What are the odds?
As it says on the above DVD cover for Die Hard 2...Die Harder (sweet mother of mercy) lightning shouldn't strike twice. It's an expression we use to mean "astonishing events don't occur on repeat". The odds of something unusual happening are small, so the chances of an unusual thing happening more than once should be even rarer...right?
Well, not quite. While a rare occurence is by definition uncommon, if you run your observations for a longer period of time the chances of it happening more than once don't change. Suppose the odds of you finding a four-leafed clover are 1 in 50. If you go looking at clover-leafs 50 times you'll probably find a four-leafer. That's rare. But if you look at clover leafs another 50 times you'll probably find a second one because now you've made the odds 2/100, which is exactly the same as 1/50. The chances of a rare event happening don't necessarily diminish, they can actually stay the same.
There's also the fact that the more people involved in "experiencing events" i.e. living on planet Earth, the more chance you have of one person experiencing several remarkable occurences. For example, Florida resident James Bozeman won his state lottery two years running in 2012 and 2013. Harry Black of British Columbia bought two winning lottery tickets in the same lottery also in 2013, and then there's Joan Ginther who won the Texas state lottery four times in 1993, 2006, 2008 and 2010.
Ginther's case is fascinating because after winning $5.4 million in 1993, she was still playing the lottery 13 years later. And her method was remarkable: she just bought tens of thousands of tickets for each lottery, spending her winnings from the previous lottery on winning the next. That might be more to do with compulsive behaviour than luck admittedly, but it's still pretty interesting. It also demonstrates that our ability to grasp probability is not intuitive.
When a rare thing happens to you, you get spooked. But rare things have got to happen to someone. I once saw a person dropping a glass of drink onto a hardwood floor. The glass inverted perfectly, landed over the drink and caught it upside down without spiling a drop. The drink was now resting on the floor with the liquid trapped inside and no damage to the glass.
The odds of that are astonishing, but when you consider the sheer number of people having drinks and knocking them over all over the world for the last few centuries, chances are it probably happened on several occasions. Even if something is a one in a million chance, if a billion people are involved that means it will happen a thousand times. One in a million chances are not actually very rare.
One of my favourite psychological experiments on probability was carried out by Richard Dawkins in his Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (1991). Dawkins instructed every member of his audience to stand up and told the left half of the room to think "heads" while the right half thought "tails". He then flipped a coin and half the room sat down because they had failed to predict the outcome. Then he repeated it with the remaining half, some of them focusing on heads, some on tails.
He did this again and again until only one person was left standing; someone who had accurately predicted/psychically influenced the coin a dozen times in a row. That person was no doubt thinking "what are the odds that every time I visualised a particular outcome it came true?" but Dawkins pointed out something crucial. By pure chance, a small number of people will always end up beating the odds. One person genuinely did get 12/12 predictions correct but you have to remember that 200 people in the room didn't get this accuracy. I guess you could call his experiment an example of COIN...cidence.
It shouldn't happen, but it does
So, what about lightning? Does it strike twice? Well, there are certainly people who have been struck on multiple occasions. The all-time champ is undoubtedly Roy Sullivan (pictured below) who was struck six times during his 80-year lifespan. He also claims to have been struck once as a child (although this one wasn't documented). Even Sullivan's wife was hit, presumably because the lightning missed its target.
The odds of this happening to one person are slim. According to Marry Anne Cooper, a lightning-researcher at the University of Illinois (probably the most badass job imaginable), the odds of you getting hit by lightning once in your life are about 1/3000. Sullivan's numbers seem inexplicable, but then again he was a park ranger in Virginia, a state which gets a lot of lightning, and he spent a lot of his time outdoors looking for people who got lost in storms.
So it would appear that lightning can hit a person more than once by pure chance, but can it hit the same location on the Earth's surface? Is the safest place to be during a thunderstorm right where you saw it strike a few moments ago? Let's look at the Science.
What is lightning anyway?
When two objects rub against each other they can break each other’s atoms, chipping off electrons in the process. These electrons get transferred from one surface to the other and a precarious charge imbalance has been created. One of the objects now has an excess of electrons and they will try to escape their unstable surface, usually by tunnelling into the Earth itself.
Because Earth is enormous it has room for surplus particles, so electrons sitting unhappily on the surface of an object will zap toward the ground, going through anything that’s in the way, including you.
That’s what causes the static shock people get after brushing their hair. Strands of human hair pick up electrons from the brush and as soon as you touch something connected to the ground they jump across, creating a spark in the process. A lightning bolt is the same thing multiplied millions of times...we think.
The problem with lightning is that it’s an unpredictable and dangerous phenomenon, which makes it very hard to study. We know it happens more in warm countries and it tends to occur during rainstorms, but that's all we're certain about. Please take the remainder of this explanation as speculative. It's a little more than a hypothesis, but it's not quite strong enough to be called a theory yet and there are plenty of meteorologists who disagree.
Lightning is largely thought to be the result of rain and dust blowing around inside a cloud, causing electrons to hop around and accumulate in one region, like they do between strands of hair. Once a big enough charge build-up has accumulated, things get unstable and rivers of electrical energy start leaking out like tentacles seeking a quick route to gain stability. These ribbons of charge go darting outward from the cloud and we call them lightning bolts - although you’ve probably never seen one because they're very faint. What you usually see during a storm is the result of lightning simultaneously coming up from the ground toward the sky. Strange as that might sound.
The electrically charged part of a cloud has the ability to ‘sniff out’ a path toward an oppositely charged object, typically the Earth. This scout party is called a “leader” but for reasons not understood, the Earth begins doing the same; sending a bunch of positive charge upward in its own quest to be neutralised. These upward-lightning bolts are called “streamers”.
The two threads of opposite-charge snake through the air and meet like the hand of God touching Adam in the Sistine chapel. At the instant of connection, a flow of electricity occurs between ground and sky and it’s this linking of leader and streamer your eyes actually see - what's called the "flash". Fun fact: lightning in a snowstorm appears green and pink. Nobody knows why.
This kind of thunder
Often, lightning flashes occur between two clouds, one creating the leader and the other creating the streamer. But when this happens between cloud and ground it's referred to as a lightning "strike".
Strikes are about 10 kilometres long and while you don’t want to get caught inside one, the effects are rarely lethal. They can carry up to 30,000 amps (more than enough to kill) but the bolt passes through your body in a fraction of a second so the effects aren’t sustained long enough to be lethal, only to burn horribly, creating intricate injuries called Lichtenberg scars.
The temperature of a lightning strike is also pretty extreme, around 30,000 degrees Celsius - five times hotter than the surface of the Sun. It has been known for this temperature to boil the water inside trees and cause them to literally explode, so lightning is far more likely to blow you up than electrocute you.
That heat also causes the surrounding air to expand rapidly. This creates a shockwave in the atmosphere which goes travelling outwards from the lightning like a sonic boom. This is the thunder you hear shortly after seeing the flash.
Although if you are unfortunate enought to get hit, your chances are pretty good. 90% of people struck by lightning survive and although it can cause siezures, chronic fatige and in the worst cases blindness and brain-damage, most people struck by lightning have little memory of it other than seeing a bright flash, falling unconscious and waking with a splitting headache.
Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!
One of the most fascinating versions of lightning known to exist is the so-called "ball lightning" ...although its name in German is krugelblitz which is obviously better. For many centuries, the phenomenon of krugelblitz was thought to be a tall-tale (a ball-tale? Anyone? No?), but it turns out to be a genuine occurence.
Although shockingly rare and without any explanation whatsoever, lightning can sometimes wrap itself up into a ball and go darting around through the air like a maniacal fairy. I love krugelblitz because it's one of those things where we have absolutely no clue what's going on. Just that it happens. Here's what is believed to be the first photograph of ball-lightning, taken by a lucky bystander in China.
So does it strike the same place twice?
The answer is absolutely yes. All the time in fact. At any given moment there are around 2,000 thunderstorms on Earth with about 100 flashes per second. It's estimated about half of these are strikes so roughly 50 bolts of lightning will hit the earth during the time it takes you to read this word: krugelblitz.
Where does it tend to hit? Well, the charged leaders are trying to reach Earth via the quickest route possible which usually means striking the tallest object around. Since that doesn’t normally change (unless King Kong is in the neighborhood) most lightning tends to strike the same spots over and over.
The Empire State Building for instance, is struck by lightning once every two weeks, as are many other tall buildings. The iron in their shell is an excellent conductor and streamers can easily form from their spires (as in the picture below).
Also, while central Africa holds some of the records for most lightning strikes in a single year, the town of Lakeland, Florida gets hit once every three days, holding the record for the most lightning-prone place on Earth. So actually, if you know a place has been struck by lightning recently don’t assume that place is safe. Assume the opposite.
We do have to be careful though and address a common lightning myth: that lightning will only strike the tallest object around. It's more accurate to say lightning has a preference for it. Well...that's not accurate at all because lightning isn't conscious and doesn't have feelings but you get what I mean.
Lightning leaders (the ones going from cloud to ground) move in random jumps, each having a maximum range of about 45 meters. So if a bolt of lightning is about to strike a building and you’re 46 meters away you’re probably safe. But if you’re within the 45 meter danger zone, there is a chance the lightning might change its mind at the last minute and snap out to get you. It’s rare to deviate but technically lightning can strike anything it wants.
But where shall I go? What shall I do?"
If you're standing in the middle of a thunderstorm and your hair starts pointing upwards I have some bad news for you. An upward streamer is about to form around you. Your hair is standing on end because you’re building positive charge and you’re about to get hit. You need to act quickly. Firstly and most importantly, finish reading my blog (priorities). Then you've got to make yourself lightning-invisible.
Oh, and don’t waste time putting on rubber-soled shoes. A bolt of lightning packs around a hundred million volts. You think an inch of rubber is going to stop it? Think again. It’s going to tear through you and your shoes like a bullet through tissue paper. Your best bet is to surround yourself with metal, usually by getting inside a car or a metal building. That sounds counter-intuitive but it’s completely logical.
Electricity wants to get to the ground through the path of least resistance. The metal bodywork of a car is much easier to travel through than a human body so given the choice, electricity won’t even glance at you and will stay inside the metallic shield you’ve surrounded yourself with. The bolt will travel through the roof of the car, down the doors, through the rubber wheels (often melting them in the process) and straight into the ground. In the picture below, from George Westinghouse's 1941 electricity experiments, you can actually see artificial lightning striking the top of a car and coming out near the front left wheel, leaving the occupant unharmed.
Although some electrons might briefly tickle their way through the air toward your body, they find it so difficult they usually just go back to the metal and carry on. So, while the worst place to be during a storm is near a skyscraper (in case it changes course) one of the best places to be is directly inside it. Same with planes. In fact, if you've ever been inside an aeroplane, chances are it was struck by lightning at some point during your journey. Pretty cool, right?
An Urban Legend...which is actually true
So, in summary, rare events can occur to the same person multiple times, even on the same day. Lightning is a mysterious phenomenon but we know it can strike the same person twice and often prefers to strike the same location. The best place to be during a strike is either inside a metal cage or far away from anything tall. But if it does hit you, you're probably going to be ok.
To finish with I can't help but recant a morbid, albeit fascinating story you may have run across. Have you ever heard the tale of the woman who allegedly got killed by lightning because the electricity conducted through the underwire of her bra and her breasts were so big that all that metal killed her? I heard that story on the school playground years ago and assumed it was an urban legend. But it's not.
It happened on 22nd September 1999 in Hyde Park, London. The two unfortunate women were named Anuban Bell (24) and Sunnee Whitworth (39). What's more, the coroner Paul Knapman claims he had seen it happen once before. Knapman had, at the time, been the coroner on some 50,000 cases making death by underwire bra-lightning a 1 in 25,000 chance. That does mean that technically, technically, if you have large breasts (and therefore more underwire) you have a slight higher chance of getting killed by lightning. Sorry about that.
Obviously that all seems horrible and a rather grim place to finish my blog. If only there was a way to cheer people up after reading such horrifying news. If only a great rock band had recorded a song about lightning to lift people's spirits. And no, I am not talking about Thunder by Imagine Dragons (no offence to my ID fans out there). I'm clearly talking about AC/DC. If only they had recorded a song about thunderstorms. If only...
A good question
In the seventh Century BCE, Thales of Miletus was mystified by the mineral lodestone; capable of attracting iron from a distance and repelling other lodestones depending on orientation. Three centuries later, Shaggy 2 Dope of Insane Clown Posse highlighted Thales’ quandry in the song Miracles with the inspirational lyrics:
“Water, fire, air and dirt;
F***in magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a Scientist,
Y’all motherf****rs lyin’ getting me p***ed.”
If you’ve not come across the horror-core, hip-hop band Insane Clown Posse I can save you a lot of trouble. This is them:
This isn’t the first time I’ve made jokes at the expense of ICP on my website and when they released Miracles the internet exploded with derision. One interviewer handed them a children’s Science book, while Saturday Night Live did a sketch where the Posse ask increasingly dumb and obvious questions. But, as it happens, I can see their point.
Not only are magnets wierd, when Scientists try to explain them the answers never seem complete or clear. How does a magnet know when another magnet is close? How do they know which way the other magnet is facing and why does this alignment cause attraction or repulsion? How can a magnet “reach out” through empty space, sometimes through other objects, and influence another magnet at a distance?
These are good questions and consequently (this is a sentence I never thought I’d type as a self-respecting adult) I understand where Insane Clown Posse are coming from. How do magnets work and why does it seem like Scientists always lie about them?
As a teacher, I can probably explain the phenomenon of magnetism half a dozen ways but I have to be honest, Shaggy 2 Dope is correct: all of the explanations are cheating. They are pedagogical slight-of-hand tricks which don’t answer the question honestly. This can be frustrating for anyone wanting to learn and it’s just as frustrating for Scientists and Science teachers.
We aren’t lying though, I promise you that Mr Dope. The problem with magnetis is that there is no satisfactory explanation for how they work and I’m going to explain why. This question is going to take us right to the heart of what Scientific explanations really are. It’s going to get quite philosophical but hopefully it will shed some light on the very nature of what Science is capable of. So, magnets…how do they work?
Fantastic Mr Feynman
In a famous interview with Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, Christopher Sykes asks the magnet question (link at the end). Feynman answers with a surprisingly bald sentence “What do you wanna know - the magnets repel each other.” Sykes starts to get frustrated because Feynman is merely stating what everyone already knows, but then Feynman points out that the difference between describing and explaining is often very slim.
Thing is, Richard Feynman was not just one of the world's greatest physicists, he was one of the greatest explainers of Science too. He had a knack for breaking complicated ideas into simpler statements, but on this instance he seems to be telling us very little. And this is really worth noting. If Richard Feynman can’t explain magnetism any simpler than stating what happens, can we really expect to do any better?
Fantastic Mr Faraday’s Fields
Probably the most important Scientist in the history of magnetic research was the equally legendary Michael Faraday. A few hundred years before Feynman took centre stage, it was Faraday who was the world’s most renowned Science populariser.
Unlike Feynman, Faraday had no formal schooling and didn’t feel comfortable with mathematics, but they shared a desire to understand the world in the simplest terms possible. They were both from the school of “if you can’t say it simply you don’t understand it” and Faraday had an elegant way of dealing with magnetism - by introducing the concept of a field.
Magnets clearly have the ability to create environments around them which influence similar environments. These environments can act through solid objects, so they are not made of magnetic particles and they also aren’t disturbances in the geometry of empty space, because only certain objects are affected.
Faraday began visualising these environments of influence as lines spreading from the object, with arrows showing the direction in which the influence pointed. The shape of a magnet’s influence-environment can be measured precisely and we refer to it as the magnet’s field, illustrated below.
Fields are typically what Science teachers use to explain magnetism. We say a magnet creates a field around it with a distinct shape, or sometimes we talk about the Universe having a magnetic field and magnets distorting it. When two magnets are facing top to tail the lines of the field are pointing in the same direction and they reinforce. If you flip them, the field arrows are pointing in opposition and the magnets separate.
This sounds like a solid explanation but it hasn’t told us anything we didn’t already know. The question “how do magnets influence other magnetic things in the environment” has been answered by saying “magnets create an environment which infleunces other magnetic things.” We’ve answered the question by re-stating it.
Faraday’s field-lines are useful as a description of where the field is but they don't tell us what the field is. I mean, what’s it made of? What specificaly is pointing in a certain direction? Why does having the fields aligned cause attractions and repulsions at all? In other words…magnets, how do they work?
Down to the wire
Perhaps a different way of asking the question might get us closer to an answer which feels right: why are some things magnetic but not others? Only a few substances are magnetic on their own (Iron, Cobalt, Nickel, Gadolinium and Terbium) but any metal can be forced to magnetism by passing a current through it. What clue does that give us? Well, what makes these metals special is that their electrons are arranged in specific ways. Electricity is also about electrons, so maybe electrons themselves are magnetic?
It turns out that this is correct; electrons have a tiny magnetic field surrounding them. When they are stacked up with fields aligned (as they do in metals like Iron or in electric wires) the result is a giant field. Other metals don’t arrange their electrons the same way so they aren’t magnetic.
Magnetism seems to come from something electrons are doing and their field-strength has even been pinned down to three properties, related by the following equation:
This tells us that any particle which has mass, electric charge and some property named S (which stands for something I don’t want to get into) will be magnetic. When we investigate other particles which have mass, charge and S, we find they are also magnetic so the equation is obviously accurate. But it hasn’t told us what the magnetic field is.
The first problem is charge. Mass is a very easy property to explain but charge is not. Electrons repel each other and attract protons, similar to magnetic behaviour, but what makes this happen? We can describe electrons and protons as having electric-charge fields but this is the same cheat we’ve used before. It’s just describing what they do, not how they do it.
I need to point out that we actually do have a pretty good understanding of what causes an electron to have a charge, but asking how this causes interactions with other particles is the magnetic field question all over again. (NB: some people might be thinking the answer is to do with photons, but this only rephrases the question into: why do electrons cause photon behaviours around them? It’s a red herring).
The other problem is the property S. We roughly know what charge is, but we don't have a clue what causes a particle to have S. It’s something quantum mechanical and therefore beyond our intuition. The only way we know this property exists is because an experiment was carried out to detect it...which consisted of firing electrons between mangets. The experiment showed that there is a particle property distinct from electric charge and it has something to do with magnetism but this doesn’t add new information. It’s saying “magnetic particles have a property which responds to magnetic influence”. Well…duh.
We’re back to square one. Magnets are magnetic because electrons are magnetic. They are magnetic because they have properties which cause magnetism. The above equation and the field lines are describing what the phenomenon is going to be like, which is of great use (every electrical device in the world works because we’ve learned to control magnetic and electric fields) but they are just descriptions of a phenomenon which don't tell us how the phenomenon arises. Feynman’s answer is still the best.
Still you Shaggy. Very much still you.
I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes. Magnets all around me, and so the feeling grows
While answering Christopher Sykes, Feynman points out that magnetism doesn’t spook us when we experience it in other contexts. Right now you’re sitting on a chair and think of yourself as being in contact with it. But you aren’t. The electrons in you and the electrons in the chair are repelling electrically and magnetically (the two are closely linked, so for simplicity I’m going to describe them as one thing).
If you were to zoom in, you would see that both sets of electrons have magnetic fields which push against each other and allow the surfaces to repel rather than merge. The very act of touching an object is basically magnetic repulsion, it’s just that the gap between the particles is too small to see. Quantum mechanically, particle repulsions happen all the time but we aren't used to seeing quantum behaviour at the everyday level.
That's what makes magnets hard to understand. They are a quantum process being studied by classical human brains and when you have a phenomenon which the human brain can’t understand you can only describe it, not explain it. “What do you wanna know? - the magnets repel each other.”
Be positive and get real
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said “at the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so called laws of nature are explanations of natural phenomena.” He was saying that laws of nature are merely descriptions rather than explanations.
On another occasion he said “man has awoken to wonder…Science is a way of sending him to sleep again,” and he also criticised Science for “reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest number of primitive natural laws.” Wittgenstein was undoubtedly a philosophical genius but I have to be honest, he was a grumpy git.
The two positions which arose from his influence on early 20th century philosophy are called realism and positivism. Realism says that Science explains the world. Positivism says Science is only keeping track of what happens and has no explanatory power.
According to positivists like Wittgenstein and Shaggy 2 Dope, all we are doing as Scientists is saying that a particular thing happens and then saying "the thing which is makes it happen is what makes it happen.” We might give it a name or measure it mathematically but it's not a true explanation.
I think this is an unfair criticism and a semantically obscure one. After all, we could dismiss philosophical statements by saying “the answer to any question is whatever answers it.” If you decide the answer to every “why?” is simply “because” then you might as well ask what the point in questions is. The answer is just whatever the answer is. Science can do something far greater than just describing what we already know.
Hitting Rock Bottom
I remember asking my Physics and Chemistry teachers why molecules had certain shapes. The answer was that atoms themselves had the shapes and they dictated the angles. So I asked why atoms had these shapes. The answer was that electrons moved in a particular way which arose from their charge being opposite to a proton’s. So I asked why electrons and protons had opposite charges. The answer was “that’s the way things are.” And then I got frustrated.
It seemed defeatist. Although I don’t know what I expected. If you take any phenomenon and keep asking “why?” you will eventually hit the bottom of the ladder and be faced with “that’s the way things are”.
Let’s say we discovered electrons have tiny harpoons firing out of them on one side, creating magnetic attractions in one direction. That would feel like a proper explanation until someone thought to ask “well why do they have harpoons in the first place?”
Every time we uncover a mechanism we are generating a question…why is it like that? Even if Science arrives at a single theory which explains everything in the Universe we could sill ask “why is that theory true?”
In a sense, this means we can never really explain anything because every answer is resting on a deep-down truth that the Universe just is a certain way. But I think that’s a ludicrously pessimistic approach. There is every reason to try and answer questions about the world because I think there is a subtle difference between explanation and description.
Describe vs Explain
Let’s take one of the most common questions I get asked as a teacher: why do we dream? If we follow it through with the eternal “why” question we eventually get to the limit of ignorance:
Q: Why do we dream?
A: Because the outer layers of the brain shut down and the inner layers, full of crazy thoughts, take over.
A: Because the brain has to conserve energy.
A: Because there is a limited supply of it.
A: Because food contains a specific amount.
A: Because food gets its energy from the Sun and the Sun only generates a certain amount.
A: Because the Sun gets its energy from the limited number of particles inside it.
A: Because particles smashing together at high speed gives out energy.
A: Because movement and energy are closely related by Einstein’s theory of special relativity.
A: Because that’s just the way it is.
The answers to the above questions are what I think we mean by “explanation”. As we answer the question we are re-describing accepted knowledge but in a way that adds information. An explanation is therefore the steps between the original question and the final “that’s the way it is” statement. So a teacher's job is clear: describe all the steps by adding information until the person asking is satisfied.
This is really what makes magnets difficult to explain. The gap between “how do they work?” and “that’s the way they are,” is very small. That’s the point Feynman was making. The magnets repel each other and there is no deeper level, that’s already it. We’ve hit the boundary of wierd quantum stuff and there isn’t anything we can say to add to the description.
As I’ve said, the final question will always be: why is it like that? But what that question refers to will keep changing. We start by asking “why is A like that?” and get the answer “because B is true.” Then we’ll ask “why is B like that?” and get the answer “because C is true” and so on. The question will always get asked and the answer will always give rise to another question. Maybe one day we will have an answer to every question but it will be too weird to know what the next question to ask is. To me this is exciting because it means Science will never run out of things to investigate and it will never know everything.
So what’s the point?
Explanations are just descriptions with extra information and right at the bottom of every explanation we have a big fat question mark. Science can’t answer the fundmanetal “why is the world like that?” so Wittgenstein would query what the point of Science is full stop. I think the answer should be obvious.
Earlier, when we answered where dreams come from we ended up at special relativity, but there are many other questions which would take us to the same point. If you asked me why light moves the way it does (nothing to do with dreams) we would end up at special relativity. If you asked me how a nuclear bomb works, we would end up at special relativity. And so on.
Special relativity is a "law of nature" which means it is a fact we use to explain other things, not the other way around. It's one of the axioms we have to accept until someone goes a level deeper. This is what scientific discovery is about, trying to go as far down the ladder as possible until we have a bunch of statements which we can't add information to - we just say what they are.
When Isaac Newton discovered gravity, he was recognising that the descriptions we use for planets and stars can be used for objects moving on Earth. He unified two separate realms with a single principle. Michael Faraday discovered that the descriptions we use for electric properties can be used for magnetism too. Steven Weinberg, Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow were then able to unite Faraday’s electromagnetic laws with radioactivity and it keeps going.
When we uncover a Scientific “law” we are describing a link between apparently separate events or processes. It’s phrasing one thing in terms of something else and this is what Wittgenstein hated. Generalisations were to be avoided in his world view because there was no reason to assume separate events were linked by anything other than coincidence.
Perhaps tomorrow half the electrons in the Universe will decide to flip charge for no reason. Maybe gravity will vanish altogether. I can't prove this won't happen. But we don't live our lives assuming the Universe is illogical and generalisaitons work by accident. We assume we live on the inside wall of a logically bound Universe and go from there. When you wake up, you don't know for certain that the floor will be there when you put your foot down, but you do it anyway.
The tree metaphor
I imagine special relativity like a branch on a tree with observable phenomena being the twigs and twiglets which sprout off it. When we ask a question about the world we’re starting at some point on the outside of the tree and every successive question works inward toward bigger and more general answers.
At the moment, Science is built on a few main boughs of this imaginary tree and we haven’t yet unified them into a single trunk. But when we have done so, that trunk will extend down as far as we can go, maybe even connecting to other Universes with different laws.
Magnetism is one branch on this tree of knowledge. We can observe its effects and we want a deeper explantion but that’s because we’re used to starting out on the twigs. Magnetism is already one of the principles which explains other things, not the other way around. We may discover a magnetic mechanism one day and that would be fantastic, but the next generation of hip-hop clown rappers would simply ask “the magnetic mechanism - how does that work?”
The point is that the more links we discover, the more we can make a difference to the world. You’re reading this on a computer screen based on laws of electricity which…deep down…are based on mystery. You wear clothes and live in buildings made from chemicals based on laws which...deep down…are based on mystery.
The medicines you take, the books you read and everything else that makes life grand are all based on things we can't comprehend, but that doesn't mean we should stop asking questions about things we can comprehend. We’ve tasted fruit from the tree of knowledge and it has undoubtedly made the world a better place. I see no reason to stop eating.
I have now, hopefully, explained how magnets work, why the question is difficult to answer, what the philosophy of scientific explanation is, what the job of teaching is and managed to quote Richard Feynman, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Insane Clown Posse in one blog. I'll leave you with the master...
This blog does not necessarily represent nor contradict the views of the school at which I teach, nor the publisher with whom I have a contract. These are my thoughts and my thoughts alone.
You may not have come across Gloria Copeland if you live in the UK but some of my American readers will certainly know the name. Along with her husband Kenneth, she oversees the Texas-based Kenneth Copeland Ministries, a Christian televangelist organisation which preaches to people all over America through TV, books and the internet.
It’s hard to know how many people are members of their church exactly, but the Copelands are worth an estimated $760 million, so it's obviously a large following. They are also reported to sit on Trump’s Evangelical Adivosry Board (source) so it would seem that when the Copelands speak, many people listen, including the president.
Which is why I was alarmed earlier this week to come across a video of Gloria denouncing the benefits of the flu vaccine. I don’t know if the video will be taken down due to the vitriolic backlash she has recieved, but here is a transcript of her words just in case:
“We don’t have a flu season. And don’t recieve it when somebody threatens you with ‘Everybody’s getting the flu.’ We’ve already had our shot, he [Jesus] bore our sicknesses and our diseases. That’s what we stand on. And by his stripes we were healed. If you’ve already got the flu I’m going to pray for you right now. Jesus himself gave us the flu shot. He redeemed us from the curse of flu. And we recieve it and we take it and we are healed by his stripes. Amen. You know the Bible says he himself bore our sicknesses and carried our diseases and by his stripes we were healed. When we were healed we are healed so get on the word, stay on the word and if you say ‘well I don’t have any symptoms of the flu’, well great that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Just keep saying it ‘I’ll never have the flu, I’ll never have the flu,’ put words...innoculate yourself with the word of God.”
The repetitive phrasing and half-sentences give the impression that this was not a prepared statement, rather, something she made up as she went along. That might explain why her words don't match what it says on her website (Here) where the advice is to “seek appropriate medical attention from a professional” if you get sick. But oh well. Maybe I just don't understand the theological contradiction. I'm not the Pope after all.
Technically, Gloria Copeland never says the flu shot is harmful, but she does imply it's unnecessary if you are a Christian. Phrases like “we’ve already had our shot” and "innoculate yourself with the word of God" strongly suggest that Copeland considers Christian belief an adequate shelter from viral infection.
I have to be honest: I’m not clear why she is against the vaccine in the first place though. Is it because admitting you need a flu vaccine is admitting the virus mutates...which implies a species can adapt over time...which implies evolution? I’m not really sure, but she’s the pastor not me.
Now, I’ve written before about the nuanced relationship between Science and religion and how the two are not necessarily enemies (here), so this isn’t a religion vs Science thing. I also never discuss my own religious beliefs publicly for various reasons (explained here) but I do think it’s important to address what she's saying from a critical point of view.
I'm not wanting to slander Copeland herself of course (I don't want to get sued on the offchance she reads this) but I find her statements to be scientifically inaccurate, ethically dangerous and at odds with Christian theology. I think people on either side of the religious or scientific border would back me up there.
So, what is she actually saying?
Fairly obviously, the Bible doesn’t say much about vaccination. Copeland’s statements are contemporary interpretations of ancient writing, so we need to decipher what she means carefully. This turns out to be quite difficult. Other than spirited declarations of faith and sincere repetition of the same phrases, her statements are vague and broad. But, as far as I can tell, she is making three points:
1) We do not have a flu season
2) Jesus gave humanity the flu shot
3) Jesus’ actions led to Christians being immune to flu (and possibly all disease)
The first two claims are easy to refute. Flu season definitely exists and it ought to be taken seriously. In 2014, only 300 cases of Influenza-A H3N2 had been reported (source) while this year in the US, 22.7 out of every 100,000 hospital admissions are down to that same virus. (source) It also tends to hit the worst in February (source) which sounds pretty seasonal to me. And while young and old people are most suscpetible, anyone can get infected.
The CDC esitmates that as many as 56,000 deaths per year can be caused by influenza, with 710,000 hospitalisations (source) and getting the vaccine can lower your chances of infection by 60% (source). So the flu virus is dangerous, it can spread, vaccination works and it is defintely seasonal. Any advice to the contrary is not only inaccurate but potentially harmful to people who are at risk.
Copeland’s claim that “Jesus himself gave us the flu shot” is also patently false. Vaccination was invented in 1798 by Edward Jenner. The influenza virus was isolated in 1901 by E Centanni and the vaccine against it was developed in the 1930s by Jonas Salk, MacFarlane Burnet and Thomas Francis. It wasn’t Jesus. I’m not criticising Jesus you understand, but Jesus no more invented the flu vaccine than he gave the Gettysburg address.
Out with the Old, in with the Flu
Copeland's third claim is the central thrust of her speech, but it's hard to pin it down precisely because she uses ambiguous and poetic language. For instance, when she says “he bore our sicknesses and our diseases” she can't mean Jesus literally contracted the modern flu because it didn't exist back then. She must be talking figuratively, which means it's impossible to know what she is claiming. Maybe that's the point???
I do know where she’s getting her words from however. She is quoting Matthew 8:16-17 “When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.’”
This passage refers to Jesus curing sick people, but in very a specific time and place. It does not say Jesus will prevent all illnesses of every future Christian. Furthermore, the author of Matthew is actually quoting Isaiah 53:4 which talks about the nation of Israel suffering, not a specific individual.
The phrase “by his stripes we were healed”, which Copeland repeats three times, comes from 1 Peter 2:24, itself quoting Isaiah 53:5. “By his stripes” is originally the Hebrew uba-habu-ratu, which is better translated as “because of his wounds”. Again, it's referring to the nation of Israel and how suffering led to healing. It isn’t referring to Jesus and it certainly isn’t claiming all illnesses are immediately powerless against you if you’re a Christian.
Muddling the Theology
What Copeland may be referring to is the belief that when Jesus was crucified it was an act of vicarious atonement. That is: Jesus’ death absolved humanity of its sin, thus saving them from transworld damnation. As Christian beliefs go, that one is fairly robust because it has unambiguous scriptural backing. 1 Corinthians 15:3, Ephesians 1:7, Matthew 26:28, Hebrews 2:14 and 9:28 all say that Jesus's death was linked to the forgiveness of sin.
But at no point in any of the New Testament is the crucifixion linked to physical illness. What the New Testament does say about illness (aside from the healing miraceles of Jesus) is fairly clear though. Christians are not immune from illness. In Galatians 4:13-14, Paul describes being ill himself and in 1 Timothy 5:23 Paul instructs Timothy to “stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.”
Whatever you think of Paul’s medical advice here is beside the point. What’s important is that he is acknowledging Timothy gets sick and is prescribing what he considers to be a cure. He is not saying “that's impossible, Christians are immune from illness”. He is saying the opposite. Christians can get ill, frequently.
The only bit of Christian doctrine which is even remotely close to what Copeland is saying is James 5:14-15: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.”
Paul is claiming that prayer and faith will cure illness…not prevent it! Whether or not this claim is accurate is a debate for another time, for now we can say that according to the Bible, Christians will absolutely get sick. So if you do get the flu, praying about it with church elders while anointed with oil will apparently sort you out (unambigrously the claim of Christianity) but you aren't exempt from it in the first place.
If you, dear reader, happen to be one of Copeland’s followers, then I promise you don’t have to give up your trust in Copeland or in Jesus or in God. But you should get vaccinated. Think of it like crossing the street. If you get injured, you can hope that prayer will cure you...but you wouldn't assume God will protect you from cars. Christians don't cross the street without looking, because that wouldn't be an act of faith it would be an act of idiocy.
If you really aren't sure what the Bible says about good health and keeping your body in check, I advise you to consider 1 Corinthians 6:19. "Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit". And to finish with, here's a quotation both religious and scientific from Galileo Galilei:
"I do not believe that the God who endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use"
The other day I went to see Downsizing from writer/director Alexander Payne. It's set in a world where humanity is on the brink of mass-exinction (like real life). Carbon emissions are edging us toward climate catastrophe, there isn’t enough energy for a growing population and we don’t have the resoures to sustain our economy (like real life). The root cause of all our problems is determined to be overpopulation (I’d have put my money on Barbara Streisand, but oh well). There’s simply too many people for a planet this size and a solution must be found. Either we cut the population down or we minimise its impact.
As the movie starts, a group of Norwegian scientists make a game-changing discovery which could solve our problems and turn the tide on impending armageddon: shrink humans down to a fraction of their original size. Smaller people don’t eat as much, they don’t need as much electricity, they take up less space, require less raw materials and so on. If everyone shrinks, so does their impact on the environment.
Furthermore, anyone who underwent this procedure would immediately become wealthier. The price of fuel, medicine and food would remain the same, but you’d only need a small amount so your money would count for more. You could run a miniature car for a thimble of petrol and you could live in a mansion because it’s no more than a dollhouse. It seems like miniaturisation would be the solution not only to environmental problems but to those of social inequality as well.
Once these preliminaries are established, the film tells the story of Paul Safraneck (Matt Damon), a failed medic who decides to abandon his regular-sized world and regular-sized friends in order to minimise and relocate to a tiny city. From there, the film shows the ups and downs of what life would be like for the very small...at least, it tries to.
The film's message is noble but, if I’m honest, the actual story becomes very boring very quickly. There are a few funny and poignant moments but it’s a meandering affair, structured like a collection of short movies rather than a feature film. There's not much of a narrative and every time you think something's going to happen, it doesn't. I want to make some witty joke about how they needed to downsize the script but it's not a passionate enough movie to be worthy of such a pun. The whole thing is a wasted opportunity that feels like sitting on a laborious train journey while your uncle Derek talks you through his wristwatch collection. You smile out of politness but you want the whole thing to be over as soon as possible.
Bring On The Science
The idea of human-miniaturisation is fascinating and lots of writers have toyed with it. Probably the first example was the isle of Liliput in Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, although it’s made clear that the tiny Liliputians are a different species altogether, rather than shrunken humans.
The same is true in The Borrowers novels by Mary Norton, in which a family of miniature people lives inside a London family house, stealing things and not contributing to the rent. In The Borrowers Afloat they go down a river on a toy boat, in The Borrowers Aloft, they get in a minature hot air balloon and in The Borrowers Discover Vacuum Cleaners things don’t go so well.
My personal favourite book in the "tiny human" subgenre is The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson in which a radioactive fog alters the molecular sturcture of the protagonist Scott Carey. He descends into the realm of the microscopic, losing all ties with his wife before fighting a spider in his basement and eventually reconciling his new life with a new personal philosophy. But my question is: could it really happen?
There are obvious problems to consider from a Biological perspective. Smaller animals lose heat faster, need to be hydrated more regularly and their eyes aren't as good, but let's say we decided not to worry about such things and just go for it. Would it be possible?
Well, if we take a look at how living things on Earth are made, we find that everything is built from the same basic stuff. At the smallest level we get the fundamental particles; things like electrons and quarks. These are arranged into stable configurations called atoms and molecules, which meet each other in chemical reactions. The reactions take place inside cells (also made of atoms and molecules) and cells are stacked up to make a living thing.
Tiny creatures obviously exist in nature, and since they are made from the same ingredients list, it certainly makes the whole thing sound tantalising. So let’s consider what our options might be.
1) Shrink the Cells
This is the approach used in Downsizing. A cell is a membrane-bag of chemicals needed to perform certain functions, if we just made the bag smaller the resulting person would be smaller as well, right? Unfortunately it turns out this wouldn't work and the reason is simple: cells are always the same size.
Cells are chemical reaction factories and for reactions to take place in the correct way, you need the right concentrations. If the cell is smaller, you’re essentially cramming all your finely-balanced reactants together and reactions start happening which shouldn't. Not to mention the fact that the membranes are no longer absorbing and releasing the correct amounts of carbon dioxide and oxygen for their relative size.
If we corrected for this by lowering the concentrations of chemicals inside, there just wouldn’t be enough of each chemical to actually perform the necessary jobs. Cells are jam-packed already and they have to be. Lower concentration means removing the necessary ingredients for the cell to live.
Animals come in all different sizes, but smaller animals don’t have smaller cells, they just have less of them. Nature has found the optimum size for cell and uses it for everything. This option isn't going to work.
2) Use less Cells
If we can’t make the cells smaller, can we just remove 90% of them instead? A fully grown human has an estimated 37 trillion cells in its body while a mouse has closer to 12 billion. The mouse seems to function just fine, so what if we kept all our body parts in the right proportion - just used less material to make them? This could actually work from a chemical and biological perspective. There's nothing stopping us from carving tiny bones or building miniature hearts The only problem however, is that if we’re removing cells from every part of the body that would include the brain.
The average human brain has a volume of just over a litre and it needs to be that big in order to house 86 billion neurons, each long enough to connect to 10,000 others around it. Shrinking the brain means either making each neuron shorter (less neural links possible) or using less neurons full stop. Shrinking down to mouse size by deleting a lot of the cells would be feasible, but we would lose our minds in the process. Literally.
A mouse’s brain can fit around 75 million neurons which is a remarkably complex structure, more advanced than our best supercomputers, but it's still a thousand times less circuitry than we are used to using.
To be clear, the size of your brain doesn’t automatically correlate with intelligence but there is clear a link. Bigger animals need bigger brains because they’ve got more body to control (that’s why whales and elephants have the biggest brains on Earth), so really it's brain-to body ratio we need to consider, but it’s also true that having more parts in a machine means it can do more things.
The smartest animals on the planet are humans, chimpanzees, dolphins, whales, elephants, pigs etc. and they all have big brains. Some small-brained creatures are smart for their size e.g. magpies and rats, but they don't have enough room in their skulls for higher-order thinking. A five-inch human would be one of the smartest animals on the planet for sure, but it would be utterly stupid compared to regular-sized humans.
3) Shrink the atoms
We need to preserve the number of cells but we also need to keep the number of molecules inside those cells the same. So what if we just shrunk the atoms? Smaller atoms would mean smaller molecules which would mean smaller cells and so forth.
You've probably come across pictures of atoms showing electrons orbiting a nucleus with empty space in between. For the purposes of Chemistry this is a reasonable approximation to make (I even make it myself in my upcoming book) so you might think we can shrink atoms by pushing the electrons toward the nuclei, but in reality it’s not so simple. There’s a lot of complicated reasons why it doesn't work, but I'll stick to one which is easy to conceptualise.
The space between the nucleus and the electrons is not really empty at all. Actually it’s a heaving soup of energetic particles frothing into and out of existence like a bubbling cauldron. The energy of this “particle soup” does all sorts of wierd things to the electrons around an atom, including telling them where they can and can’t go. You can think of it like an outward-pressure, mainting the atom's size. Electrons can be squeezed toward the nucleus (where the density of the particle soup increases) but its reluctant to do so.
That’s not even taking into account the fact that electrons repel each other unless they are at extreme temperatures. An atom, just like a cell, is already at the optimum size. But while squishing a cell would be possible, squishing an atom is going against nature's preferences. Nature will fight back. Technically, with enough pressure pointed inwards you could just about do it, but it would probably turn the matter into a black hole. Atoms don't shrink.
4) Shrink the Particles
We can't squash the atoms because particles don't like being close to each other, but could we maybe shrink the particles themselves? If the particles in the centre of the atom weren’t so big, the surrounding particle soup wouldn’t take up as much space (roughly speaking) and the electrons (which would would also have to shrink in order to repel each other less) could get closer to one another. Would this help us make everything smaller?
No. Not at all. This is even less feasible than squishing the atoms. To change the size of fundamental particles is to change the fabric of the Universe itself. You can’t change a fundamental particle because it’s fundamentally the way it is. Hence the name! Fundamental particles have specifically defined behaviours and energies which don't seem to be programmable. Once you get down to the quantum level, there's nothing you can do to to keep control.
There is always a possibility, of course, that we’re wrong about these particles being truly the smallest things, but we’re pretty confident. We’ve got good reason to believe that things like quarks and electrons are genuinely the bottom rung of the ladder. Squashing them would be like trying to make gravity run backwards. It's just not the way things go.
Not only that, but when you get right down to the quantum level, it’s not exactly obvious what size even means. Particles aren’t little nuggets floating around in a vacuum, they are fluctuating packets of energy and they don’t have clear dimensions. We sometimes talk casually about the amount of space a particle occupies but that isn’t really its size. It's an old-fashioned view for something which defies human intuition. Particles are the way they are and to change them is to change reality. Norwegian scientists are great, but they’re not gods.
It would seem, sadly, that there isn’t an obvious way to get around the problem of human size being what it is. We're stuck like this and we're stuck with all the problems it causes. So if we really want to change how our species affects the planet, we can’t just change what we are. We need to change the way we act. We need to stop seeing the planet as our personal playground and more as our responsibility. Ultimately it's not are composition we need to shrink, it's our ego.
I find flat-Earthers fascinating. I don’t agree with their picture of reality, but if I surrounded myself with people who agreed with me all the time, things would get boring. It’s often a good idea to “fraternise with the enemy” because you get exposed to fascinating and even surprising perspectives.
People outside the flat-Earth community tend to assume flat-Earthers are backward, torch-bearing yokels too busy marrying their cousins and doping up to understand how the world works. But I think flat-Earthers have a healthier outlook than people give them credit for. After all, flat-Earthers:
1) Are skeptical of accepted theories
2) Refuse to accept facts on authority
3) Want to do research
4) Follow evidence wherever it leads, even if that means public ridicule
Many flat-Earthers I’ve spoken to emphasise reproducible experimentation and the importance of a posteriori reasoning. They admit ignorance about questions the flat-Earth model presents e.g. what’s underneath it, what stops the moon falling, how do eclipses happen, what generates the magnetic field, how does retrograde motion occur etc. and this is a very honest, even refreshing, approach.
Let me be clear: I’m confident the world is an oblate spheroid orbiting the Sun elliptically at a mean distance of 150 million kilometers, but I don’t think flat-Earthers are idiots for disagreeing with that. In fact, I think flat-Earthers have a sensible-ish approach to analysing the world, just the wrong conclusions.
Bully for the Globe
The sad truth is that most people are taught "the Earth is round" as a blunt fact. They are rarely given evidence for how we arrived at such a strange conclusion and when they get older they begin to ask questions...which is what we want them to do! We want a generation of people who aren't afraid to challenge convention. Being skeptical is half of what Science is about. It’s just that the other half is about how we arrive at good answers and that’s where flat-Earthers have been misled. But I don't think it's their fault.
Honestly, some Flat-Earth arguments sound pretty good at first. I came across one guy pointing out that gyroscopes spin vertically no matter what surface they rest on; if the Earth is round then why don’t we see gyroscopes in airplanes tilting as they curve over the surface of the planet? Or what about the fact we can see Mercury or Venus at night, despite them being inner planets and at night we are facing away from the Sun. There are simple and obvious explanations to these quetions of course, but they do initially make one go "hmmmm, that's curious."
Point is, the flat-Earth movement has questions and none of them should be answered with “you’re a dumbass”. The motto of the Royal Institution is Nullius Et Verbia which translates to “don’t take anybody’s word for it”. That should include our word too.
Science is built on the idea that every claim is open to question and we’re setting a bad example by mocking flat-Earthers. It’s essentially saying “be skeptical and question everything...but not that bit, don’t ask about that!” Some flat-Earthers can’t be reasoned with sure, but those who are prepared to listen to globists have the right to answers rather than abuse...which is what they usually get.
One of the flat-Earthers I know told me that not only does he get regular harassment from people online, he receives death threats aimed at his daughter. Now come on guys, think that through. If you want people to listen to what you have to say, don’t threaten to murder their children.
Another flat-Earther told me a story from when he was in school. He asked his Science teacher a reasonable question: if the Earth is round why don’t Australians fall off the bottom? The response he got was laughter. Twenty years later, he’s Flat-Earth and proud.
If you want to open a dialogue with people who don’t share your view, you need to approach them with dignity. By all means explain the flaws with their arguments (as I’m about to do) and if they’re open-minded they will take you seriously, but don’t be mean about it. Nobody gets bullied into the truth.
Who is this blog for?
What I’m not about to do is debunk the flat-Earth claims currently looping around the internet. That’s been done by far better writers than me. What I am going to do is discuss some common themes and mistakess which crop up again and again when discussing this whole issue.
I’ll be frank: if you are a proud flat-Earther, my blog is unlikely to change your mind. You probably spent months coming to your conclusion and I’m not arrogant enough to think I’ll change that in five minutes. My best hope is that I might give you one or two moments of “fair enough, that’s an interesting point”.
Really, this blog is for people who aren’t flat-Earthers, but are interested in it. People who’ve just come across the growing movement and are beginning to wonder if there might be something worthy of consideration. What I’m going to show, before your mind is made up, is why you need to be cautious of flat-Earth arguments and what the common traps to watch out for are.
Mistake One - Thinking Scientists Trust Each Other
One flat-Earther I debated for a long time (and enjoyed a reasonable friendship with) had a very bizarre view of Science. He would talk about how Scientists revere people like Einstein and Newton as if they were kings of knowledge, whose theories were trusted as law. I tried to explain to him that we never trusted them, just the experiments which proved their ideas correct, but he was having none of it.
A lot of people get this wrong in fact. They seem to think Scientists automatically trust whoever the most prestigious Scientist is. But there are no heads of Science, no organisations in charge of deciding facts and no Scientific authorities; only experts. There is never an official decision to promote a hypothesis to fact, it just happens gradually by consensus. And we certainly don’t listen to each other and agree blindly. Scientists actually spend half their time trying to disprove other Scientists... especially if they're famous!
Newton's gravitational law turned out to work extremely well, but he also claimed you could turn lead into gold using magic. We accepted his first claim but not his second because the first one agreed with experiment and the second didn't. Nobody trusted Newton "because he was Newton".
I mean, just pointing out the obvious here, at the time Newton suggested gravitation, nobody even knew who he was. He was an obscure, antisocial wierdo who kept to himself and barely left his bedroom. The most famous Scientist at the time was actually Robert Hooke, but his ideas couldn't cut the cosmic mustard so they were abandoned.
You need to be very wary of a flat-Earth argument which talks about Scientists believing claims of other Scientists. Scientists trust evidence and they criticise something which doesn’t sound right. Just like flat-Earthers today. In fact, flat-Earthers are part of the system which keeps Science honest. They ask questions to see if Scientists can answer them. Well...they certainly used to...
Mistake Two - Forgetting Scientists were flat-Earthers once
As I keep saying, it’s good when people ask questions of Scientists, but I’ve yet to come across a flat-Earth argument which is new. Scientists have heard all these arguments before because we invented most of them.
There were plenty of skeptical thinkers around when Eratosthenes suggested the globe and there were plenty more during the renaissance when the heliocentric model was revisited. The scientific community in both time periods comprised of flat-Earthers or geocentrists. They attempted to debunk the globe hypothesis, failed miserably, and so they switched sides. Flat-Earthers today aren’t some new breed of thinker destined to take down the global tyrrany. They are re-hashing questions we have already dealt with.
I think this might be why scientists sometimes get frustrated. It’s not because we think flat-Earthers are dumb (well, I don’t), it’s because we feel like a teacher who answers a question and then another student asks it thirty seconds later. Modern flat-Earth arguments sound like the kid who wasn’t listening the first time. Really, Johnny? I just explained this!
If you want to question a claim Scientists are making then question something like dark matter or dark energy or psychiatric medication vs placebos. Question the really weird stuff like quantum entanglement or information-loss in black holes. Those are debates happening right now and they’re awesome. Sure, flat-Earth arguments were exciting at the time, but the dust has settled on them now and the answer was pretty clear.
Mistake Three - Asking Questions = Puncturing the Theory
I accept that the burden of proof lies with globe-Earthers - we are the ones trying to prove the remarkable claim - but flat-Earthers have to set their bar reasonably. The mistake they often make is assuming that noticing an apparent puzzle or contradiction with a theory means they’ve undermined the entire thing. But it doesn't mean that. Not at all.
For example, if someone says water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, you could point out that puddles evaporate on cold days when the ground isn’t that hot. It’s a good query, but it hasn’t debunked the existence of boiling water (fun fact: if Earth was truly flat, water would't boil at 100 degrees C in the first place). Or when you learn the theory of sexual reproduction and you notice porcupines are spikey, you could ask how they have sex at all. Again, it's an excellent question but it doesn't destroy the theory of sex or the existence of porcupines.
It's the same with a huge number of flat-Earth “proofs”. Most of them aren’t proofs at all, they’re just intriguing “how comes?” or “what abouts?”. Interesting and worth discussing for sure, but questioning a theory is not the same as putting a theory in checkmate.
Mistake Four - Flat-Earth is Easy to Understand
There is a well-known principle in scientific thinking called Occam’s razor which says that if you have two explanations which account for all the data, the simpler one is more likely to be correct.
For example if you see footprints in your house, there are a few explanations available: it’s possible someone was walking here earlier, but it’s also possible it was a dog on its hind legs wearing shoes. Both explanations account for the data but it’s more likely to be the human than the dog.
The problem is that Occam’s razor sometimes get perverted into: the simplest explanation is correct. And that’s obviously not true. Dogs can be trained to walk on their hind legs wearing shoes, so you have be prepared to accept that explanation even though it wouldn’t be your first guess.
The simple human explanation is clearly more likely, but suppose you discovered paw marks on the door-handles and somebody had opened the cupboard and poured out Kibbles’n’bits. At this point the two explanations are no longer equal. The human story doesn’t explain everything anymore, so you have to consider the counter-intuitive and more complicated hypothesis.
It’s permissable to say “I don’t know the truth” of course...that’s always allowed in Science. If you find the dog-shoes idea a bit of a stretch then you don’t have to accept it. But you’re not allowed to return to the inadequate hypothesis. It no longer acounts for all the data, so there is no reason to use it any more. But this approach is common in flat-Earth arguments. They are so damn easy to understand that they hardly explain anything!
Consider gravity. Flat-Earthers don’t believe in gravity because gravity would have pulled the Earth into a ball by now. So they put forward a much simpler explanation for why apples fall from trees: dense objects fall through air and sparse objects like Helium balloons rise due to air’s buoyancy. Sounds good, but there’s a big problem.
The “things fall because they’re dense” explanation is easy to understand but misses pretty much everything else. It doesn’t explain why masses hung on strings tilt toward mountains (because they do). It doesn’t explain why objects get faster as they fall rather than dropping at a steady rate. It doesn’t explain why airplanes (denser than air) are able to float by accelerating into it. It doesn’t explain why comets occur with regularity or what keeps the moon at the same distance from us.
In fact, the more you look into it the more you realise the density explanation hardly covers anything. And, as it happens, Newton already knew about the density/buoyancy principle (as did everyone else in 1687). What he was trying to explain wasn’t why things fall. He was trying to explain how everything moved the way it did. Some flat-Earthers don’t seem to be aware of this however and stick to overly simplified explanations of overly simplified problems.
A simple explanation for a simple phenomenon is fine. But a simple explanation for a complicated range of phenomena is a sign somebody hasn’t done enough research.
Mistake Five - Rejecting Equations
This flaw with many flat-Earth arguments is similar to the last one, but quite specific. It’s an unfortunate fact that many heliocentric proofs happen to look like an intimidating wall of equations. This makes things awkward because the explanations for globe-theory are often so complicated they can look fantastical. Sadly, I’ve seen a lot of flat-Earthers get around this by deciding that equations are just a bunch of made up symbols which scientists use to blind people with...well, science.
Flat-Earthers do have a valid point in that equations don’t mean anything by themselves. Particles and fields don’t know to behave a certain way because someone wrote some symbols on paper. But what equations can do is track of things which are too bizarre for our heads. The equation doesn’t mean anything but it describes something which does. So when Scientists present you with mathematical proofs they aren’t hoping to blind you. It’s because equations are sometimes the most accurate way of describing the world.
Take the following experiment: if you get into a room with 23 other people and ask everyone what their birthday is, two people in the room will often have the same one. But that doesn’t sound right! It feels like you should need more people. There are 365 days in a year so shouldn’t you need 366 people to get a birthday match? Nope. Once you get to 24 there's around a 50% chance it'll work. Try it for yourself and prepare to be spooked.
What this shows is that the human mind isn’t very good at guessing how things really work, especially when it comes to patterns and numbers. If you want to explain how something like this happens, you have to accept that nature is beyond what your mind can comfortably grasp. If you’re really committed to understanding a complex universe you have to accept complex explanations, including mathematical ones.
If you don’t feel confident with equations that’s absolutely fine, but you can't reject them because you don't understand them. That's like rejecting a German person’s opinion because you don’t speak German.
We invented mathematical techniques not to make things confusing but because the world is confusing and unless we invoke maths we get the wrong answers. The complicated equipment and calculations Scientists use are far more reliable than your eyes and ears. Although most flat-Earthers seem to be misled about this point too.
Mistake Six - Trusting Your Senses
Leonardo da Vinci once said “Experience is a truer guide than the words of others”. It’s a great quotation but we have to be careful. By "experience" he is referring to testing things for yourself. He doesn’t mean “trust your senses”. Well, maybe he did mean that, I didn’t know Da Vinci that well. But if he did think human senses were trustworthy, he was wrong. Come at me Da Vinci.
A huge number of flat-Earth “proofs” rely on you making simple observations with your senses.
I’ve heard flat-Earthers talk about how you can’t feel the Earth spinning beneath us, how we don't see clouds or rocket trails blown backwards across the sky or how the North star and Ursa Major appear fixed in place throughout the year. All of these are casual observations which appear to give the impression of a flat, stationary world. But guess what? They’re all wrong.
Your senses are not very good at interpreting their surroundings. This can be an uncomfortable thing to accept if you believe your senses are engineered to be trustworthy, but it’s unfortunately true. Your senses will mislead you at every opportunity. That’s one of the reasons we invented Science in the first place - to check what nature is really trying to say.
If you think your senses are giving you an honest picture then check out the image below. It is not a spiral, it’s a series of concentric circles. But even knowing that fact is true, your eyes and brain will trick you and tell you it’s a spiral.
Or if you want a really pertinent example, here is an optical illusion where your eyes mistake curvature for flatness. The wavy lines below are consistenly curvy, but the patches in grey look flat and angular. They aren’t.
Your senses, even when your logical brain knows you are being tricked, will still fool you. You can look at something which is absolutely curved but be tricked into seeing something straight. It works the other way round too. I’ve heard flat-Earthers claiming satellites are a myth because nobody has ever seen them with the naked eye from Earth. I’m afraid this one is just embarassing. You can see satellites with the naked eye! If you’ve not seen them in your city suburb it’s because your eyes aren’t good enough at picking out faint lights. Go out in the countryside some night and look up.
Mistake Seven - Cynicism
This is the saddest mistake every flat-Earth argument falls foul of and it’s a real tragedy. Most of the other mistakes I’ve listed are intellectual curiosities, worthy of debate. But this one just makes me unhappy and it’s the hardest to undo.
If you want to believe a flat-Earth argument you have to reject not only all the evidence for the globe Earth...but all the people presenting it. This doesn’t just mean millions of professional Scientists and astronomers. It doesn’t just mean every member of NASA, the ESA and every other space agency. It also means all the commerical pilots and air-traffic controllers. It means all the military navigators, mobile-phone engineers, sailors and meteorologists. It means every amateur backyard-astronomer. It means every kid with a telescope. We are talking tens of millions of people who’s job or hobby involves taking the shape of the Earth into account.
All these people agree the Earth is round and they have evidence to back it. Flat-Earth arguments must logically claim these people are lieing. To believe the Earth is truly flat is to believe there is a conspiracy keeping the flat-Earth truth suppressed, with not a single honest whistleblower among them. Forgive me for saying, but that’s an intellectually dishonest approach to take, not to mention a mean-spirited one.
To question an accepted belief is skepticism and that’s great. But making the assumption (and it is an assumption) that every teacher, populariser or user of science is trying to trick everyone is not skepticism...it’s cynicism. It’s pre-deciding that Scientists are corrupt. It’s making a judgement withut evidence and it’s not how we do things as adults.
I understand people criticisng me and my fellow Scientists for being awkward or difficult. I accept that we sometimes preach facts and don’t respond well to questioning like we should. I accept that some Scientists can be arrogant. I even accept that some enjoy feeling superior to the lay-public. But the accusation that we are part of a giant conspiracy to mislead everybody? That’s not putting forward a decent argument, it’s just slander and it debases everyone on both sides.
There are evil scientists yes, but there are good ones too. Scientists who are trying to cure diseases, introduce clean water to poor countries, provide heating, lighting and shelter to millions, and to inspire kids who want to learn. Being a flat-Earther means you have to not only reject a lot of cool and amazing ideas but the cool and amazing people behind them. You have to accept a narrower, simpler, crueller view of who Scientists are and why we do what we do. You have to believe we are trying to decieve you. And that’s not a skeptical outlook to take. I am a teacher because I want to open minds, not trick them. It's simply unkind to assume otherwise. What evidence have you got that I'm evil?
I agree that you should always seek evidence for a claim rather than taking it on faith. Having faith in facts is never a good idea. But having faith in people? That's not so bad.
Alessandro Manzoni: kym-cdn
Flat Earth Map: tfes.org
Admiral Akbar: telegraph
Newton magic: gnosticwarrior
Frustrated teacher: shutterstock
Dog shoes: Daily Mail
Spiral Illusion: croexpress
Curves and lines illusion: Sciencealert
Satellite timelapse: Quora
Trust People: humanengineers
It’s all fun and games until someone loses a planet
In 2006, the International Astronomical Union decided that Pluto was no longer a planet and was instead to be referred to as a “dwarf planet”. Outcry ensued and eleven years later it has not abated.
The physicist Sean Carroll writes in one of his recent books “Pluto is the ninth planet and it’s my book so I’ll call it what I like”, while Neil deGrasse Tyson writes in one of his own “Pluto isn’t a planet, get over it.” There’s even an episode of Rick and Morty where Jerry delivers a speech to the Plutonians, declaring that Earth’s scientists were mistaken in reclassifying it.
The man largely responsible for the monumentous decision, Mike Brown, uses the twitter handle @plutokiller and has the Death star destroying Alderaan for his banner picture. So perhaps it’s all a matter of whimsy and tongue-in-cheek sport. Pluto is, after all, the furthest planet/dwarf from the Sun. Does it really matter what we call it?
I am going to argue that it does, not because astronomical terminology is crucial to our lives but because this debate reflects something important about how Science operates. So hold onto your preconceptions folks! Well, actually don’t. Let go of our preconceptions. But hang onto something.
I’m a Believer
I remember hearing the Pluto news on the radio and thinking it was pedantic nonsense. You can’t just change what Pluto is because someone decides to tweak a definition! I had images of pencil-pushing smart-alecs, smarming away to themselves at how clever they were, with no concern for public opinion.
Don’t misunderstand me here, public opinion does not dictate truth and reality is not flexible. But the definitions of words are, and the accepted meaning of a word should reflect its common usage. If everyone agrees on a particular definition, an organisation would be foolish to redefine it.
I also remember thinking the whole thing was bad for Science PR because organisations like the IAU should serve the public not dictate to them. If we use the word “planet” to refer to something which Pluto clearly is, that’s enough reason to preserve its status. But here’s the thing: Pluto doesn’t match the public definition of a planet. That’s why the IAU changed it.
What I was getting wrong eleven years ago was that the IAU genuinely was taking public opinion into account. The reclassification of Pluto was done out of respect for the lay public, not in spite of them.
The First Planets
Every ancient culture monitored the skies, charting the mysterious lights which roam above our heads, and every single one of them made the same discovery. The majority of the twinkling dots follow a clear pattern, changing position on a predictable 365 day-cycle...but five of them do not.
Five of the bright sky-things move on bizarre trajectories, weaving and wailing without rhythm or logic. The Greeks called these five objects “wanderers” (planetes in Greek) because they appeared to wander as if conscious beings. They were assumed to be Gods and were identified as Hermes, Aphrodite, Ares, Zeus and Chronos, later re-named for their Roman counterparts Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
The first definition of “planet” was therefore extremely simple. A planet was one of the bright lights which moved in non-predictable ways.
But thanks to the work of people like Eratosthenes, Ptolemy, Newton, Buridan, Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe and Galileo, we figured out that the planets were following a pattern, albeit a complex one.
The Sun was sitting at the centre of a circular plane with the planets orbiting at different speeds, one of which was the Earth we stood on. Sometimes Earth would be behind another planet and sometimes it would overtake it, giving the impression of the other planet zig-zagging across the sky - what astronomers call retrograde motion.
To further complicate things, it turned out this view was only about 90% accurate. Firstly, planets move in ellipses rather than circles and secondly, they aren’t going around the Sun at all. Planets and the Sun are actually orbiting each other, it’s just that the Sun is so much bigger so its movements are small. If you assume the Sun is stationary with planets moving around it (what you were probably taught in primary school) you will get the wrong answers when trying to account for planetary motion.
Nature does complicated things so we have to accept equally complicated explanations, even if they contravene what we learned when we were young.
Six and Beyond
By the 18th Century, the definition of a planet had evolved to “something which shares a common centre of mass with the Sun and has a fixed elliptical orbit”. In fairness, that definition is a mouthful so “things which orbit the Sun” will do in a pinch. And there were six planets rather than five, because Earth was one of them.
Then in 1781, the astronomer William Herschel discovered that one of the dimmest stars visible to the naked eye does the whole retrograde-motion thing. By carefully measuring its position with a telescope, Herschel realised that this object wasn’t a star at all, it was orbiting our Sun. This made Herschel the first person in modern history to discover a planet, yielding Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and George.
The name George didn’t catch on in France however, where King George was despised, so it was eventually renamed after the God of the sky: Uranus. One of the most majestic and powerful figures in classical mythology. Today, it has come to mean something else...well...strictly speaking it should be pronounced “yor-ann-us” but the other way is definitely more fun. As a physics teacher I’m pretty sure I’ve heard every permutation of this joke but I have to be honest, I still find Uranus hilarious.
Then in 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the eighth planet, Ceres, lurking between Jupiter and Mars. Ceres was the smallest planet discovered to date, at least ten times smaller than the moon, but it orbited the Sun just like the others, so Jupiter was bumped down the list to become the sixth planet, Saturn the seventh and so on. Inconvenient, but as a scientist you change your view when the data forces you.
A few months later Heinrich Olbers discovered another planet at the same distance to the Sun, which he named Pallas. Then in 1804 Karl Harding discovered Juno. In 1807 Olbers discovered Vesta and in 1845 Karl Hencke discovered Astraea.
The thirteenth planet was a little different though. This one was discovered by equation rather than telescope. In 1821, Alexis Bouvard was taking precise measurements of Uranus (hur hur hur) and found that it didn’t move in a standard ellipse. Instead, it seemed to be pulled to the side as if there were another object attracting it and in 1846 Johann Galle finally observed it with a telescope, giving us Neptune.
Then Karl Hencke discovered the planet Hebe in 1847 along the same Mars/Jupiter orbit as most of the others. The fifteenth, Iris, was discovered the same year by John Russell Hind, the sixteenth, Metis, in 1848 by Andrew Graham and the seventeenth, Hygiea, in 1949 by Annibale Gasparis. Hold on a moment...
Back up, back up
Any textbook on astronomy in the 1850s would have listed our solar system as boasting seventeen planets. But as our telescopes got better, we discovered more and more objects floating between Mars and Jupiter and by the 1860s there were over a hundred of them, which led to a problem.
When people heard the word “planet” they imagined great big round things with their own orbits, not scraggly space-debris circling the Sun like a moat around a castle. Either we kept the definition of planet to mean “thing which goes round the Sun” or we start using it the way the general public used it, even though it would disqualify the rocks between Mars and Jupiter. After much deliberation we went with the second option.
Although never formally defined, astronomers started using the word planet to refer to what the general public thought the word meant. This meant we needed a new word for the thousands of rocky clumps swimming between Mars and Jupiter and the term “asteroid” was coined.
Really, the problem arose because language evolves slower than Scientific knowledge. We get a word like planet in our vocabulary and it hangs around for hundreds of years, colouring our perceptions. If we discover that reality has nuances to it, we either keep using the old terminology or we invent a new word to describe the stuff we didn’t originally know was there.
The goofy story about Pluto
In 1906, the astronomer (and millionaire) Percival Lowell decided it was time we discovered a ninth planet. He had good reason to suspect there might be something there - minor disturbances in Neptune’s orbit - but mostly he was motivated by the passionate desire to look beyond the edge of what was known. He poured a lot of money and resources into searching for “Planet X” and hired some of the world’s best astronomers to work at his observatory.
Sadly, Lowell died in 1916 before Planet X was discovered, but the mission continued in his absence. Under the direction of Vesto Slipher (who also discovered the redshift effect) Clyde Tombaugh was set the task of searching the sky beyond Neptune and on February 18th 1930, he captured images of what Lowell had hoped for - a ninth planet, roughly the size of the Earth.
Planet X-fever gripped the world and international headlines proclaimed the discovery of the first proper planet since Neptune. A competition was held to decide what we were going to call it and over a thousand names were suggested. The name Pluto was proposed by eleven-year-old Venetia Burney, and ultimately won by popular vote.
By 1948 however, precise measurements were taken on Pluto’s size and it turned out we had been a little premature in declaring it the same mass as the Earth. It was actually about a tenth as heavy. Never mind though, it was still bigger than Mercury.
Except it wasn’t. By 1978 we learned that Pluto was actually about a six hundredth the mass of the Earth, smaller than Mercury and even our planetary moon, making it the smallest planet in the solar system. But it still satisfied the main criterias for it to be a “planet”. It was orbiting the Sun, it was big enough to be round and it occupied a unique orbit. Except it didn’t.
The Second Belt
In 1992, the astronomer Jane Luu discovered a second object floating on Pluto’s orbit which she nicknamed Smiley but was given the official designation 1992-QB1. Then in 2003, the astronomer Mike Brown discovered an asteroid at the same distance, which he called Sedna. He went on to discover Haumea and Orcus in 2004, and then Makemake in 2005. But then, most disconcertingly, Brown discovered Eris, which turned out to be 25% heavier than Pluto.
We can argue that Pluto is a planet on the grounds of it being round, and we can dismiss all the small rocks nearby as asteroids. But when we discover objects heavier or bigger than Pluto on the same orbit, it’s time to rethink things.
Turns out there are over 2,000 objects orbiting past Neptune and Pluto is only one of them. Our solar system doesn’t have one asteroid belt, it has two! This second one has been called the Kuiper belt (pronounced Kie-pur) and its asteroids are very different from the ones we’re familiar with. A lot of them are huge chunks of ice and rock, often many times bigger than planetary moons. Pluto, it turned out, was Ceres all over again - the first object discovered in an asteroid belt and accidentally labeled as a planet.
So what do we do? If we keep calling Pluto a planet then we're misleading people. It’s not very big and it’s not a lone body, it’s just a fat asteroid which happened to get noticed first. But if we want to keep calling Pluto a planet, we need to redefine what that word actually means.
Eventually the IAU decided to repeat what was done in the 1860s. The definition of planet was fixed in people’s minds, so we left it and came up with a new word to fit the new thing: “dwarf planet”.
The definition of a planet is the same as it always has been. Something which a) goes round the Sun, b) is roughly spherical due to gravity and c) has cleared its orbit path so it’s the only dog in town. A dwarf planet is something which hasn’t done the third one...it’s big enough to be interesting, but it’s part of an asteroid belt. This means our solar systerm really has six dwarf planets: Ceres (reclassified from asteroid), Pluto, 2007-OR10, Eris, Haumea and Makemake. And there’s a good chance more will be discovered in the Kuiper belt with time.
Personaly I think the IAU made the right call. They were faced with either inventing a new word or changing the meaning of an old one. And the former option is usually the better idea. You can’t force people to change the words they’ve always used, but you can introduce new ones.
When I was a young warthog...
People get annoyed about the whole thing because Pluto, it would appear, has been unfairly demoted. But the thing is, it hasn’t at all. Pluto hasn’t been changed into a different thing - we just discovered what it was all along, like taking the mask off a Scooby-Doo villain.
Imagine you had nine spoons of sugar in front of you. You’re told by everyone that it’s definitely sugar in each one and you believe that for a long time. If you eventually discover the end one is really salt, what you’d say is “oh, I guess we made a mistake”. It would be bizarre to say “I’ve always been taught there are nine tablespoons of sugar and I still believe that’s true. I’m going to redefine what I mean by sugar as ‘any white powder’.”
You’re welcome to do that of course, but in doing so you’re bending the definition away from what everyone means. You’ve also redefined the word to include things like sherbert and powdered glass. Unless you’re extremely stubborn (in which case can I watch you eat your powdered glass cake?) you know what the sensible thing to do is, even if you don’t like it. The intellectually honest approach is to accept that you were taught a mistake. It wasn’t anyone’s fault and nobody lied to you, but you got told something incorrect.
So why do people object to learning the truth? Why do people get upset when a faulty fact is corrected? Shouldn’t that be a good thing?
In the process of writing this blog I consulted with my father, a passionate astronomer (the guy has a five-foot Russian-built telescope with a motor to compensate for Earth’s rotation in his garden shed) and he made a very important point: for a lot of people, this kind of thing can be more about emotion than intellect. If you grow up learning something, it can feel like the rug being pulled out from under you if it turns out to be wrong.
This is a fair point. When I tell the Pluto story to my younger students they are fine with it. I explain that there was a large asteroid which got mistaken for a planet and as soon as we realised the mistake we corrected it. There is no objection to this because “it was mistakenly identifed as a planet” is part of the fact they learn.
It’s only when we are victims of the mistake that it can be a human instinct to fight back. Intellectually we might accept Pluto’s status, but emotionally we are irritated because we are creatures of habit and familiarity. The same way people objected to Ceres and Pallas being reclassified in the 1860s, people in the 2000s objected to Pluto going the same way. And, just like Ceres and Pallas, people growing up after that decision are fine with Pluto being a dwarf planet. Finding out as an adult that one of your childhood facts was wrong can feel like a piece of your childhood has been knocked away. Nobody likes having their childhood messed with.
Why it Matters
Science offers us insight and knowledge, but it comes at a price - we have to be prepared to let go of familiar beliefs if they turn out to be wrong. This is one of the hardest parts of Science but it’s also one of the most important. It’s the reason we no longer believe the Earth is the centre of the Universe. It’s the reason we no longer believe the planets are Olympian Gods. It’s the reason we make progress in the first place.
And it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Alright, we lost a planet. That sucks. But technically we gained six dwarf planets as well, so if you want a solar system full of planets, the 2006 ruling gave you exactly that. And, most importantly, we gained a deeper understanding of how complicated the solar system really is.
There are eight planets, hundreds of moons, thousands of asteroids in two different belts (as well as two clumps of asteroids called the Greeks and Trojans orbiting near Jupiter) and probably dozens of dwarf-planets. Not to mention comets from the Oort cloud.
We had to abandon our simple view of reality to get to this astonishing point, and it’s very probable some of what we currently “know” will turn out to be wrong ten years from now. When people are young, they learn a simple view of reality, just as out entire species did. Science is the thing which allows us to move beyond that and gain a more sophisticated and beautiful view of the Universe. It can be painful letting go, but it can be eye-opening and wonderful as well.
Right, now let's deal with this whole "conventional current" malarky...
Mr Arnold from Jurassic Park: blogspot
Arrogant IAU Member: ehowcdn
King Leonidas: huffingtonpost
Fred Durst: impericon
Pluto and Goofy: urdogs
Double belt: blogspot
The Last Jedi: Wallpapersite
Orbit animations: exploremars
In 45 BCE, Julius Caesar decided to make January the “first” month of the year. The reason was that Janus, the god after whom the month is named, was the god of doorways and new starts so it seemed an appropriate place to begin our cycles. The Earth isn’t in a particularly special place, but we designate the December/January switchover as a festival to take stock of the past and consider the future.
2017 has of course been full of negative “political” news stories - just like every other year - but I’m happy to report that - just like every other year - Science provided a candle of optimism in the perpetual darkness of parochial human affairs! The most important Science story was obviously that Lemmy, the late, great frontman of Motorhead had a dinosaur-alligator named in his honour called Lemmysuchus. Some other things happened too. Here’s my favourite picks of awesome Science stories from the last 365 days.
Not Today Tsunami
Tsunamis occur when an earthquake at sea sends water outward in all directions, devastating coastal towns and cities. Up until now, there has been no way to stop them but Usama Kadri, doctor of mathematics at Cardiff University, has hit on the solution. By creating enormous sound-blasts underwater, the acoustic-shockwave can be pointed at the oncoming tsunami like a deflector shield. When the kinetic energy of the water going toward land meets the kinetic energy of the soundwave moving away, the net energy of the water particles spreads out, raising the temperature and killing the tsunami. Kadri’s idea is the first of its kind and has already been tested in small, artificial settings with great success. All we need to do is scale up and choose what sound we use to blast the tsunamis apart.
New Continent Discovered
It sounds made up but it’s completely true. New Zealand, which everyone previously assumed to be an island on its own, appears to be the highest point of a unique continental plate, separate to all the countries around it. This continent, named Zealandia on February 9th, lies 94% below the surface of the ocean but really is there, making its disocverer, Maria Seton, the first person to discover a continent in over three centuries.
Mental Illness is Normal
A study conducted by J.D. Schaeffer in the newly continented New Zealand found that between the ages of 11 and 38 only 17% of people experience no mental health problems. Everyone else experiences at least one bout of depression or anxiety and 41% experience it for more than a year. It turns out that being mentally ill at some point during one’s life puts you in the majority. Perhaps this might not seem like an uplifting news story, but I think it’s encouraging. If you suffer from mental illness yourself or know somebody who does, don’t feel ashamed about it or stigmatised. We can now say categorically that it’s a standard part of being human,
Goldilocks and the seven planets
On February 21st, the Spitzer telescope at NASA discovered seven planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1, all of them in the Circumstellar Habitable Zone aka the "Goldilocks zone”. That’s the area around a star where the temperatures aren't too hot or too cold, making things just right for liquid water to flow and complex organic reactions to take place. TRAPPIST-1 is about 378 trillion kilometers away sadly, but the evidence is undeniable. Our solar system only has one planet in the CHZ for sure (Mars is up for debate), but apparently there are places in the Universe far more amenable to life. If it was able to arise in this barren cosmic wasteland, chances are it could have done so elsewhere.
Life Started in Canada
The oldest fossils of living things have long been assumed to be the samples found in Pilbara Australia dating to aboot 3.5 billion years old, but on March 1st Matthew Dodd published results that put new microfossils discovered in Quebec, Canada at 4.28 billion. That would be astonishing given that the Earth is probably no more than 4.5 billion years old itself. The results are disputed of course, but exciting...eh?
One of the most abundant resources we have on the planet is saltwater. Unfortunately it’s unpalatable to humans, making it approximately useless. But on the 3rd of April, Rahul Nair discovered a solution (pun intended) to the problem. Graphene, made from sheets of carbon atoms arranged like a chickenwire fence, has billions of tiny holes which water molecules fit through but salt particles do not. Graphene works like a sieve, purifying the water and leaving salt on the other side. By using Nair’s method we could turn the oceans into fresh drinking-water for millions.
We Shall Not Be Moved
Perhaps the biggest story from April was a story about scientists themselves. After Donlad Trump and many in his cabinet made comments denying climate change, asserting that vaccines caused autism or that the big bang was “a fairtyale”, the scientific community worried that governments were no longer going to be making decisions based on Science (aka reality). In response, an estimated 1.07 million people in over a hundred cities around the world took to the streets on the 22nd of April to march in protest of science-denialism. The March for Science was the biggest pro-Science public demonstration in history.
On the 25th, doctor Emily Partrdige and her team published a paper in which they reported keeping six prematurely born lambs alive inside artificially created wombs. The lambs were removed from their mothers via caesarean section and delivered at the equivalent of 23 weeks old. Partridge and her team were able to keep the lambs alive until they were fully grown, after which they were birthed successfully. If we can replicate this in humans it would mark the end for deaths of premature babies.
The world’s first nano-grand prix took place on the 28th. Cars no more than a billionth of a meter across, invisible even to an optical microscope, were raced on a track for the first time, demonstrating the versatility and applicability of nanotechnology. The Swiss team won with their mini-hovercraft “Nano-Dragster” although unfortunately the victory was undermined by the shape of the car itself...
Forget Shark-Nado, Meet Crystal-Nado
It sounds like a joke but it isn’t. Kathleen Benson reported, on May 1st, that occasionally amid the Andes mountains of Chile, whirlwinds of air can pick up thousands of crystals and transport them across distances of over 5 km, before showering them in a sparkly display of magicness. This isn’t a world-changing or far-reaching discovery, but it’s objectively awesome.
Transparent Frogs Exist
Juan Manuel Guayasamin and his team discovered a species of frog which is completely see-through; you can actually see their organs working from the outside, a bit like that scene in Hollow Man where we see Kevin Bacon's innards through the skin. Only this time, no uncomfortable Kevin Bacon nudity! They are called Hyalinobatrachium Yaku and are proof that sometimes nature does things for the hell of it.
Enceladus has food
In October 2015, Cassini (which collapsed into Saturn on September 15th of this year) flew through the hydrothermal plumes of the moon Enceladus. As it shot through the jets, it collected a vast amount of data which was analysed over the next two years and on April 14th one of the most startling results was published: Enceladus' sub-surface ocean has a lot of molecular hydrogen - the most likely source being organic molecules. Not only would these molecules serve as the building blocks for life, molecular hydrogen is often used as a food source for primitive microbes. It used to be Mars which was considered our best bet for finding extra-terrestrial life, now it looks like Enceladus is going to take the top spot for astrobiological research.
Out of Eden
The earliest fossils of human-like creatures come from a site called Omo Kibish in Ethiopia and date to around 200,000 years old. The assumption has always been that this is where humans first evolved. The Shangri-La or Garden of Eden described in so many mythologies. Turns out that’s not true. On June 8th, Professor Jean-Jacques Hublin announced that a site in Morocco called Jebel Irhoud has human-like fossils dating back to around 350,000 years. What's more, sites similar to Jebel Irhoud have been found all over Africa. The assumption has always been that these sites were later ones, representing our spread from the cradle of life in Ethiopia. But it looks like we had it backwards. If the Jebel Irhoud site has been dated accurately that would mean the various human species were covering Africa simultaneously rather than originating in one single place. This changes our understanding of not only human evolution, but how evolution itself works.
Here Comes the Sun
A novel but surprisngly simple idea to fight skin-cancer was published on 13th of July from Nisma Mujahid. A sun-cream which boosts melanin production in human skin. Melanin is the pigment which makes skin darker, meaning people with darker skin tend to be less at risk from skin cancer caused by UV rays. While most sun-creams merely cover the skin of white people like me in dark brown ink, this one actually causes melanin to produce under the skin’s surface, providing secure coverage. It’s been tested successfully on rats and isolated human skin to great effect. All that remains is human trials.
2016 saw the discovery of gravitational waves; ripples in spacetime caused by leviathan cosmic events. The ones discovered by LIGO back then were generated by the merger of two black holes and this year we got a second big discovery; the collision of two neutron stars. Essentially, atomic nuclei the size of Manhattan, neutron stars are the cores of dead suns spinning many thousands of times per second. When neutron stars fall into each other’s gravitational attraction, the resulting collision is so powerful that it generates gravitational waves, along with heavy elements like gold that get scattered into the universe and wind up as globe-shaped prizes for people like Kevin Bacon.
Gene Editing Achieved
On the 20th of September, research was published by Kathy Niakan and her team who managed to successfully edit a human embryo for the first time. Using the revolutionary CRISPR technique, Niakan was able to alter an embryo to give it a greater chance of forming a blastocyst in the womb. Baring in mind that roughly one in six women experience miscarriage at some point in their adult lives, the ability to edit human embryos would change the game completely. It would also allow us to remove diseases and illnesses from unborn children, giving them a better chance of life. People have speculated about the possibility of altering human genes for decades. Now, we have taken our first step toward doing so. Maybe one day everyone can be edited to look like Kevin Bacon.
Part of our Universe has been found
It’s no secret that most of our Universe is missing. Simply put, the Universe behaves in a way that suggests it should be heavier, but we’ve not been able to find where most of the missing mass is coming from. There are three suspected substances to blame. The first is Dark Energy, the second is Dark Matter and the third is Missing Baryons. And, on October 9th, the Baryon puzzle was solved. Independently, two teams led by Hideki Tanamura and Anna de Graaf discovered threads of particles trillions of kilometers long, linking up every galaxy in the cosmos. Although it looks like galaxies are lone specks of light floating amid darkness, it turns out they are all linked by unimaginably long clouds like highways connecting towns, accounting for 50% of the normal matter that’s out there. Dark matter and Dark energy are still mysteries, but that's one down two to go. Next mystery: why is Kevin Bacon doing the EE commercials?
It's Pronounced "Oh-Moo-er-Moo-er"
On 19th of October, the Hawaian astronomer Robert Weryk discovered a 230 x 35 meter cigar-shaped object floating through our solar system. What was bizarre about Oumuamua (as it was later named) was that its trajectory could not be explained as having originated from either of the asteroid belts in our solar system, making it the very first interstellar object to approach our sun. That we know of at least. Sadly, it turned out not to be an alien probe, but most likely a hunk of rock from a system around the star Vega which got knocked into its current orbit approximately 600,000 years ago. The same day Kevin Bacon was born.
Photons Behaving Badly
This one is seriously weird. On November 9th a team led by Ado Jorio was able to observe a bizarre interaction between particles of light (photons). By slamming a laser beam onto the surface of water, the team were able to emit pairs of photons which were able to “talk” to each other by sending temporary vibrations through the medium they were moving through. Electrons are known to do this in superconducting materials but seeing photons do it is baffling. Apparently, light particles can communicate information and energy with other light particles. There’s not really a whole lot else can be said about this one because it's such a shock. Watch this space.
In 2015 a six-year-old boy was admitted to hospital with a very rare genetic condition called Junctional Epidermolysis Bullosa. The condition is lethal in children, causing the skin to fall off, leaving you without your primary defence system. It’s genetic and there is no known cure. Well…there wasn’t a known cure. In what sounds like the plot of a movie, as the boy was down to 20% of his skin remaining, a group of scientists led by Michele DeLuca decided to try a never-attempted treatment in a last-ditch effort to save the boy. By taking a small sample of his remaining skin and infecting it with a virus designed to correct the JEB genes with healthy ones, the team were able to create new healthy skin cells which they grew and grafted to the boy. After eight months, the boy was finally given healthy skin and discharged from the hospital. Technically this story happened in 2016 but DeLuca’s results were not published until November 8th and it’s too good not to mention. The young boy in question has returned to school and DeLuca has genuinely found a cure for a formerly untreatable disease. I would like to say “this sort of thing doesn’t happen very often” but actually…in Science…it genuinely does.
Trump to the Moon
Say what you like about Donald Trump, he does seem to really like space. Whatever his motivations, I happen to agree with his ideology. Weird, right? The space program is crucial to our species’ survival (that’s not hyperbole, it’s just true) so if he’s serious about investing in it I’m all in favour. On the 11th of December, Trump announced that he wanted America to return to the moon with a mind for using it as a base to launch missions toward Mars and explore the rest of the solar system. He hasn’t given any specific deadlines for NASA, nor has he announced any additional funding he will be supplying for the target, but the sentiment is apparently there. At this point, I’ll take anything I can get.
Science provides hope even in hopeless places...
By all the stars!
A few days ago I was talking with someone who claimed her horoscope was always extremely accurate. Horoscopes claim that fusion reactions taking place trillions of kilometers away can influence the personality traits and lives of humans here on Earth. That’s an astonishing claim if it’s true. And millions of people seem to think it is...so maybe there’s something going on there.
I suggested to her that we carry out a series of simple tests to see if her horoscopes were genuinely as good as she thought. She agreed and we set about devising experiments to put them to the test. The outcome was sadly the same as every other test into the accuracy of astrology ever conducted: resoundingly negative. We couldn’t find any evidence that her horoscopes were trustworthy.
It's a real shame. Had the test yielded a positive result I would have been exhilarated. Imagine being the first person in history to confirm the existence of a link between star positions and human behaviour. I would have loved to find evidence in favour of horoscopes. Sadly however, that wasn’t what we found.
At this point, my friend became rather unhappy because we had ruined something. The result was easy for me to process because I went from “I’ve seen no evidence to trust horoscopes” to “I’ve seen no evidence to trust horoscopes”. Her journey was different however; she had to abandon a belief.
Admittedly, the more you get used to Science the easier this becomes, because you learn to be proven wrong regularly...but the first few times it happens it can sting like a nettle down the neck.
Intellectually, we should be just as satisfied with a negative result as a positive one because we still learn from it, but we are emotional beings as well as intellectual ones and having our cherished views dissolved can be horrible.
Scientists - ruining everyone’s fun forever
Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who believe in the supernatural often see Scientists as enemies. We are accused of trying to destroy belief systems or (far more often) of being “closed minded”. Scientists want to subject everything to tests, often sucking the beauty and mystery out of the world, and if we can’t find it in a test-tube we decide it isn’t real.
I know why we come across like that. Science has a long history of debunking and discrediting supernatural claims, so it’s no wonder people think Science is anti-supernatural. But this simply isn’t true. Scientists are very open minded. We are literally prepared to believe anything, no matter how ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. You want me to believe in Unicorns? Bring me a unicorn and I’m sold.
We’re not trying to ruin everybody’s fun at all. Scientists just go looking for answers by investigating. If someone claims there are Gods living on Mount Olympus we’re the ones who decide to climb the mountain and look. If we fail to find evidence for something you believe in, that’s not because we were trying to destroy it, it’s because the evidence was undetectable and that’s nature’s fault not ours.
The war on magic
There are all sorts of supernatural claims Science has investigated over the years and found zero evidence for. Mediumship, telekinesis, mind-reading, sympathetic magic, prophecy, ghosts, crystal-healing, oujia boards, homeopathy, dowsing, reiki and a whole buffet of others. They’ve all been scrutinised by Scientists who were trying to prove them right, and came up empty-handed each time.
These things could absolutely be real, but investigations have found nothing to support them, so we are left with a simple choice. Either we say “I don’t know if it’s true” or “I’m going to believe it anyway”. If you decide to pick that second option and believe in something without evidence, you have to answer the following question: what is your belief based on if not evidence?
The idea of magical forces watching over our destinies is exciting for sure, but to be a Scientist is to commit yourself to either evidence or ignorance. Nothing in between.
I’ve met people who have countered this line of argument by pointing out that even though the evidence is lacking for a claim, it could still be true. I agree of course, but believing something because it could be true is a dangerous position. Magnetism could be caused by invisible fairies who speak Welsh. Penguins might secretly be red and they put on the black outfits when they see us coming. Ewan McGregor could be Britney Spears...have you ever seen them together?
The problem with believing something because it could be true is that it’s a slippery slope to infinity. There are so many possible things out there it would be impossible to believe them all. And many of them would contradict. Scientists stick to what we’re confident probably is rather than what could be. It doesn’t mean we close our eyes to the possibilities, we just reserve judgement until we know more.
When demons walked
So, why can’t Scientists just leave things alone and let people believe what they want to? Why does it matter if someone has a few unsubstantiated ideas in their head? The problem is that a person’s beliefs determine their actions, so if their beliefs are crooked their behaviour will be too.
The Ku Klux Klan act on the belief that black people are inferior to white people. Nathalie Rippeberger’s parents caused her death by refusing to take her to see a doctor because they didn’t believe in medicine. We used to burn women alive at the stake for witchcract and we believed we were right to do so. Saying “everybody is entitled to their beliefs” only works if people decide what to believe based on reason. That’s why Scientists want to get things right, even if that means abandoning a supernatural explanation. A world where everyone believes what they want is an abhorrent and primitive one.
There was a time when people didn’t know about bacterial or viral infections. If you got sick it was the will of the spirits. People who heard voices weren’t treated for schizophrenia or epilepsy, they were possessed of demons or communing with angels. Science has made us abandon these supernatural explanations and it has replaced them with life expectancy and good mental health. That’s a fair trade, I think.
After all, there was a time when we didn’t even know what air was and doors slamming would have been the result of poltergeists rather than differences in air pressure. I mean, imagine growing up in a civilization where people didn’t know where the rain came from, why food spoiled, or where the Sun went at night.
The pre-scientific world was one of ghosts and goblins. It was a place where humans were diseased and helpless. Then along came the radical notion that you could learn what reality was like by investigating and testing it. Once we realised this elegant truth we began looking for answers rather than guessing at them. And the answer to every mystery so far has been predictable cause-effect relationships between testable laws and particles. The answer has never turned out to be magic or mysticism.
That doesn’t mean magic isn’t real. But if you want to use magical explanations to account for your world, you must also recognise that magic is an ever-receding pocket of ignorance which has been shrinking like a shadow before a candle. You’re welcome to choose magic, but I cannot help but wonder, why would you choose igorance and darkness?
Beyond our understanding
There are certainly deep and confounding mysteries which fill our Universe from edge to edge. What happens inside a black hole? Why is spacetime expanding? Does quantum gravity exist? Or, perhaps the greatest mystery of all time, when you listen to the song Doctor Jones by Aqua the guitar intro for the first 14 seconds is a beautiful piece of music, while the rest of the song sounds like Doctor Jones by Aqua. How is this possible?
Some things in the Universe are so strange that it can be hard getting our heads around them. But is it possible there are things which can’t be found in a laboratory? Things which don't conform to logical laws and textbook explanations? The answer is again, yes. There could be things which transcend natural law. But if such things really do exist, nobody would know about them...including the people making the claim in the first place.
Science is all about investigating the world through experimentation. Anything which can’t be tested for is supernatural. But if you claim to have knowledge of supernatural things, you are claiming that they are detectable because you yourself have detected them. And since the part of you which detected these things obeys natural laws (your brain) natural laws can clearly be used to search for them.
The laws which give you awareness are the same laws which underpin equipment in a laboratory. It’s not a matter of Scientists applying the wrong approach. Scientists are using the same approaches as supernaturalists, we’re just being cautious about it because we know how easily nature can play tricks on our senses. Salt looks like sugar and clouds look like cotton. We have to be better than that.
Kill the Myth
In a 2014 interview with Bill Moyers, Niel deGrasse Tyson explained that when people are wishing on stars they are more than likely wishing on planets. Moyers asks Tyson “Don’t you sometimes feel sad about breaking all these myths apart?” Tyson responds quickly: “No, because some myths deserve to be broken apart out of respect for the human intellect.”
This sentiment is close of the heart of Scientific motivation. We aren’t trying to ruin people’s fantasies, we just think people deserve to know the truth. We think people are smart enough to handle the facts, even if it means giving up a comforting superstition. We don’t think people should be patronised with fairy tales and spook-stories. We think grown-ups should have the right to grasp reality by the horns.
This doesn’t mean you have to abandon a world of mystery and wonder though. Supernatural beliefs offer you magical and fanciful ideas, but Science can beat them all.
Every atom in your body was formed in the core of a star and the atoms of your left hand came from a different star to the ones in your right. There are species of plant and jellyfish which are immortal. The sky is actually purple. Sugar glows in the dark when you crush it. On Venus it snows metal and on Neptune it rains diamonds. Some of the particles in your body can teleport to the moon. Time slows down or speeds up depending on where you’re standing. There are gases which can set fire to water. Whales used to walk on land. Diamonds are vomited to the Earth’s surface by volcanoes but we’ve learned to make them out of peanut butter. You can make frogs and oxygen levitate in magnetic fields. Last year we carried out real-life thought transplants. We have helped paraplegics walk and brought hearing to the deaf.
The world is full of strange stuff and there’s enough genuine magic out there for the entire species. To be quite frank, Science doesn’t oppose the supernatural, it just finds it a bit limited and boring.
Tiddlytubbies: Teletubbies wiki
Teletubbies 1: The Sun
Teletubbies 2: The Mirror
Teletubbies 3: hdnux
Teletubbies 4: onedio
Crying your pardon
Firstly, an apology. I’ve been completely inactive on my website for the past month. This is partly because I was preparing for the Institute of Physics annual public Science lecture (which I delivered on November 22nd to a gracious and patient audience).
Last year I was able to transcribe and summarise the lecture in a couple of blogs but this year I’m afraid that wouldn’t be possible. The main topic covered was the Standard Model of Particle Physics and that's not easy to describe in an essay. Personally, I foam at the mouth with excitement when the whole topic of particle behaviour is discussed, but apparently some plebs don’t share my excitement. As a result, there was a lot of stuff I had to edit out of my lecture...stuff I’m now going to subject you to.
Full disclosure: this will be a self-indulgent blog that will bore many of my readers. I’m doing it anyway because it’s my website and I freaking love this stuff. How dost thou like them apples?
Seventeen is a Magic Number...Apparently
I once recorded a barbershop-quartet song I wrote about the standard model of particle physics (cos I’m just that awesome) but if you’ve not come across it before, the standard model is usually depicted like the grid above or sometimes in a wheel like this:
A particle is something which holds itself together. Technically, this means you are a particle because your body doesn't fall apart spontaneously. If you want to separate a human into pieces then it can be done obviously, it just requires effort (energy) to do so. This means you aren't a "fundamental" particle because you have a structure i.e. you're made of smaller particles.
A fundamental particle is something which holds itself together but has no internal architecture; they are the tiniest nuggets of stuff and aren't made of smaller bits. As strange as it sounds, you can’t chop these particles in half because there literally is no half for them to be chopped into.
What’s more, we’re fairly confident this really is the bottom rung of the ladder. We have lots of reasons to suspect these particles are the true building blocks of the Universe, which means every object or process you can think of is the result of interactions between the particles listed above. With the exception of gravity (which doesn’t play nicely) what you see is the alphabet of reality. Well...almost.
In truth, the seventeen particles of the standard model are not the whole story. Nature is rarely so considerate or simple. In fact, she seems to have a complete disregard for what humans will find intuitive and tends to prefer intricate complexity wherever possible. It’s almost like our brains evolved for the purposes of hunting and breeding rather than conceptualising the quantum-mechanical nature of reality.
Divide and Describe
Asking how many types of particle there are is like asking how many types of human there are. If you speak to a contact-lens designer they might say five: brown-eyed, blue-eyed, grey-eyed, green-eyed and hazel-eyed humans. That’s not wrong, but it would be useless information to a hemotologist. They might say there are eight types of human based on the blood groups A+, A-, B+, B-, AB+, AB-, O+ and O-.
To give a full picture that includes both properties, we might therefore say there are really forty types of human: blue-eyed people for each of the eight blood groups, brown-eyed people for each of the eight blood groups and so on. But we could always subdivide again based on something like hair colour for instance – blonde, brunette and ginger – to yield 120 types of human.
We could categorise and cross-categorise the human population according to gender, sex, sexuality, skin-colour, language, dietary habits or whatever else we felt like. The sheer number of possible “human particles” is staggering because there are so many different properties available. A similar complication arises when we want to describe particles of the Universe...which is a much better way to spend the time - after all, putting humans into categories is sort of frowned upon these days.
Let’s Just Say There Are Five
For the sake of clarity I’m going to say there are five main properties/characteristics a particle can have. This isn’t the whole story, but a lot of particle properties aren't independent of each other so we can count them as one thing. For example, a tiger has the property of orange stripes and also the property of black stripes. Those are distinct things but logically they must occur together. We can group both properties into one and say tigers have the property of being stripey.
Also (for the quantum physicists among you) I'm going to totally ignore superpositions and list only particle types whose eigenstate has been measured. If you don’t like it, see above comment about apples.
Here are the five main properties I'm going to consider:
Mass: This property has several different meanings but I'm going to take the simplest one. Particle mass means roughly the same thing it does in everyday life: a measure of how heavy a particle is or how reluctant it is to change trajectory. For fundamental particles it can take any value from 0 up to 0.02 milligrams (anything above that is physically impossible).
Charge: This property means how willing a particle is to be around other particles with the same property. It comes in two varieties called positive and negative. Particles with opposite charges will attract while particles with identical charges repel. Particles that have zero charge are unaffected by particles with the other charges.
Colour: This one is a little harder to visualise because it doesn’t compare to anything in our everyday world. The name is also misleading because it doesn’t refer to the appearance of a particle (it’s just a word we use to describe it) it actually refers to whether a particle can be separated from other particles with corresponding properties. Particles with zero colour are able to move around on their own but particles with colour must clump together in specific arrangements. The interactions and types of colour available are quite complicated so I won’t go into detail here, although my recent Instagram post (@timjamesScience) explains the basics if you're curious. The important fact is that unlike charge which comes in two varieties, colour comes in combinations of three: red, green and blue.
Spin: Like colour, spin is a misleading name because it describes a property we don't have a way of visualising yet. It was originally believed that small particles were literally spinning as they moved through space. All particles had a spin and, if the particles also had charge, the two properties combined to form magnetism (non-charged particles still had spin, but weren't magnetic). It was then discovered that particles are not literally balls rotating in space, but the word had stuck.
Spin values can either be whole numbers or half-numbers (technically whole multiples or half multiples of a specific number called h but we won't worry about that). Particles with whole-number spin are able to occupy the same physical location as each other without interacting - think of two beams of light overlapping - and we call these particles bosons. Those with half-number spin will stack against each other, like your body and the chair you are sitting on, and we call these particles fermions. As well as having a numerical valule, spin also comes in two varieties called up and down (like positive and negative charges) as well as sometimes, for bosons, zero.
Chirality: Chirality is yet another property we can't easily visualise. It's also difficult to quickly describe what it does. Charge is all about repulsions and attractions, colour is all about whether particles can be independent or go around in groups and so on. Chirality's main feature takes some serious explaining. I'm going to make the decision to skip over it therefore, because this blog is already too long. The key feature of chirality is that every particle has it, and it comes in two varieties called left-handed and right-handed. E-mail me if you want to know more.
At this point, many particle physicists will be mashing their teeth in anger at how glibly I'm summarising the various properties, ignoring a lot of the subtlety. For example, chirality and mass are closely related, I've brushed over things like isospins and hypercharges. And then there's a whole other property called helicity which (confusingly) also has left and right-handed versions. This property relates to the spin but changes depending on how you view the particle. My five properties thing is a fudge but if you don't like it, see aforementioned apples comment.
What I'm going to say is that from these five properties we can describe all the known particles available in the Universe. We might not be able to visualise what the particles are actually doing to give them these properties but at least there are only five things to take into consideration. While human particles are easier to visualise, there's so much variety it becomes impossible to explain their behaviour.
Bosons (Spin is a whole number)
Photons - The simplest particles of all. They have no mass, no charge and no colour. They have two different spin possibilities (up and down) as well as two chiralities (left and right) giving us four types of photon in total: Up Left, Up Right, Down Left, Down Right.
Z’s – Z particles have no colour and no charge but they do have mass. They can also have one of the three spin values (Up, Down, None) and both chiralities, giving us six: Up L, Up R, None L, None R, Down L, Down R.
W’s – W’s are similar to Z’s. They have mass, three spins and two chiralities, but they also come in two different charge: positive and negative, meaning there are twelve W particle: UpLPositive, UpLNegative, UpRPositive, UpRNegative, NoneLPositive, NoneLNegative, NoneRPositive, NoneRNegative, DownLPositive, DownLNegative, DownRPositive, DownRNegative.
Gluons – Gluons have no mass or charge but they do have colour in eight versions (see my Instagram post) two spins and two chiralities, giving us a total of thirty-two gluons, which I'm not going to write out.
Higgs – The Higgs boson particle has mass but no colour or charge. It has a spin of 0 which makes the count a little simpler, but both chiralities, giving us only two types: Left-handed Higgs and Right-Handed Higgs.
Fermions – (Spin is a half)
Quarks – These particles have all five properties. There are six different quark masses available, each with a different name: up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom (NB: the quark names of "up" and "down" are unrelated to their spin i.e. you can have an Up-quark with a down spin. Yeah...I know). Up, charm and top quarks have a charge of +2/3 whereas down, strange and bottom quarks have a charge of -1/3.
Quarks also possess one of three colours (red, green and blue) giving 18 types so far. Quarks can also come in charge-reversed versions called anti-quarks. Anti-up, anti-charm and anti-top quarks have charges of -2/3 while anti-down, anti-strange and anti-bottom have charges of +1/3 (the reverse of the “ordinary” quarks). This gives us 36. Then we have either up or down spin, giving us 72, and then the left and right handed chiralities, giving us a grand total of 144 possible quark types.
Leptons – These fermions possess no colour. There are three "flavours" with mass, called the electron, the muon and the tau each with a charge of either -1 or +1 (six so far). Then there are the up and down spins (giving us twelve) and then the left and right chiralities (twenty four).
The remaining leptons have no charge (possibly no mass either) and care called neutrinos. Neutrinos come in three flavours: electron-neutrinos, muon-neutrinos and tau-neutrinos. There are also anti-neutrinos for each, but because neutrinos have a charge of zero you can almost think of anti-neutrinos as having a charge of anti-zero. I mean, you probably shouldn't think of it like that...I'm just saying you could. Then of course you factor in the up and down spins, giving us twelve neutrino types so far.
What’s really strange (apart from the fact that they sort of have mass and sort of have anti-zero charge) is that all neutrinos are right-handed and all anti-neutrinos are left-handed. This means we don't have to double our neutrino number because when we counted the anti-neutrinos, we already took chirality into account by accident...nature's weird. So that's twelve neutrinos.
The Grand Total
Photons x 4
Z's x 6
W's x 12
Gluons x 32
Higgs's x 2
Quarks x 144
Electrons x 24
Neutrinos x 12
236 different types of particle
Is That It?
In all honesty we don’t know. These are the 236 types of particle which definitely exist and which can’t be broken down, but there is absolutely the possibility, in fact the likelihood, of there being more. For instance, left-handed neutrinos and right-handed anti-neutrinos have never been discovered but it seems reasonable to suggest they exist somewhere.
There are lots of other hypothesised particles which many physicists believe may be real but haven’t been discovered. Things like the graviton (the particle responsible for causing gravity), the inflaton (the particle which played a key role in the early expansion of the Universe) or the Majorana fermion (which does things).
Then there are the so called quasi-particles, some of which don’t exist independently but merge with already existent particles (like Goldstone bosons) some of which aren’t exactly self-contained units but act as if they are (like phonons) and some of which don’t exist at all but we act as if they do to make the equations neater (like Popov-ghosts). In short, the Universe is awfully big and awfully complicated. The standard model we have now is probably only a glimpse of what nature has in store.
Standard Model Grid: businessinsider
Jerry Smith: pinimg
Standard Model Wheel: Symmetrymagazine
Nick Griffin: guim
Insane Clown Posse: wennermedia
Should we blame the government, or blame society...or should we blame the images on TV?
In August of 2011, riots broke out across London as thousands of people took to the streets and engaged in fighting, looting and wanton damage of property. Within days, the unbridled aggression had somehow spread to other cities across England and soon the entire nation was gripped in a frenzy of cosmopolitan outbursts.
The initial trigger had been the police shooting of London drug dealer Mark Duggan, but within 24 hours it had devolved into city-wide pandemonium...and then country wide. Five people were killed, hundreds were injured and repairs to the city of London totalled over £200 million.
Why were so many people getting involved? This wasn’t a student protest which got out of hand, nor did all these rioters know Mark Duggan. It was as though everyone was engaging in mania for the sheer blood-soaked hell of it.
At the time, numerous "social experts" were interviewed on national news and started blaming it on something they were calling mass hysteria – the idea that humans will uncontrollably copy each other in large groups, even to the point of going against their normal behaviours. I was skeptical of this explanation. It seemed more likely that it was just people exercising their sadism and exorcising their emotional demons.
However, as a Scientist, I have to be willing to forego gut-instinct and look at the evidence in detail. Is there any reason to believe that mass hysteria is a genuine phenomenon? Were the 2011 riots truly a form of extreme group hypnosis or was it individuals making conscious choices to be aggressive under the protection of crowd-anonymity?
Welcome to the Twilight Zone
To begin with, let's look at one of the strangest crime waves in recorded history. On November 19th 1938, in the peaceful English town of Halifax, two women named Gertie Watts and Mary Gledhill arrived at a police station and reported being viciously attacked and cut across the face by a man wielding a razor. Two days later a woman named Mary Sutcliffe stumbled in with a similar story, this time decorated with deep slashes on her arms.
By November 29th, six other women had been attacked in similar fashion and a manhunt began. Knife-crime experts were brought in from Scotland Yard and a reward of no less than £10 was offered to whoever caught the man papers began calling “The Halifax Slasher.”
It was then, while interviewing the nine young women involved, that Detective Chief Inspector William Salisbury uncovered an unprecedented twist. The Halifax Slasher never existed. Each woman had fabricated the attacks and self-inflicted the wounds. Independently.
After the first report of an attack, local newspapers had warned the public to be cautious of a knife-wielding monster and several women all decided to slice themselves in order to imitate the real victims, none of them realising there were no real victims.
Humans can obviously do very strange things in order to feel part of a group – even a group of attack survivors. Although nobody wants to be the victim of violence, it would appear that some people want to be part of a community so badly they will engage in self-harm to achieve it.
Peculiar for sure, but I don't think I'd class it as mass hysteria. These acts of self-harm could easily be the result of loneliness, mental illness or a prurient desire to take part in social drama. They were also acts which took place in private rather than as part of a hysterical group. Fascinating for sure, but not mass hysteria. The moral of the story is: when you invesitage spooky things around Halifax, the monster probably isn't real.
The High School Terror
Now let's consider another epidemic - one I myself witnessed in 2005. On the morning in question, as I approached my high school (the one I attended, not the one I currently teach at) I saw an ambulance parked outside with a girl being carted into the back, oxygen-mask in place. Things got a bit strange when another ambulance arrived an hour later for a different girl, and then they got downright frightening when a third and fourth arrived that afternoon.
Over the following week, eight or nine girls were hospitalised in similar fashion and people were beginning to suspect something like a chemical leak in the Science department. What was the origin of this mysterious illness?
By doing a bit of our own investigating, my friends and I we were able to get to the bottom of the whole thing and we discovered that every pupil was returned to school the following day with an identical diagnosis: they had each had an anxiety attack.
To be absolutely clear, anxiety attacks are a genuine ailment and should always be taken seriously. It's not just people getting worked-up (as I've heard them described). They are unpleasant and traumatic experiences for the sufferer and it's really no wonder ambulances were being called. Hyperventilation, chest pains, dizzyness, fainting and sometimes even vomiting, were symptoms all the girls displayed. And what made them particularly intriguing was their timeline.
Each sufferer had been present at the attack of the previous victim. The first girl - patient zero - had suffered an attack for some unknown reason and then, seeing the disturbing effects, the second girl became anxious herself. The third girl suffered a similar fate, as did the fourth and so on.
This story is relevant although sadly anecdotal (you’ll have to trust me that it happened), but it still doesn’t quite prove mass hysteria. Anxiety attacks can obviously be triggered by stressful situations and watching your friend get stuck in an ambulance is clearly a stressful situation. So, while it was happening to a mass, there may have been nothing hysterical going on. Who wouldn't get a little anxious after seeing a close friend suffering? And who wouldn't get even more worked up when other people started showing the same signs of illness? This could just have been friends sympathising with each other in that telepathic way they often seem to do.
The cheerful part of the blog
In November 1978 a community of socialist idealists living in Guyana, under the leadership of the reverend Jim Jones, apparently committed group suicide by drinking grape Flavour-Aid laced with cyanide. Over 900 people drank from the poisoned chalice, including large numbers of children, and were all killed in under an hour. Today this event is referred to as "The Jonestown Massacre".
This does sound like a genuine case of mass hysteria at first, and although it’s certainly very weird, I’m still not sure it counts. For starters, Jonestown was a radical political settlement populated by people who had fled their ordinary lives to live in huts as part of a socialist order they believed was inspired by God. It seems reasonable to suggest that there may have been a high proportion of extremist/unstable people in the community to begin with.
Furthermore, Jim Jones made a tape recording of the entire process and it’s clear that huge numbers of people either objected to what was happening but were violently coerced, or simply didn’t realise they were about to die. Jim Jones would run pretend-apocalypse drills regularly, so a lot of the victims probably thought it was an act and played along.
Furthermore, Jones had just announced to the entire village that capitalist soldiers would soon be parachuting into their community to kill or kidnap everyone, including the defenceless children. He suggested it would be better to die free, as a sign of protest, than to live as a prisoner. It's possible that a lot of people in Jonestown were killing themselves out of political and religious ideology.
While grim and extreme, lots of people are prepared to die or even kill for their principles and many parents would rather let their children go peacefully if the alternative is imprisonment and torture at the hands of a totalitarian government.
Jonestown wasn’t a group of perfectly stable people all suddenly doing something hysterical because everyone else was. This was a village of strong-willed, politicised people with religious convictions of salvation, commiting a powerful act of defiance, or simply being tricked, threatened and murdered. In other news, I’ll be writing a children’s self-help book about magical bunny rabbits over the Summer.
The bit where I am proven wrong...
There are numerous documented cases throughout history of fainting epidemics, outbreaks of dizziness, fevers, seizures, headaches and vomiting, although as we've already said, many of these episodes could be the result of anxiety or genuine contageous disease.
In order to confirm whether mass hysteria truly occurs we need examples of humans doing utterly uncharacteristic things for no political, religious or social reason other than “everyone else was doing it”. And, to my great surprise, it turns out there really are a few incidents which fit the bill.
The doctor JFC Hecker, in 1844, recorded an outbreak of “meowing” which took place in a medieval French convent. The nuns in question apparently began making cat noises uncontrollably one evening and were unable to stop for several hours.
Then, there was the dancing epidemic of July 1518 in which over 400 people began dancing in the streets of Strasbourg, including the sick and the elderly. Many died from exhaustion in that one, so I guess you could call that...dance fever! Look, if you don't like my jokes then go back and read the depressing section on Jonestown again. Stop judging me.
Speaking of inappopriate laughter, consider the giggling epidemic of 1962 in which students from Tanganyika began laughing at school and were unable to stop themselves. That particular epidemic went on for weeks and spread to over a thousand students and teachers at fourteen different schools.
The sheer number of people involved in these instances makes mental illness an unlikely explanation. It’s also not an example of “unleashing the beast” unless that beast is a cat who likes dancing and giggling a lot. Nor were these protests or acts of political and religious conviction. There is simply no reason to engage in these activities other than simple imitation so I hereby change my mind. It would appear that mass hysteria may be a genuine, although rare, phenomenon.
So, what causes it? This is gonna get uncomfortable...
In Science you always follow the evidence wherever it leads even if it takes you to an uncomfortable place. Having decided that I was wrong about mass hysteria, what I really wanted to do was try and find some potential explanation for what causes it and, as I looked into all the recorded historical accounts, I did notice a rather inconvenient theme. You're probably not going to like this, but trust me, neither do I.
It turns out that when mass hysteria occurs, the people engaged in the weird behaviour are more likely to be female than male.
This is a really inconvenient thing to have noticed because it will no doubt give fuel to people who are going to say things like "women are more hysterical" or some such nonsense. Please just bare with me on this. I'm not about to mansplain why women are naturally more emotionally fragile or something like that. I think there is something interesting going on here, but it's quite subtle. Give me a chance.
Also, please don't get angry at me for something nature has chosen to do. I'm just reporting what appears to be biologically true. If there is any misogyny here then it's to be found in the architecture of the human brain, not in my describing it.
This better be good...
The meowing epidemic took place in a convent. The giggling epidemic affected girl’s schools and mostly female teachers. The dancing fever was reportedly seen to affect women more so than men and the pseudo-mass hysteria cases like the Halifax Slasher or the anxiety epidemic from my own school again centred around young women. Why though?
Here's something which I think may potentially be to blame.
Human beings, like other primates, come equipped with a group of neurons in their frontal cortex called the mirror neuron system (MNS). These cells begin firing when you watch someone else perform an action...and they make you want to imitate it.
Suppose you’re watching a person who’s fairly similar to you in appearance or personality. Your brain recognises them as a kind of mirror image, so when they do something you imagine yourself doing it too. If that person twitches their left arm, your MNS sees the movement and immediately wants to copy it.
If you’ve ever found yourself yawning because you’ve seen someone else doing it, the reason (proposed by a 2013 study by Helene Haker) may be the MNS. The same mechanism might also explain why you’re more likely to laugh at a joke when you are in a crowd of people laughing together, than when you are on your own.
It’s even been suggested that these neurons may form the basis of empathy itself. The MNS in monkeys will trigger a pain-response when they see another monkey being hurt. This “sympathy pain” felt by the observer monkey looks identical on a brain scan to when the monkey itself is the victim.
There’s a clear reason for why the brain developed such a mutation – imitation is crucial to learning. A brain which repeats what it sees is a brain which picks up skills faster. We just need to make sure we can override the MNS when it’s not being helpful. And if you’re wondering how the MNS differs between men and women, the answer is probably what you already suspect.
Yawei Cheng carried out a study in 2008 which showed people footage of moving objects and found that the MNS response was stronger when the object was a human hand and, more significantly, women showed a much greater response than men, particularly when the hand was female.
It might not be as simple as women having more mirror neurons but it may be the case that women activate the MNS more readily than men, particularly when observing other women. It sounds like stereotyping but there could be a genuine neurological basis for the belief that women empathise better than men do, particularly with each other.
Or consider the creepy 2008 story of Identical twin sisters Ursula and Sabina Eriksson who were kicked off their cross-country coach (following unusual behaviour) and left stranded by a motorway. After disrupting traffic and eventually being stopped by Police, Ursula ran out into the path of a lorry in an apparent escape attempt/suicide. Sabina then did the same thing. After seeing her sister get hit, she tried to endure an identical injury for no reason. And if identical twins aren’t going to have a strong MNS response to each other, I don’t know who would.
A Cautious Hypothesis
Suppose there was a group of women living together/spending time with each other for an extended period, developing a strong MNS response. Most of the time the conscious brain would be able to override the copycat-instinct but if the environment became stressful or tiring, the brain could get tired, making it harder to suppress the urge.
If one woman began laughing uncontrollably, another might join in. Two could become three, three could become four and pretty soon everyone in the room is howling in unison. The mirror neurons don’t realise anything strange is happening, so they just force you to keep going, holding you hostage to your own behaviour.
It’s possible that mass hysteria may simply be an exaggerated by-product of women’s superior empathy skills, which in turn could be a result of superior MNS activity. Put a lot of humans together in a setting which will encourage stress and emotional tiredness and things are going to get weird.
So, if you’re female and under a lot of stress, you really might be able to blame your actions partly on mass-hysteria. It’s possible you didn’t have complete control over what you were doing at the time. If, on the other hand, you’re a man smashing a shop window to steal a television as part of a riot then there’s a simpler scientific explanation: you’re a jackass.
I love science, let me tell you why.