Sunday SciKu | Great Legs

Trilobites were among the most successful animals in the history of the planet, thriving for 250 million years before finally succumbing to the end-Permian Extinction, along with 80% of marine life. It’s the greatest extinction event in the fossil record, and we’re still not sure what caused it, being so long ago—most likely it was climate change due to the intense volcanism that created the Siberian Traps at the same time.

We do know now, though, that trilobites had gills on their legs for taking oxygen out of the water. A team at UCR took CT scans of trilobite fossils found in pyrite (fool’s gold), which managed to preserve tiny impressions of soft tissues, allowing them to examine the filaments thinner than a human hair that filtered and transported trilobite blood.

At the peak, there were more than 22,000 species of trilobites ruling the ocean floor. Their reign spans about 30% of the time since the first animals appeared. Hominids, by comparison, have been here 0.5% of the time. Humans 0.025%. It kind of puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?


all your success
a trilobite found
in fool’s gold


Sunday SciKu | Show Don’t Tell

One of the main points that always comes up in our live Critique of the Week sessions is the importance of images in writing. “Show don’t tell” is the mantra of every creative writing workshop, and all it really means that illustration is more emotionally powerful than explanation. This concept seems counterintuitive because it is—shouldn’t a precise description of a feeling convey it better than a visual representation that needs to be interpreted by the reader?

The thing is, we’re not computers. The information we receive from the world isn’t digitized into discrete packets of meaning. We think in something more akin to messy clouds of association, as constellations of neurons that fire together become wired together. If you were to map the way thoughts are constructed, our brain might fundamentally be simile machines—this is like this is like this—and when one thought lights up, everything connected to it starts to glow.

Evolving within the ecological niche that we did, as scavengers looking for fruit in the distance while avoiding snakes in the grass, evolutionary pressure has driven our mental capacity toward more and more visual processing—stealing that capacity from other senses like smell. 60% of the human cerebral cortex is devoted to vision, and 40% of all nerve fibers connected to the brain are linked to the retina.

If we were dogs the advice would be “smell don’t tell,” but we’re humans, so our cognition is oriented to sight. Because of that, conveying emotion through visual stimulation gets more of our neurons firing and allows us to make stronger associations that translate into a bigger emotional response for the reader.

Researchers at UNSW-Sydney were able to measure “show don’t tell” for the first time this week. They put participants into a dark room and had them read a scary story presented on a screen, using skin conductivity to measure their fear responses. Those with aphantasia—the inability to visualize mental images—showed no physiological fear response, while a neurotypical control group did, demonstrating that it is the visualization within the reader that elicits emotions, not the meaning of the text. Interestingly, the research was inspired by people with aphantasia recounting their difficulty enjoying novels.

So if you want your readers to feel something, show them. And it applies everywhere. Consider the emotional impact of “Build the Wall” to the similar but less visual phrase “Build Back Better”—even if that feeling is a sickness in the pit of your stomach, one is visceral and sticky and the other is not. It’s one of the things that makes Trump such an effective conman—he always uses visuals.

This is also why one of the best memory techniques is to imagine placing the things you want to remember into different rooms of a house. Images use more of the brain, giving them more opportunities to stick.

Anyway, here’s this week’s tiny sciku.




Sunday SciKu | Digital Universe

From the quantization of everything (including time?) to Fermi’s Paradox, retrocausality, collective consciousness, and subjective perception, there are plenty of observations that suggest all we see and seem might be a dream within a dream—and that was before Hong Qin at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory was able to create a machine-learning algorithm that can predict the motions of planets without knowing Newton’s Laws.

The mathematics of discrete field theory and Lagrangian density is beyond me, so I could be misunderstanding the paper, but what it seems to be doing in layman’s terms is treating the universe as a three-dimensional pixelated lattice of points—rasterizing it, essentially, rather than treating it as objects interacting with each other through the rules of physics. Then he added the positional data of a few planets, and let AI machine-learn an algorithm that could predict any other orbital pathway in the solar system. As Hong Qin puts it: “Essentially, I bypassed all the fundamental ingredients of physics. I go directly from data to data […] There is no law of physics in the middle.”

On a practical level, this looks like the start of a new era of science, where black box AI “knows” more than we do, providing us with extremely useful information, while keeping us mortal humans completely in the dark about why it’s able to make the accurate predictions it does. Something similar was used last year to develop the Bradykinin hypothesis for Covid-19 pathology. Qin plans on using his technique next to help work on plasma fields within experimental fusion reactors—something that could be incredibly useful, as well.

Even more interesting, though, are the implications for the way consciousness projects meaning onto the underlying code of reality. As Qin puts it, “What is the algorithm running on the laptop of the Universe?” What we think of as the physical world is nothing more than a series of adaptive filters we construct, like icons on a desktop or beer bottles to the Australian jewel beetle, in Donald Hoffman’s great analogy. The reason we can’t seem to unify general relativity and electromagnetism into a Grand Unified Theory and why the Lambda-CDM model keeps digging itself into deeper and deeper holes as we fail to find dark matter and dark energy might be because these are only functional programs running simultaneously on a more fundamental operating system that we can’t access. Yes, like The Matrix.


a blur of fur
bounding though the open
field theory


Sunday SciKu | Please Like Me

This week, researchers at NYU released a study mapping the behavior of social media users onto that of rats in a Skinner box. They found it a perfect match.

As you probably know, B.F. Skinner developed the operant conditioning chamber as a way to study animal learning. In the classic setup, a rat can push a lever in order to receive a food reward, but the box is designed so that the lever only works in the presence of some other stimuli. So the rat can learn that it’s only worth pushing the lever when a light is on, for example.

The study here showed that our behavior on social media follows the same reward learning pattern—we organize our posting and commenting here based on the dopaminergic gratification of receiving “likes.” If anyone has watched The Social Dilemma or listened to Tristan Harris, this should be no surprise.

I’m curious to hear if it matches your personal experience, though, because I feel like it’s missing something, at least for me. I, too, feel like I’ve been conditioned by unconscious forces to impulsively scroll through Facebook, but it doesn’t seem to me like this kind of feedback is the drive. In fact, I find that I don’t really care about feedback at all. Maybe it’s because I’m very low in trait agreeableness.

The reward for me flipping through my news feed is mental stimulation. I can physically feel myself hunting for interesting information—it’s a search for something new to learn. Most posts don’t offer anything interesting, but often enough a post does, probably in a perfectly addictive ratio, and I’m compulsively hunting for that.

I do seek “likes,” but that feels like a fully conscious, goal-oriented behavior. Either I’m sharing something that I think would help people to know, or for work I’m sharing poems that enrich the human spirit—and I know post engagement funds reach within the algorithms of the attention economy—so I want “likes.” But I don’t feel like I’m being conditioned by likes. I’m conditioned by curiosity. Would you say the same thing? I realize I’m an outlier in a lot of ways, and it’s hard to know what’s normal.

So what is your experience with social media? Do you feel like you’re seeking the positive reward of community response, or are you seeking the stimulation of new information?

Anyway, here is this Sunday’s sciku. Originally it was a little gentler, but I’m not pulling any punches (or levers) …


rats at the dump
scavenging daily
for likes


Sunday SciKu | Overkill

For 20+ years, I’ve found the nonsense of the overkill hypothesis maddening. The idea is that humans are such efficient, warlike creatures that we arrive on new continents and murder everything we come across. The Neanderthals in Europe and the Diprotodons in Australia 42,000 years ago. The North American mammoths and mastodons 12,500 years ago. It’s the most obvious scientific farce I’ve ever heard, and yet for decades it’s remained the mainstream explanation for these recent extinction events. Really, this is nothing but the projection of our contemporary fears and guilts into the past, based on flimsy circumstantial evidence, turning science into a morality play for kindergarteners.

The obvious problem is this: Neanderthals and Diprotodons went extinct at the exact same time on opposite sides of the world. And during the Younger Dryas event 12,500 years ago, it wasn’t just mammoths that died out—it was 70% of North American megafauna, including sabretooth tigers, the American lion, 12-foot-tall short-faced bears, dire wolves, American camels, ground sloths the size of elephants, armadillos the size of Volkswagen Beetles—including even the Clovis people who were supposedly killing them. Stone age humans with spears didn’t hunt out all these massive species in a few hundred years and then kill themselves. How absurd is that? And yet most textbooks still say that’s what happened.

What actually did happen, though, is one of the deepest and most important mysteries in history. These weren’t just extinction events—big changes to the global environment were going on at the same time. There are really only two plausible explanations. There might have been a series of comet or asteroid impacts into the ice sheets and ocean, and we just haven’t found the craters. But more and more it’s looking like the real story is in the magnetic fields of the Earth and Sun, and researchers added more to the pile of evidence this week, looking at prehistoric kauri trees preserved in the bog swamps of New Zealand.

What they found was a huge increase in Carbon-14 right at the Laschamps Magnetic Excursion, 42,000 years ago. Just as the Neanderthals and Australian megafauna were going extinct, the Earth’s magnetic field was in the middle of a potential pole flip, and dropped as low as 6% of its normal strength. Carbon-14 is made in the atmosphere when cosmic rays (particles ejected from supernovae traveling near the speed of light) slam into nitrogen atoms, knocking off a proton and turning N-14 into radioactive C-14. With the Earth’s magnetic field so weak, there were way more cosmic rays reaching the atmosphere and way more C-14.

More and more we’re learning that cosmic ray penetration has a large influence on the climate. Increased cosmic rays cause a thinning of the ozone layer. They excite the silica-rich magma in volcanos, leading to increased stratospheric ash injections. They play a crucial role in cloud formation. All of these things result in rapid drops in the global temperature.

With the Earth’s magnetic field so weak, we had little shielding against solar storms and coronal mass ejections. Auroras during this time would have been global, sometimes coming close enough to the ground to create arc discharges—continent-wide lightning storms, lighting the forests on fire, creating black mat layers and nanodiamonds in the soil. They’d have seemed like fluorescent snakes spitting electricity and setting the entire world ablaze. With the ozone depleted, we had little protection from the sun’s UV light even in calm conditions. Cancer rates increased, pathogens mutated more rapidly.

This happened at the Laschamp Excursion 42,000 years ago, and it happened again during the Gothenburg Excursion 12,500 years ago. During the latter, a CME likely struck while North America was sun-facing in summer.

The picture is becoming clear: our ancestors weren’t butchers; they were survivors of a world we can’t even imagine, a Biblical apocalypse with fire in the sky, massive floods and continent-wide fires. They fled to caves to survive. They made red ochre—the pigment used in cave paintings—as primitive sunscreen, protecting them from the intense radiation. They found food and adapted as all these other animals were dying out. They lived through a catastrophe that the Neanderthals couldn’t. And that’s the only reason we’re here today, blaming them for it.

So when I see the handprints in the caves they sheltered in tens of thousands of years ago, they seem to me gestures of love and perseverance though an impossible barrier of time and trauma.


my brother’s palm
on the prison glass
red ochre