Six-inch mummy

Nearly two decades ago, the rumors began: In the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, someone had discovered a tiny mummified alien.

An amateur collector exploring a ghost town was said to have come across a white cloth in a leather pouch. Unwrapping it, he found a six-inch-long skeleton.

Despite its size, the skeleton was remarkably complete. It even had hardened teeth. And yet there were striking anomalies: it had ten ribs instead of the usual 12, giant eye sockets and a long skull that ended in a point.

Ata, as the remains came to be known, ended up in a private collection, but the rumors continued, fueled in part by a U.F.O. documentary in 2013 that featured the skeleton. On Thursday, a team of scientists presented a very different explanation for Ata — one without aliens, but intriguing in its own way.

Ata’s bones contain DNA that not only shows she was human, but that she belonged to the local population. What’s more, the researchers identified in her DNA a group of mutations in genes related to bone development.   — NYTimes article

The body was mummified just a few decades ago.  Most skin is still there.  Internal organs are identifiable.

This is a unique specimen, of unique interest.  I’m sure there are dozens of labs around the world that would leap at the opportunity to study it.  But one lab at Stanford has held onto this specimen for 5 years before publishing anything or even issuing a press release.

What I find suspicious is that the explanation they have put forward is the most conventional, and that it is taken as “Science has spoken!”  There is only one explanation, and it is fantastically improbable, but it has been selected for us from among many other fantastically improbable explanations.  Science Daily tells exactly the same story as NYTimes.

Sanchita Bhattacharya, a researcher in Dr. Butte’s lab, searched for mutations in Ata’s DNA and identified 2.7 million variants throughout the genome. She whittled this list to 54 rare mutations that could potentially shut down the gene in which they were located.

Here’s the journal article.  Their analysis begins with the assumption that the specimen is human, and doesn’t consider other possibilities.  Their conclusion involves a co-occurrence of many rare mutations.   They attribute the large amount of DNA that doesn’t match human to DNA damage that has occurred in the mummy.  But full genomes have been extracted from much older samples than this one.  Damage can be differentiated from genome variation because damage is different from one cell to the next, whereas variation is consistent.

My  hope is that this is the beginning of an open-ended scientific discussion, and that many labs around the world have a chance to do their own analysis.



How Old is Life?

On the one hand, experiments tell us that the gap between non-living and living matter is even wider than naïve observation would lead us to believe.  The origin of life seems to require vast amounts of space and time and astronomically good luck.  On the other hand, life appeared on the primeval, Hadean Earth pretty much as soon as the Earth was cool enough that it wouldn’t be cooked.  In this latest fossil discovery, there was not just life but complex, multi-celled life at a time when Earth was still in its Hadean age.

A sliver of a nearly 3.5-billion-year-old rock from the Apex Chert deposit in Western Australia (top). An example of one of the microfossils discovered in a sample of rock from the Apex Chert (bottom).

As that story goes, in the half-billion years after it formed, Earth was hellish and hot. The infant world would have been rent by volcanism and bombarded by other planetary crumbs, making for an environment so horrible, and so inhospitable to life, that the geologic era is named the Hadean, for the Greek underworld. Not until a particularly violent asteroid barrage ended some 3.8 billion years ago could life have evolved.

But this story is increasingly under fire.  Many geologists now think Earth may have been tepid and watery from the outset. The oldest rocks in the record suggest parts of the planet’s crust had cooled and solidified by 4.4 billion years ago. Oxygen in those ancient rocks suggest the planet had water as far back as 4.3 billion years ago. And instead of an epochal, final bombardment, meteorite strikes might have slowly tapered off as the solar system settled into its current configuration.

Rebecca Boyle writes for Quanta Magazine

Science advances; the scientific world-view remains stuck

What has become entrenched as the “scientific world-view” is the foundation of our secular values and reasoning.  For those of us without a religious tradition, it is the basis of our ideas about how the world works and who we are.  But in what sense is the “scientific world-view” scientific?  It grew out of 19th Century science, and has never been updated.  It is no longer compatible with known science.

Thermodynamics and Evolutionary Theory.  These were two triumphs of 19th Century science that told us how order may emerge from randomness.

The first gave rise to the idea that the physics of atoms could explain chemistry.  From the second arose the idea that life (and consequently human minds) are products of chance in a world of chemistry.  The universe is a clockwork of atoms that know only the attractions and repulsions of their neighbors.  All order, all life and mind, comes about through  the laws of chance.

This led to a philosophy rooted in meaninglessness that dominated Western thought from Nietzsche through Sartre, and still has a pervasive (perversive?) influence today.  “Humanism” is its best face: “We’re going to have to supply our own sense of what is good and beautiful because the world is only atoms, and we are an insignificant part of the whole.”

In the 20th Century a funny thing happened: The science behind this world-view collapsed but the world-view had a life of its own.  As a philosophy and an attitude, this idea continues to weigh us down, though its scientific underpinnings have become untenable.  

A) First is the discovery that pure thought can influence quantum phenomena on a tiny scale, and through the “butterfly” effect might come to make large-scale changes.  Originally, this was a consequence of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, but now it has been verified experimentally in the works of (for example) Dean Radin and Robert Jahn.  Quantum entanglement is a reality in our brains, and since single nerve-firings can lead to whole new ideas, our thoughts are linked with one another and with the outside world in ways that stretch our imagination.

B) Second is the discovery that the laws of physics and the properties (like charge and mass and spin) of elementary particles are fine-tuned in a way that makes life possible.  The old view was that there are a few arbitrary, mathematically elegant rules about the way particles behave, and also a few arbitrary numbers, like how much the particles weigh and how strong the forces are.  Life just took the given physical rules as raw material and put together (by chance) some combinations that could make copies of themselves, and the rest of the story was explained by natural selection.  Well, this story no longer hangs together.  In the 1970s came the discovery that the physical rules are not arbitrary, but quite special.  If we changed the rules just a little bit in any direction, we would have a universe in which nothing interesting ever happened—For example, one kind of tiny change leads to no stars or galaxies; change the rules in another direction and all atoms would be hydrogen, so there’s no chemistry at all.   

There is a remarkable “coincidence” to be explained, and just two interpretations have been proposed:

      1. 1. The more conventional view is that there are zillions of different universes with no one to look at them or describe them, and the reason we find ourselves in this one is that it is one of a tiny set in which complexity of any kind is possible.  (Yes, this is now the

    standard view of cosmology.  To my mind, this huge number of undetectable universes is a lot of baggage for any theory to have to carry.)

    2. The other idea is that conscious awareness has an independent existence, and is more fundamental than physics, thus matter, space and time, with all the physical laws, were co-created by consciousness–perhaps as a kind of playground.  (This idea is conventionally regarded as mystical, but it ties together the psychic research cited above, and it avoids references to a billion billion billion universes we can never see or touch.  Personally, I like it much better.)


      There is no #3.  I have never seen any other proposed explanation of the extraordinary good fortune that gave us laws of physics that can support complexity in general and life in particular.

C) One more change in our basic understanding is not yet so well-accepted as the first two, but it is well on its way.  It is beginning to look as thought the problem of the origin of life has no conventional solutions.  In other words, after 70 years of trying, no one has been able to come up with a plausible scenario for the first molecule or set of molecules that could reproduce itself.  Attempts to create living things from simple molecules with simulated lightning and cosmic rays have failed utterly.  And even with the full force of biochemical engineering, no lab has been able to create a self-reproducing set of chemicals that can function in a non-biological environment.  And it is not for lack of trying.  A further, basic problem goes under the arcane name “evolvability”.  We have known for 20 years that self-reproducing systems cannot necessarily evolve.  Even more stringent design features are required for a living system that is capable of evolving.  So, how did evolvability evolve?

Conclusion:  Life and consciousness are not epiphenomena built on a foundation of cold physical law.  Life and mind are woven into the fabric of reality at a deep level.  We seem to be seeing “intention” or goal-oriented collective behavior in living systems at the lowest levels, and perhaps in non-living things to a lesser extent.  

Paradoxically, the “scientific world-view” has come to be identified with 19th Century science.  The mainstream of scientiss will tell you with a straight face that the light of consciousness—the first and only thing you know for sure—doesn’t matter at all, and that it is some kind of illusion that arises from large-scale computation.  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

When the new science comes to be incorporated into our view of ourselves and our relation to nature, everything will change.

Where does space come from?

In 1935, Einstein published two papers, both with young protege Nathan Rosen, but on two unconnected ideas.  (The ideas were “unconnected” both in the sense that they appeared to have nothing to do with each other, and that they were both about the physics of unconnected times and places.)

In paper #1, he realized that his geometrical theory of gravity, called General Relativity, held the mathematical possibility of tunnels connecting different times and places via a space-time shortcut.  John Wheeler was later to call these wormholes, and a great deal of thought and study followed in ensuing decades, speculating about whether our universe actually includes such connections, and whether they might be manufactured deliberately to facilitate interstellar travel.

In paper #2, he skewered the whole nascent field of quantum mechanics by highlighting an absurd consequence of quantum entanglement.  What you do to one particle has a provable effect on other particles that once interacted with it, but are now far away.  If QM is correct about this, then it is a way that what you do here and now can have an effect on distant places, and possibly change what already happened at earlier times.

Seventy-eight years later, Juan Maldacena wrote an email to Leonard Susskind in which he proposed that these two disconnections where deeply connected, that they were not just weird but weird in the same way, and that the link between quantum entanglement and Wheeler wormholes had the potential to explain where time and 3-D space come from.


Read more from K.C. Cole, writing in Quanta Magazine.

Life is older than we are

Life is much older than the Earth, older than the solar system, probably older than the Milky Way galaxy.  We are only the latest upstarts in a universe that has been sewn-through with life for more billions of years than the Earth has been in existence.

In the Amazon jungle, there remain a few dozen tribes, the “uncontacted peoples” living pre-agricultural lifestyles, knowing of technological civilization only because of planes that fly overhead, or nomads who carry rumors from far-off villages.  We Earthlings are like them, a planet that is watched but left undisturbed by the Galactic Federation.

It’s not for lack of trying that biochemists have been unable to create a plausible account of life’s origins on Earth.  The probabilities don’t add up.  Even the simplest self-reproducing systems are far more complex than anything that could have assembled itself by chance.  It’s fair to conclude that the first living cells did not originate on Earth, but arrived from elsewhere, either carried on a meteor, or in cosmic dust particles, or planted here as seeds by an advanced civilization.  Francis Crick is the most esteemed of many people who have advocated this idea.

Remarkably, life on Earth is as old as the Earth.  The universe is three times older than our Earth.  There was time before Earth for many, many planets teeming with life, for unimaginably advanced civilizations to come and go and reappear and flourish, to expand and to perish long before the first life on Earth.  An awakening awaits us, more fantastic than those uncontacted peoples who will soon bump against civilization.


Censorship in Science

This is a list of some of the scientists who have been ostracized or ridiculed because the experimental results they reported didn’t fit with current scientific paradigms. Some of them have been vindicated. One subsequently won a Nobel prize. Others will be vindicated in the future.

Some of these were eventually published in mainstream journals; others had to settle for the tainted status of journals set up in parallel to mainstream scientific publishing.

This list contains just some of the cases with which I am personally acquainted. How many more are there whose work never sees the light of day? How many more have been discouraged, and re-directed their research toward more conventional subjects?

(Image by National Coalition Against Censorship)

I learned quantum mechanics from Julian Schwinger, whose distinguished career, including a Nobel prize, made him above reproach. But he discovered the limits of what the physics journals would let him talk about when he sought to publish a theory paper about cold fusion. Of this experience, he wrote,

“The pressure for conformity is enormous. I have experienced it in editors’ rejection of submitted papers, based on venomous criticism of anonymous referees. The replacement of impartial reviewing by censorship will be the death of science.”


Is the spider a monster in miniature?
His web is a cruel stair, to be sure,
Designed artfully, cunningly placed,
A delicate trap, carefully spun
To bind the fly (innocent or unaware)
In a net as strong as a chain or a gun.

There are far more spiders than the man in the street supposes
And the philosopher-king imagines, let alone knows!
There are six hundred kinds of spiders and each one
Differs in kind and in unkindness.
In variety of behavior spiders are unrivalled:
The fat garden spider sits motionless, amidst or at the heart
Of the orb of its web: other kinds run,
Scuttling across the floor, falling into bathtubs,
Trapped in the path of its own wrath, by overconfidence drowned and undone.

Other kinds — more and more kinds under the stars and the sun —
Are carnivores: all are relentless, ruthless
Enemies of insects. Their methods of getting food
Are unconventional, numerous, various and sometimes hilarious:
Some spiders spin webs as beautiful
As Japanese drawings, intricate as clocks, strong as rocks:
Others construct traps which consist only
Of two sticky and tricky threads. Yet this ambush is enough
To bind and chain a crawling ant for long enough:
The famished spider feels the vibration
Which transforms patience into sensation and satiation.
The handsome wolf spider moves suddenly freely and relies
Upon lightning suddenness, stealth and surprise,
Possessing accurate eyes, pouncing upon his victim with the speed of surmise.

Courtship is dangerous: there are just as
many elaborate and endless techniques and varieties
As characterize the wooing of more analytic, more
introspective beings: Sometimes the male
Arrives with the gift of a freshly caught fly.
Sometimes he ties down the female, when she is frail,
With deft strokes and quick maneuvres and threads of silk:
But courtship and wooing, whatever their form, are informed
By extreme caution, prudence, and calculation,
For the female spider, lazier and fiercer than the male suitor,
May make a meal of him if she does not feel in the same mood, or if her appetite
Consumes her far more than the revelation of love’s consummation.
Here among spiders, as in the higher forms of nature,
The male runs a terrifying risk when he goes seeking
for the bounty of beautiful Alma Magna Mater:
Yet clearly and truly he must seek and find his mate and
match like every other living creature!

— Delmore Schwartz, born this day in 1913