Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Forbidden Gospel of Thomas

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Hunting Alien Worlds

Q&A: Lowell Observatory astronomer Travis Barman was on the Keck telescope team that made the first direct observations of exoplanets.

In our Top 10 Space Stories of the Decade, the Discovery News #1 story was the direct imaging of planetary systems beyond our own. This endeavor was so profound as it not only opened up a new era for observing extrasolar planets, it ignited the imaginations of the public and scientists alike.

The simultaneous discovery of three alien worlds orbiting the star HR 8799 and a huge exoplanet orbiting the star Fomalhaut were made by the Keck telescope in Hawaii and the Hubble Space Telescope, respectively.

Travis Barman/Lowell Observatory
"He was blinking two images taken at different times. And we were both smiling.
He turned to me and said, 'don't tell anyone.'" -- Travis Barman
Travis Barman/Lowell Observatory

Travis Barman, a member of the Keck team, speaks with Steele Wotkyns, Lowell Observatory's Public Relations Manager, about this historic time in the Fall of 2008.

Steele Wotkyns: Describe your background. You're from rural Georgia. How did you get from there to here?

Travis Barman: My father was the reason we ended up in rural Georgia. He is a biologist and became a professor at Georgia College, a small school in central Georgia. My brother and I grew up in a very academic environment and my parents introduced me to science and computer-related science at a very early age.

I started college at Georgia College but soon transferred to the University of Georgia, double majoring in math and physics-astronomy. About the time I was considering grad school, they hired a new professor, Peter Hauschildt. He brought this huge code called Phoenix, a lot of grant money, and international collaborators. And, right when I was entering graduate school, the field was getting hot. In 1995 51 Pegasi was discovered -- the first "hot Jupiter." I was pretty lucky.

Steele: Describe some of your work. You collaborated on a team that got the very first direct images of planets outside the solar system, what was that like?

Travis: During my first post-doc position (Wichita State), I wrote my first successful grant proposal -- to NASA's Origins program. I decided to take the money to UCLA for my second post-doc where I got involved in the exoplanet direct imaging program. We have been looking for faint, co-moving companions around young stars.

The program is one where you have to have a lot of stamina. There are a lot of null results. You don't find anything... and that goes on for years and years.

But, in 2008 I was at Keck when my colleague Christian Marois was taking images of stars for our program. We always try to pump ourselves up -- this is going to be the one. The odds are really not good, though. So, anyway, on that run I came back late the next morning into the Keck control room. Christian had already done a preliminary reduction of one of the targets, HR 8799. He was blinking two images taken at different times -- the way we find these planets. And we were both smiling. He turned to me and said, "don't tell anyone."

We knew then we had one planet and there was a second one that was sort of visible in the data. It was exciting. But, our team had a lot of work to do. While Christian was cleaning up those images, a third planet was revealed. But we were cautious. And, we were lucky -- we had some more telescope time at Keck and could take more data. So, the story sort of built up: one planet, two planets, three planets -- over a few months. None of us could focus on other work. We just wanted to stare at that image of three planets.

Steele: Was the next biggest discovery for you the first detection of water vapor in the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet?

Travis: That was back in 2007. So I was looking for ideas -- I wanted to put in an archival proposal to look at existing exoplanet data. I was interested in HD 209458. But when I reviewed the literature I discovered what I wanted to do with the data had mostly been done. I was a little bummed but compared those other results to my models anyway. I was amazed at how good the agreement was -- particularly at the longer wavelengths where water absorption was present.

This was a nice, robust little result -- you'd have to work hard to explain the data any other way. Water is definitely there.

Steele: How would you describe the media interest in this discovery?

Travis: It was huge. The media sort of went nuts with it. They let their imaginations run wild, totally wild. I was very careful to say it was water vapor and not liquid water -- many did not make that distinction. It became this media storm. People were very excited by it for many reasons.

Steele: But you are a different kind of astronomer since you focus on the best possible models for how nature behaves and you also do observational astronomy?

Travis: Yes, there's an apparent divide between the two. Both sides approach problems in a different way. I am trying to avoid becoming someone who spends his entire life doing one thing one way. So, for example, taking observations of the three newly discovered extrasolar planets orbiting HR 8799 gives me this opportunity. It's like a working vacation from theory. Being at Lowell gives me a constant connection to observational astronomy.

Observational astronomy is interesting to me. It's similar to when you take something apart and put it back together again -- you learn how all the pieces go together. It gives me a strong appreciation of "real data." But I think one reason you don't see that many people doing both is the danger in being a jack of all trades and a master of none. It takes so much time to be an expert theorist or an expert observer. So, in my career I will always lean towards the one side -- modeling.

Steele: What are you working on now?

Travis: We're following HR 8799 up observationally and I'm taking the lead on one of the exoplanets. This work is exciting since we are getting the first look at planets different from hot Jupiters. These new planets orbit further out from their host star, placing them in a totally different environment than hot Jupiters -- and they are very young planets. They're fresh out of the oven compared to the known hot Jupiters.
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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Looking for Life in the Multiverse

Universes with different physical laws might still be habitable

By Alejandro Jenkins and Gilad Perez

Key Concepts

  • Multiple other universes—each with its own laws of physics—may have emerged from the same primordial vacuum that gave rise to ours.
  • Assuming they exist, many of those universes may contain intricate structures and perhaps even some forms of life.
  • These findings suggest that our universe may not be as “finely tuned” for the emergence of life as previously thought.
The typical Hollywood action hero skirts death for a living. Time and again, scores of bad guys shoot at him from multiple directions but miss by a hair. Cars explode just a fraction of a second too late for the fireball to catch him before he finds cover. And friends come to the rescue just before a villain’s knife slits his throat. If any one of those things happened just a little differently, the hero would be hasta la vista, baby. Yet even if we have not seen the movie before, something tells us that he will make it to the end in one piece.

In some respects, the story of our universe resembles a Hollywood action movie. Several physicists have argued that a slight change to one of the laws of physics would cause some disaster that would disrupt the normal evolution of the universe and make our existence impossible. For example, if the strong nuclear force that binds together atomic nuclei had been slightly stronger or weaker, stars would have forged very little of the carbon and other elements that seem necessary to form planets, let alone life. If the proton were just 0.2 percent heavier than it is, all primordial hydrogen would have decayed almost immediately into neutrons, and no atoms would have formed. The list goes on.

The laws of physics—and in particular the constants of nature that enter into those laws, such as the strengths of the fundamental forces—might therefore seem finely tuned to make our existence possible. Short of invoking a supernatural explanation, which would be by definition outside the scope of science, a number of physicists and cosmologists began in the 1970s to try solving the puzzle by hypothesizing that our universe is just one of many existing universes, each with its own laws. According to this “anthropic” reasoning, we might just occupy the rare universe where the right conditions happen to have come together to make life possible.

Amazingly, the prevailing theory in modern cosmology, which emerged in the 1980s, suggests that such “parallel universes” may really exist—in fact, that a multitude of universes would incessantly pop out of a primordial vacuum the way ours did in the big bang. Our universe would be but one of many pocket universes within a wider expanse called the multiverse. In the overwhelming majority of those universes, the laws of physics might not allow the formation of matter as we know it or of galaxies, stars, planets and life. But given the sheer number of possibilities, nature would have had a good chance to get the “right” set of laws at least once.

Our recent studies, however, suggest that some of these other universes—assuming they exist—may not be so inhospitable after all. Remarkably, we have found examples of alternative values of the fundamental constants, and thus of alternative sets of physical laws, that might still lead to very interesting worlds and perhaps to life. The basic idea is to change one aspect of the laws of nature and then make compensatory changes to other aspects.

Our work did not address the most serious fine-tuning problem in theoretical physics: the smallness of the “cosmological constant,” thanks to which our universe neither recollapsed into nothingness a fraction of a second after the big bang, nor was ripped part by an exponentially accelerating expansion. Nevertheless, the examples of alternative, potentially habitable universes raise interesting questions and motivate further research into how unique our own universe might be.

The Weakless Way of Life
The conventional way scientists find out if one particular constant of nature is finely tuned or not is to turn that “constant” into an adjustable parameter and tweak it while leaving all other constants unaltered. Based on their newly modified laws of physics, the scientists then “play the movie” of the universe—they do calculations, what-if scenarios or computer simulations—to see what disaster occurs first. But there is no reason why one should tweak only one parameter at a time. That situation resembles trying to drive a car by varying only your latitude or only your longitude, but not both: unless you are traveling on a grid, you are destined to run off the road. Instead one can tweak multiple parameters at once.To search for alternative sets of laws that still give rise to complex structures capable of sustaining life, one of us (Perez) and his collaborators did not make just small tweaks to the known laws of physics: they completely eliminated one of the four known fundamental forces of nature.

By their very name, the fundamental forces sound like indispensable features of any self-respecting universe. Without the strong nuclear force to bind quarks into protons and neutrons and those into atomic nuclei, matter as we know it would not exist. Without the electromagnetic force, there would be no light; there would also be no atoms and no chemical bonds. Without gravity, there would be no force to coalesce matter into galaxies, stars and planets.

The fourth force, the weak nuclear force, has a subtler presence in our everyday life but still has played a major role in the history of our universe. Among other things, the weak force enables the reactions that turn neutrons into protons, and vice versa. In the first instants of the big bang, after quarks (among the first forms of matter to appear) had united in groups of three to form protons and neutrons, collectively called baryons, groups of four protons were then able to fuse together and become helium 4 nuclei, made of two protons and two neutrons. This so-called big bang nucleosynthesis took place a few seconds into the life of our universe, when it was already cold enough for baryons to form but still hot enough for the baryons to undergo nuclear fusion. Big bang nucleosynthesis produced the hydrogen and helium that would later form stars, where nuclear fusion and other processes would forge virtually all other naturally occurring elements. And to this day, the fusion of four protons to make helium 4 continues inside our sun, where it produces most of the energy that we receive from it.

Without the weak nuclear force, then, it seems unlikely that a universe could contain anything resembling complex chemistry, let alone life. Yet in 2006 Perez’s team discovered a set of physical laws that relied on only the other three forces of nature and still led to a congenial universe.

Eliminating the weak nuclear force required several modifications to the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, the theory that describes all forces except gravity. The team showed that the tweaks could be done in such a way that the behavior of the other three forces—and other crucial parameters such as the masses of the quarks—would be the same as in our world. We should stress that this choice was a conservative one, intended to facilitate the calculation of how the universe would unfold. It is quite possible that a wide range of other “weakless” universes exist that are habitable but look nothing like our own.

In the weakless universe, the usual fusing of protons to form helium would be impossible, because it requires that two of the protons convert into neutrons. But other pathways could exist for the creation of the elements. For example, our universe contains overwhelmingly more matter than antimatter, but a small adjustment to the parameter that controls this asymmetry is enough to ensure that the big bang nucleosynthesis would leave behind a substantial amount of deuterium nuclei. Deuterium, also known as hydrogen 2, is the isotope of hydrogen whose nucleus contains a neutron in addition to the usual proton. Stars could then shine by fusing a proton and a deuterium nucleus to make a helium 3 (two protons and one neutron) nucleus.

Such weakless stars would be colder and smaller than the stars in our own universe. According to computer simulations by astrophysicist Adam Burrows of Princeton University, they could burn for about seven billion years—about the current age of our sun—and radiate energy at a rate that would be a few percent of that of the sun.

Next Generation
Just like stars in our universe, weakless stars could synthesize elements as heavy as iron through further nuclear fusion. But the typical reactions that in our stars lead to elements beyond iron would be compromised, primarily because few neutrons would be available for nuclei to capture to become heavier isotopes, the first step in the formation of heavier elements. Small amounts of heavy elements, up to strontium, might still be synthesized inside weakless stars by other mechanisms.

In our universe, supernova explosions disperse the newly synthesized elements into space, and synthesize more of the elements themselves. Supernovae can be of several types: in the weakless universe, the supernova explosions caused by collapsing ultramassive stars would fail, because it is the emission of neutrinos, produced via the weak-force interactions, that transmits energy out of a star’s core so as to sustain the shock wave that is causing the explosion. But a different type of supernova—the thermonuclear explosion of a star triggered by accretion, rather than by gravitational collapse—would still take place. Thus, elements could be dispersed into interstellar space, where they could seed new stars and planets.

Given the relative coldness of the weakless stars, a weakless Earth-like body would have to be about six times closer to its sun to stay as warm as our own Earth. To the inhabitants of such a planet, the sun would look much bigger. Weakless Earths would be significantly different from our own Earth in other ways. In our world, plate tectonics and volcanic activity are powered by the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium deep within Earth. Without these heavy elements, a typical weakless Earth might have a comparatively boring and featureless geology—except if gravitational processes provided an alternative source of heating, as happens on some moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

Chemistry, on the other hand, would be very similar to that of our world. One difference would be that the periodic table would stop at iron, except for extremely small traces of other elements. But this limitation should not prevent life-forms similar to the ones we know from evolving. Thus, even a universe with just three fundamental forces could be congenial to life.

Another approach, pursued by the other of us (Jenkins) and his collaborators, searches for alternative sets of laws by making smaller tweaks to the Standard Model than in the case of the weakless universe, though still involving multiple parameters at once. In 2008 the group studied to what extent the masses of the three lightest of the six quarks—called the up, down and strange quarks—may vary without making organic chemistry impossible. Changing the quark masses will inevitably affect which baryons and which atomic nuclei can exist without decaying quickly. In turn, the different assortment of atomic nuclei will affect chemistry.

Quarky Chemistry
It seems plausible that intelligent life (if it is not very different from us) requires some form of organic chemistry, which is by definition the chemistry that involves carbon. The chemical properties of carbon follow from the fact that its nucleus has an electric charge of 6, so that six electrons orbit in a neutral carbon atom. These properties allow carbon to form an immense variety of complex molecules. (The suggestion often made by science-fiction writers that life could instead be based on silicon—the next element in carbon’s group in the periodic table—is questionable: no silicon-based molecules of any significant degree of complexity are known to exist.) Furthermore, for complex organic molecules to form, elements with the chemistry of hydrogen (charge 1) and oxygen (charge 8) need to be present. To see if they could maintain organic chemistry, then, the team had to calculate whether nuclei of charge 1, 6 or 8 would decay radioactively before they could participate in chemical reactions.

The stability of a nucleus partly depends on its mass, which in turn depends on the masses of the baryons it is made of. Computing the masses of baryons and nuclei starting from the masses of the quarks is extremely challenging even in our universe. But after tweaking the intensity of the interaction between quarks, one can use the baryon masses measured in our universe to estimate how small changes to the masses of the quarks would affect the masses of nuclei.

In our world, the neutron is roughly 0.1 percent heavier than the proton. If the masses of the quarks were changed so that the neutron became 2 percent heavier than the proton, no long-lived form of carbon or oxygen would exist. If quark masses were adjusted to make the proton heavier than the neutron, then the proton in a hydrogen nucleus would capture the surrounding electron and turn into a neutron, so that hydrogen atoms could not exist for very long. But deuterium or tritium (hydrogen 3) might still be stable, and so would some forms of oxygen and carbon. Indeed, we found that only if the proton became heavier than the neutron by more than about 1 percent would there cease to be some stable form of hydrogen.

With deuterium (or tritium) substituting for hydrogen 1, oceans would be made of heavy water, which has subtly different physical and chemical properties from ordinary water. Still, there does not appear to be a fundamental obstacle in these worlds to some form of organic life evolving.

In our world, the third-lightest quark—the strange quark—is too heavy to participate in nuclear physics. But if its mass were reduced by a factor of more than about 10, nuclei could be made not just of protons and neutrons but also of other baryons containing strange quarks.

For example, the team identified a universe in which the up and strange quark would have roughly the same mass, whereas the down quark would be much lighter. Then atomic nuclei would not be made of protons and neutrons but instead of neutrons and another baryon, called the Σ– (“sigma minus”). Remarkably, even such a radically different universe would have stable forms of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen and therefore could have organic chemistry. Whether those elements would be produced abundantly enough for life to evolve somewhere within them is an unanswered question.

But if life can arise, it would again happen much like it does in our world. Physicists in such a universe might be puzzled by the fact that the up and strange quarks would have almost identical masses. They might even imagine that this amazing coincidence has an anthropic explanation, based on the need for organic chemistry. We know, however, that such an explanation would be wrong, because our world has organic chemistry even though the masses of the down and strange quarks are quite different.

On the other hand, universes in which the three light quarks had roughly the same masses would probably have no organic chemistry: any nucleus with more than a couple of units of electrical charge would decay away almost immediately. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to map out in detail the histories of universes whose physical parameters are different from our own. This issue requires further research.

String Landscaping
Fine-tuning has been invoked by some theoretical physicists as indirect evidence for the multiverse. Do our findings therefore call the concept of a multiverse into question? We do not think that this is necessarily the case, for two reasons. The first comes from observation, combined with theory. Astronomical data strongly support the hypothesis that our universe started out as a tiny patch of spacetime, perhaps as small as a billionth the size of a proton, which then went through a phase of rapid, exponential growth, called inflation. Cosmology still lacks a definitive theoretical model for inflation, but theory suggests that different patches could inflate at different rates and that each patch could form a “pocket” that can become a universe in its own right, characterized by its own values for the constants of nature [see “The Self-Reproducing Inflationary Universe,” by Andrei Linde; Scientific American, November 1994]. Space between pocket universes would keep expanding so fast that it would be impossible to travel or send messages from one pocket to the next, even at the speed of light.

The second reason to suspect the existence of the multiverse is that one quantity still seems to be finely tuned to an extraordinary degree: the cosmological constant, which represents the amount of energy embodied in empty space. Quantum physics predicts that even otherwise empty space must contain energy. Einstein’s general theory of relativity requires that all forms of energy exert gravity. If this energy is positive, it causes spacetime to expand at an exponentially accelerating rate. If it is negative, the universe would recollapse in a “big crunch.” Quantum theory seems to imply that the cosmological constant should be so large—in the positive or negative direction—that space would expand too quickly for structures such as galaxies to have a chance to form or else that the universe would exist for a fraction of a second before recollapsing.

One way to explain why our universe avoided such disasters could be that some other term in the equations canceled out the effects of the cosmological constant. The trouble is that this term would have to be fine-tuned with exquisite precision. A deviation in even the 100th decimal place would lead to a universe without any significant structure.

In 1987 Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize–winning theorist at the University of Texas at Austin, proposed an anthropic explanation. He calculated an upper bound on the value of the cosmological constant that would still be compatible with life. Were the value any bigger, space would expand so quickly that the universe would lack the structures that life requires. In a way, then, our very existence predicts the low value of the constant.

Then, in the late 1990s, astronomers discovered that the universe is indeed expanding at an accelerating rate, pushed by a mysterious form of “dark energy.” The observed rate implied that the cosmological constant is positive and tiny—within the bounds of Weinberg’s prediction—meaning that dark energy is very dilute.

Thus, the cosmological constant seems to be fine-tuned to an exceptional degree. Moreover, the methods our teams have applied to the weak nuclear force and to the masses of quarks seem to fail in this case, because it seems impossible to find congenial universes in which the cosmological constant is substantially larger than the value we observe. Within a multiverse, the vast majority of universes could have cosmological constants incompatible with the formation of any structure.

A real-world analogy—as opposed to an action-movie one—would be to send thousands of people trekking across a mountainous desert. The few who make it out alive might tell stories full of cliffhangers, encounters with poisonous snakes, and other brushes with death that would seem too close to be realistic.

Theoretical arguments rooted in string theory—a speculative extension of the Standard Model that attempts to describe all forces as the vibrations of microscopic strings—seem to confirm such a scenario. These arguments suggest that during inflation the cosmological constant and other parameters could have taken a virtually limitless range of different values, called the string theory landscape [see “The String Theory Landscape,” by Raphael Bousso and Joseph Polchinski; Scientific American, September 2004].

Our own work, however, does cast some doubt on the usefulness of anthropic reasoning, at least beyond the case of the cosmological constant. It also raises important questions. For example, if life really is possible in a weakless universe, then why does our own universe have a weak force at all? In fact, particle physicists consider the weak force in our universe to be, in a sense, not weak enough. Its observed value seems unnaturally strong within the Standard Model. (The leading explanation for this mystery requires the existence of new particles and forces that physicists hope to discover at the newly opened Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva.)

As a consequence, many theorists expect that most universes would have weak interactions that are so feeble as to be effectively absent. The real challenge, then, may be to explain why we do not live in a weakless universe.

Eventually only a deeper knowledge of how universes are born can answer such questions. In particular, we may discover physical principles of a more fundamental level that imply that nature prefers certain sets of laws over others.

We may never find any direct evidence of the existence of other universes, and we certainly will never get to visit one. But we may need to learn more about them if we want to understand what is our true place in the multiverse—or whatever it is that is out there.
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Friday, December 18, 2009

UFO pyramid reported over Kremlin

A giant pyramid which appears to be a UFO hovering over the Kremlin has caused frenzied speculation in Russia that it is an alien spacecraft.
The object has been compared to an Imperial Cruiser in the Star Wars films and witnesses estimated it could be up to a mile wide.
Two film clips exist which appear to show the same object and footage has been repeatedly playing on Russian television news channels.
The 'craft' was said to have hovered for hours over Red Square in the Russian capital.
The clips of the 'invasion' have gone to the top of the country's version of YouTube.
The identity of the shape has not been confirmed. Russian reports ruled out a UFO but police refused to comment.
Nick Pope, a former Ministry of Defence UFO analyst, said it was "one of the most extraordinary UFO clips I've ever seen".
"At first I thought this was a reflection but it appears to move behind a power line, ruling out this theory."
A spokesman for aerospace journal Jane's News said: "We have no idea what it is." Source

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Five laws of human nature

You're so predictable.           

Offended? We're used to the idea that nature is governed by laws that spell out how things work. But the idea that human nature is governed by such laws raises hackles. Perhaps because of this, they have often been proposed with tongue in cheek – which makes it all the more disconcerting when they turn out to be backed up by evidence.

One such law is the Peter principle, which states that in any organisation "people reach the level of their own incompetence". As we report this week, physics-based simulations suggest that this is more than just a cynical snipe at our bosses' competence. And that means we might have to rethink our ideas about who to promote to what jobs.

So what other laws of human nature might we have to reluctantly accept? Here are five that may – or may not – govern our lives.

Parkinson's law

Why is there always so much work to do? Anyone searching for an explanation might find one in Parkinson's law. Civil servant, historian and theorist Cyril Northcote Parkinson suggested in a 1955 article that work expands to fill the time available for its completion – backed up with statistical evidence drawn from his historical research. More recent mathematical analyses have lent support to the idea.

Parkinson also came up with the "law of triviality", which states that the amount of time an organisation spends discussing an issue is inversely proportional to its importance. He argued that nobody dares to expound on important issues in case they're wrong – but everyone is happy to opine at length about the trivial.

This in turn may be a result of Sayre's law, which states that in any dispute, the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue.

Parkinson also proposed a coefficient of inefficiency, which attempts to define the maximum size a committee can reach before it becomes unable to make decisions. His suggestion that it lay "somewhere 19.9 and 22.4" has stood the test of time: more recent research suggests that committees cannot include many more than 20 members before becoming utterly hapless.

Student syndrome

"If it weren't for the last minute, I wouldn't get anything done." So said an anonymous wit, and none but the most ferociously well-organised can disagree.

In fact, procrastination is a major problem for some people, especially those who are easily distracted or are uncertain of their ability to complete a task.

One of the most well-known examples of vigorous procrastination is student syndrome. As anyone who has ever been (or known) a student will know, it is standard practice to apply yourself to a task only at the last possible moment before the deadline.

Student syndrome is so common that some experts in project management recommend not assigning long periods of time to particular tasks, because the people who are supposed to do them will simply wait until just before the deadline to start work, and the project will overrun anyway (International Journal of Project Management, vol 18, p 173).

Some of the blame for student syndrome may be laid at the feet of the planning fallacy: the tendency for people to underestimate how long it will take to do something.

If you often get caught out by how long things take, we recommend considering Hofstadter's law, coined by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's law."

Pareto principle

The rich have a lot more money than you. That might sound like a statement of the obvious, but you may be surprised by just how much richer than you they are. In fact, in most countries 80 per cent of the wealth is owned by just 20 per cent of the population.

This was first spotted by the economist Vilfredo Pareto in the early 20th century, and it seems to be a universal rule in societies – although the precise nature of the distribution has been revised over the years.

But the Pareto principle is not just about money. For most systems, 80 per cent of events are triggered by just 20 per cent of the causes. For instance, 20 per cent of the users of a popular science website are responsible for 80 per cent of the page clicks.

Businesses often use the Pareto principle as a rule of thumb, for instance deciding to do the most important 20 per cent of a job in order to get 80 per cent of the reward.
Salem hypothesis

First proposed by Bruce Salem on the discussion site Usenet, the Salem hypothesis claims that "an education in the engineering disciplines forms a predisposition to [creationist] viewpoints". This was rephrased somewhat by P. Z. Myers as "creationists with advanced degrees are often engineers".

Is there any evidence to back this up, or is it just a gratuitous slander against engineers? A 1982 article in the Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science suggested that many leading creationists trained as engineers, notably Henry Morris, one of the authors of the key creationist book The Genesis Flood. But the article did not present any figures.

More recently, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog have noted a preponderance of engineers among Islamic extremist groups. They suggested that engineers may be at greater risk of being recruited by such groups than other graduates.

Obviously creationism is not the same thing as violent activism, but Gambetta and Hertog's analysis may be useful nevertheless because they discuss the engineering mindset in some detail. They show, for instance, that engineers are more likely to be religious than other graduates (PDF).

None of this is anywhere near enough to prove the Salem hypothesis, but it does provide some intriguing circumstantial evidence.

Maes-Garreau law

Everyone loves predicting the future, and some make a career out of it. These futurists often present detailed, authoritative claims about what is going to happen, though their success rate isn't always exemplary.

A common theme in futurist predictions is that revolutionary technology of one sort or another is just around the corner, and that this technology will allow people to live forever. This can mean physical immortalityMovie Camera or some more abstracted technique like downloading one's personality into a computer. The "singularity", which Ray Kurzweil says will arrive "by 2045 or thereabouts", is a prime example.

And thus we come to the Maes-Garreau law, which states that any such prediction about a favourable future technology will fall just within the expected lifespan of the person making it.

Pattie Maes, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, observed in the late 1980s that many of her male colleagues were interested in these ideas, and tabulated when they expected the miracle technology to arrive. Sure enough, she found that the dates they predicted for the singularity were always on or around their 70th birthdays.

She mentioned her findings in a talk, but did not write them up. Subsequently, the journalist Joel Garreau made similar observations in his book Radical Evolution, which looked at the implications of such "transhumanist" ideas.

The Maes-Garreau law was finally coined, and given its name, by Wired editor Kevin Kelly. Kelly informally repeated Maes's analysis, confirming her findings. He then defined the "Maes-Garreau point" as the latest possible date a prediction can come true and still remain in the lifetime of the person making it.
by Michael Marshall
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

3D Bio-printer to create arteries and organs

The 3D bio-printer that could be used to create human tissue and organs on demand

An engineering firm has developed a 3D bio-printer that could one day be used to create organs on demand for organ replacement surgery. The device is already capable of growing arteries and its creators say that arteries "printed" by the device could be used in heart bypass surgery in as little as five years. Meanwhile, more complex organs such as hearts, and teeth and bone should be possible within ten years.
The 3D bio-printer allows scientists to place cells of almost any type into a desired 3D pattern. It includes two print heads, one for placing human cells, and the other for placing a hydrogel, scaffold, or support matrix. The cells used by the device need to be the cells of what is being regenerated – building an artery requires arterial cells for example. Because the patient’s own cells are used the new organ will not be rejected by the body. The printer fits inside a standard biosafety cabinet for sterile use.
Its creators say that one of the most complex challenges in the development of the printer was being able to repeatedly position the capillary tip, attached to the print head, to within microns. This was essential to ensure that the cells are placed in exactly the right position. A computer controlled, laser-based calibration system was developed to achieve the required repeatability.
The 3D bio-printers include a software interface that allows engineers to build a model of the tissue construct before the printer commences the physical constructions of the organs cell-by-cell using the automated, laser-calibrated print heads.
The printer is the result of collaboration between Australian engineering firm Invetech, and Organovo, a regenerative medicine company based in San Diego, California. Organovo selected Invetech in May 2009 as its technology development partner and asked the company to design and develop a highly integrated, extremely reliable and simple to use 3D bio-printer system, which could then be transferred to manufacture and commercial sale.
Now, just eight months later, Invetech has delivered the first production model 3D bio-printer to Organovo. Invetech plan to ship a number of 3D bio-printers to Organovo during 2010 and 2011 and Organovo will be placing the printers globally with research institutions investigating human tissue repair and organ replacement.
Organovo CEO, Keith Murphy, says the bio-printer represents a breakthrough because they provide for the first time a flexible technology platform for organizations working on many different types of tissue construction and organ replacement.
“Researchers can place liver cells on a preformed scaffold, support kidney cells with a co-printed scaffold, or form adjacent layers of epithelial and stromal soft tissue that grow into a mature tooth. Ultimately the idea would be for surgeons to have tissue on demand for various uses, and the best way to do that is get a number of bio-printers into the hands of researchers and give them the ability to make three dimensional tissues on demand, “ said Murphy.

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Octopus snatches coconut and runs

An octopus and its coconut-carrying antics have surprised scientists.
Underwater footage reveals that the creatures scoop up halved coconut shells before scampering away with them so they can later use them as shelters.
Writing in the journal Current Biology, the team says it is the first example of tool use in octopuses.
One of the researchers, Dr Julian Finn from Australia's Museum Victoria, told BBC News: "I almost drowned laughing when I saw this the first time."
He added: "I could tell it was going to do something, but I didn't expect this - I didn't expect it would pick up the shell and run away with it."
Quick getaway
The veined octopuses (Amphioctopus marginatus) were filmed between 1999 and 2008 off the coasts of Northern Sulawesi and Bali in Indonesia. The bizarre behaviour was spotted on four occasions.
Octopus inside coconut (Roger Steene)
The octopuses use the coconuts as a shelter
The eight-armed beasts used halved coconuts that had been discarded by humans and had eventually settled in the ocean.
Dr Mark Norman, head of science at Museum Victoria, Melbourne, and one of the authors of the paper, said: "It is amazing watching them excavate one of these shells. They probe their arms down to loosen the mud, then they rotate them out."
After turning the shells so the open side faces upwards, the octopuses blow jets of mud out of the bowl before extending their arms around the shell - or if they have two halves, stacking them first, one inside the other - before stiffening their legs and tip-toeing away.
Dr Norman said: "I think it is amazing that those arms of pure muscle get turned into rigid rods so that they can run along a bit like a high-speed spider.
"It comes down to amazing dexterity and co-ordination of eight arms and several hundred suckers."
Home, sweet home
The octopuses were filmed moving up to 20m with the shells.
And their awkward gait, which the scientists describe as "stilt-walking", is surprisingly speedy, possibly because the creatures are left vulnerable to attack from predators while they scuttle away with their prized coconuts.
Veined octopus (Mark Norman)
The veined octopus is a meaty feast for predators
The octopuses eventually use the shells as a protective shelter. If they just have one half, they simply turn it over and hide underneath. But if they are lucky enough to have retrieved two halves, they assemble them back into the original closed coconut form and sneak inside.
The shells provide important protection for the octopuses in a patch of seabed where there are few places to hide.
Dr Norman explained: "This is an incredibly dangerous habitat for these animals - soft sediment and mud couldn't be worse.
"If they are buried loose in mud without a shell, any predator coming along can just scoop them up. And they are pure rump steak, a terrific meat supply for any predator."
The researchers think that the creatures would initially have used large bivalve shells as their haven, but later swapped to coconuts after our insatiable appetite for them meant their discarded shells became a regular feature on the sea bed.
Surprisingly smart
Tool use was once thought to be an exclusively human skill, but this behaviour has now been observed in a growing list of primates, mammals and birds.
They do things which, normally, you'd only expect vertebrates to do
Tom Tregenza,
University of Exeter
The researchers say their study suggests that these coconut-grabbing octopuses should now be added to these ranks.
Professor Tom Tregenza, an evolutionary ecologist from the University of Exeter, UK, and another author of the paper, said: "A tool is something an animal carries around and then uses on a particular occasion for a particular purpose.
"While the octopus carries the coconut around there is no use to it - no more use than an umbrella is to you when you have it folded up and you are carrying it about. The umbrella only becomes useful when you lift it above your head and open it up.
"And just in the same way, the coconut becomes useful to this octopus when it stops and turns it the other way up and climbs inside it."
He added that octopuses already have a reputation for being an intelligent invertebrate.
He explained: "They've been shown to be able to solve simple puzzles, there is the mimic octopus, which has a range of different species that it can mimic, and now there is this tool use.
"They do things which, normally, you'd only expect vertebrates to do."
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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ambient Music Video

This video mainly consists of clouds and other more natural scenery. The song was composed using what Brian Eno used in some of his earlier ambient works, 'Music for Airports'. The album used a series of tape loops which would repeat what was played but delayed long enough to be heard as a new phrase. Eno probably picked it up from Steve Reich or Terry Riley as well as introduced the idea to Robert Fripp. Mr. Fripp then called it Frippertronics. This song is from the album 'Trajectories' which can be found at the diatonis website with the song name of 'One To Be'.

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The Dreaming Sky Priest The video was shot near 'Devils Punchbowl' in the Mohave Desert (Antelope Valley). The area is about a mile or so from San Andreas Fault as well as near Edwards Air Force Base. There is no actual video from the Punchbowl itself. It has been said that a number of ufo sightings have occurred near this area. It was probably from Edwards or some other natural effect from the San Andreas Fault. It’s an interesting place to visit. The music is from ‘Ambient Life’ by diatonis.

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Big Sur California Video of Ocean, Trees, Waterfalls, and other things found on the Pacific Coast Highway. The ambient style music is from 'Ambient Life' by diatonis. The song is called Singing Kettle.

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2050: A Hypothetical Future

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

NGC Presents / Extraterrestrial planet


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Sunday, December 06, 2009

The 10 dimensions of reality


The summarise the points made in that film (worth seeing again and again):
1. The 0th dimension is the dot. You don't need any numbers to identify its position.
2. The first dimension is the line. You need two dots to define a line. Any other dot on that line can be located on that line using one real number that will give the distance of the third dot to the first dot using the distance of your first two dots as the unit. So on a ruler your first two dots can be the 0 and the 1cm dot. Every other dot is at some cm length from the 0.
3. the second dimension is the plane. You need two numbers to identify a point on a plane. Usually called the x and the y axis. On a plane you can find the distance between two points by drawing a line that does not go through your reference dot.
4. space is the third dimension. You need three numbers to determine the distance of an object in space. These are usually called the x,y and z axes.
5. space time is the fourth dimension: it requires four numbers to place a dot in space-time. 3 for the spacial position, and one for the time. The four dimensional world we live in, seen from the beginning of the universe to the end of the universe, is the actual world we live in.
6. The 5th dimension is the first dimension in which the notion of possible worlds starts needing to be used. Imagine some possible world a little different from this one (maybe one where you did not read this blog). This possible world will give you a unit of similarity measurement with which to compare the distance of other possible worlds to the actual one.
7. The 6th dimension will give you a plane of possible worlds. You can find out the similarity distance of two possible worlds from each other without having to go through the actual one. So with 6 dimensions it is possible to compare the distance of the world in which last Sunday I entered another café, with the world in which I made a huge groundbreaking invention when I was a child, without having to compare that to the actual world. We can also measure the distance of any of those to the possible world in which the earth was never created, for example. The 6 dimensions allow us to compare and position all the possible worlds that start with the same initial conditions (the big bang) as this one.
8. The 7th dimension will give you access to the possible worlds that start with different initial conditions (big bang). A point in the 7th dimension consists of all the possible worlds that start with the same initial big bang and lead to all the possible endings that such an initial condition can lead to.
9. The 8th dimensions gives us again a plane of such complete possible universe histories, which in the video they call infinity. We can there compare two such infinities without necessarily having to take ours into account.
10. With the 9th dimension we can compare all the possible universes histories starting with all the different possible laws of physics and initial conditions.
11. The Tenth dimension is the point in which everything possible and imaginable is covered. Since we can't imagine any further, we have to stop here.

David Lewis does not specify an upper limit to possible worlds: he does not exclude impossible worlds. It's just that it would be impossible for us to describe them (if indeed there are any).

Here are a couple of quotes worth remembering from that presentation. In the description of the 5th dimension the narrator says:
Quantum physics tells us that the sub atomic particles that make up our world are collapsed from waves of probability simply be the act of observation.
In the description of the 10th dimension he says
In string theory physics tell us that superstrings vibrating in the 10th dimension are what create the subatomic particles which make up our universe and all the other possible universes as well. In other words all possible universes are contained within the tenth dimension.
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Saturday, December 05, 2009

Explore Your Future Consciousness

by Dan Eden for Viewzone

I am a skeptic. I don't believe in fortune tellers or psychics. I certainly doubted that I could forsee the future. But, as I did the research for this article, I discovered that I was wrong. Everyone can see into the future and we do it all the time.

Ooop! That wasn't supposed to happen.
Our journey starts with an experiment conducted in 1976. Dr. Kornhuber asked a number of volunteers to be wired with EEG electrodes to measure their brain activity. He then asked the volunteers to flex the index finger of their right hand, suddenly and at various times of their own choosing. He wanted to measure how fast it took for the mental decision to move the finger to actually make the finger move. His results were not what he expected.
Kornhuber expected to find a sharp peak in electrical activity when the decision was consciously made, at which point he would begin timing the trials. However, what he found is remarkable, namely that there is a gradual build-up of recorded electric potential for a full second, or perhaps even up to a second and a half, before the finger is actually flexed. This seems to indicate that the conscious decision process takes over a second in order to act! Even more surprising was that the volunteers were not aware of this delay and believed they were acting spontaneously and instantly.

So what happened? Did the brain somehow "know" that the decision would be made in the future and begin planning the action?
The experiment received little attention until another experiment conducted by Dr. Libet in 1979 raised questions about our conscious perception of time and the idea of "now."

Everything "now" happened already!
Libet tested subjects who had to have brain surgery for some reason unconnected with the experiment and who consented to having electrodes placed at points in the brain, in the somatosensory cortex. He monitored the electrical activity while stimulating their skin. To his amazement it took about a half-second before the subjects were able to perceive the stimulation. Further experiments showed that this same delay - about a half second - was needed for all sensory input to reach consciousness.

The significance of this is enormous. Everything we know about the external world right now - the sounds, the sights, the feelings - are all being delayed. Everything that you think is happening right now actually happened already, about half a second ago!
So how is this possible? How do we drive cars, catch baseballs, swat flies and write or draw if it's all delayed? Well, the obvious answer is that we have adapted the ability to compensate for the delay by projecting our behavior into the future, which is really "now."
Confusing? Wait... it gets even better.

Five Seconds In The Future
Marilyn Schlitz connected volunteers to a series of monitors, similar to a lie detector, to measure their heartbeat, perspiration and other nervous activity. She then had them sit in front of a computer screen and began showing them a series of images which were selected at random by the computer from a large collection. These images were described as either "neutral" (boring) or "emotional" (erotic or morbid). As expected, the subjects showed physical and mental excitement when the "emotional" images were shown and showed less reaction to the "neutral" images. But as the experiment continued, something weird happened.
Researchers began to see that most people, unconsciously, began to react to the "emotional" images a full 5 seconds before they were selected by the computer program! What's more, they did not react to the "neutral" images. This result was statstically significant (p=0.00003) and has been repeated many times. It strongly suggests hat subjects can perceive the future.
Another study, described in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, was reported by psychophysiologist Rollin McCraty and his colleagues from the Institute of Heartmath in Boulder Creek, California. McCraty's group simultaneously measured skin conductance, heart rate, and brainwave activity before, during, and after 26 participants viewed emotional and calm pictures. They found that both the heart (p < 0. 001) and the brain (p < 0. 05) responded about 5 seconds before the future emotional stimuli, and to their amazement, that the heart responded before the brain. They also observed significant gender differences in the processing of this future information (women performed better, on average, than men). They concluded: "Our findings suggest that intuitive perception is not a discrete function produced by a single part or system of the body alone. Rather, it appears that intuition may in fact be a system-wide process involving at least the heart and brain, together, in the processing and decoding of intuitive information." They highlighted that "the fact that the heart is involved in the perception of a future external event is a surprising, even astounding result, especially from the classical perspective that assigns the brain an exclusive role [for perception]."

Five seconds isn't a long time to see into the future. It doesn't allow you to pick tomorrow's lottery number or predict the headline. But there is strong evidence that this ability to see future events may extend for several hours.
Dr. Roger Jahn from Princeton University developed a small computer (the Random Event Generator or "black box") that generated random numbers. The numbers were converted to either "1" or "0" and were recorded over various time intervals. The device was similar to flipping a coin and resulted in an equal number of "1s" and "0s."
The pattern of ones and noughts - 'heads' and 'tails' as it were - could then be printed out as a graph. The laws of chance dictate that the generators should churn out equal numbers of ones and zeros - which would be represented by a nearly flat line on the graph. Any deviation from this equal number shows up as a gently rising curve.
During the late 1970s, Jahn decided to investigate whether the power of human thought alone could interfere in some way with the machine's usual readings. He hauled strangers off the street and asked them to concentrate their minds on his number generator. In effect, he was asking them to try to make it flip more heads than tails.
It was a preposterous idea at the time. The results, however, were stunning and have never been satisfactorily explained.
Dr Nelson, also working at Princeton University, then extended Prof Jahn's work by taking random number machines to group meditations, which were very popular in America at the time. Again, the results were eyepopping. The groups were collectively able to cause dramatic shifts in the patterns of numbers.
From then on, Dr Nelson was hooked.
Using the internet, he connected up 60 random event generators from all over the world to his laboratory computer in Princeton. These ran constantly, day in day out, generating millions of different pieces of data. Most of the time, the resulting graph on his computer looked more or less like a flat line.
But then on September 6, 1997, something quite extraordinary happened: the graph shot upwards, recording a sudden and massive shift in the number sequence as his machines around the world started reporting huge deviations from the norm. The day was of historic importance for another reason, too. It was the day when over one-billion people, from all around the globe, watched the funeral of the loved Diana, Princess of Wales at Westminister Abbey.
It seems that, without making a conscious effort to focus on the "black boxes," the collective psyché of humanity was able to change the random pattern. This amazing event prompted Nelson to install the "black boxes" in 41 different countries around the globe and wire them together over the internet so that the collective results could be instantly monitored. And this is when he noted something even more extraordinary.

Something happened just prior to 9-11-2001 also!

On September 11, 2001, the normally flat line of the boxes began to peak, warning of an event of terrible proportions a full 4 hours before the first plane hit the World Trade Center! Could the collective human mind have "known" what was going to happen?
According to the researchers:
"One way to think of these startling correlations is to accept the possibility that the instruments have captured the reaction of a global consciousness beginning to form. The network was built to do just that: to see whether we could gather evidence of a communal, shared mind in which we are participants even if we don't know it. Groups of people, including the group that is the whole world, have a place in consciousness space, and under special circumstances "they," "¡" or "we" become a new presence. Based on evidence that both individuals and groups manifest something we can tentatively call a consciousness field, we hypothesized that there could be a global consciousness capable of the same thing. Pursuing the speculation, it would seem that the new, integrated mind is just beginning to be active, paying attention only to events that inspire strong coherence of attention and feeling. Perhaps the best image is an infant slowly developing awareness, but already capable of strong emotions in response to the comfort of cuddling or to the discomfort of pain."
In the last weeks of December 2004 the various "black boxes" again went crazy, showing dramatic peaks while everything seemed peaceful and calm. Just 24 hours later, an earthquake deep beneath the Indian Ocean triggered the tsunami which devastated South-East Asia, and claimed the lives of an estimated quarter of a million people. Was this another example of "future shock?"
Several other historical "emotional" events have been recorded by this method and continue to suggest that the effect is real, yet still unexplained. The boxes are now monitored and studied by the Global Consciousness Project and the results and graphs for past and present are made available to the public at the website.

What's happening right now in the world?

What color is this dot?
[It's usually green or yellow. If it changes to orange or red... something bad is going to happen!]
The colored dot above shows the current status indicator for the Global Consciousness Project. It's linked to the Global Consciousness computer. It changes to different colors depending on the results of more than 68 "black boxes" or "eggs" (as they are now called) located all over the globe and sampled many times each second. The color coding represents the level of coherence or correlation among the eggs, which is reflected in the probability of the Chisquare. The expected level is about 50%, and big shifts in either direction are notable. The GCP's formal testing looks for increased interegg correlation, which is represented here by the warm colors, orange and red. That means something's disturbing the global consciousness... possibly indicating that something bad is about to happen!
* Blue starts to fade in at 90% and above.
* Green represents about 50%
* Yellow starts fading in from green at 40%.
* Orange fades in at 15% or so.
* Red is 5% which is regarded as "significant".
* Bright red is 1%, or odds of 1 in 100.

What does this mean?
Since out nervous system is hard wired with a delay of about one half of a second, we have had to develop the ability to anticipate the future. This function is not only beneficial but vital to our survival. Hand-eye coordination and avoiding danger in the "real time" world demand that we have this ability. It is not surprising then that this ability should extend beyond a half-second, perhaps diminishing as it extends toward the future. It is also possible that this ability can be concentrated from a group or collection of human minds in way that we have not yet tested.
Spiritualists value collective prayer and meditation as an effective force to change nature or petition higher powers. Until now the ability to see the future has been considered mystical or paranormal. Now, with the recognition that this ability is innate to humanity, perhaps we can develop and refine it to make a better world and a more pleasing future for our species.
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Welcome to the Global Consciousness Project Dot

How it works
The Global Consciousness Project collects random numbers from around the world. These numbers are available on the GCP website. This website downloads those numbers once a minute and performs sophisticated analysis on these random numbers to see how coherent they are. That is, how probable it is that the numbers are generated as they are. The theory is that the Global Consciousness of all the people of the world affect these random numbers... Maybe they aren't quite as random as we thought.

The probability time window is one hour. For a more information on the algorithm you can read about it on the GCP Basic Science page

Background Music from Jonathan Goldman

Ultimate OM Jonathan Goldman
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Many Scientists are Convinced that Man Can See the Future


PROFESSOR Dick Bierman sits hunched over his computer in a darkened room. The gentle whirring of machinery can be heard faintly in the background. He smiles and presses a grubby-looking red button. In the next room, a patient slips slowly inside a hospital brain scanner. If it wasn't for the strange smiles and grimaces that flicker across the woman's face, you could be forgiven for thinking this was just a normal health check.

But this scanner is engaged in one of the most profound paranormal experiments of all time, one that may well prove whether or not it is possible to predict the future.

For the results - released exclusively to the Daily Mail - suggest that ordinary people really do have a sixth sense that can help them 'see' the future.

Such amazing studies - if verified - might help explain the predictive powers of mediums and a range of other psychic phenomena such Extra Sensory Perception, dEj vu and clairvoyance. On a more mundane level, it may account for 'gut feelings' and instinct.

The man behind the experiments is certainly convinced. 'We're satisfied that people can sense the future before it happens,' says Professor Bierman, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam. 'We'd now like to move on and see what kind of person is particularly good at it.' And Bierman is not alone: his findings mirror the data gathered by other scientists and paranormal researchers both here and abroad.

Professor Brian Josephson, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Cambridge University, says: 'So far, the evidence seems compelling. What seems to be happening is that information is coming from the future.

'In fact, it's not clear in physics why you can't see the future. In physics, you certainly cannot completely rule out this effect.' Virtually all the great scientific formulae which explain how the world works allow information to flow backwards and forwards through time - they can work either way, regardless.

SHORTLY after 9/11, strange stories began circulating about the lucky few who had escaped the outrage. It transpired that many of the survivors had changed their plans at the last minute after vague feelings of unease.

It was a subtle, gnawing feeling that 'something' was not right. Nobody vocalised it but shortly before the attacks, people started altering their plans out of an unspoken instinct.

One woman suffered crippling stomach pain while queuing for one of the ill-fated planes which flew into the World Trade Center. She made her way to the lavatory only to recover spontaneously. She missed her flight but survived the day. Amid the collective outpouring of grief and horror it was easy to overlook such stories or write them off as coincidences. But in fact, these kind of stories point to an interesting and deeper truth for those willing to look.

If, for example, fewer people decided to fly on aircraft that subsequently crashed, then that would suggest a subconscious ability to divine the future.

Well, strange as it seems, that's just what happens.

THE aircraft which flew into the Twin Towers on 9/11 were unusually empty.

All the hijacked planes were carrying only half the usual number of passengers. Perhaps one unusually empty plane could be explained away, but all four?

And it wasn't just on 9/11 that people subconsciously seemed to avoid disaster. The scientist Ed Cox found that trains 'destined' to crash carried far fewer people than they did normally.

Dr Jessica Utts, a statistician at the University of California, found exactly the same bizarre effect.

If it was possible to divine the future, you might expect those at the sharp end, such as pilots, to have the most finely tuned instincts of all. And again, that's just what you see.

When the Air France Concorde crashed in 2000, it wasn't long before the colleagues of those killed in the crash spoke about a sense of foreboding that had gripped the crew and flight engineers before the accident.

Speaking anonymously to the French newspaper Le Parisien, one spoke of a 'morbid expectation of an accident'.

'I had this sense that we were going to bump into the scenery,' he said.

'The atmosphere on the Concorde team for the last few months, if one has the guts to admit it, had been one of morbid expectation of an accident.

It was as if I was waiting for something to happen.' All of these stories suggest that we can pick up premonitions of events that are yet to be.

Although these premonitions are not in glorious Technicolor, they are often emotionally powerful enough for us to act upon them.

In technical parlance it is known as 'presentiment' because emotional feelings are being received from the future, not hard facts or information.

The military has long been fascinated by such phenomena. For many years the U.S. military (and latterly the CIA) funded a secretive programme known as Stargate, which set out to investigate premonitions and the ability of mediums to predict the future.

Dr Dean Radin worked on the Stargate programme and became fascinated by the ability of 'lucky' soldiers to forecast the future.

These are the ones who survived battles against seemingly impossible odds.

Radin became convinced that thoughts and feelings - and occasionally-actual glimpses of the future - could flow backwards in time to guide soldiers. It helped them make lifesaving decisions, often on the basis of a hunch.

He devised an experiment to test these ideas. He hooked up volunteers to a modified lie detector, which measured an electrical current across the surface of the skin.

This current changes when a person reacts to an event such as seeing an extremely violent picture or video. It's the electrical equivalent of a wince. Radin showed sexually explicit, violent or soothing images to volunteers in a random sequence determined by computer.

And he soon discovered that people began reacting to the pictures before they saw them. It was unmistakable.

They began to 'wince' a few seconds before they actually saw the image.

And it happened time and time again, way beyond what chance alone would allow.

So impressive were Radin's results that Dr Kary Mullis, a Nobel Prizewinning chemist, took an interest.

He was hooked up to Radin's machine and shown the emotionally charged images.

'It's spooky,' he says 'I could see about three seconds into the future.

You shouldn't be able to do that.' OTHER researchers from around the world, from Edinburgh University to Cornell in the U.S., rushed to duplicate Radin's experiment and improve on it. And they got similar results.

It was soon discovered that gamblers began reacting subconsciously shortly before they won or lost. The same effect was seen in those terrified of animals, moments before they were shown the creatures. The odds against all of these trials being wrong are literally millions to one against.

Professor Dick Bierman decided to take this work even further. He is a psychologist who has become convinced that time as we understand it is an illusion. He could see no reason why people could not see into the future just as easily as we dip into memories of our past.

He's in good company. Einstein described the distinction between the past, present and future as 'a stubbornly persistent illusion'.

To prove Einstein's point, Bierman looked inside the brains of volunteers using a hospital MRI scanner while he repeated Dr Radin's experiments. These scanners show which parts of the brain are active when we do certain tasks or experience specific emotions.

Although extremely complex, and with each analysis taking weeks of computing time, he has run the experiments twice involving more than 20 volunteers.

And the results suggest quite clearly that seemingly ordinary people are capable of sensing the future on a fairly consistent basis.

Bierman emphasises that people are receiving feelings from the future rather than specific 'visions'.

It's clear, though, that if ordinary people can receive feelings from the future then perhaps the especially gifted may receive visions of things yet to be.

It's also clear that many paranormal phenomena such as ESP and clairvoyance could have their roots in presentiment.

After all, if you can see a few seconds into the future, why not a few days or even years? And surely if you could look through time, why not across great distances?It's a concept that ties the mind in knots, unless you're a physicist.

'I believe that we can "sense" the future,' says the Nobel Prizewinning physicist Brian Josephson.

'We just haven't yet established the mechanism allowing it to happen.

'People have had so called " paranormal" or "transcendental" experiences along these lines. Bierman's work is another piece of the jigsaw.

The fact that we don't understand something does not mean that it doesn't happen.' If we are all regularly sensing the future or occasionally receiving glimpses of it, as some mediums claim to do, then doesn't that mean we can change the future and render the 'prediction' obsolete?

Or perhaps we were meant to receive the premonition and act upon it? Such paradoxes could go on for ever, providing a rich seam of material for films such as Minority Report - based on a short story of the same name - in which a special police department is able to foresee and prevent crimes before they have even taken place.

COULD such science fiction have a grain of truth in it after all? The emerging view, Bierman explains, is that 'the future has implications for the past'.

'This phenomena allows you to make a decision on the basis of what will happen in the future.

Does that restrain our free will?

That's up to the philosophers. I'm far too shallow a person to worry about that.' The problem with presentiment is that it appears so nebulous that you can't rely on it to make reliable decisions. That may be the case, but there are plenty of instances where people wished they had listened to their premonitions or feelings of presentiment.

One of the saddest involves the Aberfan disaster. This occurred in 1966 when a coal tip collapsed and swept through a Welsh school killing 144 people, including 116 children. It turned out that 24 people had received premonitions of the tragedy.

One involved a little girl who was killed. She told her mother shortly before she was taken to school: 'I dreamed I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it.' So should we listen to our instincts, hunches and dreams?

Some experts believe we may already be using them in our everyday lives to a surprising degree.

Dr Jessica Utts at the University of California, who has worked for the U.S.

military and CIA as an independent auditor of its paranormal research, believes we are constantly sampling the future and using the knowledge to help us make better decisions.

'I think we're doing it all the time,' she says. 'We've looked at the data and it does seem to happen.' So perhaps the Queen in Through The Looking Glass was right: 'It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.'

Daily Mail; London (UK)

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