Hostage Crisis: Earth!

This article is partly a review of a very interesting book called; ‘The Missing Times: News media complicity in the UFO coverup’ by Terry Hansen and it's also about a very strange idea that bubbled up in my brain after reading the book.

Firstly, I'll talk about Hansen’s book. ‘The Missing Times’ focusses on how the extremely large number of compelling UFOs incidents that have occurred worldwide in the last seventy years have been covered up and ignore by the U.S. media. The book does a very good job of investigating this issue and how local news is filtered to remove such stories before it reaches the major media outlets, but the book is also a very good study of the more general matter of how any topic that is frowned on by the establishment is covered in the mainstream media (i.e. television, film, books, newspapers etc). As Hansen shows, using exhaustive and detailed references, the major U.S. televisions channels, film studios and newspapers and the ones here in the U.K. all follow a very narrow line of what is and what isn’t eligible for print/broadcast. It is a filtering mechanism that Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore would certainly agree is present. Read More...

The mysterious history of New Zealand

While trawling through the enormous mixed-bag that is YouTube, I found this very interesting New Zealand documentary exploring the history of New Zealand. The documentary puts forward a convincing case that the Polynesians who settled in New Zealand around eight hundred years ago did not find it empty of human occupation. Instead, they found pale-skinned, ginger and blonde-haired peoples already living in NZ. What's more, the distinct culture of Maori New Zealand we see today, with its designs, totems and figures, was not brought to that land by the Polynesians but instead was a mix of their culture and one inherited from the inhabitants already living in New Zealand. The documentary goes on to report that genetic analysis, carbon dating and other tests on mummified bodies, bones and sacred sites in New Zealand make it clear that a race of people did arrive in New Zealand around 3,000 years ago. This group was originally from Persia and its members had already created communities in places as far apart as Easter Island, Peru and Western Ireland, with a distinct culture common to all those places.

Sadly, the documentary also reports that attempts in New Zealand to highlight this new evidence have been deliberately ignored and suppressed, to the point of authorities banning further excavation and classifying scientific discoveries. Yet again, it would seem that certain white males in power in the Western World are making very sure that a flawed version of our history is enforced. As Orwell once said; 'He who controls the present writes the past'.

Thing Explainer book review

Amid lots of blog posts about dark forces controlling society, the seismic flaws at the heart of orthodox science, the tragic underbelly of human behaviour and the future collapse of civilisation, it's good to talk about something fun. I've recently finished reading Randall Munroe's 'Thing Explainer' hardback science book and I heartily recommend it. Munroe's filled his book with lovely diagrams of important devices (e.g. the Curiosity Rover, a skyscraper) and has followed the neat plan of only using a lexicon of one thousand popular words. This way, he never burdens and confuses the reader with technical jargon and also gives us a fresh view of familiar devices by describing them in simple terms. Munroe is known through his xkcd website which is also lots of fun, especially for those who like Dilbert and think Unix is an elegant and quite beautiful operating system (which I personally do).



It's available from all good bookshops and is a delight. Buy it, read it from cover to cover, laugh and be fascinated. After that, give it to someone you love, while downplaying the fact that you've actually read it first, all the way through, and pretend instead that you always had them in mind when you bought the book [Note: To do this effectively, do not read it in the bath].

'We are not alone' book review and Martian thoughts

This week, I've been reading 'We are not alone' by Dirk Schulze-Makuch and David Darling, a popular science book that reports on and explains the evidence for life in other parts of our solar system and what form that life might take.

The book's first half focusses on Mars and the evidence for life on that planet. That particular topic has been in the news this week. There's been lots of media discussion and NASA press conferences about the significance of tell-tale trails on the martian surface, particularly running down from certain cliffs and mountains. As 'We are not alone' points out, this evidence has been known for ten years or more, and so it's surprising that it's being reported as such a big deal now. The cynic in me would wonder if it's something to do with the release of Matt Damon's latest movie 'The Martian', but that's probably just a coincidence.

As Darling Schulze-Makuch's book explains, the story of evidence for life on Mars kicked off with Percival Lovell and his claims for Martian 'canals'. In truth, Lovell was simply re-iterating an Italian astronomer's observations of 'canali' on Mars, which is Italian for 'channel', but Lovell's embellishments and conclusion that Mars was inhabited by a civilisation struck a popular chord.

Later on, probably the most important episode of 'life on Mars' evidence came from the Viking lander expedition. Devices on the Viking lander found evidence of life in the Martian soil. This evidence should, at least if NASA had followed its own rules, have been enough for scientists to declare that life does exist on Mars, but certain scientists on the NASA panel had their way and the evidence was eventually dismissed as inconclusive. Read More...

What does an atom look like?

Here’s the standard picture of an atom. Stylish, isn't it? It's elegant, distinctive and memorable. But there's a problem, because this image of ball-like electrons circling a gobstopper-like nucleus in specific, single, elliptical paths is scientifically wrong.
But don't take it from me. Here’s what Richard Feynmann (who won a Nobel Prize for physics for co-developing Quantum Electro-Dynamics) said about such an image in his book ‘Q.E.D. The strange theory of light and matter’ (page 84):

“Shortly after electrons were discovered, it was thought that atoms were like little solar systems, made up of a central, heavy part (called the nucleus) and electrons, which went around in orbits, much like the planets do when they go around the sun. If you think that’s the way atoms are, then you’re back in 1910.”


We're in a holo-deck reality

Yes, I know the title of this article sounds nuts, or at least pointlessly nerdy, but actually, it might be true (or at least, sort of true). In this article, I'm going to show scientifically how the idea that 'our reality is a holo-deck construction' is a strong, scientific and logical theory for our existence. My explanation will be comprehensive, in-depth and not at all bonkers.
Clearly, such an outlandish idea does need a lot of evidence to back it up, so I'll pose a series of sensible questions and answer each in turn. If I can answer all the questions with a 'yes', then I hope that'll show the validity of the theory. Here goes…

Military physics and Paul Czysz

While trawling through youtube recently in the search for some solid UFO material (something I discussed in this earlier blog), I stumbled upon some fascinating interviews with several U.S. military engineers and physicists. This article is about one of them, Paul Czysz.

Paul Czysz was a Saint Louis University professor emeritus and alumnus who taught in the department of aerospace and mechanical engineering at Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology for more than 10 years. He died on Aug. 18th 2013. He was 79. He spent much of his career working for the McDonnell Douglas Corporation and in the U.S. Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. In 1986, Czysz was named a McDonnell Douglas Fellow for his work in hypersonic aircraft concepts. As far as I can tell, he gave the interview below shortly before his death.


UFOs: Something strange is going on

Unidentified Flying Objects are fascinating. I can't imagine anyone who's interested in science-fiction not being interested in flying saucers; they're mysterious, alien, advanced and a little bit scary. What's more, the possibility of aliens visiting Earth, using advanced technology, is perfectly feasible too. From a statistical point of view, the chance that we're entirely alone in the galaxy is virtually nil and the chance that a sentient species on a nearby star has reached a level of technology that enables them to visit us is extremely high.

I used to be sceptical of UFO's being real, because I thought that interstellar travel was physically impossible because of the Laws of Relativity, but after reading a recent paper on manipulating space-time to travel at faster-than-light speeds, I'm now happy to accept that superluminal travel is feasible. If the physics of superluminal travel are fine, then it would be very strange indeed if no aliens had visited us in the past or were visiting us now. Therefore, according to logic and probability, there should be aliens visiting our planet right now and it's highly likely they've been visiting our planet for a long time.

But if that's true, then either those aliens are keeping a very low profile or the powers-that-be leading our countries on Earth know about them and they're keeping the fact a secret. This second possibility shouldn't really come as a shock to anyone. 'Knowledge is Power' goes the old adage and powerful people like to be as powerful as possible. We're therefore left with two possibilities; there are no aliens visiting Earth (which is statistically highly unlikely) or there are aliens visiting Earth and our governments are keeping it secret (which is statistically highly likely, but hard to prove). Which is it? Read More...

Travel to the stars by exploding atomic bombs

I discovered this fascinating programme on youtube yesterday. It's an old BBC4 documentary about Freeman Dyson and his project to design a spaceship that travels into space, propelled by detonating a series of nuclear explosions.

I found the documentary both engrossing and bizarre. Throughout the program, the people involved in the project were convinced that it was a viable and brilliant way to send humans into space and the other planets in our solar system. They pointed out, sensibly, that rocket motors did not produce enough power to effectively fling humans to the edges of our solar system, or our nearby astral neighbours. Chemical rockets were good enough to go to the moon, but that's about it.

This all made sense, but at no point in the documentary did anyone say 'wait a second, how on Earth are you going to accurately steer this craft as you explode nuclear weapons under its 'spring plate'? Also, how are you going to safely detonate a whole series of nuclear bombs under this 'spring plate' without them frying the crew with radiation or running the risk of one of them blowing up while it's still inside the bomb bay? The practical problems seem endless, and yet they carried on with idealistic zeal. Fascinating stuff.

Fever: a magical cancer cure

This week, I've been reading 'Farmer Buckley's Exploding Trousers and other odd events on the way to scientific discovery'. It's a popular science book from the people at New Scientist magazine and is a series of short stories (each a few pages long) about weird and wonderful and often very important scientific and technological inventions and discoveries. I'm enjoying the book, although reading a long string of disconnected stories can feel a bit laborious sometimes, but there some absolute gems amongst the collection.

One story really jumped out. On page 21 of the book, the author describes the fascinating story of Dr William Coley, an American doctor living and working in New York in the 1870's. During his work, Dr Coley stumbled upon a fascinating pattern. He treated many patients with tumours. The standard medical treatment for these tumours was to cut them out, but they invariably grew back. Coley found that patients who had tumours, but then suffered an infection that sent them into a high fever, very often were entirely cured of their tumours. For example:

The man's medical records were quite clear. His case was hopeless. In the space of three years, he had had five operations to remove a tumour from his neck. The last was a failure: it was impossible to remove the whole tumour. He would die soon. As if that wasn't bad enough, the poor man then suffered two attacks of erysipelas, a skin infection that produced a lurid red rash and a high fever. But when the fever broke and the man recovered, his tumour had vanished. Seven years later, he was still alive and well. There could be only one explanation: whatever had caused the fever had also destroyed the cancer.


Mindsets and the Pauli Effect

On Saturday, I went to the ‘science fiction future’ event at the BFI on the South Bank in London. The afternoon was a mixed affair but one of the speakers, Lydia Nicholas, made a very interesting comment during her entertaining talk on biology. She quoted a biologist who said:

"Cell work is so sensitive. Some times I wonder if the success of my experiment is down to whether I'm feeling happy or sad that day."

The quote generated laughter in the room but I wondered, surely a scientist would be intrigued by this experience? He or she might say to themselves; this is an interesting phenomenon. I'm noticing a pattern of behaviour. Is this phenomenon repeatable? If it is repeatable, I'd know it is a reliable, measurable phenomenon. If it is, then I've extended my knowledge of the world around me. I can then write up my experiments and distribute the information to others. That way, others can be made aware of what I've found. Ideally, one or more of them will conduct the experiments too and they can report whether or not they found the same effect. I can perform a set of experiments and in each one, record my own state of mind, giving my level of happiness a scale of one to ten, then carry out the cell work and record the results. It would be a relatively inexpensive task and if the phenomenon is real, it would be a big step forward in understanding how reality works. If the phenomenon isn't reliable, then I can conclude that it was purely a concoction on my part. Read More...

Science Fiction Future at the BFI in London


At the end of this month (Sunday May 30th), Simon Ings from the New Scientist magazine is hosting an afternoon of talks and short films on the subject of our ‘science fiction future’ and ‘why stories, games and falsehoods may be our best guide to tomorrow'. This event is part of the 'Sci-Fi-London' festival. The highly successful science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds will be giving the keynote talk and that’ll be followed by short films and panel discussions. The event is taking place on the South Bank in London at the British Film Institute.

The title and strap-line for the event has got me thinking; what is our science-fiction future? More broadly, since a lot of people think science-fiction is about the future, with special emphasis on techie stuff, the question really becomes: What is our future? (note: remember to talk about techie stuff).


Warp drive isn't science fiction!

Since I've been knee-high to a grasshopper, I've been a huge fan of Star Trek, both the original series, the Next Generation series and the recent J.J.Abrams movies. Quality stuff. But recently, since I've becoming a budding science fiction writer, I've felt duty bound to write science fiction that is based on solid science. In other words, if the technology in a story is not evidently scientifically sound or no attempt is made to explain how it is scientifically sound, then I can't write about it as it's not science-fiction, it's fantasy fiction.

This is where Star Trek has become a big problem to me, because Einstein, in his famous Theory of General Relativity, makes it clear that no material object can go faster that the speed of light. Knowing this, it becomes obvious that travelling between the stars is an impossible task. You either go so fast that you're rapidly smeared all over your pilots chair like a coating of gravy, or if you go slow enough to stay in one piece and end up dying of old age or being turned into a biological colander by endless cosmic ray bombardment, or both, or all three. We all may be used to the crew of Star Trek zooming between the stars in a few hours, enough time to develop a slow-burning romance, or play an odd version of chess, or play an instrument that neatly doubles up as a kitchen implement, but that doesn't mean it's scientifically okay. Read More...

Galileo and Remote Viewing

A week-or-so ago, I wrote a review of Dean Radin's book 'Supernormal', in which Radin describes a huge body of research by qualified scientists that show that what we often refer to as 'ESP' effects are real and quantifiable. The research in the book leaves the reader with an unavoidable conclusion; that the idea that the universe is a physical, solid place that is unaffected by mental influence and can exist independently of observation is not just scientifically incorrect, it's plain wrong. In other words, 'materialism' is bunk.

Interestingly, the book's logical conclusions can also be deduced from the Influence Idea. The Influence Idea is relatively simple and can be summed up in one sentence: the only way that Life can exist and flourish in a universe governed by Entropy is for there to be an external, non-physical organising influence acting upon physical reality. Read More...

Climate Change and Killer Robots

This week's New Scientist magazine includes a letter of mine on the subject of Killer Robots. It was triggered by an article in a recent New Scientist magazine issue in which international bodies agreed that we shouldn't make fully autonomous, lethally armed robots. Instead, any robot that could kill should be controlled in some way by a human. Here's my letter:

"In your article on the moral dangers of autonomous, lethally armed robots, Peter Asaro says "most people now feel that it is unacceptable for robots to kill people without human intervention." (18th April, p7). The moral reasoning behind this view is intriguing. How is sending a programmed, armed robot into an area designated as 'enemy occupied' any worse than, say, bombing the area from ten thousand feet? In fact, the level of precision and the amount of human judgement involved in target selection with the robot would be arguably greater."

"There is an even stranger moral angle. Someone who is ordered to go and kill strangers in a war can suffer severe emotional trauma and other mental distress as a result. In the future, there may be societies that decide, on moral grounds, to delegate all killing of the enemy in their wars to fully autonomous robots so as to protect their citizens from such emotional trauma. In that unnerving scenario, the robots wouldn't be seen by those citizens as devils, but heroic guardians."

The second paragraph connects with another topic; how climate change will change our world, both environmentally and politically, in the next century. Read More...

Clockwork minds

There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about the potential threat of A.I.; the danger that robots and artificial intelligences could become sentient, accelerate in intelligence and destroy humanity. Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking have all warned of this threat. Musk is even pledging millions of dollars to study and plan against this outcome. It seems pretty weird that these guys are talking about the threat of A.I. rather than climate change, whose existence is very, very well supported with evidence and which will become highly dangerous to humanity, but there you go.

How real is the threat of rogue A.I.'s? Can one really become sentient, accelerate in intelligence, form its own agenda and take over the world, destroying humanity in the process? Read More...

Light Years book review

Light is utterly fascinating. Recently, I've developed the sneaking suspicion that reality is just light. Although physicists talk extensively about subatomic particles such as neutrons, protons, neutrinos, muons, electrons etc, as far as I can tell, none of these subatomic particles can be directly detected or observed. All we ever see are light patterns. Although subatomic particles could still exist, their existence is actually only inferred from light phenomena; it is hypothetical. According to the strict rules of science, the existence of subatomic particles should therefore only regarded as an idea, not as a fact, which is a fascinating idea in itself.

Brian Clegg doesn't mention this idea in his book. Instead, he takes the reader on a historical journey, tracking the development of our understanding of light from Ancient Greece all the way to the latest manipulations of light in the laboratory. Read More...

Doomsday Men and Dr Strangelove

Here's a quick book review of a book I've just finished called 'Doomsday Men' by P.D.Smith. The book is all about the history of atomic research, from Madame Curie onwards, and how it became used to build the ultimate military weapon, the hydrogen bomb and its fictional but apocalyptic dark sibling, the radioactive 'cobalt bomb'.

I enjoyed the book. It was pretty clear from early on (in fact, P.D.Smith admitted as much himself) that the author had been writing a biography of Leo Szilard, an admirable and brilliant Hungarian physicist who had to leave his home in Budapest when Nazism and anti-Semitism emerged in central Europe. He ditched up in London and finally emigrated to the United States. Unlike other brilliant Hungarian physicists who ended up playing a major role in the development of atomic power and the atomic bomb (such as Von Neumann and Edward Teller), Szilard was a compassionate and ethical man. Read More...

SETI and sci-fi expectations

The New Scientist magazine's letters page this week includes some more discussions about SETI and alien contact. This topic was discussed a while back and I wrote in about it, but there's always something new to add. This week's discussion includes my response to an earlier letter on the subject of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligences:

In your letters page (21st Feb 2015) John Bailey concludes that since we haven’t been bombarded with self-replicating alien robots or seen huge heat signatures in space, there probably aren’t any advanced civilisations in our galaxy. He seems to think that advanced races will have a ‘more is better’ philosophy, but climate change is showing us that a ‘less is better’ philosophy is the only intelligent long-term strategy. If this is correct, then the more advanced a race is in the galaxy, the less visible they’ll be. It’s the quiet ones that are clever, not the shouters.

John Bailey's expectation that advanced alien civilisations will be huge, star-spanning confederations with big, powerful ships and zillions of self-replicating robots is, I think, because of how they're currently depicted in mainstream fiction. We pick whatever seems cutting-edge and exciting at the moment - nano-technology, robotics, ion-drives - and multiply them by a thousand or a thousand million and, voila, that's your advanced alien civilisation. A century-or-so ago, H.G.Wells came up with the idea of Cavorite, a substance that could negate gravity. Using this discovery, two Englishmen travelled to the moon. From a scientific point of view, Cavorite is just as believable as a warp drive or a hyperdrive but it's now seen as quaint, silly and unscientific. I'd bet that self-replicating robots will be seen as just as daft in a century's time.

SETI, the 'Wow' signal and the film 'Contact'

Just a quick note to say that another of my letters has appeared in the New Scientist magazine. This one is all about the 'Wow!' signal; the interstellar signal picked up by a U.S. radio telescope in the 1970's. The 'Wow!' signal is probably the most important result so far in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Here's my letter:

In your article on a new strategy for those involved in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), David Messerschmitt says that alien civilisations would logically choose to send short, wide-band radio signals rather than prolonged narrow-band ones, to improve both energy efficiency and bandwidth (31st January, p17). Yet probably the most important signal so far detected by SETI is the narrow-band 'Wow!' signal, picked up in 1977. It came from the direction of Sagittarius and was almost exactly on the hydrogen line, a frequency many thought would be ideal for interstellar transmission. Should we tell the alien civilisation in Sagittarius that they're being a bit primitive?

Reading the letter again, it reminds me of the film 'Contact', starring Jodie Foster, based on the book by Carl Sagan. 'Contact' is a great movie, not only as a story but as a scientifically valid idea. In the film, Foster's character is an astronomer obsessed with finding evidence of transmissions from alien civilisations. She has to fight tooth and nail for funding. She is on the point of giving up when she is given a grant by a mysterious billionaire. She continues her work. One day, her team picks up a signal. It is a narrow-band signal, just like the 'Wow!' signal and it contains detailed information on how to build a device with which to make contact with the aliens who sent the message.

The U.S. government builds the machine described in the blueprints. Eventually, Jodie Foster's character gets to travel in the machine. I won't reveal any more to avoid spoiling it for anyone who hasn't seen it, but the way the story unfolds and is finally resolved is both clever and intelligent.

There is a terrible irony if we compare 'Contact' with the 'Wow!' signal. If we had received the 'Wow!' signal today, rather than in 1977, we'd have the technology to record it in detail and analyse it, just as Foster's team did with the signal they received in the film. It's perfectly possible that the 'Wow!' signal was an extremely detailed signal, just like the film. Unfortunately, the technology available at the time could only record a few alphanumeric values, so we'll never know. Argh! How frustrating!


There is also a funny side to the story of the 'Wow' signal. To quote the Wikipedia article:

In 2012, on the 35th anniversary of the Wow! signal, Arecibo Observatory beamed a response from humanity, containing 10,000 Twitter messages, in the direction from which the signal originated.

To think, we might have had better kit and found the 'Wow!' message to be full of data. We'd have decoded it, delirious with excitement at the prospect of receiving messages from an interstellar civilisation, and read ten thousand alien social networking messages! CHECK OUT HER TENTACLES! OMG! LOL! :-)

Reality is Light

I've popped a new article in the 'Strange Science' section called 'Reality is Light'. This article puts forward the interesting idea that reality is nothing more than a changing pattern of electromagnetic radiation. If this is true, then subatomic particles and their accompanying forces are not real, but are simply useful ideas for predicting how this pattern of light changes.

The article then discusses another interesting possibility, that gravity is not a force as such, but instead is a hidden property of light that causes all light paths to reduce in scale over time. I've talked about bats in caves to help communicate this idea, but I haven't drawn any illustrations, so it is a bit dry.

The last part of the article puts forward another idea, that if gravity is the scalar reduction over time of the light pattern that is reality, then the assumption that gravitational mass and inertial mass (known as the Equivalence Principle) may not true for stars, due to their role as massive light creators.

There's a very good chance that my article is tosh, but it's still fun to speculate! ;-)

Evolution and tailored alien viruses

Just a quick note to say that my article 'Evolution and tailored alien viruses' is now available on the website here. This article is in the first issue of Visiting Alien magazine but as that magazine is now on hold, I thought I'd put it on the website for easy access.

The article puts forward a strange but perfectly possible idea; that evolution on Earth has not entirely been guided by random mutation, as Charles Darwin explained in his theory of evolution by natural selection. Recent studies in microbiology and genetics indicate that our genome, our DNA library, is chock-full of old virus code. Viruses work by infiltrating the DNA machinery of cells and they can insert their instructions into cell's DNA. There is scientific evidence now that the very basic features of multicellular life have come about not by random mutation but through the action of foreign viruses.

My article puts forward the possibility that evolution on Earth may have been guided and accelerated by tailored viruses sent here from planets orbiting other stars. For more info, check out the article.

SLS, mouth ulcers and the scientific method

Science isn't just something done by clever people in lab coats. The wonderful thing about the scientific method is that it can be done anywhere and by doing it, you can find out if something is really true. You don't have to believe hearsay or nod dumbly when the Big Wig tells you and everyone else what is true and what isn't true because That's What's Been Written. Instead, you can go away and find it out for yourself.

Another great thing about the scientific method is that it is relatively straightforward. Someone starts by having an idea about how an aspect of the world works. This is a person's possible theory or hypothesis (which literally means 'scene running beneath'). It is often the case that this hypothesis will fly in the face of the accepted theory. The person's hypothesis will often include assumptions about how the world works, which are its axioms. To find out if the hypothesis is true, a person will conduct several experiments. He or she designs these experiments to show, through physical events, whether or not the hypothesis is correct. Depending on the results, the person may conduct further experiments to make sure that the physical evidence he or she has gathered is proof that the hypothesis is correct and that there wasn't just a lucky coincidence, which would indicate a possible false correlation. Once false correlations are ruled out by isolating key elements, the hypothesis can be regarded as fact.

I carried out this process recently with a very mundane problem. I kept getting mouth ulcers. Mouth ulcers aren't fun. They're not life-threatening but they can be a real pain. On a regular basis, I'd been getting them since I was eight, or possibly earlier. About ten years ago, after a particularly bad infestation, I chatted about the problem to a colleague. He said with assured confidence that it was because I was eating acidic foods like tomatoes. I nodded in appreciation at this insight but later on, I thought 'my mouth should be perfectly able to eat tomatoes. Evolution would have weeded out such a simple problem'. But without any anything else to go on, I couldn't come up with a different hypothesis.

That is until last year, when I was chatting to friend. She remarked that she bought SLS-free soap for her young son because he'd had eczema problems since he was a baby. That got me thinking. 'My mouth ulcers are a skin problem of a kind. Could they be the result of my mouth being sensitive to SLS?' That idea became my hypothesis.

My next step was to investigate SLS. Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (or Laureth Sulphate or SLES if it's the 'ethyl' version) is a foaming agent. If you add a small amount of SLS to a product it makes the product foam up in an attractive manner as soon as you add water. Because of this, SLS is added to soaps, washing-up liquids and toothpaste, among others. It's in a lot of products. I noticed that it was in toothpaste. I checked my popular brand toothpaste; yep, it was an ingredient. My hypothesis that SLS was giving me mouth ulcers was still possible.

My next step was to perform an experiment; I stopped using my SLS toothpaste. I looked for an alternative brand, free of that ingredient. After a bit of effort, I found one in the local health food shop. I began using that toothpaste exclusively. After several weeks, I realised that I had not had a single mouth ulcer. It looked as if I had proved my hypothesis.

But then I thought: 'perhaps there is another ingredient in the toothpaste I was using previously that is really the cause of my mouth ulcers?' If that was true, then I would have had a false correlation. To test this possibility, I put some soap, containing SLS, on my fingers and then rubbed my fingers around the inside of my mouth. This way, I was isolating SLS from the other toothpaste ingredients. Twenty-four hours later, I had two painful, sensitive mouth ulcers. This experiment gave me the confidence to decide that SLS was the culprit. [There was still the possibility that some other ingredient was the actual culprit but I wasn't going to buy a hundred products and deliberately give myself mouth ulcers for two months. No way!]

Flushed with success (but not inflamed), I wondered about another skin problem I've had most of my life; clammy hands. Did SLS cause that too? That was a trickier challenge because we generally touch more chemical products with our hands than we put inside our mouths. To test this hypothesis, I had to get rid of SLS soaps (which includes pretty much all liquid soaps) and SLS washing up liquids, since I hand-washed my dishes. Eventually, I found an SLS free washing-up liquid made by 'earth friendly products'. Three weeks after switching to those products, I found that in my home at least, my hands were dry as a bone with almost no outbreaks of clamminess.

One day soon after, I popped around to chat to a neighbour. He handed me a mug for my tea, fresh from his kitchen draining-board and as I grasped it, my right hand broke out in a sweat. It was that fast! Not only that, but there couldn't have been much more than a tiny residue of SLS on the mug. Such a large reaction to such a small residue seems to indicate that my hands are hyper-sensitive to the chemical in a similar way to someone with an acute allergy. It was a fascinating reminder of how fast my hands would become clammy again if I let cheaper, SLS-based products back into my daily life.

Since that time, my mouth has been completely ulcer-free and my hands have been almost entirely bone-dry at home. Success!

p.s. If you've found this article interesting, you might want to read my article about Mono-Amine Oxidase, Preserved Meat and a child's Problem Behaviour.

Winter popular science books

Up here in the upper part of the Northern Hemisphere, we're into the depths of January where it gets dark and cold and Christmas has become a vague memory. To help everyone get through the long evenings before Spring, here's a review of some popular science books I've read recently.

First up is Waking the Giant by Bill McGuire. Bill is a very experienced scientist working in the field of geophysics, vulcanism and other related stuff. In the book, he explains that when our planet's climate changes, it generally doesn't do it in a smooth manner. It is far more likely, almost inevitable, that the changing conditions will trigger a major event which will then trigger other related major events. For example, if a glacier warms and melts, a large lake can form in the middle of the glacier. Eventually, this huge body of water is being held back by a wall of ice. When this wall breaks, the vast amount of water can catastrophically flood an area. This, for example, occurred towards the end of the last ice age forming the Minnesota Scablands. As McGuire points out in his book, this huge shift in weight on the Earth can cause the crust to rise up. This can cause major earthquakes, which in turn give rise to eruptions, as the pressure on subterranean magma chambers is lessened by the shifts in water and cracks are created by the earthquakes, giving the magma access to the surface. These subsequent eruptions release ash and gases into the atmosphere, which alter the climate, triggering other climactic events. McGuire makes it clear that Earth's recent physical history is not a steady change but instead, is one of calm periods punctuated by episodes of mayhem. McGuire ends the book with a warning; that climate change we're experiencing will have a similar affect and we need to prepare for what it will bring.

I really enjoyed Michael Brooks' '13 Things that don't make sense'. It's still one of my favourite popular science books. Brooks follows that success with this new book about what goes on behind the scenes in science; what the scientists really get up to and how they behave with each other. The world of scientific research is often depicted as one populated by shy, low key, grey-haired men working away diligently and carefully discussing and analysing each other's work and I have personally met scientists in that mould but, to be honest, they're in a minority. In my experience, scientists nowadays are invariably bright, alert, pragmatic, borderline-obsessive men and women who love what they do and put their heart and soul into it. They're also a very emotional bunch with strong opinions, friends and in many instances, bitter enemies (which makes them pretty much like any other workplace). Brooks' book entertainingly tells stories that reinforce this view, stories of heroes and heroines, of sexism, lying, fabrication, courage, idealism, ego and luck. It's lots of fun and I heartily recommend it.

In a similar vein to Brooks' 'The Secret Anarchy of Science' is Peter Pringle's 'Experiment Eleven'. This is the story of the discovery of Streptomycin, an extremely important antibiotic that brought fame, wealth, high scientific standing and a Nobel Prize to one man. Unfortunately, as the book explains, he wasn't the one who discovered Streptomycin. The man who discovered it gained only pain, heartbreak, betrayal and penury as a result of his find. 'Experiment Eleven' is a story of how the lure of money and scientific fame propelled a man to lie about his role in an important discovery and conduct a base feud against the man who did discover the crucial agent that saved so many lives in the latter half of the twentieth century. As it says on the cover, the New Scientist magazine thought it was a 'riveting and heartbreaking book'. It is an engrossing and heart-rending story and I'm glad I read it.

Last up in my winter list is 'Why does E=Mc2' by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. I'm a bit confused as to why there's two authors to this book. It seemed when I read it that the whole text was written by one man. Then again, I didn't notice much of a change of style when I read 'Good Omens' by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, so perhaps I'm just rubbish at spotting who writes what. Anyway, 'Why does E=Mc2' is a good book. It's the most technical of all the books reviewed here and it does require a good understanding of physics and mathematics. That approach does make the book a drier read than, say, Michael Brooks' books, but that's not a criticism as it means the reader is introduced to some fascinating concepts relating to Relativity. For readers who prefer fun science, I'd say choose something else. For a reader who wants to learn a bit more about Relativity than is usually found in popular science books, I'd say definitely give it a go.

The peloton has been invaded by body-snatchers


For the last ten years, I’ve been an avid fan of the Tour de France. The drama of the event is intoxicating. Crashes, feuding, courage, bravery, loyalty, tears, blood, joy and every other possible emotion and calamity pepper its days like a television drama gone ballistic. If it isn’t a rider being catapulted into barbed wire by a side-swiping television car, who then finishes the stage, it’s a rider trying to finish the tour with a broken hip. If it isn’t a rider in tears of sadness because he has to retire, it’s a rider in tears of joy because he’s finally won that most coveted of professional victories, a stage in the Tour. Grown men weep and sport wounds that wouldn't be allowed on Casualty. Men fight, sweat and receive odd cuddly toys while standing on very impractical shoes. The Tour is a mesmeric spectacle.

In recent years, the Tour de France and other major races have been dogged by the revelations and subsequent confession by Lance Armstrong that he doped in order to win most of his Tour de France victories, if not all of them. Lance also wasn't particularly nice to the honest people who told reporters and the police that he’d cheated, but that's all in the past now. Nowadays, the saga of Armstrong’s deception can be seen as a traumatic but cathartic transition from a time of systemic doping to a new era of clean racing. We can look at what happened before with sadness, but we can look ahead with clear eyes to a new era of clean racing performed by honest man...

But something's gone terribly wrong.

Last year, I was watching the Vuelta Espana, Spain’s version of the Tour de France, safe in the knowledge that although there might be some minor dodginess going on, like use of the fat-shedding drug Clenbuterol, everyone seemed to be thinking that riders were otherwise clean. I watched it all the way through to the end and saw a man, so old in cycling terms that he really should have been riding with a pipe, slippers and a very long beard, step on to its top podium. I watched Chris Horner, at the gargantuan age of
41, win that prestigious three-week race.

Chris Horner is a chirpy, likeable American professional cyclist who has had many successes in his career, but he has not been a superstar. This all changed when, after a year where he was mostly injured, he won Spain's major tour, easily cycling away up mountains from top-level cyclists in their prime. This was an aberration. This was an aberration so whoppingly aberrant, it was like a man who finds his house is hit by a meteorite every time he watches ‘Armageddon’. It's physically possible that such a thing would happen, but boy does it feel to him like something unnatural is going on.

How could this be the same Chris Horner that fought but failed to reach the heady heights of European Cycling for so many years? How can a 41-year-old pro-rider win a major European Tour f
or the first time ever? Professional cycling requires great levels of courage, bike-handling skill, mental strength and sheer never-say-die endurance from its competitors but it is, at heart, a very simple job. Riders have to get from A to B on a bicycle. As a result, it’s relatively easy to work out what they’re capable of by simply recording their weight and the time it takes them to get from A to B. In many cases, riders take the same routes from year to year, particularly the famous mountain climbs, and so rider performances can be both compared with each other during a race, but also with competitors doing the same race years before. Nowadays, with the UCI’s (international cyclist union) biological passport system, analysts can even check the state of riders’ blood and see how that has changed. With all this data, it’s very easy to get a detailed, day-to-day understanding of a rider’s level of performance.

Horner said he was concerned about suspicious comments about his performance and, in a bid to quash them, published his blood data. He said that he hoped that by making this available for everyone to see, the negative rumours would end. But the data tells a different story.

very interesting article in the Outside Online website discusses Horner’s blood values during the Vuelta. The data includes both Horner’s haemoglobin level (the active blood cells that carry oxygen to his muscles) and his reticulocyte count (his young blood cells). As the article carefully states, the graphs for both levels are not consistent with how someone's blood values would change during a long stage race. Why would Chris Horner release figures that point the finger at him?

I realised something strange, something unearthly was going on. I studied the life of a clean rider by reading Christophe Bassons' autobiography earlier this year. Bassons used to be a very talented young French rider, destined for great things. Unfortunately, he entered the sport when it was in the thick of the drug-taking nineties era of EPO (blood doping), testosterone, steroids and other highly dodgy and quite illegal performance enhancers. Bassons, to his eternal credit, refused to take the drugs and was comprehensively ostracised, bullied, intimidated, shunned and ridiculed as a result, until he finally abandoned his cycling career. If you want a thorough lesson in how
not to treat an honest colleague who just wants to do the right thing, read his book.

Near the end of the book, Bassons comments about the current state of doping in cycling. He has been working with the French anti-doping authorities for years and he knows what he’s talking about. Here’s his view:

“Currently, questions are being asked about the extent to which pharmaceuticals such as AICAR, GW501516, TP500 and GAS6 are being used. Some of them have already been found during searches of vehicles and have been used by some athletes, doctors and soigneurs. These substances provide an equivalent effect to EPO, because they improve the performance of the athlete by boosting the transport and utilisation of oxygen by the body. Their effect is very well known. AICAR and TP500, for example, increases the number of mitochondria in the muscles. These cells are in a way little energy plants, which transform substrates (carbohydrates, lipids, proteins) into energy through the use of oxygen. The two products also bring about an increase in lipolysis (the breakdown of 'fat' to provide energy). They maintain lipolysis during intense efforts."

"To be more specific, when an athlete is tying at 80 per cent of his maximum, in principle he stops burning fat and only burns carbohydrate. By using these products, he can continue to burn fat as well as carbohydrate, even at 95 per cent of his maximum. This additional power, which stems from the use of fat reserves, offers a huge advantage. It is absolutely impossible to achieve naturally. Meanwhile the public can see another effect of the products in the physical transformation of competitors into athletes who don't seem very muscular and are very lean. They have a very low fat percentage because they are able to burn all their fats, including those in muscle fibres, and benefit from an increase in energy. With regard to growth factor GAS6, this allows the secretion of endogenous EPO. It is completely undetectable.”

The last two sentences of the passage are particularly startling. Bassons is making it clear that a professional cyclist is capable, at the moment, of significantly improving his performance without
any danger of being detected by any UCI test. Skinny riders, traditionally good for climbing mountains but at a disadvantage on flat stages, can keep pace with the heavier, muscular riders by taking the drugs mentioned. All riders can improve their climbing ability by taking GAS6. Basically, riders can cheat if they want to, upping their performances in the process and get away with it.

Fortunately, as has been pointed out exhaustively by teams and riders nowadays, I knew that the peloton has moved on from the drug-taking days. There may be a few accidents when certain riders eat meat contaminated by Clenbuteral-chomping cows, but apart from that, riders' bodies are additive free. No one's taking AICAR, GW501516, TP500, GAS6 or any other illegal drug that could pass as a model of washing machine. Bassons is simply being thorough.

But I was still worried. I sensed something very wrong in men's professional cycling. My next step was to look at performance figures, particularly the performance of different riders over the years. This
excellent article on looks into this very subject. I've popped my version of their graph below, with extra helpful performance bands. The graph below shows the performance of Tour-de-France-winning riders through the late eighties and nineties. The increase in performance values during the nineties is an eye-opener, even if you already know what EPO can do to a rider's climbing ability. Keep in mind that these values are measured during long bouts of intense performance and therefore can't be explained away as short-lived freak events.


The first name on the graph is of particular interest; Greg LeMond.

Greg LeMond was not only a brilliant professional cyclist but can be regarded as a benchmark for the kind of career an exceptional
clean athlete can have. Exceptional bike riders have to be blessed with an exceptional cardiovascular system. As Greg himself freely admits, his genes gave him a wonderful opportunity to compete for the greatest cycling prizes. Someone with such exceptional natural abilities will shine as soon as they start cycling in earnest and LeMond was just that kind of rider. He was a phenomenon from his very earliest years in the sport, as described in this interview. He has one of the highest recorded VO2 Max levels (93) in history, which is an indicator of cardiovascular performance. He was coached by one of the all-time greats of cycling, Cyrille Guimard, and had access to the latest technology, and yet his Watts/kg value looks positively mediocre on the above graph of champions’ performances. It is only in 1999, when the Festina affair erupted and the French police were raiding pro-team's hotels that the performances drop back to something close to LeMond’s level when he won his last Tour de France.

I took two important pieces of information from this graph; one, that EPO gives riders a massive advantage and two, that a human athlete is highly
unlikely to be able to significantly improve LeMond performance value of around 5.7 W/kg on a late eighties bike.

My next step was to check how much bike technology improvements since the late eighties could improve a cyclist's performance. The first useful fact was that UCI has restricted bicycle design in competitions, stopping major improvements in efficiency. Secondly, the bikes in the eighties weren’t that bad. They were made of quality steel and equipped with just as many gears as current bikes, making them only marginally inferior to today’s products.

I estimated how much changes to bicycles have improved performance by looking at a modern professional’s performance and comparing. I used Philip Deignan. Philip is a top-level cyclist riding for the Sky Team (Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins’ team). Sky have helpfully published his performance figures at the 2014 Vuelta
here. According to a report I found on the web, Philip has a recorded VO2-Max of about 87, an impressive figure only six points or 6.5% lower than Greg LeMond's. According to Sky’s performance report, the maximum W/kg output Philip produced at the Vuelta in a 20 minute spell was 5.42 W/kg.

I now used that data to compare his ability on a bike in 2014 with Greg's in 1989. I could assume that a top-level pro on a 2014 bike with a VO2 Max of 87 produces a maximum power output in a multi-stage race of 5.42 W/kg; that's a ratio of 0.0623. Greg's ratio, 93 divided by 5.7, is 0.0613. Philip's ratio is therefore only a tiny increase on Greg's at 1.6%. The calculations showed, in a very rough way, that bikes haven't improved riders' performances much at all in 25 years. The two factors of weight and cardiovascular ability are still far and away the main issues for performance.

Knowing this, I decided it was safe to conclude that in any major stage race, the riders can’t naturally produce more than 5.8 W/kg or, being super-optimistic, 5.9 W/kg during a twenty-minute-or-so stretch. Performances over that range would indicate that the rider had somehow developed a body that went beyond all recorded limits. Not only that, but such a rider would have won everything from their very first pedal stroke and already be regarded as the greatest bike rider ever to have existed in time and space in this part of the universe. They’d probably finish each race by taking a small drink, waving to their fans and floating away on a magic cloud to their hotel.

With this very useful fact stuffed in my waistband, I inspected the performance of key riders in recent Grand Tour events. In this new era of clean cycling, with the spectre of performance-enhancing drugs well behind us, I could feel confident and assured that the cyclists zipping by on my goggle-box would have a power-to-weight value from about 5.2 w/kg to, in the case of an utterly amazing clean rider - 5.9 w/kg. Philip Deignan is definitely in that range, what about the rest of the Grand Tour peleton?

This is when a chill went down my spine...

article on Cycling Tips website gives a very useful analysis of the performances of the major riders in this year’s Tour de France (2014), which Nibali won. The table at the bottom of the article is of particular interest. Here's my version of it below, with snappy colour coding of the values. Green is credible, brown is worrying and red indicates ability to levitate:


The numbers were very scary. In an attempt to calm my growing fears, I remembered that the graph of Tour successes in the nineties was stating overall averages on the Tour, so perhaps only the last column of this table was relevant. It was possible that the first results on ‘La Planche des Belles Filles’ might have been distorted because the climb was too short. Then again, ‘Risoul’ might also have been too short and ‘Port de Bales’ as well. Nuts, I thought, perhaps the Tour is much shorter than people think and it only looks long through the TV coverage, like some kind of lensing effect? Perhaps Dr Michele Ferrari’s formula (used in the graph) is wrong? No, wait a minute, I remembered, Dr Michele Ferrari is the notorious sports doctor that allegedly masterminded Lance Armstrong’s training and his medicinal supplemental product regime. Michele does seem to know what he’s doing, whatever he’s doing.

I remembered something else. Any professional rider on a three-week tour will produce their highest output in the early stages of the race. After that, the relentless miles, crashes, heat, rain and the labrador dogs wanting to sniff his front wheel while he cycles past at forty miles an hour will take their toll. His power diminishes as his blood wearies of the constant cardiovascular effort. It’s only when he gives his body a sizeable break to recover that he can function at full power again. This is an unavoidable effect and can only be stopped or reversed by drugs or an actual blood transfusion, which are both banned…
and yet Vincenzo Nibali produced 6.09 W/kg on the Hautacam on Stage 18!

Could this be true? My thoughts drifted back to watching Nibali during a mountain stage of the Tour when I noticed that he didn't seem to be bothering to breathe. He behaved more like he was sitting on a sofa, rather than charging up a mountain. At one point, he seemed to be half-heartedly
pretending to be breathing heavily on that punishing climb. Why would he do that? Riders are known to mask their exhaustion so as to prevent the opposition knowing that they’re fading but his hammy, brief pants were… well, pants. Surely, faced with top level opposition trying to out-climb him on a daunting mountain road, he’d actually have to breath heavily?

I’ve had personal experience of cycling at my limit up a mountain and I’ve got to say, the only conversation I was capable of making was grunting noises. If there had been a Neanderthal or a three-month-old baby at the other end of the mike, I’d have been all right, but otherwise, I might as well have been gargling my news.
Human beings need to breathe heavily when cycling up a mountain.

Swallowing down a surge of terror, I wondered how long this strangeness had been going on. I looked back at last year's Tour in 2013. Had things been normal then or had something sinister already taken hold?

I read this
fascinating article on the Outside Online website where experts examine Chris Froome’s performance when he completed the AX3 Domaines climb on Stage 8 of the 2013 Tour de France. He did the famous climb in 23 minutes 14 seconds which is the third fastest ever time on that climb and, most importantly, it beat times recorded when key members of the peleton were doped up to the eyeballs with EPO. Here's the list:

1. Laiseka 22:57, 2001
2. Armstrong 22:59, 2001
3. Froome 23:14, 2013
4. Ulrich 23:17, 2003
5. Zubeldia 23:19, 2003
6. Ulrich 23:22, 2001
7. Armstrong 23:24, 2003
8. Vinokourov 23:34, 2003
9. Basso 23:36, 2003
10. Armstrong 23:40, 2005
22. Porte 24:05, 2013
34. Valverde 24:22, 2013

Froome's time was faster than Jan Ullrich’s time in 2003. This was astonishing. Ullrich was described by Tyler Hamilton in his book ‘The Secret Race’ as one of the most impressive cyclists he’d ever encountered. Lance Armstrong admitted that Ullrich was the only other rider he feared. Ullrich eventually fell from grace after being found to have taken a shedload of performance enhancing drugs but in his prime, he was seen as a godzilla of a competitor... and Froome beat his best time. I wanted to look away, to shield my gaze from this awful truth, but I had to look. Chris Froome had beaten Jan 'my blood's like iron gravy' Ullrich’s best time going up AX3 Domaines and he produced 6.37 w/kg during that 23 minute climb. By comparison, Richie Porte's time of 24:05 seemed like an excellent clean time but not surprisingly, languished down in twenty-second place.

Here’s a quote from the article:

“Based on the proposed power curve in ‘Not Normal?’, the work of Antoine Vayer, a French journalist and former trainer for the infamous Festina cycling team, 6.37 w/kg for the 23 minute effort puts Froome well into the "miraculous" level of human physiology. This is a level of performance not seen in the Tour de France before the introduction of EPO. It is a level of performance that has all but disappeared following Operation Puerto and the introduction of the Athlete Biological Passport.”

They use ‘miraculous’. On my earlier graph, 6.37 sits firmly in the area marked ‘ridiculous’ and is just shy of ‘alien species’, but it’s not necessary to argue the exact term. Others might use ‘WTF??!!!’ or perhaps ‘a physiology redolent of the Rutger Hauer replicant in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner’. Any of them will do. Whichever term one uses, Mr Froome’s performance was alien, wrong,

When did this madness start? I found
This BBC article, written in 2012, the year that Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France. In the article, Dr Auriel Forrester, a sports scientist who works for SRM (the performance tracking company used by the Tour de France), discusses the power profiles of top riders. She uses data that Vincenzo Nibali himself supplied in 2012, recording his power output in the Alpine Stage 11 of that year's Tour. To quote Dr Forrester:

"His first two climbs are done at 320 and 322 watts and the final ride is 360 watts. This means on the final climb his power to weight ratio is 5.2W/kg. Those figures are where you expect that rider to be. If you compare Nibali to the other riders when they have been climbing, his figures are comparable. They're all ballpark, similar figures. None of those would stick out as spurious."

The reading stared me in the face; 5.2w/kg. Somehow, Vincenzo Nibali had gone from 5.2w/kg on a Tour de France stage to 6.1 w/kg or more,
only two years later. Dr Forrester also stated that 5.2w/kg was the normal upper-end power output for the top riders only two years ago. There was no natural way any professional rider could go from 5.2 w/kg to 6.1 w/kg in two years.

I knew there was only one answer. Professional cycling has been invaded by alien body-snatchers! The fifties movie 'Invasion of the Body-Snatchers' was not just a story. It has actually happened.

You may scoff, but look at the evidence! Look at how it's spread, how it's turned normal, 5.2 w/kg riders into 6.2 w/kg creatures of inhuman ability! The pattern is the same as in that movie from yesteryear. In the beginning, a single, anonymous rider becomes infected. His performance miraculously improves. Everyone congratulates him on his new found fame, but they don't know that he's really an alien. Slowly, the alien rider infects others, one by one. These infected riders also improve incredibly and other riders start to wonder what's going on. The infected riders seem to be the same people but they're not. Some riders try to raise the alarm. 'Those riders on the podium aren't humans! They're something else, something alien!!!!' But no one believes them. The team bosses are pleased, they're winning. The sponsors are pleased, they're winning. Everyone is pleased except a few, under-performing riders who the majority agree are just sore losers.

One of the desperate, uninfected riders tells a sports scientist what's happening. The scientist is initially sceptical but then she checks the data. 'Goodness gracious!' She shouts, 'those riders you mentioned are producing values not seen since the days of Frankenstein movies!' 'But what can we do?' Shouts the desperate rider. The sports scientist tries to alert the authorities, the race organisers, the cycling union but no one wants to listen. 'Why rock the boat?' They reply. 'Everything's going really well.' 'But they're aliens!' she exclaims. 'So?' Say the team owners, 'they're aliens that are winning. They're champions. I'd rather have alien champions than human losers.' The scientist gives up in disgust. The desperate human rider abandons the sport and goes to work in his dad's vineyard. The team bosses slap each other on the back and in the background, in the shadows, the alien riders smile unnervingly. 'Bradley Wiggins, Richie Porte,' they say with their flat, eerie voices, 'don't fight it, soon
you will be one of us....'

Run, Brad! Run Richie! Get out while you can!!!!!

What's the logic of… the Longitude Prize 2014?


This year, Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees is heading a ten million pound prize fund to help solve big problems that we face today. It is a project with a big media profile, organised by the Nesta charity. Here's five of the big questions they are hoping to answer:
How can we ensure everyone can have access to safe and clean water?
How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?
How can we ensure everyone has nutritious, sustainable food?
How can we fly without damaging the environment?

Don't they sound great? If we could use our cleverness and innovation and work really hard, we could answer those questions and help mankind.

But wait a second, this doesn't make sense, because we already know the answers to those questions. The problem seems to be that nobody likes the answers we already have. Before wondering why that is, let's look at the history of the Longitude Prize...


The original Longitude Prize was set up in 1714 by the British Admiralty to find an accurate tool for navigation over the open oceans. The lack of such a tool was causing great loss of life for British sailors. Without an accurate way to measure how far around the planet you were (as compared to how far up and down) it was easy for ships to lose track of their position and crash into rocks with tragic results. To stop this happening, the British Admiralty set up a huge prize of ten thousand pounds for someone to develop a tool for calculation longitude accurately. Famously, Harrison rose to this challenge and developed a timepiece (Harrison No4) that met the requirements of the competition. His watch was an engineering masterpiece and met the competition's requirements. Unfortunately for Harrison, the Admiralty weren't keen to hand over the money. In fact, they avoided paying out for years. Eventually, with royal support, Harrison received at least some of the prize money he so richly deserved.

The original Longitude story is a fascinating one. It was a historical and memorable competition and made perfect sense. Harrison's clock was one of the best ever pioneer's tools, helping people who were at the mercy of a dominant natural world. Climate change hadn't really kicked in at that time and Humanity at that time were still explorers, having little impact on their environment (relatively). Longitude was an admiral prize (literally!) to solve a genuine and sincere problem where mankind was at the mercy of the natural world…

But that's not the case now! The situation has completely changed in the last century. We're not pioneers in a forest any more, lost in its vastness, fearful of its grandeur and power. Instead, mankind's current relationship with the natural world is more like a crowd partying around a solitary small tree, swinging from its weak branches and pissing up against its trunk. We don't need a discovery to help us avoid the dangers of the natural world. The natural world needs a discovery to help it avoid the dangers of us!

The Longitude Prize should be awarding a prize to stop people being people. We need is a competition that will award a prize for people NOT manufacturing products, NOT having more babies, NOT taking loads of antibiotics,or NOT using vast amounts of water.

Instead, the current Longitude award wants a new invention that makes all our problems of excess go away, without us changing our behaviour, which is like developing healthier doughnuts for gluttons. They'll just eat more of them, you berks! Humanity is a spoilt rich kid who's told he can't have any more doughnuts because they'll make him ill. He's not happy with that and he offers ten million pounds to anyone who can create magical doughnuts that you can eat as many times as you like and never get ill. This new challenge isn't daring science, it's Willy Wonka.

Let's look again at the Longitude Prize questions in this light, with the knowledge that a) man and nature are now akin to a drunken party debauching around a small and feeble tree… and b) that humanity is acting like a spoilt brat.

How can we ensure everyone can have access to safe and clean water?
Yeah, I want clean WATER for everybody, forever! No, you can't. Climate change is up and running and water resources are already shrinking fast. Projections made by governments and NGO's unanimously agree that water supplies will soon become so acute that wars will break out over control of what's left. To stop this, we need to urgently stop climate change by low-carbon lifestyles and a serious reduction in population. Only by doing that will we reduce the human impact on the planet and preserve our fresh water. We therefore need to stop burning fossil fuels and stop having babies. What, no sex or cars? Rubbish!!

How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
Yeah, I want ANTIBIOTICS that will work forever! We can't if every time someone feels a bit snuffly, their doctor gives them antibiotics. We need to stop using antibiotics like they're paracetamol tablets. If we don't, common infections like gonorrhoea will becomes life-or-death events. What, no drugs when I want them, whatever my ailment? Rubbish!!
How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?
Yeah, I want to be mentally and physically healthy for the entire rest of my life and never get DEMENTIA!
A lot of scientific evidence shows that eating less sugar, less animal protein, taking short fasts, exercising more and avoiding alcohol and tobacco can hugely improve a person's cognitive state in later life. This is a scientifically supported way to reduce the risks of dementia. What, I can't eat and drink what I like as much as I like, while sitting in my car? Rubbish!!
How can we ensure everyone has nutritious, sustainable food?
Yeah, I want everyone to have great FOOD forever!
This is the same as the water question. Even if anyone comes up with a new super-wheat to increase yield, with no population control measures in place, the population will simply shoot up, stressing the environment further. Climate change is accelerating and that surge in population would only make climate change effects worse. There is one way to improve the diet of people; eating less meat in the developed world, as the rearing of livestock takes far more resources from the land than simply raising vegetables and grains. What, no steaks? Rubbish!!
How can we fly without damaging the environment?
Yeah, I want to FLY around the world as much as I like!
Air travel is a very energy-intensive activity. You cannot ferry large numbers of people through the sky without consuming huge amounts of fuel. For example, the fuel cost of taking one six-hour flight is equivalent to running a 1Kw bar fire continually for a year. The only way to reduce the environmental impact of flying is to do it less. Since much of modern air-travel is non-essential and climate change is a major threat, reducing all air travel to essential-flights-only would reduce climate change without major social damage. What, I can't fly to Brazil for the weekend? Absolute Total Killjoy RUBBISH!!!… OW! Did you just slap me?!

Is Bigfoot Denisovan Man?

A few weeks ago, the New Scientist magazine published a very interesting article about Denisovan Man. Denisovan Man is similar to Neanderthal Man. They are both offshoots, like ourselves (Homo Sapiens) from an earlier common ancestor, Homo Heidelbergensis.

We know of the existence of Denisovan Man because a scientist named Michael Shunkov from the Russian Academy of Science looked for interesting fossils in a cave in Siberia (named after a hermit called Denis). In the cave, Shunkov found an interesting sliver of a finger bone. He bagged and labelled the shard and sent it off for analysis.The results came back. The bone belonged to a hitherto unknown version of primitive man. This strain was genetically similar to ourselves and Neanderthal man but clearly separate. Excited by the news, Shunkov searched the cave for further evidence of this new species. He found a surprisingly large wisdom tooth. At first, he thought the tooth was too large to be Denisovan (or any proto-human) but the genetic testing carried out later confirmed it was also from Denisovan Man.

Scientists have carried out further genetic analysis and examination of these artefacts and have been able to work out what Denisovan Man would have looked like. They are confident that Denisovan Man had dark skin, brown hair and brown eyes. It is also likely that Denisovans were as hairy as Neanderthal Man, possibly even as hairy as their common genetic ancestor, Homo Heidelbergensis. It is also likely that Denisovans were large and robust, like Homo Heidelbergensis. As the article states: "[Homo Heidelbergensis] were big and robust guys, with body mass estimates around 100 kilograms”.

Interestingly, the Denisovan wisdom tooth also indicates that the Denisovans were large and powerful individuals. In fact, it is possible that they were larger than Homo Heidelbergensis. There is no reason why Denisovans could not have grown to be nine feet tall. This would have put a strain on their heart and other physical processes, leading to a shorter life, but the benefit it gave to survival may have outweighed this limitation. We - home sapiens - became group operators and tool users to fend off large predators. Denisovans may have evolved a different approach; to become large and powerful like gorillas to avoid predation by bears, tigers and other large carnivores. Built like this, Denisovans could have operated in small, family groups, consuming an omnivorous diet. They wouldn’t have had claws for protection, but their physical power and some crude weapons could have been enough to ensure their survival amongst wild animals.

Denisovans wouldn’t have stood a chance against Homo Sapiens. We would have wiped them out if they tried to compete with us. Their best tactic to survive on a planet inhabited by homo sapiens would be to avoid us whenever possible. If we came close, they would need to get away and, ideally, drive us off. Driving us off with violence would probably only result in their deaths. Denisovans would therefore benefit from some sort of non-violent repulsion, like creating a terrible stink. With this ability, and enough remote, wild terrain to lose themselves in, Denisovans could theoretically have survived on a planet dominated by homo sapiens

If Denisovans did develop these abilities (evasion of humanity, repulsive smell) then there’s a fascinating possibility, that they have not died out but still exist. There still are some wild and remote parts of the world in which they could still be living. The reason we haven't captured a Denisovan is that, unlike other rare creatures, Denisovans would be very adept at deliberately avoiding detection by humans. All a hunter would experience would be a dim shape, followed by a terrible smell and possibly the distant sounds of movement in the underground. If this is true, it would explain the stories of Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yeti etc. It would also explain why so many cultures in our past accepted and believed that an elusive, huge, powerful ape-man existed that avoided man and could emit a terrible smell.

Unfortunately, there can’t be many Denisovans left. Top predators need a large territory to survive and Denisovans would be no exception. If one was captured, people's initial disbelief would be followed by fascination and a mad rush to bag some more, rapidly followed by the realisation that there were critically endangered. Perhaps it's better if we do believe that Denisovans died out and Bigfoot doesn't exist; it's probably a lot safer to be a myth! ;-)

The universe is a construction

In this week's New Scientist magazine, there is a very interesting article called 'Cosmic Conundrums' about the problems in modern cosmology. The strap line for the article was: 'what can we do when cosmology raises questions it cannot answer?'


There's no doubt that modern cosmology has several problems that it is current incapable of solving; here's a list of them below. The first two are mentioned in the article.

Boltzmann's 'Well ordered Universe' problem

Ludwig Boltzmann noticed in the late nineteenth century that the universe was in a very well-ordered state; in simple terms, it worked. The suns were stable and supplied energy, planets orbited them, supporting life. What confused Boltzmann was that he knew about thermodynamics and the Law of Entropy. It made no sense that a universe in which things always got more chaotic over time, it would be in this state after billions of years. It made no sense.

The fine tuning problem

The laws of the universe are extremely friendly to life. In fact, the ratios of the fundamental constants are incredibly, precisely, just right for stars and planets to form. If one or more of them were even a tiny amount different from their real values, we couldn't have atoms, never mind stars. Somehow, possibly by astonishing accident, our universe has just the right fundamental constants for atoms and stars to exist.

The baryon asymmetry problem

When the Big Bang banged, it should have produce equal amounts of matter and anti-matter. This is because, according to physics, the universe treats anti-matter and matter both equally. The only problem with this fact is that if the universe had treated them equally when it began, the matter and anti-matter would have cancelled each other out by colliding in a flash of light, leaving nothing but some radiation. Clearly, this hasn't happened and there is nothing in physics to explain why.

What's very interesting about this list of problems is that there is an answer that solves them all, that makes them all make sense. It is very simple:

The Universe is a construction

In other words, the universe didn't come into existence as a random event. The universe is a creation, made with a positive purpose and designed so that it is stable. That is why its settings (its laws, constants and ratios) are astonishingly fine-tuned so that suns and solar systems can form. That's also why our universe is filled with matter, whereas a universe that was created as a random event from nothing should have produced equal amounts of matter and anti-matter.

The strange conundrum then becomes, if that's the only logical answer and it solves all the existing conundrums, why hasn't it been accepted and widely disseminated?

The reason, in a word, is materialism. The dominant belief in modern science at the moment is materialism. Materialists believe that only inert matter exists. Even our minds are not real. According to materialists, they are simply a sensory phenomenon, like a rainbow. Materialists only believe that our universe came about as a random event, an event without any bias, an event where there was no tendency or movement towards a particular goal. It's worth noting at this point that materialism is purely a belief; it is not based on any scientific evidence. Some scientists may think that science has proved materialism but there are many experiments made by senior scientists that negate this view. These experiments have been dismissed on spurious grounds because they don't agree with materialism. Ironically, it's a lot like the Renaissance Vatican priests refusing to look in Galileo's telescope.

In case someone is thinking that I'm making a case for religion, I'm not. The fact that the universe is a construction doesn't mean that it was made by God (or a god). The evidence doesn't indicate who or what constructed our universe, or how or why it was done. Our universe might have been created by a single entity, it might be a technological creation by an extremely advanced civilization, it might be a huge, collaborative, consensual illusion. The evidence doesn't help us work this out, but it sure is an interesting question.

If any readers would like read a related idea of mine, that also explores how life exists, please have a leaf through the Influence Idea. There's lots of attractive illustrations and pictures of famous scientists and some sheds.

I've sent the New Scientist magazine a letter about this cosmological conundrum, pointing out that all the problems they mentioned are solved if we accept that the universe is a construction. They've been very kind to publish my letters in the past, so it may turn up in the magazine at some point. Here's hoping! :-)


They have published my letter. Hooray! That is very good of them, as any scientific view that's even a little non-materialistic can get some serious flack. Thank you, New Scientist magazine.

Viruses and artificial evolution


A very interesting article appeared in this week's New Scientist magazine entitled 'Thank viruses for your skin and bone'. The article explains that many of the proteins that our cells manufacture are from genes originally found in viruses. More importantly, the proteins needed for cell fusion, for multicellular organisms such as ourselves and all living things, all seem to have come from viruses. This is a fascinating continuation of an earlier New Scientist article discussing the increasing importance scientists give to viruses in relation to cellular evolution. Felix Rey of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, who headed up the work, speculates that:

Viruses may be responsible for the very existence of multicellular organisms. Viruses come and go between different cells, exchanging genetic information between them. "This makes me think that viruses have contributed enormously to the communication between cells, and to the appearance of multicellular organisms on Earth."

This idea has fascinating consequences, not only for our understanding of the natural processes of evolution, but of the possibilities for artificially guiding evolution. For example, if your civilisation existed for tens of millennia and you had advanced knowledge of genetic engineering, you could steer the evolution of life on another planet. As long as the target planet contained unicellular organisms, you could repeatedly send tailored viruses to that planet. These viruses would infect the remote cells, change their genetic code and gradually modify them to become multicellular organisms. You could continue this process, sending new viruses that deliberately alter and extend the genetic code of life on that planet. By doing this, you could make those primitive organisms more advanced, more varied, more sophisticated. You would be the overriding source of evolution on that planet.

Although it would be easier to do this to another planet in your solar system, it would be perfectly feasible to do the same trick to a planet around another star. As viruses are so small and relatively hardy, you could 'coat' them to allow them to be propelled by a laser beam. You could then point a laser at that star and insert a stream of virus packets into that beam. Although the vast majority of virus packets would be lost en route, a small fraction could reach the target planet intact. Once they were there, they could infect life on that planet. In the same way that a viral infection of our bodies can start with only a single virus particle, you would only need a handful of virus packets to successfully infect life on the alien planet to make the process work. Once they had infected life on the target planet, they would use the living organisms on the planet to create more copies of themselves and, by doing that, spread their gene-altering code to life on the entire planet.

It's interesting to think of the human race carrying out such a project in the future, when our level of technical understanding has reached a sufficient level, but a more pertinent question is; has this been done to us?

Logically, if a race reached such a level of advancement, it could accelerate evolution on the planets around its neighbouring stars. These planets would in turn develop until they had intelligent, technically advanced races who would also carry out such work. Instead of life around stars being a random event, rare in appearance, that develops slowly to a semi-random plan, you would instead have a viral, hot-housing, guided development of life spreading out exponentially across the galaxy.

If evolution on this planet, and possibly our own evolution as a species, had been influenced in this way, how would we know if it had occurred?

One way that we could work out that it had happened would be if the fossil record showed a sudden and very strange leap in evolution during a very short period, a change that could not be explained by any natural event on our planet. Interestingly, such an event did occur about one billion years ago. Our planet is about four billion years old. For its first three-or-so billion years, very little evolution went on. Our planet contained mostly single-celled amoeba, exactly the type of organisms that would have existed before these special viruses had appeared to kick-start multi-cellular activity. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye geologically - multi-cellular organisms appear in the fossil record and there is an explosion of evolution, leading to a variety of multi-cellular organisms such as trilobites. This became known as the Cambrian Explosion.

Was the Cambrian Explosion caused by alien tailored viruses kick-starting evolution on Earth? It certainly fits the facts. Unfortunately, I can see no way to prove such a theory. It has to stay as a piece of speculation.

By comparison, if a virus-filled laser beam had been fired at our planet in recent times, when we were sufficiently advanced to record the event, we could prove that it had happened. If such an event had happened when we were sufficiently advanced, it's possible to guess how it would have been recorded. Here's a rough description:

Observers see that a nearby star has abruptly changes colour (as a laser beam from it focuses on our planet). The star becomes 'fiery' (due the laser light being scattered by our atmosphere). The star turning 'fiery' is accompanied by the emergence one or more epidemics (most likely isolated to particular species that share certain biological similarities). Animals of certain species become ill, showing symptoms of viral infection, but most recover. The records talk of fear and awe of the fiery star and religious ceremonies are carried out in an attempt to placate the star's malevolent effect. Eventually, the fiery star returns to normal and people go back to their normal routines (but unknown to them, specialised genes have been added to the genetic code of one or more species, according to a plan developed by the civilisation living on a planet around that fiery star).

Sounds exotic and fantastic? Well, this is where things get really interesting...

A year-or-so ago, I wrote an article about a very strange series of events during our Classical Era. This was the laser transmissions from Sirius article. It put forward the strange but scientifically feasible idea that Earth received a laser transmission from Sirius in the first millennium before Christ. During that time, the star Sirius, normally a bright, white star in our sky, was reported by many different sources to have blazed a fiery red for years on end, during a period of centuries, and in particular that it blazed red towards the end of the Northern Hemisphere Summer, the origin of the phrase the 'dog days of summer' named after the Dog Star itself. During that time, according to multiple reports, the fiery star brought epidemics that affected men and dogs.

When I wrote that article, I couldn't understand why a transmission from Sirius would bring epidemics. Why would an advanced alien civilisation want to send us diseases? Rabies seemed the closest disease to the epidemics described; why on Earth would advanced aliens beam us rabies on a laser?

This strange evidence now makes much more sense, in the light of the new research on viruses' role in cellular evolution. The prime reason why the star Sirius turned 'fiery' all those centuries ago was specifically to send us one or more tailored viruses.

If that is the case, what viruses were sent Earth? What genetic codes were the virus designed to install and what species were they designed to affect? The reports from Ancient Greece make it clear that people did succumb to some sort of illness when the star flared red; they were astroboletus or 'star-struck'. What did the illness(es) they succumbed to do to them? Were our ancestors deliberately targeted by an alien civilisation from Sirius and infected with a gene-altering virus?

It sounds very far-fetched as an idea, but as far as I can tell, it is thoroughly grounded in solid science. Certainly, psychologically, it isn't an idea that'll be popular with most people. The possibility that evolution on our planet - including the evolution of our own species - has been guided by a remote alien civilisation makes us look like a bunch of lab mice. Very humbling!

There is one more strange consequence of this 'tailored viruses fired at planets to artificially guide evolution' idea. Perhaps the media outlets need to be buzzing with a shocking new development. Intelligent Design is now a scientifically viable idea; the only problem is that God's not involved at all, the job's been done by our Dog Star's Little Green Men… :-)

Science fiction predictions

In my last blog post, I talked about science fiction ideas and how they can come about. As a follow-on, here's a video on the same topic from PBS digital studios project called 'It's Okay to be Smart'. I found out about it from a recent Brainpickings article:

The video is lots of fun and it does a good job of celebrating how many predictions such science-fiction authors as H.G.Wells, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Douglas Adams got right about our modern world. As the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Nils Bohr once said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future." :-)

A military moon

A moon catapult

One fun thing about writing science fiction is looking at what’s happening now in the world and extrapolating. Sometimes though, you don’t need to extrapolate and come up with far-fetched ideas. Instead, you can work out what could already present but hasn’t been made public. This is science-fiction drifting close to a technical analysis; it's a fiction only in the sense that it hasn’t been proved. By comparison, science-fiction that speculates on a possible distant future is plausible fiction; it will probably never happen, but it’s still interesting.

This article is aimed at the former category and it’s to do with our moon.

Much has been written about the recent burst of activity in moon exploration by our planet’s major powers. The Chinese currently have a robot on the moon, nicknamed ‘Jade Rabbit’ which is attracting huge interest among Chinese citizens as it explores and analyses the moon’s surface. India is also investing large sums of money in visiting the moon and according to this Daily Telegraph article, both China and India plan to land people on the moon in the next ten years. The United States, who have already been to the moon, are talking about a new programme of exploration and there are reports Japan also wants to be involved.

An interesting question to ask is; why are they all doing it? It’s true that a country gains a lot of kudos if it completes a successful mission, but it’s a very expensive endeavour. According to this NASA website, it costs about $500,000,000 to send a robot to the moon. Another way of estimating the cost is per kilo of payload. According to some science websites, it costs about two million dollars for every kilogram you put on the moon. In other words, if you want to put a bicycle on the moon (probably a folding one), you’ll need to spend about twenty-million dollars. These prices don’t include all the efforts put into developing new technologies, the cost of failed missions and other related issues.

Along with the sheer expense, there is also the unedifying fact that the moon has already been landed on and it’s not an exciting place; it’s a dead, airless lump of rock. No nation is going to stay up into the small hours to see a robot land on the Sea of Tranquility. But there is a possible and very viable reason why the big nations of our planet, particularly the emerging superpowers, are racing to put robots, people and eventually bases on the moon, and it’s do with height.

In the history of warfare, height has always been of huge importance. Tribes soon noticed that attacking downhill is a lot easier, and more successful, than attacking uphill. Millennia later, as soon as people could take to the air, they used airborne craft to gain a new height advantage, bombing and strafing their enemy on the ground. When both sides had airborne craft, those craft that could climb higher gained a crucial advantage. The latest stage in this war of altitude has been the development of satellites for reconnaissance and communication, which all major nations now have. More recently the technology to knock out those satellites has been developed, with successful tests by more than one superpower showing they can knock out their own ageing or erratic satellites, and if push comes to shove, someone else’s. This satellite stage in the war of altitude is now a crowded, well-established territory. To gain a singular advantage, someone has to take the next altitude step; the moon.

A base on the moon has several strategic benefits. Firstly, it’s a super-satellite. There are a huge number of commercial and military satellites currently orbiting the Earth. They are extremely vulnerable, delicate devices. As popularised in the recent movie ‘Gravity’, there are so many satellites orbitting our planet that the destruction of just a few could release so much debris that a chain-reaction could break a huge number of the satellites currently in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth. It is also perfectly possible, as mentioned earlier, for ground-based lasers and rockets to knock them out individually. By comparison, an installation of communication or reconnaissance equipment on the moon, protected by some sort of screen, would be far harder to knock out. The moon therefore becomes an ideal back-up location for military communication and reconnaissance hardware.

But this article focusses on a second and more dramatic use, that makes full and devastating use of the moon’s position as the ultimate high ground.


Earth is big and, as a result, it has a strong gravity. By comparison, the moon is smaller and has less gravity, roughly one-seventh of Earth’s. If someone on the moon wants to attack a spot on the Earth, all they need to do is to throw a moon rock hard enough to leave the moon’s weak gravity well. The rock will then pass into Earth’s gravity well and fall down it, finally striking its appointed target on the Earth’s surface. This process is like a giant on a mountain tossing a boulder on to a fertile valley below. This is a kinetic weapon, as the damage it causes is entirely down to the speed at which it strikes the target, due to the extreme height from which the object has fallen.

To make such a weapon work on the moon, the attacker needs ammunition - rocks - of which the moon has loads, and some means to toss those projectiles in a guided way, in order for them to hit their intended target. Previous science-fiction stories have explored this idea, such as Robert Heinlein’s ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’, in which rocks coated in iron are launched from the Moon, at Earth, by an electromagnetic cannon. Although Heinlein’s book was a masterwork of speculative fiction, wrapping such rocks in iron as a way to propel them is a dated method and unfeasible. Iron is heavy and rare on the moon. There is a better alternative and it involves more modern technology, that of lasers and solar power.

To launch a rock from the Moon to the Earth, you need a) a power source of some kind for the launching and b) something that launches the rocks out of the moon’s gravity. The first requirement, power, can be supplied by solar power. The moon can receive the full intensity of the sun’s rays, uninterrupted, for long periods of time, making this an ideal spot for solar power generation.

The next thing needed is something to launch the rock. Lasers can carry out this task. A possible mechanism is as follows:


On the far side of the moon, a solar array is installed on its surface, along with a robot and several lasers. The solar array charges up the robot. The robot then digs a rock out of the lunar surface and places the rock in a harness hung from poles above the ground, placed in the centre of a circle of lasers. The robot retreats and the lasers, powered by the solar array, fire beams at the rock in the harness. The heat of the laser beams on the rock causes material on its surface to heat up and boil off. This emission of gases pushes the rock in the opposite direction to the gases it emits. Using this ‘action and reaction’ effect, the lasers ‘push’ the rock upwards, against the moon’s weak gravity. By altering the intensity of their beams and where they hit the rock, the lasers guide the rock upwards and entirely away from the lunar surface, accelerating it out of the moon’s gravity well. Once the rock is free of the lunar gravity, the lasers are turned off and the rock is left to fall down the Earth’s gravity well until it finally hits the intended target.

There are many practical benefits to investing in this type of weapon. It runs entirely from its own power source. It also has effectively limitless ammo. If it is placed on the far side of the moon, it is not even vulnerable to any Earth-based lasers’ attempts to disable it. It effectively becomes the most powerful catapult ever created, firing its shot from the highest-ever castle, behind the thickest-ever wall. Although the weapon’s location would make communication with it from an Earth-based command centre very difficult, the weapon’s computer could be semi-autonomous, or even receive its instructions from probes located further away from Earth than the moon, for example at one of the Sun’s Lagrange points, that have relayed instructions to it from an Earth-based command centre.

Is such a weapon on the minds of the super-states racing to explore and colonise the moon? I don’t know, but I would very be surprised if none of them have done a feasibility study. The idea isn’t new to science-fiction and recent developments in laser efficiency, solar power efficiency and robotics make it far more achievable than when Heinlein wrote about it, fifty years ago. Knowing what we do about human-kind, it's sensible to believe that one or more super-states will install such a weapon if they think it's worth the cost. Civilisation has followed a logical path for millennia and there’s no reason to think that will change, at least until natural factors bring it to a painful end. I think the moon will be a key piece in our next global war. Someone will establish a weapon on our moon and use this new high ground to devastating effect.


Note: Thinking about this again, a day later, I'm keen to check through some more of the technical aspects. For example, how big does a lump of rock that's travelled from the moon need to be to avoid being burnt up in Earth's atmosphere? This could be tricky to work out but I'll see what I can do.

Plants influence quantum behaviour

Photosynthesis is an amazing process, not only how it works but that it works at all. Considering how diffuse sunlight is, and the spread of its light across a broad spectrum, it’s incredible that plants can harvest sunlight’s power to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars. A few months ago, a very interesting article appeared on the BBC website, reporting on some new research into how plants are able to carry out their amazing process of photosynthesis. To quote from the article:

The idea that plants make use of quantum physics to harvest light more efficiently has received a boost. Plants gather packets of light called photons, shuttling them deep into their cells where their energy is converted with extraordinary efficiency. A report in Science journal adds weight to the idea that an effect called a "coherence" helps determine the most efficient path for the photons. Experts have called the work "a nice proof" of some contentious ideas.


Consciousness Beyond Life book review

I’ve recently finished reading ‘Consciousness Beyond Life’ by the Dutch cardiologist Dr Pim Van Lommel. The book studies and discusses the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences, when a person is effectively dead for a short period of time, later recovers and then recounts a dramatic experience that occurred while they were clinically dead.

Unlike other books on the subject, such as Kenneth Ring’s excellent ‘Heading Towards Omega’, the book describes Dr Van Lommel decision to set up a study to rule out the possibility that these episodes were fantasised or were caused by the subjects’ brains hallucinating when low on oxygen or affected by drugs. Read More...

The woman who woke up just in time


This article comes from the Independent newspaper. It describes the instance where a woman, who was thought to be dead, woke up as the medical staff were wheeling her in the operating theatre to have her organs removed as a transplant donor. To quote from the article, ‘her eyes opened in response to the bright lights in the operating theatre, causing doctors to immediately call off the procedure.’

Not surprisingly, everyone involved was quite shocked. The hospital involved, St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Centre in Syracuse, was a professionally run hospital that had highly trained staff and modern technology, and yet they had completed failed to spot that their patient wasn’t actually dead.


The man who believed he was dead


Today’s article comes from New Scientist. In it, a man named Graham attempted suicide but his bid failed. Afterwards, he told everyone around him that he regarded himself as dead. He no longer gained any joy from life, from normally pleasurable activities, and saw no point in continuing to exist. The mental problem that Graham was suffering from is known as Cotard’s Syndrome.

What is fascinating about this particular patient was that the researchers took the step of analysing Graham’s brain using the latest scanning techniques. They found that portions of his brain that should have been active, since he was clearly alive, showed virtually no activity at all. He had the brain activity of someone who was unconscious or in a coma, and yet he was walking around conscious and living like anyone else. Only his depression and his view of the world was different.


Kit will save us!

Back in the 1960’s, when skirts were short and architecture was Lego-like, Freeman Dyson, a physicist and engineer, came up with the idea of a Dyson Sphere. The idea was straightforward; a sun gives out lots of energy but planets only get a fraction of it. What if you built a sphere entirely around the sun and made the inside surface of that sphere like a planet? That way, you’d have an enormous area of land to use which would all be getting sunshine. You could house a squidgillion number of people that way. Sorted! The idea was intriguing, memorable and cropped up in a slightly altered way in Larry Niven’s very successful science fiction novel ‘Ringworld’.

The idea also cropped up more recently in a
New Scientist magazine article. The article’s author reported attempts underway by scientists to find Dyson Spheres out there in the Milky Way. The logic of the article was as follows: By the laws of probability, there should be many advanced civilisations out there in our galaxy. If there are, some of them should have built Dyson Spheres (or similar enormous engineering constructions) in order to house their expanding populations and help their expansion through the Galaxy. There should therefore be Dyson Spheres out there, encasing stars; it’s just a case of spotting their heat signature, shape, E/M emissions etc. Read More...

Low MAO and bad behaviour

A while back, a friend of mine told me that her ten-year-old son was having behavioural problems at school. He’d become increasingly irritable, moody, tearful and sensitive, culminating in a fight with a class-mate. It was a worrying development, particularly since he was usually a friendly, relaxed, cheerful kid.

At their house, while thinking on the problem, I noticed that my friend was giving her son more ice-cream than before. I pointed it out to her and she said that since her son’s infant food allergies were gone, he was enjoying the ability to eat dairy. I asked what he’d been eating on the day he’d had the fight. She said they’d had garlic sausage for lunch.

I wondered if these foodstuffs could be connected to a child’s bad behaviour, particularly a child that might have a history of food intolerance. After a bit of investigation, I came up with a possible problem and put this article together for her:


We humans are good at eating and digesting a wide range of food. We’re
omnivores, from omni meaning ‘all’ and vorare meaning ‘devour’, as in ‘voracious’. Our bodies though need to be careful what they let into our bloodstreams. If certain food molecules get into our bloodstreams, they can cause problems all over our bodies and, in particular, in our brains.


Schrödinger’s Shed

I thought I’d take a quick change of tack, before starting chapter 2 of ‘Prof Millpot and the Golden Web’, and draw/write an illustrated science book called ‘Schrödinger’s Shed’. Click on the banner link to read the article. It’s challenging but fun! (I think). I’ve tried to make it visually appealing, easy to read and pitched at a reader with some scientific knowledge and a lot of natural interest in the world.


Lego Technic Antikythera mechanism

New Scientist have added a great video showing an accurate recreation of the Antikythera mechanism made from Lego Technic! I've been a huge fan of Lego Technic from an early age and I've been fascinated by the Antikythera mechanism, an astonishingly sophisticated solar eclipse calculator made in the first century BC and found in a wreck off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in around 1900 AD.

Here's the video. I'll be honest, it makes me want to go out immediately and buy a huge Lego Technic kit.

Dr Rupert Sheldrake and morphic fields

Last year, I wrote to Rupert Sheldrake, a fascinating man who developed the theory of morphogenetic fields and is the author of books such as 'Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home' and 'Seven Experiments That Could Change the World', both of which I recommend. I wanted to make him aware of the intriguing research that Luc Montagnier has been carrying out with water and DNA. He very kindly replied and agreed it was very interesting and threw up a lot of questions but he couldn't see on first glance how it could connect to his theory of morphogenetic fields. Here's my reply:


The AV referendum - it's still bugging me

Last week, for the first time in my entire adult life, myself and the rest of the people of the UK got the chance to chance their electoral voting system. The change available to us wasn't exactly earth shattering; we were able to choose between the current system (first past the post - you put an 'x' beside your chosen candidate and the one with the most votes gets a seat in Parliament) and AV (you get to rank your choices on the voting slip). AV wasn't much of an alternative. There are better voting methods out there like Single Transferrable Vote or STV but that was what we got.

And then two thirds of us (or at least the half of voters who actually turned up) said 'no' to AV. WHAATTTT????? Read More...

A simple guide to how homeopathy might work

Note: This is a long blog entry. If you'd like to read it as a pdf document, click here.

Extra note: This long blog entry now has its own web page here.

For some reason, a lot of people seem to get very worked up about homeopathy. They make comments like ‘if it’s only water, we can throw it in the sea and make everyone well!’ or ‘it’s just a placebo, you’re all being fooled!’ or ‘it’s quackery and should be banned!’ or ‘burn them! Burn them all and their test tubes and little boxes with ground up plants! Burn them!’ Perhaps I’m getting a little exaggerated on that last one but you get the idea.

The thing is, homeopathy does seem to work, at least for some people. Now, it is certainly possible that their improvements may be down the placebo effect; that the psychological effect of them taking a medicine has cured them rather than the medicine itself. The placebo effect does also work. The only problem with this idea is that vets have used homeopathic remedies on livestock with success. It’s hard to imagine the cows getting better through the placebo effect.

So if it’s not psychological, what is it? A sensible first step is to understand the rules and theory of homeopathy. With that under our belts, we can then start to investigate how that procedure and theory might fit with what we do know about how the body works.