NTS LogoSkeptical News for 26 March 2003

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Wednesday, March 26, 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.

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In the News

Today's Headlines - March 26, 2003

from The Washington Post

Nine Chinese tourists appear to have caught a dangerous new respiratory illness by flying on a plane from Hong Kong to Beijing with a man who was sick, officials reported yesterday.

The infections, if confirmed, would mark the first known incident in which someone was stricken with the disease by sharing a plane ride with an infected person.

The report heightened concern about how easy it is to contract the illness, raising questions about whether new restrictions should be imposed on air travel to the most severely affected countries to stem further spread of the disease, known as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

After a lengthy international conference call, the World Health Organization (WHO) decided not to recommend restricting travel.


from The Chicago Tribune

GUANGZHOU, China -- Wang Li took her 9-year-old daughter to the hospital Tuesday for treatment of a simple fever and instructed her, in effect, not to breathe while she was in the building.

So there went the little girl, skipping through the lobby with her hand over her mouth, allowing Wang to worry a little less about a deadly mystery disease that apparently was spawned here and has spread to about a dozen countries around the world.

Wang knew to be concerned only because she has seen news from Hong Kong television. As far as China's state-run media is concerned, the initial three-month outbreak of the virus in Guangzhou and the surrounding province, which infected more than 300 people and killed at least five, has petered out.

But that is not the case, according to a preliminary judgment from the World Health Organization and Hong Kong health officials. They say the outbreak of atypical pneumonia that started in this southern city seems to be still on the loose, infecting new patients in Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere.


from The Washington Post

Federal health officials said last night that they are investigating whether a Maryland hospital worker's fatal heart attack was related to the smallpox inoculation she received this month.

Authorities also are investigating a second case in which a recently vaccinated woman, from an unidentified location, suffered a heart attack. She is on life support.

In total, seven people immunized in the two months the program has been underway have experienced cardiac-related complications, a development that so surprised officials that they have decided to screen out anyone diagnosed with heart conditions, Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced last night.


from The New York Times

The powerful front that brought gale-force gusts and intense clouds of dust to much of Iraq is likely to clear by today, and similar conditions should not return for perhaps a week or two, private and military meteorologists said yesterday.

"After the system that is going through right now we see a lull," said Lt. Col. Eric McKinley, the director of air and space science at the Air Force Weather Agency...

The Air Force agency, based at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, has been providing detailed forecasts of dust and sand conditions to troops in and around Iraq using a computer model that was first used during operations in Afghanistan in late 2001.


from The New York Times

Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department say they learned valuable lessons from their attempts to grapple with the mysterious illnesses — known collectively as gulf war syndrome — that plagued some veterans of the last gulf war.

This time, they are coordinating their efforts in an effort to forestall another outbreak of symptoms or, if one does emerge, to understand it.

The endeavor involves intense monitoring and measurement of the health of the troops and their exposures to microbes or potential toxins. Doctors and researchers will be able to track the medical records of troops before, during and after the war, and will have more detailed information on the location of troops during the war, what drugs and vaccines they received and when, and what substances they might have encountered in air, water and soil.

"We weren't as prepared following the last gulf war as we will be with this one," said Dr. Robert Roswell, the under secretary for health at the V.A.


from The Associated Press

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) -- A new space telescope to be launched in mid-April should open another window on the universe, pulling into focus objects too cold, distant or clouded by dust for other observatories to see, NASA said Tuesday.

The Space Infrared Telescope Facility is the last of NASA's four so-called "Great Observatories." Its launch, planned for April 18, comes 13 years after the first ambitious effort, the Hubble Space Telescope.

The new observatory should examine infrared radiation -- heat -- given off by objects throughout the universe, including stars and galaxies farther back in space and time than astronomers have ever peered.

The mission "will significantly increase our understanding of the universe and will probably rewrite astronomy textbooks, just like the Hubble Space Telescope did," Lia La Piana, the mission's program executive at NASA headquarters, said.


from The Associated Press

Washington - In a report completed before the Feb. 1 shuttle Columbia disaster, NASA'S safety panel concluded that increasing problems discovered last year could be blamed on the shuttle fleet's age and necessitated a re-examination of the way NASA certifies space shuttles as safe to launch.

The report, released yesterday by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, also criticized NASA for not promising to install mechanisms on the shuttles to help astronauts escape during a disaster. But it concluded that safety for the shuttle program has been a priority that was "first and foremost" at the agency.

The 106-page report noted that "no changes have been made to the report as a result of the loss of Columbia." Minor problems during the five shuttle missions last year were cited and blamed on the fleet's increasing age. It said cracks, leaks and other failures "provide evidence of this degradation and indicate the need for re-evaluation of the certification criteria" for shuttle parts.


from SciDevNet

NORTHERN CAPE, South Africa] A group of South African hunter-gatherers is to receive six per cent of all royalties received by South Africa's leading research organisation from a potential anti-obesity drug derived from the local hoodia plant.

Under the deal, the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) will also pay the San community eight per cent of all milestone payments received from Phytopharm, its UK-based licencee for the drug. The money will be used for the "general upliftment, development and training of the San community".

The income will be paid to a "San Hoodia Benefit Sharing Trust", made up of a nonvoting observer appointed by South Africa's Department of Science and Technology, a CSIR representative, and three representatives appointed by the San Council.


from SciDevNet

NAIROBI (PANOS)] What are boys and girls made of? According to the nursery rhyme, sticks and stones and puppy dog tails [boys]; sugar and spice and everything nice [girls].

And "nice" Kenyan girls don't study engineering. Like Peninah Wanjira, who finished among the top five students in her secondary school. She wanted to be an engineer, but her headmaster prevented her from specialising in science. Too difficult, he told her. Boys whom she consistently outperformed took her place.

"I will never forgive him. He killed my dream," Wanjira, a sociology graduate currently working as a clerk in Nairobi, says bitterly. "Look at what I do: signing and stapling forms all day."

Fortunately, Kiriri Women's University of Science and Technology (KWUST), which opened in September 2002, is challenging generations of gender stereotyping and an entrenched culture that favours males at all levels of education.


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In Startling Turnabout, Christian Coalition Founder Insists On Secular Government To Ensure Religious Liberty

TV preacher Pat Robertson has called on President George W. Bush to ensure that the post-war government of Iraq is secular and maintains the constitutional separation of church and state.

Speaking on his "700 Club" program March 17, Robertson said, "The thing that the president of the United States has got to keep in mind is, under the Ba'ath party, Iraq was a so-called secular state. That's why many of the Islamic nations don't like [Saddam Hussein]. If the United States tries nation building, it's got to [have] at the very top of its agenda a separation of church and state. There has to be a secular state in there and not an Islamic state. If they let an open vote, and let the Shi'ites for example take a vote, they will probably have the majority, and [under] one-man one-vote will say, we'll go in for shariah, and the next thing you know, you've got a mini-Iran in there."

Continued Robertson, "So it's going to be absolutely imperative to set up a constitution and safeguards that say we will maintain a secular state much like what Indonesia has, but to respect the faith of all the people in there, including the Sunni and the Shi'ites and the Christians and the Assyrian Christians, whatever, and the Kurds. Very important."

Robertson's endorsement of church-state separation is startling, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Observers at the church-state watchdog group say the Christian Coalition founder has been a harsh and persistent critic of the constitutional concept.

For decades, Robertson has insisted that church-state separation is found in the constitution of the old Soviet Union, but not in the U.S. Constitution. He says the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

In a speech at the Christian Coalition "Road to Victory" Conference Oct. 12, Robertson said, "We have had a distortion imposed on us over the past few years by left-wingers who have fastened themselves into the court system. And we have had a lie foisted on us that there is something in the Constitution called separation of church and state."

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn hailed Robertson's turnabout on the subject.

"Pat's conversion shows there is hope for even the most wayward soul," said Lynn, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "I sent him a letter of congratulations and an Americans United membership application in today's mail. We are always looking for new supporters, especially those with the kind of financial clout that Robertson has.

"I'm not sure that Pat intends to apply his newfound enthusiasm for church-state separation to the United States as well as Iraq," continued Lynn. "But I'm sure that once he gives it some thought, he will realize that religious liberty is as good for Americans as it is for Iraqis."

2003 Texas Bigfoot Conference

The 3rd Annual Texas Bigfoot Conference has been scheduled for the weekend of October 17-19, 2003. It will be held once again in Jefferson, TX.


As far as speakers go, Loren Coleman will be returning to speak about his upcoming book, Bigfoot: The True Story of Apes in America.


John Kirk, a founding member of the BCSCC, the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club will be speaking about his group's research of Sasquatch in British Columbia.


Chester Moore, Jr. will be back talking about his ongoing field research of Southern Cryptids, as well as signing copies of his new book: Boogers, Bears, Birds and Beasts: Cryptozoology in the American South.


The TBRC will be discussing our ongoing research and investigations.

Lee Murphy will be back with his new book, Heretofore: Unknown, about the Honey Island Swamp Monster.


Dallas Tanner will be back with his new book, Track of the Bigfoot.


Marc DeWerth, who graced us with his presence as the auctioneer at the 2nd Annual Texas Bigfoot Conference, will be back with a presentation of his research in Ohio, as well as showing his video of a possible Bigfoot.

M. K. Davis will be back as well, this time giving a presentation of his research of the Honey Island Swamp Monster of Louisiana.


Kriss Stephens, paranormal investigator for MTV's show "Fear" will be onhand to discuss her investigation of the DeQuincy, LA roadkill critter and her Bigfoot experience.


Randy King will be demonstrating his interactive Bigfoot Research CD-ROM, the Bigfoot Field Guide & Compendium Info CD.

There will be a pre-registration package that will include a catered dinner Friday night, October 17, reserved seating at the Conference and a guided tour to Fouke, AR with a trip to Boggy Creek, led by Smokey Crabtree on Sunday, October 19. This package will be $35 if received by Sept. 15, 2003, $40 after that date.

There is information on the website concerning discounted lodging for Conference attendees.


Craig Woolheater
Texas Bigfoot Research Center
P.O. Box 191711
Dallas, TX 75219
1-877-529-5550 Toll Free

Expert: Smart's religion probably made her more vulnerable to fanatic


CATHERINE S. BLAKE / Associated Press Writer Mar 19, 2003

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The man accused of abducting Elizabeth Smart likely used their shared Mormon background to brainwash her, a psychologist said. Their common religious reference points allowed his hold over her to become stronger, said Steven Alan Hassan, a cult expert and mental health professional.

'`He knew the right words to say because he was a Mormon who was excommunicated and she was Mormon,'' Hassan said.

Elizabeth had several opportunities to escape during the last nine months. But mental health experts say her unwillingness to leave and denial of her identity when police first found her would be normal for someone who had been brainwashed.

Experts say it's difficult to speculate what lies ahead for the teenager because they don't know what happened to her during her ordeal.

But Hassan said that Brian David Mitchell, the fanatic accused of abducting her, likely started religious indoctrination from the very first moment.

``Waking up a 14-year-old and carrying her off by knifepoint is very disorienting and traumatic,'' he said. ``The adaptive response is to conform and do whatever she was told to do.''

Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, were charged Tuesday with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated burglary. Elizabeth, now 15, was abducted from her bedroom at knifepoint June 5.

Hassan believes once Mitchell had Elizabeth he immediately began to drive home his belief system, laid out in a dense 27-page manifesto in which he declared himself a messenger of God and said God wanted followers to have multiple wives.

``He likely began saying in a very fanatical way that he was a prophet, and that she was meant to be his wife,'' he said.

She was likely given a new identity, complete with a new name _ she was allegedly called ``Augustine'' _ different garb and an itinerant lifestyle. Throughout her captivity she may have spoken to no one but Mitchell and Barzee.

``Essentially this new pseudo identity of his wife began suppressing the old identity of Elizabeth Smart,'' Hassan said. ``Brainwashing is a three step process: unfreezing the current identity, changing it and refreezing a new cult identity.''

In her new identity, Elizabeth wouldn't have thought to ask for help, said Carrie Andreson, 21, who spent a year and a half with a religious cult that starved her, made her stand outside in the dark for hours and beat her.

Andreson, from Massachusetts, has been a patient of Hassan's.

``I wouldn't have thought of leaving because even thoughts are exposed and you'll be punished for the thoughts. And you don't want to disappoint God.'' Andreson said.

Elizabeth's conversion from a suburban teenager to a veiled follower of a religious fanatic was probably aided by the presence of Barzee, who was a submissive role model for Elizabeth.

Hassan said when things calm down and Elizabeth's no longer basking in the feel of her own clothes and the taste of home-cooked food, she may long for the person known as ``Augustine.''

``There is a nine-month-old formed identity that is indoctrinated with this man's belief,'' Hassan said. ``I think 'Augustine' will miss him and she may feel some anxiety and panic over that.''

UFO could have been electrocuted cat


Experts say a reported UFO sighting in Norway was probably an electrocuted cat.

People in Lardal reported seeing a fire ball explode in the night sky and fall slowly down to earth.

But investigators think they've solved the mystery after the charred body of a cat was found at the foot of an electrical mast.

They believe the unlucky cat climbed up the mast and touched a live wire, reports Aftenposten.

Lars Helge Sogn says what people saw was the cat exploding and falling off the mast.

Is God in your brain?


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Imagine you are about to have a mystical experience. You may be absorbed in prayer in the silence of your room, or perhaps you are meditating and—helped by the lack of distraction to your senses—you are about to experience a feeling of unity with the universe, an experience that will reinforce your conviction that there really is another world out there; that what we call reality is only a pale reflection of the real thing. The question is: what is going on in your brain while all this is happening? Are your mental powers, in fact, allowing you to, at least temporarily, gain a higher view of the universe? Or, is your brain simply malfunctioning under unusual circumstances and playing tricks on you? In the following, I will lay out the evidence as best as we can assess it; by the end of this essay, you may wish to look into this matter more carefully and decide for yourself.

Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'Aquili, two researchers interested in the neurobiology of mystical experiences, carried out an intriguing set of experiments. They asked Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns, respectively, to try to achieve a state of deep meditation or prayer while in an isolated room in a laboratory. The subjects were hooked to a computerized scanning machine that could visualize which parts of their brains were unusually active or inactive. The results were very similar in the two cases. For one thing—and not surprisingly—the brains of the meditators and nuns activated areas that are associated with intense concentration: praying or meditating is an intellectual activity that requires effort on the part of the brain. More interestingly, Newberg and D'Aquili saw that another region of the brains of their subjects was going almost completely dead: the posterior superior parietal lobe. This area is known to be in charge of determining the boundaries of one's body, a fundamental task for any living being because it allows us to navigate a complex three-dimensional world with no more accidents than occasionally spilling the coffee.

We know that the posterior superior parietal lobe plays that particular role because there are patients with damage in this same region who literally cannot move around without falling, missing the chair they intended to sit on, and generally having a fuzzy understanding of where their body ends and the rest of the universe begins. It is a truly awful condition, one of many that have taught neurobiologists so much about the inner workings of the human brain.

Now, what is interesting is that Newberg and D'Aquili's subjects described their mystical experience in an uncanny similar way to the reports of brain-damaged patients: they said that, at the peak of their meditation or prayer, they felt "one with the universe," feeling a dissolution of their bodies into the wholeness of reality. The brain scans supported their interpretation of what was happening: because of the low level of sensorial stimuli (the experiments were being conducted in dark rooms with no sounds) the brain was fed little in the way of information about the outside world and simply shut down the corresponding areas (possibly to save energy: the brain is by far the metabolically most costly organ we have).

The question is: where the Franciscan nuns and Buddhist meditators really accessing an alternate reality, or where they simply experiencing an odd side effect of putting their brains under unusual circumstances?

Michael Persinger is a Canadian neurobiologist who, like Newberg and D'Aquili, is interested in scientifically investigating mystical experiences. He has started out with the known fact that some patients who suffer from seizures in the temporal lobes are subject to auditory or visual hallucinations, which they often interpret as mystical experiences. Some of these patients are convinced that they talked to God and that, as a result, they gain a special "cosmic" insight into reality, consciousness, and the meaning of life. Persinger set out to literally repeat these experiences under controlled laboratory conditions. He built a helmet that causes small, intense, and directed magnetic fields inside the brain to simulate micro-seizures that do not cause any permanent damage. In perfectly Victorian tradition, the good doctor has experimented upon himself and found that magnetically induced seizures in the temporal lobes do indeed generate the same sort of hallucinations and mystical experiences reported by the patients.

Again, what is going on? Is Persinger's helmet a machine that can potentially put everybody in direct contact with God, or does it show that many mystical experiences are in fact caused my seizures, that is by a malfunction of the normal brain circuitry?

Here is where the facts end and the theorizing begins. From the point of view of purely logical possibilities, the 'faulty-brain-under-unusual-circumstances' and the 'triggered-real-mystical-experiences' interpretations are both possible, and we are free to believe whatever fits better with our general outlook on such matters. However, I would argue that by far the simplest and most reasonable explanation of the facts is indeed the naturalistic one (i.e., that we are witnessing a temporary malfunction of the brain triggered by abnormal conditions such as sensorial deprivation or seizures). Why? First, this interpretation fits with all we know about the brain, the phenomenon of hallucinations, and even the natural tendency of human beings to invent explanations when faced with unusual sense data. Second, if God really built that ability in our brains for the purpose of communicating, why did He choose to make it much easier for some individuals and essentially impossible for others to achieve such a state of blessing? Third, it is interesting that different subjects interpret their experiences differently, depending on their cultural background and previous beliefs, again something that fits better with a naturalistic explanation than with the refined plan of a supernatural being.

Either way, you'll have to use your brain to reach a conclusion, but how do you know that you are not having a seizure that is biasing your judgment? Isn't the human brain a wonderful thing to ponder with and about?

Tuesday, March 25, 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.

In the News

Today's Headlines - March 25, 2003

from The Washington Post

A previously unknown version of a virus that normally causes the common cold may be behind a dangerous new respiratory infection spreading around the world, U.S. officials announced yesterday.

Scientists at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta have found several lines of evidence indicating that the cause of the mysterious outbreak is a new member of a family of microbes known as coronaviruses, officials said.

"This very well may be a new or emerging coronavirus infection," said CDC Director Julie Gerberding during a briefing for reporters. "For us, right now, this is a hypothesis. It is our leading hypothesis."

The primary suspect in the outbreak previously was another type of virus, known as a paramyxovirus.


from The San Francisco Chronicle

Now that U.S. troops are on the ground in Iraq, they have a first-hand chance to look for any hidden weapons of mass destruction, using high-tech equipment that can see through walls and buried bunkers.

The Bush administration is largely basing its war against Iraq on the dread that Saddam Hussein is hiding super-weapons, including killer microbes and poison gases.

As U.S. troops advance through the Iraqi desert, they're trailed by technicians equipped with infrared scanners that spot heat from underground biowar factories and by mobile units equipped with instruments for analyzing biological, chemical and nuclear samples.

They might also be carrying handheld gizmos and suitcase laboratories that can sniff out deadly bugs and chemicals. Some of these gadgets were developed at a Bay Area weapons lab, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, but citing security concerns, officials there refuse to say whether the devices have actually been sent to Iraq.


from The New York Times

With war under way and the government warning that America is at high risk of terrorist attacks with chemicals, germs or radiation, experts say the nation's response capacity is greater than it was in the past, but still has significant gaps.

"We're better off than we were, but we're not there yet," Dr. William Schaffner said last week. He is chairman of the preventive medicine department at Vanderbilt University and one of the infectious disease experts who have advised the government about smallpox vaccination.

Dr. Tara O'Toole, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, said: "We have done some useful things, as a nation and in states and some cities, to prepare for a bioterror attack. But I think people don't appreciate the kind of scale of effort that is needed and has not been achieved. I think there is also an understandable reluctance to talk truthfully about how vulnerable we are, lest we encourage would-be terrorists and undermine our own defense. I don't think we're a lot less vulnerable now than we were in 2001."


from The Associated Press

GOLDSBY, Okla. (AP) -- A crop-duster sprayed a harmless substance above a field of cattle and oil pumps Monday in a test to see if weather radar could detect a bioterrorist attack.

It was the first spray of a three-week Army test over central Oklahoma. The plane will make 261 runs, dropping grain alcohol, clay dust and a mix of water and polyethylene glycol -- a common ingredient in lotions and mascara.

The harmless materials were chosen to produce a mist resembling the airborne particles that might be produced by a bioterrorism attack.

The test, taking place in Oklahoma because of the state's advanced weather radar system, will help Army and Environmental Protection Agency scientists determine how well radar can detect such materials.


from The New York Times

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., March 24 — Mars is rising over NASA's horizon even as engineering analyses and soul-searching continue over the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts. Two identical rovers are to be launched in May and June, and are scheduled to land next January near the planet's equator.

"The agency and the country need some really good news in space right now, and I view it as our job to give it to them," said Dr. Steve Squyres of Cornell University, the chief scientist for the $800 million Mars Exploration Rover program.

The rovers — wheeled robots mounted with a panoply of scientific instruments — are part of NASA's long-term plans to determine whether life ever existed on Mars, to study its climate and geology and to prepare for human exploration.

The two robots will look for telltale geological marks indicating that in the ancient past of Mars water played a role and possibly provided an environment suitable for life, NASA says.


from The Boston Globe

MICHOACAN, Mexico - A large cover of clouds swept into central Mexico from the Pacific on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2002, drenching the Transvolcanic Mountains where most of North America's monarch butterflies roost for the winter. As the storm moved out, temperatures dropped. Wet monarchs soon dropped, too, dead from the lethal combination of wet and cold.

By Monday, an estimated 500 million butterflies were dead or dying in piles up to 3 feet deep beneath the pine and fir trees. In one terrible day, 70 to 80 percent of all the monarchs who return to the Eastern United States in the spring were dead.

Fifteen months later, a great fluttering river of orange and black monarchs has begun the annual journey north in a remarkable tale of recovery - and peril. Thanks mainly to a good summer last year in the Midwest for milkweed - a key monarch food - and a late explosion of butterflies in the East, the number of monarchs who spent the winter at the 12 mountaintop roosting sites rebounded to near the historic average.


compiled by The Boston Globe

Ah, the sweet smell of man sweat

Male armpit sweat seems to be a mood-altering substance for women, according to researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia...

Cosmic rays catch concealed nukes

With the fear of terrorists using dirty bombs increasing, screening for smuggled nuclear materials has become more important than ever. Physicists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have invented a device that uses cosmic rays to detect dense materials such as plutonium and uranium, they report in the March 20 Nature...


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Test aims to link holy visions with brain disorder


By Dr. Raj Persaud

LONDON - Does the biological structure of our brains program us to believe in God? Advances in "neurotheology" have prompted some researchers to claim they can induce the kind of holy visions prophets may have experienced - even in those who are not religious believers. Top Stories Neuroscience professor Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, has devised a helmet that uses electromagnetic fields to induce electrical changes in the brain's temporal lobes, which are linked with religious belief.

So confident is he that God is all in the mind - or the brain at least - that Mr. Persinger says he can induce mystical feelings in a majority of those willing to don his Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator. So the British Broadcasting Corp.'s science series "Horizon" put his hat to the ultimate test: Could it get arch-skeptic and militant atheist Richard Dawkins to start believing in God by electrically massaging his temporal lobes? Mr. Dawkins, author of "A Devil's Chaplain" and "The Blind Watchmaker," was the ideal candidate for a test of whether science can explain away religion, given his views of religion as a "virus of the mind" and an "infantile regression."

The experiment is based on the finding that some sufferers from temporal lobe epilepsy - a neurological disorder caused by chaotic electrical discharges in the temporal lobes of the brain - seem to experience devout hallucinations that bear striking resemblances to the mystical experiences of holy figures such as St. Paul and Moses.

This theory received a boost from professor Gregory Holmes, a pediatric neurologist at Dartmouth Medical School, who says one of the principal founders of the Seventh-day Adventist movement, Ellen White, in fact suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. She was seen as divinely inspired as a result of her religious visions. The new claim that her visions were, in fact, a result of a brain disorder is likely to meet strong resistance from the more than 12 million Seventh-day Adventists worldwide.

If strong religious feelings are no less a part of brain function than those linked with hunger and sex, the ultimate test would be to summon up mystical and religious beliefs experimentally. Indeed, it would be in Mr. Dawkins' interests to experience religion for the first time under Mr. Persinger's helmet. After all, this would prove that mystical visions at last could be controlled by science and no longer were just at the mercy of a supernatural entity. While Mr. Dawkins had some strange experiences and tinglings during the experiment, none of them prompted him to take up any new faith. "It was a great disappointment," he said. "Though I joked about the possibility, I of course never expected to end up believing in anything supernatural. But I did hope to share some of the feelings experienced by religious mystics when contemplating the mysteries of life and the cosmos," Mr. Dawkins said. Mr. Persinger explained away the failure of this Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator: Before donning the helmet, Mr. Dawkins had scored low on a psychological scale measuring proneness to temporal lobe sensitivity. Studies on identical and fraternal twin pairs raised apart suggest that 50 percent of our religious interests are influenced by genes. It seems that Mr. Dawkins is genetically predisposed not to believe.

- Dr. Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at Maudsley Hospital in London.

God on the Brain


By Liz Tucker
BBC Horizon

Why do people experience religious visions? BBC Two's Horizon suggests that in some cases the cause may be a strange brain disorder.

Controversial new research suggests that whether we believe in a God may not just be a matter of free will. Scientists now believe there may be physical differences in the brains of ardent believers. Inspiration for this work has come from a group of patients who have a brain disorder called temporal lobe epilepsy. In a minority of patients, this condition induces bizarre religious hallucinations - something that patient Rudi Affolter has experienced vividly.

Despite the fact that he is a confirmed atheist, when he was 43, Rudi had a powerful religious vision which convinced him he had gone to hell.

"I was told that I had gone there because I had not been a devout Christian, a believer in God. I was very depressed at the thought that I was going to remain there forever."

Clinical evidence

Gwen Tighe also has the disorder. When she had a baby, she believed she had given birth to Jesus. It was something her husband Berny found very difficult to understand.

"She said, isn't it nice to be part of the holy family? I thought, holy family? It then turned out she thought I was Joseph, she was Mary and that little Charlie was Christ."

Professor VS Ramachandran, of the University of California in San Diego, believed that the temporal lobes of the brain were key in religious experience. He felt that patients like Rudi and Gwen could provide important evidence linking the temporal lobes to religious experience.

So he set up an experiment to compare the brains of people with and without temporal lobe epilepsy. He decided to measure his patients' changes in skin resistance, essentially measuring how much they sweated when they looked at different types of imagery.

What Professor Ramachandran discovered to his surprise was that when the temporal lobe patients were shown any type of religious imagery, their bodies produced a dramatic change in their skin resistance.

"The activity of specific neural circuits makes these patients more prone to religious belief " Prof VS Ramachandran, University of California

"We found to our amazement that every time they looked at religious words like God, they'd get a huge galvanic skin response." This was the very first piece of clinical evidence revealing that the body's response to religious symbols was definitely linked to the temporal lobes of the brain.

"What we suggested was that there are certain circuits within the temporal lobes which have been selectively activated in these patients and somehow the activity of these specific neural circuits makes them more prone to religious belief."

Scientists now believe famous religious figures in the past could also have been sufferers from the condition. St Paul and Moses appear to be two of the most likely candidates.

But most convincing of all is the evidence from American neurologist Professor Gregory Holmes. He has studied the life of Ellen G White, who was the spiritual founder of the Seventh-day Adventist movement. Today, the movement is a thriving church with over 12 million members.

During her life, Ellen had hundreds of dramatic religious visions which were key in the establishment of the church, helping to convince her followers that she was indeed spiritually inspired. But Professor Holmes believes there may be another far more prosaic explanation for her visions.

Head trauma

He has discovered that at the age of nine, Ellen suffered a severe blow to her head. As a result, she was semi-conscious for several weeks and so ill she never returned to school.

Following the accident, Ellen's personality changed dramatically and she became highly religious and moralistic.

And for the first time in her life, she began to have powerful religious visions.

Professor Holmes is convinced that the blow to Ellen's head caused her to develop temporal lobe epilepsy.

"Her whole clinical course to me suggested the high probability that she had temporal lobe epilepsy. This would indicate to me that the spiritual visions she was having would not be genuine, but would be due to the seizures."

Professor Holmes' diagnosis is a shattering one for the Seventh-day Adventist movement. Their spokesman, Dr Daniel Giang, is a neurologist as well as a member of the church.

"Ellen White's visions lasted from 15 minutes to three hours or more - that's quite unusual for seizures" ---Dr Daniel Giang, Seventh-day Adventist Church

He dismisses the claims, insisting the visions started too long after the accident to have been caused by it. He goes on to say: "Ellen White's visions lasted from 15 minutes to three hours or more. She never apparently had any briefer visions - that's quite unusual for seizures." We will never know for sure whether religious figures in the past definitely did have the disorder but scientists now believe the condition provides a powerful insight into revealing how religious experience may impact on the brain.

They believe what happens inside the minds of temporal lobe epileptic patients may just be an extreme case of what goes on inside all of our minds.

For everyone, whether they have the condition or not, it now appears the temporal lobes are key in experiencing religious and spiritual belief.

Horizon: God On The Brain will be broadcast in April on BBC Two.

N.M. Lawmakers OK Day Honoring ET Culture


SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Believers in space aliens, rejoice!

New Mexicans can now celebrate every second Tuesday in February as ``Extraterrestrial Culture Day'' after a Roswell lawmaker's proposal won approval in the House.

Some lawmakers scoffed at the idea. But the sponsor of the memorial, Rep. Daniel Foley, R-Roswell, said life on other planets - if you believe in it - surely has its own set of cultural beliefs.

``They have some sort of culture, whether it's something we understand or not,'' he said.

The measure, approved Friday, claims extraterrestrials have contributed to recognition of New Mexico. The state has been associated with little green men for more than half a century, staring in 1947 with a purported UFO crash that came to be known as the Roswell Incident.

Foley suggests that a copy of the memorial be transmitted into space with the intent that it be received as a token of peace and friendship.

Memorials express the opinion of the Legislature and do not have the force of law. Only one house must approve them, and they do not require the governor's signature.

03/22/03 11:54

CSICOP Web Column: Doubt and About

The Skeptic's Message Lab

Some thoughts on new ways to critique alternative medicine.
Chris Mooney; March 24, 2003

Here we go again: The federal government has put together yet another advisory body on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) policy, and once again, science-based skepticism seems to have been left off the agenda. This time the offender is the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies, which has created a committee to investigate the "Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine by the American Public." The panel will be studying issues such as the licensing of non-mainstream health practitioners, but it will not bother to first "assess the safety or efficacy of CAM products." What's the point, you might wonder.

To Read the Entire Article Click on:


Monday, March 24, 2003



Jeffrey Lever


The programme on Social Cohesion and Integration is one of the Human Sciences Research Council's new areas of priority research. It entails the study of individuals, institutions and their leadership in the areas of the arts, religion, sports, media, history and the social aspects of science.

A first research project deals with the Human Genome Project, the genetic sequencing exercise of humanity. An extraordinary international project of biological science, the Human Genome Project will add new, and undo old, knowledge about our evolution as a species.

We believe that a biological understanding of ourselves and our history, as a single species that has evolved successfully up till now because of our diversity and adaptability, can contribute immensely to promoting new forms of social cohesion under circumstances of human fragmentation and the transformation of our traditional institutions.

It is, though, a controversial subject, and we thought we would start in two phases. Dr Jeff Lever's paper published here worries aloud about whether we teach evolutionary theory properly and with sufficient scientific depth to pupils and scholars at our schools.

His conclusions are a challenge for all of us involved in the educational sector, which are to ensure that we keep abreast of the exciting and exponential developments in the world of scientific innovation.

Dr Wilmot James
Executive Director: Social Cohesion
and Integration Research Programme
Human Sciences Research Council
April 2002

Science In the News

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

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Today's Headlines - March 24, 2003

from The Hartford Courant

Last fall, Guanfang Shi's research at Rutgers University was paying off. Working with "Eph" molecules, she identified a mutation useful in stopping cells from developing into tumors - a finding that could help crack the mystery of why cancer cells multiply out of control.

Now, hundreds of cultures used in her experiments languish in test tubes and cell plates in the university's cancer lab. Colleagues worry that her research, funded through a $125,000 National Science Foundation grant, will stall irreversibly.

"It is highly technical," said Renping Zhou, her adviser. "It will take months, even if someone else tries to pick it up."

Her study is among scores of research projects that have been hampered or derailed by new security procedures for screening foreign visas, enacted in response to 9/11. Hundreds of international scientists, some eminent in their fields, have been blocked from entering the U.S., slowing research on diseases such as AIDS, West Nile virus, Alzheimer's and leukemia, and in areas such as space science, nutrition and genetic mapping .


Sidebar stories from The Hartford Courant on how some specific research projects have been stymied by visa checks:

Global Warming


Stem Cells and Leukemia

from The Washington Post

The elderly Chinese doctor, tired and feverish, was waiting for an elevator on the ninth floor of the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong, when he might have turned, coughed and sneezed.

With that act, health officials say, a global health emergency may have begun. The doctor has been identified by Hong Kong health authorities as the "index patient," the person who ignited the outbreak of a new, mysterious and sometimes deadly respiratory illness.

The outbreak demonstrates the ease with which frightening new infections can circle the globe quietly but rapidly, jumping from a remote part of China to downtown Manhattan in just a few weeks.

"This outbreak illustrates, tragically, how very rapid travel complicates the spread of disease," said Joshua Lederberg, a professor emeritus at Rockefeller University in New York. "We have globalization of disease as a consequence of economic globalization."


from The Washington Post

Jules Verne thought you could get to the center of the Earth through the chimney of an extinct Icelandic volcano. At the bottom, he envisioned a vast inland sea -- really inland, as in 4,000 miles down -- and a bunch of dinosaurs. This, it turned out, was science fiction.

These days we know more, and this week Paramount Pictures will release "The Core," in which a team of intrepid "terranauts" try to reverse the collapse of the Earth's magnetic field by traveling to the metal center of the planet and setting off a nuclear bomb.

This is somewhat closer to reality, since it reflects the prevailing view that the Earth's core is made of partially crystallized iron and nickel, and makes use of the idea that heat from the cooling core contributes to the magnetic field that repels solar radiation and keeps it from frying the Earth to a crisp.

Still, no one knows exactly what's down there and, despite "The Core," there are no terranauts getting ready to find out.

The question is still open, and maverick geophysicist J. Marvin Herndon has a theory in many ways as radical as Verne's was 150 years ago: The center of the Earth, he believes, is a nuclear fission reactor.


from The San Francisco Chronicle

In a flap that raises new questions about corporate ties to universities, some academics are wondering whether the junior UC Berkeley professor who has become a leading biotech industry critic can get a fair hearing in a tenure review that has already gone twice as long as usual.

The squabble, which offers a rare peek at the secretive tenure process, revolves around Ignacio Chapela, who in 1998 led a fight against a controversial research partnership between the biotech firm Novartis and Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology.

Chapela, a critic of biotech agriculture, also co-wrote a journal article in 2001 in which he reported finding gene fragments from bioengineered corn in the genomes of native Mexican maize.

The startling finding suggested that bioengineered crops could contaminate regular crops and might reduce biodiversity. The journal later backed away from the study after pro-biotech scientists criticized Chapela's methods.


from The (Raleigh, NC) News & Observer

As a young child in rural India, Pradeep Chatterjee never had much doubt about what he wanted to be when he grew up. Kids who like science want to be scientists.

But the adults that surrounded Chatterjee were so practical. They told him that the job market for scientists can be fickle, while a doctor or an engineer -- even one who is mediocre -- can always earn a good paycheck. Today, Chatterjee spends most of his days helping unlock the secrets of the human genome. He is head of the Genomics and BioInformatics Unit at N.C. Central University, and his writings, most of which describe a process known as deletion mapping technology, are read throughout the world.

He laughs at the idea that he might have been happier as a doctor or an engineer. He is a scientist -- and a scientist whose work has brought NCCU a fair amount of attention the past few years.

"Because of Dr. Chatterjee, we can do in a few months what would otherwise take at least two years," said Robert Schwartz, co-director of the Cardiovascular Development Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "His use of deletion mapping technology is a very powerful tool for our us and for others."


from The Los Angeles Times

While U.S. military planners were compiling a list of missile sites, communications centers, bunkers and weapons factories to target during the air campaign against Iraq, American archeologists were putting together their own list of more than 4,000 "do not bomb" sites.

The detailed list of museums, monuments, archeological digs and other key sites embedded in cities and nestled among the shifting dunes of the Iraqi desert is a virtual Baedeker guide to the cultural history not only of Iraq but of Western civilization. It is a heritage that archeologists hope to preserve amid the destruction of battle.

The artifacts housed in Iraqi museums and buried at unexplored sites "are products of human imagination and skill," said Gus Van Beek, curator of Old World archeology at the Smithsonian Institution. "They have a life of their own. They certainly have a right to survive."


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Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead by Christine Wicker


HarperSanFrancisco. 282 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Jackie Loohauis

Dropping a reporter off in a town full of spiritualists is a little like unleashing a terrier in a sausage factory.

What a perfect opportunity to binge on writing witty insults, snickers and skeptical jabs. Easy to scoff; easy to be hard. But that's not the tack Christine Wicker takes in her book Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead.

Instead, Wicker, a prizewinning religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News who now lives in Wisconsin, walks a path less clearly marked. She immerses herself in this bizarre little town west of Buffalo, N.Y., home to hundreds of mediums, a place that for 122 years has invited guests to come and commune with the dead. Celebrities such as Harry Houdini and Mae West have accepted the invitation.

The town has been called "Spooksville" and "Silly Dale." But the town's nickname for itself is "The City of Light." Wicker finds this community worthy of all three labels.

Lily Dale presents a tableau drawn from many planes of existence. Outright grifters and frauds dwell here, of course (Wicker learns some tricks of the trade herself). Gullible residents predictably retell Twilight Zone-like tales of telephone calls from dead relatives.

But Wicker finds more here. Lily Dale possesses a spiritual energy of a totally unexpected sort, and the open-minded Wicker taps into the stream.

She sifts through events looking for verifiable mediumship, constantly experiencing the "Lily Dale Bounce": reason for belief, followed quickly by reason for disbelief.

She accuses herself of self-delusion when it seems that she is having her own paranormal experiences. And yet she acknowledges the unexplained.

Most of all, she recognizes the gifts this ghostly Mayberry bestows on many of its visitors. For some there's surcease of sorrow, for others direction down a new life path.

Some residents find that a vague message mysteriously written on a slate provides enough strength to go on despite tragedy and death.

Is there any absolute proof of communication with the dead at Lily Dale? No. But Wicker finds that it isn't necessary to see a trumpet float in the air during a séance to find some worth in this place.

She learns that Spiritualism can convey a surprising form of spirituality. And she shows us that a Lily Dale visit can be transforming.

The book is written with verve and humor and a reporter's skill at people-watching. Wicker fills each page with anecdotes of ghosts, ghoulies, and folks who go bump in the night.

By the time we leave this odd town, we know what the author knows: that the road to enlightenment takes many a detour, and one just may lead down Main Street, Lily Dale.

Meanwhile, back on topic: Chiropractic

From: James H.G. Redekop

Ok, so I'm just as bad as anyone else in going on about the war, but I *do* have some Skeptical material to share. :)

Some folks here may remember that, a couple of years ago, there were two major series of investigative stories about Chiropractic malfeasance published on the news website canoe.ca. The first concerned lawsuits against chiros over neck-manipulation-induced strokes that have killed or seriously disabled several Canadians, and the second was about the abortive attempt by the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College to form an alliance with York University (through gross misrepresentation of the scientific nature of chiropractic).

The authors of those stories have put out a new book on these and other chiro subjects called "Spin Doctors - The Chiropractic Industry Under Examination". The book covers the history of chiro, some of its claims, and its behaviour in Canada. Topics include the two stories above, plus pediatric chiropractic, how chiros got the right to call themselves Doctors in Canada, gizmos & gadgets, and the complete failure of chiro self-regulation in Canada.

Also of interest to folks here is the afterword by Dr. Stephen Barrett, who runs Quackwatch. He provides advice on how to find one of the 1% of chiros who are actually science-based (who, in the end, are simply physical therapists).

The book is reasonably comprehensive, though each chapter was obviously written as a stand-alone article, and the repetition becomes tedious at times. The writing is also a little dry: newspaper-style composition all the way through.

My biggest complaint with the book is that unfortunate tendency of skeptics to dismiss something as pseudo-scientific by fiat, rather than explaining the (quite good) reasons *why* it is pseudo-scientific. Little attempt was made to actually explain what "scientific" really means.

Taken as a whole, this isn't too big a problem with the book, since they do dedicate one chapter to just why the idea of "subluxations of the spine" pinching nerves is anatomically unrealistic unless the back in question is very severely damaged. But if you take each chapter separately, as it was originally written, the original readers might well have thought that the authors are making statements without substantiating them.

Still, it's an interesting book, though I doubt it's going to change anything. If you're interested it in, it's published by Dundurn Press.

Order it through Amazon at


The Insignificance of the Antichrist Ignore the hype. In the Bible itself, the Antichrist is barely mentioned.


By Gregg Easterbrook

Deeply seated in Christian thinking, and in Western culture generally, is the notion that the Bible warns us that someone called the Antichrist will bring evil and religious corruption to the world. Martin Luther and John Calvin called the papacy the throne of the Antichrist; Jerry Falwell has said the Antichrist is alive right now and is "a male Jew"; Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, calls Pope John Paul II the Antichrist; a key plot element of the best-selling Left Behind novels is that a seemingly benevolent global leader is actually the Antichrist. George W. Bush hasn't yet called Osama bin Laden the Antichrist, but that seems only a matter of time.

Sunday, March 23, 2003

'Rational Mysticism': On a Journalistic and Spiritual Quest

March 23, 2003

John Horgan has two all-consuming problems: (1) he worries about his death; (2) he actually likes Iron Butterfly's ''In-a-Gadda-da-Vida.'' There's not much to be done about the second problem. For the first, we would suggest that he explore the meaning of life and death by embarking on a spiritual journey, visiting religious leaders, postmodern theologians, neurotheologians, bodhisattvas and drug gurus.

As it turns out, he already has, and he's written a marvelous book about the experience. In ''Rational Mysticism,'' Horgan, a former senior writer for Scientific American, sets out to find how trances, visions, satori and other mystical experiences work. The early civilizations that invented science also used religion as an intertwining path to the truth, and Horgan follows in this tradition. He is a seeker as well as a journalist, and his mission is personal as well as professional. It's ''The Varieties of Religious Experience'' meets ''Siddhartha.''

The seers he encounters are as entertaining as they are maddening. He begins with a traditional religious scholar, the octogenarian Huston Smith, a propounder of the ''perennial philosophy,'' which holds that all the world's great religions express the same fundamental truths about the nature of reality, and that reality can be understood through a mystical experience. Smith compares the universe to a plate of sesame noodles. (Don't ask.) For us ''mystical eunuchs'' -- a term coined by a psychologist, Thomas Roberts -- this is as sane as it gets.

We move on to the thriving field of transpersonal psychology, whose primary exponent, Ken Wilber, is so enlightened that he struck his sick wife because her breast cancer interrupted his spiritual growth. Wilber claims that his big satori happened in a German pub, while he was dancing the polka with a bunch of elderly men. Wilber rarely grants interviews, but after five hours Horgan had had enough enlightenment: ''I wanted to drink a beer, watch a football game on television.'' Or perhaps dance a polka.

Terence McKenna, a drug messiah who salts his speech with references to superstring theory and Planckian blackbody studies, tells Horgan that hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms are messages from an alien intelligence. McKenna's worldview was influenced by the Keanu Reeves movie ''The Matrix,'' in which evil robots stick humans in beakers, turning them into organic batteries. Two weeks after he speaks to Horgan, an enormous malignant tumor is discovered in McKenna's brain, and he dies soon thereafter. One wonders whether Horgan interviewed McKenna or the tumor.

What elevates ''Rational Mysticism'' above the normal journalist-takes-a-road-trip are Horgan's special talents. He is not your typical milquetoasty science writer. In 1996, in ''The End of Science,'' Horgan suggested that ''science's grand quest to uncover the basic rules governing reality might be reaching an impasse.'' Interviewing many of the world's most important scientists, he displayed a gift for pulling back the curtain to unveil diminutive wizards, a technique he employs adroitly in this new book.

Horgan flies to Sudbury, Ontario, where the tourist attraction is the Big Nickel, a coin 27 feet across and 2 feet thick, and where he straps on the Octopus, a machine that promises to induce religious and mystical visions, out-of-body experiences and even alien-abduction episodes. Its inventor, Michael Persinger, a psychologist at Laurentian University, mows his lawn wearing a three-piece suit. Horgan dons the Octopus, a Velcro headband festooned with wires and solenoids, with disappointing results. He does not attain nirvana, thinking mostly, ''How will I turn this into a scene for my book?'' Persinger says his machine does not work well on skeptics.

The Octopus has been called ''the God Machine,'' and publicized in Newsweek and Wired and on ABC News. Horgan tracked down two journalists who had reported strange experiences. One admitted that the ''pair of eyes'' he had seen staring at him in the Octopus chamber belonged to a ghost who also frequented his home. Another, who had seen a line of Tibetan monks, admitted that temple bell sounds played over speakers in the chamber may have triggered this daydream.

The visions become more predictable when we get to the hard-core druggies, and here we mystical eunuchs find hope. A German anthropologist, Christian Ratsch, says we don't have to meditate or even polka to attain enlightenment. It requires only ''the right molecule to hit your brain.'' Faster than you can say ''methylenedioxymethylamphetamine,'' one swallow and you are at one with the universe. (Though, inexplicably, to paraphrase Woody Allen, American Express will continue to bill you separately.)

Drugs do seem to take us somewhere, but where is still up for debate. Rick Strassman, a psychiatrist, theorizes that the hallucinogen DMT is like a rocket ship. The aliens in DMT hallucinations are real. DMT propels us into hyperspace realities where strange things exist. If you can believe superstring physicists and many-worlds cosmologists, you can believe Strassman.

The book ends with a bang. Horgan flies to California (there's a shock) to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony. Ayahuasca, used in religious services in Brazil, is a DMT-rich drug that looks like purple-brown spit. We leave Horgan barfing in the dark with strangers, coyotes yelping in the distance and fireworks exploding at a nearby ranch. His vomit, according to his fried visual cortex, emerges in lovely Day-Glo colors.

Books about mysticism come in two main varieties: the gooey prose of the believer and the adolescent bitchiness of the skeptic. Horgan tackles this impossible subject journalistically -- critically but with an open heart. He is obsessed with death. As a child at parties, he wanted to scream out to his friends, ''You're all going to die!'' A poor guest, but the right man for this book. The goal of the spiritual journey, according to the religion scholar Barbara C. Sproul, is to sacrifice the self as it is egocentrically understood, and discover it as an expression of God/Being Itself/The Holy. ''The problem is that the sacrifice is seen by the egocentric self as death. But only after the sacrifice -- literally 'to make sacred' -- does one overcome mortality, and realize that the life one is living is eternal.'' I don't know whether this happened to Horgan. But I enjoyed sharing the trip with him.

Dick Teresi is the author of ''Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science -- From the Babylonians to the Maya.''


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Announce: Lecture on Energy Medicine at Temple Univ. Center for Frontier Sciences

Philadelphia, PA

Tuesday, March 25, 2003; 2:00 - 3:30 PM

James Oschman, Ph.D.
Scientific Author and Researcher
Dover, New Hampshire

"Energy Medicine: Integrating the Art and Science"

Alternative and complementary therapies are now the fastest growing sector of our health care system. Fundamental to many of these techniques is an appreciation of energetics that has been deemed "unapproachable" from the scientific perspective. However, modern research is rapidly changing this picture by revealing a plausible basis for therapies that predate our current biomedical paradigms. We now know that measurable energy fields exist within and around cells and organisms. The sources of these fields are understood, and we know that they have physiological importance. A common denominator to the artful and medical application of this information is the remarkable sensitivity of cellular and molecular processes to tiny electromagnetic fields, whether produced by therapists or by therapeutic devices. Medical research and the experiences of energy therapists are converging on this point, with profound implications for healthcare and biomedical research.

With a background in academic cell biology and biophysics, Dr. Oschman has become a leading authority on the scientific investigation of complementary and alternative therapies. His book, "Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis", (Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh, 2000) is already a classic because it provides a plausible basis for a wide range of therapeutic modalities that are now entering mainstream medicine. Jim has conducted research in leading laboratories and published some 30 articles in the world's leading scientific journals, as well as an equal number in CAM journals. His new book, "Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance" will be published by Butterworth Heineman, Oxford, in March of 2003.

Place: Temple University
Kiva Auditorium, Ritter Hall Annex
1301 Cecil B. Moore Ave.
(NE corner of North Broad St. & Cecil B. Moore Ave.)
Philadelphia, PA

Time: 2:00 - 3:30 p.m.
Refreshments served at 1:30 p.m.
Lectures are free; the academic community and public are invited.

For further information, please contact:
Nancy Kolenda, Director
Phone: 215-204-8487 Fax: 215-204-5553
E-mail: cfs@blue.temple.edu
Website: http://www.temple.edu/CFS
Center for Frontier Sciences at Temple University
Ritter Hall (003-00), Room 478
1301 Cecil B. Moore Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19122 USA -------------------------

About the Center for Frontier Sciences:

The Center facilitates scientific study in areas such as complementary and alternative medicine, bioelectromagnetics, unresolved issues in quantum physics, the mind-matter interrelationship,and new energy technologies.

As an integral part of a major university, the Center maintains high standards in reviewing new work, while remaining open to ideas that may go beyond currently dominant paradigms.

Frontier Perspectives, the Center's semi-annual journal, publishes peer-reviewed scientific papers, Invited Opinions, BookReviews, and news of organizations, meetings, and other publications of interest. A cumulative index is posted on the Center's website at:


'Darwin's Blind Spot': Biotech Merger


March 23, 2003


Early life was low on energy. The atmosphere contained little oxygen, and such life as existed was necessarily inefficient at extracting energy from its food. Everyone knows that a fire needs oxygen to burn well. Food, burned internally, also will not release much heat in the absence of oxygen.

By around two billion years ago, atmospheric oxygen was on the increase. An opportunity now existed for a life-form that could burn fuel in oxygen and reap the benefits, including a high-energy lifestyle. The opportunity was duly seized by life-forms known to biologists as eukaryotes. Eukaryotic cells contain small structures called mitochondria; each of our muscle cells contains hundreds of mitochondria. They are the furnaces where we burn fuel in oxygen and extract the energy. Eukaryotic cells extract about 20 times as much energy per food unit as do other kinds of cell that lack mitochondria. All the high-energy, large, complex life-forms that now dominate the earth use mitochondria to burn their food.

The formation of mitochondria, a major breakthrough in the history of life, seems to have been the biological equivalent of a business merger. Eukaryotic cells originated when two cells combined -- perhaps when one engulfed the other. One of the merger partners evolved into modern mitochondria, and the other into the rest of the cell. The one that became the mitochondria probably brought skills in fuel burning; the partner that evolved into the rest of the cell probably brought previously useless waste products that could now be burned as fuel. The merger -- in biology called a symbiosis -- was hot with synergy.

Pulsar bursts coming from beachball-sized structures


Saturday, March 22, 2003

Posted: March 17, 2003

In a major breakthrough for understanding what one of them calls "the most exotic environment in the Universe," a team of astronomers has discovered that powerful radio bursts in pulsars are generated by structures as small as a beach ball.

"These are by far the smallest objects ever detected outside our solar system," said Tim Hankins, leader of the research team, which studied the pulsar at the center of the Crab Nebula, more than 6,000 light-years from Earth. "The small size of these regions is inconsistent with all but one proposed theory for how the radio emission is generated," he added.

The other members of the team are Jeff Kern, James Weatherall and Jean Eilek. Hankins was a visiting scientist at Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico, at the time the pulsar observations were made. He and Eilek are professors at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (New Mexico Tech) in Socorro, NM. Kern is a graduate student at NM Tech and a predoctoral fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro. Weatherall is an adjunct professor at NM Tech, currently working at the Federal Aviation Administration. The astronomers reported their discovery in the March 13 edition of the scientific journal Nature.

Pulsars are superdense neutron stars, the remnants of massive stars that exploded as supernovae. Pulsars emit powerful beams of radio waves and light. As the neutron star spins, the beam sweeps through space like the beam of a lighthouse. When such a beam sweeps across the Earth, astronomers see a pulse from the pulsar. The Crab pulsar spins some 33 times every second.

British radio astronomers won a Nobel Prize for discovering pulsars in 1967. In the years since, the method by which pulsars produce their powerful beams of electromagnetic radiation has remained a mystery.

With the help of engineers at the NRAO, Hankins and his team designed and built specialized electronic equipment that allowed them to study the pulsar's radio pulses on extremely small time scales. They took this equipment to the National Science Foundation's giant, 1,000-foot-diameter radio telescope at Arecibo. With their equipment, they analyzed the Crab pulsar's superstrong "giant" pulses, breaking them down into tiny time segments.

The researchers discovered that some of the "giant" pulses contain subpulses that last no longer than two nanoseconds. That means, they say, that the regions in which these subpulses are generated can be no larger than about two feet across -- the distance that light could travel in two nanoseconds.

This fact, the researchers say, is critically important to understanding how the powerful radio emission is generated.

A pulsar's magnetosphere -- the region above the neutron star's magnetic poles where the radio waves are generated -- is "the most exotic environment in the Universe," said Kern. In this environment, matter exists as a plasma, in which electrically charged particles are free to respond to the very strong electric and magnetic fields in the star's atmosphere.

The very short subpulses the researchers detected could only be generated, they say, by a strange process in which density waves in the plasma interact with their own electrical field, becoming progressively denser until they reach a point at which they "collapse explosively" into superstrong bursts of radio waves.

"None of the other proposed mechanisms can produce such short pulses," Eilek said. "The ability to examine these pulses on such short time scales has given us a new window through which to study pulsar radio emission," she added.

The Crab pulsar is one of only three pulsars known to emit superstrong "giant" pulses. "Giant" pulses occur occasionally among the steady but much weaker "normal" pulses coming from the neutron star.

Some of the brief subpulses within the Crab's "giant" pulses are second only to the Sun in their radio brightness in the sky. Although the mechanism that converts the plasma energy to radio waves in the Crab's "giant" pulses may be unique to the Crab pulsar, it is feasible that all radio pulsars may operate the same way. The research team now is observing signals from other pulsars to see if they are fundamentally different. The subpulses in the Crab's "giant" pulses are so strong that the team's equipment could detect them even if they originated not in our own Milky Way Galaxy, but in a nearby galaxy.

The Crab Nebula is a cloud of glowing debris from a star that was seen to explode on July 4, 1054. Chinese astronomers noted the bright new star that outshone the planet Venus and was visible in daylight for 23 days. A rock carving at New Mexico's Chaco Canyon probably indicates that Native American skywatchers also noted the bright intruder in the sky.

The nebula was discovered by John Bevis in 1731 and independently rediscovered by French astronomer Charles Messier on August 28, 1758. Messier made the Crab Nebula (named because of its crab-like shape) the first object in his famous catalog of non-stellar objects, a catalog widely popular among amateur astronomers with small telescopes.

In 1948, radio emission was discovered coming from the Crab Nebula. In 1968, astronomers at Arecibo Observatory discovered the pulsar in the heart of the nebula. The following year, astronomers at Arizona's Steward Observatory discovered visible-light pulses also coming from the pulsar, making this the first pulsar found to emit visible light in addition to radio waves.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc. The Arecibo Observatory is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which is operated by Cornell University under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

Cloning and Immortality: Rael's Vision


By Norman Doering

Rael, the spiritual leader of the Raelian Movement (or "Raelian cult" for those who don't like it), has been saying that cloning will lead to immortality. He doesn't mean a weak version of immortality where your genes go on but your memories and experiences, accumulated over a lifetime, are lost. Rael thinks it will be possible to "download" our memories and personality into future clones. Both the Cloneaid website and the Raelian Movement website make statements to that effect.

"Cloning will enable mankind to reach eternal life," states Rael on the Cloneaid site. "The next step will be to directly clone an adult person without having to go through the growth process, and to transfer the memories and personality into this person just as the Elohim do using their 25,000 years of advanced scientific knowledge. Then, we will wake up after 'death' in a brand-new body just like after a good night's sleep!"


US finds new love of fusion

By Robert C. Cowen

At a time when the United States is widely condemned as being unilateralist, there's good news in its foreign affairs. America is rejoining the international project to control thermonuclear fusion - the power source of the stars - to make electricity here on Earth

By 1998, Canada, the European Union, Japan, and the US had each spent several hundred million dollars on plans for a project in which, working along with Russia, they would build an International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). The US considered the projected $10 billion cost and the project construction plan unrealistic. Congress forced the US team to pick up its marbles and go home.

Since then, the other ITER partners have redesigned the machine and cut its projected cost in half. A US Department of Energy study has called that estimate "credible" and the projected 10-year construction schedule "generally reasonable." ITER has become what President Bush now calls "an incredibly important project to be part of." China, which has reached the same conclusion, is also joining the project at this time.

The US reconciliation comes at a crucial time for ITER. The partners are ready to pick a site and start machine construction. Canada, Japan, and Spain each want to host the facility. If the US is to benefit from this research, it must get back into the game now.

This also is a critical time for the long - and sometimes quixotic - quest to harness fusion power. Energy is released when hydrogen atoms are crushed together strongly enough for the nuclei to fuse. Stars do this easily, thanks to the enormous pressures and temperatures in their cores. On Earth, some fusion scientists use laser beams to crush hydrogen fuel pellets. ITER takes another tack: Its machine will use magnetic fields to confine low pressure hydrogen fuel in a doughnut-shaped tube while heating the fuel to many tens of millions of degrees.

Scientists have pursued magnetic fusion for half a century with many frustrating results. Its hot electrically charged particles refuse to stay put while the gas writhes like a recalcitrant snake or otherwise escapes magnetic confinement. This has made magnetic fusion a receding goal. That situation has changed. As Richard Hazeltine at the University of Texas in Austin and Stewart Prager at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, have explained in an overview article in Physics Today that progress in understanding many of these confinement problems has been substantial and, in some cases, "revolutionary." They conclude that magnetic fusion is poised for significant progress and ITER is a machine well suited to do the job.

The US now spends some $250 million a year on fusion research. It is ready to commit around $50 million annually to the $5 billion ITER project - down from $80 million a year before its 1998 walkout. Bush calls it an "opportunity to blaze new paths," which "makes sense for America."


Worried about asteroid-ocean impacts?


Posted: March 17, 2003

The idea that even small asteroids can create hazardous tsunamis may at last be pretty well washed up.

Small asteroids do not make great ocean waves that will devastate coastal areas for miles inland, according to both a recently released 1968 U.S. Naval Research report on explosion-generated tsunamis and terrestrial evidence.

University of Arizona planetary scientist H. Jay Melosh is talking about it at the 34th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in League City, Texas. His talk, "Impact-Generated Tsunamis: an Over-Rated Hazard," is part of the session, "Poking Holes: Terrestrial Impacts."

Friday, March 21, 2003

Science In the News

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Today's Headlines – March 21, 2003

from The New York Times

American and British soldiers ready to invade Iraq know they may face not just bullets but also the chemical and biological agents that Iraq is suspected of having in its arsenal. Prepared troops, however, can be well protected against such threats, experts say.

Saddam Hussein made extensive use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, causing an estimated 100,000 casualties among Iranian troops. He also used chemicals in 1987 and 1988 in a campaign against Iraqi Kurds, attacking hundreds of villages and the town of Halabja, where some 5,000 people died.

In these attacks, his army is believed to have used chemicals such as mustard gas, a blistering agent, and sarin, which attacks the nerve centers. Such agents are terrifying and deadly to civilians and unprepared troops. But against well-equipped armies, their main effect is to force soldiers to wear protective gear. That slows them down, especially in hot weather, but little more.


from The Christian Science Monitor

As the US unleashes its opening salvo in Iraq, "smart" munitions, guided by lasers and satellite, are playing a lead role. Pentagon planners hope they will enable the US to hammer the Iraqi military while minimizing civilian casualties.

Such weapons are far more accurate than bombs guided by nothing more than gravity. In World War II, for example, it took 108 aircraft, on average, dropping 648 bombs to destroy a single target. By the time of the 2001 campaign in Afghanistan, 38 aircraft were able to hit 159 targets on the first night of bombing.

That difference tracks tremendous advances in accuracy - particularly over the past 10 years.

During the 1990s, the military developed a broad assortment of smart munitions that can be fired from safer distances and dropped in any weather conditions; they can also burrow deep underground before exploding, or even correct for wind speed while in flight. In addition, far more American planes were equipped to carry such weapons.


from The Washington Post

The World Health Organization yesterday said researchers were close to identifying the cause of a new, mysterious and sometimes fatal respiratory disease that surfaced in Asia.

"WHO is increasingly optimistic that conclusive identification of the causative agent can be announced soon," the Geneva-based United Nations agency said in an update. "Highly specialized testing of specimens from patients . . . continues at top speed in top labs."

The leading suspect is a microbe in a family of viruses known as paramyxoviruses. Several labs have found evidence of a paramyxovirus in samples from patients stricken by the disease, known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

Paramyxoviruses are a large family of viruses that includes those that cause measles and mumps, as well as the Nipah and Hendra viruses, animal- borne viruses that can cause dangerous respiratory illnesses.


from The San Francisco Chronicle

A mysterious, flulike illness spreading from Southeast Asia has apparently stricken six Californians, including three Bay Area residents who recently returned from trips to China.

State health investigators are evaluating whether to add to the list of suspected cases two other patients who lived in the same household as the returning travelers.

Thus far, the disease -- dubbed SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome - - has killed 10 people among the 306 cases listed by the World Health Organization.


from Newsday

STELLENBOSCH, South Africa -- Scientists challenged African nations Thursday to produce their own generic drugs -- not just rely on pharmaceutical giants to help fight AIDS, malaria and other diseases ravaging the continent.

African nations lag behind countries such as Cuba and India that produce "homegrown" medicines, Gordon Dougan, a British vaccine expert, told a conference on the human genome initiative.

"We need to reinvent local production of high quality generic vaccines," Dougan said. "Countries are no longer producing their own vaccines, and this is why huge pharmaceutical companies control the industry."

More than 300 scientists from 16 countries are in Stellenbosch, about 30 miles north of Cape Town, at a conference aimed at using knowledge of the human genome -- a genetic blueprint that scientists are working to map -- to help combat diseases.


from The Associated Press

BOSTON - A weak gene - not weak willpower - makes some binge-eaters stuff themselves, a study suggests. But it also points to possible help: a future pill that might cool their appetites.

The joint Swiss-German-American study makes the strongest case yet that genetic mistakes can cause an eating disorder, researchers say. Traditionally, eating behavior has been viewed as complex and cultural in its causes.

"Willpower is not always important to reduce weight. Some people can buy willpower. Some cannot, and I think these patients have a hard time," said Dr. Fritz Horber, the leader of the binge-eating study at the Hirslanden Clinic in Zurich, Switzerland.

Researchers have been trying to understand the reasons for an epidemic of obesity, which raises the risk for heart disease, diabetes and many other ailments. About 30 percent of American adults are obese, up from 14 percent 25 years ago, according to government data. The surge is widely blamed on abundant high-calorie foods and sedentary lifestyles.


from The Christian Science Monitor

At a time when the United States is widely condemned as being unilateralist, there's good news in its foreign affairs. America is rejoining the international project to control thermonuclear fusion - the power source of the stars - to make electricity here on Earth.

By 1998, Canada, the European Union, Japan, and the US had each spent several hundred million dollars on plans for a project in which, working along with Russia, they would build an International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). The US considered the projected $10 billion cost and the project construction plan unrealistic. Congress forced the US team to pick up its marbles and go home.

Since then, the other ITER partners have redesigned the machine and cut its projected cost in half. A US Department of Energy study has called that estimate "credible" and the projected 10-year construction schedule "generally reasonable." ITER has become what President Bush now calls "an incredibly important project to be part of." China, which has reached the same conclusion, is also joining the project at this time.


from UPI

Nearly 70 percent of Americans favor allowing therapeutic cloning or the production of cells that might have the potential to treat disease and more than half want to ban reproductive cloning, a new survey released Wednesday reveals.

The survey results came as the cloning debate heated up in the Senate, with the Judiciary Committee conducting a hearing to examine the difference between therapeutic and reproductive cloning.

The Senate has yet to vote on the cloning issue but members of the House voted in February to ban both types of the procedure. Most scientists think therapeutic cloning can lead to treatments for various diseases, such as Parkinson's and diabetes, but it remains controversial because it requires the destruction of a human embryo - a small ball of cells tinier than a grain of sand.

"This poll makes it clear that the majority of Americans want to see this research proceed," Sean Tipton, spokesman for the Council for the Advancement of Medical Research, told United Press International. CAMR, comprised of university medical centers, scientific organizations and patient groups, commissioned the poll.


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ITC to investigate paranormal shows


Matt Wells, media correspondent
Monday March 10, 2003
The Guardian

Tonight's coverage by a satellite TV channel of an attempt to raise the spirit of Princess Diana has prompted television regulators to launch an investigation into the proliferation of programmes about the paranormal.

Living TV will show a US programme about an attempt by a psychic to talk to the late princess. But a live seance, conducted in the presence of Mohamed Al Fayed and Andrew Morton, will be cut.

Despite the independent television commission's code prohibiting the broadcast of seances and exorcisms "except in the context of a legitimate investigation", programmes about the paranormal have become increasingly popular.

Living TV screens a number of shows under the Paranormal Living brand, including Charmed, a drama about three sisters' double lives as witches.

An ITC spokesman said: "We are keeping a weather eye on this type of programming, monitoring trends in the same way that we monitor other programme areas, with a view to reporting to the commission later in the spring."

The ITC programme code, which governs everything on British TV except BBC programmes, says: "Occult practices, such as those involving supposed contact with spirits or the dead, are not acceptable in factual programming, except in the context of a legitimate investigation."

It says that horoscopes, palmistry and similar "psychic" practices may only be presented as entertainment or as the subject of investigation. The ITC will examine whether the code needs to be updated.

The Diana programme brought together Andrew Morton, author of Diana: Her True Story and Mr Fayed, as well as her acupuncturist, astrologer, hairdresser, and an artist who painted the princess a week before her death.

The seance was conducted by British psychics Craig and Jane Hamilton-Parker. The programme, The Spirit of Diana, was shown on a pay-per-view service in the US last night. The show is hosted by the former Avengers star Patrick MacNee and a psychic, Patricia Bankins.

The American TV critic Marc Berman dismissed the seance as "exploitation at its very worst". He said: "These ghouls are turning back the hands of time to revisit Diana in the mangled wreckage. And they are doing it for two reasons: profit and entertainment."

Call to honour space aliens

A bill has been put forward in the United States to designate a day to honour space aliens. Dan Foley, a Republican from Roswell, New Mexico, the area where some say aliens landed, proposed an "Extra-terrestrial Culture Day" every second Thursday in February.

Mr Foley asked for the bill "in recognition of the many visitations, sightings, unexplained mysteries and technological advances... of alien beings" in New Mexico.

The legislation aims to "enhance relationships among all the citizens of the cosmos, known and unknown," he added.

E.T. 'honoured'

Characters made famous in sci-fi movies, such as E.T. in Steven Spielberg's 1982 film, would be honoured on such a day.

Roswell, New Mexico, the self-appointed alien capital of the world, is where UFO enthusiasts say an alien spaceship crash-landed in 1947.

In July, a week-long festival which boasts speakers on extra-terrestrial life and UFOs attracts thousands of visitors.

Mr Foley said by creating a day of alien celebration - interest in aliens and economic benefit - can be spread to the rest of the state. Visitors would be encouraged to visit the alleged site of a unidentified flying saucer crash in San Juan County, near Aztec.

"If we can capitalise on something that did or did not happen in 1947 then it can help the entire state," he said.

He also added that the bill was introduced to entice film companies to move to Santa Fe.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2003/03/11 19:38:55


An orb by any other name: Debate over what constitutes a planet is far from settled

26 February 2003

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

BERKELEY -- Ask any kid how many planets are in our solar system, and you'll get a firm answer: nine.

But knock on a few doors in Berkeley's astronomy department, and you'll hear, amid the hemming and hawing, a whole range of numbers.

Professor Gibor Basri, who plans soon to propose a formal definition of a planet to the international body that names astronomical objects, argues that there are at least 14 planets, and perhaps as many as 20. To the well-known list of nine he adds several large asteroids and more distant objects from the rocky swarm called the Kuiper Belt circling beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Professor Imke de Pater and Assistant Professor Eugene Chiang, on the other hand, toss out Pluto without a backward glance. It's just a big rock, they say, a former member of the Kuiper Belt, puppy-dogging Neptune around the solar system.

Not so fast, says Professor Alex Filippenko. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), which rules on names for astronomical bodies, has officially said that Pluto remains a planet, at least for the time being. Thus, officially, there are nine. He cavils a bit, however, making it clear to his students that Pluto is "more fundamentally a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), though an unusually large one."

Professor Geoffrey Marcy and research astronomer Debra Fischer, both "planet hunters" within the department, also prefer to keep the number at nine, noting that the sun, though it probably had 12 or 14 planets in the past, will in five billion years probably lose Mercury and Pluto, bringing the count down to seven.

Moons, fusors, brown dwarfs

This difference of opinion within the astronomy department is part of a larger debate in the astronomical community over what constitutes a planet. It provides endless hours of beer-hall debate and Friday-afternoon tea-time chat, with little hope for resolution in the near future.

"It's something of an embarrassment that we currently have no definition of what a planet is," Basri said. "People like to classify things. We live on a planet; it would be nice to know what that was."

The IAU has sidestepped any formal definition, largely, Basri says, because a good definition would eject Pluto from the list and relegate it to a "minor planet" or, even worse, a comet. Basri has come up with a definition that keeps Pluto in the fold, but necessarily brings in other objects that until now have not been considered planets -- objects with names such as Vesta, Pallas and Ceres, now considered asteroids, or KBOs such as Varuna.

He's now preparing a formal definition to put before the IAU Working Group on Extra-Solar Planets, and has posted an article on his Web site that lays out his definition and arguments as to why it should be adopted.

"By 10 years from now, I'd be a little surprised if the IAU had not adopted something along the lines I'm proposing," Basri said. "It's reasonable."

Most astronomers and the IAU agree that planets should be orbiting a star -- or more precisely, an object that is big enough to ignite hydrogen fusion in its core (what Basri calls a fusor). The IAU Working Group also excludes anything, like a star, that is big enough to manage core fusion itself. The consensus thus excludes moons, even those such as Ganymede, which is almost as large as Mars but which happens to be orbiting the planet Jupiter rather than a star.

The definition also excludes failed stars called brown dwarfs, which are too small to be stars but too big to be planets. These are the subjects of Basri's research. In 1995, he was the first to obtain a spectrum confirming that brown dwarfs exist, and he has concentrated on tests that can distinguish brown dwarfs from low-mass stars.

This work naturally led him to focus on mass as a way to distinguish between planets and non-planets. He proposes a natural upper limit for a "planetary mass object" of about 13 times the mass of Jupiter, or about 4,000 Earths. At this size, gravity will cause an object to give off heat, as happens with Jupiter, but the pressure at the core is a bit too cool to fuse the element easiest to fuse, deuterium or heavy hydrogen. Because anything bigger, including stars and brown dwarfs, is able to fuse deuterium, Basri argues that it makes sense to define a "planetary mass object" -- or planemo, as he has dubbed them -- as an object too small to achieve any fusion.

A natural lower limit to the mass of a planemo, Basri says, would be a body large enough for self-gravity to squash it into a round shape. On average, that would be about 700 kilometers in diameter, though that number is squishy -- an iron wrecking ball like Mercury could be smaller and round, while icy planets like Pluto would need to be larger to achieve roundness. This limit excludes all but a few asteroids and KBOs, most of which bear a resemblance to potatoes.

"The upper limit of a planetary mass is the fusion boundary, and the lower limit is roundness," he said. "This definition does not depend on either circumstance or origin."

Basri then throws in the other traditional property of planets to reach a final definition: a planet is a planemo orbiting a fusor.

"If you take this definition," he says, "you don't have any trouble what to call these objects," including many of the new extrasolar planets that Geoff Marcy and Debra Fischer are discovering.

Marcy disagrees. In his search for planets around other stars -- he and his colleagues have found about two-thirds of all known extrasolar planets -- he has come across planet systems that aren't so neat. Two years ago, his team discovered two bodies orbiting the star HD168443 -- one with a mass about 7.6 times that of Jupiter, and one 17 times Jupiter. Basri would call this a planetary system with one large gas planet and one brown dwarf companion -- sort of a failed binary star system, where one "star" wasn't big enough to make the grade.

Talk show host David Letterman, an astronomy buff, quizzed Marcy about these two objects when he was a guest in April 2001. Marcy admitted that the larger of the objects is "so large it doesn't even seem like a planet. We don't know what to call it. Is it a planet? Is it a star? Is it something in between? We're befuddled."

"Well, what the hell are we going to do?" asked Letterman.

"We're screwed," Marcy admitted.

"Run for your life, everybody," Letterman quipped.

Marcy and Fischer believe that consideration should be given to how an object formed, with the name planet reserved for objects forming in accretion disks around a star. In the early dust and gas cloud from which stars form, fluffy dust bunnies coalesce into bigger dust bunnies, until they're big enough for their own gravity to actively sweep in even more stuff. Anything that forms this way around a star should be called a planet, they argue. Stars and brown dwarfs form differently, in the middle of a swirling nebula, thus providing a way to differentiate planets from the rest.

But, Basri counters, "I don't think we should define what an object is based on how it formed, because I don't think we know enough about formation mechanisms, and you can't easily observe how things form."

No one now knows how brown dwarfs form, and to throw a wrench into things, there's some doubt that Jupiter formed the way the other planets did. Asks Basri, not entirely rhetorically: "Is Geoff going to stop calling Jupiter a planet if he discovers it was formed the way a brown dwarf is?"

A taxonomy of planets

Marcy and Fischer believe that assigning a firm definition to planet may also lock astronomers into a taxonomy that will quickly become obsolete as we learn more about the varieties of planets in the galaxy.

"I think any time you try to draw sharp lines you get into trouble," said Fischer. "We should be a lot humbler and say we are calling these things planets because we have this historical precedent, this historical inertia. Let's admit that at either end, the high-mass end and low-mass end, this has been completely arbitrary, and that some things don't fit with our classification scheme."

"It's way too early to define a planet," Marcy said. "No one would have predicted 10 years ago that we'd have any extrasolar planets. Even though we have now found more than 100 of them, these are still the early days in planet hunting."

He anticipates that 70-80 percent of all stars will be found to have planets, most of these in multiple planet systems. And even though no Earth-sized planets have yet been discovered, the Milky Way galaxy could well harbor hundreds of millions of Earths.

"It's a little arrogant, I think, for us to imagine that we understand what the full spectrum is going to shake out to be. Are we really in the ultimate position right now where we should redefine things, because it freezes it in again? In a decade or two it may look incomplete again," Fischer said.

Basri scoffs at these objections. "It's like saying we shouldn't define what a star is until we understand all about star formation and weird binary stars, and so on. If we define a planet based on the basic observable properties of these objects, people can later apply all sorts of adjectives to them as they are understood better, without changing what they are basically talking about."

When Neptune dominates

Imke de Pater, who uses both radio telescopes and optical telescopes to study planets such as Jupiter and Neptune and volcanic activity on Jupiter's moon Io, also thinks that how a body forms should not make a difference in deciding whether a body is a planet.

"I would say a planet is a body in orbit about a star, but not forming part of a larger swarm, like the asteroids in the asteroid belt or the Kuiper Belt Objects," she proposes. "A planet also would have to be in a stable orbit for a few billion years -- it shouldn't be a KBO in transit to becoming a comet."

Eugene Chiang, a new member of Marcy's Center for Integrative Planetary Studies, knows these swarms well. He's part of a national team called the Deep Ecliptic Survey that is scanning the plane of the solar system in search of as many Kuiper Belt Objects as it can find. They've discovered some 250 since 1998, bringing the total known KBOs to about 600, all swarming beyond Neptune's orbit, 30 times farther from the sun than Earth.

Pluto, Chiang notes, is the largest of the Kuiper Belt Objects, and its orbit, like that of all the KBOs, is dominated by Neptune. In fact, it orbits in lock-step with Neptune: Pluto goes around the sun twice for every three Neptune orbits. A large class of such objects in the Kuiper Belt has been dubbed Plutinos because they also inhabit this so-called 3:2 resonance. Of the 100 KBOs that Chiang has tracked well, 25 percent are in resonant orbits with Neptune.

"The asteroid belt is dominated by Jupiter, and the Kuiper Belt is dominated by Neptune," he says, and objects in neither of these belts should be called planets. In fact, because the Kuiper Belt is the source of many short-period comets that plunge through the interior solar system, Pluto could even be called a comet.

Chiang's interest in the KBOs with resonant orbits comes from his theory that planets migrate inward or outward after their initial formation. The many objects in resonant orbits with Neptune argue that it has migrated outward, he says, shepherding the KBOs with it and locking many into resonances. The theory could explain some of the bizarre planetary systems that Marcy, Fischer, Paul Butler and others have found, in which large gas planets seem to be sitting awfully close to their star, in contrast to our own solar system, where the gas giants are far out. Early in a system's history, gravitational interactions between large gas planets and the gaseous disk or small objects called planetesimals can drive planets in or out, he said.

The case for Pluto

None the less, Basri feels that Pluto needs to remain a planet, partly for historical reasons, but primarily because it fits a consistent and reasonable definition of a planetary mass object orbiting a fusor. And if we include Pluto, how can we exclude other Kuiper Belt Objects and asteroids that look almost identical? There's really no difference between Mercury and Ceres, he says, so any consistent definition of a planet would have to include both. He suggests calling the eight undisputed planets "major planets" and the others, including Pluto, "minor planets" -- a usage once applied to the asteroids before their numbers skyrocketed. But they'd all still be planets.

"I've thought about this for two years now, and I think I've seen all the arguments, I've chewed on them for a long time, I've played with them. So I'm ready," he said. "That doesn't mean anyone else is."

Basri's proposed definition means that the number of planets in the solar system will continue to grow as more large objects are discovered in the Kuiper Belt. The Caltech team that discovered the largest known KBO last year -- a body half the diameter of Pluto that they named Quaoar (kwah-o-wahr), after a creation force in California Indian mythology -- estimates that they "should be able to find 5 to 10 more of these really big Kuiper Belt Objects over the next couple of years, including perhaps a couple [of] 'super-Plutos,'" according to their Web site. That means an eventual 25 planets.

Someday kids may be stumping their parents with planet names such as Vesta, Quaoar and Varuna, if not Ixion or Radamanthus. They'll be around for a while -- at least a few billion years -- so you might as well get used to them.

What's in a name? Help us remember

For ages, teachers have been creating mnemonics to help students remember the order of the planets. One well- known version is "My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas." Another variant, mentioned in Robert Heinlein's book "Have Space Suit, Will Travel," goes: "Mother very thoughtfully made a jam sandwich under no protest." (Thoughtfully stands for Terra, Earth's other name.) But with another five (or more) potential planets, it's back to the drawing board.

Please send us your mnemonics (rls@pa.urel.berkeley.edu) for the latest solar system lineup: Mercury, Venus, Earth (or Terra), Mars, Vesta, Ceres, Pallas, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Quaoar and Varuna. The best submissions will be featured in a future issue of the NewsCenter, http://newscenter.berkeley.edu

Related links:
* Gibor Basri's thoughts on defining planets


* Geoff Marcy's Web site for extrasolar planets


NOTE: Images supporting this release are available at

Jury still out on GM food's effects

By Chet Raymo, 3/11/2003


Last summer, I bought a prepackaged chocolate cake in a European supermarket. The wrapper proclaimed prominently: NO GM INGREDIENTS. GM, of course, stands for ''genetically modified.''

Then I turned the package over and read the ingredients. I recognized flour, salt and water. The rest were a long list of artificial flavors, colorings, stabilizers and preservatives that read like the shelf list of a chemistry lab. Yum!

I'm not suggesting that all those chemicals with unrecognizable names might be harmful to my health. But then again, there is no evidence that GM foods are harmful either. The uproar of popular feeling that has turned Europe into an essentially GM-free zone is based more upon emotion than hard fact.



Elizabeth Loftus about the author

Elizabeth Loftus is at 2393 Social Ecology II, University of California, Irvine, California
92697-7085, USA.

The malleability of memory is becoming increasingly clear. Many influences can cause memories to change or even be created anew, including our imaginations and the leading questions or different recollections of others. The knowledge that we cannot rely on our memories, however compelling they might be, leads to questions about the validity of criminal convictions that are based largely on the testimony of victims or witnesses. Our scientific understanding of memory should be used to help the legal system to navigate this minefield.

Moment of truth as lie detector's worth comes into question


By Julian Coman, in Washington
(Filed: 27/10/2002)

One of America's most famous detection devices may be consigned to the scrapheap after being used in thousands of trials and making countless appearances in Hollywood films.

The lie-detector, or polygraph test, is routinely used by United States police forces, the FBI, the Pentagon and other government departments in order to investigate crimes, screen employees and root out spies.

O J Simpson failed one after being accused of murdering his wife. In the recent hit film, Meet the Parents, Robert De Niro played an ex-CIA man who even subjects a prospective son-in-law to a polygraph test to discover his true intentions.

A government-sponsored study by the American Academy of Sciences concludes, however, that the suspicious father was wasting his time.

Two years of research has led the academy to report that the lie-detector, which measures abnormal blood pressure, breathing and skin response during interrogation, is so inaccurate and vague that it actually constitutes a "danger to national security".

Drew Richardson, a former FBI special agent and consultant to the report, said: "Panel members very clearly and emphatically found that no spy has ever been caught as a result of a polygraph.

"None would ever be expected to be revealed and large numbers of the tens of thousands of people subjected yearly to this sort of testing are probably being falsely accused about their backgrounds and activities."

Dr Stephen Fienberg, a computer scientist who headed the academy panel that produced the report, said: "The deep flaws with the lie-detector are to do with the thresholds set by interrogators."

The panel found that to catch eight out of 10 spies, an estimated 1,600 innocent interviewees would also be placed under suspicion, rendering the results meaningless.

Eliminating the so-called "false positives" would mean that almost no genuine targets would ever be caught.

"National security is too important to be left to such a blunt instrument," said Dr Fienberg.

"There is a mystique about the lie-detector that very much needs to be addressed. It has led to an overconfidence about the status of its results in the popular mind.

"The idea of something that infallibly discovers the truth has been seductive for centuries. We used to use hot coals and irons."

The Los Angeles Police Department, which is currently suffering a chronic shortage of staff, has given a polygraph test to more than 2,000 selected recruits this year.

Only half those interrogated were judged to have passed. The rest were deemed to have lied about drug use and other matters of "personal integrity".

The Pentagon gives lie-detector tests to 73.6 per cent of employees as "a condition of access to certain positions or information".

The study will be discussed by the US Congress early next year.

It was commissioned by the Department of Energy after a humiliating fiasco involving an employee at the sensitive Los Alamos nuclear research laboratory in New Mexico.

On the basis of a series of polygraph tests, Wen Ho Lee, an experienced scientist at Los Alamos, was accused in 1999 of passing nuclear secrets to China. He was later exonerated of all spying charges.

There was further embarrassment for the advocates of lie-detectors last year when Ana B Montes, the Pentagon's senior Cuba analyst, confessed to a 16-year spying career for Fidel Castro. She had easily passed obligatory polygraph examinations before taking on her job.

The report's authors are now lobbying congressmen and senators for a gradual phasing out of the technology. A decision on the future of the lie-detector will be taken next year.

So far, however, Mr Fienberg's conclusions are being fiercely resisted, particularly by police departments.

At the Pentagon, Lt-Col Ken McLellan said there were no immediate plans to abolish polygraph tests, but admitted that alternatives were being considered.

"We've been doing research into voice tremor technology, but we haven't really had much success with that," he said.

"However, new infra-red technology that measures the heat on a person's face does seem promising. In the end we're just interested in getting people to tell the truth."

Is It Good for the Jews?


March 8, 2003


Two weeks ago, a group of senior intelligence officials in the Defense Department sat for an hour listening to a briefing by a writer who claims — I am not making this up — that messages encoded in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament provide clues to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. One of the officials told me that they had agreed to meet the writer, Michael Drosnin, author of a Nostradamus-style best seller, without understanding that he was promoting Biblical prophecy. Still, rather than shoo him away, they listened politely as he consumed several man-hours of valuable intelligence-crunching time. Apparently he has given similar briefings to top officials of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

Maybe we're all a little too desperate these days for a simple formula to explain how our safe world came unhinged. That, as much as anything, may explain one of the more enduring conspiracy theories of the moment, the notion that we are about to send a quarter of a million American soldiers to war for the sake of Israel.


* Senate Sponsor Kills Bill at Last-Minute

* "Holding Therapy" Becomes Issue in Governor's Race

The major effort for this legislative season came to naught last Wednesday night as (literally) last-minute maneuvering by Utah Senate Republicans managed to kill a bill that would have outlawed the use of coercive restraint by psychotherapists in Utah.

It's taken us here at AT News a while to piece together what happened in the last minutes of Utah's legislative session and figure out how to report how a bill could fail when it had managed to galvanize and unify ALL of the mental-health professional organizations in Utah, was supported by many of the state's prominent child/patient-advocacy groups, and had gotten a near-unanimous vote in the Utah House.

AT News readers will remember from past reports that HB5, proposed by Rep. Mike Thompson (R-Orem), was a straightforward bill that would have prohibited any licensed psychologist, psychiatrist, social-worker, counselor, or family-therapist from using coercive restraint (that is, any restraint not for emergency safety) in therapy, or from instructing, supervising, or recommending the use of coercive restraint on a patient.

HB5 had the determined opposition of "Attachment (Holding) Therapists" in Utah, who managed to get their patrons in the state senate to introduce an alternative bill (SB137) that bizarrely redefined coercive restraint as: covering ALL of a patient's face, restricting breathing by compressing a body, sitting or lying on a patient with FULL body contact, or using elbows, knees, knuckles, or fists.

HB5 proponents lobbied hard in the last three weeks to get the bill to a vote of the full Senate, where a majority of the senators had indicated that they would pass it. Several deals were made that would have brought the bill to the senate floor, but they were all reneged on by the senate Republican leadership, and all turned out to be stalling tactics.

In parliamentary and political maneuvers that would take way too much space to recount here, senate Democrats (who are a tiny minority, but unanimously supportive of HB5) managed to catch the Republicans flat-footed and passed a motion to bring HB5 to the floor (and to the top of the calendar) with less than a half-hour remaining before the mandatory midnight adjournment. After another stalling tactic which ate up precious minutes, GOP leaders pressured HB5's senate sponsor, Sen. Carlene Walker (R-Salt Lake), to table the bill, effectively killing it.

After weeks of trying to get the bill to the floor, why Sen. Walker would do such a thing is beyond comprehension. She essentially snatched defeat from the jaws of victory!

Rep. Thompson has vowed to bring back the issue next year.

Last weekend, the bill's principal opponent, Sen. Parley Hellewell (R-Orem) kicked off a campaign for governor, making his opposition to banning restraint a centerpiece. He is literally gloating over how he killed HB5 and stood up for, in his words, "parental choice" in therapy. Given both how bullheadedly wrong he is about the issue of restraint and holding therapy, and how much support HB5 has outside the senate -- even the Mormon Church-owned *Deseret News* editorially urged the senate to act favorably on banning "Holding Therapy" -- we think that Sen. Hellewell is not on a winning course for the governor's chair.

Meanwhile, the AT Therapists whom Hellewell, and others, have fought so hard to protect face revocation of their LCSW licenses. The decision of the regulatory board on some two dozen charges respecting their AT practices (and possibly more to come) should come some time this year, and will serve to protect some of Utah's children until the next session of the legislature. A revocation decision will also serve to defuse AT's champions and make passage of the anti-restraint bill next year much more likely.

There are also some public and professional education efforts being planned in Utah that hopefully will deter parents from choosing child abuse as "therapy" for their children.

Paraphrasing the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenneger, "We'll be back!"

-- Special Report by Larry Sarner

[*AT NEWS* sends the latest news to activists and allied organizations about the many abusive, pseudoscientific, and violent practices inflicted on children by the fringe psychotherapy known as Attachment Therapy, aka "holding therapy" and "therapeutic parenting." Attachment Therapists claim to work with the most vulnerable of children, e.g. minority children, children in foster care, and adoptees. AT NEWS is the publication of newly formed *Advocates for Children in Therapy.* For more information on Attachment Therapy, go to the Utah activists' site: http://www.kidscomefirst.info ]

Contact: Linda Rosa, RN
Corresponding Secretary
Loveland, CO

Contacting the North Texas Skeptics
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