Amir D. Aczel writes often about physics and cosmology. His book about the discovery of the Higgs boson, Present at the Creation: Discovering the Higgs Boson, is published in paperback by Broadway Books in November 2012.
If somebody told you that there are angels floating in space, observing our world and forming their impressions of our everyday reality, you would think that this person is nuts—a religious fanatic with an active imagination, and certainly not a scientist. Scientists, as we all know, are rational beings who believe only in what nature reveals to us through experimentation and observation, coupled with theory that is never divorced from the physical measurements they make. The link between the two remains tightly regulated through the strict rules of the scientific method.
So how do you explain the bizarre fact that, for about five years now, some of the world’s most prominent physicists have been describing a scenario—which they seem to truly believe may be real—in which, instead of the Biblical angels, space is permeated by disembodied brains?
These compact, conscious observers, called “Boltzmann brains,” cruise the vastness of intergalactic space, and beyond it, to the infinite “multiverse” that some scientists believe exists outside the reaches of the universe we observe through our telescopes and satellites. Their consciousness makes the Boltzmann brains recreate our reality. They imagine life such as the one you and I believe we are experiencing here on Earth, to the point that these brains in space may think that they are living on a planet like ours, that they may even be us. Some recent physics papers and commentaries have even explored the possible limits on the number of Boltzmann brains in the universe as compared with “real” brains, in an effort to estimate the probability that we are real rather than Boltzmann entities.
Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in a range of publications, from Science to Smithsonian. Since 2004, he’s been an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. You can find him on Twitter @KeithKloor.
Last month, a group of Massachusetts residents filed an official complaint claiming that the wind turbine in their town is making them sick. According to the article in the Patriot Ledger, the residents “said they’ve lost sleep and suffered headaches, dizziness and nausea as a result of the turbine’s noise and shadow flicker [flashing caused by shadows from moving turbine blades].” A few weeks later, a story from Wisconsin highlighted similar complaints of health problems associated with wind turbines there.
Anecdotal claims like these are on the rise and not just in the United States. A recent story in the UK’s Daily Mail catalogs a litany of health ailments supposedly caused by wind turbines—everything from memory loss and dizziness to tinnitus and depression.
I expect so. For one thing, the alleged health problem has been adopted by demagogues and parroted on popular climate-skeptic websites. But the bigger problem is that “wind turbine syndrome” is what is known as a “communicated” disease, says Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney. The disease, which has reached epidemic proportions in Australia, “spreads via the nocebo effect by being talked about, and is thereby a strong candidate for being defined as a psychogenic condition,” Chapman wrote several months ago in The Conversation.
What Chapman is describing is a phenomenon akin to mass hysteria—an outbreak of apparent health problems that has a psychological rather than physical basis. Such episodes have occurred throughout human history; earlier this year, a cluster of teenagers at an upstate New York high school were suddenly afflicted with Tourette syndrome-like symptoms. The mystery outbreak was attributed by some speculation to environmental contaminants.
But a doctor treating many of the students instead diagnosed them with a psychological condition called “conversion disorder,” as described by psychologist Vaughan Bell on The Crux:
Julie Sedivy is the lead author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You And What This Says About You. She contributes regularly to Psychology Today and Language Log. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary, and can be found at juliesedivy.com and on Twitter/soldonlanguage.
When we tune in to the presidential debates, we want each candidate to tell us what his plan is, and why it will work. But how much information do voters really want? Should Romney unpack his five-point plan and carefully explain the logic behind it? Or should he just reassure us that he knows what he’s doing?
Conventional wisdom has it that too much complexity can mark a candidate for premature political death. History offers up Adlai Stevenson as a prototype of the earnest intellectual who buried his presidential chances under mounds of policy detail—making him a great favorite of the intelligentsia, but too rarely connecting with the average voter. As the story has it, an enthusiastic supporter shouted out during one of his campaigns: “You have the vote of every thinking person.” To which Stevenson allegedly replied (presciently): “That’s not enough, madam. We need a majority.”
The great challenge for candidates during a debate is that they’re not addressing “the average voter.” They’re addressing a mass of citizens with conflicting priorities, beliefs, values, and even different cognitive styles that shape how they evaluate arguments, and just how much detail they want to hear from those who would persuade them.
In the longstanding argument over whether voters are won over by candidates’ style or substance, the answer is undoubtedly: both. All of us rely on fast, intuitive modes of thinking (often called System 1 processing by psychologists) as well as slower, more deliberative evaluation (System 2 thinking). Some situations tilt us more toward one than the other. Anything that limits the sheer computational power we can devote to a task—for instance, watching the debates while at the same time following comments on Twitter—makes us depend more on quick but shallow System 1 processing.
But put different people in the same situation, and some of them will be more likely to fall back on intuitive gut reactions while others will delve into deeper analysis. Some folks, it turns out, simply tend toward more mental activity more than others, and psychologists have found a way to measure this difference using the “Need for Cognition” scale, a questionnaire that contains queries such as: “I really like a task that involves coming up with new solutions to problems” or “I feel relief rather than satisfaction after completing a task that required a lot of mental effort.”
A long line of research (much of it done by Richard Petty, John Cacioppo and their colleagues) shows that people who score high on Need for Cognition respond differently to persuasive messages than those who score lower. When superficial cues (like the attractiveness or apparent expertise of whoever’s making the pitch) are compared against the quality of an argument, these eager thinkers are more likely to ignore the shallow cues in favor of the stronger argument. People who fall lower on the Need for Cognition scale will often find a logically weak argument as persuasive as a strong one, especially if it comes from the lips of an attractive or knowledgeable person.
In the face of such cognitive diversity, a sound strategy for a political candidate might be to make sure to control his style, body language, and general demeanor, and also to have a good, strong argument, ready to appeal to both System 1 and System 2 thinkers. But a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research by Philip Fernbach and his colleagues suggests that sometimes, a well-reasoned, complex, detailed argument can actually repel those inclined towards intuition.
Amy Shira Teitel is a freelance space writer whose work appears regularly on Discovery News Space and Motherboard among many others. She blogs about the history of spaceflight at Vintage Space, where this post originally appeared, and tweets at @astVintageSpace.
According to YouTube, eight million people watched Felix Baumgartner’s high altitude jump on Sunday morning. It was exciting and death-defying, but at the end of the day it was a just an elaborate publicity stunt that will likely see Red Bull sales skyrocket this month. But I’d argue that the event wasn’t entirely a success from a publicity standpoint. Red Bull, who sponsored the jump, wasted an incredible opportunity. It had an eight million person audience captivated, but did nothing to teach that audience about the context behind Baumgartner’s jump. Joe Kittinger’s 1960 jump was amazing, the heritage behind these types of tests is fascinating, but without any context the audience just saw a daredevil break a record for record-breaking’s sake.
I realize I sound like an irritated historian, but I also have a background (albeit a brief one) in publicity. Not taking advantage of an opportunity to teach eight million people a few awesome things about science is a terrible waste, from an historian’s standpoint and a public relations standpoint.
A little background first. Austrian-born Baumgartner started skydiving at 16. He perfected the art and in 1988 began performing skydiving exhibitions for Red Bull. His adventurous spirit and Red Bull’s out-of-the-box thinking meshed well, sparking a now decades-long collaboration. The idea for a free fall from the stratosphere, a planned altitude of 120,000 feet, was conceived in 2005. It was finally named The Red Bull Stratos project, and its goal was defined as transcending “human limits that have existed for 50 years.”
Baumgartner during the record-setting event. Courtesy of Red Bull Stratos.
Ostensibly, the jump was designed to expand the boundaries of human flight. More concrete goals listed on the project’s website include: developing new spacesuits with enhanced mobility and visual clarity to assist in “passenger/crew exit from space”; developing protocols for exposure to high-altitude and high-acceleration environments; exploring the effects of supersonic acceleration and deceleration on the human body; and testing the latest innovations in parachute systems.
It’s not entirely clear what applications this data would have, like the research on “passenger/crew exit from space.” The morning of the jump, people asked me whether the point was to prove that astronauts could jump from the International Space Station in an emergency. It wasn’t. Baumgartner’s 128,000-foot altitude (he overshot his mark) is only about 24 miles; the ISS orbits at an altitude of about 200 miles. Not to mention the astronauts on the ISS are weightless because they’re falling (i.e., orbiting) around the Earth at the same rate as the station, and that wouldn’t change if they stepped outside. It’s also unclear what other high-altitude/high-acceleration and supersonic environments in which people would find themselves that we need to know more about. Yes, there may have been some interesting data gathered from the jump, but it’s not enough to classify the stunt as any kind of research program.
Ethan Siegel is a theoretical astrophysicist living in Portland, Oregon, who specializes in cosmology. He has been writing about the Universe for everyone since 2008, and can’t wait for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. A different version of this post appeared on his blog, Starts With a Bang.
“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” —Joseph Campbell
One of the bravest things that was ever done with the Hubble Space Telescope was to find a patch of sky with absolutely nothing in it—no bright stars, no nebulae, and no known galaxies—and observe it. Not just for a few minutes, or an hour, or even for a day. But orbit-after-orbit, for a huge amount of time, staring off into the nothingness of empty space, recording image after image of pure darkness.
What would we find, out beyond the limits of what we could see? Something? Nothing? After a total of more than 11 days of observing this tiny area of the sky, this is what we found:
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field—the deepest view ever of the Universe, was the result. With all those orbits spent observing what appears to be a blank patch of sky, what we were really doing was probing the far-distant Universe, seeing beyond what any human eye—even one aided by a telescope—could ever hope to see. It took literally hundreds of thousands of seconds of observations across four separate color filters to produce these results.
What you’re seeing—in practically every point or smear of light—is an individual galaxy. The result gave us the information that a very large number of galaxies exist in a minuscule region of the sky: around 10,000 in the tiny volume surveyed by the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image, below.
Image credit: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team
By extrapolating these results over the entire sky (which is some 10 million times larger), we were able to figure out—at minimum—that there were at least 100 billion galaxies in the entire Universe. I even made a video about it.
But that’s not the end of the story; not by a long shot. You see, there might be at least 100 billion galaxies, based on what we’ve observed, but there might be more. Galaxies that are too dim to observe with “only” 11 days of Hubble data. Galaxies that are redshifted too far for even Hubble’s farthest infrared filter to pick up. Galaxies that might appear, if only we had the patience to look for longer.
So that’s exactly what we did, looking for a total of 23 days over the last decade—more than twice as long as the Ultra-Deep Field—in an even smaller region of space. (There are over 1,000 observing proposals submitted to Hubble every cycle, so getting that much time, even spread over a decade, is remarkable.) Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you the Hubble Extreme Deep Field!
Eric Michael Johnson has a master’s degree in evolutionary anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics. He blogs at The Primate Diaries at Scientific American, where this post originally appeared.
“Rand” by Nathaniel Gold
“Every political philosophy has to begin with a theory of human nature,” wrote Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin in his book Biology as Ideology. Thomas Hobbes, for example, believed that humans in a “state of nature,” or what today we would call hunter-gatherer societies, lived a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” in which there existed a “warre of all against all.” This led him to conclude, as many apologists for dictatorship have since, that a stable society required a single leader in order to control the rapacious violence that was inherent to human nature. Building off of this, advocates of state communism, such as Vladimir Lenin or Josef Stalin, believed that each of us was born tabula rasa, with a blank slate, and that human nature could be molded in the interests of those in power.