NTS LogoSkeptical News for 11 February 2003

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

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.

"Science In the News" is produced daily by the Media Resource Service, a public understanding of science program sponsored by Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Sigma Xi does not endorse the items that appear in "Science In the News," nor the science they report.

For directions on how to subscribe or unsubscribe to a Listserv version of this page, click here.

In the News

Today's Headlines - February 11, 2003

from The San Francisco Chronicle

NASA investigators of the Columbia space shuttle disaster have set up a study group to analyze a photograph, taken by an amateur astronomer from a San Francisco hillside, that appears to show a bolt of electricity striking the doomed orbiter as it streaked across Northern California.

General Michael Kostelnik, deputy associate administrator for the shuttle program, told reporters in Washington, D.C., Monday that "the lightning-strike photo . . . is being studied carefully to see what it means."

Separate study groups, consisting of both government and private experts, have been convened to analyze the San Francisco photograph and an image taken by a sophisticated tracking camera at Kirtland Air Force Base that was following the shuttle as it passed over New Mexico.

The Air Force shot shows a silhouette of Columbia with apparent damage to its left wing. Kostelnik confirmed Monday that a piece of the shuttle's left wing was found on the ground near Lufkin, Texas.


from The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO (AP) -- Invasive species often thrive in new environments in part because they have an unfair advantage, according to California researchers: They suffer less illness and have fewer parasites than their native competitors.

"Invasive species end up with about half the parasites, or diseases, they had at home," said Kevin Lafferty, a U.S. Geological Survey marine ecologist at the Western Ecological Research Center in Santa Barbara.

Animals with an average of 16 parasites on their home turf typically bring about three of the parasites with them to new locations. And only about four new parasites will typically adapt to attack the invading species, said Mark Torchin of the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Torchin is the lead scientist on one of two invasive species studies published in the Feb. 6 issue of the journal Nature. Other researchers include UC Santa Barbara's Armand Kuris and Valerie McKenzie, and Princeton University's Andrew Dobson.


from SciDev.net

A new type of microbicide — a gel or cream designed to block the sexual transmission of HIV — has proved extremely successful in an animal model, according to a new study.

The results, published today in the journal Nature Medicine, are the first concrete evidence that microbicides can prevent the virus from attaching to and entering cells in the vagina.

More than 50 candidate microbicides are currently being investigated around the world. Many researchers are optimistic that they can become an important way of preventing the spread of HIV by offering women a new method to block the disease, particularly as the prospects for an effective vaccine remain a long way off.


from The New York Times

When it comes to snowfall, even a flurry is likely to provoke a blizzard of reporting.

"People love hearing about snow," said Nolan Doesken, a meteorologist at Colorado State University. But too often, he and other experts say, the nonstop coverage of winter weather masks a troubling decline in reliable snowfall statistics.

"The loss of snowfall data globally is a major concern," said Dr. Barry Goodison, a climatologist in Toronto. As chairman of a scientific steering group in the World Climate Research Program, Dr. Goodison depends on snowfall figures to help predict climate change. But too often, he said, the information he needs does not exist.

In Russia, social and economic shifts have undermined data collection across that vast and snowy country, Dr. Goodison said. In the United States, after the National Weather Service closed many of its weather stations in the 1990's, snowfall measurements were left in the hands of untrained workers.


from The New York Times

A remarkable living legacy of the Mongol empire has been discovered by geneticists in a survey of human populations from the Caucasus to China.

They find that as many as 8 percent of the men dwelling in the confines of the former Mongol empire bear Y chromosomes that seem characteristic of the Mongol ruling house.

If so, some 16 million men, or half a percent of the world's male population, can probably claim descent from Genghis Khan.

The finding seems to be the first proof, on a genetic level, of the occurrence in humans of sexual selection, a form of sex-based natural selection in which a male or female has an unusual number of offspring. This process can greatly influence the genetic makeup of a species, resulting in otherwise puzzling features like the peacock's cumbersome tail.

The survey was conducted by Dr. Chris Tyler-Smith of Oxford University and geneticist colleagues in China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. Over 10 years they collected blood from 16 populations that live in and around the former Mongol empire.


from Newsday

Philosophers and poets, put down your pens. Scientists are studying the chemistry of love. And their findings are helping unravel age-old questions about attachment, obsession, craving and attention, behaviors that take over when people are in the throes of romance.

"Kings give up their thrones for love," said Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx who decided to research romantic love, which she calls "a wonderful example of long-term focused attention."

Biologically, it wouldn't be advantageous to remain in the first stages of love - infatuation - too long, Brown said. She's been working with colleagues at Stony Brook and Rutgers universities to capture this state on a brain scan. "It's too intense," she added. "People wouldn't be able to get anything done."


Please follow these links for more information about Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society:

Sigma Xi Homepage

Media Resource Service

American Scientist magazine

For feedback on In the News,

Police dismiss 'evil' rumours in search for missing Dracula statue

From Ananova at


Romanian police are dismissing rumours of evil forces at work after a 13th century statuette vanished from a locked room in Castle Dracula during an electrical storm.

Chief investigator with the Bran police, Danut Sindrilau, said: "Lightning struck the castle and plunged it into darkness, and when the lights came back on the statue had vanished.

"It is a mystery as the gates were locked and the walls which are 28-feet thick have no windows."

The statue has never been identified but has stood in its alcove at Castle Dracula since the 13th century.

It was still in place during the 15th century when the man who inspired the legend of Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, came to rule.

Local legend claims that the castle was once owned by Vlad, the prince who ruled the region of Wallachia in the 15th century and who was the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula.

But Mr Sindrilau says, despite superstitious talk, he believes the disappearance had more to do with its estimated value of £750,000 than the supernatural.

He said: "Evil forces or not we have alerted border guards and officers across the country to be on the alert for any signs of the statue stolen from the castle."

Staff at the castle noticed the statue of a mystery nobleman made of marble and volcanic stone was missing from the castle in Bran in central Romania after the storm last week.

Mr Sindrilau added: "The thief knew what he was doing. The manner in which the room was broken into remains a mystery to us. The hall was pretty well secured with padlocks which have shown no signs of being forced open."

Story filed: 12:21 Tuesday 11th February 2003

Unmitigated Gaul – Europe Dares to Question God's Value!


Tom Marsland

Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2003 European conservatives (apparently they exist, though perhaps in hiding) wanted the European Union's first constitution to mention God by name and define European values as including "those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty."

They face overwhelming opposition, and further, it looks as if it's not going to happen. This is all the product of a 13-member panel's drafting of the charter's first six articles, dealing with Europe's fundamental values and powers.

Europe's past moral greatness is now a mere memory. It's hard to believe our continental cousins were once immortalized in these words by Anglo-French historian Hilaire Belloc: "Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe."

As if to punctuate this arduous loss, Jan Zahradil, a Czech parliamentarian, said mentioning God in any EU charter was "a stupid idea [that] will only provoke disagreements. There should be no direct link to religion at all."

Cross the big pond and you now discover a fully transitioned post-Christian, secular society. Just as it is here in virtually all of our government-funded institutions, European Christianity has been supplanted with the aforementioned leftist religion du jour, "secular humanism."

'Secular' is an adjective meaning "concerning those not members of the clergy." 'Humanism' is a noun meaning 'an outlook or philosophy that advocates human rather than religious values.' In essence, man has replaced God as the center of attention. The former elevation of a holy and just Creator has been exchanged for the praise and exoneration of enlightened man.

It is my contention that man is a lousy substitute for God. One has little need to adhere to the tenets of formal religion to see that 'man' is clearly guilty of a fallen nature. The 'essential goodness of man' to which humanists refer appears to be a cruel and sarcastic oxymoron foisted upon humanity by self-loathing 18th century, primarily French philosophers.

Honestly, I have no idea how you, the reader, view God. I embrace the traditional, as found in the Bible. The Bible's earliest text dates back nearly four millennia and is still the most widely accepted document postulating God's view of law.

Around 1300 B.C., Moses hiked off Mt. Sinai with ten commandments in hand, written in stone on two tablets. The law ascribed in those immortal words is the basis for all Western justice to this day.

The first and third commandments are daunting ... kind of a 'do it or else' quality in the writing. Paraphrased, they read (1) "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" and (3) "Don't you dare let anything replace me as God."

Yes, Europe now questions God's relevance. If I were Europe, I'd be far more concerned about God questioning my relevance.

Eighteenth-century hellfire-and-brimstone preacher Jonathan Edwards preached his trademark sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." He stated that God is "just," meaning that He can tolerate only so much sin, and turning away from Him before His perfection forces His hand in perfect judgment. This means little in the way of good news for man, given our fallen state.

That was not very 'enlightened' of Reverend John, was it? NO, and that's because he lived just prior to the era of 'French enlightenment.' Humanism from its roots has posited the notion of man's essential goodness. This is in direct contravention to our Judeo-Christian roots – roots that affirm man's fallen nature, that we're born into sin, not goodness.

Frankly, I'd like to believe in man's goodness, but don't. As attractive as the idea appears, there is no evidence of it when history's record is accessed.

The abbreviated list of secular humanist failures in the past century have included the former USSR, Communist China, Hitler's National Socialism, Castro's Cuba, Central American communism, Japanese imperialism and Mussolini's Italian fascism.

Europe begat the modern-day humanist movement at the very same time we were founding a nation on godly principles. That is why we are superior ... and yes, we are.

Europe is now first hog at the secular humanist trough, with little appetite for our Creator. If I lived in Europe, I believe I'd duck every time I heard thunder and lightning strike.

'Medicine, not Mother Teresa, worked miracle cure'


Kolkata, Oct 8

Indian doctors on Monday said the Vatican was making a mistake in attributing a miracle to the late Mother Teresa, saying strong medicines and not divine intervention had cured a cancer-stricken patient.

The Vatican last Tuesday formally recognised the healing of an Indian woman's abdominal tumour as a miracle wrought by Mother Teresa of Kolkata, bringing her a significant step closer to sainthood.

But well-qualified sources here said 30-year-old Bengali woman Monika Besra was cured by strong drugs and treatment. "Monika Besra was rid of her tumour with the help of very strong medicines and treatment for several days at Balurghat Hospital(in West Bengal)," former West Bengal health minister Partho De told AFP.

"I mean no disrespect to Mother Teresa but it is stretching the truth to say that it was a miracle worked by her. I was the state health minister at the time Besra got her treatment at the state-run hospital."

When Religion Steps on Science's Turf


The Alleged Separation Between the Two Is Not So Tidy

by Richard Dawkins

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 2.

A cowardly flabbiness of the intellect afflicts otherwise rational people confronted with long-established religions (though, significantly, not in the face of younger traditions such as Scientology or the Moonies). S. J. Gould, commenting in his Natural History column on the pope's attitude to evolution, is representative of a dominant strain of conciliatory thought, among believers and nonbelievers alike: "Science and religion are not in conflict, for their teachings occupy distinctly different domains ... I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat [my emphasis] ...."

Well, what are these two distinctly different domains, these "Nonoverlapping Magisteria" that should snuggle up together in a respectful and loving concordat? Gould again: "The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value."

Who Owns Morals?

Would that it were that tidy. In a moment I'll look at what the pope actually says about evolution, and then at other claims of his church, to see if they really are so neatly distinct from the domain of science. First though, a brief aside on the claim that religion has some special expertise to offer us on moral questions. This is often blithely accepted even by the nonreligious, presumably in the course of a civilized "bending over backwards" to concede the best point your opponent has to offer - however weak that best point may be.

The question, "What is right and what is wrong?" is a genuinely difficult question that science certainly cannot answer. Given a moral premise or a priori moral belief, the important and rigorous discipline of secular moral philosophy can pursue scientific or logical modes of reasoning to point up hidden implications of such beliefs, and hidden inconsistencies between them. But the absolute moral premises themselves must come from elsewhere, presumably from unargued conviction. Or, it might be hoped, from religion - meaning some combination of authority, revelation, tradition, and scripture.

Unfortunately, the hope that religion might provide a bedrock, from which our otherwise sand-based morals can be derived, is a forlorn one. In practice, no civilized person uses Scripture as ultimate authority for moral reasoning. Instead, we pick and choose the nice bits of Scripture (like the Sermon on the Mount) and blithely ignore the nasty bits (like the obligation to stone adulteresses, execute apostates, and punish the grandchildren of offenders). The God of the Old Testament himself, with his pitilessly vengeful jealousy, his racism, sexism, and terrifying bloodlust, will not be adopted as a literal role model by anybody you or I would wish to know. Yes, of course it is unfair to judge the customs of an earlier era by the enlightened standards of our own. But that is precisely my point! Evidently, we have some alternative source of ultimate moral conviction that overrides Scripture when it suits us.

That alternative source seems to be some kind of liberal consensus of decency and natural justice that changes over historical time, frequently under the influence of secular reformists. Admittedly, that doesn't sound like bedrock. But in practice we, including the religious among us, give it higher priority than Scripture. In practice we more or less ignore Scripture, quoting it when it supports our liberal consensus, quietly forgetting it when it doesn't. And wherever that liberal consensus comes from, it is available to all of us, whether we are religious or not.

Similarly, great religious teachers like Jesus or Gautama Buddha may inspire us, by their good example, to adopt their personal moral convictions. But again we pick and choose among religious leaders, avoiding the bad examples of Jim Jones or Charles Manson, and we may choose good secular role models such as Jawaharlal Nehru or Nelson Mandela. Traditions too, however anciently followed, may be good or bad, and we use our secular judgment of decency and natural justice to decide which ones to follow, which to give up.

Religion on Science's Turf

But that discussion of moral values was a digression. I now turn to my main topic of evolution and whether the pope lives up to the ideal of keeping off the scientific grass. His "Message on Evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences" begins with some casuistical doubletalk designed to reconcile what John Paul II is about to say with the previous, more equivocal pronouncements of Pius XII, whose acceptance of evolution was comparatively grudging and reluctant. Then the pope comes to the harder task of reconciling scientific evidence with "revelation."

Revelation teaches us that [man] was created in the image and likeness of God. ... if the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God ... Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. ... With man, then, we find ourselves in the presence of an ontological difference, an ontological leap, one could say.
To do the pope credit, at this point he recognizes the essential contradiction between the two positions he is attempting to reconcile: "However, does not the posing of such ontological discontinuity run counter to that physical continuity which seems to be the main thread of research into evolution in the field of physics and chemistry?"

Never fear. As so often in the past, obscurantism comes to the rescue:

Consideration of the method used in the various branches of knowledge makes it possible to reconcile two points of view which would seen irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line. The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being.
In plain language, there came a moment in the evolution of hominids when God intervened and injected a human soul into a previously animal lineage. (When? A million years ago? Two million years ago? Between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens? Between "archaic" Homo sapiens and H. sapiens sapiens?) The sudden injection is necessary, of course, otherwise there would be no distinction upon which to base Catholic morality, which is speciesist to the core. You can kill adult animals for meat, but abortion and euthanasia are murder because human life is involved.

Catholicism's "net" is not limited to moral considerations, if only because Catholic morals have scientific implications. Catholic morality demands the presence of a great gulf between Homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom. Such a gulf is fundamentally anti-evolutionary. The sudden injection of an immortal soul in the timeline is an anti-evolutionary intrusion into the domain of science.

More generally it is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science's turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.

The same is true of many of the major doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. The Virgin Birth, the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Resurrection of Jesus, the survival of our own souls after death: these are all claims of a clearly scientific nature. Either Jesus had a corporeal father or he didn't. This is not a question of "values" or "morals"; it is a question of sober fact. We may not have the evidence to answer it, but it is a scientific question, nevertheless. You may be sure that, if any evidence supporting the claim were discovered, the Vatican would not be reticent in promoting it.

Either Mary's body decayed when she died, or it was physically removed from this planet to Heaven. The official Roman Catholic doctrine of Assumption, promulgated as recently as 1950, implies that Heaven has a physical location and exists in the domain of physical reality - how else could the physical body of a woman go there? I am not, here, saying that the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin is necessarily false (although of course I think it is). I am simply rebutting the claim that it is outside the domain of science. On the contrary, the Assumption of the Virgin is transparently a scientific theory. So is the theory that our souls survive bodily death, and so are all stories of angelic visitations, Marian manifestations, and miracles of all types.

There is something dishonestly self-serving in the tactic of claiming that all religious beliefs are outside the domain of science. On the one hand, miracle stories and the promise of life after death are used to impress simple people, win converts, and swell congregations. It is precisely their scientific power that gives these stories their popular appeal. But at the same time it is considered below the belt to subject the same stories to the ordinary rigors of scientific criticism: these are religious matters and therefore outside the domain of science. But you cannot have it both ways. At least, religious theorists and apologists should not be allowed to get away with having it both ways. Unfortunately all too many of us, including nonreligious people, are unaccountably ready to let them.

I suppose it is gratifying to have the pope as an ally in the struggle against fundamentalist creationism. It is certainly amusing to see the rug pulled out from under the feet of Catholic creationists such as Michael Behe. Even so, given a choice between honest-to-goodness fundamentalism on the one hand, and the obscurantist, disingenuous doublethink of the Roman Catholic Church on the other, I know which I prefer.

Richard Dawkins, one of the world's leading evolutionary biologists, is Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and Senior Editor of Free Inquiry.

Subscribe to Free Inquiry

Order Free Inquiry Back Issues

Free Inquiry Home Page

Secular Humanism Online Library

Council for Secular Humanism Web Site

This page was last updated 01/29/2002
Copyright notice: The copyright for the contents of this web site rests with the Council for Secular Humanism.
You may download and read the documents. Without permission, you may not alter this information, repost it, or sell it.
If you use a document, you are encouraged to make a donation to the Council for Secular Humanism.

Unexpected Evolution of a Fish Out of Water


February 11, 2003


It all began on that fateful day when one fish evolved legs. Suddenly transformed from a silver swimmer into a bold pioneer, this creature stood on the threshold of what would become an explosion of evolutionary diversification. But this flowering of forms would be played out, not in the muck of primordial seashores, but on automobiles.

This is the story of two small, plastic, adhesive plaques and all that came forth and multiplied after them: the Jesus fish and the Darwin fish.

Familiar to drivers everywhere, car fish and their spawn are the soldiers in an evolutionary arms race that has given rise to a host of strange new creatures and what some say is an entirely new form of self-expression.

This menagerie is not only diverse, but highly prolific — and profitable. Taxonomists of car fish say that the Darwin fish alone reproduces at a rate of some 75,000 new fish a year, worth nearly half a million dollars, retail.

The fish has long been a Christian symbol. Long before there were automobiles, legend has it, the fish was scratched in the sand by persecuted first-century Christians as a secret sign.

Different explanations are offered for why the fish became such a widespread Christian symbol. One is that the first letters of the Greek words for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior," form an acrostic that is the Greek word for fish.

The mists of history may obscure exactly when and where car fish first appeared, but in the modern era it is clear that by the 1980's a fish drawn simply with two curved lines containing the word "Jesus" had colonized numerous cars as a symbol of Christian belief.

By the late 1980's, however, a new generation had emerged in mutant form. At first glance, the new fish appeared the same, until one looked closer and saw that the fish said Darwin inside and had two feet sticking out from below, apparently trumpeting the car owner's belief in evolution.

The response to the new fish was swift and sure. A Truth fish could soon be seen devouring a Darwin fish. Or sometimes a Darwin fish could be spotted upside down on a car, its little legs poking into the air, dead.

Evolution, whether natural or otherwise, is notoriously difficult to stop. Eventually car fish radiation produced the Evolve fish, which is a tool-user (holding a wrench), the Gefilte fish, the Hindu fish (with an udder), the Pagan fish (ideal for the pagans who insist that the fish was stolen from them by the Christians, who are still fuming that the Darwin-enthusiasts stole it from them). There is even a flaming Satan fish.

Some say they've spotted a shark that says Lawyer, a Rasta fish smoking a pipe and Lutefisk fish (a kind of cod soaked in lye — the haggis of Norway) as well as increasingly diverse and enigmatic car organisms like dolphins, dead fish, aliens and chili peppers.

Aliens and hot peppers may not seem to have any direct connection to fish, but when it comes to plaques on cars evolution proceeds in leaps that are completely unpredictable, perhaps because of the kind of selective pressure at work.

While natural selection drives biological change, the evolution of car fish seems to have been driven by ideological one-upsmanship at first, and then by market forces and irrepressible silliness. The newest species is the Sushi fish, a truly odd symbolic development in which the fish actually represents a fish.

"We finally made one after thousands of people asked for it," said Gary Betchan, who is a co-owner of EvolveFISH, a Web site that sells an elaborate array of the creatures. "People are always coming up with a new twist. If we think we can sell them, we make it."

Mr. Betchan, whose Web site also offers Nunzilla, a wind-up fire-breathing nun and a Wash Away Your Sins soap, says he is pursuing the car fish business for more than the money.

"We are out to change the world," he said. "We want to make it a better place."

So what exactly are people thinking when they stick these things on their cars?

Dr. Tom Lessl may be the only one who knows.

Dr. Lessl, who studies the use of symbols, is a professor in the speech communication department at the University of Georgia. He has undertaken a study of car fish, and wore out two pairs of shoes walking the nation's parking lots in search of them.

Every time he found a Darwin fish, he left a survey form on the car.

"There are two views," he said of the Darwin fish camp. "One group was openly hostile to traditional religious beliefs," he said, and the other seemed to believe in peaceful symbolic coexistence.

Dr. Lessl said some Darwin fish owners had so much to say that some went well beyond the single page provided for answers to as many as three single-spaced typed pages. Some described the fish as a kind of defense, a way for persecuted atheists to fight back against the onslaught of religion, something like its first use by persecuted Christians.

But, he said, he found many people who said they displayed the Darwin fish as a symbol of the harmonious coexistence of Darwinian ideas and religion.

Dr. Lessl says such marriages of science and religion have been a familiar refrain since the days of the Enlightenment, one continuous intellectual movement that has led through the writings of Francis Bacon in the 17th century on up to plastic fish.

Not surprisingly, the Darwin fish has stirred controversy around the question of the creator, specifically its creator.

What agreement there is about who created the Darwin fish, a question that has been muddled by lawsuits, points to Chris Gilman, president of Global Effects Inc., which makes costumes and props for Hollywood.

Mr. Gilman said he came up with the idea in the early 1980's when he was talking with some friends about how to promote evolution the way that religion promotes itself.

"So I said you put feet on the Jesus fish," he said, "and people said, `Ha ha, that's funny.' People kept bugging me about making them for years."

Eventually, Mr. Gilman had the fish manufactured and handed the whole enterprise off to a friend, Daphne Bianchi, president of Evolution Design Inc., which trademarked the Darwin fish.

The rest is evolution.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Monday, February 10, 2003

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural


Well, at long last we're able to get this Encyclopedia up on the web page, a labor of love on the part of Stephen J. Goodson. We are very grateful for his donation of talent, time, and dedication. Thank you Stephen. Read More.

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 – February 10, 2003

from The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 — Studies conducted by NASA over the last four years concluded that damage to the brittle, heat-shedding material on the leading edge of the space shuttle Columbia's wings posed one of the highest risks of a catastrophic accident.

The studies focused largely on the tremendous damage that could be caused in the unlikely event that a tiny meteoroid or other bit of orbital debris hit the leading edge of a wing, which is made of a lightweight material called reinforced carbon-carbon. That is still one of the theories about what might have happened to the Columbia eight days ago.

But in interviews, engineers for NASA and one of its leading contractors said there was comparatively little testing to determine if slower-moving debris — perhaps of the kind that fell off the shuttle's external tank about 80 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 16 — posed a similar hazard.

As a result, said one engineer familiar with the discussions that took place at NASA in mid-January, the engineers who saw little risk from the debris that hit the Columbia's left wing had scant information to back up their assertion.


from The Associated Press

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- The space shuttle Columbia broke up in a mysterious area of the upper atmosphere once so little understood and difficult to study that scientists dubbed it the "ignorosphere."

The region is of particular interest not only because that's where the disintegration occurred but also because of a time-exposure image taken by an amateur astronomer showing a snake of purplish light corkscrewing through the shuttle's hot glowing trail as it crossed over California.

Former shuttle astronaut Tammy Jernigan collected the camera and the image from the photographer, who has requested anonymity while NASA analyzes the shot. It's not clear whether the flash is real, or an aberration of the camera.


from The Washington Post

HOUSTON, Feb. 9 -- After the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman asked NASA officials what risk of failure each mission carried. NASA engineers said about 1 in every 100 flights was likely to experience a catastrophe. NASA managers put the risk closer to 1 in 100,000.

As accident investigators pore through mountains of data to determine why the shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1, the most difficult questions may lie not in telemetric data, risk analyses and high- temperature physics.

Rather, they may lie in the agency's discordant internal cultures, and in asking whether gaps in communication and perception might have caused the shuttle's demise.

Feynman suggested that the managers' role in selling space exploration to Congress, the White House and the public might have clouded their own perceptions about how risky the technology was. "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled," he wrote in a report to President Ronald Reagan.

The gap between engineering and managerial perceptions persists today.


from The Washington Post

Scientists working with human embryonic stem cells have for the first time successfully spliced out individual genes from the medically promising but politically contentious cells and substituted different genes in their place.

The work is a step toward the biomedical goal of being able to rebuild or regenerate parts of the human body by transplanting either stem cells or tissues grown from stem cells into patients, scientists said. Precise genetic changes in those formative human cells might enhance their therapeutic potential or make them more compatible with patients' immune systems.

Some scientists suggested the success might someday make it unnecessary to pursue "therapeutic cloning," in which cloned embryos would be created as a source of therapeutic tissues that match the genetic signature of the patient.

But the work could escalate concerns among those who fear that stem cell technology will lead to the creation of "designer babies."


from The Washington Post

Imagine the blue marble of Earth turning white, as the glaciers advance, sea levels drop, harbors turn to meadows, and "snouts of ice" a third of a mile high bulldoze the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Scientists have been telling us for some time that Earth is doomed, that the dying sun will balloon out and embrace the planet in the ultimate global warming -- but the incineration is at least 7 billion years away, and first, it's going to get very, very cold.

If you're thinking that all this is too far off to worry about, you should know that at least two scientists have concluded that the Earth is already on the downward slope, its biological heyday millions of years in the past. In their just-published book, "The Life and Death of Planet Earth," astrophysicist Don Brownlee and paleontologist Peter Ward, both of the University of Washington, lay out a grim, deliberately provocative scenario based on current scientific knowledge. They conclude that there would be no single "end of the world," but a relentless sequence of demises: the last elephant, the last tree, the last flower, the last ocean and the last life.


from The Assocaited Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- Fifty years ago this month, on a foggy Saturday morning in Cambridge, England, a 24-year-old beanpole of an American scientist sat down with a few white cardboard cutouts and set off a revolution in biology.

The cutouts, about the size of teacup saucers, looked basically like an elementary school geometry project: Some were hexagons, others looked like a hexagon with a pentagon attached.

But to James Watson, who'd created them the night before, they represented fragments of the mysterious molecule that obsessed him and his collaborator Francis Crick: deoxyribonucleic acid, better known as DNA.

It wasn't yet clear to scientists whether DNA was the stuff of genes. But Watson and Crick thought it was, and for about 18 months, off and on, they had been trying to figure out the three-dimensional structure of the DNA molecule.

"It seemed to us it had to be the secret of life," Watson recalled recently. "We thought it was the most important problem to solve if you were a biologist."


Please follow these links for more information about Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society:

Sigma Xi Homepage

Media Resource Service

American Scientist magazine

For feedback on In the News,

Talking Head for the Undead


Loyd Auerbach has turned the study of all things ghostly into a thriving business. Even though all some clients need is a good placebo.

Loyd Auerbach sees dead people. No, wait. That's not quite right. Loyd Auerbach has been pinched by dead people. He has been patted on the back by them. He has smelled their cigar smoke. He has taken their photos, recorded their movements with electronic devices, asked them questions, and gotten answers. At one point, he says, a dead person walked right through him, a sensation that he describes as "tingly, in a good way." But he has not, as of yet, actually seen any of them, and frankly this seems to leave him a little chagrined, even though Loyd Auerbach is certainly not one of those people who has to see in order to believe.

Auerbach is one of the few people in the world with an advanced degree in parapsychology, and one of an even more select few who run ghost-hunting operations from their dens. In formal terms, Auerbach's den is known as the Office of Paranormal Investigations, from which he oversees a team of about six Bay Area ghost hunters, many of them affiliates of the extremely unusual and short-lived parapsychology master's program at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, where Auerbach used to teach.

The program's untimely demise, however, has done little to slow Auerbach down. In his several decades as a paranormal researcher, he has turned the study of all things ghostly into a thriving business, and his media savvy has made him into something of a talking head for the undead. He has written four books about the supernatural and markets his own line of seminars, videotapes, and ghost-story cassettes. He frequently serves as a consultant for sci-fi TV shows and news programs wanting the downlow on the unexplained. Electronics retailers looking to push certain models of electromagnetic meters used on ghost-hunting expeditions like to drop his name. And since Auerbach also enjoys performing sleight of hand at parties and hosting séances -- something of a sideline to the ghost-hunting business, which itself is a sideline to his part-time day job as a consultant for LexisNexis -- he has also recently adopted the stage name "Professor Paranormal," which has a more impressive ring to it than "Loyd" does.

Today, as Auerbach prepares to lead a ghost- hunting team through the USS Hornet, he believes he stands a fairly good chance of seeing something spooky. According to local legend, the World War II naval carrier now docked at Alameda Island is haunted by the spirits of dozens of prankish sailors. "It's unusual to have this many at all, but we're dealing with, essentially, a city," Auerbach says. Part of the Hornet's draw for the departed is said to be that it was the site of good memories and youthful camaraderie. The ship's old-boy charm attracts the living, too. "The ghosts are hanging out, just like the docents, guys who used to be in the Navy," he says.

Auerbach's ghost-hunting method is based upon correlating as many forms of documenta- tion as possible, including cameras, machines, and people's sensory perceptions. Accordingly, each member of the team assembled for today's excursion has a particular strength. Neva Turnock, one of Auerbach's seminar students, is along to lend her abilities as a psychic. Pam Heath, an investigator who has been working with the Office of Paranormal Investigations for seven years and has degrees in medicine and psychology, claims to be psychically sensitive, but also has brought along a small black box called a TriField meter. It measures the electromagnetic fields in both natural and man-made objects, and ghost hunters use it to look for unaccounted-for energy sources. Auerbach is carrying a black duffel bag filled with his own selection of equipment including a variety of electromagnetic meters, a small videocamera, a Polaroid camera (known among ghost hunters as more reliable than digital or 35 mm film), and a fluorescent light for detecting static electricity.

Ghost-hunting lore is rife with electronics that malfunction and tapes that are wiped blank in the presence of supernatural phenomena, so the tour gets off to a promising start when a reporter's tape recorder stops working once it gets within a few feet of the Hornet. But the only dead things affecting the machine turn out to be its batteries, which are replaced. The group makes its way into the bowels of the ship, heading for the medical bay, where Auerbach says he has previously witnessed paranormal stunts, including unexplained dancing lights showing up on video and a ghost performing on demand. On that occasion, Auerbach says he asked the ghost to move a hand over to the TriField meter. The needle jumped. Then Auerbach asked him to move it away. The needle went back to zero. It went on like that for quite some time.

But today, there are no disembodied wise guys, and the needles on the two meters Auerbach has set up around the room stay resolutely at zero, even when members of the ghost-hunting party try a little wheedling out loud. "If they don't want to cooperate, they don't want to cooperate," he says as everyone finally gives up their cajoling efforts. Luckily, according to Heath and Turnock there are plenty of ghosts in evidence elsewhere on the ship today, although most of them turn out to be markedly shy. In the chapel, both women sense a kindly, older presence, who nevertheless wishes we'd leave. The Polaroid pictures Auerbach shoots of a petty officer's bunk, where Turnock says she is getting a very strong impression of a sad and angry young man, show nothing unusual. In the pilot's mess, where Turnock says she senses a genial, class-clown type, it's impossible to get any readings because the low-hung fluorescent lights are putting off such strong signals that they overload all the TriField meters. And when the group reaches the sailors' sleeping quarters, Turnock is immediately overcome with nausea. "I think I'm going to throw up," she says, clapping a hand over her mouth and heading for the nearest bathroom.

Both Auerbach and Heath agree that they've felt this happen before, and interpret it as a signal that human visitors are not welcomed by whichever spirit is in residence that day. "There was a spot that several of us could not even walk into right off the hangar bay," Auerbach says. "We got waves of nausea just walking in there."

The ghosts hanging around in the ladies' room, however, turn out to be much more receptive to the female ghost hunters. "They may be dead, but they haven't forgotten," offers Heath, who says she has frequently encountered ghosts in the women's bathroom, formerly the ship's engine room. "They tend to be polite, though. They don't enter the stalls, but they do love to watch women put on makeup in the mirrors."

Turnock, who is standing with her hands palms up in front of her, gazing fixedly at the wall ahead of her, says she sees a very young man. Heath moves her TriField meter in front of Turnock's hands. The needle jumps up from the zero position almost to the five mark, a fairly high reading. Then Heath waves the meter behind Turnock's back, and the signal disappears. "It was off the scale a minute ago," Heath mutters. This is a good sign -- it means whatever is affecting the meter isn't evenly distributed throughout the environment. But a check for possible signal sources reveals that Turnock is standing awfully close to a wall-mounted fuse box, which could be causing the high reading.

The rest of the team suggest that she try to get the ghost to move away from the fuse box for another reading. "I'm asking him to walk with me," Turnock murmurs, heading towards the row of sinks on the other side of the room.

"You have any lipstick with you?" Heath suggests. Turnock obliges by leaning in over the sink and brushing a wand of pale-peach gloss over her lips. Both women say they still feel the young man's presence, but now the meter is picking up nothing.

"He was hoping for a brighter color of red," Heath says wryly as the group decamps from the bathroom. She sounds a bit wistful on the ghost's behalf. "They used to love pantyhose," she adds.

Auerbach has a way of explaining why ghosts like those on the Hornet are spending the afterlife essentially slouching around with their buddies, or why even in death they display a predilection for nylons or red lipstick. "Ghosts are people, too," he'll say, shrugging. Then he'll lift one eyebrow. "But they're dead."

Join Scott and Gish on an Encore Creation/Evolution Tour of the Grand Canyon!

Dear Friends of NCSE,

Sorry, but we could not resist the headline opportunity. We mean, of course, that NCSE members, their friends, and their families are cordially invited to join NCSE's executive director Eugenie C Scott and NCSE's own postdoctoral scholar paleontologist Alan Gishlick -- our very own "Gish" -- on our third wonderful NCSE trip down the Grand Canyon. Now, since this is an NCSE trip, we offer more than just the typically grand float down the Canyon: the spectacular scenery, exciting rapids, delicious meals, and good companionship. This will be a "two-model" raft trip, where we will provide both the creationist view of Grand Canyon, and the evolutionist view (and let you make up your own mind.) The standard scientific view of the history of the Canyon will be provided by Gish, who is a trained geologist with several trips to the Canyon under his belt. The creationist view will be presented by Scott, who has never had a geology class in her life but who assures us that this will be no impediment to her presenting the creationist perspective on the Canyon.

The excursion is all-inclusive from Las Vegas, with travel between the Canyon and the Las Vegas airport provided by the outfitter. Participants provide their own sleeping bags and tents (or they can be rented from the outfitter). This will be an 8-day motorized trip from Lee's Ferry to Lake Mead.

Dates: August 16-24, 2003
Cost: $1995 (members); $2200 (nonmembers)
First reservation deadline: April 15, 2003

If you think an NCSE Creation/Evolution Grand Canyon trip would be an exciting way to spend a week this summer, write or call for more information, or visit our web site: http://www.ncseweb.org.

Make your reservations now! A $500 deposit payable by April 15, 2003, will hold your reservation.

Payment Schedule:

April 15, 2002 $500
May 15, 2002 $500
June 15, 2002 $995 (members) / $1200 (nonmembers) Total $1,990 (members) / $2200 (nonmembers)
For more information, call us at 1-800-290-6006, e-mail ncse@ncseweb.org, or write us at 420 40th Street, Suite 2, Oakland, CA 94609-2509.


Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x 305
fax: 510-601-7204

Mother Teresa's House of Illusions


How She Harmed Her Helpers As Well As Those They 'Helped'

by Susan Shields

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 1.

Some years after I became a Catholic, I joined Mother Teresa's congregation, the Missionaries of Charity. I was one of her sisters for nine and a half years, living in the Bronx, Rome, and San Francisco, until I became disillusioned and left in May 1989. As I reentered the world, I slowly began to unravel the tangle of lies in which I had lived. I wondered how I could have believed them for so long.

Three of Mother Teresa's teachings that are fundamental to her religious congregation are all the more dangerous because they are believed so sincerely by her sisters. Most basic is the belief that as long as a sister obeys she is doing God's will. Another is the belief that the sisters have leverage over God by choosing to suffer. Their suffering makes God very happy. He then dispenses more graces to humanity. The third is the belief that any attachment to human beings, even the poor being served, supposedly interferes with love of God and must be vigilantly avoided or immediately uprooted. The efforts to prevent any attachments cause continual chaos and confusion, movement and change in the congregation. Mother Teresa did not invent these beliefs - they were prevalent in religious congregations before Vatican II - but she did everything in her power (which was great) to enforce them.

Once a sister has accepted these fallacies she will do almost anything. She can allow her health to be destroyed, neglect those she vowed to serve, and switch off her feelings and independent thought. She can turn a blind eye to suffering, inform on her fellow sisters, tell lies with ease, and ignore public laws and regulations.

Women from many nations joined Mother Teresa in the expectation that they would help the poor and come closer to God themselves. When I left, there were more than 3,000 sisters in approximately 400 houses scattered throughout the world. Many of these sisters who trusted Mother Teresa to guide them have become broken people. In the face of overwhelming evidence, some of them have finally admitted that their trust has been betrayed, that God could not possibly be giving the orders they hear. It is difficult for them to decide to leave - their self-confidence has been destroyed, and they have no education beyond what they brought with them when they joined. I was one of the lucky ones who mustered enough courage to walk away.

It is in the hope that others may see the fallacy of this purported way to holiness that I tell a little of what I know. Although there are relatively few tempted to join Mother Teresa's congregation of sisters, there are many who generously have supported her work because they do not realize how her twisted premises strangle efforts to alleviate misery. Unaware that most of the donations sit unused in her bank accounts, they too are deceived into thinking they are helping the poor.

As a Missionary of Charity, I was assigned to record donations and write the thank-you letters. The money arrived at a frantic rate. The mail carrier often delivered the letters in sacks. We wrote receipts for checks of $50,000 and more on a regular basis. Sometimes a donor would call up and ask if we had received his check, expecting us to remember it readily because it was so large. How could we say that we could not recall it because we had received so many that were even larger?

When Mother spoke publicly, she never asked for money, but she did encourage people to make sacrifices for the poor, to "give until it hurts." Many people did - and they gave it to her. We received touching letters from people, sometimes apparently poor themselves, who were making sacrifices to send us a little money for the starving people in Africa, the flood victims in Bangladesh, or the poor children in India. Most of the money sat in our bank accounts.

The flood of donations was considered to be a sign of God's approval of Mother Teresa's congregation. We were told by our superiors that we received more gifts than other religious congregations because God was pleased with Mother, and because the Missionaries of Charity were the sisters who were faithful to the true spirit of religious life.

Most of the sisters had no idea how much money the congregation was amassing. After all, we were taught not to collect anything. One summer the sisters living on the outskirts of Rome were given more crates of tomatoes than they could distribute. None of their neighbors wanted them because the crop had been so prolific that year. The sisters decided to can the tomatoes rather than let them spoil, but when Mother found out what they had done she was very displeased. Storing things showed lack of trust in Divine Providence.

The donations rolled in and were deposited in the bank, but they had no effect on our ascetic lives and very little effect on the lives of the poor we were trying to help. We lived a simple life, bare of all superfluities. We had three sets of clothes, which we mended until the material was too rotten to patch anymore. We washed our own clothes by hand. The never-ending piles of sheets and towels from our night shelter for the homeless we washed by hand, too. Our bathing was accomplished with only one bucket of water. Dental and medical checkups were seen as an unnecessary luxury.

Mother was very concerned that we preserve our spirit of poverty. Spending money would destroy that poverty. She seemed obsessed with using only the simplest of means for our work. Was this in the best interests of the people we were trying to help, or were we in fact using them as a tool to advance our own "sanctity?" In Haiti, to keep the spirit of poverty, the sisters reused needles until they became blunt. Seeing the pain caused by the blunt needles, some of the volunteers offered to procure more needles, but the sisters refused.

We begged for food and supplies from local merchants as though we had no resources. On one of the rare occasions when we ran out of donated bread, we went begging at the local store. When our request was turned down, our superior decreed that the soup kitchen could do without bread for the day.

It was not only merchants who were offered a chance to be generous. Airlines were requested to fly sisters and air cargo free of charge. Hospitals and doctors were expected to absorb the costs of medical treatment for the sisters or to draw on funds designated for the religious. Workmen were encouraged to labor without payment or at reduced rates. We relied heavily on volunteers who worked long hours in our soup kitchens, shelters, and day camps.

A hard-working farmer devoted many of his waking hours to collecting and delivering food for our soup kitchens and shelters. "If I didn't come, what would you eat?" he asked.

Our Constitution forbade us to beg for more than we needed, but, when it came to begging, the millions of dollars accumulating in the bank were treated as if they did not exist.

For years I had to write thousands of letters to donors, telling them that their entire gift would be used to bring God's loving compassion to the poorest of the poor. I was able to keep my complaining conscience in check because we had been taught that the Holy Spirit was guiding Mother. To doubt her was a sign that we were lacking in trust and, even worse, guilty of the sin of pride. I shelved my objections and hoped that one day I would understand why Mother wanted to gather so much money, when she herself had taught us that even storing tomato sauce showed lack of trust in Divine Providence.

For nearly a decade, Susan Shields was a Missionaries of Charity sister. She played a key role in Mother Teresa's organization until she resigned.

Exposing Mother Teresa


Exposing Mother Teresa: Hitchens' Book A Devastating Insight. JOHN M. SWOMLEY debunks the myth of Mother Teresa, who has been unjustly built into a near-saint by the media, by way of a review of the book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa In Theory And Practice, by Christopher Hitchens. From: THE HUMAN QUEST, SEPTEMBER -- OCTOBER, 1996

Hitchens' Book A Devastating Insight


ONE OF THE interesting books published in 1995 debunks the myth of Mother Teresa, who has been unjustly built into a near-saint by the media. She has been virtually untouchable as an almost sacred figure. and anyone who dares to criticize her is promptly rebuked.

The book is The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa In Theory And Practice, by Christopher Hitchens (Verso, London and New York, 1995) $12.95. Hitchens aired a documentary on her in England and has investigated her activities.

He questions her Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 because she never did anything for peace. In fact, in her acceptance speech she said, "Abortion is the worst evil, and the greatest enemy of peace... Because if a mother can kill her own child, what will prevent us from killing ourselves or one another? Nothing."

Wherever she goes this is her constant message. In 1992 at an open air mass in Knock, Ireland, she said, "Let us promise our Lady who loves Ireland so much, that we will never allow this country a single abortion. And no contraceptives." She obviously sees no connection between poverty and too many children. In one interview cited in the book, she was asked, "So you wouldn't agree with people who say there are too many children in India?" She said, "I do not agree, because God always provides. He provides for the flowers and the birds, for everything in the world He has created. And those little children are his life. There can never be enough."

One of Mother Teresa's volunteers in Calcutta described her "Home for the Dying" as resembling photos of concentration camps such as Belsen. No chairs, just stretcher beds. Virtually no medical care or painkillers beyond aspirin, and a refusal to take a 15-year-old boy to a hospital. Hitchens adds, "Bear in mind that Mother Teresa's global income is more than enough to outfit several first class clinics in Bengal. The decision not to do so... is a deliberate one. The point is not the honest relief of suffering, but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection."

Then Hitchens notes that Mother Teresa "has checked into some of the finest and costliest clinics and hospitals in the West during her bouts with heart trouble and old age."

The author mentions her visit to Haiti and her endorsement of the Duvaliers, the source of much deprivation of the poor in Haiti. Also, her acceptance of stolen money from Charles Keating, "now serving a ten-year sentence for his part in the savings and loan scandal." Keating, a "Catholic fundamentalist", gave Mother Teresa one and a quarter million dollars and "the use of his private jet." During the course of Keating's trial, Mother Teresa wrote Judge Ito asking clemency and asked Ito "to do what Jesus would do."

One of the prosecutors in the trial wrote her telling her "of 17,000 individuals from whom Mr. Keating stole $252,000,000." He added, "You urge Judge Ito to look into his heart--as he sentences Charles Keating--and do what Jesus would do. I submit the same challenge to you. Ask yourself what Jesus would do if he were given the fruits of a crime; what Jesus would do if he were in possession of money that had been stolen; what Jesus would do if he were being exploited by a thief to ease his conscience." The prosecutor asked her to return the money, and offered to put her "in direct contact with the rightful owners of the property now in your possession." This supposed paragon of virtue never replied to his letter.

No one knows what happens to the millions of dollars Mother Teresa receives. There is no accounting and no evidence that she has built a hospital or orphanage that reflects modern health and sanitary conditions.

Hitchens details the reactionary political activities of Mother Teresa, from aiding the Spanish right wing against the anti-Franco forces who were seeking a secular society in post-Franco Spain, to her visits to Nicaragua and Guatemala to whitewash the atrocities of the Contras and death squads.

There is much more in this book, such as letters from former workers with Mother Teresa exposing her hypocrisy. Hitchens concludes his 98-page book with reference to her fund-raising for clerical nationalists in the Balkans, her endorsement by Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, and her "cover for all manner of cultists and shady businessmen." His last sentence is, "It is past time that she was subjected to the rational critique that she has evaded so arrogantly for so long."

John M. Swomley serves American society in various capacities, a major one being a Jeffersonian advocate of separation of church and state.

page 19

Investigation of the Correctness of the Historical Dating


by Wieslaw Z. Krawcewicz, Gleb V. Nosovskij and Petr P. Zabreiko

In modern times mathematics has become an inseparable part of human culture, in which it plays a fundamental role. Throughout the centuries mathematics has been a crucial tool in the hands of mankind. It has allowed us to understand the fundamental principles of the universe, for example Newton's law of gravity, Einstein's equivalence of mass and energy, Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism, the laws of quantum mechanics for elementary particles, and even the Big Bang theory. The advances in interplanetary exploration and rapid development of computer technology wouldn't have been possible without mathematics.

Scientists, in their struggle to improve our understanding, have untangled the principal problems of biology and unveiled the secrets of life. However, the times when it was sufficient for a biologist to know only elementary arithmetic and graphs of functions are long gone. Today, they need much more advanced mathematics like linear and multilinear algebras, mathematical analysis, the theory of differential and functional equations, statistics and discrete mathematics. Branches of biology like genetics or ecology are considered as parts of mathematics. Mathematics also opens new possibilities for medicine. Mathematical models are used to understand our bodies and to find optimal treatment for diseases.

More and more mathematics is used in the social sciences like economics, psychology, sociology, demography, social epidemiology and criminology. Not surprisingly, mathematics is also trying to make its contribution in history, where it addresses a very serious problem of reliability of the accounts of historical events. How can we be sure that the historical events that we learn about in school or from books really took place? Maybe some of them are simply fairy tales that, because of some mysterious circumstances, are considered now to be historical facts.



From: THE MAMMOTH TRUMPET (March 2001)

[PDF version includes tables, figures, etc.]

[updated response to post publication questions][.doc version]

by Richard B. Firestone, Lawrence

Berkeley National Laboratory, and William Topping, Consultant,

Baldwin, Michigan

THE PALEOINDIAN OCCUPATION of North America, theoretically the point of entry of the first people to the Americas, is traditionally assumed to have occurred within a short time span beginning at about 12,000 yr B.P. This is inconsistent with much older South American dates of around 32,000 yr B.P.1 and the similarity of the Paleoindian toolkit to Mousterian traditions that disappeared about 30,000 years ago.2 A pattern of unusually young radiocarbon dates in the Northeast has been noted by Bonnichsen and Will.3,4 Our research indicates that the entire Great Lakes region (and beyond) was subjected to particle bombardment and a catastrophic nuclear irradiation that produced secondary thermal neutrons from cosmic ray interactions. The neutrons produced unusually large quantities of 239 Pu and substantially altered the natural uranium abundance ratios ( 235 U/238 U) in artifacts and in other exposed materials including cherts, sediments, and the entire landscape. These neutrons necessarily transmuted residual nitrogen ( 14 N) in the dated charcoals to radiocarbon, thus explaining anomalous dates.

The evidence from dated materials

We investigated a cluster of especially young radiocarbon dates concentrated in the north-central area of North America. For example, at the Gainey site in Michigan a 2880 yr B.P. radio-carbon date was reported, while the thermoluminescence date for that site is 12,400 yr B.P.5 Other anomalous dates found at Leavitt in Michigan, 6 Zander and Thedford in Ontario,7 Potts in New York,8 Alton in Indiana, 9 and Grant Lake in Nunavut 10 are summarized in Table 1. The Grant Lake Paleoindian site is most remarkable because its 160 [rc] yr B.P. age is nearly contemporary, while adjacent and deeper samples give ages of 1480–3620 [rc] yr B.P.

Stratigraphic associations place Paleoindian occupations at depth on the pre-historic North American landscape on sediments that form the old C horizon composed of parent material, Wisconsinan deposits that predate Holocene sediment buildup.11,12,13 The young Paleoindian dates cannot be correct, particularly since there are no patterned anomalies noted in later-period prehistoric assem-blages relating to higher stratigraphic positions. In a pioneering study of the Paleoindian site at Barnes, Michigan, Wright and Roosa observed that Paleoindian artifacts were deposited before the formation of spodosols ceased in this area about 10,000 yr B.P.14 This conclusion was based on observing that cemented sediments on artifacts, found outside their original context, defines their original stratigraphic position.

The evidence from particle bombardment

Sediment profiles were taken at Paleoindian sites and at numerous widely separated control locations in Michigan. The C sediment horizon is clearly recognized by its transitional color and confirmed by elevated concentrations of potassium and other isotopes. Color and chemistry are key indicators of this very old soil 11,12,13 derived from parent materials and associated postglacial runoff.15 At Gainey, large quantities of micrometeorite-like particles appear to be concentrated near the boundary between the B and C sediment horizons. They can be separated with a magnet and are identified by the presence of chondrules and by visual evidence of sintering and partial melting. These particles, dissimilar to common magnetites, are found in association with a high frequency of "spherules." The depth profiles for potassium and particles at the Gainey site are compared in Fig. 1. Minor vertical sorting of particles is apparent, with a shallow spike of particles near the surface probably resulting from modern agricultural or industrial activity. Total gamma-ray counting of sediment profiles in the various locations invariably showed increased radioactivity at the B-C boundary consistent with enhanced potassium ( 40 K) and possibly other activities.

Microscopic examination of chert artifacts from several widely separated Paleoindian locations in North America revealed a high density of entrance wounds and particles at depths that are evidence of high-velocity particle bombardment. Chondrules were identified visually; their presence necessarily indicates heating during high-speed entry into the atmosphere. The depth of penetration into the artifacts implies that the particles entered with substantial energy.16 Field simulations with control cherts for large particles (100–200 microns) suggest an entrance velocity greater than 0.4 km/s, and experiments at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory indicate that the smaller particles left tracks comparable to about 526 MeV iron ions ( 56 Fe) in Gainey artifacts. Similar features are not observed in later-period prehistoric artifacts or in bedrock chert sources. Track angles were estimated visually; track densities were measured with a stage micrometer; track depths were found by adjusting the microscope focus through the track. These data are summarized in Table 1.

Track and particle data in Table 1 suggest that the total track volume (density times depth) is highest at the Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana sites and decreases in all directions from this region, consistent with a widespread catastrophe concentrated over the Great Lakes region. The nearly vertical direction of the tracks left by particle impacts at most sites suggests they came from a distant source.

The evidence from uranium and plutonium

Natural uranium, which is ubiquitous in cherts, has a 235 U/238 U isotopic ratio of 0.72 percent, which varies by less than 0.1 percent in natural sources.17 Significant variations in the isotopic ratio do not occur because of chemical processes; however, a thermal neutron bombardment depletes 235 U and thus alters the ratio. Solar or galactic cosmic rays interacting with matter produce fast secondary neutrons that become thermalized by scattering from surrounding materials. Thermal neutrons see a target of large cross section (681 barns)A for destroying 235 U, compared with a target of only 2.68 barns for neutron capture on 238 U. Therefore, despite the low abundance of 235 U, about 1.8 times as many 235 U atoms are destroyed as 238 U atoms by thermal neutrons.

If a large cosmic-ray bombardment impacted the earth and irradiated the prehistoric landscape with thermal neutrons, the 235 U/238 U ratio would be changed; 239 Pu would be produced from neutron capture on 238 U, followed by the decay of 239 U. Neutrons colliding with nitrogen (1.83 barns) would create 14 C in exactly the same way 14 C is normally produced in the upper atmosphere, necessarily resetting the radiocarbon dates of any organic materials lying near the surface on the North American prehistoric landscape—including charcoals at Paleoindian sites—to younger values. 239 Pu produced during the bombardment will also be partly destroyed by thermal neutrons with 1017 barn cross section. Assuming 239 Pu doesn't mobilize, it will decay back to 235 U (half-life 24,110 yr), partially restoring the normal abundance.

Paleoindian artifacts from Gainey, Leavitt, and Butler, and two later-period artifacts from the same geographic area of Michigan were analyzed for 235 U content by gamma-ray counting at the Phoenix Memorial Laboratory, University of Michigan. They were compared with identical chert types representative of the source materials for the artifacts. Control samples were extracted from the inner core of the purest chert known to be utilized by prehistoric people. The Paleoindian artifacts contained about 78 percent as much 235 U as the controls and later-period artifacts, suggesting substantial depletion. Depletion of 235 U necessarily indicates that thermal neutrons impacted these artifacts and the surrounding prehistoric landscape.

"There's a sucker born every minute"


by Mark Israel

[This is a fast-access FAQ excerpt.]

Those of P. T. Barnum's acquaintances who mentioned the subject were unanimous in insisting that he never said this. The closest thing to it that can be found in Barnum's writings is: "I said that the people like to be humbugged when, as in my case, there is no humbuggery except that which consists in throwing up sky-rockets and issuing flaming bills and advertisements to attract public attention to shows which all acknowledge are always clean, moral, instructive, elevating, and give back to their patrons in every case several times their money's worth" (the Bridgeport Standard, 2 Oct. 1885).

Captain Alexander Williams, a New York City police inspector at the time, attributed "There's a sucker born every minute, but none of them ever die" to Joseph Bessimer, a notorious confidence trickster of the early 1880s known to the police as "Paper Collar Joe". See P. T. Barnum: the Legend and the Man, by A. H. Saxon (Columbia University Press, 1989).

"There is a Sucker Born Every Minute" is the title of one of the songs in the 1980 Broadway musical Barnum by Jim Dale.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

Marcello Truzzi, 67, Sociologist Who Studied the Supernatural, Dies

New York Times
February 9, 2003


Marcello Truzzi, a sociologist whose research interests included parapsychology, flying saucers and witchcraft, died on Sunday [2 February] at his home in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was 67.

The cause was cancer, a son, Kristofer, said.

Dr. Truzzi, a professor, writer, magician and juggler, approached subjects like telepathy and the Abominable Snowman with skepticism, but he contended that such reports deserved full investigation. He coined the word "pseudoskeptics" for people who prejudge claims, even apparently outrageous ones.

Some skeptics thought the widespread acceptance of seemingly outlandish notions demanded prompt and forceful rebuttals by scientists.

"We feel it is the duty of the scientific community to show that these beliefs are utterly screwball," Lee Nisbet, executive director of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, said in 1977.

Dr. Truzzi helped found the committee in 1976 but resigned because he considered it more propagandistic than scientific.

In 1981, he founded and became director of the Center for Scientific Anomalies Research, which is dedicated to investigating unusual phenomena.

Dr. Truzzi's more open position, and a flair for showmanship, brought invitations to meetings of psychics and to appear on television talk shows. He was a friend of many self-proclaimed psychics, including Uri Geller, but still doubted Mr. Geller could bend spoons with his mind.

Mr. Truzzi's wife, Patricia, said that in a lifetime of looking, her husband had encountered only one paranormal phenomenon he thought might have scientific merit: some experiments in psychic communication at Duke University.

Mr. Truzzi, the son of a celebrated juggler, Massimiliano Truzzi, was born in Copenhagen on Sept. 6, 1935. That was where the Circus Truzzi, his family's circus, was playing. His family moved to the United States in 1940 after Massimiliano Truzzi was hired to juggle in the center ring of the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The young Marcello worked as a clown, sold tickets and learned magic tricks. He majored in sociology at Florida State University and studied law at the University of Florida before switching to sociology and earning a master's degree.

Dr. Truzzi received a doctorate from Cornell University, where he delved deeply into the university's large collection of books about witchcraft. The way odd subjects fade in and out of scientific respectability fascinated him, his wife said.

He taught at Cornell, the University of South Florida and the University of Michigan before becoming chairman of the sociology department at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. One of his early papers was "The Decline of the American Circus."

In the late 1960's, at the University of Michigan, he began a newsletter for sociologists. It was mimeographed, paid contributors nothing and cost nothing. But its irreverence drew mention in The New York Times in 1970.

The Times reported that one issue included "The Game of the American Sociological Association." The guide for players included instructions like "Your book negatively reviewed, lose 1 point" and "Your plagiarism proved, lose 5 points."

In 1976, Dr. Truzzi was in the news again when he resigned from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

"I don't doubt that 99 percent of occultism is empirically false," he said in an interview with The Times, "but the approach to it has to be based on an examination of the evidence by people qualified to do that, not on outright condemnation."

Dr. Truzzi's other works included textbooks on sociology and a cookbook for witches that called for ingredients like eye of newt.

In 1991, Dr. Truzzi and Arthur Lyons wrote a book about the use of psychics by police departments, "The Blue Sense: Psychic Detectives and Crime" (The Mysterious Press). They concluded that most psychic detectives were frauds, but left open the possibility that some might not be.

Besides his wife and his son Kristofer, of Ann Arbor, Dr. Truzzi is survived by another son, Gianni, of Seattle, and a granddaughter.


Earth Institute News

posted 01/17/03

Mary Tobin

Columbia University Research Finds Correlation Between Meteorite and Comet Impacts and an Increase in Volcanic Activity Development
10 Major Episodes of Extraterrestrial Impacts Found to Correlate with 9 Major Episodes of Volcanism

Supporting the theory that catastrophic events significantly influence major Earth processes, researchers have determined that comet and meteorite impacts on Earth occurring over the last 4 billion years have directly correlated with the activity of strong and normal mantle plumes - heated mantle rock causing volcanic eruptions (e.g. Hawaii, Iceland).

Dr. Dallas Abbott, of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Institute, and Ann Isley, of SUNY Oswego, assembled an expanded database of terrestrial impacts over the last 4 billion years. They used clues from known craters such as impact spherules created from impact melt, and from impact breccias that are created from shattered debris fused under high temperatures and pressures. They also examined the activity of normal and strong mantle plumes over geological time. Time series derived from this data showed that 10 major peaks in terrestrial impact activity were seen on Earth over this time period. Nine out of 10 of these impact peaks are directly matched by peaks in normal to strong mantle plume volcanism. In addition, there are two prominent lulls in impact activity, also corresponding to periods of lower activity of mantle plume volcanism.

The biggest mystery remaining is the mechanism by which large impacts might intensify volcanism. Abbott and Isley propose three possibilities: impacts may cause cracking and de-stressing of the crust, allowing melts that had been trapped due to tectonic stress and/or impermeable boundaries to rise more easily to the surface; impacts may produce large cracks in the surface of the Earth allowing new plate boundaries to form with consequent thinner lithosphere and longer melt columns; or impacts may produce microdikes at the core mantle boundary, which, if very thin, would allow molten core and mantle material to mix, increasing the amount of heat available for melting the mantle and producing a rapid intensification of existing mantle plumes.

Another question raised by the correlation between impacts and volcanism concerns widely adopted theories that meteorite and comet impacts were the cause of mass extinctions of life on Earth. Was it the impact alone or could major episodes of mantle plume volcanism have contributed to these extinctions?

Dallas Abbott is an adjunct research scientist at The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Her primary research focus is the thermal history of the earth, and the manner in which heat transport through the crust and upper mantle influences geological processes, both ancient and present-day.

Abbott and Isley"s research paper, "Extraterrestrial Influences on Mantle Plume Activity," is appearing in Earth and Planetary Science Letters this month.

The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a research unit of the Earth Institute, is one of the world"s leading research centers examining the planet from its core to its atmosphere, across every continent and every ocean. From global climate change to earthquakes, volcanoes, environmental hazards and beyond, Observatory scientists continue to provide the basic knowledge of Earth systems that must inform the future health and habitability of our planet.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world"s pioneer academic center for mobilizing the sciences and public policy in pursuit of a sustainable future, especially for the world's poor. Its director is international economist Jeffrey D. Sachs. More than 800 scientists with strength in Earth science, ecology, health, social science or engineering are working together to reduce poverty, hunger, disease and environmental degradation. The Institute brings their creative knowledge to bear through teaching, research and outreach in dozens of countries around the world. In all it does, the Earth Institute remains mindful of the staggering disparities between rich and poor nations and the tremendous impact that global-scale problems -- from the AIDS pandemic to climate change to extreme poverty in much of the developing world -- will have on all nations.

Genesis World Energy Watch


John Lichtenstein

On December 5, 2002, a company called Genesis World Energy (hereafter GWE) announced the "Edison Device", a "miracle" which they claim is a source of energy that will eliminate the world's dependence on traditional energy sources. A week later, Bob Park's column announced it as a scam. A month later, Professor Park returned to the story.

So, what is it, a miracle, a scam, or a misunderstanding? The information released by GWE is short on detail. The biographies of the principals are not provided. The busness structure is opaque. And the operation of the Edison Device is described inconsistently. I hope to clarify the GWE story, posting links to press coverage, analysis and other information on GWE. I am porting this page over from my slashdot journal, where reader comments can be placed. If you have information you would like to share, email me or write a comment in the journal.

Vandals destroy 'Virgin Mary' fence


Sunday 9 February 2003, 14:05PM

A fence post at a Sydney beach which was the site of an alleged apparition of the virgin Mary has been destroyed.

Vandals struck the post, which lies on the Dolphin Point headland at Coogee, sometime between Friday night and early Saturday morning.

"The vandalism is yet to be formally reported," a police spokeswoman said.

"It's up to Randwick Council to formally report the incident before we can start an investigation.

"A temporary fence has been put up but we are asking people to tread carefully if they are going to visit the site."

Over the past few weeks, thousands of people have flocked to the site to view the so-called apparition, which cynics believe is a trick of light.

The image of the Virgin Mary appears at about 3pm (AEDT) when sunlight falls on the fence at a certain angle and can be seen from a distance of about 100m.

"I'm extremely angry because in committing this despicable act, these low dogs also tried to smash people's hopes and beliefs," Randwick Mayor Dominic Sullivan told The Sun-Herald.

Mr Sullivan said the council was committed to repairing the fence in an attempt to bring the Virgin Mary back.

"While we will be taking all the time necessary to ensure the fence is put back in exactly the same place, we cannot promise any miracles," he said.

Pepsi Has No Plans For Can With Abridged Pledge


by Kenneth Newquist
Copyright 2002 Kenneth Newquist
Posted: 2002-09-25

An e-mail claiming that a new patriotic Pepsi soda can had the words "Under God" striken from its design is a hoax.

Date collected: 8/12/2002

Pepsi has a new patriotic can coming out with pictures of the Empire State Bldg. and the Pledge of Allegiance on them. But Pepsi forgot two little words on the pledge, "Under God." Pepsi said they did not want to offend anyone. If this is true then we do not want to offend anyone at the Pepsi corporate office. If we do not buy any Pepsi product then they will not receive any of our monies. Our money after all does have the words "Under God" on it.

Please pass this word to everyone you know. Tell your Sunday School class tomorrow and tell your Pastors so that they can tell the whole congregation. Christians stand up and let your voices be heard.

We want the words "under God" to be read by every person who buys a can. Based on the e-mail I received, it apparently caused quite a stir in the Christian community (though as a reader points out, other faiths might have been upset about it as well, although none of them e-mailed me about it.) No doubt their concerns were fed by recent attempts to strike the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegience

Everyone can relax -- Pepsi has no plans to release any redesigned cans with an abridged pledge on it.

Here's what the webmaster at Pepsi's Web site had to say when I e-mailed the company about the hoax:

Thank you for e-mailing us here at Pepsi-Cola Company. We always appreciate hearing from our consumers. I have attached what is located on our website at www.pepsi.com. We hope that this will help clarify the situation.

We wanted to clarify an erroneous report that has been circulating around cyberspace for the past several months. Pepsi has NOT created any packaging (on cans or bottles) containing an edited version of America's Pledge of Allegiance. A patriotic package used last year by Dr Pepper was inappropriately linked to this rumor. Dr Pepper's position is very clearly articulated at: http://www.dpsu.com/drpepper_can.html

'Faster Than the Speed of Light': E = mc², Except When It Doesn't

February 9, 2003

One of the curiosities of life on earth is the obsession to lay down grids of rigid constraints -- the rules of chess or baseball, the form of a sonnet, or the Internal Revenue Service code -- and then try to stretch them to the limit. Those who excel at pushing the envelope -- chess masters, Olympic athletes, Washington tax lawyers, everyone it seems but contemporary poets -- are generously rewarded with riches and sometimes even public esteem.

The most sophisticated of these sports is theoretical physics, and João Magueijo, a young Portuguese professor at Imperial College in London, has the markings of a champ. Judging from his new book, ''Faster Than the Speed of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation,'' this is an opinion with which he would readily agree.

In fact, if your reading list is already overpopulated, skip the book and cruise over to his Web page (theory.ic.ac.uk/magueijo) for a taste of the persona he presents to the world. As the page loads, a Java cartoon of a beer glass appears on the screen, emptying itself over and over as if the suds were being sucked up by a pulsating black hole. A photo of Magueijo ''in action'' shows him getting sloshed with some friends; there is a primer on cosmology, the study of the universe, and included on the site is a link to an Internet guide to the London rave scene.

This kind of thing is fairly commonplace. Theoretical physics is populated by some of the smartest people outside Wall Street, and it is de rigueur to show that you are fiercely independent and definitely not a nerd. Where Magueijo hopes to distinguish himself from his pack is by showing that the speed of light, long held as an inviolable entry in the cosmological rule book, is not sacrosanct after all. It has slowed as the universe has grown older. If this can be proved, Magueijo argues, then some of science's most vexing puzzles can be solved.

Consider the horizon problem, a staple of popular science books. Look out (with a suitably powerful telescope) at a galaxy 10 billion light-years away. According to the logic of the Big Bang theory, the light was emitted 10 billion years ago and is just now reaching this part of the universe.

Now turn around and look 10 billion light-years in the opposite direction. You have successfully observed two regions of the universe that themselves are 20 billion light-years apart. Since the whole universe is only 15 billion years old, they will never be able to see each other or (since nothing travels faster than light) interact in any way.

The weird implications of this become clearer if you imagine the earliest moments of the Big Bang. When the universe was a second old, and hence a light-second in radius, about 186,000 miles, opposite points on the circumference were twice that far apart, unbridgeable even by light. No matter how far back you go -- a millisecond, a microsecond -- the regions can never have been in contact. It is as if they exist as two separate universes.

The reason this bothers cosmologists is that, so far as they can tell, the universe in front of us and the universe behind us are pretty much the same. They differ in detail, of course -- this galaxy here, that constellation there -- but in the most general sense, creation appears to be homogeneous. Galaxies are distributed in a more or less uniform manner, and in whatever direction you point a thermometer, space is the same temperature. But if certain parts of the universe never interacted, then why is there so smooth a blend?

The favored explanation is a theory called cosmological inflation: suddenly for a few moments early in its history, the tiny universe began wildly expanding, far more rapidly than it does now. Those now isolated regions were originally close enough to touch.

Some theorists find this a bit contrived, and Magueijo is one of a handful proposing a different solution: if the speed of light used to be faster, then neighborhoods that now seem hopelessly far apart were originally together.

Those are the bare bones of the idea, which Magueijo elaborates throughout the book. Whether that notion is any less ad hoc than inflation is a matter of taste. Depending on how future experiments come out, his theory will one day be recorded as a stunning breakthrough or a forgettable detour down a cul-de-sac.

There is nothing wrong with writing about a work in progress. What better way to give readers a taste for the messiness of real science, before the story has been sanitized in the retelling? But whatever his gifts as a theorist, as an author Magueijo is only partly successful.

The curse of popular science writing is that almost nothing can be assumed. Here Magueijo rises to the task, using the first half of his book to lay out a nice refresher course. (A story about cows and electric fences makes the essence of special relativity about as clear as can be.) It's in Part 2, when he gets into the meat of the story, that the account becomes wearing.

With a bit of patience one can keep up with the gist of his idea, called V.S.L. for ''varying speed of light.'' But what is apparently meant to be an enlightening account of a theory-in-the-making is blackened again and again by a bristly protagonist who, at least as he depicts himself, is very difficult to like.

Everywhere he turns, Magueijo tells us, he finds himself surrounded by stupidity. He refuses to submit papers to the journal Nature (the staff there is surely heartbroken) until the cosmology editor is castrated. (João the Iconoclast puts this in cruder terms.) The timid souls who fail to appreciate the daring of his speculations are likewise reviled. ''Clearly something as wild as V.S.L. is an affront to their self-respect; so they need to see it fail.'' Or maybe they just think he's wrong.

Even his sympathizers come in for ridicule if their support is not avid enough. When an older colleague decides that, on second thought, he doesn't want to collaborate on a paper about V.S.L., this can only be because he is suffering from a midlife crisis (he just turned 40).

Magueijo is so openly contemptuous of the people who finance his intellectual recreations that he seems to be daring them to ground him for a week -- or cut off his allowance. ''Personally, I would fire them all and give them a long prison sentence,'' he writes, ''but you already know my thoughts on the matter.'' Yes, we know. This statement is near the end of the book, and we have been told many times.

This kind of material is probably meant to be described in a review or jacket blurb as ''irreverent.'' But at least since James Watson's ''Double Helix,'' the fact that scientists have rivalries, opinions and even personal lives is hardly surprising. Though we get some glimpses here of theorists grappling with an elusive idea, too much of the story comes off as puerile.

In the end, Magueijo assures us that, win or lose, it is he who will get the last laugh. If the theory is right his doubters will rush to claim credit, for ''they are bandwagon passengers, those who play safe and lead an easy life.'' And if the theory is wrong? He'll burn that bridge when he comes to it.

George Johnson's book ''A Shortcut Through Time: The Path to the Quantum Computer'' will be published next month.


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

Contacting the North Texas Skeptics
The North Texas Skeptics
P. O. Box 111794
Carrollton, TX 75011-1794
214-335-9248 Skeptics Hotline (current information)

Current News  News Back Issues

What's New | Search | Newsletter | Fact Sheets
NTS Home Page
Copyright (C) 1987 - 2008 by the North Texas Skeptics.