Earthquake Lights; A Ground Breaking Mystery

A great rumble breaks the silence of an early morning sunrise as the Earth’s crust heaves and cracks.  Buildings creak and sway, windows break, furniture collapses and people begin to take cover.  It’s an Earthquake, and it’s a common experience in some parts of the world.  While Earthquakes can strike literally anywhere on Earth, there are places that are prone to a great deal more tectonic activity than others, and in the wake of the terrible tragedy in Japan this spring, one cannot help but conjure images of death and destruction.

Earthquakes, with all their destructive power, are still a mystery to science.  Or rather, certain elements of earthquakes are a mystery. Geologists have a firm grasp on the mechanics of tectonic movement, and of volcanic activity, but there’s more than one aspect of the phenomena that still makes them scratch their heads; and Earthquake light is one of them.

Often described as an aurora, similar to aurora borealis in the arctic, Earthquake light is a strange phenomenon that has been reported to accompany earthquakes of various sizes.  Events as early as the 1965 earthquake swarm in Nagano, Japan, have been accompanied by reports of strange lights in the sky immediately preceding or during such tectonic events.

Damage caused by recent earthquakes and tsunami in Japan

At least one such event has been looked at through the eyes of the UFO-logy community and deemed suspicious.  On 23 January 1974 in the Berwyn Mountain range in North Wales, England, a very strange light was seen in the sky, just before a great rumbling in the ground.

Eye witnesses reported the incident as an airplane crash, though some claimed it was no airplane.  Some claimed to have seen non-terrestrial craft, and even alien bodies. The event is officially dubbed the Berwyn Mountain Incident, but it’s also gone down in history as the British Roswell Incident.

Much investigation has been done to find truth in this event, the Institute of Geological sciences (now the British Geological Survey), registered at 3.5 magnitude Earthquake that day, over a wide area of North Wales, but experts could not agree on the cause of the earthquake, whether it was tectonic or volcanic activity, or a meteor impact.  The official story is that this was a case of Earthquake light preceding a tectonic event, though, in spite of a search by local police and an RAF Rescue Team, to look for craft and/or impact craters which yielded no results, the UFO-logy community has had some difficulty swallowing the official story, especially since earthquake light is just as mysterious as UFOs.

Conspiracy theorists are now grabbing hold of the idea, especially in the wake of reports that earthquake lights were seen just prior to the recent Japan earthquake and tsunami, and are suggesting that there is a sinister plot involved.  For years now, conspiracy theorists have been blaming the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program or HAARP for a host of natural disasters and other phenomenon, and one can’t help but draw a line connecting the idea of earthquake light and HAARP, though seeing a possible connection is only one part of the puzzle.

Jointly funded by the US Air Force, the US Navy, the University of Alaska and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and located in the arctic, HAARP’s official purpose is to analyze the ionosphere and investigate the prospect for developing ionospheric enhancement technology to improve radio communications and surveillance around the globe.  But whatever the official story is, conspiracy theorists are adamant that HAARP’s true purpose is much more malevolent.  A great many people are convinced that HAARP is developing technology and weaponry that can cause earthquakes with pinpoint accuracy, among other such ideas.

Whatever the cause, strange lights continue to be reported in conjunction with earthquake activity and few answers are being offered to explain these odd occurrences.  Is it a natural phenomenon, is it extraterrestrial in nature, or is it a man made weapon?  My guess is that we’ll never know the whole truth, no matter how transparent the government wants us to believe they are.

Earthquake Lights: The Mystery Solved?


cold-heart-attacks_12014 has come in with a bang; in some places louder than others.  In some parts of North America –central Canada and northeastern US for instance – have experienced a deep freeze over the past few days.  News outlets excitedly stated yesterday, that temperatures in Winnipeg, Manitoba dropped to -37.6◦ Celsius on New Year’s Eve, and then rose to a still rather chilly -31◦, both temperatures are, as news outlets reported, colder than the average temperature on Mars, which is -29◦ C.  Much of central and eastern Canada is in the grips of a cold snap the likes of which haven’t been seen in nearly 80 years, while parts of Australia are battling a severe heat wave, bringing temperatures there to an incredible 50◦ C.  This world we live on is certainly putting our climate control technologies to the test.

Despite the somewhat uninformed denial of a good number of people, global warming is now a feature of our lives and we will continue to see extremes in regional weather going forward.  Though, it’s not all bad, at least if you’re interested in weird natural phenomenon.

21035445Police in Guelph, Ontario (Canada) have been receiving numerous calls for assistance from people in the area reporting strange and loud sounds outside their homes.  Police responded, but in most cases found nothing suspicious, until they figured out what was happening.  As a result of the relatively fast temperature drop in the area over the last few days, from a balmy (for Canadian’s anyway) -5◦ C to the current record low temperatures, much of the ground water and soil moisture has frozen solid, going down anywhere from four to six feet below the surface.

This ground freezing, which happens every year, but not usually so quickly, has given rise to what geologists call cryoseism, or in layman’s terms: frost-quakes.[1]

Apparently what happens in cryoseism is that water seeps into the ground during the warmer temperature periods, between rocks and sediment, and then (obviously) freezes when the temperature drops.  Though as we know, when water freezes it expands (something science still can’t explain by the way), and this expansion puts huge amounts of stress on the rock and soil, which results in a small and localised earthquake-like event, wherein the ground shifts suddenly producing a loud booming sound.

Northerners are, with few exceptions, quite familiar with the sounds of winter.  Crunching snow under your feet and under car tires, whistling winds, cracking ice, but frost-quakes are something new to most of us.  This phenomenon can actually be a danger to the foundation of some homes, as when the ground shifts, the immense pressures involved can crack cement foundation walls, though there is little that can be done to guard against it.  And in the world of earthquakes, there are bigger concerns to worry about.

805131544121002-ss1Earthquakes are one of the most powerful and devastating natural events that occur on this planet, and they’re certainly not limited to this planet.  Billions of dollars in damage are recorded throughout the world every year as a result of earthquakes, and as yet there is no way to accurately predict when or where an earthquake will strike.  Some scientists are working on that though.

As reported in this post from 2009 titled Earthquake Lights: A Ground Breaking Mystery, it has been known for some time, by enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists alike, that earthquakes have the ability to create some fairly weird effects in the environment, and earthquake lights are one of those effects.  They are just as they might seem, mysterious lights that appear in the sky above or around areas where earthquakes are imminent or occurring.  Early theories suggested that the lights were the product of alien influence on earthquakes, or perhaps a side effect of the infamous earthquake weapon developed by the now defunct HAARP, but it turns out there is a perfectly natural explanation (imagine that!).

Mt. Kimjo Earthquake Lights

Mt. Kimjo Earthquake Lights

According to a study published January 4, 2014 in the journal Seismological Research Letters, a group of researchers have identified and documented 65 examples of verified earthquake light from the 1600’s until present day.  The cases cited come from all over the world, but the paper suggests that true earthquake lights are a relatively rare occurrence and require a very specific geological formation in the earthquake zone.[2]

Essentially what happens is that lateral pressures in the ground just prior to or during an event, cause certain types of rock to abrade, which in turn causes an exchange or build-up of electrical charges.  Eventually this build-up of electricity discharges into the environment in a plasma state which is seen as light in the sky.

“When a powerful seismic wave runs through the ground and hits a layer of such rocks, it compresses the rocks with great pressure and speed, creating conditions under which large amounts of positive and negative electrical charges are generated.”

This is likened to lightning, but the electrical charge involved is likely much lower than a typical lightning discharge.

Some in the geological community are hopeful that this research will yield opportunities for predicting earthquakes in certain parts of the world, though others suggest that this sentiment is more than premature.  The phenomenon remains somewhat rare, as mentioned, which is a feature of the special geological conditions necessary to produce the effect.  This requirement for a perfect storm of pressures and rock types means that it wouldn’t be typical of the majority of earthquake events, and therefore would do little to help predict events outside of those parameters.

This revelation does put to rest some of the old arguments about outside influences, malevolent intentions and fanciful conspiracy, though there’s certain to be some who cling to the idea that earthquake lights are the by-product of some super-secret technology.  Further research will, hopefully, provide ever clearer and more useful information regarding the mechanics of earthquakes and the conditions that lead to them.


[1] The Kitchener Record. Police determine large banging noises to be ice breaking.

[2] Sharon Hill. New paper on earthquake lights show they are a reality.

Why Do Hoaxers Hoax? A Difficult Question to Answer

Please, please, please, let 2014 be the year of reason, of critical thinking and common sense.

I don’t know who that was directed at in particular, whether it be an imaginary man in the sky, or my cat, but the sentiment seems to be one a good many people are expressing in their own way, in these early days of the new year.

2013 was a hallmark year for hoaxes, though that sort of depends on how you define hoax.  A good many of the stories that circulated social networks last year fell under the general definition of hoax, but while erroneous and apparently maliciously false stories may seem more common now, in the information age, pulling the wool over people’s eyes is most definitely not a new thing.

From academia to popular culture, there is no shortage of people trying to get one over on the general public, and while a lengthy examination of the hundreds of hoaxes that have been pulled off over the years, some more successful than others, would be both interesting and entertaining, I want to take the time to look at the one aspect of the hoaxing trend that seems to defy definition: why?

When you consider some classical hoaxes, from the Piltdown Man, or Orson Wells’ War of Worlds radio show, there seem to be obvious motivators that the perpetrators clung to in their planning and execution.  Whether malicious in nature or purely innocent, these scenarios have typically been born of a desire to make the punch line stick.  Of the two examples given above, whomever the hoaxer of the Piltdown bone fragments actually was, it seems clear that the intention was to ridicule and embarrass the paleontological scholars involved in examining the found materials.  Orson Wells however, had innocent intentions; he simply wanted to entertain and, perhaps, took his good humour a little far (though some suggest that the real hoax is that the ensuing panic never actually happened, or is that yet another hoax?).  In the end though, in both cases the purpose seems to have been to get a good laugh on the part of the hoaxer.

Perhaps it’s our distance from these hoaxes that makes them seem humorous or charming, but even more recent events have their charm, to a point.

2009’s Balloon Boy hoax is a good example of a hoax that not only went too far, but also defies any attempt to reason through their motivations.  Why do what they did?  The obvious answer is to achieve that 15 minutes of fame to which we’re each entitled.  But is that hollow recognition really the primary motivator for hoaxing?

There is always, and probably always will be a financial aspect to this kind of trickery.  Many modern day hoaxes are attached to marketing schemes and viral campaigns for popular media and movies, capitalizing on the public’s ever present appetite for scandal and gossip, but this isn’t always the case, is it?

Recently there have been a number of high profile hoaxes in the Fortean world, from cryptozoology to OOPARTS or, if I may coin a term, xenoarchaeology.  I’ve covered a number of these stories in the past, from Melba Ketchum’s Bigfoot DNA debacle, to the Ted Litton / Megalograptus hoax, and there are more to come.  One of the things that can be said about Ketchum, is that she really seems to believe her own BS, which may be a feature of her own deluded rationalizations, and when compared to say, Rick Dyer’s new Bigfoot body extravaganza, how much credit should we give these people for believing in, or feigning belief in their own stories?

Really though, this all boils down to lying.  Why do we lie?  Although the perpetrators of some or all of the hoaxes listed above might argue that they aren’t lying, I think we can all agree that hoaxes are really just the elaborate products of simple lies.

To answer that question – why do we lie? – one must first look at how prevalent lying really is in our society.  According to a study published in the Journal of Basic and Applied Psychology by psychologist Robert Feldman of the University of Massachusetts, lying is a reflexive defense of our self-esteem.

“It’s tied in with self-esteem,” says Feldman. “We find that as soon as people feel that their self-esteem is threatened, they immediately begin to lie at higher levels.”

Feldman says that in his study 60 percent of participants lied at least once during a 10 minute conversation.  The majority of participants, denied having said anything untruthful, and were genuinely surprised when video footage was replayed.  Feldman says that lying is, at this level, a subconscious reflex used to maintain self-esteem, not only from the perspective of others but from themselves as well.

So, we do it to make ourselves feel better about ourselves, and this would suggest that it is the result of feelings of inadequacy, both in our own eyes and in the eyes of others.  This makes sense, at least as it relates to small, so-called white lies.  Small untruths that have little impact on our lives or on the lives of those around us, but does the depth of the lie relate to the depth of inadequacy?  It may to a point, but it seems that bigger lies are the result of a misjudgement of the likelihood that the liar will be caught.

University of New England’s associate professor of philosophy, David Smith PhD, says that lying is a perfectly natural part of human society, and that there are generally six reasons why people lie:

  1. To Save Face
  2. To Shift Blame
  3. To Avoid Confrontation
  4. To Get One’s Own way
  5. To Be Nice
  6. To Make One Feel Better About Themselves

So, where on this list would the hoaxer fit?  With a good many hoaxes, there’s a certain level of anonymity at play.  Many who perpetrate hoaxes are never exposed, and as such it’s unlikely that saving face or avoiding blame have any real impact on their motives.  Depending on your view of the situation, it could be said that hoaxers are going out of their way to find confrontation, albeit in a detached manner, and they certainly seem to be getting their own way, though nice rarely has anything to do with it.

Ultimately, from this list, it would have to be that they’re attempting to boost their own self-esteem, but I would suggest that this list is inadequate to answer our question.  It certainly seems like, with most hoaxes, that the people involved are trying to bolster their own self-esteem by lording such falsities over the heads of the public, at least those in the public who entertain such things, so as to feel superior to those who weren’t capable of “seeing the truth” as it were.  It seems more than a lie, it seems a manipulation of people’s beliefs and fears in some cases.  It seems a feature of the anti-establishment movement and a method for pushing misinformation into the discussion for the purpose of derailing productive discourse.  It seems political and self-serving and deleterious, and if we look at individual hoaxes, we can see elements of all of the above, but it doesn’t seem like any of them can be considered the one true culprit.

Our society, that is the internet society we’ve built over the last two decades, has in it certain mechanisms for rewarding such conspiratorial behaviour.  Why do they hoax?  Because they can, and they can get away with it, even if people like me search them out and expose them, and there is a very specific reason for that:

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” ― Mark Twain

People in general are ready to believe, they are ready to accept that there is more to this world than meets the eye, and they actively seek out information that supports their desire to be mystified. In years past it was the side-show, the magician, the mesmerist who satisfied that craving, today it’s paranormal gurus, cryptozoologists and spiritualists who answer the call.  The problem is that the boring establishment, the entity that most in the effected community feel the need to rebel against, has no position on such topics, beyond the accusation of pseudoscience.  So those who provide answers, whether those answers are based in fact or not, are rewarded with adoration and fame, however undeserved it may be.

And so we’ve come full circle.  Is it empty fame, money, or a boost to one’s self-esteem?  I would say it’s all three, and a combination of all of the other factors discussed therein.  The only weapon we have against it is an insatiable desire for truth – clean, bare truth – and the means to find it among the detritus.  Those who wish to believe will continue to do so, and those who wish to exploit that belief will also go on with their hoaxes.

10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty: Close But No Cigar

Anyone who knows me, or perhaps who is a regular reader, knows that I have an affinity for big hairy hominids.  Well, actually, I should probably clarify, there’s one particular big hairy hominid that I have in mind, not just dudes with a lot of back hair.  I’m referring to Bigfoot, or Sasquatch if you prefer.

To clarify further, I enjoy the Bigfoot phenomenon, and though I’ve written about this pinnacle cryptid in the past, occasionally giving it more credit that it is perhaps due, I am not a believer.  I concede that it could exist, however unlikely that may be, but I have and will continue to reserve judgment until evidence is found to prove its existence.  It is endlessly fun to speculate and theorise on its various attributes, behaviour and ancestry though.

In that vein, I tuned in to Spike TV’s newest reality show last night, the 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty, starring Dean Cain.  This show has been hyped in style over the last several weeks, especially among Bigfooters and their associated blogs and online communities, of which I am not necessarily a member.  It had been promised that it would be a serious effort to find talented people, who are, after all is said and done, more likely than most to actually find that elusive evidence of Sasquatch.  We’ve been promised that the cast and producers will take a pointedly scientific tact and that the whole thing will be treated as a scientific endeavour, rather than a TV spectacle.

Last night was the premier episode, and I have mixed feelings about it now, having slept on it.  If you follow my twitter feed, you likely saw my tweets about the show during and after it aired.  I was happy with it.  That is to say, I was entertained by it.

Dean Cain

The show is the brain child of reality TV producer and writer Mike Riley, who is known for his contributions to several reality TV programs and series.  It stars, as mentioned, actor and avid outdoorsman Dean Cain (best known for his role as Superman in ABC’s Lois & Clark), as well as anthropologist and primatologist Natalia Reagan, and renowned anthropology professor at New York University and molecular primatologist Dr. Todd Disotell.  It also stars a ragtag cast of contestants with varying levels of expertise and experience in the realms of biology, Bigfooting, hunting and wildlife preservation.

The first episode served to introduce us and the cast with the format of the show and with each other, which in one case wasn’t really a welcome introduction, but we’ll get to that.

Dr, Todd Disotell

The contestants will spend the next several weeks living together in a cabin, a la Big Brother, and will compete in a series of research or conservatory type tasks in various locations around the American North West.  These tasks are meant to give each two-person team a chance to prove to the hosts that they have what it takes to be real Bigfoot researchers.  Every episode will see one team sent home for failing the given task, in the spirit of Survivor.  At the end of the series, the remaining team will win the contest and be awarded the $10 million dollar prize, which is being put forward by Lloyd’s of London Insurance.  The winners will also become members of a rock star Bigfoot hunting expedition, which will include Disotell and Reagan, who will ostensibly have a better chance of actually finding the elusive beast than any other.

Last night’s tasks were to collect viable DNA from a wild animal in an area described as a game preserve, so as to provide Dr. D. (as he’s being called in the twitterverse) and Natalia with something to analyse.  And then to spend a night in a different area and try to come up with Bigfoot evidence to be analysed.

Natalia Reagan

I’ll say at this point, I like this format.  It should serve to teach viewers a thing or two about the scientific method and about evidence standards.  I did see some things I didn’t like though.

The most glaring issue is the apparently blood-thirsty attitude of some of the contestants.  Justin Smeja (partnered with “tech wizard” Ro Sahebi), who is a self-proclaimed hunter, and who claims to have shot and killed two Sasquatch at some time in the past, stated openly that his only interest is in finding and killing a Bigfoot, so as to put the argument to rest.  This doesn’t seem in keeping with the promise we were given that this would be a scientific endeavour.  Other contestants have a history of hunting, which, in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but it remains to be seen if the show turns into a big game hunter type exercise.

The first contestants to be eliminated were husband and wife team Travis and January Miller.  They failed to bring back any evidence to be analysed by the hosts and as such were eliminated.  To me, this was an incorrect choice.  As the Millers reasoned, is it not better to bring back nothing, than to bring back false, misleading, or just plain silly evidence?

I suppose this is all part of the TV hook though, it gets the viewer riled up and passionate about the contestants and the show, and keeps them coming back for more.

The thing I really didn’t like to see happened in the ‘look ahead’ or preview of upcoming episodes.  They cut to a scene in the cabin, with all of the remaining contestants sitting around the living room, arguing about who’s the better researcher and who really deserves to be there.  It’s distasteful, it’s scripted drama and it really turns me off.

If the next episode turns out to be more Big Brother/Survivor-esque reality TV, I won’t be tuning in for a third episode.  After all, we know that the purpose of the show, despite what the charismatic hosts want you to believe, is to make money through viewership and ratings.  Historically speaking, that’s achieved through hedonistic and pseudo-violent drama, not science.

They’re off to a good start, I suppose, but in my mind the quality of the show could go either direction…and reality TV’s reputation doesn’t give me a great deal of hope.

Nibiru Doesn’t Exist and Planet X Is Not What You Think It Is


Andrew Lloyd’s representation of the Dark-Star

This is going to come to you as somewhat of a rant rather than a coolly drawn out and logical argument in the debate about Nibiru and Planet X.

Nibiru doesn’t exist, and Planet X is not what you think it is.

Zecharia Sitchin be damned, he is a fool spreading fools gold around the internet all in the name of cheap sensationalism, and his growing army of Sitchin-ites are at the ready to twist any scientific finding into their own perverted conformity, heralding Sitchin’s irrational and wrong ideas as evidence that the end is nigh!

Nibiru doesn’t exist, yes, I’ve already said that, but it remains worthy of repeating over and over again.   It is a figment of one man’s overactive imagination, fuelled by his incomplete understanding of Sumerian spiritual history.  I have covered this before, though none, it seems, saw fit to refute my claims, they simply walked around them in favour of something more fantastic and completely untrue.

Sitchin claims, among his evolving and inconsistent ethos, that Nibiru is a long lost sister planet to Earth, that it is the home of the Annunaki, and the origin of the Biblical Nephilim.  He claimed that Nibiru is a planet, analogous to Earth, whose elliptical orbit sends it on a 3600 year journey out of our solar system and into the deep, dark (and freezing) voids of space, eventually returning this frozen waste of a planet back to our system for just enough of a visit to let the Annunaki hop-the-pond so-to-speak, and bring about an Earthly apocalypse.  To be fair, Sitchin doesn’t claim that last part, but many of his his disciples do; no Sitchin just claims that Nibiru will collide with Earth in it’s orbit and end all life as we know it.

Apparently as a function of Sitchin-itus, his many devout and seemingly impaired followers champion his work citing historical astronomical observation work and the decades old (and since resolved) issue of Planet X as proof (somehow) that Sitchin is correct.  Let me point out now that Sitchin is not an astronomer, nor is he an astrophysicist (nor for that matter, are his followers).

So, what is Planet X then?

Strictly speaking, Planet X is a hypothetical astronomical body used in mathematical equations by astrophysicists and astronomers to account for the orbital fluctuations of the gas giants Uranus and Neptune.  This work was made famous by Percival Lowell at the start of the 20th century, but has since been resolved.  The problem was essentially that the orbit of Uranus had shown certain slight fluctuations and wobbles and it was believed at the time that there could have been a large, as yet unseen, planetary body lying just outside the visual capabilities of space telescopes of the day. A Planet “X”, whose mass (hence gravitational pull) could account for this wobble.  The discovery of Pluto seemed to validate Lowell’s theory for a short while, as Pluto itself was thought to have been the “Planet X” in question, but Pluto was eventually found to be too small to account for the gravitational distortion observed.

Argument and speculation about the existence of a heretofore unseen planet lying beyond Pluto raged on until the early part of the 1990’s, when the Voyager 2 mission enabled precise measurements of Neptune’s mass and provided the answers everyone was looking for.  Early estimations had been too generous with the mass, and in turn, the gravitational pull of Neptune on Uranus, and in the end, it turns out that these two gas giants are locked in a perpetual tug of war over their relative positions in the solar system.  This discovery had the unfortunate effect of proving that there is, in fact, no Planet X.

Now, the above is a telling of the real history of the Planet X enigma, though Sitchin and his followers would have you believe that there is another mystery afoot, and have stolen the term Planet X to fit their unfounded suppositions.  Every single bit of Sitchin’s theory is based on his interpretations of ancient religious texts and not on any iota of astronomical understanding, though there are those who refute his academic ability to even translate simple Babylonian ideology.  He has taken enormous liberties with the translation of ancient texts and derived his own, unsupported etymologies from these works.

What Zecharia Sitchin has done, is superimpose the theology of the Babylonian creation myth over made up astronomical history, though his current theories barely resemble even that.  There is no factual basis for his assertion that Nibiru or Tiamat exist as planets, for they were simply Sumerian deities.

As we move forward from here, to the further perversion of Sitchin’s own perversion of history, it becomes painfully clear that through Sitchin’s mistranslation and deliberate attempts to create his own flawed etymology, he has contributed to the polluting of popular culture with untold numbers of variations on his original idea.  It seems everyone with a pen and the ability to listen to Internet radio is following suit and forming some ill-informed idea of what Nibiru is and what it means.

Recently, there has been a rash of blog articles, presentations and videos suggesting that Nibiru is soon to be arriving in the solar system, though none care to find out the truth about Nibiru to begin with.  The most recent and most fantastic new theory, is one based wholly on Zecharia Sitchin’s “work”, and is presented by Andrew Lloyd; in it suggests that there is a dwarf-star orbiting our own star as a binary to the sun, and it is within the gravitational orbit of this dark star that Nibiru rests; though along side a respectable skill with graphic design software, I’ve not been able to find one spec of notable, peer-reviewed and verifiable science in his theory.

Our galaxy is littered with asteroids, meteors, comets and gasses, as well as a host of other real phenomenon that we haven’t yet discovered.  It is amazing enough without making up ideologies about planet gods and dates with galactic destiny.

Nibiru doesn’t exist, and Planet X is not what you think it is.

On The Form and Value of Extraterrestrial Contact on Earth – Part I

Some particularly gruesome incarnations of the alien invasion scenario have flooded our movie theatres of late, though this is nothing new.  Hollywood and by extension, western culture, has been obsessed with the subject of violent contact with extraterrestrials for decades.  Even before the advent of moving pictures on the silver screen Orson Welles presented his listening audience with a fright they never forgot, in his adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel The War of the Worlds.  One thing Hollywood has made clear is their caricature of humanities fear of visitation from another world.

Since Louie Lumiere and his brother produced the first Cinematographe in 1895, in competition with Thomas Edison and his invention of the first Vitascope, an adaptation of his earlier Kinetoscope, in 1896, there have been somewhere in the area of 300 motion pictures featuring extraterrestrial life in some form.  While not all of these films were apocalyptic, a great many offered a grim and gruesome vision of invasion, war and annihilation at the hands of an alien race.

You must be familiar with the story: after a miraculous arrival, wrapped in mystery and awe, one question teeters on the lips of every man, woman and child…what are their intentions?  Shortly after, an all-out war ensues, pitting mankind against an unknown and enigmatic foe whose technological reach far exceeds our own.  And with a great loss of life and an epic struggle worthy of Hollywood production, humanity ultimately prevails, whether by military might, universal cooperation or by the mysteries of nature, and either driving the alien marauders from our skies, or bringing their hulking ships crashing onto our lands.

Even in-so-far as there are those among us who are unable or unwilling to discern between the truths of fiction and the falsities of reality, many have speculated on just what form such a visitation might take.  Ultimately such speculation becomes a prediction (however un-provable) about not only the existence of, but the nature of extraterrestrial life in the universe.  The sciences of Astronomy and Cosmology and Theoretical Physics have given us glimpses of what may be elsewhere in the cosmos.  They speak of the probability of organic life being spread throughout our galaxy and beyond.  They speak of the likely development of such life and the best-case chances of such life developing to some point that we might call it intelligent.  And in fact the learned men, such as Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Brian Green, Chris Impey, may be the best theoretical chance we have of defining exactly what or who we might face in the deep, dark void of space.

The standard position of mainstream science suggests that microbial life may indeed be abundant in the universe, and that the conditions needed for complex life – intelligent life – to evolve, are much too stringent and fleeting to have yielded to many more than a small handful of races in the entire history of the universe.  This has been said to be a somewhat narrow view, often with decriers pointing out that intelligent life need not even be recognisable by humans.  Though one might respond to that argument by stating that life that is unrecognisable by humans is moot, for if we cannot recognise it, we may as well be surrounded by it without end.

So as can be seen, the field of speculation that surrounds the possibility of extraterrestrial life in the universe is somewhat muddy, and even still, most mainstream scientists refuse to discount the possibility that intelligent life might exist elsewhere, adding the caveat that the question is not simply of where, but of when.  If we can agree that the possibility exists, can we speculate on the form and value of our contact with such a life?

This is a highly complex subject indeed, far more so than any science fiction writer is able or willing to admit, and for the sake of convenience, I will only be discussing a small portion of the nearly infinite number of variables in question below.

Speaking first to form; what would they look like?  This is itself, a multi-faceted question, for the form of the visitor will dictate so much else about the nature and value of their visit.  In the language of science, there are conceptual boundaries by which all matter must conform in the universe – these are the laws of physics.  Scientists such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking have, though their work, determined with as much certainty as can be found, that these laws of physics are universal, meaning that their limitations and basic functions are the same no matter where one might find himself in the universe.  The effect of gravity on nearby objects of mass, the speed of light and the restrictions ensuing from that famous equation, and even the unchangeable direction of the arrow of time, as dictated by the second law of classicalthermodynamics.

More controversially though, I would argue that some, if not many of the natural laws that govern life on earth also apply to life elsewhere in the universe.  Namely, the unwritten laws associated with the process of evolution.  This may seem somewhat obvious – how could anything develop to a state of comparable “life” as humanity without the use of an evolutionary mechanism and I agree, thought there are those who would not.  It seems to me, that evolutionary biology is a universal law as well, or at the very least is part of one as yet undiscovered universal law.  If this is the case, then it stands to reason that extraterrestrial life will also be subject to the never-ending march of evolution; that its current form is the result of millions if not billions of years of evolutionary development (more likely billions, as a convenient answer to their necessarily more advanced technology).

If we can reasonably assert the above, then there are some automatic assumptions that can be made about their form.  Chiefly, that they would be a corporeal entity, with mass, shape, internal organs, sensory organs, limbs of some kind and locomotive abilities.  This, of course, does not speak to the value of such form – we could not hope to predict bipedalism (walking on two legs), or even quadrapedalism (four legs) or any variation thereof, since the specific result of the evolutionary process on any foreign entity would be entirely dependant on their own alien environment.  If the natural conditions of their world favoured the selection of octopedalism or even tripedalism, it would inevitably follow that our ET visitors would conform to that nature.  The same would apply to sense organs, and even the configuration of body parts – one could equally expect to find a tripedal alien with no head and a mouth on its elbow (if one could identify its elbow), just as well as they might expect a bipedal visitor with a telescopic neck, whose belly and finger light up when comically convenient.

Further, it would be entirely conceivable that such alien visitors could have evolved apparatus and biological processes for uses that we would find truly alien.  In this vein one can imagine many such mechanisms: something equivalent to the mysterious human psi abilities, or rapid regeneration, and even the emission of plasmatic or acrid or totally unimaginable materials….just to name a few.  Though as has been presented in recent films, any special abilities that our visiting aliens might possess, would be entirely incidental and any negative effect that they might have on Earth’s biology would be coincidental at best.  As will be discussed later, it is inconceivable that an alien race could specifically evolve abilities that are specially adapted to aid or hinder human physiology, since our physiology would have had no impact whatsoever on the process of natural selection on their world.

The underlying point is simply that the Hollywood prediction thus far has pandered to an anthropocentric notion of alien form; typically bipedal, or in recent cases, tripedal, and with a discernable psychology to boot.

What we can predict with relative confidence is basic form.

As an extension of the Law of Attraction (gravitation), our gravity (the gravitational pull of the Earth’s mass on all objects within the field) dictates that massive and hulking alien creatures could not exist on Earth as they do in Hollywood.  As gravity works by increasing the weight of an object exponentially based on its mass, any extraterrestrial visitor with a mass any larger than an elephant would be subject to crushing gravity and would likely collapse under it’s own weight.  If the argument exists that such a creature could have a disproportionate mass/weight ratio due to unique biological properties, it would follow that such a creature would be so fragile and delicate that our environment would render it to be at the mercy of the slightest breeze.  To suggest that any alien being of immense size could be balanced to our gravity so as to not be crushed under its own weight, and to not blow away on a breeze, is to be so naively anthropocentric that the argument is moot.

The result is that any extraterrestrial visitor who hopes to survive in our gravity, must conform to Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation, and as such is dictated to be of similar mass and weight as any other creature on Earth.  This is not necessarily to say that an alien creature of immense size cannot exist, since the variable gravity of its home-world may be less than our own, wherein such a creature could exist there, it simply could not inhabit our planet.

While we cannot predict with any degree of accuracy how our visiting friends would orient their features, we can reasonably predict the quality of such features.

The First Law of Thermodynamics demands that all systems be open.  Moreover, that no system is closed; meaning that biological systems, such as those that support the life of a human or an alien, are bound to both take in energy and to expel waste.  Humans, as is well known, take in energy in two ways: 1) ingestion of food and 2) respiration.  Transversely, we expel waste in two equally well known ways.

That said, it stands to reason and in fact must be, that any alien visitor would possess the ability to take in energy (in whatever form) as well as to expel waste products (again, in whatever form).

Almost all life on Earth, as with humans, depends exclusively on the radiant energy of our sun.  We ingest that energy via plants that have, through photosynthesis, converted the sun’s energy into measurable packets and/or oxygen.  Specifically, organelles called chloroplasts absorb and convert light energy into various compounds using carbon dioxide and water, ultimately expelling oxygen as a waste product.

Most mammalian life on Earth benefits from photosynthesis, either by eating plants directly or by eating other animals that have either – eaten plants or in-turn eaten other animals that have eaten plants.

What’s important here is the idea that all biological beings must take in energy in some form, and on Earth all of that energy is derived from the sun’s radiation.  Thus to survive, all biological beings must possess a faculty for taking in such energy and for converting it into usable form.  In our case a mouth with the ability to break food items into manageable bits, an oesophageal passage to transport food material into the body, and a digestive system to process food stuff into usable nutrients. As well as lungs, bronchi, alveoli and a circulatory system for the intake and processing of oxygen and the expulsion of carbon dioxide (CO2).  All of these components are necessary to support mammalian life in our atmosphere, though not all life on Earth is mammalian.

Most insects – while typically equipped with a mouth of sorts and being able to ingest food in the form of plant material, other insects and even small mammals and crustaceans – are not capable of taking in oxygen in the same manner as mammals.  Insects breathe via a collection of microscopic tubules that permeate their exoskeletal structures, drawing oxygen directly into muscle tissue and organs without the use of lungs or a mammalian circulatory system.  Often it is this feature that allows aquatic insects to remain submerged for what seems like an unreasonable amount of time, since water molecules are too large to be absorbed through the tubules and thus only oxygen can be taken in while under water.

So from photosynthesis, to aerobic energy conversion, to the direct absorbing of oxygen, we illustrate just how diverse the field of options is here on Earth, let alone throughout the universe.  But the question remains, to predict the orientation of features of an alien body, one would need to predict with some accuracy precisely how said alien takes in nutrients from its environment (whether food stuffs and/or some equivalent to oxygen, if not oxygen itself).

An extraterrestrial however, could not necessarily be said to be sustained by light and its derivatives as we are.  Though if an alien did exist which did rely on solar radiation for survival, it would not necessarily follow that such an alien would be sustained by the specific type of radiation being expelled by our sun.

In addition to a means to ingest nutrient energy, such a creature would also require external sense organs of some variety in order to interact with their environment.  In so far as we can only speculate to an extremely shallow depth on the conditions which might have selected for such organs in an alien species, we cannot confidently predict the actual form and value of such organs as they would relate to conditions on their planet, nor how they would interact with our planetary environment.  It seems reasonable to conclude that all multi-cellular life requires organs that sense fluctuations in light and in sound vibration, though we can already see examples of life already on Earth that does not conform to this idea.

Once we make the leap from not knowing whether ET requires eyes or ears to assuming that they do, we can then predict with reasonable accuracy how such organs would be oriented.  Though making such a leap would be unfounded.  It could be conceivable that an alien species might sense their environment through methods that are heretofore unfathomable, and again, the evolution of such apparatus would be dependent only on selection pressure found in their native environment.

As below, if extraterrestrial life developed on a world that is analogous to our own, we might expect to see binocular vision, stereophonic auditory features and even olfactory features, though, as has been pointed out many times before, since there is no demand for our own noses, ears and eyes to be oriented in the manner we currently find, there would be no reason to expect extraterrestrial life to conform to the same conventions of facial structure.  In fact, there could be argument to support the idea that alien “facial features” should be vastly different from our own.

Even among these assumptions there are hidden pitfalls; visual acuity in humans is vastly different than that of other mammalian life on Earth, not to mention aquatic, amphibian, avian and insect life.  The basic premise of the eye remains the same across most species, an organ tasked with receiving light input from the environment, and sending corresponding signals to the brain to be translated into useful sensory information by a cortex of some kind.  But what light inputs are received and what sensory information is useful depends entirely on the species at hand.

The visible light spectrum – a small swath of light radiation from the overall spectrum of electromagnetic energy emanating from our sun (as well as all other stars) – is called so because it is the range of electromagnetic radiation that we humans can process.  Even among mammals, let alone the myriad of other kinds of life on our planet, there is vast difference in the specific spectrum or range of usable light energy between species.  Nocturnal animals can consistently “see” much more of the infrared spectrum than we humans, while many insect species are able to detect much of the ultraviolet spectrum.  In fact many plants utilise this feature found in many species of bee and butterfly, in order to make themselves more attractive to the insects, by way of evolving markings visible only in the ultraviolet spectrum, thereby increasing their (the plant’s) individual chances of procreating.

From an admittedly anthropocentric position, it seems reasonable to claim that extraterrestrials likely will have eyes of some sort, though this is far from certain.  If their environment is predominantly without light, we might find species that are kinetically sensitive to electromagnetic fluctuations in their immediate environment, much like many types of fish on Earth, including sharks.  Or we might find that ET is visually able to detect light energy in a much larger band, say from low frequency radio waves to gamma ray radiation.

A similar argument can be presented for olfactory senses, wherein the vast diversity of olfactory capabilities found in animal life on Earth is already staggering, as this is the product of the large but finite collection of environments available on the planet combined with the power of natural selection.  Introducing other, more alien environments serves to introduce even more possibilities for the form and orientation of extraterrestrial features.

And so now that we’ve thoroughly confused the issue, it bears repeating.  While we are not able to predict the form of life outside of our small solar system, we can predict certain qualities of such form, though still with a margin of error which leaves much to the imagination.  Extraterrestrials must only conform to the laws of physics as they apply to their particular environment.  Should life evolve elsewhere, say on a planet considered analogous to our own, it is conceivable that such life might bear certain resemblances to life on Earth, though this should not be thought of as a universal rule.  For out of the infinite selection variables that have shaped life on Earth, we might have turned out quite different had the conditions of our own evolution varied even slightly.

Mankind sits atop his golden throne but for a small cup of chance, and the argument rages on.  We are not the creation of some grand vision of intelligence and superiority; we are simply the product of a set of random genetic mutations along a mammalian ancestral path.  From bipedal locomotion, to opposable digits, to binocular vision, to increased intracranial development, which ultimately allowed for the growth of a cortex that outperforms the minds of all other life on Earth.  Evolution did not favour us, it does not favour us, and as such we cannot assume that the same process resulted in the same or even similar genetic mutations elsewhere in the universe.

Does that make us unique?  Most definitely.  Does that make us special?  Perhaps.  Does that make our form the inevitable outcome for all biological development in the universe?  Absolutely not.

Part II of this piece will present arguments for and against the value of extraterrestrial contact, based on the above information.

How to Sit in a Chair; An Excerpt

The following excerpt is a sneak preview of my current work-in-literary-progress, ‘How to Sit in a Chair’ is a book I’ve been working on for some years.  I thought I’d share it with you, if only to fish for feedback and criticism.  Even though this work remains unpublished, it is covered by the copyright of this website, and as such may not be copied in whole or in part without expressed, written permission.

“It is our creation

And like all things we see

Is made up of the same stardust

As you and me

Look around you, what do you see?  Furniture?  Possibly a chair or two?  Small objects, big objects, soft things, hard things, people, animals, plants, earth, and even stars if you look up.

You are surrounded by the miracle (and I use that word loosely) of the universe.  Every particle of every atom, of every cell, of every thing came from the same small source, billions upon billions of years ago.  It seems strange to use a human convention, the word years, to describe the evolution of the cosmos, but such as we are, we will have to remain.  Somewhere between five and six billion years have passed since that first galactic event, The Big Bang; an explosion, so vast it sprayed cosmic elements across an expanding area so vast that our minds are largely incapable of comprehending its size.  So much so that I won’t even try to illustrate it.

Since that initial event, regardless of its cause, time has worked its magic.  Floating disks of gas slowly combined in empty space, they captured more gasses, combining elements in ways that now seems so basic.  As progress held its course, these gas disks compressed under the growing forces of gravity, driving elemental gasses together with such pressure that the first chemical reactions took place, eventually becoming the bright stars we see in the heavens above the earth.

This process was crushingly violent, though cosmically slow.  Over times’ course, the pressures that created the stars served to force the chemical processes which created elemental by-products; hydrogen and helium, as well as heavier components such as iron and carbon.  These elements make up everything in the universe. They, together with all of the base elements on the periodic table, are the foundation of every celestial body our minds can conceive and our technology can scan.

We too, are made from the dust of stars; our wondrous evolution was made possible through the most violent of acts.  We are the children of a cosmic accident (in more ways than one, quite possibly), and in that spirit we move on, we grow and learn and build.

As mentioned earlier, everything you can see, touch and experience is made up of the same stuff; Carbon is the building block, but the atom is the engineer.

Atoms, with neutrons and protons and nuclei; spinning, vibrating and orbiting, make up everything you can see and experience.  The subtle difference between your rear-end and the chair it rests on, is the simple matter of a vibrational frequency.  Essentially, the frequency of vibration of an atom and it’s complementary nucleic particles, determines it’s alignment with other atoms, and through that process, determines what type of matter it makes up on a macro scale.  Though, again, the difference on the atomic scale is almost negligible, and in effect reduces the difference between you and your chair to semantics.

Does that reduce your intrinsic meaning?  No, not necessarily.  That subtle difference between you and your chair is the same as the difference between you and a bar of gold, or your chair and the body of a Lamborghini.  Though, as we move up the scale of magnification on both your body and the chair, the effect of those differences becomes apparent and undeniable.  The similarities are also highlighted; you are both made up of biological matter, reinforced by elemental matter, and at different times, you are both energized by the power of the sun’s radiation.

The fact that you and your chair are made up of the same special stuff, the same stuff that makes up everything in the universe, means that you are both governed by the same laws of physics.  You are both at the mercy of gravity, you are both limited by the speed of light, and you’re both subject to the weird rules of time.  My lack of understanding in the science of non-Euclidian geometry not withstanding, I’ll spare you the tedium of a mathematical assessment of your chair, and its interaction with the environment at large, and in place I’ll open the door a little further to exploring the physics and biology of the chair.

Empty space is especially intriguing, and at reading that statement you might wonder if I’m making a joke of some kind; let me reassure you, I’m not.

When you think of matter, you most likely imagine a solid thing, an object, a fluid, a person or a planet.  But there is much more to matter than meets the eye.  If you close your eyes and imagine the atomic structure of matter, do you envision a cluster or grouping of tiny atoms, stuck together, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a huddle, straining against the varied forces of nature to maintain the shape they hold?

What if I told you that the molecular structure of matter contains more empty space than solid mass?

Consider that the molecular structure of a chunk of rock resembles a single molecule, standing alone on the centre of a professional football field in a large NFL stadium, and his next closest kin stands on the edge of the stadium’s parking lot.

That’s a lot of empty space.  So much so that the mind can scarcely believe it’s true, for if there is that much distance between molecules, why does anything appear solid?

The same applies to your chair, more empty space than solid mass, in fact, far more empty space than that of the rock.  So much empty space that the lonely NFL fan molecule’s closest kin would be several city blocks away.  While you consider what that means, try not to think about what’s keeping them connected.

Perspective is everything in the universe, if you and I were naturally tiny enough for us to see the molecular structure of our chair, without the aid of a very powerful microscope, we would certainly have no need of a chair any longer, but then our perspective would be such that the empty space would seem most practical.

As it is, our perspective has necessitated the need for objects with mass to appear completely solid, hence, the chair can support your tush for while longer.

Where would we be without Sir Isaac Newton?  Well, probably right where we are, we’d just be a little worse off is all.  Where would we be without gravity?  Better yet; what would we be without gravity?  This would be very different indeed.  Gravity defines life on earth; it binds us to our planet and binds our planet to its position in the solar system.  It also binds our sun in its position relative to the rest of the universe, even though that position is ever changing; gravity is what makes everything make sense for us.  It is a constant in our universe (though cutting edge science is beginning to refute that idea) and it dictates what we can and can’t do.

It governs our weight, relative to our atmosphere, it provides the means to assign a value to mass, and in fact it was the first invisible phenomena of our universe to be detected, categorized and measured.  In essence, gravity is the reason we’re here at all.

Without gravity, the chemical wastes spewed out by our sun billions of years ago, would never have had the chance to connect, to congeal and to ultimately form a solid.  Without gravity, hydrogen and oxygen molecules could never have condensed to create water, and well, without water, we don’t exist.  Gravity is the ultimate designer too, it provided the means by which plants grow their many varied structures, and eons ago it forced early sea creatures to adapt their biology in order to survive on land (among other things).

It restricts us as well; it says we can’t fly, and proves it every time we jump off a cliff.  Gravity gave birds the advantage of flight, but they tricked it by reducing their mass by way of hollow, non-dense bones, making them light enough to glide on air currents while big enough to survive.

And in this way, gravity has shaped the chair.  This one constant demanded that we abide by its laws and be governed by the pressure of the universe pushing down on us.  Inevitably, we got tired and decided to sit down, and the chair was there to support us in our time of need.  Its structure is sturdy, four legs (though sometimes not), supporting a seat, a back support (or not) and possibly some arm rests, all of which are under the same pressures as us, they feel the same weight, the same pull as us, and yet, the chair holds us.  In structure and form, the chair defies gravity.

This is no big deal you say; after all, most everything on earth defies gravity in some way or another, and you may be right…in fact, you are right.  It’s nothing special, until you think of life without gravity!

Amorphous blobs of proto-matter, floating, hovering and clinging to the atmosphere.  They resemble giant three-dimensional pools of toxic waste.  They’re grey, sticky in texture and seemingly lifeless, until you hear it.  It’s quiet at first, a low rumble, like the infancy of some great gurgling burp in the belly of a bar-stool football fan.  The rumbling gets louder, it creates sound waves that resonate deep inside you, and soon it becomes a deafening boom, over and over, and through all this invisible commotion, you finally see it; the grey blobs of matter begin to move, slowly at first, but they pick up speed, moving away from you, changing shape and propelling themselves by sound waves.

On this strange planet, gravity, or the lack thereof, helped evolution create a very different animal population.  They didn’t feel the force of gravity pushing them toward the earth, they didn’t have to fight against their own weight to move through their environment, and as a result, natural selection took them on very different paths of evolution than us.  They have no need for legs or supportive structures; they have no need of limbs at all, for locomotion or for any other reason.  Theirs is an existence of weightless leisure, though I’m certain they face perils none-the-less.  Weather patterns exist on even the most barren and alien worlds we know, so for sure, this planet would suffer the same changing winds, and I would imagine a species whose life is spent hovering above the surface of the ground, would be acutely affected by the winds.

Consider the chair in such an environment, it would be utterly absurd.  To confine ones self to the rigid formality of furniture, when the atmosphere is more than supportive and much more appealing; who would do such a thing?  Though, if a higher intelligence evolved in such a place, would they not have need to structure and organize the things in their lives?  The acquisition and collecting of things may be uniquely human, and it may be limited to us because of our gravitational environment.  In our gravity, things generally stay where we put them, though not necessarily so on a low or zero gravity world.

This is only one end of the gravitational spectrum however, what about life on giant planets, whose gravitational fields are many hundreds of times greater than that on earth?  Can life survive in that environment?  The answer is yes, resoundingly; we know from the study of extremophiles here on earth -a growing field of micro biology studying single celled and some multi-cellular but simple life forms mainly classified on both the archaea and eucharyote branches of the biological tree of life – that species of microbial life, such as bacteria and protists, thrive in the vast and crushing depths of our deepest oceans, huddled near geothermal vents in the sea floor, and virtually unchanged for the past billion years.  Life can, and does, exist and flourish in such extreme environments.  So what does that mean for the chair?

One would imagine that the demands of survival in such crushing gravity would necessitate the development of very small organisms, creatures whose structures must be dense enough to survive the atmospheric pressure, yet small enough to ensure their super dense mass doesn’t make movement impossible where necessary.  Very little in this environment would venture above the crust of the planets surface, and most life would exist inside protective rock formations.  It, again, would be ridiculous to conceive of such life making use of chairs.

These are two extremes however, and while we may not reside at the mean mark of the universes’ gravitational spectrum, we are at least living in the only environment that we could possibly have survived.

Mankind, even among the many thousands of species of life here on earth, is exceedingly fragile, we are frail and weak compared to our evolutionary counterparts, we are naturally ill-equipped to survive even in the environments we continually inhabit.  Outside of a small swath of tropical and sub-tropical locales around the equatorial belt of this spinning blue ball, humans would surely perish if left to survive only with our uncovered flesh exposed to the elements, anywhere but within walking distance of a sandy white beach.  Indeed, just beyond that beach is a soup of oceanic life, teaming with diversity and evolutionary adaptability, all of it surviving and thriving in an environment that is in direct opposition to that which is necessary for our own survival, and none of it, not a single species other than man, has ever seen fit to design, construct and use a chair of any kind.

It’s our big brains which leave us seated high at the top of the remedial food chain, not by brute force or natural predatory skill, but by ingenuity alone.  We adapt at a rate far faster than any creature ever known to this small planet of ours.  Through that adaptation, we have collectively harnessed the power of physics; we’ve manipulated, tweaked and experimented with those immutable laws, and used them to our advantage.  Thanks to that adaptability, we now inhabit nearly every corner of the globe, largely changing the face of the environment with the core purpose of protecting our fragile selves from the harshness of that same ecology.  We change everything we see and everything we touch, we force it all to become our slave, slaves to comfort, slaves to aesthetics, and slaves to progress; the chair is no different.

Whatever its shape, whatever its size, we can all recognise its form as that of a chair.  Its purpose, clearly, is to be sat in.  To support us, to provide respite and shelter from the long journey of life that has left us weary and tired, or to house our ingenuity as we careen recklessly down the varied roads of life.”

The Hidden Reality; Parallel Universes and The Deep Laws of The Universe

Brian Greene does it again, with a spectacularly informative book. Though a warning to all who wold crack this book open, this is not a light read and though Greene’s writing style is eminently readable, it is not meant for the unfamiliar layman.

I come away not feeling sure I understood every section, but am now armed with a working knowledge of the various multiverse/extra-dimensional theories and interpretations that quantum mechanics allows.

Whether you feel an affinity for the quilted multiverse, the inflationary landscape interpretation or the megaverse, should you get to the end of the book, you will be awed by the detail weaved into each chapter.

In my opinion, Greene is possibly the best physics author of our time, and I give this book a 4.5 out of 5.

Pick up your copy of The Hidden Reality today, through

The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking; A Review

I quite enjoyed this book. It seems Hawking and Mlodinow make a dynamic team. Much of the information provided is a rehashing of previous works by Hawking and by many other physicists, but their conclusions were surprisingly new and understandable.

Not only does this book provide more food for thought, but it could be paradigm shifting, and should be read by anyone who might call themselves informed on physics and cosmology.

My only complaint would be that the final chapter, the one which draws those new conclusions, seems unfinished. Their point is delivered and then…the book just ends.

As already mentioned, it’s a worthwhile read, I just would have appreciated more commentary on the overall point. Either way, the evening that I finished the book, I found my mind wandering about the landscape, awed by the idea that of the possible universes, our is such that stars and planets could form, that heavy elements could be created, and that biological life could develop…but most inspiring is the idea that from all that chaos could form beings who are capable of questioning, analyzing and understanding all of these details. Who needs God, when we have the world.

Pick up a copy of The Grand Design today, through

The Weight of the Technological Age

With the holiday season still hanging around in our rear view mirrors, many of us have embarked on the quintessential New Year’s resolution, the one that serves to line the pockets of fitness centre owners everywhere.  That is, we ate too much during our winter solstice revelling and now we feel compelled to make at least a token effort to lose some weight.  Well, some of us are, while some others (myself included) continue to stuff our faces well into the New Year.

We – that is to say some of us – are, it seems, obsessed with our body weight.  Having had some experience with the arena of amateur bodybuilding in my younger days, I am all too familiar with the mechanism that serves to make us overly focused on how much we weigh (though I am no longer afflicted so).  What happens to that weight when you “lose” it though?

No, this is not the introduction to a new weight loss scheme or a fad diet, but rather a discussion of the physics of weight, or mass to be specific.

What is weight?  It is the product of gravitational pull on the mass of an object.  Every object has mass, from the smallest organisms to the largest planets, but weight depends on those objects being close enough to each other to combine their natural gravitational pull.

Sir Isaac Newton, who was the first to describe and measure the force of gravity, expressed the gravitational pull of spherical objects (where the majority of their mass can be assumed to be at their core) in terms of the following equation:

F = G (M1*M2/R2)

  • F is the force of attraction between them.
  • G is a constant that is 6.67259 x 10-11 m3/kg s2 (known as the Gravitational Constant).
  • M1 and M2 are the two masses that are attracting each other.
  • R is the distance separating the two objects.

So, again, everything has mass, so everything has a measurable weight relative to another object.  On Earth, that other object is generally given as Earth.  When you step on that bathroom scale, the number given is a representation of the result of the above equation.  It gives you a measurement of the gravitational pull between you – your body – and the Earth, expressed in the common terms of pounds or kilograms.  But as you might now be asking, if the scale tells you your weight relative to the Earth, then what does the Earth weigh?

Using the above, one can in fact work out the weight of the Earth, or, more accurately, the mass of the Earth.  And it turns out this is one heavy planet.

The Earth’s mass is approximately 6×1024, or 6,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000 kilograms. And one might add that it’s gaining weight, albeit ever so slowly.

In addition to the tons of space dust and meteorite material that enters our atmosphere annually, there is a phenomenon occurring now that is directly related to us and our technology, believe it or not.

It can be argued that Earth’s biosphere is a closed system.  That is to say we, as a planet, neither lose nor gain appreciable amounts of matter or energy as time goes on.  Our material resources are finite, and the use of those resources amounts to a huge exercise in recycling.  This is true, to a point, but it’s inaccurate.

Every bit of energy used on this planet comes from our sun, as in solar radiation energy.  It is used either directly, as in photosynthesis or solar power collection, or even heat, or indirectly as in fossil fuels, or through the consumption of plant materials by animals etc. (There are other ways, of course, but this will suffice for the current discussion.)  The same is true for electricity, whereas it’s either direct or indirect solar energy that initiates the flow of electrons in electric circuits, which by definition is electricity.  Electrical systems make use of this flow by either powering components and thereby using up the indirect solar energy, or storing the potential of the energy in capacitors or batteries for later use.

Believe it or not though, this is contributing to the fluctuation of the mass of the planet.

According to John Kibiatowicz, professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkley, a Kindle e-reader weighs more when it’s fully loaded with e-books than when it’s empty.[1]  Admittedly, the weight difference is so slight that it’s technically unmeasurable in a single e-reader device.  The difference is said to be approximately 10-18 grams, which is about a billionth of a billionth of a gram, or what is known as an atogram.  Since today’s most sensitive scales have an effective resolution of about 10-9 grams, it’s beyond negligible, but there is a difference.

It can be scaled up though, and according to Michael from Vsauce in a video on his YouTube channel (see below), when you apply the same logic and mathematics to larger collections of digital information, say the internet as a whole, it turns out that such data weighs on the order of 12 grams or as much as the average strawberry.

This may not make much sense to you, as it didn’t to me until I looked into it.  After all, digital data is just a particular arrangement of imaginary 1’s and 0’s on a hard drive, or on a more fundamental level, the specific arrangement of electrons on the surface of a memory device.  Where they are on the disk shouldn’t amount to a hill of beans in terms of the weight of the device on which they’re stored.  However, as mentioned above, even electrons have mass, and if they have mass, they have weight.  In the case of electrons that weight is beyond infinitesimal, but when there’s a lot of them it can start to make a difference.  Thus, adding more information means adding more electrons, and more weight.

The same is apparently true for fully charged electronic devices vs. devices with no battery power, since charged means only that there are more electrons stored in the devices battery or capacitors.

So how does this mean the Earth is getting heavier?

As mentioned, the Earth is considered a closed system, but it really isn’t.  We’re bombarded on a second by second basis with particles from the sun.  All manner of particles, including electrons.  Some of these particles pass right through, others bounce off our magnetosphere, and others are absorbed in the form of solar energy.  In general this is a two-way street, as heat energy and electromagnetic energy are constantly ejected into space from our atmosphere, however, with the advent of electronics, much more of that energy is retained in our devices than has been released historically.

As has been illustrated though, energy has mass has weight, therefore the more energy is retained in our massive planetary system, in the form of electric potential, the more the planet weighs.  It would never be an extreme weight gain, but compared to other ages of our planet, our penchant for electronic toys has had a measurable impact on the weight or mass of the planet Earth.  This of course has no real impact on anything resembling reality, it’s just interesting food for thought.  Mmm…food.

[1] C. Clairborn, Ray. The Weight of Memory.  The New York Times. October 24, 2011: