Oct 24 2014

The Many Interacting Worlds Hypothesis

Howard Wiseman, a theoretical quantum physicist at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, and his colleagues have come up with an entirely new theory to explain the weird behavior of particles at the quantum level. The idea is that quantum effects result from classical universes interacting with each other.

Classical physics is essentially the physics of Newton and describes the macroscopic world. In classical physics particles have a definitive location and momentum. At the scale of fundamental particles, however, the world behaves very differently.

At this so-called quantum level, particles move in waves but then interact as particles. They have only a probabilistic location and cannot be nailed down specifically. There is a minimum amount of uncertainty when trying to measure any linked properties, such as location and momentum. Even more bizarre is quantum entanglement in which particles have linked properties, even when separated across the universe.

The bottom line is that we do not really know why the quantum world behaves as it does. We have experimental data, such as the double-slit experiments, that show consistent results. When a light beam shines through two close narrow slits they interfere with each other as if they are moving like waves, even when the beam is so faint that only one photon will be passing through the silts at a time. One photon can apparently cause a wave interference with itself. But when those same photons strike a film plate or detector, they behave like a particle.

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Oct 23 2014

A Brain-Training Update

Can playing video games or specifically designed computer games improve your cognitive function? There are many companies who claim that they can and who would like to sell you such games that they claim are “scientifically designed.”

So-called brain-training is a burgeoning business, with perhaps the best known product being Lumosity. Lumosity promises:

“Scientifically designed games: Lumosity scientists study many common neuropsychological tasks, design some new ones, and transform these tasks into fun, challenging games.”

They claim to be a “leader in the science of brain training,” and include a list of 13 studies that allegedly show Lumosity is effective. Many of the studies do not even test efficacy, and strangely the list does not include this recent study from August 2014 showing that Lumosity is not effective.

This new study involved 77 subjects randomly assigned to play 8 hours of Lumosity or Portal 2 (a popular video game). They found that the Portal 2 players outperformed the Lumosity players on all three cognitive evaluations: problem solving, spatial skills, and persistence. The only pre-test to post-test significant improvement was the Portal 2 group for spatial skills.

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Oct 21 2014

Graphene Neuro-electrode

This news item combines two technologies that I have been eagerly following, graphene and brain-machine interface. Researchers have developed a 1-molecule thick graphene electrode that is transparent and can be used for high-resolution electrophysiological recordings of brain cell activity.

Before I explain why this is such a cool advance, I will quickly review these technologies. Graphene is an allotrope of carbon – it is made of a single atom thick layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal sheet like chickenwire. This arrangement is very stable with strong bonds, making for a strong material. It is also flexible and has useful electrical properties. It can be manufactured as a sheet or rolled up into carbon nanotubes.

Graphene is an incredibly promising material that is likely to be the cornerstone of future electronics, promising small, efficient, and flexible components. It conducts both heat and electricity very efficiently and it is a semiconductor. “Doping” the graphene with other elements also has the potential to tweak its physical properties, expanding the number of applications.

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Oct 20 2014

Defending Sick Children

One of the most difficult issues that skeptical physicians face is dealing with children sick with cancer whose parents refuse standard therapy. These cases are always highly charged, because the stakes are extremely high. Obviously the stakes are highest for the child as their life is literally on the line. The stakes are also high for society, however, because they force a specific decision regarding the relative rights of parents vs the responsibility of the state to care for minors.

Two recent cases once again raise these issues. One comes from Western Australia where 10-year-old Tamara Stitt was diagnosed with liver cancer. Her oncologist recommended chemotherapy. Her parents were (understandably) concerned about the side effects of chemotherapy.

He said he and his wife decided against chemotherapy for their daughter because of its horrific side effects and because he felt threatened by doctors.

Mrs Stitt testified that she believed her daughter had a 100 per cent chance of being cured with natural therapies, and she had initially responded well to such treatment.

Her parents decided against chemotherapy and instead chose “alternative” therapies including clay wraps, herbal teas and a healthy diet. Tamara’s cancer predictably progressed until her parents finally relented. Tamara received chemotherapy in El Salvador, but it was too late, and unfortunately she died of her cancer.

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Oct 17 2014

Brain Activity in Vegetative Patients

A vegetative state is a particular kind of coma in which patients appear to be awake but give no signs (by definition) of any awareness. They do not respond to their environment in any way or do anything purposeful. Some patients display a flicker of awareness, and they are categorized as minimally conscious.

Neuroscientists have been using the latest technology to look at brain function in vegetative subjects and comparing that function to healthy controls. In this way they hope to gain insight into the neurological correlates of consciousness – what brain activity is necessary for and responsible for conscious awareness. A new study, published in PLOS Computational Biology, replicates this research with interesting findings.

As with previous studies, the researchers found that the majority of vegetative patients had profound abnormalities of brain function compared to healthy controls. They found:

Here, we apply graph theory to compare key signatures of such networks in high-density electroencephalographic data from 32 patients with chronic disorders of consciousness, against normative data from healthy controls. Based on connectivity within canonical frequency bands, we found that patient networks had reduced local and global efficiency, and fewer hubs in the alpha band.

This means they measured the electrical activity of the brain and found that patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state had decreased brain activity. A healthy brain has massive local and global networks of neurons exchanging information across the brain. The brains of patients with impaired consciousness had markedly reduced activity and fewer hubs of activity.

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Oct 16 2014

Lockheed Martin’s Fusion Reactor

Since I recently covered the new claims being made for the E-cat cold fusion device (which, in my opinion, is almost certainly bogus), I found it interesting that Lockheed Martin recently produced details for their research into a hot fusion reactor. Their research team, called the Skunk Works, have been working on a new design for a fusion reactor. It has two distinct advantages over the E-cat – it does not require the assumption of new physics, and it is not being promoted by a convicted con-artist.

Fusion is a type of nuclear reaction that involves combining lighter elements into heavier elements. The resulting reaction releases a significant amount of energy, and that energy can be used to generate electricity. Fusion, in fact, is the power source for stars. The immense temperature and pressure in the core of stars fuse hydrogen into helium, and then helium into heavier elements, depending on how massive the star is. The heaviest element that can be made in this fashion is iron. Elements heavier than iron require energy to fuse, and therefore you cannot get any energy out of iron from fusion or fission. Heavier elements are therefore made in the powerful explosions of supernovae.

If we could engineer a device that could produce sufficient temperature and pressure we could theoretically create nuclear fusion on earth. In fact we have already done so, in the form of hydrogen bombs. Of course, creating a massive explosion isn’t exactly useful as an energy source. The trick is creating controlled nuclear fusion without the huge explosion.

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Oct 14 2014

Ebola and Human Error

It has been fascinating, and a little scary, to watch the first ever Ebola epidemic from the comfort of my Connecticut environs – about as far from the epidemic as you can get. Two thoughts keep coming back to me. The first, as this epidemic progresses and the CDC and WHO keep advancing their predictions about how bad it’s going to get, is this question: are we witnessing the unfolding of a major epidemic or even pandemic? Are we going to look back at the second half of 2014 and wonder how no one recognized how serious this is going to get?

Of course, I do not want to overstate the situation, stoke unnecessary fears, or come off as sensationalist. So I, like the CDC, will point out that the probability of a pandemic is extremely small. Unlike West Africa, most industrialized nations have a robust healthcare infrastructure and we’ll be able to deal with an outbreak before it gets out of control.

But this leads me to my second thought – how did it get so bad in the first place? The story is essentially a story of human error. The current epidemic represents a failure at many levels. This is not about finger pointing, but recognizing human limitations and frailty.

By all accounts the current Ebola epidemic is overwhelming the governments and the infrastructure in West Africa where it is still spreading, and in fact increasing geometrically. The world is reacting, some have charged, too late to this crisis. In fact, an Ebola rapid response infrastructure should have been in place, ready to squash any outbreak in its infancy.

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Oct 13 2014

Anomaly Hunting and the Umbrella Man

This is not a new story, but it is worth repeating. At the moment that bullets were being fired into JFK’s motorcade, a man can be seen standing on the side of the road near the car holding an open black umbrella. It was a sunny day (although it had rained the night before) and no one else in Dallas was holding an umbrella.

This is exactly the kind of detail that sets a fire under conspiracy theorists. It is a genuine anomaly – something that sticks out like a sore thumb.

The event also defies our intuition about probability. Even if one could accept that somewhere on the streets of Dallas that morning one man decided to hold an open umbrella for some strange reason, what are the odds that this one man would be essentially standing right next to the president’s car when the bullets began to fly?

Our evolved tendency for pattern recognition and looking for significance in events screams that this anomaly must have a compelling explanation, and since it is associated with the assassination of a president, it must be a sinister one.

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Oct 10 2014

E-Cat Cold Fusion Claims are Back

For years Andrea Rossi has claimed that he has invented a method for generating cold fusion, but has been unable to convince an appropriately skeptical scientific community. Fusion is the nuclear process of combining lighter elements into heavier elements, such as fusing hydrogen into helium. Fusion is what powers stars – in fact, the only processes scientists know about that can cause fusion require the heat and density of stars.

When lighter elements combine into a heavier element that overall has less mass, the missing mass is essentially converted into radiation and energy. The amount of energy released is orders of magnitude greater than what can be released from chemical reactions. Only matter-antimatter reactions are more energetic.

Now Rossi is claiming that an independent third party has verified that the E-Cat cold fusion device can generate large amounts of energy, the kind that can only come from nuclear fusion. What are we to make of these claims?

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Oct 09 2014

AWARE Results Finally Published – No Evidence of NDE

Back in May I participated in a debate for Intelligence Squared regarding “Death is not Final.” At the time I was updating myself on the published literature regarding alleged near death experiences or NDEs, and noticed that the AWARE study (AWAreness during REsuscitation) had been completed but the data not yet published. I was disappointed that I would not have these results available to me during the debate.

I had read about the study several years earlier. This is a prospective study of cardiac arrest patients to not only describe their NDEs when they occur, but to conduct a large prospective test looking for objective evidence of conscious awareness during resuscitation. The lead researcher, Sam Parnia, is a believer in NDEs, but designed a study theoretically capable of finding objective evidence.

The multi-center study involved placing an image in a location that was hidden from normal view but could be viewed by a person floating above their body during an NDE. This could be a way to objectively differentiate between the two leading hypotheses. Parnia and others believe that reports of NDEs represent actual awareness during cardiac arrest when the brain is not functioning. This, of course, would be compelling evidence for cognition separate from brain function.

I and most scientist favor the more mundane and likely explanation that memories of NDEs are formed at other times, when the brain is functioning, for example during the long recovery process. At least the memories themselves do not differential between these two hypotheses, and this explanation does not require inventing entirely new non-materialist phenomena.

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