, dinosaurs did taste like chicken. Yes, Colonel, you could fry them, but you’d need a lot of flour. The media are now stoking the question of whether mad scientists, should they manage the unlikely feat of extracting viable DNA from fossils, might create actual Jurassic Parks full of Fun Houses stocked with velociraptors and mobile rollercoasters running down the backs of brachiosaurs.

Probably not, but if you want thrilling scenarios, other scientists elsewhere have nailed down the gene which determines the huge variance in dogs. Dogs have the widest range of scale for any mammal, from the tiniest Chihuahuas to Irish wolfhounds and Great Danes, a size differentiation of around 1-100. Head of Comparative Genetics at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Maryland, Dr. Elaine Ostrander, examined DNA samples from both small and big Portuguese Water Dogs, and discovered what she calls a “master regulator” gene. Ostrander and Dr. Nathan Sutter at the National Institutes of Health took samples from dozens of different breeds at pedigree dog shows, and narrowed it down to a reproducable gene that encodes Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGP1). Imagine manufacturing IGP1 and giving it to a chicken. A ten-pound roaster could be inflated to a 1000lb monster, standing 10 feet high, daring you to prefer white or dark meat. An ostrich, normally nine feet tall and around 300lbs… Settle down, Colonel. Don’t run away, Virginia. The new T. rexs would probably poke each other’s eyes out first. Just don’t wear your quinoa-coloured beret the day you visit the zoo.

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Bleared Science

Last night the CBC aired the BBC’s The Truth About Global Warming/Can We Save Planet Earth?, featuring Sir David Attenborough. Much to the delight of envirosceptics everywhere, chasing after this ‘scaremongering’ documentary, last month Channel 4 ran a countering ‘apathymongering’ The Great Global Warming Swindle". It’s more soothing, much less brain-taxing than Attenborough’s, and full of reassuring reminders of how happy we are nowadays.

Should you choose to watch Swindle, keep a few things in mind: Most of these ‘scientists’ have never published articles in peer-reviewed journals, and the rest haven’t in as many as fifteen years. Tim Ball, who apparently lives in BC, pretty much made up his resume and list of job titles. A third of the funding for his Friends of Science website comes from the oil industry. He retired from the University of Winnipeg in 1996 and has published a grand total of four papers, none in the last 11 years. Many of these guys have been debunked repeatedly, but keep coming back with bigger budgets from the energy industry. Poor Professor Carl Wunsch on the other hand, a very respectable oceanographer and a surprising guest in the film, now angrily claims he was duped into appearing and is considering legal action.

Maybe the science seems confusing. The key to understanding is this: The skeptics aren’t scientists. Most of these guys don’t have degrees in environmental science (or any kind of science) and are almost all in the employ of neo-con think tanks and energy companies such as Exxon, Shell, Arco, Unocal and William Morris Tobacco. Go here, here and here to start looking at the people and agenda behind this film.

One of our favourite lines was from Singer, who says CO2 can’t be bad because we’re all made from CO2! Which is why nobody has ever died from smoke inhalation. It’s like vitamins! Puts a fresh layer of skin on you, that’s all. I think Singer means human beings are carbon-based, but why nitpick science?

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Audi the Frying Pan...

What if you were lost in the Gobi desert, with nothing but a stretch of road, a pig’s cheek, a langoustine (or maybe a few tiger prawns) some garlic and cream, and an Audi A6? How would you survive, especially if you had a medical condition which required you to eat only high-class Michellin star-quality meals?

In this short film produced by the Observer/Guardian newspaper in Britain, science correspondent Alok Jha squirms as award-winning chef Anthony Flinn fixes a posh meal using a car engine as a kitchen. The film is a blatant advertisement for Audi, and never mind cooking on a grease monkey’s playground, there is something… sinister about encouraging the notion of eating out of what you pollute with.

Having said that, it’s still fun to watch. I don’t own a car. I don’t even own a bike. I have a unicycle with a flat tire. I figure if I leave it in the sun long enough, this summer I could scramble an egg on the seat and spin some taffy through the wheel. Eggs a la Taffy, the meal de la choix pour les Welsh clowns. Mmwoah-POP!

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Man-made Black Holes

In The Name Of Sexy Annihilation

“It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species. Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of.”

Professor Stephen Hawking then continues,

“Also, paraplegics should get free passes to flesh houses and massage parlours. And rodeos. If you strap me onto a horse and give me a robot arm, or a Spiderman-style web-spinning device, I could rope me a steer.”

The above statement was made to me at a Dr. Who convention in my head, in which Dr. Hawking, dressed as a Dalek, and myself, dressed as a Borg in lingerie (“You will be sensually assimilated! Resistance to scented-oil full-body Shiatsu is futile!”) were chatting. The statement above the statement above, however, I read on the Lifeboat Foundation’s site, lifeboat.org, a non-profit society boasting Nobel winners and Mensa singletons as members, which believes humanity is at risk of extinction due to any number of causes, such as meteors, machines taking over the world in a Skynet scenario of “technological singularity”, and events in the lives of celebrity cultural figures such as Britney and Anna Nicole coming to have more importance than, say, breathing.

The latest cataclysm du jour for Lifeboat is the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator that came fully online this month in Switzerland and France. Hadron is a 27km long facility sending beams of energy and supersubatomic items smashing into each other with as much power as two 400 tonne trains roaring into each other at 120mph. Now, this may not sound like much to you, but trust us scientists, it’s a lot. A LOT. It is, in fact, sufficient to bash out exotic and predicted-but-never-before-seen beasties like bosons, psi-mesons and Kate’s good sense with men on Lost (When, oh when, will she finally notice Hurley?). The 1000+ scientists entrenched at LHC hope to understand why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe. They also expect to create artificial black holes on the side, possibly at a rate of one per second. This has the folks at Lifeboat terrified.

Black holes are daubs of collapsed space at which the forces of gravity are so extreme even light cannot escape. Matter and energy are sucked into these monsters, and either crushed to nothingness or carried in theoretical ‘wormholes’ to distance corners of the universe. Physicists contemplating String Theory, otherwise known as ‘’M’ or Unification Theory, are excited because they’re rather desperate these days. String Theory, the idea that the universe is composed of tiny, vibrating strings of interlaced energy weaving together an infinite number of multiverses, has seen criticism lately because it sounds so silly. However, if these extra dimensions, suspected of being folded up inside each other on an incredibly minuscule scale, were pumped with so much energy they experienced pockets of gravitational collapse, or black holes, it would bring renewed credence to the field and billions in additional funding.

Lifeboat are afraid a black hole made in Switzerland could suck in the entire Earth. Each hole would evaporate in around one billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. Lifeboat is fundraising to build a spaceship so that in the lag of that 1/1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of a fingersnap they can load six billion people aboard and fly them to safety. Go to their website to make a donation. These black holes, however, are so tiny, if you shot one though a lump of steel big enough to bridge the earth and the moon, it could pass through without hitting a single atom.

Instant annihilation, however, is sexy. People won’t stop driving cars but they will protest exploring the origins of life, because you can’t fetishise Global Warming the way you can Death On Tuesday, and taking apocalypse out of the hands of God and putting it into those of scientists (as opposed to Global Warming, which is putting it in the hands of everybody with an air conditioner) is wrong. You can’t even get a good video game out of it.

Mind you, as Stephen Hawking puts it,

“I would not mind the world being destroyed if I could be on a spaceship having Carmen Elektra polishing my hubcaps with canola oil. I just hope it happens soon. I’m not getting any younger. Akk! Ex-ter-mi-nate! Ex-ter-mi-nate!”

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