free debate

June 21, 2010

Scientific Unknowns: Sailing Stones

On the border of California and Nevada is area of unexplained activity: the Sailing Stones of Death Valley. These are a truly peculiar phenomenon: photographs show that, every once in a while, huge boulders in the Racetrack Playa slide across the ground. No one has ever directly observed this movement. It's a strange phenomenon, which hasn't been observed anywhere else on the planet. Thus, it has been a source of speculation, both scientific and not.

Two of the "Sailing Stones"
On the science side, there seem to be a couple main hypotheses. The most prominent of these is that, during the night, freezing temperatures cause any water in the ground to freeze, forming a thin layer of ice between the boulders and the ground. Strong winds may then push the stones around, leaving shallow trenches and trails behind. Another idea is that, instead of ice, slick, clay-based mud may serve as the lubricant between rock and earth. In either case, it is suggested that, under rare conditions, the force of the wind is strong enough to set the stones in motion, and then continues to propel them hundreds of yards. Variations on this idea have existed since the 1950s, but no one has yet been able to observe the movement of the stones, making a solid call impossible.

An example of a 90o turn by a Sailing Stone
Because the "Sailing Stone" phenomenon is so unusual, and really peculiar, there are also those who believe it has a paranormal or supernatural explanation. After all, how could wind alone, even on a slick surface, move boulders in excess of 250 pounds over hundreds of feet, sometimes even turning at 90o+ angles? Some hint that there are "unseen hands" at work on the Racetrack Playa. Others hint at some connection to Roswell Area 51, the holy site of UFOers and other supernatural conspiracy theorists. A few even suggest that the stones are alive, and move themselves around the valley.

The Sailing Stones are a really bizarre phenomena, and an incredibly rare one. Without more data, it's hard to say what causes their strange behavior. Some scientists have suggested training cameras and other recording equipment on this peculiar valley, in an attempt to actually see what's going on. Until then, though, the moving rocks of Death Valley remain a mysterious curiosity, just another example of how weird and amazing our world can be.

Sources and More Information
The first three articles provide paranormal/supernatural speculation. The last three are scientific articles about the Sailing Stones and the Racetrack Playa.

June 19, 2010

Write a Blog for Yourself!

This is the one year anniversary of this blog. We made it a full year! Over the course of this year we published 181 posts, changed the site design at least three times, and learned a ton. This has been a really fun project that has become more than I would have ever hoped for it. So, my advice to everyone considering starting a blog is just do it, and do it for yourself.

One of my mottos in life is, "If you want to learn something, try to teach it." I have found few things truer then this simple statement. Teaching pushes you to really understand concepts. In order to explain a concept coherently, you often need to have a deeper understanding of the subject. Trying to teach something can reveal to yourself where there are gaps in your knowledge. By filling those gaps, you gain a more complete understanding of issues and subjects your interested in. That understanding is hugely rewarding and fulfilling.

The other reason I would recommend starting your own blog is to learn more about yourself. I have had a passion for astronomy for years now, but in writing I found something else.  I always found science exciting. I was interested in pseudoscience, fringe science, and the limits of science. One of my favorite types of articles to write quickly became about answering the question, What is Science? I loved the broadness and the intricacy of the topic. I wanted to share the methods of science with more people and in doing so found a interest in the philosophy of science. This was a field I was really unaware of before I started the blog and now I find myself studying it in my free time.

In this last year we have attracted 14,375 people to this blog. Our post on Glymetrol was a huge success and maybe, just maybe, deterred someone from taking it. To me, this is astounding. What started as a late night idea is now something I am really proud of. If you are thinking of starting a your own blog though, do it for yourself. You are probably never going to get a huge following of readers or a super high placement in search engines. By starting your own blog, however, you do two things. First is you put more good material out there on the web for someone to stumble upon. Maybe there will be a specific topic that you can become the top search result for. The more good, informative material is on the web, the better. Second, you can learn about yourself. Explore your interests and maybe find new ones. Write about what's exciting to you. If nothing else, do it for fun.

June 9, 2010

The Prestige and Dismissal of Science

Life has been really busy heading into summer. I love blogging but it simply eats up time. I'm not going to stop anytime soon and hopefully I can increase the amount of time I spend doing the research and writing. For now, here is a new article and plan to see more in the near future.

Scientific literacy in our society is a huge problem. Despite this, I think that science does entertain a level of prestige within our society. Science produces the goods from smartphones to modern computers. People can see this, even the anti-science community. This leads to some really interesting attitudes towards science from people who, for the most part, completely reject it.

The website may be one of the most anti-science sites I have come across. They claim their knowledge comes from the Vedic texts. These texts are most commonly associated with Hinduism; however, this people are not practicing any form of Hinduism I am familiar with. Their claims are extreme, ranging from denying evolution to saying that the Moon is farther from the Earth than the Sun. Their website states, "Of course the “scientists” put on a grand show and try to convince us they know everything about how the universe works. If you ask them any question they have an answer ready…... But when one closely analyses any field of science one finds nothing is really very “scientific” at all." That's about as anti-science as it gets, but then they will say things like this: "A large body of evidence is certainly there and it requires scientific study and the “Soul Theory” will enable this. Unless there are two separate entities, the body and the soul, out-of-body experiences would be impossible. But it seems they are not. This is compelling proof of the existence of the soul." So when the science supports their beliefs, they have no problem with it.

This inconsistency with regard to science is common on many pseudoscientific websites. Where science says their claims are improbable or flat out wrong, they ignore and fight it. On the flip side, when the science can be twisted to give them credibility, they will gladly accept it. This, maybe more then anything else, shows their dedication to their ideology over the evidence. They are trying to pick and choose the science they like, and get rid of the rest. Science just doesn't work that way This is a sloppy way of thinking. Still, it is surprisingly common. Whenever you are reading something, look to see if they are consistently respecting evidence. If not, why?

Science works. Few people would argue that and that's why science has the prestige it. Proponents of nonscientific ideas see that prestige and want to latch their idea to it. Science tests ideas against reality and is in that way bound to it. I think ideas based in reality better stand the test of time, then those ideas which are not.  Still, every generation has their superstitions whether they are new or morphed from previous generations. Science is a tool for discerning reality, from superstition.  Use it. Bask in the wonders it provides us. Just always be wary of when it may be misused.