fomalhautLast night I had the good fortune to fill my nerdy brain with information about exoplanets, courtesy of Alex Filippenko. Here, in a dumbed-down a probably slightly inaccurate form, is what I learned.

Dr. Fillippenko’s a pretty happy guy, and in his brief pre-history of the current state of exoplanets research, he brought up another smiley guy my favorite Greek philosopher, Democritus. I only learned about Democritus recently while reading You Are Here. He thought of the idea of atomic structure, but what I learned last evening is that back in around 400 BCE, he also proposed the existence of other solar systems. According to Wikipedia, “Plato is said to have disliked him so much that he wished all his books burned.” Hmm, Plato… jealous? As I said in my previous post, it’s hard to understand why we study Plato, who obviously had his head up his ass when compared with scientific theories of his peer. In addition, Democritus, like Filippenko, is always pictured smiling whereas Plato always looks fairly grim.

As of this writing, there’s been about 15 years of research. Before that, there was virtually no evidence of any planets outside our solar system. In that short time, about about 500 exoplanets have been discovered. That in itself is pretty amazing. You can see them all for documented for your self in the The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia. At first all they found was huge, huge planets orbiting very close to the stars. They didn’t even believe they were planets at first because it seemed so weird — several times the size of Jupiter? 4 days orbits? But eventually they realized, no, these really exist. These type of planets were called Hot Jupiters. There’s easy to find because they’re huge and they move quickly, which means you don’t have to monitor for long before you can identify the orbit.

Filippenko discussed five methods for identifying planets, which I will briefly and poorly summarize below. Each method that was subsequently developed helped to find smaller and smaller planets. These detection methods are more accurately explained in Wikipedia.

As more methods have been created, exoplanets discovery has gone from planets about 100 times the size off earth to about 5 times. There have been about 3 super-earths discovered, meaning a planet 10 times the size of earth or less.

Now, all this planet discovery has led to another discovery which is that most solar systems identified are not at all like ours. There are hot jupiters, and also planets with elliptical (so-called eccentric) orbits. There are tidal planets, meaning they face only one way (like the moon), and do not rotate. Granted, life may flourish anywhere, but from what we know thus far (not much, really) it’s most likely to evolve when conditions are similar to earth. Thus the quest for a earth-like planet.

kepler_fov_hires.jpgTo this end, there is currently the Kepler Mission, which is a space observatory staring very diligently at a quadrant of space, a quadrant that for various reasons was chosen as the best area to observe for possible earths. Hmm… strange… isn’t that Vega in the diagram? That reminds me of a movie…

“Seti, man, that’s fringe… that must really chap his ass.”

I wonder if Sagan new about the potential for the Kepler Mission when he wrote Contact?

coastal cleanup head… apparently growing out of some man’s shoulder.

P9050557 copy


Photos by Shelley O’Connell

Crows & Hawks -- The Map!
SEE the MAP

Please keep sending in your crows & hawks stories, and don’t forget to include where you are writing from. Thanks!

From September 2010 (original siting): K. and I were up at Sibley today, relaxing and gazing at the great view. We were watching a murder of crows flying about when we realized there was a small hawk — maybe a Cooper’s Hawk? (I didn’t have my ‘nocs) — among them. Then we realized there were two small hawks. Everyone was flying around, and no one seemed to be attacking anyone.

Then we saw a red-tailed hawk join the same, and s/he was doing the same — swooping, diving, but apparently not attacking. They all looked like they were just have fun. I looked around the Internet and haven’t seen anyone else commenting on this phenomenon. All the posts I can find are about a group of crows attacking a hawk (which I’ve certainly seen) or a hawk occasionally getting the a crow. Neither K. or I could detect any aggression in the exchange, which went on for about 1/2 hour.

I have never experienced any “magical forces” at Sibley, but it is one of my favorite places to go. I can never believe that its magnificent view is only a few minutes from where I live.

Some folks, though, have their own supernatural ideas about the place

This was the only photo I could find of a hawk hanging out with crows in a non-combatitive state.
hawk and three crows

November 2011

We recently went on a hike where we saw a huge “murder” of crows — maybe a hundred — and noticed that there was one red-tailed hawk flying amongst them. The photo below is of some of the scene below I can’t really find the hawk. I still have hopes of getting photographic evidence.

Update November 2012

If anyone gets a photo of crows & a hawk together, please send me the link and I’ll post it here. Also, be sure to tell us where in the U.S. (or elsewhere) you saw this phenomenom when you comment below. I’ve made a map of the general location of all the sitings reported here in the comments.

Update October 2016

For anyone who posted in the last four months, I finally have added you to the map, now in it’s sixth year with 56 sitings.

hawk-with-crows-500.jpg

Update November 2014

Hmm, November seems to be the magic month for updates. We now have photos!

Cherry Blossom back tattooIn my review of the Science of Superstition, I talked about how just because science can’t explain or measure something, it doesn’t mean it’s not occurring. To whit: I had another odd dream-reality coincidence. I had a dream that my friend and bandmate J. had a large tattoo of flowers across her back in a diagonal swash-like way. Then I bumped into her and her girlfriend and told her about this dream. She said, “That is so weird! I recently saw a woman with a tattoo just like that, and I was just telling R. (her girlfriend) about it!” R. jaw literally dropped open. I just said, “Yeah, things like that happened.” I don’t know why I acted so nonchalant about it, because that is an odd coincidence, just like the baby seal dream.

Cosmic Pinwheel

Read all about it!

How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs

science_superstition.jpgFinally! I book to answer my burning question, “Why, in an age where scientific information is so readily available, to people prefer to belief in irrational ideas?” By irrational ideas I’m referring to religion, new-age mumbo jumbo, crummy appropriations of Native American beliefs, UFOs, etc. It boggles my mind that someone would prefer creationism — for which there is no proof, to evolution — which has almost limitless proof. The Science of Superstition sets out to answer this question with the following hypothesis: Because the human brain is made that way.

kanizsa_emergent_square.jpgBruce M. Hood, who is a professor of child development and cognitive development, cites numerous studies in this helpful book of how humans perceive and interpret their surroundings from 12 hours old, through various childhood ages, and adulthood. In these studies, he shows that humans have a natural propensity to “fill in the blanks” when information is missing, whether visually or experientially. For a visual example, he uses this illustration called a Kaniza figure. Both babies and adults see the square that isn’t actually there. *

Experientially, humans continually try to perceive patterns in a seemingly random world. They create rituals to try control a world that they cannot. Children easily create lucky charms or personal rituals to help them overcome fear. I remember that when I was three, my parents felt I was old enough to go to the bathroom alone in the middle of the night. Since this frightened me, I took a impulsively toy with me. But then, since one toy made me feel less afraid, I figured if is good, two is better. As time went on, I had to collect more and more toys until finally one night I did not make it to the bathroom in time. When I realize what I had done, I started to cry, and one parents or another appeared and assessed the situation. They kindly suggested I leave the toys behind in the future, which I did to avoid future embarrassment. I use the example because he coincides with Hood’s hypothesis that humans naturally develop ritual behavior (collecting toys to ward off unknown harm) and magical thinking (that I can control unknown harm — the bad –through toys — the good).

As we mature and develop rational thought, we never really rid ourselves of this type of thinking. Hood cites studies that show that we actually spontaneously have supernatural thoughts (his term for magical thinking) but actually expend energy to suppress these thoughts and act on the more rational one. It happens instantaneously, and we usually are not aware that we suppressing anything.

In some cases, though, this is the type of thinking we that is the root to many false ideas we stubbornly hold on to as adults. And for some adults it is easier to just believe the magical thinking and not work on developing rational thought. This is why some people are naturally drawn to religion and some are not. It is easier to believe in an all-seeing all-knowing god than random chaos. It works better for the typical human mind.

Of course, some people are not encouraged or repressed from developing rational thought, and instead encouraged to believe specific myths of ideology. Although sometimes a person who has only been encouraged to believe supernatural thoughts breaks away to follow rational thinking, often people don’t have the impulse, desire or courage to do so. And yet other people, raised without much supernatural thought, will be drawn to religion as an adult, simply because it brings them comfort.

Hood spends some time in his chapter “The Biology of Belief” exploring two things. One is that some people are naturally skeptics and some are believers, and that this can be traced to the amount of dopamine production in their brain. Whether the level of dopamine effects the person’s outlook or vice versa isn’t conclusively shown, although Hood seems to feel that it’s just a biological predisposition.

The other part of the chapter talks about the phenomenon that all people experience which is that someone is watching him. This is where his logic gets fuzzy. He claims that since this is a universal feeling that all people have without being taught, it is a prime example of the brain’s tendency towards imaginary occurrences. However, he quotes a study which showed that on average people can tell whether they are being watched or not even if they have no other cues to guide them. But since science can not show a way how that could be happening, it could not be happening. Somehow the data is flawed. Ahem? That idea is what’s pretty flawed. Could it be that it is happening, but science just doesn’t have a way to measure how? I think we all know that ignoring data that doesn’t fit your hypothesis is the antithesis of science.

A type of thought that Hood explores more successfully is the idea that inanmate objects can be imbued with the good or bad qualities of the owner. His favorite example is asking people if they would wear a sweater that was owned by a murderer. Most people will not put the sweater on. However, clothing worn by people we love, whether celebrities or relatives, is highly desirable. Many family arguments, sometimes never to be resolved, are about the division of a deceased relative’s cherished belongings. Objects of sentimental value are irreplaceable even if they themselves are inherently worthless. This is a better example of a non-religious supernatural thought that appears fairly spontaneously in humans. This type of thinking can extend beyond the personal to a group. For example, observant Jews cannot touch objects on the Sabbath which would lead them to do acts that are forbidden on the Sabbath. Since Jews cannot light fires on the Sabbath, matches are forbidden (muksah). In my experience with this custom, it was pretty easy to start thinking of the word muksah to mean tainted.

One obvious flaw I found in Hood’s thinking is that humans construe order out of a random universe. Babies will take objects and put like with like. Human brains like categories, order, and patterns and will impose them on their surrounding. But… who said the universe is random? Events that occur to us personally may seem random, but the universe itself is nothing but ordered. In fact, it’s the very orderliness of it that makes people think of divine origin, a mastermind, or gods behinds its creation. It is so ordered it is very difficult to think of it as being created randomly without forethought. Which is where a lot of religion comes from: the question “Who made this incredibly well-designed world?”

Of course, I don’t agree with everything that Hood puts forth in this book and find some holes in his thinking. But science, unlike many religions, is not stagnant but ever-evolving. Evolution is built into it because it’s based on human curiosity and exploration. Religion is based on ideas that are not supposed to change. It’s the permanence and eternalness of it that brings people comfort.

But outside of science and religion, there are thoughts about life and death and the universe that are brought about by wonderment and exploration. Many of these ideas we may have sound irrational but maybe, just maybe, it’s because science hasn’t figured out how it works yet. Like knowing when you’re being watched. Hood’s book does not take into account that there are still many, many things yet to be discovered through science and some phenomenon that today look like scientific impossibilities might yet be measured and observed.

For the most part, though, The Science of Superstition is a good book to start understanding why someone you know is more interested in astrology than astronomy and similar irrational pursuits. And, if you still want to participate in a religion after reading the book, his site has this handy and humorous chart on which one to pick.

*Apparently, babies get quickly bored when shown the same image over and over and stop paying attention to it. So they measure the babies attention to diagrams to see if they think they are seeing the same thing (drawings of square vs. the Kaniza emergent square).