Apparently some folks aren’t familiar with sublimation.

DerpThis past Saturday after watching a movie on Amazon Prime I switched over to my PS3’s YouTube app to go through some of the channels I subscribe to because it’s fun watching them on my big screen TV. In addition to all of the channels you’ve subscribed to there are a few predefined channels such as Entertainment and Sports that will highly popular videos from folks you aren’t necessarily subscribed to. There’s also a Trending channel which highlights videos that are on the upswing in terms of viewings. I was browsing through the Trending videos when I came across this amazing video about “FAKE SNOW IN GEORGIA!”

In short, lady goes outside and makes a snowball then brings it back inside and attempts to melt it with a butane lighter. Instead of turning into a a puddle of water on her floor it doesn’t appear to be doing much at all other than blackening and giving off some sort of odor. Conclusion: She doesn’t know what it is, but it’s not snow. Then she mentions what we’re all thinking already: CHEMTRAILS!

And here’s another person replicating the demonstration:

WHERE IS THE WATER?!?

I was mildly amused until I noticed there’s a shitload of these videos out there. It appears the Chemtrail Conspiracists have been having a field day replicating this experiment and making all sorts of outlandish claims about what the fake snow really is. It’s nanoparticles delivered by jetstream manipulation and artificial aerosol ice nucleation! No, it’s really frozen poison organisms that are “alive!” It’s all part of a secret geo-engineering conspiracy to keep us passive and compliant!

Or, it could just be simple physics. Specifically what they’re seeing is called Sublimation which is when a solid goes directly to a gas without passing through the liquid phase first. Dry ice, which is frozen CO2, does it and nobody bats an eyelash at it. So what’s the black stuff and the plastic smell? Soot from the butane lighters they’re using. Butane lighters are pretty piss-poor at combustion, but they’re good enough to light a cigarette with. Not so great at melting compressed snow without leaving soot behind. You’ll note in the second video I included above that the blowtorch doesn’t turn the snow black at all, it just evaporates it.

Fortunately, not everyone out there lacks an understanding of the processes at work:

This one is probably my favorite of the debunking videos out there and is titled: Georgia fake Snow OR You’re just stupid!?!

It’s never been clear to me what, exactly, the government is supposed to be accomplishing with chemtrails that they couldn’t accomplish through more direct methods. Depending on which chemtrail conspiracy nut you ask it could be anything from population control to global warming mitigation to some sort of electromagnetic superweapon. For as dangerous as this fake snow is purported to be that doesn’t seem to be stopping folks from scooping it up and trying to burn it with their lighters, which seems like kind of a stupid thing to do if you really think it’s dangerous.

Fortunately for them it really is just frozen water. If there’s anything “alive” in it it’s nothing more than usual array of viruses and bacteria you’d find in any other untreated water in nature.

A brief primer on the science of snowflakes.

The folks at It’s OK to be Smart have a cool little video up on YouTube that talks about snowflakes, how they’re formed, and whether or not it’s true that no two are exactly alike:

One of the things I love about snowflakes is that they’re a great example of order and complexity from chaos. Just a few simple rules of physics produces the amazing variety of patterns a snowflake can take on. All from a bunch of hydrogen and oxygen atoms that bonded together and then bumped into each other.

Yet another study shows using magnets for arthritis doesn’t do shit.

commonsenseThis shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone with half a brain, but there’s yet another study that shows slapping a magnet on your arthritic joints won’t do anything other than lighten your wallet.

From the NYTime’s health blog:

British researchers randomized 65 patients with rheumatoid arthritis to receive one of four treatments: wearing a powerful magnetic wrist strap, a weak magnetic strap, a non-magnetic strap and a copper bracelet. Each patient wore each device for five weeks and completed pain surveys. The study appears in the September issue of PLoS One.

The patients reported pain levels using a visual scale, ranging from “no pain” to “worst pain ever,” and recorded how often their joints felt tender and swollen. Researchers used questionnaires to assess physical limitations, and tested for inflammation by measuring blood levels of C-reactive protein and plasma viscosity.

There was no statistically significant difference in any of these measures regardless of which type of device patients were wearing.

It’s been nearly 10 years since the last time I bothered to write about a study showing that magnet therapy is bullshit, but it appears the popularity of this particular kind of snakeoil hasn’t waned in that time. Estimates are that the sales of magnet bracelets tops $1 billion a year worldwide despite there not being one double blind, randomized testing showing they have anything more than a placebo effect. And that’s just the bracelets. You can buy all manner of things with “healing” magnets in them these days from insoles to underwear.

The only good news to be had is that there are so many people pumping these craptastic products out these days that if you’re gullible enough to buy into the nonsense you won’t end up wasting huge amounts of money on them as they tend to be cheap.

If you’re not watching “Your Bleeped Up Brain” then you should be.

your-bleeped-up-brain-square-logoI’m a big advocate for skeptical thinking. It’s one of the best tools you can have in life for determining truth claims and avoiding being scammed. We can’t be experts in everything so being skeptical is your first line of defense. To be really effective at it you need to understand how your brain works.

That’s where shows like Your Bleeped Up Brain come in handy. Each week they pick a theme — Lies, Superstition, Deception, Memory — and then they show you why your brain is susceptible to each one. Developed with the help of Richard Wiseman, the show delves not only into why your brain fucks up, but how it has had an impact on history on everything from world wars to belief in vampires. After each concept is explained they demonstrate by running experiments on the street with random folks passing by. It’s not only informative, but hugely entertaining.

Alas, there’s only four episodes in the series and they’ve already aired three of them. However, all is not lost as you can rent them through Amazon Prime or you can watch full episodes on the official site for free. I’m hopeful that it does well enough that they decide to pick it up for a full season later.

“The Four Miracles of Atheism” aren’t miracles.

thinklikemeIn a blog post last December (which I just stumbled across on Twitter) by Clay Kraby over at Reasonable Theology the argument is made that atheists take some things on faith. While that’s almost certainly true, the four things they cite as prime examples aren’t very good ones. They refer to these examples as The Four Miracles of Atheism:

For the purposes of this discussion, we will define a miracle as an event which occurs outside of the natural order and cannot be repeated or explained by the scientific process.

OK, we can work with that definition.

Consider the following four miracles which must be accepted by the atheist in spite of scientific evidence to the contrary:

1. Getting Something from Nothing. There has never been an observed example where something was created from nothing. No person would attempt to build something without materials, and there is no theory outside Big Bang cosmology which reaches this conclusion without ridicule from the scientific community

It’s a common misunderstanding of the Big Bang cosmology to claim that prior to that event there was “nothing” and that “something” came from it. The theory makes no such claims. If you trace time backwards to the Big Bang you end up with a singularity. That’s not nothing, but something. In fact, it’s everything. All scrunched up into one mind bogglingly small point of energy. The law of energy conservation tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form. Which is pretty much what the Big Bang was. Now it’s true we’re not entirely sure why it expanded and became the Universe and that’s in part because a lot of the math involved starts to break down the closer you get to the singularity, but the theory doesn’t say the Universe came from nothing.

As for there never having been “an observed example where something was created from nothing”, well, that’s not entirely true either. One experiment that made use of the the Casimir effect resulted in photons spontaneously appearing in empty space:

Quantum physics explains that there are limits to how precisely one can know the properties of the most basic units of matter—for instance, one can never absolutely know a particle’s position and momentum at the same time. One bizarre consequence of this uncertainty is that a vacuum is never completely empty, but instead buzzes with so-called “virtual particles” that constantly wink into and out of existence.

These virtual particles often appear in pairs that near-instantaneously cancel themselves out. Still, before they vanish, they can have very real effects on their surroundings. For instance, photons—packets of light—can pop in and out of a vacuum. When two mirrors are placed facing each other in a vacuum, more virtual photons can exist around the outside of the mirrors than between them, generating a seemingly mysterious force that pushes the mirrors together.

This effect was predicted back in 1948 and the experiment has been repeated numerous times. There’s some debate on whether it’s truly something from nothing, but it’s certainly a good candidate.

These are both very high-level simplifications of the science. If you’re interested in a more involved explanation then Lawrence Krauss’ book A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing is worthwhile reading. Or you can check out this lengthy talk he gave about the subject on YouTube:

The upshot is, given the law of conservation of energy, there’s really no need for faith that something came from nothing because that’s most likely not what happened. Even if it was what happened there are already aspects of Quantum Mechanics that would allow for it.

neilongodinlabYou’ll note that Kraby doesn’t bother to provide any of the “scientific evidence to the contrary” that something from nothing is impossible, he just says it’s a problem and assumes you agree with him. He makes the clever remark that no person would attempt to build something without materials and yet that’s precisely what his god must have done by sheer will alone if it is the creator of the universe and everything within it. That apparently isn’t a problem for Kraby in spite of the fact that it would be infinitely more magical than a universe just popping into existence on its own. Certainly we don’t have the full picture nailed down just yet and it’s possible we may never be able to fully explain how the universe came to be, but that doesn’t mean “goddidit” is the correct answer by default.

2. Getting Life from Non-Life. Even if naturalistic causes could have created the universe, it would still be necessary for non-living material to become living. This is also an unproven (and impossible) feat which must be accepted when denying the existence of God.

There’s really no need for faith in this either because it’s pretty self-evident that life had to arise at some point or we wouldn’t be here to discuss the issue, but let’s carry on and show the flaws in this argument.

The first problem with this argument is that it assumes there are only two possibilities: Either something is alive or it isn’t. Reality isn’t black and white. Things aren’t just alive or not-alive. Rather it’s more of a continuum from non-life to life. The more simple an organic form is the more blurry the line between life and non-life becomes.

For example, most folks consider viruses to be living things, but they really straddle the line between living and non-living things. One of the traits of life is the ability to reproduce and viruses can’t do that on their own. They have to invade living cells and hijack their systems to reproduce. Nor do viruses have any metabolic systems. Yet they do have genes and can evolve. They blur the line between living and non-living and support the theory that life could have started as self-assembling organic molecules.

Then there are Prions. These are small bits of misfolded proteins that aren’t alive in any sense of the word. They don’t contain any nucleic acids, they don’t have a metabolic system, nor genes, or a cell membrane, yet they have the ability to infect you and kill you. They are the cause of Mad Cow Disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in cows (natch) and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease in humans. They do this similarly to viruses by hijacking the functions of living cells to reproduce. As they reproduce they form a plaque known as amyloid which literally drills holes in your brain (making it spongy, hence the name) destroying you slowly over the course of decades. The odd thing is, these proteins are already in you, though not in the misfolded manner that causes disease. You’ll find the normal form in the membranes of your cells. They are a part of your cellular system, but they are not alive in themselves.

Kraby says that life arising from non-life is unproven and impossible without providing anything to back that claim up. Life is just a chemical process and spontaneous chemical reactions happen all the time — not to mention molecular self-assembly. Not only is there evidence that life came from non-living molecules, but scientists have been getting closer to creating artificial life with each passing year. In November of 2011 Martin Hanczyc did a TED talk where he showed the results of his experiments with protocells. Bonus: He also talks about how life is a continuum:

For being non-living, those protocells sure do look alive. Which is pretty impressive when you consider how simplistic they are compared to your standard human cell or even your average bacteria. Just with these basic chemical molecules there’s already lots of life-like activity taking place. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine how this could be a possible beginning of all life.

3. Getting Order from Chaos. The Laws of Thermodynamics tell us that all things tend towards disorder, not order. Left to themselves buildings crumble, gardens are taken over by weeds, and living material decays. If unguided natural causes produced the universe (from nothing) and produced life (from non-life) these processes would necessarily go against observed scientific principles in order to produce the complexity, beauty, and order that we observe in the world around us.

Ah yes! The Second Law of Thermodynamics! Always a favorite of the apologist crowd though they never seem to make use of the First Law of Thermodynamics or the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics (yes, there is a Zeroth Law). It always amuses me how readily theists will accept a scientific theory if it allows them to refute a different scientific theory they don’t like. It’s a shame so many of them don’t understand what it really says.

The first thing they don’t understand about the Second Law is that it isn’t about order or chaos, it’s about heat:

Second law of thermodynamicsHeat cannot spontaneously flow from a colder location to a hotter location.

The second law of thermodynamics is an expression of the universal principle of dissipation of kinetic and potential energy observable in nature. The second law is an observation of the fact that over time, differences in temperature, pressure, and chemical potential tend to even out in a physical system that is isolated from the outside world. Entropy is a measure of how much this process has progressed. The entropy of an isolated system that is not in equilibrium tends to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium.

In classical thermodynamics, the second law is a basic postulate applicable to any system involving heat energy transfer; in statistical thermodynamics, the second law is a consequence of the assumed randomness of molecular chaos. There are many versions of the second law, but they all have the same effect, which is to explain the phenomenon of irreversibility in nature.

The second thing they don’t understand about the Second Law is that little bit I put in boldface up there: It only applies to isolated physical systems with no external source of energy. The Earth, where abiogenesis and evolution have taken place, is not an isolated physical system. It has an external source of energy. You may have heard of it. It’s called The Sun. All life is possible because of the sun inputting energy into earth’s natural systems allowing for local increases in order that allows things like people to exist.

But, you might say, the Universe is a closed system with no external source of energy and it started in a high entropy state, but went on to form galaxies and stars and DVD rental kiosks. All highly ordered (low entropy) things. Doesn’t that violate the second law? Thanks to inflation the answer is no:

The Big Bang seems, at first glance, to violate the second law. It starts off as a dense almost perfectly homogeneous gas (thus at almost maximum entropy) and then seems to separate into clumps that formed stars and galaxies. Hasn’t order increased and thus the entropy decreased, and since the universe is a closed system, hasn’t this violated the second law?

The solution here is that because the universe is expanding it keeps getting shifted out of equilibrium, and in the drive to reach a new equilibrium state, you can get pockets of order occurring without violating the second law, because the maximum allowable entropy also keeps increasing.

In more technical terms, if we consider the universe to be a sphere of radius R that is increasing, the maximum allowable entropy increases as the square of R, while the actual entropy of the universe increases less rapidly, only linearly with R. Thus even if the initial universe was at maximum entropy for its size, as the universe expands its entropy can increase while still being easily able to accommodate the increasing order we see. In fact, calculations done assuming that there exist ten planets per star, 100 billion stars for every galaxy and 100 billion galaxies (which are our best current estimates) show that the ordering of the planets produces changes in entropy of only one part in 1011 of the total current entropy. Victor Stenger (Has Science Found God?, 2003, p. 152) summarizes the situation:

No violation of the second law of thermodynamics was required to produce the universe.

It’s clear that Kraby, like most apologists who try to use the Second Law to disprove other theories they don’t like, doesn’t have a firm grasp of the subject. That’s not a criticism. Thermodynamics is a complex subject that involves some serious math and can be difficult to follow, but it helps if you actually read what scientists have to say about it and not other theists.

Finally we come to his last so-called atheist miracle:

4. Getting the Immaterial from Physical Matter. If nothing was able to produce everything, non-life was able to produce life, and chaos was able to produce order the atheistic worldview would still encounter an insurmountable obstacle. No matter how organized, it is impossible for physical material to produce the immaterial realities of human consciousness. Our morality, beliefs, desires and preferences all exist outside of mere physical matter.

Kraby is making a pretty big claim here without providing anything to support it and it’s just flat out wrong. Our morality, beliefs, desires and preferences certainly do not exist outside of mere physical matter. They’re all contained within the human brain along with the rest of your personality. This is easily provable by studying people who have had a traumatic brain injury. There are literally thousands of documented cases of people developing whole new personalities, beliefs, desires, and preferences after brain injuries. Sometimes the changes are minor and sometimes they result in what could be said to be an entirely different person depending on how much damage there is and where in occurred. Passive people become violently aggressive (and vice versa), chaste can become hypersexual, introvert can become extrovert. One of the most famous examples is Phineas Gage whose personality changed dramatically after a tamping rod was propelled through his brain in an explosion. Even your beliefs can be changed by a TBI.

“You” do not exist outside of the confines of your brain and you can even change your personality without a TBI. Drugs are a common way to modify your personality in major and minor ways. People drink alcohol because it lowers inhibitions which results in them taking risks they probably wouldn’t if they were sober. Drug abuse can permanently alter your brain chemistry and, thusly, who you are.

Kraby concludes his little essay with the following claim:

Each of these examples go against the natural order and could be labeled as miracles. Naturalistic worldviews such as atheism, evolution, and neo-Darwinism regard this evidence for God with what Dawkins would certainly consider an unscientific approach: each item must be taken on faith.

As I’ve demonstrated, none of these goes against the natural order in any way nor do they require any faith to accept. We don’t have all the pieces to all the puzzles just yet, but what we do have points to very real and very natural processes that can be understood without invoking the supernatural. Again, even if it turns out that these theories are incorrect that doesn’t mean the only other explanation is “God”. It would be nice if Kraby could provide some reasons why a god is the explanation for these “miracles” beyond the implication of well what else would it be?

Kraby has demonstrated some startling ignorance of the topics he puts forth and provides nothing to back up the claims he makes. This could be avoided with just a little study outside the realm of Creationist websites. There are a number of good books from well respected scientists covering these topics in-depth that are still quite readable by the layman. All in all this was a pretty piss-poor argument. Hopefully the next apologist will do a better job.

New study reveals energy drinks no better than coffee.

5hourenergydogIt must be pretty rough to be an energy drink maker these days. After nearly a decade of of gangbuster sales the products are coming under greater scrutiny by both the media and the government. The makers of 5 Hour Energy in particular have been on the defensive quite a bit lately after a number of news reports citing the drink in the deaths of upward of 13 people over four years.

Now a study has been released that shows it’s not any more effective than any other source of caffeine:

Energy Drinks No Better than Caffeine at Boosting Attention | LiveScience.

“A lot of people take the energy drinks because they think they have that extra boost over caffeine,” said study researcher Chelsea Benham, a student at Centre College in Danville, Ky. But the study shows “there’s really no difference,” Benham said.

In terms of boosting attention, a cup of coffee “would do you just as well,” if it had the same amount of caffeine as an energy drink, she said.

A 2-ounce bottle of 5-Hour Energy contains about 215 milligrams of caffeine, the equivalent of about two cups of coffee.

I don’t make a point of watching commercials for this product, but they’re played so often it’s hard to miss them. For a long time they claimed that it gave you the energy boost of a soda or coffee “without the crash later”, but the ones I’ve been seeing lately have been touting how it’s sold a shitload drinks over the years, contains ingredients found in other foods you eat (implying it’s “natural” and thus safe), and is about the same as a cup of coffee. Whereas the old commercials implied that it was somehow way better than coffee the new commercial sums it up as “Like coffee with vitamins and nutrients.” It’s pretty clear the makers of 5 Hour Energy are a tad concerned that their golden egg may be in trouble.

Not that 5 Hour Energy is being singled out. A report released last November by the FDA cited a number of energy drinks as being a possible factor in various injuries and deaths including Monster Energy and Rockstar Energy.

For the time being the FDA doesn’t appear to be taking any action with regard to energy drinks and possible health issues related to them. The truth is that they’re just concentrated forms of caffeine and if you drink too much coffee or regular old caffeinated sodas you risk the same health issues. Overuse is most likely a factor in many of the injuries folks have suffered from these products. What this study shows, however, is that you don’t really gain anything from these products. The “alertness boost” is about the same as drinking coffee and there’s no evidence the added vitamins and nutrients help maintain energy levels or stave off the crash effect at all. Not to mention that the cost for these energy drinks is considerably higher than for regular sodas or coffee.

Are you more scientifically literate than the average American?

the-stupid-it-burnsThe state of science education in the United States is appalling and it’s only getting worse. Thanks to stupid policies such as the No Child Left Behind Act which places an exaggerated emphasis on testing to determine whether kids are learning anything resulting in schools “teaching to the test” and cuts to science education over the years, most people these days fall far short on basic scientific knowledge. It doesn’t help that there has been a systematic attempt by the Far Right in this country to undermine the teaching of well established scientific theories such as Evolution. Is it any wonder that the Discovery, History, and Science channels are resorting more and more to running shows like Ancient Aliens and The Supernaturalist?

It’s helpful to understand just how bad things have gotten so the folks at The Pew Research Center take the time every so often to poll Americans with a simple science quiz to see how they do. When I say simple, I mean ridiculously simple. There are 13 questions and only one of them made me pause for more than half a second to think about the answer.

You can take the quiz yourself here: Do you know more about science and technology than the average American? Go ahead and take it before proceeding with the rest of this entry. I’ll wait.

Done? OK, how’d you do? I got 13 out of 13 correct. There were several questions that I couldn’t believe they were seriously asking. Surely everyone got all of these questions correct, yes? According to the results I scored better than 93% of the Public and the same as only 7% of other quiz takers.

PewScienceQuizResults

Granted I’m probably more scientifically literate than the average person just because it’s a topic I’m interested in, but it’s not like I spend all my time studying science books nor are these questions in any way esoteric. The vast majority of them were laughably simplistic. If you’re paying attention at all you should get all 13 right.

When you get into the demographic breakdowns of the quiz it gets a little more interesting. Men did better than women on most of the questions except for those related to health. Generally speaking, the more education you have the better you’re likely to do — “collage graduate” scored better than “some college” which was better than “high school” — but it was surprising that only 20% of folks know which gas makes up the majority of the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s middle school science class for crying out loud. And the older you are the more likely you are to score low (probably because you’re beyond the point of giving a shit).

So what do we do to fix this problem? Hey, how about we get rid of that stupid No Child Left Behind program and allow teachers to, you know, teach and then properly fund education and science initiatives?

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Like that has a chance in hell of happening.

And now the unstoppable force vs. immovable object argument solved. Kinda.

Wow! It’s a good day for science videos tackling age-old brain stumpers. Earlier today we had one that took on the Chicken or the Egg question and now here’s one that deals with the old mind bender of what would happen when an unstoppable force hits an immovable object:

I just tickles me pink that we live in a day and age when we not only have almost all of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, but that there are folks out there who are applying science to silly questions and sharing the results with the rest of us.

Finally, an answer to the Chicken or the Egg question.

This is one of the things I love about science. It can take a relatively silly question like the old one about whether a chicken or an egg was first to come into existence and apply a little thought to it along with our understanding of theories such as evolution and put forth an answer to a seemingly impossible question.

Check it:

What I like most about this video is how it points out how ambiguous the original question really is: The answer depends in part on how you define your terms. It also highlights one of the problems with dealing with reality when we have a tendency to think in absolute terms.

Thinking in absolute terms is one of the problems I think Evolution deniers have. “I’ll believe in evolution when I see a dog give birth to kittens” is one of the common arguments you’ll hear from them. Evolution doesn’t work that way. It’s the result of the accumulation of small changes over long periods of time.

In the evolution of, say, the wolf into what we know today as the domesticated dog there’s no one point along the line where you can point and say that’s definitively where it stopped being a wolf and started being a dog. It doesn’t help that there isn’t a “line” to point to because pups in a litter are not clones of each other. Each one has its own small mutations that make it slightly different from its parents and siblings. Each batch of pups starts a bunch of different potential branches which, depending on if they survive and manage to breed themselves, produces that many more potential branches with their own mutations. That’s why we call it “the tree of life” and not “the single file line of life”.

Given enough time you will eventually get different, but related animals. Given even more time you’ll get much more different animals that can be difficult to tell are related to something in the past (e.g. birds being the descendants of dinosaurs). That’s apparently hard for a lot of people to wrap their heads around. Hence you get silly questions like: Which came first? The chicken or the egg?

I was going to post this sooner, but…

I’m a major procrastinator. Have been for much of my life. It’s one of those things about myself that I keep meaning to improve on, right after this next turn of Civilization 5 is done.Or this episode of a TV show I’m watching (for the fifth time) finishes.

Thankfully I’m not alone in my failing and science has been working out why so many of us can’t seem to get a start on those New Year resolutions we made before the next new year rolls around:

I’ll probably try a couple of the suggestions in that video to see if they help me at all…

…just as soon as I hit level 90 in World of Warcraft.