Louisa Oakley Green Ponders The Invisible, Luminous Universe

“Strange to say, the luminous world is the invisible world; the luminous world is that which we do not see. Our eyes of flesh see only night.”—Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

I wonder if French novelist Victor Hugo realized how true that statement might be when it comes to our disappearing universe? Disappearing universe, you might wonder? What’s that all about?

Well, to explain that, I must first flash back to my recent attendance at a Deepak Chopra lecture. I am not particularly a fan. His financial empire sets off an internal cynic alarm, but I was curious about what this icon was like in person. If I can leave a lecture with one new insight or nugget of information, I’m satisfied.

Most of his talk was predictable, but at one point he mentioned something that piqued my curiosity. He talked about the acceleration of matter in the expanding universe and how all galaxies are racing away from the Big Bang to the point of eventually exceeding the speed of light. It was a simple idea, but inspired some additional reading when I got home.

My area of science is biology, not astrophysics, and it never occurred to me that anything could exceed the speed of light. Yes, there’s the Warp Drive from Star Trek that supposedly creates a warp bubble enabling a ship to do just that. The ship remains in the bubble while the space “warps” around it. But as much as it pains me, the point must be made that Star Trek is still fiction.

Does Relativity Allow for Faster Than Light?

According to what I’ve read, under the special theory of relativity, a particle with subluminal velocity needs infinite energy to accelerate to the speed of light, although special relativity does not rule out the existence of particles that travel faster than light at all times (tachyons). That definition did not offer an entirely clear explanation for a non-astrophysicist, however, so I found a web column titled Ask an Astronaut—run by volunteers at Cornell University—that offered some more digestible insights.

First, the author explains, the universe is, indeed, expanding faster than the speed of light. But we should not think of it as a collection of galaxies all careening away from a central point.

Instead, he likens the universe to “a giant blob of dough with raisins spread throughout it” (raisins equal galaxies; dough equals space). Now imagine the dough is placed in a celestial oven and begins to expand, or more precisely, to stretch, maintaining the same proportions as before but with all the distances between galaxies expanding over time.

This, apparently, is what’s happening out there. Galaxies will eventually race away from us and disappear into the darkness, one by one, as if shut off by an immense omnipotent dimmer switch (albeit, long, long, long after we are all gone from this mortal coil).

Is Seeing Believing?

These galaxies are real, measurable entities that will someday fade beyond our perception. Perhaps millions of them already have and are quietly occupying an unseen pocket of our universe. This concept resonates with me and my personal experiences, the specifics of which I will explain a bit further down in this article. An important point I would like to make here is this: This is a scientific example of something that truly exists, but is beyond our ability to sense. Galaxies that exceed light speed in comparison to our galaxy, will travel too fast for their light to return to us so that we can detect them. However, their invisibility will not make them cease to exist or consign them to the realm of fiction. They’ll still be out there, somewhere, dwelling in an imperceptible cosmos. Any life that exists in those galaxies will forever be beyond our discernment as well.

Why does this resonate with me? I write about science all day, but I am married to a man who has a special ability to sense the invisible. In short, he’s psychic. What I explore in my book, Loitering at the Gate to Eternity, through research and stories is the possible existence of unseen energy beyond the physical realm. To be more specific, my book broaches the idea that maybe, as neuropsychiatrist and former Harvard Medical School instructor Dr. Diane Hennacy-Powell suggests, psychics may possess more sensitive nervous-system antennae than the rest of us. And they may be picking up on an entire plane of energy out there moving at a frequency beyond common observational measurement, like a galaxy traveling beyond the speed of light, like subatomic particles without the aid of instrumentation, or like our thoughts and emotions.

Is the Universe Invisibly Crowded?

Perhaps as Victor Hugo once wrote, “the luminous world IS the invisible world,” something we are too limited to see with “eyes of flesh.” Who knows how many universes and dimensions may exist beyond technology’s grasp? Are there bustling worlds silently surrounding or overlapping with our own? Why not? In a cosmos brimming with diverse energies, anything is possible.

It’s something to contemplate, perhaps even hope for, as we gaze into the night skies and fondly remember the faces, words and nuances of our departed who sometimes seem to exist only in the ghosts of our memories.

Incredible Out-Of-Body-Experience fMRI Results Aren’t What You Think

Did you see headlines like this over the last few days?  “The Woman Who Can Will Herself Out Of Her Body” or “Scientists unlock mystery of out-of-body experiences (aka astral trips)”, or even “Out-of-body experiences are the result of unusual brain activity, study claims”?

If you just read the headline and not the linked articles, you might have gotten the wrong impression.  Actually, even if you did read the article you may still have gotten it mixed up, but that’s not really your fault.

All three of those headlines, and a host of others, refer to a “study” published 10 February, 2014 in the science magazine Frontiers, titled Voluntary out-of-body-experience, an fMRI study.[1]  The story broke via a Popular Science Magazine article by Douglas Main, titled The Woman Who Can Will Herself Out Of Her Body.

It’s an interesting story.  An unnamed Canadian woman, an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa, whom had attended a lecture on out-of-body-experiences, came forward claiming that she has the ability to leave her body at will.  To qualify that, her claim is that she, since childhood, has been able to induce a state of being that to her feels like she has left her body, whenever she wants.

At face value, this claim is no different than any other claim that a person can somehow leave their physical form in a non-corporeal state, and exist as some form of energy or body-less soul in the environment of their physical location.  Also known as astral projection or astral travel, this is a phenomenon that has been known to occult, metaphysical, and spiritual circles for many, many years.  And while those who undertake the practice, whether voluntary or not, seem to have no doubt that the experience is real, there is relatively little evidence to support it as a real phenomenon, as opposed to an hallucination.

Anyway, after coming forward, this woman underwent an fMRI “study” in the hopes that researchers might be able to see what was happening in her brain during such an episode.  What they found is impressive and interesting, but it doesn’t mean what the authors of those headlines mentioned above think it means.

There are a significant number of caveats that need to be put forward before anyone can really understand what happened here.

1)      This wasn’t a study.  It was an fMRI procedure that was described and discussed in a pseudo-research paper.  The output of the procedure is a technical readout that required interpretation by experts, but the fact that it was a single participant, and not a group of people surveyed and assessed with controls and blinding, means it’s not a study.

2)      The cited paper didn’t make any of the claims that the subsequent articles suggested, like the statement that science has “unlocked” out-of-body-experience, or that this woman can leave her body at will.  It says only that, during periods of time when she feels like she has achieved this astral trip, the brain imaging revealed the quoted results.  It does not confirm out-of-body-experience in any way.

3)      The publication in which the paper appeared, is not a peer-reviewed journal.  It is (self-described) as an “open source, community based academic publisher”.  It is reputable and is a valuable resource, but much of what appears on its website is suppositional commentary on on-going research.  It does have a community driven review forum, but this is not the same as peer-review publication.

4)      The purpose of the “study” was not to confirm or deny out-of-body-experiences.  It was to determine what goes on in the brain of a person who undergoes the experience, whatever that experience may actually be.

Now, to the result.  It turns out that when this woman undertook her astral trip during the fMRI procedure, the results showed significant deviation in her neural activity in the parts of her brain related to both visual processing and motor control.  And there was a significant activation in the area of her brain that is related to kinesthetic awareness (where your body parts are in relation to the rest of you).

This is fascinating, if you’re interested in neuroscience and psychology.  It provides insights into the way in which our brains organize and process sensory information, and the physiology of altered states of consciousness.

As mentioned though, it does not prove the case for out-of-body-experience.  The authors of the paper used the word hallucination several times throughout the paper as a label for what was happening, and it’s as good a word as any.  The woman involved claims that her experience is real, but this hasn’t been tested, at least in scientific terms, as it could have been with little effort.  The only evidence that she has this ability is her own claim that she does so.

The possibility does exist.  Most certainly.  But that’s really a separate issue from the “study” in question.

There is much better research that offers much better chances for finding answers in this regard.  Dr. Sam Parnia and his AWARE Study (which actually is a study) through the Human Consciousness Project is a prime example of what’s being done.  There’s also Dr. Dean Radin’s veritable mountain of research, experiments, and testable theories, among many other talented and brilliant scientists who focus on these subjects.  So with that in mind, why would anyone choose to place so much emphasis on a non-study-study that doesn’t say what they want it to say?

I leave you with the following:

“The human mind is a delusion generator, not a window to truth.” — Scott Adams

As amazing as our highly evolved brains are – and even in spite of evidence to the contrary in our culture, it is an amazing organ – they are really not to be trusted.  Outside of a discussion of existential psychology – which might suggest that what we think we know as reality, is nothing more than an elaborate dream – our brains primary function is to fool us into thinking that things are certain ways, when they really are not.

Astral travel may well be real, or at least no less real than any other form of reality, but how are we to differentiate between an hallucination and an unquantified experience confined to your head?

[1] Andra M. Smith & Claude Messier. Voluntary out-of-body-experience: an fMRI study. Frontiers in neuroscience.  10 February, 2014. http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00070/full

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos Reboot A Hit

After last night’s world premiere of the Fox reboot Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, this time hosted by the rock star Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, water coolers around the world are abuzz with commentary and opinion.


This repackaging of the BBC original series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, hosted by legendary scientist and science communicator, Carl Sagan in the late 1970’s, was aggressively promoted and endorsed by some of the largest names in science today.  Before airing it was seen as an opportunity to inspire a love of science in a younger generation, and it seems they’ve hit that mark dead on.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Judging by the commentary I saw circulating twitter during the show, many people tuned in and most were pleased with what they saw, myself included.  Tyson, and executive producers Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan’s widow) created a visually stunning tour of the cosmos.  The opening sequence and lead segment were just beautifully done.  Nearly 100% CGI, that portion of the show offered an unprecedented view of our solar system, our galaxy and our universe, all the while offering easily digested facts about scale, history and the general physics of cosmology.  An excellent beginning!

There are some things about this show, however, that are somewhat surprising, to me at least.  Not the least of which is the fact that it’s produced by the Fox Network.  This is a group of people who are notoriously anti-science, or should I say, pointedly right-wing conservative.  I was initially surprised to learn that Seth MacFarlane was involved as well, but after considering his known love of science and his liberal stance on most social issues, it’s really not surprising at all.

Seth MacFarlane

Today though, I have seen some people offering criticism of the show, citing a heavy reliance on CGI and flashy graphics, countered by only rudimentary science content.  I disagree with that assessment.  It seems to me that the entire purpose of the show, as with the original, is in popularising science among people who would normally not be exposed to such information, or least be inspired by it.  High production value and eye catching visuals are an important part of attracting the attention of those people who might otherwise be tuning into brainless reality TV.  It’s not intended to be a challenging academic program, offering new insights to those who are already well versed in the science covered.  It’s a window into the world of science, one that will hopefully invite more people to enter the discussion.

I was also surprised by the apparently anti-religious tone Tyson et al took on for the second segment.  Don’t get me wrong, everything they covered was factual, and indeed more than relevant.  I personally believe that history is of paramount importance, in highlighting the failures of our past, so that we may avoid them in the future.  And I think that was the spirit in which they offered that information.  However, I can see, quite easily, how those of a religious persuasion might have viewed that segment as deliberately antagonistic and insulting.  After all, the fastest way to turn religious people off, is to point out the flaws of their belief system.  I would submit too, that those people are the ones who would most benefit from a deeper understanding of the science offered by the show.  Turning them off may be counter-productive.

Carl Sagan

In the wake of the premiere, The New York Times reports that the show’s ratings were less than expected.  Neilson, the television ratings watchdog, reports that there were 5.8 million total viewers on the Fox network, which landed it squarely in the third place spot among competing shows like Resurrection, Intelligence and NCIS, not to mention The Walking Dead.  Though those Neilson numbers don’t account for the simulcasting of the show on other networks like National Geographic and FX, nor time-shifted broadcasting and DVR records.  So it may have done better than it seems.

[UPDATE: Seth MacFarlane reported Monday that the combined numbers were 17.5 million viewers, meaning the show was a success.]

The premiere episode finished off with a heartfelt tribute to Carl Sagan, beginning with Tyson’s own memories of his encounters with Sagan and his influence on Tyson’s career and passion for science communication.  Carl Sagan was a hero to many, he was a pillar of reason and insight, and his work as both a world class scientist and science communicator has offered us – all of us – a much deeper understanding of the world around us.  He was the first of our ambassadors to space, and was a pioneer in the effort to expand our minds to include a view of the cosmos as a part of us.

Sagan is deeply missed by a lot of people, and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a worthy tribute to his greatness and contributions.