Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Figmentums Pledge Drive

Did you enjoy that Figmentum about whatever it was? We at Figmentums do our best to bring you healthy and tasty little essays that nourish your brain and while stimulating your imagination. Over the last year we have brought you over 70 short but dense mini-essays on a variety of topics relating to science, education, fun, and fantasy. Presumably you have found at least some to be stimulating, entertaining, and even provocative.

We still have a nearly unlimited supply of Figmentums waiting to bring you, but your public Figmentums cannot survive without your kind donations. We need your pledges to continue. Not pledges of money, but pledges of shares. Without your active participation in sharing and linking and forwarding Figmentums to others, without your comments, we have no reason for being.

bastionempressOne thing we enjoy doing here is to tie together interesting concepts in innovative ways, particularly mixing physical or social science with fantasy. For instance, relating our pledge drive to battling The Nothingness in The Neverending Story. In that movie, a boy named Bastian was engrossed in a book called The Neverending Story. Gradually he became aware that by reading the book, he had become an active participant in it. And unless Bastian would take responsibility to verbally give the Child Emperess a name, The Nothingness of apathy would destroy the wondrous world in the book forever. She pled desperately with Bastian to overcome his hesitation and say her name out loud.

The Nothingness threatens our world of Figmentums as well. By reading it, YOU are a part of Figmentums. Remaining passive is to forsake your role in our little world. Unless you actively share it with others, the magical land of Figmentums will be lost to The Nothingness.

So this week is pledge week. To keep Figmentums alive, just browse back over our last year’s worth of Figmentums and if you are reminded of one that particularly grabbed you, forward it to a friend, post a link on a discussion forum, or post a comment. Resolve to share more in the future. Work together to create a gorgeous jump in our reader statistics and become an active participant in the world of Figmentums. Don’t let The Nothingness claim us.

Bastian, give me a name!



What Aliens Look Like

We aren’t likely to ever meet an alien. As I argued in a previous post, although it is a statistical certainty that alien life must exist, the laws of physics simply make it implausibly improbable that they could ever visit us or we them (see here). The most likely way we might learn what aliens once looked like would be if we happen to pick up an interstellar message in a bottle from some distant ancient civilization, their own version of Voyager with candid snapshots and videos from back home.

But we can make educated guesses based on the fundamental design constraints of the elemental building blocks and physical processes that apply throughout the universe. For example, intelligent aliens must have a lower and upper size limit based on fundamental constraints of molecular dimensions and gravity.

We can similarly surmise much more. For example, any intelligent alien species is likely to be highly mobile – for that they require large bursts of energy – for that they require a fluid chemical transfer system – for that they require a variable speed pump controlled by a central nervous system that adjusts the amplitude and frequency of pumping based upon a large amount of sensor data – and that control mechanism would have to be autonomic so that the pumping controller is highly responsive and unaffected by their state of consciousness.

So, intelligent alien species are likely to have circulatory and nervous systems that are mechanically and functionally quite similar to our own. For vision they are likely to have two sensors placed up high for optimum line of sight and depth perception. They are likely to be similarly similar in the design of their other major systems. In short, after looking past superficial differences, alien life would almost certainly be quite familiar to human physicians and biologists.

It would be foolishly egotistical to imagine that all alien life will be exactly like us and the other species present on Earth. Certainly there would be dramatic and astounding variations that we cannot begin to imagine. But it would also be equally foolish to imagine that the bulk of species in the universe would not evolve following much the same processes with much the same results as life here. A human exobiologist could almost certainly be trained to understand, diagnose, and treat almost any form of alien life.

hortaIn Star Trek, after Doctor McCoy got over his initial revulsion (You expect me to treat that thing Jim?!?), he was able to patch up even the exotically alien silicon-based Horta with some simple spackle compound.

But apart from exceptions like the Horta, Star Trek and most every science fiction universe depicts very human-like aliens. This implicit assumption of similarity is made mostly so that alien creatures will be relatable and to make them playable by human actors with minimal make-up and costumes.

AlienBut we create human-like creatures even when there are no technical constraints. The astoundingly terrifying alien created by HR Giger is remarkably human-like with 2 arms, 2 legs, a head, a tail, a mouth, and so on. Despite having acid for blood, his alien follows the evolutionary design model of a human quite closely. It is likely not the case, as many imagine, that such alien depictions represent an unimaginative human conceit and lack of imagination. Rather, it is likely that such physics-defying aliens are actually much more fanciful than evolution is mechanically capable of producing – on any planet.

And let me be clear. Its unfathomably unlikely that any alien could remotely pass as human and walk amongst us undetected – that’s purely a movie fancy as unrealistic as aliens with acid for blood that can eat through feet of metal. However, they will be biologically similar in function if not form. They will not have any superpowers or godlike abilities that defy basic chemistry and physics because they can not. If they can fly they will need wings. And as any dolphin can tell you, there is a fundamental limit to how far they could advance without appendages that allow them to manipulate their environment.

Even many of us who are wise enough to understand that god cannot exist are still far too willing to remain agnostic in insisting that there might be aliens out there with what would effectively be godlike powers.

If my hypothesis of fundamental similarity is true, and I suggest that it must be more true than not, it should encourage us that we’re not actually missing out on as much as we might imagine because we are effectively bed-ridden here on Earth. Aliens would be marvelous to see, but evolution has offered us a pretty representative sampling of the range of life typically found in the universe.

Unless a message in a bottle lands on our Earthly beaches, we’re unlikely to ever know for sure how typical we are. Even then, that would give us only one more example of life. But we can make some pretty good assumptions about the nature of life in the universe without direct experience. And it is likely that the range of actual life in the universe is no where near as wide as our unconstrained imaginations.

So what do aliens look like? Probably a lot more like us than we might imagine.


How These Things Get Started

There are no end to the crazy stories that go around. My uncle was saved from a bear by Bigfoot and has the scars to prove it. This guy on TV was molested by aliens – his story was checked out by a team of scientists. My grandmother was kissed by her dead husband and she wouldn’t make that kind of thing up. The Virgin Mary appeared to a homeless guy in the Bronx who had no reason to lie. Forty-Seven cows mysteriously died in Iowa after a Haitian witch doctor got snubbed at a truck stop and cursed the town – couldn’t be coincidence. Everyone knows that old house is haunted by a woman who was murdered by her lover in the 40’s. That was the day my dead pet returned to save my life.

Given that there is absolutely no possibility that any of these stories are actually true, one has to wonder how they ever get started in the first place. We even have to wonder whether they might have some element of truth if only because there seems to be no conceivable way that such tales could ever get started if there wasn’t some truth to them.

But get started they do. While I cannot give you every particular origin story, I can relate to you one real example to illustrate how these things get started.

One summer during college I was rooming with my longtime buddy Steve. As I walked back to our place late one sweltering night in Wisconsin, I was feeling particularly bored and fanciful. The nighttime shadows helped work my imagination into a receptive frame of mind and when I walked past the window of a local craft shop I was struck by these hand-crafted dolls on display in the window. Now like many people I do admit to being generally spooked by dolls and as I looked at this one particularly creepy looking doll bathed in old-time street lamps, I got inspired to mischief.

I took off running (I had been a track and cross-country runner) but got myself plenty winded by the time I reached our building. I stumbled, intentionally falling and crashing up the stairway and pounded on our door with desperate urgency. Steve opened the door to the sight of me in very convincing panic-stricken terror. I rushed into the room and I made him drag my terrifying story from me. I told him that I had been walking past this store and noticed this doll and suddenly I felt an eerie presence, like some evil spirit, and without warning this doll leapt at the window and clawed at me. I panicked and ran all the way back to the room, the entire time feeling like some malevolent demon was chasing me.

Steve’s reaction was all I could have hoped for. Though frightened he valiantly insisted that we go back that very night to face this demon. I reluctantly agreed to show him where the store was but refused to get closer than the end of the block. I watched down the street as Steve heroically inched forward, craning his neck tentatively to glimpse this demon-doll. Suddenly he jerked, bolted, almost got hit by a passing car as he stumbled into the street, ran all the way back to and past me, shouting breathlessly “I saw it dude! It was the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen!!”

RamonaAudleyYup, in retrospect I should have owned up to my prank right then and there. But Steve was so pumped up I decided to tell him in the morning. By the next morning I had forgotten all about it, and anyway Steve had already left to go somewhere before I woke up. I was reminded of my folly when Steve returned and proudly related how he had gone to the craft shop, paranormal investigator like, to sleuth out the origins of this demon doll. The owner told him that by the greatest of coincidences, the doll-maker, a lady by the name of Ramona Audley (pictured right) happened to be paying a visit at that very same moment. Steve politely confronted Ramona and asked her whether she knew that she was crafting possessed dolls. Ramona apparently nearly went into a terrified state of shock and I was later to learn that the dolls were removed from the store window that very day (Ramona, I did you wrong and I’m so sorry).

It gets worse. When Steve told me what he had done I was mortified. That poor Ramona Audley! I never intended to frighten her or the shop owner! But how could I tell Steve the truth of my prank now that he had done this? I settled for hoping that this whole debacle would just blow over.

Needless to say it did not just blow over. It took on a life of its own like Godzilla emerging from the ocean to wrack havoc. For the next several decades, whenever Steve introduced me at any kind of gathering, he insisted that I tell the doll story. Of course I would refuse, feigning intentionally ambiguous reluctance. But Steve would invariably take over and tell the story on my behalf, prefacing it with a lengthy introduction about how he would never believe this story from anyone else in the entire world except from me. My credibility and sanity and integrity are (were) apparently just that irreproachable.

If you dear reader could have admitted to making up this story prior to this you are a better person than me.  And to make matters even worse, Steve is a naturally gregarious guy who became a minor celebrity with a sizable fan following. Who knows how many people he has told this story to who have in turn related it to many other people, who all swear that they were assured that this story came from an impeachable source. Every year that went by while I hoped that the story would be finally forgotten, every time I failed to disavow it, the myth became that much more indestructible.

My dolls truly had become demons. A few years ago I agreed to be interviewed for a video documentary about my friend Steve. To my horror and chagrin Steve had prompted the documentarian to ask me about the “Doll Story,” which he did, on camera. The story had finally advanced to a line I could not cross and I admitted to my prank on camera rather than perpetuate it any further.

Even after that public admission, I still live in perpetual dread of seeing this bogus story reenacted on the History or Science channel. Lots of people are probably more willing to believe that I lied about it not happening rather than believe that I simply made it up as a silly impulsive prank. After all, what kind of inconceivably horrible person would make up such a story? Umm, yes, that would be me.

And that, my friends, is how these things get started.

There is Always a Trick

We are all tempted at times to be open-minded about  supernatural claims. Indeed, it can seem narrow-minded to dismiss the seemingly inexplicable stories related by sensible, credible people we trust. Sometimes we ourselves experience things that seem to defy any rational scientific explanation. These experiences seem to prove that there must indeed be more to the universe than reason can explain. It can be hard to push back on the logic that if one cannot offer proof of a scientific explanation then one must accept a supernatural one.

Whenever you are tempted to entertain belief in something supernatural or paranormal, just remember one invariably true thing as a given: there is always a trick.

DougHenningI’m reminded of a formative event back in the 1970’s when I went to a performance by the late magician Doug Henning. Between making live tigers disappear, he would walk out to the edge of the stage and do slight-of-hand magic. In one such interlude, he held up a newspaper and showed it to us, turning each page so we would remember the layout. He then proceeded to methodically tear it into smaller and smaller pieces. As he did so he kept a great dialog going:

You think you see it tearing, you think you hear the sound of paper ripping apart, you think you see me holding two separate pieces. All your senses are convinced that I’m tearing up this paper, but I am not.

He continued to rip the paper into shreds and stack up the pieces, in full view, into a little folded-up pile. Then he began to unfold it and show us the full newspaper perfectly in-tact once more. As he paged through the “reassembled” newspaper, he continued his narration:

There is no magic, this is a simple trick. Obviously I could not actually have torn up the paper. But the trick is the magic and the magic is the trick.

Doug Henning was brilliantly messing with the audiences minds there, but what I learned from him is that there is always a trick. No matter how inexplicable something might seem, you only need to know the trick. But moreover, you can be still amazed by the trick and, even knowing it is only a trick, it can still amaze and astound you every bit as much as true magic. In fact, knowing there is no magic, nothing supernatural, no god, does not need to make the world one bit less exciting and inspiring. Quite the opposite. You can feel even more amazed knowing that the real explanation must actually be so clever, so masterfully executed, that one imagines that only some supernatural story could possibly explain it. The trick is SO amazing that it is easier for us to consider some magical explanation rather then the real mundane one.

Years later I watched one of those shows on television that exposes magical tricks. In this episode, they showed the magician and his gorgeous assistants make a mini-sub disappear right on stage. It was astoundingly, compellingly real. Surely there could be no conceivable way that such a feat could be accomplished without true supernatural intervention.

But after the commercial break they simply showed the exact same performance shot from a rear angle. It suddenly seemed stupidly crude and simple, so pathetically obvious that one could not imagine anyone actually trying to fool anyone with it, let alone anyone actually being fooled by it.

It was incredibly disappointing to see that trick exposed. It was ruined forever. I vowed never again to watch any explanation of magic. I want to be amazed. I want to experience that awe and wonder over and over. But I know there is always a trick. All it takes is to move the camera ever so slightly and it becomes ridiculously obvious.

But  the “good” magic that magicians or fantasy novelists or artists offer us does not extend similar benign merit and value to the “bad” magic of hucksters, con-artists, priests, rabbis, imams, televangelists, psychics, and other charlatans. These promoters of the supernatural do not simply entertain and inspire. They tangibly damage our capacity to reason and lead us to unreasonably dangerous or exploitive attitudes and behaviors. And, before you ask, the answer is no. There is no equivalence between our choice to suspend our disbelief in an entertaining magic trick or ghost movie and our choice to suspend disbelief about the idea that a psychic can predict the future or that some god influences the present. We simply choose not to ruin the illusion by pulling back the curtain to expose the trick. We do not believe or tell others that stage magic is true and we certainly do not base life decisions upon a conviction that you really can saw a woman in half.

And it is often the smartest of us who are most susceptible and gullible with regard to magical thinking, and most likely to influence others. I recall when at the height of the “crop circle” craze, one network interviewed a “scientist” who had investigated the circles. He proclaimed that he had studied the markings extensively and could see no earthly method by which they could have been produced. Therefore, he concluded in stentorian tones, they could only have been created by an extraterrestrial (supernatural) force.

Of course the actual method that those guys who later came forward used was as silly as making the mini-sub disappear. But the arrogance and ego of that scientist led him to conclude that if HE could not see the trick, the only explanation must be a supernatural one. Even Sir Isaac Newton, one of humanity’s most brilliant thinkers, was compromised by similar hubris when he assumed that if HE, Sir Isaac Newton, could not explain the stability of planetary orbits, it can only mean that God must intervene.

So remember, there is always a trick, and let that certain knowledge make you more confidently skeptical regarding religious and supernatural claims, confident enough even to simply reject them out-of-hand. But yet be no less awed and inspired by the perfectly explainable but nevertheless amazing magic in the world.

For elaboration of this and further discussions about facts and belief, I refer you to my book “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief” (found here).