My gripe about the misappropriation of quantum physics by new age woo

A  few years ago I ended up consulting someone over a health matter. This guy seemed to be talking sense, until he started up about ‘quantum healing’. Bad move. You see, I ‘do’ physics.

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

One of his associates had a machine that used low voltage DC electricity to ‘heal’ by ‘quantum’ effects. This was gibberish, of course, and a brief discussion made clear that (a) the meaning of ‘quantum’ didn’t correlate with anything I knew from the work of Paul Dirac, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and the rest; and (b) invoking the word, alone, sufficed as a full explanation of how this ‘treatment’ worked.

It was, in short, total snake oil. The science is clear: quantum effects – the real ones – don’t work at macro-level. The end.

That’s why ‘quantum jumping’, ‘quantum healing’ and the rest is rubbish. I don’t doubt that ‘quantum healers’ occasionally get results. The placebo effect is well understood. And maybe sometimes they hit on something that does work. But it won’t be for the reasons they state.

Niels Bohr in 1922. Public domain, from Wikipedia.

Niels Bohr in 1922. Public domain, from Wikipedia.

The way quantum physics has been co-opted by new age woo is, I suppose, predictable. The real thing is completely alien to the deterministic world we live in. To help explain indeterminate ‘quantum’ principles, the original physicists offered deterministic metaphors (‘Schroedinger’s cat’) that have since been taken up as if they represented the actual workings of quantum physics.

From this emerged the misconception that the human mind is integral with the outcomes of quantum events, such as the collapse of wave functions. That’s a terribly egocentric view. Physics is more dispassionate; wave-functions resolve without human observation. Bohr pointed that out early on – the experimental outcome is NOT due to the presence of the observer.

What, then, is ‘quantum physics’? Basically, it is an attempt to explain the fact that, when we observe at extremely small scales, the universe appears ‘fuzzy’. The ‘quantum’ explanation for this fuzziness emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century from the work of Max Planck; and from a New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford, whose pioneering experiments with particle physics helped trigger a cascade of analysis. Experiments showed very odd things happening, such as pairs of particles appearing ‘entangled’, meaning they shared the same measurable properties despite being physically separated.This was described in 1935 by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen – here’s their original paper.

Part of this boiled down to the fact that you can’t measure when the measuring tool is the same size as what you’re measuring. Despite attempts to re-describe measurement conceptually, then and since (e.g. Howard, 1994), this doesn’t seem to be possible at ‘quantum level’. That makes particles (aka ‘waves’) appear indeterminate.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

All this is lab stuff, and a long way from new age woo, but it’s what got people such as Einstein, Dirac, Heisenberg, Bohr and others thinking during the early twentieth century. From that emerged quantum physics – specifically, the Copenhagen interpretation, the accepted version of how it’s meant to work. And it does produce results – we’ve built computers that operate via the superposition-of-particle principle. They generate ‘qbits’, for instance, by holding ions in a Paul trap, which operates using radio-frequency AC current – not DC.

The thing is, quantum theory is incompatible with the macro-universe, which Albert Einstein explained in 1917. Yet his General Theory of Relativity has been proven right. Repeatedly. Every time, every test. He was even right about stuff that wasn’t discovered when he developed the theory. Most of us experience how right he was every day – you realise General Relativity makes GPS work properly? Orbiting GPS satellites have to account for relativistic frame-dragging or GPS couldn’t nail your phone’s location to a metre or so.

So far nobody has been able to resolve the dissonance between deterministic macro- and indeterminate-micro scales.  A ‘theory of everything’ has been elusive. Explanations have flowed into the abstract – for instance, deciding that reality consists of vibrating ‘strings’. But no observed proof has ever been found.

Lately, some physicists have been wondering. ‘Quantum’ effects work in the sense described – they’ve been tested. But is the ‘quantum’ explanation for those observations right? Right now there are several other potential explanations – some resurrected from old ideas – that will be tested when Large Hadron Collider starts running at full power. All these hypotheses suggest that Einstein was right to be sceptical about the Copenhagen interpretation, which he believed was incomplete.

These new (old) hypotheses make the need to reconcile Copenhagen-style quantum physics with Einstein’s relativistic macro-scale world go away. They also have the side effect of rendering new age ‘quantum’ invocations even more ridiculous. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

A chat with Elvis about Nibiru and other woo

Every other Tuesday, Elvis* – who’s living on Mars disguised as a walrus – drops in for a burger from the slider joint just down the road, because nobody on Mars knows how to make a good one. This week, as we chowed down on Chicken Anchovy Supreme, I mentioned that somebody’d posted a comment on my blog about Scholz’s Star – the red dwarf that skidded past the solar system around 70,000 years ago.

Conceptual picture I made of a red dwarf with large companion using my trusty Celestia installation.

Conceptual picture I made of a red dwarf with large companion using my trusty Celestia installation.

By this guy’s proposal the star – sorry, ‘Nibiru’ – hosted a planet with intelligent life who’d come to Earth and coded secrets into our genes, and he pointed me to a website that – er – proved it.

Actually, when I looked at the site, it was filled with stuff about aliens – aka Sumerian gods – wanting to steal Earth’s gold in order to warm their planet. A prelude, I suppose, to the way aliens always wanted to steal women and water in the 1950s.

Elvis wasn’t worried. Between mouthfuls, he told me this sort of argument is common enough among the woo brigade. There’s no point trying to counter-argue using science because the people who peddle this stuff believe what they say as an act of their own faith in it and merely get angry if you question it.

I still thought science might offer something and pointed out that red dwarfs are the smallest and most innocuous looking stars ever, but they have an unfortunate habit of suddenly exploding into a wild fury. Their brightness can increase 400 times or more on the back of a major flare. They make our local solar flares, even the biggest, look feeble. And if you’re in the way of that licking – well, there you are, an innocent little cell just starting out on the evolutionary tree, and suddenly you get the world’s worst dose of radiation poisoning and die. Oops.  And before life can re-develop, the broken bits get radiated. And again…and again…and again…

Solar flare of 16 April 2012, captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image is red because it wa captured at 304 Angstroms. (NASA/SDO, public domain).

Solar flare of 16 April 2012, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image is red because it was captured at 304 Angstroms. (NASA/SDO, public domain).

That happened on early Earth, too, when our Sun was young and boisterous. Life didn’t start developing until after the Sun had stopped lashing us. Turns out that life needs a stable environment. Red dwarfs don’t offer one – ever. And that, I explained to Elvis, was quite apart from the fact that alien life is – well, alien. The chances of an alien planet producing a biota identical to ours is pretty low.

Not to mention that Scholz’s Star is orbited by a brown dwarf companion at the distance of Venus – a companion that has three-quarters the mass of the star, meaning they’re actually orbiting a mutual point in space where their gravitation balances, the barycentre. Planets could stably orbit the barycentre, providing they were further out again – but that would put them too far away to have human-type life on them.

And the other problem is the travel. Sure, Scholz’s Star came close by astronomical standards. But that’s the point. Astronomical. It never came closer than 0.82 light years. Yup, light – the fastest thing you can get – still took eight-tenths of a year to reach it. In everyday terms, that’s 7,800,000,000,000 kilometres. Woah! As I told Elvis, our fastest space probe, New Horizons, would take 16,000 years to cross that distance.

He nodded throughout. Obviously he didn’t dispute it. But I hadn’t addressed his basic point.

‘The problem,’ Elvis suddenly said, ‘is that as a species we humans suffer terrible delusions about self-importance.’

‘Don’t say that too loudly,’ I said ‘you’ll upset people.’

‘What do I care? I live on Mars.’ He crumpled his burger wrapper.

‘Tuesday week?’

‘Yeah.’

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

*Well, he says he’s Elvis, anyway. But even if he’s AN Elvis (as I actually suspect) rather than THE Elvis, who cares? He talks sense, which isn’t bad for someone who lives on Mars most of the time and has to hide inside a walrus costume to avoid being mobbed by Elvis impersonator fans.

How Stephen Hawking reconciled the irreconcilable

I finally caught up with The Theory of Everything the other week – an awesome biopic about Stephen Hawking, the British physicist whose life’s goal is to find a theory – a single equation – that explains – well, everything. And what they didn’t mention in the movie is that he’s already made the first big discovery along that path.

The Horsehead nebula, Barnard 33, as seen by Hubble. Wonderful, wonderful imagery.

The Horsehead nebula, Barnard 33, as seen by Hubble. Wonderful, wonderful imagery.

Let me explain. There are two main theories of the universe. Albert Einstein’s ‘General Theory of Relativity’ of 1917 totally explains space-time – the macro-scale universe. Quantum physics, which emerged a little later at the hands of Paul Dirac, Max Planck, Neils Bohr and others, works brilliantly in the micro-world – specifically, scales around a Planck length (1.61619926 × 10-35  metres). But the two don’t play nicely together. Not at all.

So far, nobody’s been able to reconcile them – despite the profusion of hypotheses such as string theory, where the maths work out fine, but where nobody has been able to find any evidence to prove it. (I can’t help thinking this is why Sheldon is a string theorist…)

Finding a ‘theory of everything’ has long been Hawking’s goal; and with Jacob Bekenstein he was the first to discover a way in which both Einstein’s General Relativity and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics could work together. They found that way in 1975, at the extreme edge of the possible – inside a black hole. Here’s Hawking’s original paper, ‘Particle Creation By Black Holes’ Commun. math. Phys. 43, 199—220 (1975).

A bit of explanation first. A ‘black hole’ is actually a ‘singularity’, a mathematical point where the curvature of space-time becomes infinite. The normal laws of space-time – the ones our friend Albert Einstein described – totally fail at that point. Even causality doesn’t apply. As Hawking once pointed out in a lecture, we can’t even imagine what might happen inside a singularity (he suggested a singularity could emit Cthulthu – it wouldn’t violate the laws of physics. I disagree. I can’t even pronounce Cthulthu. I think it would emit Sauron instead.)

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Luckily for us, the everyday universe is shielded from singularities by the event horizon – the point where the escape velocity of the singularity exceeds light-speed. Stuff can fall in. But nothing gets out. Hence the term ‘black hole’. Hawking disputed that. Quantum theory states that particle pairs – positive and negative – are always appearing out of nowhere, then annihilating each other. It doesn’t violate thermodynamics because the net energy outcome is still zero. The effect is known as ‘quantum vacuum fluctuation’.

What I’m about to describe is the heuristic overview – the physics of it is complex and involves some mind-exploding mathematics (‘Bogoliubov transformations’). Basically, Hawking reasoned that if a quantum vacuum fluctuation occurred on the event horizon, there was a chance that one particle, the negative, would be drawn in while the other escaped. They couldn’t annihilate each other, because nothing can escape the horizon. Being negative, the falling particle would reduce the mass of the black hole. Meanwhile the positive particle would escape – effectively as heat – from the black hole.

The result was that ‘black holes’ weren’t actually the black dead ends previously imagined. They were glowing. And they’d eventually evaporate. And THAT is Hawking Radiation.

This also meant that black holes had life limits, and while larger-mass holes had lifespans measured in billions of years, small ones would disappear quickly – which, incidentally, is why nobody’s worried about forming one with a few tens of particles in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which is about to be deployed at full power for the first time this year. It’d evaporate in way less than a microsecond. And so Hawking showed that, yes – at least in this extreme case – quantum physics and Einsteinian determinism could play nicely together.

The next question was whether the two could be reconciled in more everyday terms. And that’s been the stalling point. But if anybody can solve it – well, I figure it’ll be Hawking.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Getting winked at by a mystery star! Really

The latest wow-find from astronomers has snuck up on us by stealth. A small red dwarf star discovered in November 2013 by German astronomer Ralf-Dieter Scholz looked, first off, to be pretty ordinary.

Conceptual picture I made of a red dwarf with large companion using my trusty Celestia installation.

Conceptual picture I made of a red dwarf with companion using my trusty Celestia installation.

It even had a boring name: WISE J072003.20−084651.2, courtesy of being found lurking in data collected by the WISE Satellite. It is estimated to be 19.6 light years distant – in our neighbourhood, as stars go, but not exceptionally close. It has around 86 times the mass of Jupiter, making it a M9.5 class red dwarf, one of the smallest possible.

It is orbited – at the equivalent distance of Venus – by a ‘brown dwarf’ companion, a body with 65 times the mass of Jupiter. This world is warmed to near-luminescence by gravitational compression and – potentially – deuterium fusion, but isn’t massive enough to trigger hydrogen-1 fusion and light up like its star.

Yawn. Red dwarfs are the most common stars around. Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun, is a prime example. In fact, of the 60 stars known within 16.3 light years, 46 are red dwarfs. We’re finding lots in our neighbourhood lately because many are so cool and dim – by stellar standards – they’re invisible even to high-powered telescopes. It takes satellites with sensitive infra-red detectors to pick them up. Brown dwarfs are also appearing to these instruments – singly, or orbiting stars that (wait for it) are often red dwarfs.

Since 2013, though, Scholz’s Star has rung alarm bells. First was its proper motion – the way it tracked tangentially across the sky, relative to other stars. Eric Mamajek of the University of Rochester in New York led a team looking into that, using data collected by the South African Large Telescope and the Las Campanas Observatory’s Magellan telescope in South America. They discovered the proper motion was very slow. But the star itself had very high radial velocity – its actual speed. Around 83 kilometres a second, in fact – four times the usual velocity of stars in this part of the galaxy.

This added up to a star that was travelling fast – but which from our viewpoint didn’t appear to be moving. That’s no paradox – imagine you’re looking up a straight road at a car disappearing into the distance. It’s moving fast, but from where you’re standing, it isn’t moving left or right (‘proper motion’). That’s because it’s moving directly away – and that’s true of Scholz’s Star.

Comparison between stars and brown dwarfs. Not strictly to scale. Public domain, NASA/JPL/Caltech.

Comparison between stars and brown dwarfs. Not strictly to scale. Public domain, NASA/JPL/Caltech.

Mamajek and his team ran 10,000 mathematical simulations to find out how close it had been. And – just announced this month – they discovered that, some 70,000 years ago, Scholz’s Star skimmed past our solar system. With a closest approach of just 0.82 light years – some 52,000 times the distance of Earth from the Sun – it banged through the outer fringes of the Oort cloud, the icy cloud of debris left over from the formation of our solar system, which extends out to a light year or so.

The star was far too small and far too distant to affect the orbits of the Sun’s planets. Here on Earth, the Moon has 2,000,000,000,000,000 times the tidal effect exerted by Scholz’s Star at closest approach. But it will have perturbed some of the the ice-and-dirt clusters of the Oort cloud.  Passing stars are thought to do this every so often, and it’s thought that Scholz’s Star was far from the most serious. Some material will probably have been lobbed sunwards, and will still be on their way in – meaning there will be a small scattering of comets arriving in about 2,000,000 years. Yah, we’re talking about astronomy here – which means having a barrel full of zeroes by your desk.

Did ancient humans see the star? If we draw a circle around the Sun at 100,000 times Earth’s distance and plot Scholz’s Star’s path through it, we find the star took around 10,000 years to traverse that line. Back then it had huge ‘proper motion’ by stellar standards – enough to move across the sky by the angular width of the full Moon in 26 years.

But even at closest approach Scholz’s Star would have been around 11.8 magnitude and thus utterly invisible to the naked eye. But the thing about red dwarfs is that they’re often magnetically unstable – and emit huge flares. In some cases that can increase the brightness of the star, briefly, about 400 times. That would have been enough to make it visible as it tracked through our skies – intermittently. The jury’s out on Scholz’s Star, but Mamajek has speculated that it probably did flare regularly.

Yup, Scholz’s Star was probably winking at us. Which is kind of cool. And begs a question – what would happen if a star came even closer? More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why I think Mars One is a really stupid notion

I posted last week about the silliness of trying to colonise Mars on a one-way basis, unless you’re sending Justin Bieber.

Sure, most colonists here on Earth made the trip one-way. But Earth’s way more hospitable. Even Roanoke. You can breathe the air, for a start.

Artists' impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

Artists’ impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain. Eventually, Orion may be part of the system that takes us to Mars – and brings us back.

Mars – that’s another planet. It has red skies and blue sunsets, temperatures that make Antarctica look summery, and surface air pressure about 0.6% that of Earth, though that’s academic because it’s mostly carbon dioxide anyway. Mars also has no magnetic field, which means the surface is irradiated from space. Then there’s the dirt, which the Phoenix lander found was saturated with naturally-formed perchlorates. Know what perchlorate is? Rocket fuel. It’s nasty stuff, it’s toxic, and the chances of keeping the habitat clear of it after a few EVA’s seems low.

The biggest problem is that nobody’s been there yet. There’s bound to be a curve ball we don’t know about. It’ll be discovered the hard way.

That was the Apollo experience forty years ago. It turned out lunar dust is abrasive and insidious. As early as Apollo 12, astronauts found dust in the seals when they re-donned their suits for a second EVA – moon-walker Pete Conrad reported that ‘there’s no doubt in my mind that with a couple more EVA’s something could have ground to a halt’. All the later Apollo astronauts hit it; leak rates soared in the suits as dust worked its way into the sealing rings.

I think it’s safe to say something of equal practical difficulty will be discovered about Mars, one way or another. Not good if you’ve just arrived – permanently. Besides, what happens if someone gets needs a hospital now? Or is injured? Well, that’s a no-brainer. You can imagine the colony consisting of a cluster of grounded Dragons with a row of graves next to it.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB 'wet lab' configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB ‘wet lab’ configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Mars One plan to send more missions every two years, each with four colonists to join the happy bunch. If they’re alive. My money says they won’t be. This is Scott of the Antarctic territory – high-tech for the day (Scott even had motorised tractors) but still gimcrack.

The main reason we’ve not gone there yet, despite space agencies making serious plans since the 1960s, is cost. Manned interplanetary fly-bys were (just) within reach of the hardware built for the Moon landings – and until the Apollo Applications Programme was slashed to just Skylab, NASA was looking at a manned Venus flyby for 1973-74, using Apollo hardware.

Composite panorama of Mars. Not going to be seen by the 2018 expedition, as they'll fly past the night side. NASA, public domain.

Composite panorama of Mars. NASA, public domain.

Unfortunately, stopping at the destination, landing on it, and all the rest was another matter. It was easy to accelerate an Apollo CSM and habitat module into a free-return Venus or Mars trajectory; no further fuel was needed, it’d whip past the target at interplanetary velocities, and the CM could aerobrake to a safe landing on Earth. But stopping at the destination, landing and then returning home? In rocketry – whether chemical or nuclear-thermal (NERVA), the two technologies available until recently, mass-ratios are critical.

Mass ratio is the difference in mass between an empty and fuelled rocket at all times, and fuel takes fuel to accelerate it. It’s a calculation of sharply diminishing returns, and the upshot for NASA and other Mars mission planners in the twentieth century was that a practical manned landing mission was going to (a) require a colossal amount of fuel, and (b) would still transit by low-energy Hohmann orbit requiring a 256 day flight each way, meaning more life support, which meant more fuel (see what I mean?).

Some plans looked to refuel the system from Martian resources, but that had challenges of its own. Either way, the biggest challenge in all Mars mission schemes was the first step, lifting the Mars ship off Earth into a parking orbit. No single rocket could do that in one go, meaning multiple launches and assembly in orbit, raising cost and complexity still further. With figures in tens and hundreds of billions of dollars being bandied about, and no real public enthusiasm for space after Apollo, it’s small wonder governments were daunted.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

Conceptual art of Philip Bono’s colossal ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

My take – which is far from original to me – is don’t try going to Mars now. Focus on building a space-to-space propulsion system that offers better impulse than chemical or nuclear-thermal motors. Do that and the 256-day trans-Mars cruise – which is what drives the scale and risk of the mission, including problems with radiation doses in deep space – goes away. One promising option is the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMIR), a high-powered ion drive that might do the trick if it works as envisaged. Another is the FDR (Fusion Driven Rocket). Current projections suggest Earth-Mars transit times as low as 30 days.

Of course, if your drive won’t light when you need it to slow down, you’re on a one-way trip out of the solar system. But hey…

Maybe we should send Justin Bieber on that first VASIMIR mission, just in case…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Yes – a Kiwi might go to Mars, but I still wish it was Justin Bieber

A New Zealander’s reached the short-list of 100 possible candidates for the one-way Mars One mission proposed for 2025-26 by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, co-founder of the project.

Personally I’d have preferred they despatched Justin Bieber and left it at that. But the presence of a Kiwi isn’t bad given that the original long-list ran to 202,586 individuals.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Still, I can’t quite believe the plan. Settlers will be lobbed to Mars in batches of four, inside modified Space-X Dragon capsules. They’ll land, build a habitat based on inflatable modules and several Dragons, and remain there for the rest of their lives. Kind of like Robinson Crusoe, but with all of it beamed back to us for our – well, I hesitate to use the word under these circumstance. Entertainment.

I doubt that the show will run for many seasons. The development timing for the mission seems optimistic – a point I am not alone in observing. There have been a wide range of practical objections raised by engineers at MIT. But apart from that, nobody’s been to Mars before. Sure, we’ve despatched over 50 robots, 7 of which are still operational. But that doesn’t reduce the challenges involved in keeping humans alive in a hostile environment for their natural lives, and I figure from the Apollo experience that there’ll be curve balls along the way.

Those challenges will begin as soon as the colonists are cruising to Mars, a 256 day journey jammed into a 10-cubic metre metal can along – eventually – with 256 days worth of their wastes. Think about it. Popeye lived in a garbage can. The first Mars colonists? Well, they’re going to live in a commode. Hazards (apart from launch-day waste bags bursting on Day 255) include staying fit in micro-gravity and radiation flux. That last is the killer. The trans-Mars radiation environment was measured by the Curiosity rover, en route, and turned out to be – on that trip anyway – 300 millisieverts, the equivalent of 15 years’ worth of the exposure allowed to nuclear power plant workers. A typical airport X-ray scan, for comparison, delivers 0.25 millisieverts.

I suppose the heightened risk of cancer isn’t really an issue, given their life expectancy on Mars (68 days, according to MIT). Though if the sun flares – well, that’ll be too bad. (‘My goodness, what a lovely blue glow. Nice tan.’)

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

Unfortunately the radiation problem continues on the surface of Mars. The planet lacks a magnetic field like Earth’s and its atmosphere is thin, meaning radiation is a threat even after you’ve landed. The answer is to bury yourself under Martian dirt, but Space One’s plans don’t seem to include that. There also a possible problem – which we’ll look at next time – with the nature of that dirt.

Whether the intrepid colonists will get away is entirely another matter. Apart from the hilariously optimistic timetable, the project relies on a modified version of Space-X’s Dragon, which has yet to be human-rated. And then there’s funding, which I understand will come from media coverage. But I suspect the likely barrier will be regulatory. These people will be flying inexorably and certainly to their deaths, and odds are on it will be before the natural end of their lives. Will the nation that hosts the launch permit that?

Still, let’s suppose there are no legislative barriers. And let’s say the colonists get to Mars without their hair falling out or the waste bags bursting and filling the cabin with – well, let’s not go there. Let’s say they land safely. Suddenly they’re on Mars. Forever. What now? And what about those curve-balls?

More next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Where woo woo comes from and why it’s so seductive

If we are to explore some of the woo woo that’s been peddled about perfectly ordinary – and hugely spectacular – things on the planet, like ancient pyramids or apparently mysterious rock formations, I guess the first port of call is to understand why these things get turned into mysteries in the first place.

Some 20 km east of Lake Taupo in New Zealand’s North Island is a curious natural structure known as the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’. It’s made of ignimbrite and was formed by a pyroclastic flow that rolled across this part of New Zealand some 330,000 years ago. As the flow cooled, it split in a way that left the exposed side of the flow looking remarkably like a stone wall.

Needless to say, the fact that it looks like a stone wall has meant, to various ‘independent thinkers’, that it therefore is one, thus ‘proving’ that an ancient civilisation existed in New Zealand. The total lack of any actual evidence of such an entity hasn’t stopped them. Nor does the hard scientific data, which shows its natural origins. That’s rejected because, after all, the wall is obviously a wall.

It’s a style of thinking I have a hard job fathoming.

Modern scientific thinking runs something like this. There are hidden truths behind the superficial appearance of most things, the issue is finding out what they are. So we look at the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’, hypothesise that it might be an artificial structure, and the first question is whether that is literally true. We test the hypothesis, carefully investigating the material it’s made of and its context, to discover what lies beneath the superficial appearance – its composition, age and so forth. From that emerges the actual story of its origins – origins which, I might add, are consistent with the known geology of the era.

The ‘woo brigade’, on the other hand, also assume that there are hidden truths behind what they see up front, but have a very different idea about how these truths are hidden. They  look at the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’, note the similarity to an artificial structure on the face of it, and take that to be a literal and immutable truth. No testing is needed, because it seems self-evident, and from that assumption flows questions about how such a structure might have been built.

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medIt’s a kind of logic that was used by Medieval monks and other thinkers of a millennium or more ago – the world we see is literally what it seems, and points to hidden truths that can be discovered not by experimentation, but by deductive logic.  The approach was superseded by the very different thinking of the Early Modern period and the Age of Reason.

The consequence is that the woo brigade assume that the literal appearance of many of the apparently ‘mysterious’ artefacts and structures around the world reveals the actuality of what they see, and do not question the conclusions that follow. But if that initial premise is in fact not true, then the whole chain of logic they build after that breaks down – because it’s built on a faulty assumption.

This is me doing my 'writing getaway' impression on Rarotonga.

This is me doing my ‘writing getaway’ impression on Rarotonga, the key island from which Polynesians migrated to New Zealand around 1280 AD. The departure place is marked on the island. (Yes, it’s that well known).

That, of course, is why modern scientific method demands that we have to test that first assumption, as the very first port of call.

The other point is that woo offers simple certainties; anybody can ‘get’ the obvious literal answers it provides. And that’s attractive.

I’ve gone into this in some detail because it explains a good deal about how ‘woo’ gets traction in terms of various apparent archaeological mysteries and phenomena, around the world. More on this soon.

As for the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’ – well, the main problem with the woo brigade here isn’t that they think it’s artificial. It’s the rest of what follows – a fantasy construction about ancient ‘pre-Maori’ civilisations in New Zealand that inevitably ends up being tangled up with the assumption that these imaginary ‘pre-Maori’ settlers were ‘Celtic’. Dog-whistle code, in short, for some extremely unpalatable present-day bigotry.

The take-home facts? The ‘Kaimanawa Wall’, a natural formation, was already ancient around 1280 AD when New Zealand became the last large land mass in the world to be settled by humans. These settlers probably landed on the Wairau Bar, were probably preceded by exploratory voyages, and were Polynesians who came from the Cook and Marquesas islands. This has been established beyond doubt from a wide range of disparate evidence – genetic, linguistic, archaeological and so forth. No humans existed in New Zealand before then – evidenced, among other things, by the fact that the original flora and fauna were untouched when the Polynesians arrived, but succumbed quickly soon afterwards in the last of the great Pleistocene collisions. A distinctly ‘Maori’ culture emerged indigenously from the Polynesian settlements during the fifteenth century, a turbulent time of significant culture change.

All this is well established – as, indeed, is the origin of the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’. No woo required.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015