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13 Things That Don't Make sense

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  • medit8ionsociety
    One of the great things about meditation is the way it can get you thinking outside the box . Similarly, thinking outside the box often brings about
    Message 1 of 1 , May 24, 2006
      One of the great things about meditation is the
      way it can get you thinking "outside the box".
      Similarly, thinking outside the box often brings
      about meditative states of consciousness. Sometimes
      science can sometimes do this as well....

      13 things that do not make sense
      19 March 2005
      NewScientist.com news service
      Michael Brooks
      Print this pageEmail to a friendRSS Feed
      1 The placebo effect
      DON'T try this at home. Several times a day, for several days, you
      induce pain in someone. You control the pain with morphine until the
      final day of the experiment, when you replace the morphine with
      saline solution. Guess what? The saline takes the pain away.

      This is the placebo effect: somehow, sometimes, a whole lot of
      nothing can be very powerful. Except it's not quite nothing. When
      Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin in Italy carried out
      the above experiment, he added a final twist by adding naloxone, a
      drug that blocks the effects of morphine, to the saline. The shocking
      result? The pain-relieving power of saline solution disappeared.

      So what is going on? Doctors have known about the placebo effect for
      decades, and the naloxone result seems to show that the placebo
      effect is somehow biochemical. But apart from that, we simply don't

      Benedetti has since shown that a saline placebo can also reduce
      tremors and muscle stiffness in people with Parkinson's disease
      (Nature Neuroscience, vol 7, p 587). He and his team measured the
      activity of neurons in the patients' brains as they administered the
      saline. They found that individual neurons in the subthalamic nucleus
      (a common target for surgical attempts to relieve Parkinson's
      symptoms) began to fire less often when the saline was given, and
      with fewer "bursts" of firing - another feature associated with
      Parkinson's. The neuron activity decreased at the same time as the
      symptoms improved: the saline was definitely doing something.

      We have a lot to learn about what is happening here, Benedetti says,
      but one thing is clear: the mind can affect the body's
      biochemistry. "The relationship between expectation and therapeutic
      outcome is a wonderful model to understand mind-body interaction," he
      says. Researchers now need to identify when and where placebo works.
      There may be diseases in which it has no effect. There may be a
      common mechanism in different illnesses. As yet, we just don't know.

      2 The horizon problem
      OUR universe appears to be unfathomably uniform. Look across space
      from one edge of the visible universe to the other, and you'll see
      that the microwave background radiation filling the cosmos is at the
      same temperature everywhere. That may not seem surprising until you
      consider that the two edges are nearly 28 billion light years apart
      and our universe is only 14 billion years old.

      Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, so there is no way
      heat radiation could have travelled between the two horizons to even
      out the hot and cold spots created in the big bang and leave the
      thermal equilibrium we see now.

      This "horizon problem" is a big headache for cosmologists, so big
      that they have come up with some pretty wild solutions. "Inflation",
      for example.

      You can solve the horizon problem by having the universe expand ultra-
      fast for a time, just after the big bang, blowing up by a factor of
      1050 in 10-33 seconds. But is that just wishful thinking? "Inflation
      would be an explanation if it occurred," says University of Cambridge
      astronomer Martin Rees. The trouble is that no one knows what could
      have made that happen.

      So, in effect, inflation solves one mystery only to invoke another. A
      variation in the speed of light could also solve the horizon problem -
      but this too is impotent in the face of the question "why?" In
      scientific terms, the uniform temperature of the background radiation
      remains an anomaly.

      "A variation in the speed of light could solve the problem, but this
      too is impotent in the face of the question 'why?'"3 Ultra-energetic
      cosmic rays
      FOR more than a decade, physicists in Japan have been seeing cosmic
      rays that should not exist. Cosmic rays are particles - mostly
      protons but sometimes heavy atomic nuclei - that travel through the
      universe at close to the speed of light. Some cosmic rays detected on
      Earth are produced in violent events such as supernovae, but we still
      don't know the origins of the highest-energy particles, which are the
      most energetic particles ever seen in nature. But that's not the real

      As cosmic-ray particles travel through space, they lose energy in
      collisions with the low-energy photons that pervade the universe,
      such as those of the cosmic microwave background radiation.
      Einstein's special theory of relativity dictates that any cosmic rays
      reaching Earth from a source outside our galaxy will have suffered so
      many energy-shedding collisions that their maximum possible energy is
      5 × 1019 electronvolts. This is known as the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin

      Over the past decade, however, the University of Tokyo's Akeno Giant
      Air Shower Array - 111 particle detectors spread out over 100 square
      kilometres - has detected several cosmic rays above the GZK limit. In
      theory, they can only have come from within our galaxy, avoiding an
      energy-sapping journey across the cosmos. However, astronomers can
      find no source for these cosmic rays in our galaxy. So what is going

      One possibility is that there is something wrong with the Akeno
      results. Another is that Einstein was wrong. His special theory of
      relativity says that space is the same in all directions, but what if
      particles found it easier to move in certain directions? Then the
      cosmic rays could retain more of their energy, allowing them to beat
      the GZK limit.

      Physicists at the Pierre Auger experiment in Mendoza, Argentina, are
      now working on this problem. Using 1600 detectors spread over 3000
      square kilometres, Auger should be able to determine the energies of
      incoming cosmic rays and shed more light on the Akeno results.

      Alan Watson, an astronomer at the University of Leeds, UK, and
      spokesman for the Pierre Auger project, is already convinced there is
      something worth following up here. "I have no doubts that events
      above 1020 electronvolts exist. There are sufficient examples to
      convince me," he says. The question now is, what are they? How many
      of these particles are coming in, and what direction are they coming
      from? Until we get that information, there's no telling how exotic
      the true explanation could be.

      "One possibility is that there is something wrong with the Akeno
      results. Another is that Einstein was wrong"4 Belfast homeopathy
      MADELEINE Ennis, a pharmacologist at Queen's University, Belfast, was
      the scourge of homeopathy. She railed against its claims that a
      chemical remedy could be diluted to the point where a sample was
      unlikely to contain a single molecule of anything but water, and yet
      still have a healing effect. Until, that is, she set out to prove
      once and for all that homeopathy was bunkum.

      In her most recent paper, Ennis describes how her team looked at the
      effects of ultra-dilute solutions of histamine on human white blood
      cells involved in inflammation. These "basophils" release histamine
      when the cells are under attack. Once released, the histamine stops
      them releasing any more. The study, replicated in four different
      labs, found that homeopathic solutions - so dilute that they probably
      didn't contain a single histamine molecule - worked just like
      histamine. Ennis might not be happy with the homeopaths' claims, but
      she admits that an effect cannot be ruled out.

      So how could it happen? Homeopaths prepare their remedies by
      dissolving things like charcoal, deadly nightshade or spider venom in
      ethanol, and then diluting this "mother tincture" in water again and
      again. No matter what the level of dilution, homeopaths claim, the
      original remedy leaves some kind of imprint on the water molecules.
      Thus, however dilute the solution becomes, it is still imbued with
      the properties of the remedy.

      You can understand why Ennis remains sceptical. And it remains true
      that no homeopathic remedy has ever been shown to work in a large
      randomised placebo-controlled clinical trial. But the Belfast study
      (Inflammation Research, vol 53, p 181) suggests that something is
      going on. "We are," Ennis says in her paper, "unable to explain our
      findings and are reporting them to encourage others to investigate
      this phenomenon." If the results turn out to be real, she says, the
      implications are profound: we may have to rewrite physics and

      5 Dark matter
      TAKE our best understanding of gravity, apply it to the way galaxies
      spin, and you'll quickly see the problem: the galaxies should be
      falling apart. Galactic matter orbits around a central point because
      its mutual gravitational attraction creates centripetal forces. But
      there is not enough mass in the galaxies to produce the observed spin.

      Vera Rubin, an astronomer working at the Carnegie Institution's
      department of terrestrial magnetism in Washington DC, spotted this
      anomaly in the late 1970s. The best response from physicists was to
      suggest there is more stuff out there than we can see. The trouble
      was, nobody could explain what this "dark matter" was.

      And they still can't. Although researchers have made many suggestions
      about what kind of particles might make up dark matter, there is no
      consensus. It's an embarrassing hole in our understanding.
      Astronomical observations suggest that dark matter must make up about
      90 per cent of the mass in the universe, yet we are astonishingly
      ignorant what that 90 per cent is.

      Maybe we can't work out what dark matter is because it doesn't
      actually exist. That's certainly the way Rubin would like it to turn
      out. "If I could have my pick, I would like to learn that Newton's
      laws must be modified in order to correctly describe gravitational
      interactions at large distances," she says. "That's more appealing
      than a universe filled with a new kind of sub-nuclear particle."

      "If the results turn out to be real, the implications are profound.
      We may have to rewrite physics and chemistry"6 Viking's methane
      JULY 20, 1976. Gilbert Levin is on the edge of his seat. Millions of
      kilometres away on Mars, the Viking landers have scooped up some soil
      and mixed it with carbon-14-labelled nutrients. The mission's
      scientists have all agreed that if Levin's instruments on board the
      landers detect emissions of carbon-14-containing methane from the
      soil, then there must be life on Mars.

      Viking reports a positive result. Something is ingesting the
      nutrients, metabolising them, and then belching out gas laced with

      So why no party?
      Because another instrument, designed to identify organic molecules
      considered essential signs of life, found nothing. Almost all the
      mission scientists erred on the side of caution and declared Viking's
      discovery a false positive. But was it?

      The arguments continue to rage, but results from NASA's latest rovers
      show that the surface of Mars was almost certainly wet in the past
      and therefore hospitable to life. And there is plenty more evidence
      where that came from, Levin says. "Every mission to Mars has produced
      evidence supporting my conclusion. None has contradicted it."

      Levin stands by his claim, and he is no longer alone. Joe Miller, a
      cell biologist at the University of Southern California in Los
      Angeles, has re-analysed the data and he thinks that the emissions
      show evidence of a circadian cycle. That is highly suggestive of life.

      Levin is petitioning ESA and NASA to fly a modified version of his
      mission to look for "chiral" molecules. These come in left or right-
      handed versions: they are mirror images of each other. While
      biological processes tend to produce molecules that favour one
      chirality over the other, non-living processes create left and right-
      handed versions in equal numbers. If a future mission to Mars were to
      find that Martian "metabolism" also prefers one chiral form of a
      molecule to the other, that would be the best indication yet of life
      on Mars.

      "Something on Mars is ingesting nutrients, metabolising them and then
      belching out radioactive methane"7 Tetraneutrons
      FOUR years ago, a particle accelerator in France detected six
      particles that should not exist. They are called tetraneutrons: four
      neutrons that are bound together in a way that defies the laws of

      Francisco Miguel Marquès and colleagues at the Ganil accelerator in
      Caen are now gearing up to do it again. If they succeed, these
      clusters may oblige us to rethink the forces that hold atomic nuclei

      The team fired beryllium nuclei at a small carbon target and analysed
      the debris that shot into surrounding particle detectors. They
      expected to see evidence for four separate neutrons hitting their
      detectors. Instead the Ganil team found just one flash of light in
      one detector. And the energy of this flash suggested that four
      neutrons were arriving together at the detector. Of course, their
      finding could have been an accident: four neutrons might just have
      arrived in the same place at the same time by coincidence. But that's
      ridiculously improbable.

      Not as improbable as tetraneutrons, some might say, because in the
      standard model of particle physics tetraneutrons simply can't exist.
      According to the Pauli exclusion principle, not even two protons or
      neutrons in the same system can have identical quantum properties. In
      fact, the strong nuclear force that would hold them together is tuned
      in such a way that it can't even hold two lone neutrons together, let
      alone four. Marquès and his team were so bemused by their result that
      they buried the data in a research paper that was ostensibly about
      the possibility of finding tetraneutrons in the future (Physical
      Review C, vol 65, p 44006).

      And there are still more compelling reasons to doubt the existence of
      tetraneutrons. If you tweak the laws of physics to allow four
      neutrons to bind together, all kinds of chaos ensues (Journal of
      Physics G, vol 29, L9). It would mean that the mix of elements formed
      after the big bang was inconsistent with what we now observe and,
      even worse, the elements formed would have quickly become far too
      heavy for the cosmos to cope. "Maybe the universe would have
      collapsed before it had any chance to expand," says Natalia
      Timofeyuk, a theorist at the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK.

      There are, however, a couple of holes in this reasoning. Established
      theory does allow the tetraneutron to exist - though only as a
      ridiculously short-lived particle. "This could be a reason for four
      neutrons hitting the Ganil detectors simultaneously," Timofeyuk says.
      And there is other evidence that supports the idea of matter composed
      of multiple neutrons: neutron stars. These bodies, which contain an
      enormous number of bound neutrons, suggest that as yet unexplained
      forces come into play when neutrons gather en masse.

      8 The Pioneer anomaly
      THIS is a tale of two spacecraft. Pioneer 10 was launched in 1972;
      Pioneer 11 a year later. By now both craft should be drifting off
      into deep space with no one watching. However, their trajectories
      have proved far too fascinating to ignore.

      That's because something has been pulling - or pushing - on them,
      causing them to speed up. The resulting acceleration is tiny, less
      than a nanometre per second per second. That's equivalent to just one
      ten-billionth of the gravity at Earth's surface, but it is enough to
      have shifted Pioneer 10 some 400,000 kilometres off track. NASA lost
      touch with Pioneer 11 in 1995, but up to that point it was
      experiencing exactly the same deviation as its sister probe. So what
      is causing it?

      Nobody knows. Some possible explanations have already been ruled out,
      including software errors, the solar wind or a fuel leak. If the
      cause is some gravitational effect, it is not one we know anything
      about. In fact, physicists are so completely at a loss that some have
      resorted to linking this mystery with other inexplicable phenomena.

      Bruce Bassett of the University of Portsmouth, UK, has suggested that
      the Pioneer conundrum might have something to do with variations in
      alpha, the fine structure constant (see "Not so constant constants",
      page 37). Others have talked about it as arising from dark matter -
      but since we don't know what dark matter is, that doesn't help much
      either. "This is all so maddeningly intriguing," says Michael Martin
      Nieto of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "We only have proposals,
      none of which has been demonstrated."

      Nieto has called for a new analysis of the early trajectory data from
      the craft, which he says might yield fresh clues. But to get to the
      bottom of the problem what scientists really need is a mission
      designed specifically to test unusual gravitational effects in the
      outer reaches of the solar system. Such a probe would cost between
      $300 million and $500 million and could piggyback on a future mission
      to the outer reaches of the solar system (www.arxiv.org/gr-

      "An explanation will be found eventually," Nieto says. "Of course I
      hope it is due to new physics - how stupendous that would be. But
      once a physicist starts working on the basis of hope he is heading
      for a fall." Disappointing as it may seem, Nieto thinks the
      explanation for the Pioneer anomaly will eventually be found in some
      mundane effect, such as an unnoticed source of heat on board the

      9 Dark energy
      IT IS one of the most famous, and most embarrassing, problems in
      physics. In 1998, astronomers discovered that the universe is
      expanding at ever faster speeds. It's an effect still searching for a
      cause - until then, everyone thought the universe's expansion was
      slowing down after the big bang. "Theorists are still floundering
      around, looking for a sensible explanation," says cosmologist
      Katherine Freese of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "We're all
      hoping that upcoming observations of supernovae, of clusters of
      galaxies and so on will give us more clues."

      One suggestion is that some property of empty space is responsible -
      cosmologists call it dark energy. But all attempts to pin it down
      have fallen woefully short. It's also possible that Einstein's theory
      of general relativity may need to be tweaked when applied to the very
      largest scales of the universe. "The field is still wide open,"
      Freese says.

      10 The Kuiper cliff
      IF YOU travel out to the far edge of the solar system, into the
      frigid wastes beyond Pluto, you'll see something strange. Suddenly,
      after passing through the Kuiper belt, a region of space teeming with
      icy rocks, there's nothing.

      Astronomers call this boundary the Kuiper cliff, because the density
      of space rocks drops off so steeply. What caused it? The only answer
      seems to be a 10th planet. We're not talking about Quaoar or Sedna:
      this is a massive object, as big as Earth or Mars, that has swept the
      area clean of debris.

      The evidence for the existence of "Planet X" is compelling, says Alan
      Stern, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder,
      Colorado. But although calculations show that such a body could
      account for the Kuiper cliff (Icarus, vol 160, p 32), no one has ever
      seen this fabled 10th planet.

      There's a good reason for that. The Kuiper belt is just too far away
      for us to get a decent view. We need to get out there and have a look
      before we can say anything about the region. And that won't be
      possible for another decade, at least. NASA's New Horizons probe,
      which will head out to Pluto and the Kuiper belt, is scheduled for
      launch in January 2006. It won't reach Pluto until 2015, so if you
      are looking for an explanation of the vast, empty gulf of the Kuiper
      cliff, watch this space.

      11 The Wow signal
      IT WAS 37 seconds long and came from outer space. On 15 August 1977
      it caused astronomer Jerry Ehman, then of Ohio State University in
      Columbus, to scrawl "Wow!" on the printout from Big Ear, Ohio State's
      radio telescope in Delaware. And 28 years later no one knows what
      created the signal. "I am still waiting for a definitive explanation
      that makes sense," Ehman says.

      Coming from the direction of Sagittarius, the pulse of radiation was
      confined to a narrow range of radio frequencies around 1420
      megahertz. This frequency is in a part of the radio spectrum in which
      all transmissions are prohibited by international agreement. Natural
      sources of radiation, such as the thermal emissions from planets,
      usually cover a much broader sweep of frequencies. So what caused it?

      The nearest star in that direction is 220 light years away. If that
      is where is came from, it would have had to be a pretty powerful
      astronomical event - or an advanced alien civilisation using an
      astonishingly large and powerful transmitter.

      The fact that hundreds of sweeps over the same patch of sky have
      found nothing like the Wow signal doesn't mean it's not aliens. When
      you consider the fact that the Big Ear telescope covers only one-
      millionth of the sky at any time, and an alien transmitter would also
      likely beam out over the same fraction of sky, the chances of
      spotting the signal again are remote, to say the least.

      Others think there must be a mundane explanation. Dan Wertheimer,
      chief scientist for the SETI@home project, says the Wow signal was
      almost certainly pollution: radio-frequency interference from Earth-
      based transmissions. "We've seen many signals like this, and these
      sorts of signals have always turned out to be interference," he says.
      The debate continues.

      "It was either a powerful astronomical event - or an advanced alien
      civilisation beaming out a signal"12 Not-so-constant constants
      IN 1997 astronomer John Webb and his team at the University of New
      South Wales in Sydney analysed the light reaching Earth from distant
      quasars. On its 12-billion-year journey, the light had passed through
      interstellar clouds of metals such as iron, nickel and chromium, and
      the researchers found these atoms had absorbed some of the photons of
      quasar light - but not the ones they were expecting.

      If the observations are correct, the only vaguely reasonable
      explanation is that a constant of physics called the fine structure
      constant, or alpha, had a different value at the time the light
      passed through the clouds.

      But that's heresy. Alpha is an extremely important constant that
      determines how light interacts with matter - and it shouldn't be able
      to change. Its value depends on, among other things, the charge on
      the electron, the speed of light and Planck's constant. Could one of
      these really have changed?

      No one in physics wanted to believe the measurements. Webb and his
      team have been trying for years to find an error in their results.
      But so far they have failed.

      Webb's are not the only results that suggest something is missing
      from our understanding of alpha. A recent analysis of the only known
      natural nuclear reactor, which was active nearly 2 billion years ago
      at what is now Oklo in Gabon, also suggests something about light's
      interaction with matter has changed.

      The ratio of certain radioactive isotopes produced within such a
      reactor depends on alpha, and so looking at the fission products left
      behind in the ground at Oklo provides a way to work out the value of
      the constant at the time of their formation. Using this method, Steve
      Lamoreaux and his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in
      New Mexico suggest that alpha may have decreased by more than 4 per
      cent since Oklo started up (Physical Review D, vol 69, p 121701).

      There are gainsayers who still dispute any change in alpha. Patrick
      Petitjean, an astronomer at the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris,
      led a team that analysed quasar light picked up by the Very Large
      Telescope (VLT) in Chile and found no evidence that alpha has
      changed. But Webb, who is now looking at the VLT measurements, says
      that they require a more complex analysis than Petitjean's team has
      carried out. Webb's group is working on that now, and may be in a
      position to declare the anomaly resolved - or not - later this year.

      "It's difficult to say how long it's going to take," says team member
      Michael Murphy of the University of Cambridge. "The more we look at
      these new data, the more difficulties we see." But whatever the
      answer, the work will still be valuable. An analysis of the way light
      passes through distant molecular clouds will reveal more about how
      the elements were produced early in the universe's history.

      13 Cold fusion
      AFTER 16 years, it's back. In fact, cold fusion never really went
      away. Over a 10-year period from 1989, US navy labs ran more than 200
      experiments to investigate whether nuclear reactions generating more
      energy than they consume - supposedly only possible inside stars -
      can occur at room temperature. Numerous researchers have since
      pronounced themselves believers.

      With controllable cold fusion, many of the world's energy problems
      would melt away: no wonder the US Department of Energy is interested.
      In December, after a lengthy review of the evidence, it said it was
      open to receiving proposals for new cold fusion experiments.

      That's quite a turnaround. The DoE's first report on the subject,
      published 15 years ago, concluded that the original cold fusion
      results, produced by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons of the
      University of Utah and unveiled at a press conference in 1989, were
      impossible to reproduce, and thus probably false.

      The basic claim of cold fusion is that dunking palladium electrodes
      into heavy water - in which oxygen is combined with the hydrogen
      isotope deuterium - can release a large amount of energy. Placing a
      voltage across the electrodes supposedly allows deuterium nuclei to
      move into palladium's molecular lattice, enabling them to overcome
      their natural repulsion and fuse together, releasing a blast of
      energy. The snag is that fusion at room temperature is deemed
      impossible by every accepted scientific theory.

      "Cold fusion would make the world's energy problems melt away. No
      wonder the Department of Energy is interested"That doesn't matter,
      according to David Nagel, an engineer at George Washington University
      in Washington DC. Superconductors took 40 years to explain, he points
      out, so there's no reason to dismiss cold fusion. "The experimental
      case is bulletproof," he says. "You can't make it go away."

      From issue 2491 of New Scientist magazine, 19 March 2005, page 30
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