free debate

August 25, 2011

UFOs and the 2%

Being an amateur astronomer, UFOs are close to my heart. I have been asked by countless people what I think of UFOs. On the Internet, it is not hard to find claims that UFOs are evidence of a hostile alien invasion, benevolent beings here to save us from ourselves, or that there are multiple species all here competing with each other for our loyalty. It is clear people are truly seeing strange things in the sky and others report first hand encounters. So the question is 'what should believe?'

There is no denying that people see strange objects in the night sky on a regular basis. Someone recently told me a story of a object he had seen with a group of people that reportedly would move in one direction, stop, then completely change direction and continue moving along. Even I have seen a UFO. I was just starting out as an amateur astronomer.  It was twilight, and to my amazement I saw a bright object hovering over a nearby lake. The object was flashing white red and blue. I was completely taken aback and at a complete loss for an explanation.

There countless stories like the ones above. Still, I have heard even dedicated UFO proponents admit that probably 98% (or pick your own number) of sightings and encounters are hoaxes or misidentified normal phenomena. It is those 2% of sightings that we can't come up with a explanation for, that they believe represent the real encounters.

The problem with this argument is that you are moving from an unknown (hence unidentified flying object) to an answer (aliens exist) without any further evidence. Scientists work with unknowns all the time. They may have a hypothesis that they are trying to gather evidence for, but without that evidence, it remains an unknown. Law enforcement does the same thing. If a case can't be solved, they simply label it unsolved. They don't assume that aliens did it.

With that said, I want to look to see if there is any reason that this small percentage of cases might go unsolved if aliens are not visiting our planet. Some of them probably are hoaxes or hallucinations. As Randall Munroe of xkcd shows above, it doesn't take many people misunderstanding something they seen in the night sky to make a lot of UFO stories. In may other cases, we just don't have enough information to find any answer.

If you want to say aliens exist you need evidence. UFOs, even those cases that are never solved, just don't cut it. Take my story above. I see no fundamental difference between mine and many others out there, except I found out what it was. I stared at the object over the lake for hours off and on. As it slowly rose in the sky, its colors settled down into the bright familiar glow of the star Sirius. The wild colors were probably caused by a nearby fire or other air pollutants. Still if I had reported it as a UFO, without some key details, no one could have ever proven what that object was. I doubt we will ever solve all UFO cases but that doesn't bother me one bit. What gets me going is the trill of finding an answer, one I can explain and defend, and growing my understanding of how the universe really is.

August 19, 2011

Quantum Nonsense

Alright, I am back from my summer hiatus. Sorry for the lull. I was poking around trying to figure out what I wanted to write about when it struck me. I think no field of science is used more often to justify nonsense than quantum mechanics. For me, this leads to some interesting questions.

Before I get into the science, I think I need to make a disclaimer. I am not (yet) a physicist. The information I am going to provide below is what I have gathered from the science I read, discussed with actual physicists, and heard summarized. Quantum mechanics is arguably one of the most difficult disciplines of science to understand because it is so counter-intuitive. With that said, the information I provide below is not the nitty gritty of quantum, but the more fundamental concepts. This is all that is really necessary to understand the flaws in most of the unscientific arguments that use quantum mechanics. Now on to the meat.

What is quantum mechanics?

Quantum mechanics at its most basic level is the study of the smallest particles and energies in the universe. A "quanta" is actually a measure of the smallest amount of energy possible for a particle to have. Quantum mechanics at its heart is a mathematical description of how the various subatomic particles behave and interact with each other. The thing that really sets quantum physics apart from classical or Newtonian physics is the uncertainty.

If you shoot one pool ball at another, you can predict with a extraordinarily high level of certainty (assuming you know the relevant facts) what will happen when they collide. You can figure out what direction the balls will go, with what speed and where they will come to rest. When you are looking at a quantum system that is not necessarily the case. Instead, in a quantum system you can give probabilistic answers of where a certain particle will be or with what speed.

What effects has quantum mechanics proven? 

The implications of quantum mechanics are one of the most interesting, and probably most misunderstood aspect of this burgeoning science. The important thing to remember is that quantum mechanics deals with the subatomic, so except for in very rare cases, these effects do not apply to the macroscopic world we operate in. With that said, here are some highlights.

It was well known long before anyone was considering quantum mechanics that if you excite a gas, by say running electricity through it, it will give off light at very specific colors or wavelengths. Astronomers use this to tell was very distant objects are composed of. What quantum mechanics gave us was an understanding to this phenomena. At the most basic level, what's happening is that as electrons in the atom lose energy they give off that energy as a photon. Because electrons can only lose energy in discrete amounts any particular atom can only give off photons that have that much energy. The amount of energy each photon has corresponds to what wavelength it has.

Entanglement is probably the most bizarre and least well understood effect of quantum mechanics. When two particles are created from a process they can be paired. What this means is that now matter how far you remove the particles from one another they will be in some ways linked. For example if you split one photon into two, one of the photons will be polarized vertically and the other horizontally. This is a really strange effect that we are still working to fully understand.

When quantum goes bad

It seems for every cool discovery made in quantum mechanics, there are ten cranks misusing it. If you google "quantum healing" you get just over a million results and "quantum jumping" has over five million. While each company puts its own spin on the theme I have found most of the misuses of this science fall into one of a few categories.

Micro VS. Macro
Quantum mechanical effects do not (except in extreme cases) apply to the macroscopic world. If this wasn't the case, billiards would be a game of chance and we there is no way we could launch a spacecraft with enough precision to get to a planet that is millions or billions of miles away. The reason for this is that all of the uncertainties that exist on the quantum level essentially cancel each other out on the macroscopic level where we live.

Information Communication
Many psychics or remote viewing claimants will invoke quantum mechanics as a way they gather information either from somewhere or somewhen else. While at first glance, quantum entanglement can seem to provide a justification for this, however the illusion quickly fades when you look at it. The problem is that entanglement cannot be used to transmit information. At most, if you have some entangled particles you can gleam some information on the state of the paired particles, nothing more and nothing less.

Quantum Unknowns
The last way that is used by all kinds of pseudoscience is just to say that some effect is due to quantum mechanics with no justification. This argument often goes "quantum mechanics proves there is still much we don't understand, therefore X". This reasoning amounts to nothing more than an argument from ignorance. Any good scientist will tell you there are things we don't understand- that's how they keep their jobs. If you want to say any phenomena exists you have to the evidence for it, not the lack of understanding somewhere else.


Quantum mechanics is really cool science. The new discoveries coming out of it are amazing. I am excited to be able to watch this field grow over my lifetime. This is weird stuff and if you feel like you don't understand it, join the club. The idea that there exists something so counter intuitive that we can't even conceptualize it, is incredible. Still, this does not mean we can use it to justify magic or pseudoscience. As weird as it may be, quantum mechanics belongs squarely in the court of science. What quantum does prove is that science is an exciting and every changing endeavor that is willing to accept even the most bizarre ideas. Just make sure you have the evidence.

August 10, 2011

Turn on Your Brain

The other day, while working with some high school students, one of them turned to me and started a question, "You know how we only use 10% of our brains...?" I cut her off right there. If the assumption that we only use a small portion of our brains was a premise for her question, then the question couldn't possibly be valid.

The 10% myth is incredible pervasive, considering how silly it is upon further inspection. Have you ever heard a neurosurgeon say something like, "Oh, well, the tumor's in your inactive brain area, so we're not going to worry about it?" Of course not, because that's not how the brain works.

First of all, in proportion to body size, humans have the largest brains of any animal, with a 1-to-50 brain weight to body weight proportion. As with all physical characteristics, this was shaped by natural selection. We adapted to have higher intelligence, by having larger and larger cerebral cortexes, the region of the mind used for problem solving, language, and abstract thinking. The cost of this is that it uses a lot of energy. Humans have to eat a lot in order to power our big brains, or we'll die. If we only used 10% of this grey matter, natural selection would quickly get rid of it.

Brain Scans: ADHD Brain on Left, Normal on Right
We can also see how much of the brain gets used (source). Using PET or fMRI scans, we can watch a brain work. While not all of the brain is active all of the time, it's fairly active even doing the most simple tasks, like eating or sleeping. Even if all the neurons aren't firing, the glial and other support cells are active, and they make up a large percentage of the brain as well... far more than 10%. On top of that, damage to far less than 90% of the brain is incapacitating or fatal. Some proponents of the myth suggest that this is because only 10% of the brain is used for conscious functions, while the rest is subconscious. This isn't really supported by the data either, however; those same scans show that more of the brain "lights up" the more complex a task is occurring. Also, the idea that only 10% is conscious or active assumes the brain is very compartmentalized, that chunk of gray matter A does task A and only task A, and chunk B does something different. This isn't really accurate either. While some brain function is more or less focused in specific spots (the language center or vision center in the brain), it is not so black-and-white.

Besides simply being a major piece of misinformation, the 10% myth is important because it's a main argument of psychics and mediums. They flaunt this idea that the brain has huge untapped potential, and that scientists don't know how it works. Obviously, if you can just learn to turn on that unused portion, you too can have psychic abilities or superpowers. It's a comforting idea, to think that you can have more brainpower, in case of emergency. But from a scientific perspective, that's just not going to happen. The brain evolved to be used, not to sit dormant until magically being unlocked. The 10% claim is 100% myth.

This article was originally posted by me on Teen Skepchick, where I blog about science, skepticism, feminism, education, and more for the skeptical teen.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

August 1, 2011

Summer Intro to Paleo: Field Work

Here's the second video in my summer introduction to paleontology course. This time, we look at how to do field work. If you haven't seen them, you can watch previous installments.

For Further Information Links:

Leave any questions or suggestions in the comments below!

Note: It may be a while before the next video is uploaded... I'm experimenting with a new way of recording these. The next installment, on lab work, should be in the next few weeks once I get that worked out.