Archive for the ‘Something Fishy is going on Here’ Category

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Divination & Coincidences

April 8, 2007

nostradamus_prophecies.jpgAll right guys, I’m stepping this up a notch so hold on. I’d love to spend an entire journal talking about what I’ve found on this subject but I’ve got bigger fish to fry so divination gets one article for now.

What is divination? Divination is being able to know something that you wouldn’t normally know. Specifically, it is the ability to predict events or occurrences usually in the future, or deep in the past, or in the present outside of your normal five senses. You can tell if a prophecy is accurate by if it reflects reality. If it’s a billion years in the future, or if it’s so vague it could be anything then it lacks falsifiability. And if it concisely describes events then we can say it has parsimony.

This is about the time I realized something Fishy was going on… that sounds a lot like science.

I was talking with my sister in law Katie about probability and coincidences and I used this analogy. “Let’s say that you went to school in a white shirt and blue jeans and you found out that everyone else at your school was also wearing white shirts and blue jeans. Well if that happened one day you would think it’s an odd coincidence, nothing more. If you came in the next day in a red shirt and khakis and everyone else was wearing the same thing, that would be a whole lot wierder. Then let’s say that everyone agreed not to tell each other what to wear and tried to be as original as possible but all wore the same thing for 50 days, no matter what. That’s stretching probability. Any single event can be dismissed with a rationalization. But if you have 50 concurrent events and 50 separate rationalizations probability says there’s probably an underlying cause.” Ever heard the phrase “There must be a scientific explanation for this!” Well sure, there probably is, but people have been making a mountain of ‘scientific explanations’ (or rationalizations) for as long as things that don’t match our view of the world have been around.

In the scientific field we come up with a theory to model the data present. The theory should match all existing data as well as make additional predictions about observable events to confirm the theory. The power of a scientific theory is its ability to explain the present data as well as predict future data. That’s what we do in science. How is that different from prophecy, or divination? Well, it’s the way you get there. Nostradamus states in the opening paragraph of his book that he observed astronomical revolutions. Exactly how stars relate to events in France I would love to know, but we can measure the results and predicting power regardless. I can feel some people rolling their eyes but I’d encourage you not to discredit anything without empirical evidence. So I’m going to look at various examples of Divination and evaluate them on predicting power, falsifiability, and specificity.

Nostradamus
Since I started with him and because he’s so well-known, Nostradamus is my first example. First off, (before all this eye-rolling halts the rotation of the planet) I would like to ask how many people have actually read the works of Nostradamus? No one? Ok, me neither. I’m composing a book list actually. I did a search for “statistical study Nostradamus” and didn’t come up with anything useful. I have to fall back on personal experience. Here’s one data point you can consider, unedited and first hand. I was on a message board in 1998 when we were discussing a prophecy that the author felt pointed at New York. I believe this is the original passage:

At forty-five degrees latitude, the sky will burn,
Fire approaches the great new city.
Immediately a huge, scattered flame leaps up,
When they want verification from the Normans [the French].

–(Quatrain 97, Century 6, The Prophecies of M. Michael de Nostradamus .)

Most people were convinced that this was a prophecy of an attack on New York. It was “obvious” this was a nuclear attack. They even did the math for what kind of yield you would need to take out New York and did plenty of research on the nuclear missiles that are missing from Soviet stockpiles (true). I remember one person saying “We need to warn the government about this, they should know!” I pointed out that even if they were right no one would listen. What’s the date on this? There is none. Where did it come from? Apparently the French attacked us, now that seems out of character, normally they just whimp out and surrender. The only useful information you could pull out of this prophecy is ‘don’t live in New York’. That’s personal advice, you can’t run a government on it. This is a good example of an attribute I see common to prophesy, it’s not really useful to stop an event because you can’t see it til it has passed. Sorry, I wish it was another way, but in a general sense I knew that New York was going to be attacked and there wasn’t anything I could realistically do. So how about a more specific prophecy?

Bible Code
The Bible Code is a software program that extracts words and phrases encoded in the original Hebrew Torah by skipping a set number of characters between each letter of the message. The implications of this one honestly bothers me and I’m going to do more research on it including getting a copy of the software or writing my own. Most of my info is from interviews on the History Channel. The author, Michael Drosnin, accurately predicted that Israeli Prime Minister Rabin would be assassinated 9 months before it happened. In fact, the Minister of Defense was notified about it but it still wasn’t stopped.

Comments from the Future 2016: I researched the Bible Code more thoroughly on my own, including using the program and writing my own.  It’s totally bogus.  It’s another case where people can trick themselves into thinking something by providing the information to the program, then being surprised when it comes back out again.  This happens in programs like Avida too.  For me, it was important to experiment myself instead of just taking someone else’s word or dismissing it because it sounded silly.

Authors
Jonathan Swift, in his famous series “Gulliver’s Travels” described the characteristics of two moons on Mars, long before it was ever possible to observe any moons. So when we go taking a closer look at Mars we find it actually does have two tiny moons with approximately the characteristics old Jonathan Swift described. That’s a little eery. Here’s the full quote.

squid_nautilus_viewbay.jpgLive Giant SquidJules Verne in his book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea described the adventures of a crazy submarine captain powered by strange science. Probably the most unbeleivable part of the whole tale is his imaginary creature called the “Giant Squid” which is basically the sea equivalent of Earth vs. the Spider. Now don’t try and pretend you thought that thing was real, until we pulled one out. In fact, we’ve been finding lots of giant squids now that we’re looking for them and no one has even cashed in on a living version of one of the really big ones that we know exist. Now I guess it’s reasonable to say Jules Verne probably pulled the idea from ancient myths about the Kraken, but it should make you take a closer look at all those silly myths. People were drawing sea monsters on the maps how recently? Maybe they weren’t kidding.

J.R.R. Tolkien is the somewhat famous author of Lord of the Rings. He also wrote a couple other books, most of which went unpublished until he died. Recently, I found out he wrote a very eccentric book called The Notion Club Papers about a group of ordinary people that might be psychics. One character discusses having lucid dreams where they could see into the future. The “Papers” are regularly interrupted by fictional commentary from people who discovered them in 2012. They point out as evidence that the book could not be written in the 1940’s because it mentions the great storm of 1987. Problem is, there really was a Great Storm of 1987 and Tolkien died in 1973.

Rationalization
I understand the human impulse to rationalize things. It makes the world a lot less wierd or scary and it keeps our feet firmly planted on the firm foundational security that we know all the really important stuff. I’ve never found rationalizations to be particularly surprising, I can conjure them all up myself. In fact, I could carry on a conversation on both sides, presenting evidence and then coming up with a dismissal for each peice, but I don’t do that because I really don’t find that path convincing or scientific (plus if I get caught talking to myself people think I’m CRAZY). I could pile up plenty more examples. If you are interested I’d suggest you check out the amazing astrological accuracy of the Mayan Calendar: explanation, 2012 in depth, History Channel.

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A person’s Religion gives them a framework to make Scientific Predictions.

(Next, breaking into lots of nasty scientific data most people would prefer not to talk about in We’ve Got Problems!)

Further Comments: I didn’t learn about Edgar Cayce until recently.  He is apparently, one of the most prominent clairvoyants to ever live and he was in America around World War II.  In retrospect, he seems to have basically kicked off the New Age movement which is pretty ironic considering he was a devout Christian.  Reportedly, he produced many volumes of written material of transcripts of what is basically a hypnotic trance.  To me, this seems like a gold mine of material because it’s enough of a foundation to tabulate and actually calculate a correlation coefficient between what he said and what happened.  Basically, you could say “Edgar Cayce was right X% of the time” and do statistical analysis.  Unfortunately, while we still have the written documents the trail of evidence of people he did readings for is rapidly growing cold (many are already dead).  Plus, how would you ever find a neutral investigator?  None exists!  And anyone who would be interested enough to invest the energy would also be hugely biased.  So close, yet so far away…

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Earth’s Improbabilities

April 5, 2007

Blue Marble WestI’ve mainly devoted this site to talking about things that don’t get their fair share of recognition but most people realize today that our planet is amazingly well-suited to hosting life. So I’ll only spend a short time on this article. I’d like to have a full laundry list of all the remarkable things about this planet with links to articles covering them in detail. I’m suffering a lapse in creativity so I’m declaring my first group project. If you know of any good articles covering a specific subject then please post a comment with a link to the article and I’ll add it to the page. Here are the ones I could think of off the top of my head.

  • Unique Properties of Water
  • Distance from the Sun
  • Lunar Tides
  • Protection from Solar Radiation
  • Reactive Atmosphere (Nitrogen and Oxygen react)
  • Conditions at Cueva de los Cristales were kept at exactly the right temperature for “many hundreds of thousands of years” in order to produce 33 foot long crystals.
  • Very specific conditions are required for fossils to form and in this case, conditions were so perfect as to preserve soft tissue in T. Rex for 220 million years.
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Math

April 2, 2007

hood_ornament.jpgI’m not claiming to be a genius at math, but I have been around the block once or twice. My ill-fated math carreer started off in 7th grade with me getting bored in pre-algebra and finding out I could ‘skip’ classes. A couple years later I figured out I could skip unwanted teachers and so I took geometry over the summer to avoid two years of “personality incompatibility”. My efforts were in vain as I spent Trigonometry and Calculus I under the watchful gaze of Mrs. Stewart. That was when I adopted the phrase “C is for Calculus.” After that, I suffered from math brain damage/aversion for two years then tried to tackle Calculus II my sophmore year in college. Combined with the Computer Science Matrices and discrete math course and statistics I have had a wide view of the abyssal depths of math. In conclusion, I like math because it is useful and fun. Savvy?

So along the way I’ve run into a lot of really wierd things. In fact, I think there are more wierd things in math than things that follow common sense. My professor Draper, when teaching on Fourier Sampling entitled his slide “Fourier Analyspi.pngis Magic“. I think it says a lot that he had to tell us this, since it wasn’t obvious to a room full of computer scientists. Maybe our definition of magic is just skewed? What strikes me about this is that with the exception of algorithms everything in math is discovered, not created. Remember fractals? Here’s a couple examples for you with illustrations by xkcd. (Sorry for the language, I didn’t write it.)

Pi
Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference over it’s diameter. Apparently, it also made a pretty interesting movie. I haven’t watched it yet. If you bring the movie I’ll provide the nachos. Pi occurs entirely in nature, no human being wrote Pi, it simply exists. It’s an infinite number with no way to express it that is not some kind of algorithm (to the best of my knowledge). Because Pi is infinite it is the subject of a lot of jokes because you’re never 100% accurate, scientists hate that.

E to the Pi times i
This is the most inexplicable thing I have ever seen. E is the natural logrithm, for things like compound interest and bacterial growth. Pi is the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter. ‘i’ is used to express numbers at a right angle to “real” numbers (read reality). So what is the interest on my circle in imaginary space? It’s -1 of course.

Universal Constants
The rabbit hole continues further down as we realize that physics, the way of describing our universe, is merely an extension on math. We run into these naturally occuring, often infinite, numbers all over the place. The catch about physics is that if you mucked with these seemingly arbitrary numbers a lot of them would wipe out all life on this planet. Stephen Hawking spends a lot of time talking about this in his book Universe in a Nutshell.

Math is cruel.

Go to XKCD.com

Further Comments: Bwahahaha. If you’re in the mood to seriously hurt your brain I just found out someone has created a 5 dimensional Rubiks cube. Like we didn’t already have enough people jumping off tall buildings. The even more obscene thing is that it’s actually been solved! Check out the list of people who have been crazy enough to tackle this. MagicCube5D. Also, the 120 cell puzzle looks like it has an even higher chance of causing permanent mental breakdown. We’re messing with dangerous forces here. I wonder what the mortality rate is?

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Fractals

April 1, 2007

I have a question for you, and honestly I didn’t know the question to this until I lost 3 months of my life to Ultra Fractal. Are Fractals painted, drawn or discovered? Probably a question you’ve never asked, that’s what I’m here for. Well, for a full explanation of how fractals are calculated check out David Dewey’s Introduction to the Mandelbrot Set. The short answer is that the Mandelbrot equation is Z = Z2 + C. That should tell you the answer to my question right there. I can’t really express the infinte depth of fractals, you’re going to have to see it for yourself. Just consider this, when browsing around and zooming in on fractals like Mandelbrot the area is so big that after only a few minutes you could be looking at a scene no one has ever seen even though the Mandelbrot was discovered in 1977.

I could list off plenty of other fractal equations. It’s worth noting that Mandelbrot is the simplest, to my knowledge. Still, how could the amazing complexity of mandelbrot be encoded in Z = Z2 + C ? I don’t have an answer. Ok, go download Ultra Fractal or play around online. (And yes, I know a lot of fractals like my example are multiple layers colored by humans but the structure remains the same.)

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Solar Eclipses

April 1, 2007

This is the start of things that should make you go hmmm… There are nearly innumerable things about the place that we live that are just downright improbable. Earth seems perfectly suited for life in that if you change almost anything about Earth or the laws of the universe it is no longer capable of supporting the life we see all around us. There are several major theories to explain this amazingly ideal arrangement of things. The Weak Anthropic Principle states that anywhere life pops up under those ideal conditions that would allow for intelligence that life would wonder at the amazing improbability of its situation, thus the life and its improbability are linked. Intelligent Design says that the world is the way it is because it was made that way by someone smart. A new theory I ran across from Lynn Margulis is the Gaia theory which points out that the environment and its life-forms are inseparable and that life creates an environment that is naturally suitable to it.

Solar Eclipse with Visible CoronaI chose solar eclipses because they just don’t fit the anthropic mold to me. They aren’t necessary to life, they can’t be affected by life forms living on the planet, and it doesn’t fit the Christian view very well either because the Sun has almost no place in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In fact, solar eclipses (pictured here by Govert Schilling) are often used in various pagan religions. So why are solar eclipses so improbable and unnecessary? It’s because the only reason people can see the corona is because the ratio between the moon’s diameter and its distance from Earth is exactly the same as the Sun’s diameter over the Sun’s distance from Earth. That means that from Earth, the moon and sun look exactly the same size, even though they are in reality hugely different. The sun’s surface is millions of times brighter than the corona, so if the sun isn’t fully blocked you have no chance of seeing its dazzling display. (ref)

To understand why this is not necessary you only need to picture two other scenarios. If the moon were more dense, it could weigh the same at the same distance and same gravity but it would appear as simply a black dot traveling across the sun. Conversely, if we were orbiting a gas giant we would see the Sun disappear behind the monstrously huge planet.

So with a bit of math I think I can calculate the sun’s diameter without ever looking at it based solely on the characteristics of the moon and earth. Based on Wikipedia we find that the moon has an average diameter of 3,474 km (0.273 Earths). It orbits between 363,104 km to 405,696 km from Earth. Now, I think I need to subtract the radius of the earth so we’re calculating from the surface, but with the earth being only 6,373km thick, the 42,000km variance in the moon’s orbit probably negates that. The ratio of average distance/diameter then is 110.651. We should be able to divide the distance to the sun. 149,597,887 km is the average distance to the sun so I would calculate the sun’s diameter at 1,351,979 km. I’ve purposely not looked at the correct answer up until this point, so I’m really hoping my math is right. For example, I didn’t add the radius of the sun to the distance from Earth. So let’s look to Wikipedia for the correct answer. And the answer is… 1.392 x 10^6 km or 1,392,000 km.

Wow, that’s pretty close on astronomical terms. Let’s see what answer I get when I compensate for the radius of earth and the sun… ratio of 108.816 and the distance to the sun would be 150,593,887 gives me a diameter of 1,383,930 km. So, with a bit of sloppy math, I can calculate the diameter of the sun based on the diameter of moon, because of how perfectly solar eclipses line up. I don’t see any reason why this is ‘necessarily true’.

I’m not really assigning any meaning to this. Facts by themselves don’t truly have a deeper meaning, it takes a human observing them to appreciate that. I can show any number of possible arrangements that leave all the tides on earth untouched while ruining the specific improbable beauty of a solar eclipse but I think I’ve drowned you with enough math for now. So I’d just encourage you to look at some photos of solar eclipses and the sun’s corona.

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P.S. If someone who is better at math than me (astronomer?) would like to calculate the tolerance range on perfect solar eclipses I’d be delighted to post it. I know that if you make the graphs ‘to scale’ the rays from the sun are nearly parrallel.

(Next: Something prettier, smaller, and infinite)