Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Archive for January, 2009

Knowledge-hungry little creatures

This is a little off the topics we usually rant about here in Forgetomori, but it’s so funny. Little 9-months old Charles-Edward adventures in the dining room, four hours condensed in two minutes. Time-lapse at its best.

From a man-watching perspective, isn’t it amazing how the human creature is so relentless, capable of crawling everywhere, looking and messing around for hours, so hungry for knowledge? What other animal does that? [via Fogonazos]

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Fergana: Too Good to be True


Immersed as we are in our own culture, we often look at ancient drawings, sculptures and objects and interpret them as something different from what they originally represented. Cartocacoethes, for instance. That is the central method and fallacy of the Ancient Astronauts cult.

That is wrong in so many ways, but I would like to point out specifically that even if we were visited by extraterrestrial astronauts, even assuming they were biped, they would hardly use chemical propulsion rockets and uncomfortable 1960s space suits. Hell, even Soviet, Chinese and American rockets and space suits have some significantly different styles. And they all rely on the same principles, no fancy nuclear propulsion or warp drives. I suspect that even if we were contacted in ancient times, and that’s a plausible possibility, and even if that was recorded somehow, we wouldn’t recognize it as such today. The signal would likely be lost among the noise, and perhaps would only be understood again after we contact them (again).

It’s only speculation, of course.

Amid all forced reinterpretations of ancient art, however, the one you can see above is quite unique. It’s usually shown as an ancient rock art found in the Fergana valley, Uzbekistan, dating to 12,000 years ago. Pay attention to the flying saucer expelling smoke and the astronaut below. But those are curiously not the most intriguing elements. Amazingly, the checkered ground shows understanding of perspective, and the bizarre humanoid figure at left mixes many different art styles, from Buddhist imagery to winged angels, styles that would arise in different cultures around the world only thousands of years later.

The Fergana drawing is quite simply, too good to be true. Perhaps because it’s actually false.

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Seeing Patterns


Can you see a pattern in the image above? Click to see it on Google Maps: each star is a point in London where a V2 bomb fell.

The 13-ton Nazi rockets, of which 500+ fell on the British capital, killed more than 9,000 and are represented in an interactive map. Clicking in the satellite view you can see how some impact points are still open craters, six decades later, while most of them have been covered by houses and parking lots. Remember, remember.


But why have I asked if you could see a pattern? Because how to interpret the places in London where the bombs fell is a classic example of the conflict between our fears and emotions against our science and reason.

In a fascinating study published on Science last year, Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky conducted six experiments showing how lacking control increases illusory pattern perception. From pareidolia to paranoia, amid a stressful environment where we are powerless as to the outcomes, we are prone to see obscure plots and meanings that aren’t really there.

And you can imagine how being at the mercy of flying bombs that fall from the sky without any warning and to which there was no possible defense is a good example of lacking control. The V2 were supersonic weapons, falling from over 100km at 4 times the speed of sound. You would only hear them after they hit their target. Not a single V2 was destroyed after a complete launch.

Predictably, terrorized London citizens started to see some very obscure patterns. As Gallinsky told John Tierney:

People were certain that parts of the city had been targeted and other parts spared. People in those areas of the city seemingly spared came under suspicion as Nazi sympathizers, and their livelihoods and physical safety were threatened. And in those areas seemingly targeted by the bombs, people moved out, attempting to escape systematic bombing that was in fact not systematic.”

As they weren’t systematic. The guiding systems of the V2 were very primitive, and their margin of error was of several miles. The best the Nazis could do was aim at London and hope the city would be hit. The only tactical use of the flying bombs, targeting a specific bridge in Remagen, was a failure: eleven bombs were launched, none hit the bridge. Any belief that the Nazis were targeting specific areas of some dozen meters, or even specific addresses, was all fiction.

We know that today, of course, after the war. But how did the British could have known that during the war, when even the existence of flying bombs from Germany was a very unwelcome surprise?

In an exemplary application of statistics, RD Clarke published a single page that summarized how they did it. Comparing the actual distribution of areas hit by the bombs with a Poisson distribution, he found a nearly perfect match:

No. of flying bombs    Expected no. of squares    Actual no. of
per square                    (Poisson)              squares
       0                       226.74                      229

       1                       211.39                      211

       2                        98.54                       93

       3                        30.62                       35

       4                         7.14                        7

       5 and over                1.57                        1
                               576.00                      576

And that is a statistical distribution that formalizes randomness. The areas hit by the V-2 were distributed at random, not due to some perverse conspiracy of Nazis and traitors.

With such simple test the British were able to safely assume the V-2 lacked precise guidance and acted accordingly. The best they were able to do was to manipulate the news of the areas hit by the bombs, leading the Nazis astray on their aiming.  It kind of worked.

Unfortunately, explaining how such a simple statistical test for randomness proved there was no dark conspiracy didn’t do much for the civilians. Decades later, psychological studies such as the one by Whitson and Gallinsky would help us understand why. Even though a classic Twilight Zone episode already warned us of that.

Curiously, as you may have guessed from the name, the Poisson distribution is named after mathematician Siméon Denis Poisson. A French.

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Folding the Yoshimoto Cube, Feeding 5000

Watch as the cubes unfold and then, like magic, become two geometrical figures known as stellated rhombic dodecahedrons. Stranger than the name is that the dodecahedrons then fold again as two cubes the same size as the original cube. Wizardry? Miracle? Hellraiser? No, mathematics.

Keep reading for more about this black math and a bonus of biblical and quantum miracles.

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Dawkins hearts Reptilian aliens


That would be how a British tabloid might report this quite interesting episode. Michael Shermer argued in this short video for the Skeptic Society that “there’s no way that aliens, if we ever do encounter them, are going to be bipedal primates, let alone look just like us except for some gnarly stuff in their foreheads or maybe speak English but with an Indian accent.”

“Only one species in the history of life on Earth, over hundreds and hundreds of millions of species, only one has become a bipedal primate”, he argues. And as Shermer wrote on the SkepticBlog, “none other than Richard Dawkins” took an issue with that.

“I would agree with [Shermer] in betting against aliens being bipedal primates and I think the point is worth making, but I think he greatly overestimates the odds against”, wrote Dawkins, who referenced Simon Conway Morris, Edward O. Wilson and particularly the latter mention of…

The Dinosauroid. Dale Russell’s Dinosauroid, a scientific speculation on how the Troodon might have looked liked today if it weren’t extinct along with the rest of the dinosaurs. The end-result, as you can see below, would look like a round-headed biped surprisingly like us. Or so Russell speculated.


Immediately after publication, Russell’s speculation was heavily criticized, as it is to this day. It’s no surprise the Dinosauroid looked like us, as the speculation did have some assumptions that intelligent life would have a tendency to evolve in our direction.

Be sure to read the quick exchange between Shermer and Dawkins on the subject. The British skeptic ends his point like this:

“My guess is intermediate between your two extremes. I agree with you [Shermer] that androids are rare, that is indeed suggested by the fact that they have only evolved once on Earth. I agree with you that science fiction, and the alien abduction subculture, have an unseemly eagerness to imagine androids, which you are right to denigrate. But I suspect that androids are not so very rare as to justify the statistical superlatives that you permitted yourself in the vignette. I have discussed such matters in the last chapter of The Ancestor’s Tale. I think Conway-Morris goes too far in one direction, and you go too far in the other.”

Check also the comments on the post for an interesting discussion. Most people today know Dawkins as one of, and perhaps the main Horseman of Atheism. But before that he was already famous for his excellent science writing, which included no small dose of speculation and all the imagination that goes with that. I am a huge admirer of all of his work, though I do tend to appreciate the science promotion part better.

Another great skeptic also mentioned the Troodon and the idea of a intelligent dinosaur. That was Carl Sagan in “The Dragons of Eden”, another superb work that few people today seem to have read. Ironically, perhaps, “The Dragons of Eden”, as the name already makes clear, is full of references to the Bible. Just as metaphor, of course.

Now, God is certainly a delusion, but perhaps we do have some bipedal intelligent friends out there. Or is it? Do we?

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