Brain Science and the Beatles

I want to start by saying that I disapprove of the somewhat misleading title of this post from NPR, “The Beatles’ Surprising Contribution To Brain Science“. I also want to state that, despite my disapproval, I am not willing to forgo what is really a good, attention grabbing title to tell you about something incredibly interesting.

Basically, like many of us, when neuroscientist Josef Rauschecker was in school, he listened to a lot of music while studying, in his case it was a lot of mid-to-late Beatles work. Fast forward many years later, and he would put on the same albums he hadn’t heard in over a decade, yet he still knew what song was next, what to expect as the music played on.

Being a neuroscientist, he began to study people listening to their favorite CDs while scanning their brains and, unsurprisingly, the brain fired in between tracks, letting it know what to expect. However, while he expected it to be the parts of the brain associated with hearing, it was actually the parts of the brain that deal with motor activity that were firing most.

Go read the whole thing. It’s actually fascinating research and an interesting look at how we absorb and learn music.

On a personal note, the experience of knowing an album like that was, for me, actually Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I remember hearing it for the first time in middle school and, like most middle schoolers who have just discovered Pink Floyd, I was convinced it was a work of seminal genius. I still am largely convinced of this, but perhaps not to the extent I was at the time. Still, after months of listening to a cassette tape of that album over and over again, I know the whole thing note for note. Give me a piano and a couple of notes and I can pluck out the remainder, from Waters’s skippingist bass run to Gilmore’s highest flying solo.

I think it’s great that somebody is figuring out why my brain can do that.

What’s It Like to Play a Video Game Close to the Speed of Light?

That’s what the people at the MIT Game Lab are trying to answer with A Slower Speed of Light. You can go download and play it for free at that link, and I highly recommend it.

Basically, this is mostly a demo to show us what happens to vision and movement as we approach the speed of light. The way the game works is that there are 100 easily accessed orbs to collect on the board, but every time you pick one up, the speed of light is lowered, bringing you closer and closer to that speed. As you approach the speed of light, it changes how visuals are processed on the screen and how you move relative to the objects around you.

Mostly, this is a stab at creating a game engine that others can use, but doing What’s It Like to Play a Video Game Close to the Speed of Light? it as accurately as possible to the actual experience of moving in a familiar place, but closer to the speed of light.

Moreover, it’s a fun little thing to play with for a few minutes. So go play with it already.

(h/t Starts with a Bang)

Carl Sagan Day

It’s been really depressing around here lately. I partially blame being sick, but the rest is just that I’m getting a little battle fatigued and need a weekend of folk music and sword fighting to perk me back up.

Today is Carl Sagan Day! In celebration of the birthday of a great man and thinker, the Center for Inquiry is encouraging people to go study the universe tonight, especially if you have a CFI branch nearby that will be doing a party.

I wish I could be spending this at Skepticon, but instead I get to spend the night under the stars with my friends and loved ones in the SCA, so still very awesome. Maybe I’ll see if I can identify some of the stars and patterns Tycho Brahe noticed and were made sense of by Kepler.

Also, go take a look at Starts With a Bang for a really great article on how every galaxy will continue to make new stars for trillions of years, even our own, which will then take billions of years to burn out. Not only is the science fascinating, Ethan always posts the best pictures to go with it.

So keep your eyes on the stars tonight. And remember these words from Sagan, “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love“.

Either Humans Can or Can’t Change the Climate

I came across an article yesterday that absolutely threw me into a tizzy fit of “does not compute”. I can only assume the writer knew that those most likely to buy into this sort of contradiction are accustomed to not really doing a whole lot of critical thinking.

The article, published on MarketWatch, begins with climate change denialism. Well, sort of. To say that this article is all over the place would be an understatement. It’s just a scattershot of the top five climate change denial talking points, completely unaware that they contradict one another. Let’s look at some quotes. Please keep in mind that this is a right-leaning article and, therefore, has no links to support any of the assertions being made, so it’s not my fault they’re uncited.

Renewable energy makes America’s electricity more expensive, and few want to buy GM’s electric Chevy Volts.

The first part of this is only true if you don’t look at any effects of non-renewable energy. For example, increases in health problems caused by poor air quality end up costing much, much more in terms of medical care. They say this in response to natural gas, which is a great bridge fuel while renewable energy sources develop, but the idea that a resource that causes people to be able to set their tap water on fire is not one that we can hold on to for long. And, of course, the argument “the new thing is expensive” to stop doing something is ridiculous. All new things are expensive. They become less expensive when we invest in them. Does she have a car? Does Diana Furchtgott-Roth realize how expensive those were compared to horses and buggies and how much it raised prices on shipping originally? Progress requires investment, but I think people can handle paying 20% less on their electricity over the course of 20 years.

Further, unless China, India, and other emerging economies join America in emissions reduction, effects on global warming will be minor.

Citation needed. The article goes on to point out that those countries hold 37% of the world’s population. Unfortunately, that statistic (uncited) is meaningless since the US contributes more than them toward climate change. In fact, we contribute more than anybody toward climate change. Us cutting down on carbon emissions will have a huge impact, even if China and India don’t jump on board.

But even if that weren’t the case, so fucking what? Why should we not do something that would limit the amount of environmental damage because two other big countries haven’t? Again, by that logic, nothing would ever be done because nobody would be first. I was always under the impression that America fancied itself a world leader, but maybe Furchtgott-Roth would disagree?

Moreover, some new data suggest that global warming has practically stopped over the past decade.

No, it hasn’t.

Yes, Arctic ice is thinning, but ice in Antarctica is thicker than ever.

For one year this has been the case, and every climate “skeptic” jumps on it like it’s a snow storm in winter. The thing is, this is actually an indication of climate change, and has been predicted by climate scientists. This isn’t proof that climate change isn’t happening, this is confirmation that it is.

Is Planet Earth getting warmer through man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, or due to natural causes beyond human control? If so, is warming harmful rather than beneficial? On cold winter days, many would find a little more warmth welcome. It might even lead to lower heating bills and fewer carbon emissions.

I…I don’t…WHAT? Is Diana Furchtgott-Roth the stupidest person on Earth, or is the person who wrote her talking points?

First of all, stop fixating on “warming”. It was a term used that describes climate, not weather. The general warming trend on the planet can cause colder weather events as well, just like when ice melts in a glass of water on a hot day, it doesn’t make the water immediately hotter. It starts by making it colder and eventually warms up to whatever the temperature outside is.

Even so, let’s say that this stupid analogy is correct and a slightly warmer winter is pleasant for people who don’t live near to the equator. What happens when summer comes around and is even hotter than it was last year? Won’t that be less pleasant? And yes, it might lead to lower heating bills in the winter, but higher cooling bills in the summer. Big picture, Diana. Big picture.

I leave it to the scientific community to battle out the pros and cons of the climate change debate.

Bullshit. The scientific community is almost entirely in agreement on this. There is no “battle” and no “debate” within science. There are only political hacks who want to pretend there is so they can borrow the respectability of science without having to do the hard work of actually deciphering the facts. She’s spent the whole article to this point arguing against the consensus of climate scientists and is now trying to pretend that her arguments are the arguments of a significant part of the scientific community. They aren’t.

But what really gets me about this piece, other than it’s abject dishonesty, is that it then goes on to start advising geoengineering. For those who haven’t heard of it, geoengineering is the process where you try to purposefully effect the climate. Scientists generally do advocate for it, but as a compliment to emission control, not as a replacement for it. The author basically is saying that rather than try to limit carbon, we should just be playing with other things in an effort to allow us to pollute more. And, of course, this should be handled by private individuals, because that always works.

But what got me more about the claim is that it contradicts an article that claims that people really can’t effect the climate. Either one country doing something is not enough or there’s no proof that carbon is the problem or it’s too expensive, etc. Now, suddenly, we can somehow change the climate, and do it cheaply too, which astounds me.

Either human beings can effect the climate and do so in a cost efficient way or they can’t. You can’t claim that one method is impossible despite all evidence to the contrary, and then claim that another is totes possible and easy.

Essentially, this is more muddying the waters by people who don’t ever want to have to pay a dime more than they absolutely must because it might affect their comfort right now, and to hell with what happens tomorrow. It’s short sighted, which in an of itself is less of a problem than that it tries to appropriate science in an effort to undermine it. And that is a major problem. The claims made in this article are specious, and pretending that there is a real debate in the scientific community about this subject is an outright lie.

Voting for Darwin

In response to Rep. Paul Broun, who very recently demonstrated that his party’s contempt for the poor is matched only by their contempt for knowledge, running unopposed for his Georgia congressional seat, an idea has been catching a lot of attention.

The idea is simple: write in Charles Darwin. Now, obviously Darwin can’t be a congressman, having both integrity and an incurable case of death, but it would certainly send some sort of message. I’m not sure what message it would send, though.

The popular consensus is that it would at least demonstrate that the people in Broun’s district, and Republicans in general, are not, as conservative pundit Neal Boortz put it, “…knee-dragging, still-tending, tobacco-spitting Neanderthals.” I would argue that while they aren’t all, the party does attract knee-dragging, still-tending, tobacco-spitting Neanderthals for some reason and they ought to look into that. The Sensuous Curmudgeon points us to an editorial that makes largely the same argument, but also that, “…a significant number of votes for Darwin could signal to a more mainstream Republican somewhere in the district that a successful run against Broun two years from now might be plausible.” If that Republican survives the purge of moderates, do you really think they’ll poke their head up to defend science?

So, late in the game, the seat gets contended by an English naturalist. And I think the choice is clear. One is a racist old white dude with kooky ideas and knowledge that doesn’t reach past the Victorian period, and the other developed the theory of evolution through natural selection (I know, cheap shot, but I had to). Also, Darwin has much more trustworthy facial hair. But mostly, it would be amusing though ineffective, because if we think that Paul Broun is going to change his opinions or the GOP will remove him from the Science Committee, even if it’s a 49-51 squeaker  then we’re even more delusional than he is.

Still, if you happen to be in Broun’s district or know somebody who is, consider writing in Darwin. You lose nothing, and it would be entertaining at the very least.

There is Wonder in Knowing

So, Scientific American can fuck right the hell off.

No, seriously, they can.

In one of their recent articles, they explore why “magical thinking,” the superstitions we adopt in our everyday lives, seems to work for some people. Essentially, the argument is that if we really, really believe in something being “lucky”, then that causes us to set loftier goals and to work harder at achieving them. This is in reaction to a study done at the University of Cologne and published in Psychological Science.

That’s not really a big deal. Yea, people think that they can accomplish more with a little supernatural help. I’m not a fan of the tone of the piece, which suggests this is a good thing. It’s what Greta Christina calls The Santa Delusion, and basically it’s an argument from utility. Yes, belief in Santa makes children act better, therefore adults should also all believe in a real, physical Santa in order to make them behave better as well. While this is nice in a touchy-feely sort of way, it’s not an accurate reflection of truth and ends up holding us back because we can’t exhibit genuine moral behavior when we see our actions as only a reflection of whether we will be rewarded or punished.

Similarly, the problems that can be caused by reliance on superstitions rather than ones own abilities far outweigh the ability to pretend that your socks are making you run faster. I mean, I’m sure there’s some pleasure derived from peeing on your hands for some people and I have no particular problems with gold thongs, but wouldn’t it be better just to show people you’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas?

But even that isn’t what annoys me about this article. It’s this line

Like the science of astronomy strips the starry night of its magic

The link is to a Whitman poem. I can’t stand nonsense like this. Knowing doesn’t strip away wonder or magic, and it’s a poor and desiccated thing if your ability to dream is founded solely on your ignorance. This is childish thinking at its worst and is roughly like saying that film students can’t find magic in movies or English majors can’t enjoy Whitman (which I still do, BTW).

We ought to be above cheap tricks as a species. I like illusions and magic as much as the next guy, but it all pales in comparison to the sheer size and complexity of the universe around us. While Whitman sees just the stars, I see a glorious dance happening at breakneck speed made to seem slow only by the vast uncharted distances it takes place over. It is a grand sky full of explosions and swinging bodies and impossible journeys. Everything I learn about it makes it more amazing, and encouraging people to miss the sheer prodigious nature of the universe while touting the efficacy of rabbit’s feet when a person doesn’t know any better is really disappointing.

Science is the poetry of reality, and I pity anybody who can’t see the wonders of those poems.

(h/t to Dex for posting about this himself)