NTS LogoSkeptical News for 6 January 2002

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Sunday, January 06, 2002

Children must choose their own beliefs


In an open letter to Estelle Morris, Richard Dawkins calls on the Government to think again about funding yet more divisive faith schools

Sunday December 30, 2001 The Observer

Dear secretary of state,

The Government has decided, reasonably enough, that heredity is no basis for membership of Parliament, and the hereditary peers are either gone or on their way. Yet, in the very same year, you propose increasing the number of faith schools. Having disavowed the hereditary principle for membership of Parliament, you seem hell-bent on promoting the hereditary principle for the transmission of beliefs and opinions. For that is precisely what religions are: hereditary beliefs and opinions. To quote the headline of a fine article in the Guardian last week by the Reverend Don Cupitt: 'We need to make a clean break with heritage religion and create something better suited to our own time.'

We vary in our opinions and our tastes, and it is one of our glories. Some of us are left-wing, others right. Some are pro-euro, others anti-. Some listen to Beethoven, others Armstrong. Some watch birds, others collect stamps. It is only to be expected that our elders should influence us in all such matters. All this is normal and praiseworthy.

In particular, it is normal and pleasing that parental impact should be strong. I'm not talking particularly about genes, but about all the influences that parents inevitably bring. It is to be expected that cricketing fathers will bowl to their sons - or daughters - on the back lawn, take them to Lords, and pass on their love of the game. There will be some tendency for ornithologists to have bird-watching children, bibliophiles book-loving children. Beliefs and tastes, political biases and hobbies, these will tend, at least statistically, to pass longitudinally down generations, and nobody would wish it otherwise.

But now we come to religion, and an extremely odd thing happens. Where we might have said, 'knowing his father, I expect young Cowdrey will take up cricket,' we emphatically do not say, 'With her devout Catholic parents, I expect young Bernadette will take up Catholicism.' Instead we say, without a moment's hesitation or a qualm of misgiving, 'Bernadette is a Catholic'. We state it as simple fact even when she is far too young to have developed a theological opinion of her own. In all other spheres, a good school will encourage her to develop her own tastes and opinions, her own skills, penchants and values. But when it comes to religion, society meekly makes a clanging exception. We inexplicably accept that, the day she is born, Bernadette has a label tied around her neck. This is a Catholic baby.

That is a protestant baby. This is a Hindu baby. That is a Muslim baby. This baby thinks there are many gods. That baby is adamant that there is only one. But it is preposterous that we do this to children. They are too young to know what they think. To slap a label on a child at birth - to announce, in advance, as a matter of hereditary presumption if not determinate certainty, an infant's opinions on the cosmos and creation, on life and afterlives, on sexual ethics, abortion and euthanasia - is a form of mental child abuse.

I do not believe it is possible to mount a decent defence against my charge. Yet infant belief-labels are almost universally accepted. We don't even think about it. Just in case any lingering doubt remains, consider the following: This child is a Gramscian Marxist. That child is a Trotskyite Syndicalist. This third child is a Wet Conservative. This baby is a Keynesian. That baby is a Monetarist. This baby is an ornithologist. Not, 'This baby is likely to become an ornithologist if his father has anything to do with it.' That would be fine. But, 'this baby is an ornithologist'? Unthinkable, isn't it? Yet, where religion is concerned, you don't give it a second glance. Oh, and by the way, nobody, least of all an atheist, ever talks about an 'atheist child'. Rightly so. But why the double standard?

I presume you need no more convincing. For parents to influence their children's opinions and beliefs is inevitable and proper. But to tie labels to young children, which in effect presume and presuppose the success of that parental influence, is wicked and indefensible. But, you may soothingly say, don't worry, wait till they go to school, it'll be fine. The children will be educated in a variety of opinions and beliefs, they'll be taught to think for themselves, they'll make up their own minds. Well, it would have been nice to think so.

But what do we do? We deliberately set up, and massively subsidise, segregated faith schools. As if it were not enough that we fasten belief-labels on babies at birth, those badges of mental apartheid are now reinforced and refreshed. In their separate schools, children are separately taught mutually incompatible beliefs.

'Protestant children' go to the state-subsidised Protestant school. If they are lucky, they won't actually be taught to hate Catholics, but I wouldn't bank on it, especially in Northern Ireland. The best we can hope for is that they will come out thinking only that there is something a bit alien or odd about Catholics. 'Catholic children' go to the Catholic school. Even if they are not taught to hate Protestants (again, don't bank on it), and even if they don't have to run the gauntlet of hate in the Ardoyne, we can be sure they won't be taught the same Irish history as the 'Protestant children' down the street.

Secretary of state, even if I fail to convince you that opening new faith schools is downright insane, may I at least plead for a consciousness-raising exercise in your own department? Just as feminists succeeded in making us wince when we hear 'he' where no sex is intended, or 'man' for humanity, we need to raise our consciousness about the faith-labelling of children.

Please, I beg you, strongly discourage the use, in all ministerial documents and inter-departmental memos, of phrases that presume theological opinions in children too young to have any. Please foster a climate in which it becomes impossible to use a phrase like 'Catholic children', 'Protestant children', 'Jewish children' or 'Muslim children' without wincing. It only costs two words more to say, for instance, 'children of Muslim parents' or 'children of Jewish parents'.

One of the more frightening aspects of human nature is a tendency to gravitate towards 'Us' and against 'Them'. Worse, Us versus Them disputes have a natural tendency to reach down the generations, leading to vendettas of frightening historical tenacity. Where labels are not provided to feed our natural divisiveness, we manufacture them. Children separate out into gangs, often with distinguishing labels. In certain districts of Los Angeles, a young person innocently sporting the wrong brand of trainers is in danger of being shot. Experiments have been done in which children, with no particular reason to sort themselves into gangs, are provided with, say, green or blue labels. In short order, enmities spring up between the greens and the blues: fierce loyalties to one's own colour, vendettas against the other. These can become surprisingly vicious.

That's what happens when you don't even try to segregate children. Now, imagine that you deliberately stamp a green or a blue label on a child at birth. Send this child to a blue school and that child to a green school. Encourage green boys to assume that they will grow up to marry green girls, while blue girls will marry blue boys. Take for granted that, the moment they have a baby of their own, it too must have the same coloured label tied around its neck. Passed on down the generations, what is all that a recipe for? Do I need to spell it out?

The very idea of a faith school is as unjustifiable as the idea of a hereditary House of Lords, and for the same reason. But hereditary peers, though undemocratic and often mildly eccentric, are not dangerous. Faith schools almost certainly are. There remains the pragmatic argument that, notwithstanding the knockdown objection to the principle of faith schools, they get good exam results. Well, maybe. If it is true, by all means let's try to bottle the secret, and share it around. But, bottled or not, careful analysis fails to uncover any real link with faith. The ingredient in the bottle is a school ethos, which can take years to grow and which, for reasons having no connection with religion, has become built up in certain Church of England and Roman Catholic schools. A high reputation, once built, is self-perpetuating, because ambitious, education-loving parents gravitate towards it, even to the extent of pretending to be churchgoers.

But in any case, where have we heard something like the pragmatic, 'exam results' argument before? Yes, in the debate over the hereditary peers. People were fond of saying that, no matter how undemocratic was the principle of hereditary members of Parliament, they got results. Enough aristocrats worked hard, some were real experts on fly fishing, or windmills; some were doctors who had wise things to say about the health service; many were farmers who could hold forth on foot and mouth or the Common Agricultural Policy; and all of them preserved the decencies of debate, unlike that rabble in the Commons. Undemocratic they may have been, but they did a good job.

That argument cut no ice with the Government, and rightly so. If you gather together a bunch of men of above average wealth and education, raised in book-lined homes for many generations, it is hardly surprising that some expertise and talent will surface. The pragmatic argument, that hereditary peers do a good job, is on the slippery slope to 'say what you like about Mussolini, at least he made the trains run on time'. There are limits beyond which principle should not be dragged by pragmatism. The Government reached that limit over the hereditary peers. The pragmatic case in favour of faith schools is similar, but weaker. The principled case against faith schools is similar, but stronger.

As for what is to be done, of course we don't want to destroy institutions that are working well. The way to be fair to hitherto unsupported denominations is not to give them their own sectarian schools, but to remove the faith status of the existing schools (just as the fair way to balance the bishops in the Lords is not to invite mullahs, monsignors and rabbis to join them, but to throw the existing bishops out). After everything we've been through this year, to persist with financing segregated religion in sectarian schools is obstinate madness.

Yours very sincerely,

Richard Dawkins
Charles Simonyi Professor
University of Oxford

Aykroyd Set to Go 'Out There' for Sci Fi


By John Dempsey

NEW YORK (Variety) - Cable's Sci Fi Channel has signed Dan Aykroyd to host ``Out There,'' a late night talk show devoted to the paranormal.

``Dan is passionate about these subjects, and he's incredibly well connected with everyone from the fanatic who works out of his garage to the MIT science-based expert,'' Sci Fi Channel president Bonnie Hammer said.

Guests on ``Out There'' will range from the average Joe obsessed with things like cloning, crop circles and alien abduction to the scientific investigator who studies such phenomena as an academic discipline.

Science In the News

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Today's Headlines - December 12, 2001

from The New York Times

The vast reshaping of the environment by modern civilization raises the chances of sudden and drastic upheavals in the climate, a panel of experts warns.

In a report released yesterday in Washington by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, a panel of 11 scientists examined the possibility of abrupt climate change, in which small events can bring on rapid and great consequences.

Dr. Richard B. Alley, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University and chairman of the committee, compared abrupt climate change to a light switch, while gradual climate - what most climatologists study - is like a light dimmer. Press upward on a dimmer, and the light brightens a little. Press more, and the light brightens more. With a switch, press lightly and nothing happens. Press hard enough, and the light abruptly turns on.

"What the research shows is that there are switches as well as dimmers in Earth's system," Dr. Alley said.

from The San Francisco Chronicle

An intensive effort to record and analyze last month's Leonid meteor shower is paying off in some unexpected ways, scientists said yesterday, including a much-improved ability to forecast future spectacles.

In a replay of one of the most thrilling celestial events in recent memory, professional meteor trackers gave a meeting of scientists in San Francisco a close-up view of just what was happening as thousands of comet specks flared across Earth's atmosphere.

"We are really getting a handle on meteor showers as an astronomical phenomenon, so meteor showers have gone from anecdotal events seen by few to a space-weather phenomenon that you can confidently predict," said Peter Jenniskens, principal investigator for a NASA airborne laboratory that watched the Leonids from above cloud cover.

Another Leonid show is expected to peak during the early morning hours next Nov. 19 -- and now promises to be just about as awesome a display as this year's, billed as the best of a generation.


from The Associate Press

SAN FRANCISCO - NASA has begun giving scientists access to portions of extraordinarily accurate 3-D maps of Earth's surface that were placed under a security embargo following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania.

The agency allowed scientists to begin downloading data for U.S. sites on Friday, but it is withholding maps of foreign territories. Scientists are prohibited from making the information public.

The digital maps are being processed from data gathered during the February 2000 Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, which made 1 trillion measurements.

Scientists had planned to present the first large maps Tuesday at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting here. Instead, scientists displayed only one map - a digital mosaic of California.


from The Washington Post

DECATUR, Ga. -- People in the Senate office where a letter containing anthrax spores was opened in October may have been exposed to concentrations of the bacteria that were tens, and possibly hundreds, of times higher than the normally fatal dose.

If that is the case, then immediate antibiotic treatment probably saved their lives -- and will be imperative for other targets of mail-borne anthrax attacks.

Those are among the conclusions suggested by experiments done by Canadian military researchers months before the events in the office of Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).

"There was a very great risk of someone getting massive concentrations of spores from just opening a letter," said Bill Kournikakis, a scientist at a laboratory in Alberta, who described his findings to about 100 epidemiologists, toxicologists, physicians and veterinarians meeting here to plan bioterror research.


from The Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE -- For years, Julian Adams had labored on a drug known as LDP-341. He had watched it rid mice and monkeys of all signs of cancer without the devastating side effects of conventional treatments.

He believed it could be a breakthrough drug, one that mounted an entirely new type of attack on the deadly disease. But convincing the outside world had proved difficult especially as the company he founded changed hands twice in a span of six months. For a time, he feared his could be one of the promising drugs that slipped through the cracks in the system.

Then, in August 2000, came a moment Adams will never forget. In an early-stage clinical test, the drug erased all signs of cancer from a 42-year-old woman who months before was in the advanced stages of multiple myeloma, an often fatal blood-borne form of cancer.

"She would not be alive today" if not for the drug, Adams said. "She's been off treatment for 15 months now, and she's still alive. That was a eureka moment."


from The Boston Globe

Luck rarely seems to shine on the people of Burkina Faso. They live in a landlocked African country with a per-capita income of less than a dollar a day, barren land, and warring neighbors. Formerly called Upper Volta, military strongman Thomas Sankara renamed the country in 1984 to a phrase meaning land of the good-natured people. Not long thereafter, Sankara was murdered by his close friend, Blaise Compaore, the country's current dictator.

But, amid the turmoil and poverty, the people of Burkina Faso may have something that the rest of the world wants and desperately needs - a gene that thwarts malaria.

One out of every 10 people in Burkina Faso has a gene that significantly reduces the risk of dying from the mosquito-borne blood disorder, according to a team of Italian researchers led by David Modiano of the University of Rome La Sapienza.

The discovery might help scientists make a vaccine that could potentially save millions of lives a year: Just last year, the 2 million to 3 million Africans who lost their lives to malaria exceeded, by a factor of four, the total number of Americans killed abroad in combat in this country's history.


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Sympathetic Vibratory Physics


This wholistic merging of feeling, emotions, spirit, science, music, art and philosophy is based on the fact that everything in the universe vibrates. Therefore the connecting link between all that there is is vibration. By studying and applying the principles of vibration we are enabled to see beyond material matter (effects) and into the very nature of the causative Forces of Nature operating by immutable Universal Laws. SVP offers the power to change and transform your life.

Saturday, January 05, 2002

The Belgian Flying Triangle - update late in 1990


In SF#80, we printed a brief item from an English newspaper about a rash of Belgian sightings of "flying triangles." Our invitation to our European readers to expand on this "flap" brought numerous articles from European papers and magazines. Normally, we bypass UFO type observations, but the Belgian flying triangles are so remarkable that they deserve a little space.

Very briefly, we have roughly 1000 observations by several thousand people, beginning in October 1989 and still continuing. Most witnesses report a dark, triangular object with three bright lights plus a flashing red one in the middle. Size estimates vary from the size of a football field to that of conventional aircraft. The object sometimes hovers for minutes at a time. It also can move very slowly and then suddenly accelerate to high speeds. Some observers report a faint humming sound; others say that it is noiseless.

The American Stealth fighter (Fll7) is roughly triangular, and there has been much speculation that people have been seeing this craft on night missions. The characteristics reported for the flying triangle, however, are hardly those of a jet aircraft. But one must always remember that human observers are imperfect.

The July 5, 1990, issue of Paris Match presented a remarkable account of an encounter between two Belgian F16s and one of the flying triangles. We use here those portions of a translation provided by R.J. Durant to the Internation al UFO Reporter (15:23, July/August 1990).

"On the night of March 30th, one of the callers reporting a UFO was a Captain of the national police at Pinson, and [Belgian Air Force] Headquarters decided to make a serious effort to verify the reports. In addition to the visual sightings, two radar installations also saw the UFO. One radar is at Glons, south-east of Brussels, which is part of the NATO defense group, and one at Semmerzake, west of the Capitol, which controls the military and civilian traffic of the entire Belgian territory. The range of the two radars is 300 kilometers, which is more than enough to cover the area where the reports took place...Headquarters determined to do some very precise studies during the next 55 minutes to eliminate the possibility of prosaic explanations for the radar images. Excellent atmospheric conditions prevailed, and there was no possibility of false echoes due to temperature inversions.

"...at 0005 hours the order was given to the F-16s to take off and find the intruder. The lead pilot concentrated on his radar screen, which at night is his best organ of vision. The F-16 is equipped with very sophisticated equipment, including chase radar, which is not fixed directly ahead of the airplane, but makes a wide search in an arc' of 90 degrees left and right of the nose...

"Suddenly the two fighters spotted the intruder on their radar screens, appearing like a little bee dancing on the scope. Using their joy sticks like a video game, the pilots ordered the onboard computers to pursue the target. As soon as lock-on was achieved, the target appeared on the screen as a diamond shape, telling the pilots that from that moment on, the F-l6s would remain tracking the object automatically.

"[Before the radar had locked on for six seconds] the object had speed up from an initial velocity of 280 kph to 1,800 kph, while descending from 3,000 meters to 1,700 meters...in one second! This fantastic acceleraton corresponds to 40 Gs. It would cause immediate death to a human on board. The limit of what a pilot can take is about 8 Gs. The trajectory of the object was extremely disconcerting. It arrived at 1,700 meters altitude, then it dove rapidly toward the ground at an altitude under 200 meters, and in doing so escaped from the radars of the fighters and the ground units at Glons and Semmerzake. This maneuver took place over the suburbs of Brussels, which are so full of man-made lights that the pilots lost sight of the object beneath them...

"Everything indicates that this object was intelligently directed to escape from the pursuing planes. During the next hours the scenario repeated twice...

"This fantastic game of hide and seek was observed from the fround by a great number of witnesses, among them 20 national policemen who saw both the object and the F-16s. The encounter lasted 75 minutes, but nobody heard the supersonic boom which should have been present when the object flew through the sonic barrier. No physical damage was reported. Given the low altitude and speed of the object, many windows should have been broken."

From Science Frontiers #72, NOV-DEC 1990. © 1990-2000 William R. Corliss

Scientology and Greta van Susteren


Dihydrogen Monoxide Web Links

From: Dean A. Batha dean@skeptics-corner.com

The DHMO research division of the United States Environmental Assessment Center

DHMO Material Safety Data Sheet:

The coalition to ban DHMO:

The friends of Hydrogen Hydroxide:

Astrobiology research looks at conditions that make life possible

Date: Sat, 05 Jan 2002 11:51:58 -0500

University Communications
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

Contact: Karl Hill, News Bureau (505) 646-1885

Dec. 17, 2001

By Karl Hill

This vast universe surely holds plenty of worlds where life can flourish, right?

Don't bet on it, says New Mexico State University physicist Slava Solomatov.

The more scientists learn about the conditions that make life possible on Earth, the more they realize how complex those factors are -- and how a relatively small change in one condition or another could have rendered the planet uninhabitable, Solomatov said.

"It's a very finely tuned system," he said. "Some of the factors are well known, but we still don't know what all the factors are."

Solomatov has a key part in a NASA-funded astrobiology research project aimed at better understanding the origin of life on Earth and the conditions in which life might be found elsewhere in the universe. The five-year, $4.9 million grant supports the work of a dozen researchers, headed by a team at the University of Washington.

The scientists come from a variety of fields, because life requires much more than water and the right mix of elements to survive and evolve into higher forms.

Solomatov's part of the project focuses on the role of plate tectonics -- the geologic process that results in the shifting of Earth's continental and oceanic plates. Only in recent years have scientists recognized the importance of plate tectonics in maintaining Earth's long-term temperature stability, through global recirculation of carbon dioxide from the planet's interior into the atmosphere, he said.

"Because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, it helps to keep our planet warm," he said. "Of course, too much of it is not good, but without this cycle over the centuries the temperature would drop and you might have the 'Snowball Earth' scenario."

Plate tectonics also provides diverse geological environments, like mountains, which promote biodiversity, Solomatov said.

No other planets are known to have plate tectonics, although some may have had the feature earlier in their evolution, he said.

Whether plate tectonics might be essential to the development of higher forms of life is unknown, but Solomatov's theoretical modeling of the complex processes aims to shed light on a number of key questions, including: What planetary conditions allow for the formation of plate tectonics? Are oceans necessary for plate tectonics? When and how did plate tectonics begin on Earth?

The question of life on other planets, or even the habitability of other planets, has long captured our imagination, but we tend to be biased in our assumptions, Solomatov said.

"We think this is normal and there should be planets all around the universe like Earth," he said. "The more I work in this area, the more I realize the chances really are very slim."

It's not enough for a planet to be the right size, to have water, and to be located the right distance from a star of the right size. Without the giant planet Jupiter as a neighbor, and without our moon, Earth might not be the living planet that it is, Solomatov said.

Jupiter has protected Earth from too many cataclysmic asteroid collisions, he explained -- but on the other hand, a neighbor much larger that Jupiter would not allow formation of an Earth-like planet in the first place. Similarly, our moon is just the right size to help stabilize Earth's spin axis and, as a consequence, the Earth's climate. With a bigger moon or no moon at all, a planet similar to Earth in other respects might not sustain life.

The list of critical factors grows longer as scientists learn more.

"At the moment there are two camps of believers," Solomatov said. "One believes in the 'Rare Earth' hypothesis and the other thinks life is smart and can adapt to extreme conditions."

The "Rare Earth" hypothesis, which takes its name from a book by University of Washington scientists Peter Ward and Don Brownlee, holds that microbial life might be common in planetary systems, but advanced life is rare.

If pushed into one camp or the other, Solomatov would choose the "Rare Earth" believers.

"We don't have enough data yet but all the evidence we have now points out that the Earth is a very special place," he said. "Maybe we should take better care of our planet."

Photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/solomatov.jpg

CUTLINE: New Mexico State University physicist Slava Solomatov is part of a NASA-funded astrobiology project aimed at better understanding the conditions that make life possible. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Mysterious airplanes


Fred Hoyle

December 30, 2001


Ba-Da Bang


Was Sir Fred Hoyle one of the most distinguished astrophysicists of all time, or was he a diehard speculator, a lover of hullabaloo and an embarrassment to consensual science -- almost a crank? Certainly, his groundbreaking research influenced every aspect of astronomy. At the same time, he admitted to ''aesthetic bias'' and to letting favorite theories become a ''sort of religion.'' For a man who claimed that the famed Archaeopteryx fossil in the British Museum of Natural History was a fake and that microbes rained down on earth as part of a possible seeding experiment by extraterrestrials, Hoyle won a great number of the most prestigious awards science offers.

He lived in controversy. His greatest work -- the theory of nucleogenesis -- explained the formation of elements in the cores of stars and is widely considered to be one of midcentury science's seminal achievements. Formulated in collaboration with William Fowler, nucleogenesis overthrew the general belief that all elements were created in the primordial universe. For his share in the accomplishment, Fowler won the Nobel Prize. Hoyle did not. The probable explanation for this extraordinary snub involves the wilder theories Hoyle professed throughout his life.

Had Hoyle never written a single scientific paper, he would be remembered as a science-fiction author. Several of his dozen novels are classics. Hoyle's more scientific speculations also wandered freely over disciplinary divides. He insisted that if the universe didn't observe sharp differences between physics, chemistry and biology, then scientists didn't have to, either. But according to his many adversaries, Sir Fred didn't always distinguish between science and fiction. He rejected Darwinism, and with his onetime student Chandra Wickramasinghe, he suggested that epidemics might be spawned by space-born viruses contracted when the earth passes through meteor streams, an idea scorned by the overwhelming majority of scientists.

In one of the great paradoxes of this controversial life, Hoyle is most widely remembered as the coiner of the phrase ''Big Bang,'' a term he invented to disparage a theory he couldn't abide. He resisted the idea that everything was born of nothing in an immense eruption 12 billion years ago. Instead, along with Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold, he championed the steady-state universe, an eternally expanding cosmos where new galaxies constantly form in the cracks between older, spreading ones. For 17 years, the Big Bang and steady-state theories competed in one of the century's most bitter scientific battles. The 1965 discovery of cosmic background radiation seemed to decide the fight in favor of the Big Bang, and for most scientists, it did. But the theory's namer went to his grave a voice in the wilderness, rejecting the Big Bang and refining his model of continuous creation.

Sir Fred Hoyle died astronomy's most respected maverick outcast. But at the end of the day -- if such things exist in science -- the champion of dismissed opinions may have one last cosmological laugh. Bits of revised quasi-steady-state cosmology may yet appear in some subsequent synthesis. Even Hoyle's outrageous ''panspermia'' -- the heretical idea that life originated in biological particles dispersed through deep space -- has been revived by new evidence in recent years.

Whatever the real state of the universe, science's is never steady. It proceeds not by inevitable reason but by a contentious mangle of agenda, temperament, group psychology and, yes, repeatable measurement. Discoverers remain intractably human, however their universe came into being or wherever it might be going.

Hoyle's relentlessly speculative, relentlessly human life was itself proof that new ideas are formed in the cracks between older, spreading ones. That process, like Hoyle's steady-state universe, seems indeed to go on without foreseeable end.

Richard Powers is the author of seven novels, most recently "Plowing the Dark."

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

For accurate instructions on how to subscribe or unsubscribe to the listserv, follow this link: http://www.mediaresource.org/instruct.htm

If you experience any problems with the URLs (page not found, page expired, etc.), we suggest you proceed to the home page of "Science In the News" http://www.mediaresource.org/news.htm which mirrors the daily e-mail update.


Today's Headlines - December 13, 2001

from The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO - As NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft neared completion Wednesday of its 100th orbit of the Red Planet, scientists had to contend with a unusually fickle Martian atmosphere in guiding and slowing the robotic probe.

Odyssey entered orbit around Mars on Oct. 23. Since then, scientists have guided the spacecraft on a series of controlled skims through the atmosphere, using the drag provided by the carbon dioxide-rich shroud to slow the spacecraft and shape its orbit.

With each pass, the drag produced by the tenuous atmosphere shaves about five minutes from a full orbit. As of Wednesday, it was taking Odyssey 6.32 hours to whip around Mars, down from the 18.6 hours it took in October.

Odyssey skims through the atmosphere of Mars for anywhere from three to four minutes during each orbit. But where and at what altitude it does so has made a big difference, scientists said Wednesday at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.


from The Washington Post

An Army biological and chemical warfare facility in Utah has been quietly developing a virulent, weapons-grade formulation of anthrax spores since at least 1992, and samples of the bacteria were shipped back and forth between that facility and Fort Detrick, Md., on several occasions in the past several years, according to government officials and shipping records.

The Utah spores, grown and processed at the 800,000-acre Dugway Proving Ground about 80 miles from Salt Lake City, belong to the Ames strain -- the same strain used in the deadly letters sent to media outlets and two senators in September and October. No other nation is known to have made weapons-grade Ames. And although it is legal to make small quantities of such agents under the provisions of an international treaty the United States has signed, experts said yesterday they were surprised by the revelation that a U.S. lab was producing such lethal material.

"It comes as a bit of a shock," said Jonathan Tucker, a former member of the U.N. team that inspected Iraq's bioweapons stocks after the Persian Gulf War and now director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies' Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program in Washington.


from The New York Times

An expert in fire protection who is helping lead a federally financed inquiry into the collapse of the World Trade Center towers said yesterday that inadequate or faulty fireproofing that had gone unrepaired for years may have played a role in the failure of the two 110-story buildings.

The expert, Frederick W. Mowrer, an associate professor in the fire protection engineering department at the University of Maryland, said he had been shown extensive evidence, including an archive of photographs, that indicated that the fireproofing applied to everything from structural columns to floor trusses to bolted connections had peeled off or been inadequately installed over extensive parts of the buildings.

But like others involved in the study of the buildings, Dr. Mowrer was careful to say that an exact cause of the collapses is far from determined, and that whether any building could have withstood the damage inflicted by the two 767's that slammed into them remains an open question. He said the role of the fireproofing was only one of a range of issues, including the part played by the jet fuel, that needed continued scrutiny.


from The New York Times

AS long as there have been amateur naturalists, the field notebook has been an indispensable tool. Where else to note the abundance of salamanders in a particular summer, or the paucity of bluebirds? Gradually, binoculars have also become an absolute necessity for birders, and more recently for butterfly-watchers.

The latest technological innovation for the trampers of woods and fields, though, is the interactive online database.

Amateur observers of nature are being recruited by professionals to keep an eye on their natural neighborhoods, to count hawks and other birds, to report butterfly sightings. The nature lover's newest role is collector of data.


from The Christian Science Monitor

SAN FRANCISCO - Thomas Cahill has a warning for Northern Hemisphere residents. Cleaning up polluters in your own part of the world won't guarantee you have clean air, he says. Nasty stuff can drift in from sources half way around the world - for example, the highest levels of arsenic in Nevada come from Mongolia.

Dr. Cahill, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California at Davis, is part of an international team that has finally had a good look at what's in the Asian dust plumes that cross the Pacific, spread over North America, and drift out over the Atlantic. They're finding that toxic metals and other man-made pollutants are hitching rides on the desert dust, making the plumes an effective long-distance pollution transport system.

In recent years, scientists have become increasingly concerned about the large-scale environmental effects of aerosols - particles suspended in air.

Some aerosols can cause cooling by reflecting incoming sunlight back into space. Others absorb sunlight and warm up the air. This can offset or enhance the regional effects of carbon dioxide-driven global warming.


from Reuters

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - With Earth's power consumption forecast to rocket to new highs in coming decades, one scientist is proposing a suitably far-out solution to the likely energy crunch -- power plants on the moon.

Prof. David Criswell of the University of Houston's Institute for Space Systems said that lunar power plants that capture the sun's rays and send them on to Earth as concentrated microwave beams could provide inexpensive, abundant and stable energy for the Earth's growing population.

"This would be energy on a global scale," Criswell said in a briefing at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting here.

Criswell's idea might seem loopy, but he insists that it would be achievable if the U.S. government would commit to spending the money -- estimated at roughly three times the $19 billion budget of the Apollo space program.


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Friday, January 04, 2002

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

For accurate instructions on how to subscribe or unsubscribe to the listserv, follow this link: http://www.mediaresource.org/instruct.htm

If you experience any problems with the URLs (page not found, page expired, etc.), we suggest you proceed to the home page of "Science In the News" http://www.mediaresource.org/news.htm which mirrors the daily e-mail update.


Today's Headlines - January 4, 2002

from The Washington Post

Scientists for the first time have created genetically engineered pigs whose organs lack a gene that triggers rejection by the human immune system, a key advance toward the goal of developing high-tech hogs bearing organs for transplantation into humans.

The work represents the first time that scientists have successfully substituted one entire gene for another in pigs -- in this case, replacing a gene that typically initiates organ rejection with a defective version of the same gene.

The disabled gene is just one of several that scientists believe they would have to alter, or "knock out," if pigs are ever to help meet the growing demand for transplantable organs. Even if scientists overcome the many technical challenges posed by cross-species transplantation -- also known as xenotransplantation -- many safety and ethics concerns remain unsettled.


from The Associated Press

Dolly, the world's first cloned sheep, has developed arthritis at a relatively early age, renewing debate about whether cloned animals are susceptible to premature aging and health problems.

Ian Wilmut of the Edinburgh-based Roslin Institute, one of Dolly's creators, said Friday that the 51/2-year-old sheep has arthritis in her left hind leg, hip and knee.

"There is no way of knowing if this is down to cloning or whether it is a coincidence," Wilmut told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Dolly was born in a Scottish research compound in 1996, the world's first mammal to be successfully cloned from an adult. Roslin scientists announced her birth on Feb. 23, 1997.


from The Christian Science Monitor

OREGON BUTTES, WYO. - Beneath the desolate beauty of Wyoming's Red Desert lie rock-bound resources that could go a long way toward meeting America's burgeoning demand for natural gas.

But the potential energy supplies are also unleashing floodwaters of controversy on the open range.

At issue is a method of releasing methane - a form of natural gas - from coal beds where it is trapped. In the process, vast quantities of water are also extracted, threatening the livelihood of many ranchers.

The battle here has implications that reach far beyond this unusual landscape. It could help determine whether drilling rigs increasingly sprout up in landscapes as diverse as New Mexican mesas, Midwest prairies, and Pennsylvania hills.


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New Bibliography Entry (UFOs)

From: Taner Edis edis@truman.edu http://www.csicop.org/bib/605

Roswell: Inconvenient Facts and the Will to Believe
Karl T. Pflock
2001, Prometheus; 331p, plates
UFO, UFO:history

Pflock, a "pro-UFOlogist," went into his Roswell investigation expecting to find something to support UFOs, but discovered that the Project Mogul explanation was most satisfactory, and that the UFO community had built the Roswell story up using some very flimsy evidence. Though a good and throrough debunking of the crashed-saucer myth, the level of detail in the book may be occasionally tedious for readers not already interested in Roswell or intrigued by details of an extensive investigation. The light it casts on UFOlogy is the most important indirect result of _Roswell_; negative, in that the way they jumped to conclusions do not inspire confidence in most UFOlogists; positive, in that someone like Pflock did a good job, changed his mind, and remains convinced that there's something beyond the mistakes people make in the UFO phenomenon.



UFOs & Abductions: Challenging the Borders of Knowledge
David M. Jacobs, ed.
2000, University Press of Kansas; 382p.
newage:defense, psychology, UFO:defense, UFO:history, UFO:sociology

Published by an academic press, and representing the UFO abduction field's bid for academic respectability, this is an important book. Some of the contributions are tedious, or waste time on skeptic-bashing or pushing an extreme Kuhnian model of mainstream science. Overall, there is more rhetoric about embracing the data than work towards plausible explanations. Nevertheless, the historical surveys are interesting, as is Thomas E. Bullard's folkloric approach -- for its illuminating criticisms of skeptics as well as its discussion of the limitations of the folkloric/mythic approach. David M. Jacobs, Budd Hopkins, and John E. Mack defend hypnosis and recovering abduction memories; Mack, in particular, comes across as way too New Age to take seriously. Michael A. Persinger has an interesting contribution about his work reproducing some aspects of "visitation experiences" in the lab via magnetic fields.

Please visit the rest of the bibliography at


Consider contributing an entry or two yourself...

Taner Edis, SKEPTIC Bibliographer

'Haunted' soldier's tunic scares castle staff

From Ananova at


Staff at Edinburgh Castle think the tunic of a 19th Century soldier is haunted.

The Royal Engineers tunic is part of a display in the castle's restaurant.

The rumour began when a former worker said he saw the jacket arm moving on its own, as if banging a drum.

The jacket is now being linked to the legend of a headless drummer boy who returns to the castle at war time.

Robin Mitchell, who runs Witchery Tours in the city, says the tale dates back to 1650 when the ghost warned of Cromwell's invasion.

The restaurant's manager declined to comment. He says the member of staff who claims to have seen the tunic's arm move has returned to his native France.

One member of staff told the Edinburgh Evening News the story has scared workers, adding: "There is a strange feeling in the restaurant and I blame the tunic."

New entry for SKEPTIC Bibliography

From: Taner Edis edis@truman.edu


The Logic And Methodology Of Science And Pseudoscience
Fred Wilson
2000, Canadian Scholars' Press; 364p.
cult-archaeology, pseudoscience:philosophy, science:philosophy,
science:sociology, skepticism:methodology, UFO, velikovsky

Examines the various norms for the logic and methodology of science, placing them in the context of the cognitive interests and explanatory ideals that motivate science. It touches on various themes in the philosophy of science, suhc as the views of K. Popper, T. Kuhn and L. Laudan. Also included are characteristic cases of pseudoscience, including creationism, Lysenkoism, Velikovsky, UFOs and ancient astronauts, astrology, parapsychology, and various kinds of alternative medicine. The book concludes with a discussion of various problems concerning data collection. In this context, it includes a discussion of some of the issues raised in the so-called "science wars." The conclusion: the sociology of science can at times be helpful to the scientific community in improving their methods.

[ Reviewed by Renée Knapp, rknapp@cspi.org ]

Visit the full bibliography at http://www.csicop.org/bibliography/
Please consider submitting an entry yourself.

Taner Edis, SKEPTIC bibliographer

Thursday, January 03, 2002

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

For accurate instructions on how to subscribe or unsubscribe to the listserv, follow this link: http://www.mediaresource.org/instruct.htm

If you experience any problems with the URLs (page not found, page expired, etc.), we suggest you proceed to the home page of "Science In the News" http://www.mediaresource.org/news.htm which mirrors the daily e-mail update.


Today's Headlines - January 3, 2002

from The Washington Post

A critical protein that protects animals from cancer in their early years appears, in later life, to cause much of the deterioration associated with aging, according to a provocative new study.

The study suggests that the protein, known as p53 -- a central cog in the cancer-fighting machinery of many animals, including humans -- eventually shuts off the body's ability to renew its organs and tissues, producing bone and muscle deterioration and other hallmarks of aging.

The results, reported by scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, "raise the shocking possibility that aging may be a side effect of the natural safeguards that protect us from cancer," two commentators said in an editorial accompanying the study, which appears today in the journal Nature.


from The Associated Press

Contradicting generations of medical lore, researchers have found new evidence that the human heart can repair itself.

Doctors have long assumed that damage from a heart attack or other ailment is irreversible and that the heart cannot regenerate tissue the way other organs can. But that belief has been shaken by recent research.

A team of American and Italian researchers demonstrated last year that heart muscle cells multiply after a heart attack. Now they have shown that in heart transplant patients, primitive cells from the patient travel to the new heart and grow new muscle and blood vessels.

The researchers studied men who received transplanted hearts from women, and discovered male cells in the donated female hearts.


from The Associated Press

BLACKSBURG, Va. - A research firm said Wednesday that it has cloned pigs that have been genetically altered to remove one of the paired genes that trigger the human immune system to powerfully reject transplanted pig organs.

"This is the first step in overcoming the rejection of pig organs in humans," said David L. Ayares, vice president of research for PPL Therapeutics Inc. "We still need to make some modifications to create the ultimate pig."

He said both copies of the paired genes will have to be removed from a strain of pigs before the animal organs would be accepted by the human immune system.

Ayares said all the cloned pigs are female, but that male pigs with the altered genes are expected to be born later this year. The animals then would be bred in hopes of producing offspring that are true "knockouts" - animals with both of the target genes knocked out of their gene structure.


from The San Francisco Chronicle

A new study has torpedoed long-held beliefs about great white sharks, the world's most heavily hyped marine predator.

Published today in the journal Nature, the study by Bay Area and Monterey scientists reveals that California's great whites travel much farther across the Pacific Ocean -- and at much greater depths -- than previously assumed. Why they make the trek, however, remains a mystery.

Great white sharks are among the world's most efficient marine predators, second only in size to orcas.

With the tunas, they are one of the few endothermic -- or warm-blooded -- fish. By heating their muscle tissues with their own metabolic energy, they can actively hunt prey in a wide range of water temperatures.


from The New York Times

Although it somehow escaped the legendary golden touch, an ivory statuette from the Delphi ruins in Greece has been identified as very likely part of a gift to the God Apollo by the famous King Midas of Phrygia, a University of Pennsylvania archaeologist announced yesterday.

The historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century B.C., believed Midas was the first non-Greek to send a gift to Delphi, about three centuries earlier.

The gift was a throne, which Herodotus said was in the Corinthian treasury near the temple to Apollo.

It was supposedly one of the very thrones from which Midas had ruled his Phrygian kingdom at Gordion in what is now central Turkey.


from The New York Times

AMONG the many things that wearing an artificial leg changed in Curtis Grimsley's life was the simple ritual of going to the office.

Before Mr. Grimsley lost his left leg in a car accident five years ago, he would step off a PATH train from New Jersey and stroll across the concourse of the World Trade Center before heading up to his office on the 70th floor of the north tower, where he worked as a computer analyst for the Port Authority.

After his accident, Mr. Grimsley, a former competitive runner and a star of the Port Authority's basketball team, was embarrassed to find himself suddenly unable to keep pace with the thousands of other commuters in the vast concourse. "I was kind of a little vain," Mr. Grimsley acknowledged. "So I always came up the back way to get into my office."

But last February Mr. Grimsley overcame his aversion to using the concourse. He was fitted with a prosthetic leg that uses microprocessors, strain gauges, angle detectors, hydraulics and electronic valves to recreate the stability and step of a normalleg. The C-Leg, made by the German-based company Otto Bock, is widely seen as the most advanced of a variety of artificial legs and knees. But Mr. Grimsley said that his C- Leg did not just restore his ability to walk more naturally: it saved his life


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New Liar Test Could Become Standard at Airports


Wednesday January 2 2:01 PM ET

LONDON (Reuters) - Scientists have developed an instant lie detector technique which picks up mini hot flushes around the eyes and could lead to truth tests becoming standard at airport check-ins, the journal Nature reported on Wednesday.

In the new tests developed by scientists at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, a high definition thermal-imaging camera scans a person's face to see if they blush when answering a question.

MoD established secret UFO investigation group

From Ananova at


Official papers have revealed the Ministry of Defence set up a secret flying saucer working party in the 1950s.

The papers show the group involved experts from the Directorate of Scientific Intelligence and the Joint Technical Intelligence Committee.

It was established in 1951 after a spate of sightings in Sweden and the US led to a "notable outbreak" of reports in Britain.

However, the scientists gave short shrift to the idea that the earth was facing an alien invasion from space, dismissing the claims as "optical illusions and psychological delusions" - or just plain hoaxes.

"We consider that no progress will be made by attempting further investigation of unco-ordinated and subjective evidence, and that positive results could only be obtained by organising throughout the country, or the world, continuous observation of the skies by a co-ordinated network of visual observers, equipped with photographic apparatus, and supplemented by a network of radar stations and sound locators," they concluded.

"We should regard this, on the evidence so far available, as a singularly profitless enterprise."

The papers, being made public for the first time, went on: "We accordingly recommend very strongly that no further investigation of reported mysterious aerial phenomena be undertaken, unless and until some material evidence becomes available."

One of the cases they looked at was RAF Flight Lieutenant Hubbard who twice claimed to have seen "a flat disc, light pearl grey in colour, about 50 feet in diameter" flying low over Farnborough at speeds to 800 to 1,000 mph.

The scientists drily noted: "We find it impossible to believe that a most unconventional aircraft, of exceptional speed, could have travelled at no great altitude, in the middle of a fine summer morning, over a populous and air-minded district like Farnborough, without attracting the attention of more than one observer."

Wednesday, January 02, 2002

Top Cryptozoological Stories of the Year 2001

From: Terry W. Colvin fortean1@mindspring.com


Myth of Atlantis all took place in Plato's mind


Amelia Hill
Sunday December 16, 2001
The Observer

The story of the lost city of Atlantis has fascinated academics and romantics for thousands of years. But despite the legend one leading expert has finally admitted the truth: it never existed.

Ever since Plato insisted that his tale of a seafaring civilisation consigned to the deep by earthquakes and floods was true, the search for the lost empire has spanned the globe - in September two explorers claimed simultaneously to have found it at the top of a volcano and at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

But now Alan F. Alford, one of the world's authorities on ancient mythology, claims to have uncovered the truth: the Greek philosopher invented Atlantis as a metaphor for the ancient version of our 'Big Bang' theory.

'My findings allow us, for the first time ever, to get inside Plato's mind and reconsider the story of Atlantis from an ancient, rather than a modern, perspective,' said Alford, who has spent the last five years investigating the story.

'Behind the tale lies a single secret of stunning simplicity: namely that although Atlantis was a lost paradise, it was not a lost city, island or continent, but a lost planet of the former golden age,' he added. 'The loss of Atlantis was meant to signify a totally profound event - the cataclysm of all cataclysms that disrupted the universe at the beginning of all time.'

It has long been acknowledged that there is strong scientific evidence for the explosion of one or more planets in our solar system from about 427 to 347BC (around the time Plato was writing), rationalised then by the creation of the 'exploded planet myth'.

'The myth held that the cosmos was born when a planet crashed on to a dead, dry Earth, spreading the seeds and water of life,' said Alford. 'I maintain that it is this myth that the tale of Atlantis was created to explain.'

According to Plato, Atlantis sank around 9600BC (by our modern-day system of dating). But extensive scientific investigations of the ocean floor have yielded no trace of the lost island.

The popular view is that Plato's story is historically accurate and he simply got his geographical facts wrong. The search, as a result, has spanned the globe, with the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian seas, as well as the English Channel and the Arctic coming under suspicion. Crete, Cuba, the Americas and Antarctica have also been claimed as the lost continent.

Alford dismisses such theories: 'Plato is the sole authority on the story of Atlantis and to ignore what he said is to invent a new myth of one's own.'

To search for Atlantis in the physical world, or in the physical universe, Alford believes, is contrary to Plato's most fundamental belief: that reality was not to be found in this world.

Articles of Note

Huge telescope's inventor receives top recognitions
By ERIC BERGER Houston Chronicle Science Writer


Bill Gordon didn't set out to build a telescope that would become an engineering marvel and the stuff of scientific legend, racking up countless astronomy firsts from detailed mapping of the moon, Venus and Mars to the discovery of planets outside the solar system.

Geologist's Melting Story of a Lost Civilization
By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post


"It was Plato, around 360 B.C., who first described an ancient, exotic island kingdom catastrophically buried beneath the sea when its once-virtuous people angered the gods with their pronounced tilt toward sin and corruption."

Burning Questions
by Robin Askew
Spike Magazine


"Enjoyed The Blair Witch Project? Then immerse yourself in this engrossing and exhaustively researched true story from late 19th century Ireland. The facts of the case are relatively straightforward: in 1895, 26-year-old Bridget Cleary disappeared from her house in rural Tipperary. Local rumour claimed that she had been taken by fairies to their fort of Kylenagranagh, from where she would eventually emerge riding a white horse. But when her badly burned body was recovered from a shallow grave a week later, her husband Michael, father, aunt and four cousins were arrested. The subsequent trial made headlines even in the London press."

Most Americans believe in the existence of angels, according to survey
By Thomas Hargrove
Scripps Howard News Service


"Americans overwhelmingly believe in the angels that heralded the birth of Jesus 2000 years ago and think they still walk the Earth in these modern days."

Doctors, patients discuss higher power, healing
By Luis Fabregas


"With his tiny body ravaged by disease, the 8-year-old boy sat on his hospital bed and prayed."

FDA investigating kava-kava
Institute of Food Technologists


"The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is investigating whether the use of dietary supplements containing kava (also known as kava kava or Piper methysticum) is associated with liver toxicity."

FTC Prohibits Marketers of Herbal Products and the "Zapper" from Making Unsubstantiated Claims


"A Seattle couple who sold a variety of herbal products and an electrical unit called the "Zapper" as a cure for such ailments as cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's, and diabetes are prohibited from making any claims that their products are effective in treating or alleviating any disease or condition, unless they have scientific evidence to support the claims, as part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC alleged in a complaint filed in federal court that Western Dietary Products Co. (Skookum), based in Blaine, Washington, and its owners marketed the "Zapper Electrical Unit" and their "cure packages" as treatments and/or cures for various serious diseases, and claimed that use of their herbal products made surgery and chemotherapy unnecessary for persons with cancer. The FTC complaint alleged that these claims were unsubstantiated."

Harry's on God's side
National Post


"If all goes according to plan, Pastor Jack Brock and his flock at the Christ Community Church in Alamogordo, N.M., will ignite a "holy bonfire" of Harry Potter books on Sunday. Mr. Brock says the books are "an abomination to God," and are forcing Christian children to decide between the baby Jesus and the books' child-wizard protagonist."

Not-So-Vast Conspiracies: A Review of Robert Alan Goldberg's Enemies Within
FindLaw's Writ


"In America society, conspiracy thinking is a time-honored tradition. For those who subscribe to conspiracy theories - whether to explain not only who shot President Kennedy in Dallas nearly 40 years ago but why, or to account for the mysterious statues on Easter Island - events are connected by causation rather than coincidence, intention rather than inadvertence, and conspiracy rather than confusion or chaos. Now, with modern technological developments ranging from the cinematic techniques that made "JFK" such a beguiling movie to the rumor-spreading capacities of the Internet, the examples of and possibilities for conspiracy thinking have never been greater."

Local psychics offer clients glimpses of the future
John Ewoldt
Minneapolis Star Tribune Published Dec 27 2001


Call me a curious skeptic. As 2002 peeks around the corner, it's normal to wonder what the new year will bring. So I decided to check in with a local psychic and astrologer for enlightenment.

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

For accurate instructions on how to subscribe or unsubscribe to the listserv, follow this link: http://www.mediaresource.org/instruct.htm

If you experience any problems with the URLs (page not found, page expired, etc.), we suggest you proceed to the home page of "Science In the News" http://www.mediaresource.org/news.htm which mirrors the daily e-mail update.


Today's Headlines - January 2, 2002

from The New York Times

In the decades that astronomers have debated the fate of the expanding universe - whether it will all end one day in a big crunch, or whether the galaxies will sail apart forever - aficionados of eternal expansion have always been braced by its seemingly endless possibilities for development and evolution. As the Yale cosmologist Dr. Beatrice Tinsley once wrote, "I think I am tied to the idea of expanding forever."

Life and intelligence could sustain themselves indefinitely in such a universe, even as the stars winked out and the galaxies were all swallowed by black holes, Dr. Freeman Dyson, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study, argued in a landmark paper in 1979. "If my view of the future is correct," he wrote, "it means that the world of physics and astronomy is also inexhaustible; no matter how far we go into the future, there will always be new things happening, new information coming in, new worlds to explore, a constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness, and memory."

Now, however, even Dr. Dyson admits that all bets are off. If recent astronomical observations are correct, the future of life and the universe will be far bleaker.


from Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Brain scans show that patients with depression have clear physical responses to both drugs and sugar pills, but the responses are dramatically different, researchers reported on Tuesday in a study that could help explain the "placebo effect."

The study might show ways for doctors to use the placebo response -- when patients get better from a sham treatment or drug -- to improve standard treatments, said Dr. Andrew Leuchter, the psychiatrist at the University of California Los Angeles who led the study.

"People have known for years that if you give placebos to patients with depression or other illnesses, many of them will get better," he said in a statement.

"What this study shows, for the first time, is that people who get better on placebo have a change in brain function, just as surely as people who get better on medication."


from The Boston Globe

A year ago, John Gulash, a clothing salesman who had struggled for years with Parkinson's disease, lay down on the operating table at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and steeled himself for a six-hour operation.

Awake the whole time, Gulash, who is 39 and lives in Royalton, Vt., said he remembers doctors numbing his skull with anesthetic, then drilling holes to attach a halo, a metal frame designed to keep his head immobilized and fastened to the table. Doctors then implanted one hair-thin electrode into each side of his brain deep within the subthalamic nucleus, a brain region whose faulty electrical signals cause the tremors, slowness of movement, rigidity and balance problems that are the hallmarks of Parkinson's disease.

''It didn't hurt at all,'' Gulash said. ''It was amazing.''

Even more amazing were the results. Despite an infection that necessitated a repeat operation, when doctors finally hooked his electrodes up to small battery packs implanted under the skin on his chest, Gulash felt a ''whoosh'' and a tingling in his fingers. For the first time in years, he could walk without shaking.


from The Boston Globe

In Ron Howard's new film, ''A Beautiful Mind,'' Russell Crowe plays the tormented math genius, John Nash. Among other things, Nash falls in love, mesmerizes federal code breakers, makes some imaginary friends, and suffers through brutal schizophrenia-treating shock therapy. But, oddly, he does very little math.

It's a film about a revolutionary mathematician; but film-goers will be hard pressed to describe the revolution after the credits roll.

And that's unfortunate. Nash and his 1950 Princeton doctorate dissertation transformed game theory from a marginally useful subset of mathematics and economics into one of the most influential fields used in understanding decision-making today. Economists, political analysts, and business leaders now use game theory to describe and influence everything from Wal-Mart's post-holiday sales to India and Pakistan's armed standoff.

Game theorists also designed the Clinton-era $7 billion auction of this country's broadcast spectrum. Another game theorist largely created the current system that medical school students use to get placement in hospitals.


from The Associated Press

AMES, Iowa -- Scientists at the Ames Laboratory say they have created the world's first magnetic refrigerator, which someday may save consumers money on energy bills and be better for the environment.

"We're witnessing history in the making," said Karl Gschneider Jr., senior metallurgist at the U.S. Department of Energy lab said Monday.

Laboratory researchers have worked for years to develop magnetic refrigeration as an alternative to traditional cooling systems, which emit gases that contribute to global warming.

The new refrigerator uses a special metal that heats up when exposed to a magnetic field, then cools when the magnetic field is removed. It is the first device to operate at room temperature and use a permanent magnet rather than large, awkward superconducting magnets.


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Tuesday, January 01, 2002

Excerpted: mini-AIR Dec 2002 - Uncovered, Troy&Bear, Cosmic Finger

From: Marc Abrahams marca@chem2.harvard.edu

2001-12-06 Troy and the Bear: UPDATE

There is big news from Troy Hurtubise, winner of the 1998 Ig Nobel Safety Engineering Prize for developing and personally testing a suit of armor that is impervious to grizzly bears. Troy has announced that on December 9 he will don his suit of armor and undergo a "controlled attack" from a ten-foot-tall Kodiak bear.

Details are at


Further press accounts (to which we will add as events unfold) are at


We at the Annals of Improbable Research wish Troy all the success in the world, and then some.

2001-12-07 Hagelin and the Yogic Flying Peace Squad: UPDATE

There is ambitious news -- about war and peace in Afghanistan -- from John Hagelin, winner of the 1994 Ig Nobel Peace Prize for his experimental conclusion that 4,000 trained meditators caused an 18 percent decrease in violent crime in Washington, D.C.

Several weeks ago, Hagelin held a news conference in Washington D.C. in which he announced his desire to raise $1,000,000,000, the interest from which will fund a squad of 40,000 trained yogic flyers. "The 40,000 Yogic Flyers would act like a giant radio transmitter," thus constituting a "Vedic Defense Shield" for the prevention of war. Hagelin's collaborators include the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Indian Major General Kulwant Singh.

Further details can be gleaned from Hagelin's web site


Including a video webcast of the press conference at


Hagelin ran for president of the United States in each of the last two elections. We are told that he was not elected.

2001-12-11 Holiday Gifts (for the Science-Minded)

This is the time of year when you are either expected or permitted to crave something inexpensive and really, really nice -- either as a gift FOR someone you care about or as a gift FROM someone who cares about you.

What to crave? We have some suggestions.

FIRST: A subscription to the most improbable magazine in the world -- the Annals of Improbable Research. Details are below, and on the AIR web site at


SECOND: Any of our favorite too-little-known books, videos, and CDs -- some quite old, some very new. There's a list at


And watch for more items to appear over the next few weeks.

2001-12-14 RESEARCH SPOTLIGHT: The Death of Politics

Each month we select for your special attention a research report that seems especially worth a close read. Your librarian will enjoy being asked for a copy. This month's selection:


"French Presidential Elections Can Kill," Alexandre Dorozynski, British Medical Journal, no. 321, November 3, 2001, p. 1021. The author reports that:

The presidential amnesty for traffic violations was authorised by the constitution in 1958 and is taken for granted to the point that many parking and speeding tickets are simply ignored for months preceding a presidential election. There is no comparable "tradition" elsewhere in Europe. Usually, the amnesty applies to "minor" parking and speeding violations that have not been dealt with by the time of the election, and apparently drivers have determined empirically that this may include tickets written from six months to a year before the election.... Last year, 8078 people died as a result of traffic accidents in France -- twice as many as in the United Kingdom, which has about the same population and the same number of cars.
2001-12-17 How to Subscribe to AIR (*)

Here's how to subscribe to the magnificent bi-monthly print journal The Annals of Improbable Research (the real thing, not just the little bits of overflow material you have been reading here in mini-AIR).

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Non-Believers Move to Hollywood

Dec. 15 Party To Celebrate New Presence in Media Capital

For Immediate Release

Contact: James Underdown, Executive Director, Center for Inquiry-West
4773 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, CA 90027
(323) 666-9797

Los Angeles, CA-The Center for Inquiry-West has landed at 4773 Hollywood Boulevard. This innovative new facility is not only an educational non-profit organization, it is a community center for secular humanists, skeptics, atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers. It is the only such facility in the western United States.

Here to celebrate the move into Hollywood will be the editors of two international magazines devoted to rational inquiry. Kendrick Frazier, Editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and recent recipient of the 2001 In Praise of Reason Award will join Thomas Flynn, Editor of Free Inquiry magazine, to launch the Hollywood location at 8 p.m on December 15, 2001.

Skeptical Inquirer magazine is published by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), and is the world's leading publication devoted to examining paranormal and fringe-scientific claims.

Free Inquiry magazine is published by the Council for Secular Humanism, a worldwide organization devoted to an ethical philosophy which is not predicated on belief in anything supernatural.

The party is open to the public and will include words from both editors, food, drink and music. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Festivities start at 8 p.m. There is ample free parking behind the Center.


The Center for Inquiry-West is a not-for-profit educational organization established "To promote and defend reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavor." CFI-West is located at 4773 Hollywood Blvd., and is the West Coast home of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), publisher of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and for the Council for Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry magazine. Visit us at CFIWest.org, or e-mail James Underdown at JimU@cfiwest.org.

T. Rex Meets Biblical Text at Museum


Sunday, December 9, 2001

By STEPHANIE SIMON, Times Staff Writer

FLORENCE, Ky.--There is no mention of Noah's Ark in most science museums. No mention of the Tower of Babel or the Garden of Eden, either.

Instead, you get dinosaur replicas, fossils, models of spiraling DNA. And informational text promoting what millions of Americans regard as drivel: the idea that all life on Earth evolved over 4 billion years from genetic scraps.

It's tantamount to brainwashing. Or so Ken Ham believes.

Ham directs the global ministry Answers in Genesis. And he is building a $14-million answer to evolution here in far northern Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.

The Creation Museum & Family Discovery Center will offer all the classic science museum exhibits, but with a twist. Each one will be interpreted as proof of the biblical account that God created the Earth and all that's in it over six days, just 6,000 years ago.

The huge double-helix of DNA will be used to argue that living beings are so complex, there's no way they could have evolved by random mutation from an undifferentiated blob. Fossils will be used to make the point that old bones don't come with a date stamped on them--and to argue that scientific methods such as carbon dating are wildly inaccurate.

Life-size dinosaurs will illustrate the theory that Adam and Eve lived alongside T. rex in a blissful Eden, free from violence. An informational placard might identify a dinosaur model this way: "Thescelosaurus. Means wonderful lizard. Height: 4 feet. Length: 11 feet. Created on: Day 6."

Flood or no flood?

Did Noah really need the Ark?

Two sets of geologists are having a flood feud. The Americans say they have proof that the Great Deluge happened just when the Bible says it did. The Canadians say it's hogwash. KEVIN COX reports


Saturday, December 8, 2001 – Page F6

"And the waters prevailed exceedingly on the earth; and all the high hills that were under the whole heaven were covered. Fifteen cubits did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered."

Genesis 7, verses 19-20

Stories about cataclysmic floods prompted by angry deities have abounded in European and Asian mythology for thousands of years, but geologists paid little heed.

Then, in 1997, two Columbia University geology professors, Walter Pitman and William Ryan, stunned the earth-science community with their theory that there had, in fact, been a great deluge around 7,000 BC -- the same time that the Bible says Noah loaded animals and family onto the Ark on instructions from God.

The professors' theory, which became the subject of a popular book, Noah's Flood,and a BBC documentary, was based in large part on detailed radiocarbon-dating of shells and sedimentary cores taken from the floor of the Black Sea.

The two geologists, who did comprehensive mapping of the Black Sea floor and seismic tests to examine the seabed sediments, were astonished to discover that the remains of plants and shells were the same age -- originating about 7,540 BC.

They concluded that as glaciers melted, the level of the Mediterranean Sea rose quickly and sediments formed a natural dam between it and the Black Sea in an area called the Bosphorus Strait.

Pitman and Ryan believe that the pressure from the rising Mediterranean caused the dam to break. This allowed a terrifying cataract of close to 12 billion cubic feet per minute of water to pound across the Black Sea Basin, where the first people to till the land instead of hunting to survive had been established.

The rapid rise in the Black Sea submerged mountains and killed everything in its path, according to Pitman and Ryan.

Their work was an instant hit with many Judeo-Christian theologians, who immediately used it in sermons. To some preachers, the geologists provided proof that the Scriptures were literal truth, as was the image of a deity who would angrily destroy those who sinned and ultimately put a rainbow in the clouds, vowing to never again destroy the earth.

At the same time that the Pitman and Ryan work was being acclaimed in 1996, two Canadian earth-science researchers, Richard Hiscott and Ali Aksu of Memorial University of Newfoundland, were also examining the floor of the southwestern part of the Black Sea.

The researchers were looking at the Bosphorus Strait seabed to determine the origin of organic carbon-rich sedimentary deposits. With funding from the National Science and Engineering Research Council, they were trying to determine if the deposits had anything to do with oil-bearing rock formations and if they were releasing greenhouse gases.

"We were preparing to go to the field when the Ryan paper came and Rick and I looked at each other and we laughed and chuckled because we knew that even the preliminary data were showing the other way," Aksu recalls. "Now, we've written nine papers and no matter what we do, the data do not go Ryan's way."

Aksu and Hiscott were startled to see that their own findings from seismic shooting and sonar mapping of the sea floor along with radiocarbon-dating of the sediments were at odds with that of Ryan and Pitman.

Their work did not show any evidence of rapid, catastrophic flooding through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea over the past 20,000 years. Instead, their findings showed a much slower rise in sea level occurring between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago as the glaciers melted.

"All the data that we have looked at during that time interval [20,000 BC to the present day] basically does not show any evidence of a massive event that would require people to run for their lives," Aksu says.

The two Newfoundland professors have published several papers contesting the flood theory, but until their most recent study, they attracted little public attention.

Aksu recognizes that challenging the Noah flood story will not make him popular with some religious leaders. "In the back of most Christians' minds, they would like to think that there is a true flood and the Bible is correct and finally it is proven," he says. "But as a scientist I have to . . . interpret the data the way the data want to be interpreted."

Aksu, who has spoken several times with Ryan, said it appears the U.S. geologist was premature in writing the book and expounding on the flood theory. "He had a sexy idea and ran with it," he says.

However, Ryan is sticking to his story. He says he and Pitman collected more than 80 soil and sediment cores that probed eight to 12 metres into the seabed and provided data from as far back as 30,000 years.

In work he has seen, he says, the Newfoundland geologists have not reviewed enough of the ancient seabed cores to refute the flood theory. "They have built a case based on extrapolation and extrapolation is risky, and if it disagrees with what someone else has observed, I don't think it is quite right to say that what someone else observed is wrong," he says.

In a telephone interview, Ryan sounds weary of the controversy. "I'd be glad if somebody proved that the Black Sea flood didn't occur. My life would be simpler," he says.

The biblical story of Noah taking two of every animal and bird along with his family onto the Ark while rain pounded the earth for 40 days and nights has been ridiculed by many scientists, who say it would have been impossible to care for so many creatures on a boat.

At the same time, archeologists and adventurers have made several fruitless attempts to scale icy cliffs in the area of Mount Ararat in Turkey, where legends say an ancient wooden structure that is the remains of Noah's Ark is located.

Some archeologists have suggested that Noah and his three sons would have taken only domesticated animals on board the ark, along with enough seeds to plant their next crop.

Ryan says his flood theory does not prove the story of Noah's Ark. But anthropologist Joao Zilhao of the Instituto Portugues de Arquelogia claims agriculture in western Mediterranean countries of Portugal and Italy dates back to about 5,400 B.C.

Basing his findings on radiocarbon-dating of items such as sheep bones, barley and beads, the Portuguese researcher says the first settlers to work the land rather than hunt probably arrived by sea and the colonization took place rapidly over about six generations.

That conclusion, published in November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could coincide with the aftermath of the great flood as displaced farmers looked for new land to cultivate.

The study excites Ryan more than the ongoing debate about Noah's Ark. "Once the Black Sea floods, all the communities have to get out," he says. "The biblical mythical story has animals and seeds put on a boat to survive a flood and has a survivor going to a faraway place and his sons spreading different races around the world. . . .

"The archeological records show a rapid spread of people about that time populating areas and they have domestic animals and domestic grains," he adds.

But that still leaves the question of whether the flood took place.

Ryan and Aksu are now planning to put their opposing theories to the test. They are organizing an expedition to the Black Sea soon to take more seabed cores and analyze the results.

"I don't want to say nasty things publicly," Ryan says. "But if he [Aksu] wants to do this [refute the flood theory], there is going to be egg on one of our faces," he says.

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