Category: Science, nature and consciousness


On Friday, March 11th, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan with the epicenter near the island of Honshu. This was the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan, and one of the top 5 largest in the world. This was soon followed by a tsunami that reached as high as 40.5 meters (133 ft) in some areas.

There are several nuclear plants along Japans coast, some of which, because of their design, were more resistant to flooding, but the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant was not prepared for the 13–15 m (43–49 ft) waves that came crashing into it. This flooded the basement and disabled the emergency generators, meaning there was no power for the pumps that normally circulate coolant water, preventing a meltdown. The rest, as we know, is history. Fukushima Daiichi is now known as the second largest nuclear disaster of all time, next to Chernobyl in 1986.

Much blame and criticism has been tossed around in the two years since the disaster. The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), established on 8 December 2011, called the disaster “man-made”, blaming the government, regulators, and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) for their unpreparedness, delayed response, and lack of communication among themselves and with the public. The report even went as far as blaming Japanese culture for “our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity”. Many people in Japan were not to happy about this ridiculous criticism. One only has to recall the response to the BP oil spill, in the Gulf of Mexico, to realize major disasters, that no one is prepared for, can happen in any industrialized society.

Assessments of the amount of radiation released, and of how it will affect the surrounding population, show a minimal health risk, but there are so much uncertainty involved, as the estimates are based on models, with many unknowns, that it is difficult to say what health impacts could be seen. Estimates of how many people could develop cancer as a result of radiation exposure range from dozens to thousands. Even well into the future it will still be difficult to say what impact it had, as it is impossible to say what caused any one persons cancer, and even if the rates rise, it would be impossible to rule out other contributing factors.

It’s possible that some negative health effects are already being seen. A health management survey, last year, found that 36% of children in the area have experienced abnormal thyroid growth, although doctors insist that it is not related to radiation from the disaster. Other studies have found an increase in butterfly mutations, but it is hard to say what this could mean for humans, as we are obviously much bigger.

The way of life for many people in northern Japan has been utterly devastated. Not only have around 140,000 people been evacuated from their homes, with some saying that millions should have been evacuated, but it also had a huge affect on food production. Vegetables, beef, milk, and mushrooms from the area have been banned from sale, domestically and abroad. Just recently, fish have been found in the contaminated areas to have over 2,500 times the safe level of radiation. This has clearly been crippling for the farming and fisheries industries in the area.

Northern Japan is not the only area affected by this crisis. Contaminated tuna has also been found as far away as California, and there are worries that things could get worse for the west coast of North America as the radiation continues to spread through the Pacific.

Some nuclear experts have also warned about the potential threat of a much larger disaster if another big earthquake were to strike again, calling the situation a ticking time-bomb. Robert Alvarez, senior scholar of the Institute for Policy Research, and former senior adviser to the Secretary of Energy under Bill Clinton, has warned about spent reactor fuel, which contains 85 times more radiation than was released at Chernobyl, and is still vulnerable to future earthquakes. 

Several non-profit nuclear watchdog groups, such as Fairewinds Energy Education and Beyond Nuclear, have also raised alarm about the risks, not only at Fukushima, but with nuclear power in general.

Kevin Camps (Beyond Nuclear) on RT:

Arnie Gundersen (Fairewinds Energy Education) on WDEV:

There are also, of course, pro-nuclear groups, like Atomic Insights, who are attempting to debunk the claims of those mentioned above. Atomic Insights is founded by Rod Adams, who also founded Adams Atomic Engines, which designed and ultimately planned to build atomic engines, until they went out of business in 2010.

Rod Adams (Atomic Insights):

For me, any time two groups are telling opposing sides of a story, I tend to be more likely to agree with the one who has the least to gain from their advocacy. It’s easy to see why someone like Rod Adams, with ties to the nuclear industry, would want the industry to grow. It’s possible that he might even want to get back into the industry in the future. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to say that anti-nuclear groups could exaggerate the threat in order to justify their existence.

Presently, at Fukushima, cleanup has only just begun. After the meltdown, radiation levels were way too high for workers, and even robots could not function in those conditions. The levels have dropped 40% in the last year, but it is still a very hazardous environment for workers. The cleanup must be done very carefully and is expected to take up to 40 years.

None of this seems to be having any impact on the future of nuclear energy. Japan has decided to drop their earlier plans of phasing out their reliance on nuclear power by 2040, mainly due to lobbying pressure from the industry that provides 30% of Japans energy before the crisis.

Thousands of people in Japan attended an anti-nuclear protest the day before the 2nd anniversary of the earthquake that triggered it all, and surveys show that 70% of Japan want to see nuclear power phased out. As we all know, however, powerful interest groups, with the help of governments, tend to find a way do what they want, no matter how unpopular it is.

Last year, around 16,000 of those evacuated were allowed to return to their homes, many of which decided to stay away. This still leaves over 100,000 not knowing when or if they will ever be able to return home. It’s been two years now since the disaster, but it’s clear that the story will not be over for decades and generations to come.

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Many reports of strange sounds have been coming from all over the world in recent months, to the puzzlement of much of the online community. You can watch a YouTube playlist of 50 videos, the earliest being from March, 2011.

Explanations given for this phenomenon include: UFOs, military experiments, HAARP (High frequency Active Auroral Research Program), atmospheric phenomena involving thunder, the hum of power lines, and nearby trains. Of course, many people say it’s all just a hoax.

After watching many videos, some of which are clearly a hoax, I have broken the sounds down into 3 categories.

Some, like in Kiev, Ukraine (also heard in the video above), are a loud, pulsating sound that has been compared to a horn (trumpet, tuba, trombone). Many have suggested that they are the trumpets of the apocalypse from the book of Revelations. Others have said it has a metallic quality, like two heavy pieces of metal scraping against each other, echoing through the air.

Some have cited nearby trains to explain the sounds, but this can’t explain why, all of a sudden, trains around the world have been making this sound. Also, in this video from Denmark, you can see and hear a train pass at the beginning, and then a completely separate sound is heard after the train passes.

This is suspiciously similar to the tripod sound from the War of the Worlds movie, which could explain why some have assumed that UFO’s are the source. It could also provide an easy sample for hoaxers to edit into their videos (possibly with some manipulations).

Two separate videos (here & here) from Oshawa, Ontario, shot on the same night, at around the same time, have similar pulsating sounds. The sound seems more distant in these videos than others, possibly because of low quality recording. Two videos doesn’t rule out the possibility of a hoax, however,  as they could have been shot by two people working together, or even by the same person at different locations.

In other cases, there’s more of a constant rumbling noise like wind, thunder, or a jet plane flying overhead. In a video from Colorado, you can hear the rumbling as distinctly separate from the wind, and also, there are no clouds in the sky, which seems to rule out thunder as a source.

Another video, from Tallahassee, Florida back in March 2011, has a rumbling noise that lasted about 20 minutes. The people who shot the video thought it was a tornado. They called 911, and were not given an explanation, but were told that many people have reported the sound. At one point a flash of light appeared in the sky, and the sound faded away immediately afterwards. This is similar to what happened in Minnesota later on, in September.

News reports have released a statement from the National Weather Service blaming the Tallahassee noise on a phenomenon called ducting. A duct is a low density layer of the atmosphere with a reduced refractive index allowing waves (usually radio, but also sound) to travel further than they normally would. This could potentially carry the sound of distant electrical storms to somewhere not experiencing the disturbance, which could explain the clear sky rumbling in Colorado, mentioned above.

A third type of sound, like in this video, also from Colorado, has a loud bang, every few seconds. This is much different from the other noises, which leads me to believe it is unrelated. The up-loader tries to link this to the Virginia earthquake the following day. This might make sense if it were the same day, or if Virginia were anywhere near Colorado. Also, comments on the video are disabled, which always makes me suspicious.

An interesting thing about this phenomenon is that observers often seem to have trouble telling where the sound is coming from. Some say it seems to come from the ground, others say from the sky, and some say it comes from all around them. It has also been known to rattle the foundations of buildings and furniture.

Of the 3 types of sounds mentioned, the first one is the most interesting to me. It is the least natural sounding of the 3, and also the one with the least logical explanations, other than a possible hoax.

I’m inclined to believe that at least some of these reports are genuine. In the CTV Saskatoon report below, the mayor of North Battleford claims to have heard the sound, which he describes as a “scraping”, as well as over 40 people who have called in, or sent Facebook messages, to a local radio station. It’s hard to believe that so many people would be involved in a hoax.

In this video, a physics professor at the University of Saskatchewan says that “somehow they are picking up noise from an environmental antenna… that is electromagnetic noise, nice natural noise”. He also says it is normal, and there is nothing to worry about. I’m not sure in what universe electromagnetic waves from an antenna are considered natural, but this is certainly not normal (at least in this universe). What’s not explained is why similar reports haven’t been made prior to last summer.

This is a fairly recent phenomena, and it seems to be increasingly more common in recent months, most likely because of hoaxers trying to take advantage of the hype to get more views on YouTube and elsewhere.

Many people looking for answers point to HAARP, an ionosheric research program funded by the US Air Force, the Navy, and the University of Alaska. The facility is located near Gakona, Alaska. HAARP has been the target of many conspiracy theorists who say it has the potential to disrupt weather patterns. It has been blamed for catastrophes such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, thunderstorms, and earthquakes, as well as other events such as major power outages. They have even been accused of using mind-controlling radio waves.

Some concerns about the activity of HAARP are likely legitimate, although, many of the conspiracy theories seem to be rooted in nothing more than paranoia. The seemingly increasing number of natural disasters of late can make people wonder and try to find a reason for it and also, look for someone to blame. Some people who are unwilling to accept the science behind climate change might be more likely to blame it on the government.

This mysterious phenomenon raises a lot of questions. For some of the reports, there seems to be a logical explanation. Others are clearly a hoax. It seems to me that something strange is definitely going on here. Whether it’s a natural phenomenon, or a man made result of secret government activity, it seems that this is something worth following and looking into further. Who knows? Maybe this is the trumpets of the apocalypse.

Free will, the idea that people are free to make decisions that are not simply the result of their physical reality has been debated among philosophers for centuries. The opposing view, determinism (specifically, causal determinism), holds that if, hypothetically,  it were possible to know every detail about the condition of the universe in the present, and all the laws of nature that govern it, then one could predict the future conditions down to the last detail.

The debate reminds me of a scene from the Matt Groening cartoon, Futurama, where Bender is sent flying through space and runs into God, which is apparently just a cluster of stars that can talk. Even though he is a robot, Bender has questions about the nature of free will.

Bender: So, you know what I’m going to do before I do it?

God: Yes

Bender: What if I do something else?

God: Then I don’t know that.

The existence, definitions, and compatibility of these ideas have been debated for thousands of years. In modern times, people have used science – including genetics, neuroscience, and quantum physics – to try to shed light on the debate. This issue has far reaching implications on science, religion, and also justice, as it raises concerns over moral responsibility for a persons actions.

It was believed by some geneticists that mapping the human genome would show that all behavior, beliefs, and desires could be traced directly to our DNA. It seems, however, that the Human Genome Project, now almost complete, has not shown enough genes to allow all of the psychological diversity of our species.

Some of the most notable challenges to free will have come from the field of neuroscience. In 2007, John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, conducted an experiment that raised a lot of interesting questions. He showed volunteers a screen flashing a succession of random letters and asked them to press a button, whenever they felt the urge, with either their right or left hand, and to remember what letter was being displayed at the time that they made the decision. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to scan the brains of volunteers as the decisions were made.

While the decision was typically made about a second before the button was actually pressed, a pattern of brain activity was found to predict the decision up to seven seconds before hand. It seems that our brain can make a decision before we are even aware of it. This led researchers to question whether our decisions are under our conscious control, or if they are the direct result of our brain activity.

Critics of the research point out that the brain activity only accurately predicted which hand was used 60% of the time. Although this is significantly more than chance would predict, it is certainly not enough to prove that the brain is making a decision before conscious awareness. Others question to what extent this type of simple decision can be generalized to real world decision making.

My beef with the research is that it doesn’t take into account the idea of the sub-conscious mind. Is it not possible that some of us make certain decisions sub-consciously before we are aware of it, and that this could account for the brain activity that seems to predict the decision?

Michael S. Gazzaniga is an acclaimed neuroscientist,  director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the book, “Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.” In an interview with with Scientific American, he discussed many of the issues involved with studying free will from a neuroscience perspective.

One of these issues is that of an emergent mind. Emergence is the idea that complex systems can arise out of several smaller, more simple interactions. He argues that you can’t understand the overall function of the brain by simply looking at the neurons and their interactions. One must consider the big picture, including the effect society has on a persons thoughts.

Gazzaniga also makes a distinction between mind and brain. He makes a good point that while brain activity can affect a persons thoughts and actions, in a bottom-up way, it can also work the other way around. An example he gives is of patients suffering from depression getting help through talk therapy (top-down) and with medication (bottom-up).

Another branch of science relevant to free will and determinism is quantum mechanics. At the level of particles, events can only be predicted in terms of probabilities. This uncertainty undermines the idea of determinism, however, it does not necessarily allow for free will. If our decisions are simply a result of quantum randomness (as ridiculous as it may seem), then they are not exactly free.

An interesting thing about this debate is that the extreme views, on both ends, lend themselves to religious ideas. At one end, free will, according to some, requires an immaterial soul. At the other end, theological determinism implies that all events are pre-ordained by some kind of deity.

A Muslim Matters article, that explores many of these issues from a scientific and religious perspective, argues that these two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They say that not enough is known about the nature of consciousness to rule out the existence of a soul, and that free will doesn’t rule out the possibility that God has knowledge of events before they occur.

One problem with this whole discussion is that it usually boils down to people simply arguing over semantics. It seems to me that if we could all come up with agreed upon definitions of free will and determinism, then we wouldn’t have as much to debate, or at least we could understand the arguments of others much more clearly.

An opinion piece in the New York Times goes into the semantics behind the debate, asking what it means for a decision to be free. Does this mean that a choice can’t be predicted, or that it isn’t caused by anything physical? Also, if it isn’t caused, wouldn’t that make it random and, therefore, not free? A big question is: what is free will free from? Is it simply freedom from outside constraints, or from the laws of nature? There are also several types of determinism, including causal, theological, logical, biological and cultural/psychological.

What’s really important about this discussion are the implications it has about moral responsibility. If people have no control over their own decisions, and they are instead simply the result of our neurons firing, then how can we be held accountable for our actions. According to some research, what really matters is that we believe that we have free will. A Reason Magazine article goes into this idea further.

The research shows that if we induce people to believe that they have no free will, by having them read passages that encourage a belief in determinism, they are then more likely to cheat in experiments and act aggressively rather than in a helpful way. These results are interesting because they suggest that our will can be changed by exposure to certain information. If changing the way we think about something can affect our actions, does that not suggest that our will is free?

Free will is something that most of us take for granted. The fact that science can show that, under certain circumstances, the activity in our brains can affect our decisions before we are even aware of having made one, does not prove that these decisions are not our own. In fact, there is also evidence that our thoughts can affect our biology as well, such as the placebo effect and the success of cognitive behavioral therapy.

The reality is that our decisions are a result of a wide range of influences, including quantum randomness at the particle level, neuronal firing in the brain, our genetic predispositions, and all environmental influences on our lives from conception to the moment a decision is made. The sum of all these is what makes us unique human beings, and whether you simply call it the self, or a soul, it is undeniably us. In all practicality, our decisions must be our own. Determinism might certainly set limits on what decisions are possible, but in the end, any decision we make is ultimately our own.

For as long as scientific thought has existed there has been resistance from certain groups, mainly religious institutions. Geo-centrism, the ancient belief that the sun revolves around the earth has been challenged at least as far back as the 4th century BC by a Greek Pythagorean philosopher named  Philolaus. The first geometrical heliocentric model of the universe that wasn’t solely based on philosophical speculation did not come until the 16th century AD with the work of of Nicolaus Copernicus. This has since been referred to as the Copernican Revolution. This model was further expanded by Johannes Kepler, and Issac Newton and supported by observations made by Galileo Galilei using an early version of the telescope in the 17th century. Later on still, this heliocentric view came into question as it became obvious that the sun was just one of many stars that made up our galaxy, and that there were also many galaxies . This idea was not confirmed until the 1920’s with the invention of the Hubble telescope. This is the way science traditionally progresses, by expanding on, and adding to previous work, but many of these scientists named have been heavily scrutinized in their time, mainly by the catholic church. Galileo, for instance, was found guilty of heresy by the Roman Inquisition. Even to this day there are some fringe elements in our society, such as the Flat Earth Society, who not only believe that the earth is the center of the universe, but as their name implies, that it is flat, something that can be proven false by simply boarding an airplane and flying in one direction until you get back where you started.

Today, even most Christians would agree that the earth is not the center of the universe, but one idea that still sees a lot of resistance, based on fundamental religious views or a literal interpretation of the bible, is Charles Darwin‘s theory of natural selection. Despite it’s overwhelming acceptance in scientific communities, many see it as completely opposing creationism. Personally, having witnessed evolution in a lab, I cannot deny it, but I do not believe that it necessarily contradicts the idea of creationism… but that discussion will come in a future blog.

Two other well established fields in science that the general public have trouble accepting are climate science and vaccinations. The blame for this resistance, as is the case with most of science, is usually placed on poor science education or on peoples emotions, as pointed out in this Scientific American article. In some cases, people might downplay warnings about climate change or pandemics in order to deal with their fears, and in other cases, they might even have paranoia of perceived conspiracies among the scientific “elites”. Much of the paranoia is often the result of misinformation, like the supposed “climategate” scandal, where quotes from stolen e-mails between climate scientists were taken out of context. A second batch of leaked e-mails was just released on November 23rd, which climate scientists were quick to respond to. There has also been fraudulent studies linking vaccinations to autism.

Science is also resisted by those who are not necessarily religious, but see nature as something sacred that should not be tampered with. These people tend to be opposed to things like genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), cloning, stem cell research, geo-engineering, or pharmaceutical drugs. All of these sciences have potential benefits and risks which need to be addressed and resistance to some of these might be valid, something I will also have more to say about in the future.

The idea of personalizing peoples medical treatments based on their genes is another controversial issue. Although this can have tremendous benefits by using the best possible treatment for any given individual, it is almost seen as a taboo to some as it would result in different treatments for people of different races. It has been shown that certain drugs can have greater benefits for some racial groups than others, so personalized treatments would actually help minorities who may already be disproportionately affected by certain diseases. This idea is explored in a chapter of a great book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens our Lives by Michael Specter.

There are also cases where the war on science overlaps with the war on terror, like the assassinations of three Iranian nuclear scientists. A recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) saying that Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons, has been shown to be not based on science, but on political positioning, as the IAEA is becoming more associated with the US government. This has been laid out in a recent Nature News blog. Then there is the case of a Muslim French-Algerian physicist, Dr. Adlène Hicheur, who has been held in custody since 2009 without trial. He is suspected of being a terrorist based on little or no evidence. I believe that it is important for scientists to stand up for the human rights of their colleagues.

A place where the war on science is most visible today is at the GOP debates in the US. This is not to say that Democrats are not guilty of misleading people as well. In fact it seems, as this article from Scientific American concludes, that conservatives are more likely to be over skeptical, while liberals tend to be more alarmist when it comes to science, especially with climate science. A Rolling Stone interview with author of the book Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, Shawn Lawrence Otto also speaks of the different ways the two political ideologies view science. Having said that, the vast majority of the anti-science rhetoric comes from the GOP. Why is this? Bestselling author of The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney, has an upcoming book, The Republican Brain where he explores this idea further. Can this be explained by psychology, or is it deeper than that. Is it ignorance of the facts or blatant deceitfulness. I believe that it is for the same reason that religious fundamentalists resist science, to maintain the status quo. The advancement of science can cause one to question their long held beliefs or profitable practices.

Washington Post opinion writer, Katrina vanden Heuvel gives some good examples of Republican misinformation, and goes on to put some of the blame on the media for it’s obsession with balance. I agree. Why should non-scientific views be given as much attention as as scientific ones? Shouldn’t the media be more focused on the truth rather than giving equal coverage to each side of the debate?

Another problem facing science today is the whole funding system. Scientists are forced to spend more and more of their time trying to get funds, so they do not have as much time to actually do research. In tough economic times, state funding is more likely to be cut than increased, something that has more negative effects on the economy in the long run. This forces scientists to fight over an increasingly limited amount of money. Corporations who fund research also have a large say in what types of research is conducted. Obviously, this is most often research that will help with business rather than the greater good of the world or community.

All of this is not to say that science is an unquestionable authority that should never be seen in a skeptical light. On the contrary, skepticism is essential for the progress of science, as it is reliant on revising previous work. Disagreement is common among scientists, which is often seen as a weakness but in fact, it is one of science’s greatest strengths, as it allows for debate and the sharing of ideas. One of the reasons people don’t trust science is that it always seems to be changing it’s mind. One day you might hear of a study saying that a certain food is bad for you, and the next day you might hear that it is good for you. In a case like this, it might be wise to only consume said food in moderation. We can’t assume that there is a scientific consensus based on one study. The mainstream media loves to use fantastical headlines and news stories to attract readers or viewers. It is important to be critical of all news stories, especially on the internet, which is full of misinformation. However, good information can be found on the internet if you know how to spot it. In general, scientific journals are the best source. The words “Peer reviewed” are key, as they imply a certain amount of consensus. On a website, it helps to look for advertisements. If they are trying to sell you something, their information might not be the most trustworthy. It’s also good to check for references or citations to make sure they are getting their information from a reliable source. Common sense and rational thinking also go a long way. For instance, does it make more sense that there is a conspiracy among the majority of climate scientists trying to destroy the fossil fuel industry, or that the energy sector, made up of some of the largest companies in the world, is campaigning to smear these scientists to keep their business’ thriving? It helps to think about things.

There is a huge difference between looking at science critically, and completely denying the facts. If there is an overwhelming consensus among scientists, as there is with climate change and vaccinations, it might be a good idea to trust the experts rather than going with your gut instinct. Politicians who ignore science to promote their political agenda are disgusting and they are harming the planet and everyone on it! The media who let the politicians get away with it should be ashamed!