Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Archive for June, 2008

Feynman’s flower

This video is from 1981. The interview is also the subject of Feynman’s book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

“I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s some times taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, "look how beautiful it is," and I’ll agree, I think. And he says, "you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing." And I think he’s kind of nutty.

First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower.

At the same time, I see much more about the flower that he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter: there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure… also the processes.

The fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting – it means that insects can see the color.

It adds a question – does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms that are… why is it aesthetic, all kinds of interesting questions which a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower.

It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

[Free Science Videos and Lectures]

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How to create a cult: the Asch conformity

Carey Burtt’s superb “Mind Control Made Easy or How to Become a Cult Leader” (2000).

It may be fun, but this is no comedy, it’s more like a documentary. Cults thrive on our vulnerabilities, and a good demonstration of just how vulnerable we all are was given in a series of experiments conducted by social psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1950s.

In the video above you can watch a modern reproduction of the experiment. All involved are “confederates”, except for the one person who is the unsuspecting subject.

Asked about a simple obvious question, everyone will give correct answers at first, but then will start to give unanimously wrong answers. Again and again.

Will the sole subject eventually give in and give the same, but wrong, answer as all the others?

As you can see, and hundreds of reproductions have confirmed, they eventually do, in an alarming proportion. More than one third of the times the subject gives in to the collective error, and up to three quarters of the subjects eventually gave in at some point.

No one was told to conform. There was nothing to gain or to lose. This is spontaneous social conformity.

“That we have found the tendency to conformity in our society so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call White Black is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct”, wrote Asch.

Beyond its worrying main results, Asch’s Social Conformity Experiments are also enlightening in their details and variations.

If even one of the confederates gives a different answer, the conformity drops dramatically (from 5% to 10%). And this dissenting minority doesn’t even has to give the correct answer. It just has to manifest a different opinion.

There’s more. The conformity gets stronger when the confederates grow in number from one to three, unsurprisingly. But from three up to 10 to 15 confederates, the conformity don’t keep growing in a significant way. We would expect it to grow in linear form as the group gets bigger, but apparently things do not work that way.

We may also assume that those subjects who eventually gave the wrong answer knew they were wrong, and did so in a conscious manner so as to avoid conflict. But apparently, things do not work that way.

The subjects blamed their errors as their own fault, and even though they may not have been entirely sure of their choice, on the other hand they didn’t consider it clearly incorrect. Cognitive dissonance?

Surprise, surprise, a recent reproduction of the experiment using fMRI (a “brain scan”) suggests that social conformity does indeed alters the perception of reality. The areas of the brain activated during the crucial cases of conformity weren’t those high-level areas dealing with conflict and planning (“I know this is wrong, but I will give the same answer as everyone else”), but those more elementary dealing with perception (“oh well, that thing really looks like the other”).

For more on Asch’s Social Conformity Experiments – including its difference among different countries and between the 1950s and now – check this meta-analysis (PDF). The NYTimes has an item on the recent experiment with brain scans, and the detailed paper of that study can also be read here (PDF).

This is just one of the 5 Psychological Experiments That Prove Humanity is Doomed.

[via MindHacks]

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The house that dripped blood

Above, the small house that dripped blood

Echoing the bizarre scenes from horror movies (and the dubious associated claims), a small house in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, dripped blood. Deputy officer Marco Antonio Ferreira, who investigates the case, have discarded the idea that foul play may have been involved, as the people who live in the house are a retired elderly couple above all suspicion.

This past Sunday and Monday night, around 6:30 PM, they complained about a liquid that looked like blood that started to drip from the walls from a height of around 15 cm in the bathroom, living room and one of the bathrooms.

“I was already going to archive the case, as in a preliminary analysis we thought the liquid could be paint. But it is blood”, Ferreira told the news. He also dismissed the hypothesis of a homicide in the house. “Blood is tissue. It only comes from a living person. I visited the house and I have seen that everything was fine. There is nothing wrong there. I may even go back there to have a cup of coffee with the couple,” he joked.

The couple is scared and doesn’t want to talk with the press. They don’t event want to be named.

But if that wasn’t bizarre enough, the last bit is simply priceless. The neighborhood where everything is happening is called… “Jardim Bizarro”, or “Bizarre Garden”.

People are seemingly very Catholic around there, including the couple, who first things first, immediately called a priest. But they don’t want to move. A group of around twenty Catholic ladies also visited the house to pray and help clean the mess.

Another neighbor, identified as Angela, told that the couple is above any suspicion — “I know them for years. They lived here for 38 years. For my part, I lived here for the past 50 years. Nothing like that ever happened.” Good for them.

She also tells how the neighborhood may be finally living up to its name, as “everything around here has always been very peaceful. But around a week ago, a young man was murdered, another was thrown from a train and now, blood is dripping from nowhere. We are scared.”

“They say the fact that our village has ‘bizarre’ in the name attracts bad luck. It may well be. We should change. But ‘Bizarro’ is the surname of a very traditional family of the region. They owned a construction material shop in the past. A name like any other”.

Wait a minute. The Bizarro family owned a construction material shop, and now blood is dripping from the walls? I see a connection there. I hope they kept the receipts for the material in the walls. The Bizarro family may have things to explain.

More updates in this bloody case as they come.

[Source in Portuguese: Líquido que jorrou em casa de Jundiaí é sangue, diz polícia]

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Two-light years and then… enjoy the silence

In the breathtaking opening of the movie “Contact” – adaptation of the even more inspiring original Carl Sagan novel – we travel from Earth, faster than the speed of light and listening to the reverse history of our electromagnetic transmissions through the Universe.

From the Spice Girls (1997…) to the first radio broadcasts, we get farther and father from our Pale Blue Dot, seeing even bigger spaces full of billions and billions of stars in the Cosmos.

The scene is literally poetic, namely it involves a big deal of poetic license, as we listen to transmissions from decades ago while still in the outer solar system – Pluto is not that far. It even has a small joke, as the Face on Mars make a very brief appearance.

But the cold (and perhaps surprising) hard fact is that the scene is impossible. No, not only because it’s impossible to travel faster than light, but because our radio transmissions have a very limited range, and our first radio transmissions are not in some place tens of light-years away. In fact the range of our transmissions is just… well, if you read the title you already know it.

Two light-years for almost all of our transmissions. After that, even ginormous antennas turned exactly to our planet and listening to the right frequencies applying the necessary corrections would not be able to capture an intelligible signal. Even a 3.000 km antenna wouldn’t be enough to capture our TV transmissions from a distance greater than only 0,01 light-years away!

More details on the Astronomy FAQ or this article by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Omicronians hooked on Ally McBeal are therefore only fiction, but keep this as a cherished secret. That our radio bubble is very small is a celestial gift, given all the trash we air and all the perils that may be out there. And it only reinforces the motivation for SETI.

Because if our unintentional transmissions vanish in a couple of light-years, our deliberate and specially powerful transmissions do reach out for hundreds of light-years. And even some of our powerful unintentional transmissions, like those from high-powered radars, also go very far.

Curiously, they would be detected by our neighbors somewhat like what we already detected on SETI, as anomalous, once in a lifetime signals.


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“Project Grey”: Intruders in Fiery Communion


Five friends go camping, but only one comes back alive. All due to evil Grey aliens. But if those nasty creatures weren’t enough, the sole survivor also has to deal with flying balls and government agents who want to convince him it is all due to his imagination. Oh, those government agents, always too skeptic.

Click on the image to watch the preview, and check also the official website for the Canadian movie. Produced with limited resources, the visual effects are what you would see on a cheap TV series.

I have not seen the movie, but beyond the slightly kitsch, there may be some cult, at the very least for those who love UFOs. The scary scenes with the aliens we see in the preview portray scenes and even drawings that are all too familiar, seen countless times on magazines and bulletins. And compared to that, this is a blockbuster.

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