September 30 – Happy Birthday, Phil Plait

Posted on September 30, 2016

Is it a compliment to be called The Bad Astronomer?

One would think that Phil Plait, an astronomer who lives in Boulder, Colorado, would feel insulted when people call him The Bad Astronomer. But actually, it's a name he embraces and uses himself.

You see, in the late nineties, working astronomer Phil Plait noticed that there was a lot of public interest in astronomical topics – but also a lot of misconceptions, conspiracy theories, and muddled thinking. He saw astronomical goofs in movies, in the news, in articles, and especially on the Internet.

He decided to do something about it. In 1998 he launched a website he called Bad Astronomy. On that website, he provided correct information and good sources plus some all-important critical thinking about news items and conspiracy theories. Some of the topics he discussed on Bad Astronomy included the so-called Moon landing “hoax” (newsflash – not a hoax, people really have landed on the Moon) and the predictions of a Planet X cataclysm.

One would think that whoever made this claim had never seen his
own looooonnng, skinny shadow when the Sun is near the horizon.

Get out more, dude!

The silliness of claiming that the Apollo moon landings were faked
has been debunked, but of course more silliness keeps cropping up.

Remember when people were convinced the world was going
to end in 2008 (when we turned on the Large Hadron Collider)?
And then the world was going to end again, in December of 2012,
due to a so-called prediction from a Mayan calendar?

Plait's website got a lot of attention, especially after he criticized a Fox Network special. He started getting a lot of thanks from average citizens who weren't sure what to make of crazy-sounding claims and doomsday predictions, and he started getting thanks from others in the scientific community as well.

Soon Plait started a blog – also called Bad Astronomy – and to some extent he branched out from astronomy. Soon he was working with NASA and Discover Magazine, becoming a person of interest at skeptics' conferences, becoming a speaker... He has since appeared on TV and other media, given TED talks, hosted a TV series, written books, served as president of the James Randi Educational Foundation - well, he has since done LOTS of things! He's won several awards and honors and has even had an asteroid named after him (165347 Philplait)!

Enjoy some wisdom, Plait style:

Also on this date:
(last Friday in September)

Anniversary of the first tooth extraction with anesthesia

Chewing-gum mogul William Wrigley's birthday

Anniversary of the commissioning of the world's first nuclear submarine

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September 29 – Happy Birthday, Joseph Banks Rhine

Posted on September 29, 2016

J.B. Rhine Is an Ass.”

That was the name of a newspaper article published by famous Sherlock Holmes author, Arthur Conan Doyle, about today's birthday boy, Joseph Banks Rhine.

Why did Doyle think so poorly of Rhine?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was great at creating a complex fictional detective character who remains popular to this day. Doyle was really good at crafting detective stories that have kept generations of readers interested. But he wasn't really good at everything.

A 10-year-old and a 16-year-old were able
to fool Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with their
so-called photographs of fairies. He put
his reputation on the line by writing multiple
booklet attesting to the "fact" that the fairy
photos were real.

They weren't.
One of the big not-so-good things about Doyle was his uncritical attitude about spiritualism, communicating with the death, mediums and seances and all the rest of it. Doyle was very enthusiastic about all of that stuff. So enthusiastic that he became a True Believer, and he wasn't able to think clearly about the topic. If people said that a particular séance was full of trickery, Doyle pushed away the evidence. If someone said that a particular medium was a fraud, Doyle ignored the report.

This photo shows Crandon supposedly
exuding "ectoplasm" from her nose.

Later studies have shown that Rhine
was correct - Crandon was an
illusionist pretending that her illusions
were real. And that makes her
a fraud!
J.B. Rhine had attended a séance put on by medium Mina Crandon. He claimed that he observed Crandon kicking a megaphone to give the impression it was levitating (rising up through the power of an invisible spirit), using luminous objects to represent otherworldly spirits, and doing other tricks. Rhine wrote an article exposing Crandon's tricks, and Doyle attacked him in response.

The weird thing is that Rhine was a bit of a believer, too. At least he wanted to be. 

Rhine had studied to be a scientist – a plant scientist, or botanist, to be exact. While at the university where he was earning his Master's and PhD, Rhine heard a lecture given by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle. In the lecture, Doyle said that there was scientific proof that mediums really were communicating with the dead. (That's incorrect, by the way.) And the idea fascinated Rhine and his wife so much that Rhine soon left botany for a new “science,” parapsychology.

Rhine is pretty famous for his research on ESP, or extra-sensory perception. Could people know what is on a hidden card, or what another person is thinking, or what is going to happen soon – through some previously unknown ability?

With his scientific training, Rhine knew that he should set up a properly controlled experiment with which he could test these possible powers of the mind. And, from what I can tell by reading about Rhine and his work, I think he tried to set up a proper experiment. I think that he didn't want to fool himself like he probably realized Doyle was fooling himself about mediums and seances.

But he did fool himself, unfortunately.

Working at Duke University, NC, Rhine tested Duke undergraduate students for ESP using Zener cards. The experimenter picks up a card in a shuffled deck of 25 cards, observes which of the five symbols is on the card, and records the guess of the student being tested.

Most students guessed right about as many times as chance predicts – about 20% of the time. But some students did way better.

At times, at least.

Rhine thought that his amazing undergrads had ESP (and I do think that he was fooling himself, not trying to trick people), but here are some of the problems with this experiment:

  1. Some people are really good at making predictions because they have excellent memories about which cards have already been played. There are five cards with each symbol, and the experimenter just went straight through the shuffled deck; certainly later “guesses” had a much better chance of being correct for test-takers with good memories.
  2. Studies have shown that poor shuffling techniques make it much easier to predict cards, and Rhine's first experiments were done with experimenters shuffling cards by hand.
  3. Another way of making a correct prediction is to note slight stains and smudges and bends and other imperfections in the cards. Some of the undergrads used the cards multiple times for identical tests; it's possible that they got to know (consciously or unconsciously) the back-sides of the cards. In the earliest tests, it was actually possible to see through the cards in some lighting conditions!
  4. It's possible that the experimenter who observed the cards had a “tell” – some difference in how he held or looked at the cards, how he sounded, depending on the card. Much more likely is that test takers might have been able to see at least a bit of the cards reflected in the experimenters' glasses or even their corneas. Note that each of the symbols is a different color.
  5. Some of the “exceptional subjects” – the undergrads who seemed to guess the cards at a better-than-chance rate – were actually allowed to handle the cards, shuffle and cut the cards, themselves. We've all seen magicians who are able to manipulate decks of cards in what seem like remarkable ways – so any handling by those taking the tests throws the data from the tests into question.
  6. Chance evens out to 20% – but only after a LOT of random trials. Certainly there can be what seems to be remarkable runs of luck, of particular dice throws, say, or high-scoring poker hands – but if you keep throwing dice or dealing poker hands, you will eventually see the magical-seeming run flattening out.

    Rhine's “exceptional” under-grads sometimes seemed to guess better-than-chance, sometimes seemed to guess worse-than-chance, and of course sometimes seemed to guess at the chance rate of 20%. Unfortunately, investigation of Rhine's work showed that he tended to think that the positive results showed ESP, and that the negative or neutral results could be explained by the subject being tired or bored or even angry.

As others studied Rhine's results and complained about things like reflections, see-through cards, or other ways in which test takers could improve their guesses, Rhine kept trying to devise better experiments that wouldn't allow “sensory leakage” or cheating. But then he was unable to find any high-scoring subjects.

After the eventual lack of success using the Zener cards, parapsychologists no longer use card-guessing studies.

Like I said before, I think that Rhine meant well, and his work with medium Crandon demonstrates his lack of desire to willfully cheat in order to believe in amazing ideas. However, I think he let down his own scientific training in the way he reported his results. He didn't design his experiments well, nor did he describe his experimental methods with enough clarity, he used math in a fudgy way instead of as a tool to make the testing more rigorous, and worst of all, he was selective in his reporting with the result that he exaggerated his successes and explained away his failures.

Physicist Richard Feynman once warned:

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September 28 – National Good Neighbor Day

Posted on September 28, 2016

It is so wonderful to have good neighbors, and it is even more wonderful to BE a good neighbor. Today's the day to strut your good-neighbor stuff!

Perhaps you could give your neighbors a nice basket of fruit, some homemade goodies, or a single rose - plus a thank you note for your their help through the years.

Remember, neighbors can be more helpful than even friends and family, in some situations. If you need an egg and realize you're out halfway through a batch of brownies, sure your aunt would gladly give you an egg – but you can't travel most of the way across the city for one egg! If you are going on a trip, your best friend might be willing to feed your cat and water your houseplants, but he can't easily do that if he lives two cities away. In an emergency, it's much better to have a neighbor with an extra key to blow out the candle you left burning than to rely on someone much farther away.

So, be friendly to your neighbors! Introduce yourself, offer to babysit or petsit, mention that you're handy at fixing things and give out your phone number for “any time!” If you need a strong pair of hands to unload a new purchase or someone to collect your mail while you are gone, ask a neighbor – politely, of course – and remember that accepting help is as valuable to building relationships as offering help.

Some neighborhoods have block parties. This neighborhood blocked off the streets from car travel so that the kids could have an instant playground!
These kids got together to help an elderly neighbor with her lawn.

If you notice that a neighbor is sick or injured, you could offer to walk their dog.

By the way, some sources on the web state that National Good Neighbor Day is the fourth Sunday in September, but other sources say it is always on September 28. I found a few sources that states that it used to be the fourth Sunday of September, but in 2003 it was changed to September 28. That explains it!

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September 27 – Vincent de Paul Day in Madagascar

Posted on September 27, 2016

Many countries have a “patron saint” that is supposed to especially look out for the people in that country. Today is the Feast Day of Vincent de Paul, patron saint of Madagascar. So I decided to check in with this African island nation!

 Of course, Madagascar is well known for having unique animals. But I already wrote about that here and hereToday I thought I would focus more on the people of Madagascar, who are called the Malagasy people.

  • Scientists tell us that people first settled the island from far away Borneo (which is now divvied up by the countries of Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia) – even though the mainland of Africa is a lot closer to Madagascar. Of course, the first settlers were only the first wave – people have settled on the island since then from Africa, Asia, and Europe. 

This map contrasts the distance from Borneo to Madagascar
(the red line) to the distance from mainland Africa to Madagascar
(the black line).

  • Like England and Hawaii, Madagascar has been ruled by queens at times. The last ruler of the Kingdom of Madagascar was Queen Ranavalona III.

  • During the late 1700s or early 1800s, Madagascar was a popular spot for pirates to hang out. As a matter of fact, a rumor exists that Madagascar was home to an independent pirate nation called Libertalia way back then!

  • Even though ecotourism is getting bigger – the better to enjoy all that biological diversity, my dear! – most of the Malagasy people are quite poor. About 90% of them live on less than $2 a day.

  • With all the Asian, African, and European influences in Madagascar, the food is pretty diverse. Rice is so important to the nation that the Malagasy word “to eat” literally translates to “to eat rice.” But the ways to eat rice are extremely varied, with everything from zebu (beef from a kind of African cattle) to peanuts, green veggies to bananas, coconut milk to rum, garlic and onions to ginger and curry, vanilla to cloves mixed into various recipes. Tomatoes, maize, cassava, turmeric... loads of different flavors in enticing dishes.

Also on this date:

Banned Books Week (9/25 to 10/1)

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September 26 – New Dominions Join the Empire

Posted on September 26, 2016

When I say, “the Empire,” I don't mean the horrible galaxy-wide dictatorship that Strikes Back in the Star Wars movies – that's fictional – instead, I mean the British Empire, which straddled the globe in the 1800s and the early 1900s. It was made up of a variety of dominions, colonies, protectorate, mandates, plus other territories.

On this date in 1907, two new “New” dominions joined the British Empire:

New Zealand and Newfoundland.

First, what's a dominion?

It was a semi-independent political unit. British dominions were considered to be under the British Crown (in modern times, Queen Elizabeth II), but they were governed by locally-elected governments. They shared a common citizenship and collaborated on foreign affairs and defense.

Since World War II, there is no more “British Empire.” All the dominions became fully independent of the United Kingdom, although they remain in the Commonwealth of Nations and still have Queen Elizabeth II as their reigning sovereign.

Now, what do you know about New Zealand and Newfoundland?

For each question, answer “New Zealand” or “Newfoundland” or “both”:

  1. It is now part of Canada (joined in 1949).

  1. It was the filming location for ALL of the scenes of The Lord of the Rings movies.

  1. Its capital (Wellington) is the southernmost capital city in the world.

  1. There are no land snakes there.
  1. It consists of one or more islands.
  2. On 9-11, the horrible terrorist attack in New York City and other U.S. places on September 11, 2001, thirty-nine U.S.-bound airplanes were diverted there, and about 6,600 travelers were stranded there for three days! They were taken into private homes and treated with hospitality that is still remembered today.
  3. It's known for its native kiwi bird – the bird is such a national icon that people who live there are called “Kiwis.”
  4. It has its own time zone, 30 minutes offset from neighboring time zones.
  5. It is home to more species of penguins than any other country.
  6. It has a dog breed named after it.

  7. Its population is largely descended from British settlers. Of course there are also people descended from aboriginal or native peoples.

  1.  Its flag:

  2. Its flag:

  3. Its scenery:

  4. Its scenery:

1) Newfoundland - 2) New Zealand - 3) New Zealand – 4) Both - 5) Both - 6) Newfoundland - 7) New Zealand - 8) Newfoundland - 9) New Zealand - 10) Newfoundland - 11) Both - 12) Newfoundland - 13) New Zealand - 14) New Zealand - 15) Newfoundland

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