Are We Alone?

by Marcelo Gleiser

Why We Matter – To the Multiverse and Back

When, in 1543, Copernicus demoted the Earth to a mere planet, he had no idea that he would, albeit somewhat slowly, turn the world upside-down. The good canon of Warmia, Poland, set off a chain of events that would, in the centuries following, lead to the progressive humiliation of our species, once the proud center of creation. So goes the bad karma of science: the more we learn about the universe, the less important we become. Is this really what modern science is telling us?

In some ways, yes. Take, for example, the laws of physics and chemistry. They are the same across the vastness of space and the duration of time, at least from fractions of a second after the Big Bang to today. If the same laws hold across our cosmic horizon—the bubble of information defined by the distance light has travelled since the dawn of time 13.8 billion years ago—we should expect that events that happened on our planet in its 4.6 billion years of existence—the development of unicellular life and its evolution to intelligent multicellular species—are not remarkable. This is the “big numbers hypothesis”: in our galaxy alone there are some 300 billion stars, most with planets and moons, making up for over a trillion worlds, each different, each with its own history. Now add the existence of some 200 billion other galaxies within our cosmic horizon, and the diversity is staggering. How can we hold any claim to uniqueness?

Modern Copernicanism thus states that we are typical observers, what Tufts University cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin and many others often cite as the Principle of Mediocrity: the properties and evolution of the solar system are not unusual in any important way. It gets worse. When it comes to the composition of the cosmos, the star stuff we are made of amounts to a mere five percent of the total. The rest is comprised of dark matter (stuff not made of the usual protons and electrons) and dark energy (stuff of unknown nature that is responsible for accelerating the cosmic expansion). Our cosmic insignificance multiplies.

But let us not stop there. Modern theories of particle physics suggest that our universe may be but a bubble in the so-called multiverse: a conglomerate of countless universes, some growing, others shrinking, some young, others old, most with physical laws different from our own. If the multiverse is real, physics must answer questions it is not prepared to answer, related to selection principles that specify not just how the laws of Nature operate but which laws of Nature should act and where. Physics would need a kind of meta-law, a law that determines other laws, including the ones operating within our cosmic bubble…




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1 in 4 Americans Don’t Know Earth Orbits the Sun. Yes, Really.

A selection of pages from “Harmonia Macrocsmica” by Andreas Cellarius, printed in 1708 depicting the Copernican sun-centered (heliocentric) system of the universe. Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus discovered that the Earth orbits the sun way back in the 16th century.

by Ian O’Neill

Dear Science Communication Professionals: We have a problem.

Earlier this month, the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham creationism “debate” received a disproportionate amount of press coverage. Considering that there really is no debate to be had when it comes to the science of evolution, for bad or for worse, Nye faced a hostile audience at the Creationist Museum in Kentucky. He hoped to score some scientific points against Ham’s literal translation of the Bible and his absurd assertion that the world was created in 6 days and that the universe is 6,000 years old.

In my opinion, (an opinion shared by other science communicators), the Nye vs. Ham debate did little for science outreach. It was all about who sounded more convincing and only gave creationists some free advertising.

VIDEO: Should Bill Nye Debate a Creationist?

And then, today, the National Science Foundation (NSF) delivered news of a pretty shocking poll result: around one in four Americans (yes, that’s 25 percent) are unaware that the Earth orbits the sun. Let’s repeat that: One in four Americans — that represents one quarter of the population — when asked probably the most basic question in science (except, perhaps, “Is the Earth flat?” Hint: No.), got the answer incorrect. Suddenly I realized why the Nye vs. Ham debate was so popular.

But wait! I hear you cry, perhaps the NSF poll was flawed? Perhaps the poll sample was too small? Sadly not. The NSF poll, which is used to gauge U.S. scientific literacy every year, surveyed 2,200 people who were asked 10 questions about physical and biological sciences. On average, the score was 6.5 out of 10 — barely a passing grade. But for me personally, the fact that 26 percent of the respondents were unaware the Earth revolves around the sun shocked me to the core.

Perhaps I’m expecting too much of the U.S. education system? Perhaps this is just an anomaly; a statistical blip? But then, like the endless deluge of snow that is currently choking the East Coast, another outcome of the same poll appeared on the foggy horizon of scientific illiteracy: The majority of young Americans think astrology is a science.

What the what? Have I been transported back to the Dark Ages? Astrology, of course, is not a science; it is a spiritual belief system at best and at worst a pseudoscience driven by charlatans and the tabloid press. The positions of the stars and planets in the sky do not affect my mood and my horoscope has little bearing on the kind of person I am. Even in China, one of the birthplaces of astrology, 92 percent of the people know that astrology is bunk. Really America, get your act together.

Unfortunately, if we are to use the “Is astrology a science?” as a litmus test for scientific literacy, things are looking grim. In 2004, 66 percent of the American public said astrology was bunk. Every year since then, that majority has slipped. By 2012, only 55 percent of Americans considered astrology “not at all scientific.” Probably of most concern is the fact that only 42 percent of young respondents aged between 18-24 said astrology is “not at all scientific.”

ANALYSIS: Is Astrology Rubbish? Don’t Get Me Started

But there is a small glimmer of hope. According to the same NSF poll, the vast majority of Americans seem to love science. Although they returned woeful test results, it seems America is hungry to learn about science and think that science funding is essential for the well-being of the nation. But I’m now concerned about what America thinks science really is, especially in light of that astrology result. Also, just because the U.S. public wants to learn, can they find the institutions that will actually teach real science?

Schools across the nation are currently facing the unthinkable notion of teaching creationism alongside evolution in science classrooms. The fact that religion is given the same standing as science is not only absurd, it’s a fundamental institutional failing where children (who may be excited to learn about science) will grow up with a second-rate education, neglecting decades of scientific knowledge in favor of pseudo-scientific religious agendas.

For a nation that prides itself on science and discovery, it will be a tragedy on a national scale if fundamental science is undercut by superstition and the bad policies it inspires.

You can read detailed results of the NSF poll here (PDF).




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Florida Schools Forced to Allow Satanic Church Access to its Young Students

21st Century Wire says…

Do religious groups have a right to push their material on innocent children in state schools? What ever happened to the ‘separation of church and state’? As liberalism and communitarian continue to sweep America, protections enjoyed by previous generations are now a thing of the past…

On the heels of their spectacular success in getting their agenda into childrens’ minds through Hollywood’s entertainment and music industries, Satanic groups have found a new way into your children’s lives by using the court system to force access to schools and distribute their satanic literature.

The Orlando Sentinel reported this week how The Satanic Temple wants to give out materials, including The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities, in Orange schools. What’s worse, the schools have no choice but to submit.

Ironically, it was because of a previous ruling won by the Atheist and evangelical Christian groups that the Satanic Temple has found a way into schools.

Pay close attention to the Liberal framing of the church’s mission, using popular liberal trigger words like ‘social justice’ :

The Orlando Sentinel explains:

“The Satanic Temple, a relatively new group that supports social justice causes and believes Satan is the “eternal rebel against the ultimate tyrant,” wants to give out materials such as The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities.”

Behind the Satanic drives to infiltrate schools – surprise, surprise… are an army of trial lawyers.

“The Freedom From Religion Foundation and its local affiliate, the Central Florida Free-thought Community, sued Orange schools last year after some of their materials were censored. The case was dismissed earlier this year when the school district agreed to allow all of the materials to be given out.”

“They have no ability to keep out the Satanists and the literature they want to distribute unless they close the forum altogether,” said FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel.”

There is something very wrong with this scene in America today. As expected, liberals and Democratic Party leaders are completely silent on this issue – which means that they approve...




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Trial by fire

A Tamil man falls into a trance-like state as he performs the Vel Kavadi ritual. Photo by Mark Henley/Panos

A Tamil man falls into a trance-like state as he performs the Vel Kavadi ritual. Photo by Mark Henley/Panos

From fire-walking and head-slashing to the ice-bucket challenge, ritual pain and suffering forge intense social bonds

by Dimitris Xygalatas

(Dimitris Xygalatas is assistant professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Connecticut and director of the Experimental Anthropology Lab there.)

On the Day of Ashura, Shia Muslims around the world gather to mourn the Imam, Husayn ibn Ali, and his defeat in the battle of Karbala (in present-day Iraq) in 680AD. They slash their heads and backs using swords or iron chains with blades until the streets are covered in blood. Every Good Friday, Catholics in the Philippines re-enact the suffering of Jesus Christ. These devotees are voluntarily crucified by having nails hammered through the palms of their hands and their feet. And every October, thousands of people converge on Phuket in Thailand to celebrate the Vegetarian Festival in veneration of Chinese deities and ancestors; practitioners remove parts of their skin, perform bloodletting, and impale their cheeks and limbs with anything from knives and skewers to antlers and umbrellas – all while burning firecrackers are tossed at them by the crowd.

Widespread participation in such voluntary rites over millennia of human history raises an important evolutionary question: Given the high cost, why does the practice go on? To find out, I’ve spent the past decade exploring ritual traditions around the world. My first destination – a literal trial by fire – took me to the rural parts of southern Europe where fire-walking has been performed for centuries. In Greece and Bulgaria every May, a number of Orthodox communities called the Anastenaria walk barefoot on burning coals to celebrate two Christian saints, Constantine and Helen. And in Spain, the residents of a small village in the central province of Soria stage a fire-walk on the night of the summer solstice. The origins of those rituals are lost in time, reaching at least as far back as the Middle Ages (some even place their dawn in prehistory, but evidence is lacking). And in the case of the Anastenaria, their perseverance defied not only the passage of time but also historical adversities such as the uprooting of their communities after the Balkan Wars and centuries of persecution, often violent, by the Greek Church.

To learn why such costly practices have endured, I started by doing what anthropologists do: I asked the locals. For more than two years, I had fascinating conversations, met interesting people, heard about extraordinary experiences, conducted hundreds of interviews and made great friends. But the answers I got were often perplexing. Some described feeling an undefined ‘urge’ to participate, while others said: ‘We don’t think about our rituals, we just do them,’ or simply: ‘It’s always been done that way.’

In Greece, people referred me to the most senior members of the community, but even the elders had reached no consensus on the importance of the rite. Some argued that fire-walking was done to ensure a good crop; others that it was done to heal the ill, to ask the saints for good fortune, or to thank them for providing for their devotees. Yet others would serve up ancient myths, such as: ‘Our ancestors once emerged unscathed from within a burning church, so we fire-walk to commemorate that event.’ Gradually, I realised that people don’t always know why they perform their rituals, and yet those rituals are of central importance to their lives. What was going on?…






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The calculus of contagion

Gloves drying after being disinfected at the Elwa hospital run by French NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres in Monrovia, Liberia during the current Ebola outbreak. Photo by Dominique Faget/Afp/Getty

Gloves drying after being disinfected at the Elwa hospital run by French NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres in Monrovia, Liberia during the current Ebola outbreak. Photo by Dominique Faget/Afp/Getty

In the battle against disease, the difference between a raging epidemic and a passing fever comes down to a single number

by Adam Kucharski

(Adam Kucharski is a research fellow in mathematical epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.)

When Ronald Ross tipped over the water tank outside his bungalow in Bangalore, it began a lifelong battle against mosquitoes. It was 1883 and Ross, only two years out of medical school, was the British Army’s new garrison surgeon. Overall, he was happy with the posting – he considered the city, with its sun, gardens and villas, to be the best in southern India.

He was less enthusiastic about the mosquitoes. Having arrived to find his room filled with the sound of buzzing wings, he decided to hunt down and destroy their breeding ground in pools of stagnant tank water. The ploy worked: as he drained the tanks, mosquito numbers fell.

The longer Ross spent in the region, the more he began to suspect that those mosquitoes transmitted malaria, an often-lethal disease with spiking fevers and other symptoms resembling a devastating flu. The disease had probably been around since Homo sapiens first evolved. Its name came from Renaissance Italy; ‘mala aria’, or ‘bad air’, referred to the suspected cause of the disease.

To prove the connection between mosquitos and malaria, Ross experimented with birds. He allowed mosquitoes to feed on the blood of an infected bird then bite healthy ones. Not long afterwards, the healthy birds came down with the disease, too. To verify his theory, Ross dissected the infected mosquitoes, and found malaria parasites in their saliva glands. Those parasites turned out to be Plasmodium, identified by a French military doctor who had discovered the bug in the blood cells of infected patients just a few years before.

Next, Ross wanted to show how the disease could be stopped, and his experiment with the water tank pointed the way. Get rid of enough insects, he reasoned, and malaria would cease to spread. To prove his theory, Ross, a keen amateur mathematician, constructed a theoretical model – a ‘mosquito theorem’ – outlining how mosquitoes might spread malaria in a human population. He split people into two groups – healthy or infected – and wrote down a set of equations to describe how mosquito numbers would affect the level of infection in each.

The human and mosquito populations formed a cycle of interactions: the rate at which people got infected depended on the number of times they were bitten by infected mosquitos, which depended on how many such mosquitos there were, which depended on how many humans had the parasite to pass back to those mosquitos, and so on. Ross found that for the disease to simmer along steadily in a population, as it did in India, the number of new infections per month would need to be equal to the number of people recovering from the disease.

Using his model, Ross showed that it wasn’t necessary to remove every mosquito to bring the disease under control. Destroy enough mosquitoes, and people infected with the parasite would recover before they were bitten enough times for the infection to continue at the same level. Therefore, over time, the disease would fall into decline. In other words, the infection had a threshold, with outbreaks on one side and elimination on the other.

Ross’s work, which won him a Nobel Prize in 1902 and a knighthood in 1911, set the stage for a new mathematical way of thinking about disease outbreaks from bubonic plague to influenza. His insight influenced vaccine policy through the concept of ‘herd immunity’: vaccinate a sufficient proportion of the population, and the disease will fail to take off. It means that vaccination can work even if a few people are left unprotected. Although the specific control measure is different – giving vaccines rather than removing mosquitoes – the principle is the same. As long as we remove enough links in the chain of events that generate infections, the disease will die out. It isn’t necessary to vaccinate everyone, or remove every mosquito; if we reach the critical threshold, the infection will struggle to cause outbreaks in the population…





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Earth is not a garden

Where the wild things are; a grizzly bear sleeps in Katmai National Park in Alaska, USA. Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic

Where the wild things are; a grizzly bear sleeps in Katmai National Park in Alaska, USA. Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic

Some of the world’s most powerful conservationists are giving up on wilderness. They are making a big mistake

by Brandon Keim

(Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist specialising in science, nature and technology. His work has appeared in Wired, Nautilus and Scientific American Mind. He lives in Brooklyn)

Several years ago, I asked a biologist friend what she thought of a recently fashionable notion in environmentalist circles: that pristine nature was an illusion, and our beloved wilderness an outdated construct that didn’t actually exist. She’d just finished her shift at the local boardwalk, a volunteer-tended path through a lovely little peat bog that formed after the last ice age, near what is today eastern Maine’s largest commercial shopping area.

After a moment’s reflection, she said this was probably true, in an academic sense, but she didn’t pay it much mind. The fact remained that places such as the bog, affected by human activity, were special, and ought to be protected; other places were affected far less, but they were special and needed protection, too.

It was a simple, practical answer, from someone who’d devoted much of her life to tending the natural world. I find myself recalling it now that the ideals of conservation are under attack by the movement’s own self-appointed vanguard: the green modernists (aka the New Conservationists, post-environmentalists or eco-pragmatists), a group of influential thinkers who argue that we should embrace our planetary lordship and re-conceive Earth as a giant garden.

Get over your attachment to wilderness, they say. There’s no such thing, and thinking otherwise is downright counterproductive. As for wildness, some might exist in the margins of our gardens – designed and managed to serve human wants – but it’s not especially important. And if you appreciate wild animals and plants for their own sake? Well, get over that, too. Those sentiments are as outdated as a daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau’s beard, dead as a dodo in an Anthropocene age characterised by humanity’s literally awesome domination of Earth.

That humanity has vast power is true. Human purposes divert roughly one-fourth of all terrestrial photosynthetic activity and half its available fresh water. We’re altering ocean currents and atmospheric patterns, and moving as much rock as the process of erosion. The sheer biomass of humanity and our domesticated animals dwarfs that of other land mammals; our plastic permeates the oceans. We’re driving other creatures extinct at rates last seen 65 million years ago, when an asteroid struck Earth and ended the age of dinosaurs.

By midcentury, there could be 10 billion humans, all demanding and deserving a quality of life presently experienced by only a few. It will be an extraordinary, planet-defining challenge. Meeting it will require, as green modernists correctly observe, new ideas and tools. It also demands a deep, abiding respect for non‑human life, no less negligible than the respect we extend to one another. Power is not the same thing as supremacy.

If humanity is to be more than a biological asteroid, nature-lovers should not ‘jettison their idealised notions of nature, parks and wilderness’ and quit ‘pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake’, as urged in a seminal essay co‑authored by Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organisation. Nor can we replace these ideals with what the science writer Emma Marris imagines as ‘a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us’.

Well-intentioned as these visions might be, they’re inadequate for the Anthropocene. We need to embrace more wilderness, not less. And though framing humanity’s role as global gardening sounds harmless, even pleasant, the idea contains a seed of industrial society’s fundamental flaw: an ethical vision in which only human interests matter. It’s a blueprint not for a garden, but for a landscaped graveyard…




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The individual vs. the monolithic State


by Jon Rappoport

“The operations of the Medical Cartel have an underlying theme: there are no individuals, there is only the great collective that obeys the Cartel’s dictates. So we see that this Cartel is really aiming to wipe out the individual.” (Ellis Medavoy, retired propaganda operative.)

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Kiss Your Grass-Fed Beef Goodbye! GMO Grass About to Be Approved

RoundUp-Ready Kentucky Bluegrass begins field trials
Kiss Your Grass-Fed Beef Goodbye! GMO Grass About to Be Approved

Image Credits: Jamie Henderson / Flickr

by Christina Sarich

While many of us rely on grass-fed beef as a source of healthful, properly raised meat, that option of healthy eating may just move down a peg? Why? Not because cattle may have to switch to GM grain, but rather because cattle may be forced to indulge in genetically modified grass.

The Scotts ‘Miracle-Gro’ Company which created genetically modified RoundUp-Ready Kentucky Bluegrass has announced that it will conduct field trials at the homes of Scotts’ employees. What’s more, they can do so without any government oversight because there are no laws that prohibit or limit the planting of GMO grass.

We already know that RoundUp ready crops have been linked (retracted, but read more on that here) via independent peer reviewed studies to inflammatory, genotoxic, neurotoxic, carcinogenic, and endocrine disrupting diseases, as well as infertility. RoundUp also chelates important minerals from the body, robbing you of your good health.

Now, cattle will graze upon GMO Kentucky Bluegrass and people will ingest the RoundUp chemicals sprayed on the cow’s favorite meal.

You can guess who is behind this latest GMO development.

Scotts is Monsanto’s exclusive agent for the marketing and distribution of consumer RoundUp.

We are running out of time to try and get Scott’s from being able to market and sell this latest GMO product. You can sign this petition which will be sent to Hagedorn, along with the CEOs of Lowe’s and Home Depot who are expected to sell the GMO grass.

Read: The GMO Lawn Engineered to Eat Copious Amounts of Pesticides

“…GMO Roundup Ready grass will result in a further increase in the use of Roundup, which will contaminate our groundwater and drinking water. Imagine your children & pets frolicking around in a sea of herbicidal poison. Because of inevitable contamination, the grass is likely to be eaten by grass grazing animals. There has been no toxicity testing and the potential harm to animals eating this GMO grass is unknown. Will we be saying good-bye to pasture raised meat? Lastly, it is a scientific fact that weeds will evolve to develop resistance to Roundup, leading to ever increasing amounts being applied.”

Additionally, you can request that your grocery store only carry certified GMO-free grass-fed beef. The game is changing yet again as biotech tries to infiltrate every conceivable agricultural market on the planet.

While Jim Hagedorn, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, is likely doing a happy promenade, those who love their grass-fed beef and rely upon it as a healthier source of meat can kiss it goodbye.

This article originally appeared at Natural Society.




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Kyoto cops recall special shoes used for pervy pics

Shoes with a camera installed whose shutter is triggered remotely (Mainichi Shimbun)

Shoes with a camera installed whose shutter is triggered remotely (Mainichi Shimbun)


KYOTO (TR) – Following the bust of a shopping site selling shoes containing a miniature camera used to take illicit photographs, Kyoto Prefectural Police are now seeking the return of the merchandise from customers, it was revealed on Tuesday, reports the Mainichi Shimbun (Sept. 17).

On July 1, officers charged the manager of the site Camouflage Camera, 25-year-old Takahiko Naito, and employee Atsuko Sonoda, 24, with selling athletic shoes that include cameras to customers knowing that the merchandise would be used to facilitate the taking of photographs of the underwear of women. Naito was subsequently fined 500,000 yen.

Using a list of 1,000 customers obtained at the time of bust, officers are now going door to door and asking that the purchasers voluntarily relinquish the shoes, the possession of which is not illegal.

Three weeks after the bust of Camouflage Camera, Osaka Prefectural Police arrested a man from Okayama Prefecture for taking illicit photos up a school girl’s skirt at an aquarium in Minato Ward with shoes purchased on the site.

“To inhibit the continued increase in perverted photos, there is no choice but to cut off the practice at its source,” an upper-lever representative of the police said.

The specialty shoe, whose shutter is triggered with a remote control, sells for approximately 30,000 yen. Since 2012, the site sold approximately 2,500 pairs, with revenue from the sales totaling around 60 million yen.

Kyoto police began the process in the middle of August by visiting approximately 40 customers in the prefecture who purchased the shoes.





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Robot with “morals” makes surprisingly deadly decisions

Source: Yahoo News

Anyone excited by the idea of stepping into a driverless car should read the results of a somewhat alarming experiment at Bristol’s University of the West of England, where a robot was programmed to rescue others from certain doom… but often didn’t.

The so-called ‘Ethical robot’, also known as the Asimov robot, after the science fiction writer whose work inspired the film ‘I, Robot’, saved robots, acting the part of humans, from falling into a hole: but often stood by and let them trundle into the danger zone.

The experiment used robots programmed to be ‘aware’ of their surroundings, and with a separate program which instructed the robot to save lives where possible.

Despite having the time to save one out of two ‘humans’ from the ‘hole’, the robot failed to do so more than half of the time. In the final experiment, the robot only saved the ‘people’ 16 out of 33 times.

Full story here.




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