Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Somehow this is flattering

(Yes, this is a bit of a delayed reaction, but I just found this today.)

Okay, well I haven't gotten an argument ad Hitlerum quite yet, but it seems I did get the next best thing: an argument ad Stalinum. And no, this isn't some random troll comparing me to Stalin, this is infamous neurosurgeon Michael Egnor. You might think he'd be smarter than to compare a grad student (then under-grad) with enough extra time on his hands to delete a sentence from Wikipedia to a mass-murdering tyrant, but then I'd have to remind you that this is Michael Egnor we're talking about.

Here's the story: For a while, Orac challenged Dr. Egnor to back up his assertion that the design inference was "of great value" to medicine. Eventually, Egnor responded with the following convoluted chain of logic:

The natural place to start showing examples of the inference to design in medical research is the seminal biological discovery of the 20th Century—Watson’s and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA.

Notice that Watson and Crick aren’t standing next to a pair of dice. To untangle the structure of DNA, they inferred design, not chance. They reversed-engineered DNA. They collected physical data about the structure of DNA (X-ray diffraction studies, Chargaff’s rules, the physical chemistry of nucleotides, etc), and then they designed a model of the molecule to understand its structure and function.

Let them speak for themselves, in their famous April 25, 1953 letter to Nature:

It is probably impossible to build this structure with a ribose sugar in place of the deoxyribose, as the extra oxygen atom would make too close a van der Waals contact.

Full details of the structure, including the conditions assumed in building it, together with a set of coordinates for the atoms….

Furthermore, the design specifications revealed an elegantly simple method by which the genetic material could be copied:

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

What exactly is reverse engineering? From Wikipedia:

Reverse engineering... is the process of discovering the technological principles of a device or object or system through analysis of its structure, function and operation…Reverse engineering is essentially science, using the scientific method. Sciences such as biology and physics can be seen as reverse engineering of biological 'machines' and the physical world respectively. (Emphasis mine)

Watson’s and Crick’s work of course had nothing to do with Darwinism (except perhaps their laboratory politics, which is another matter).

This is not to say that Watson and Crick believed that DNA was designed by God. They were both atheists. Even molecular biologists who are avowed atheists use the design inference in their work.

Much of modern biological research, and most research in molecular biology, is reverse engineering. Some scientists infer design explicitly. Some use the design inference implicitly, even if they disagree with its philosophical implications. We can’t do modern biology, at least at the molecular level, without using reverse engineering, which is the inference to design.

Now, let's look at one little point: Did Watson and Crick ever use the term "Reverse Engineering" to describe what they were doing? Nope. Egnor came up with that application of the term himself, based on what he read about it in Wikipedia, that science such as biology could be described as "reverse engineering of biological 'machines.'" Then, from the use of "machines," he takes his own impression that all machines are designed, and assumes the Watson and Crick must have also been working with the assumption that they were reverse engineering designed machines. Of course, he apparently didn't notice the scare quotes around "machines" which indicated that it wasn't to be taken literally, so inferring that it meant designed machines is a stretch.

Ask yourself this question: Did he even need to bring up Watson and Crick here? Try substituting in any other biological advance and apply the same logic, such as figuring out the structure of the cell. It works just as well/poorly, doesn't it? The reason for this is that his entire argument hinges on what that one paragraph in Wikipedia says and his interpretation of the word "machine" used therein. If he wanted to make the argument that biology was reverse engineering of designed machines, that would be one thing, but the problem was that he only used Wikipedia as a source for this.

Now, while I love Wikipedia and use it all the time, I'll be the first to admit it's not perfect. In the end, it can be no better that the best of what's contributed to it. Often, the best of the contributions don't end up staying and you get something sub-par. What we had in the reverse-engineering article was the opinion of one editor that natural sciences were like reverse engineering. Now, this wasn't completely out of line, but the problem is that almost no scientist actually thinks of it that way. The editor, to his/her credit, did put in scare quotes around "machines" to imply that it wasn't to be taken literally, but it still served to foster misinterpretations.

So, seeing this, I looked around a bit. Orac was definitely of the opinion that it wasn't really a good analogy between science and reverse engineering. I looked around the internet, and I didn't see any reliable, verifiable sources making this analogy. Given that it also lead to misinterpretations, by the standards of Wikipedia, the sentence really shouldn't be in there. Thus, I deleted it.

But I'll admit, cleaning up Wikipedia wasn't my primary goal. What I wanted to do was make it clear to Egnor and all who read it that his point hinged entirely on a single paragraph in Wikipedia, and Wikipedia wasn't a perfectly reliable source. A single paragraph in a trusted source (like, Watson and Crick's own statements) would have been fine for his argument, but he's using his own interpretation of the words of some random Wikipedia editor to infer about a completely different subject. Just as bad information can be put into Wikipedia, bad information can be taken out of it. And when it is taken out, all of a sudden he has zero argument at all. This wouldn't have been a problem if he'd used an actual source on the actual subject, such as Watson and Crick saying they used the design inference, but he instead had to play word games with an analogy made up by a Wikipedia editor.

Frustrated that his entire argument could be taken down so easily, Egnor went into a tirade where he compared my correcting of Wikipedia to Stalin's offing of Trotsky (yes, seriously):

In the Soviet Union, censors would routinely make out-of-favor party leaders disappear from photographs. In this photograph, Trotsky was made "photographic history" not too long before he was made "history" in a more tangible sense.

Darwinists, who are scientific, rather than political, materialists, have an affinity for airbrushing as well. When sneering, name-calling, and obfuscation don’t make the evidence go away, Darwinists just wipe it away. A recent example of Darwinian airbrushing is worth noting.

I recently noted that the discovery of the structure and function of DNA was a good example of reverse engineering in biology and that the discovery of DNA had nothing to do with Darwin’s theory. Reverse engineering in biology is an inference to design, even if the inference is implicit and not explicit, and even if the scientist using the reverse engineering methodology doesn’t agree with the philosophical implications of the design inference. Much of modern molecular biology is the reverse engineering of biological molecules.

To illustrate my point, I linked to the "Reverse Engineering" entry in Wikipedia, which had a nice succinct definition:

Reverse engineering... is the process of discovering the technological principles of a device or object or system through analysis of its structure, function and operation…Reverse engineering is essentially science, using the scientific method. Sciences such as biology and physics can be seen as reverse engineering of biological 'machines' and the physical world respectively. (emphasis mine)

My post was published on Evolution News and Views on April 3rd.

On April 4th, the Wikipedia reference to biological reverse engineering was airbrushed out. It was changed to:

Reverse engineering … is the process of discovering the technological principles of a device or object or system through analysis of its structure, function and operation. It often involves taking something (e.g. a mechanical device, an electronic component, a software program) apart and analyzing its workings in detail, usually to try to make a new device or program that does the same thing without copying anything from the original. The verb form is to reverse engineer.

This was airbrushed:

Reverse engineering is essentially science, using the scientific method. Sciences such as biology and physics can be seen as reverse engineering of biological 'machines' and the physical world respectively.

The biological reverse engineering analogy was part of the original definition, and had been present until the day that I linked to it in my post. Someone (perhaps a Darwinist?) went to work with an eraser.

(For those reading his entire article, DrLeebot (no capital B) was the name I went by back then. I recently had it changed for unrelated reasons.)

You know what he could have done to save his argument? He could have linked to another source that makes this same analogy to show how it wasn't just one Wikipedia editor who made it up. But he didn't.

Aside from that, it seems Egnor doesn't quite know how Wikipedia works. I can't really blame him for that; not many people spend significant time behind the scenes there. So, for his benefit and yours, here's a little summary of the key points:

1. What Wikipedia says is not evidence of anything (other than trivially evidence of what Wikipedia says). Wikipedia saying biology is reverse engineering is not evidence that biology is reverse engineering; it's the opinion of (at least) one editor that it is.

2. Information isn't deleted by editing it out. Anyone who knows enough can access the page as it appeared when Egnor read it and confirm that that sentence was indeed there. Of course, I didn't expect many people to see it, which is what I was hoping for: That they would see it wasn't there and realize how much Egnor's argument hinged on it.

3. Wikipedia is ruled by consensus. If a change is unpopular, it gets reverted. If more people want the article to stay one way, they can keep editing it that way to show this consensus, and the lone dissenter can't stop them. (Editors are limited to three reverts a day.) Since I made that change, not one person has even tried to revert it, and it's stayed that way to today.

4. You can change it yourself. This one is right in the summary to Wikipedia: "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit." If you think that sentence should stay in, then revert it back in. If others think it should go, then we go through a series of talking about it on the discussion page, asking others for their opinions, and seeing where consensus lies.

Dr. Egnor, using one paragraph from Wikipedia and claiming it as evidence that biology is reverse engineering and that reverse engineering always uses the design inference was just pathetic. Removing that paragraph served to show how weak your argument was. Rather than give better support for you argument, your argument ad Stalinum just makes you look more pathetic.

Proceed with your information binge...

Monday, May 28, 2007

Yes, I support our troops

That's why I want to pull them out of a hopeless, dangerous war.

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Skeptic's Circle #61

The latest Skeptic's Circle is now up, courtesy of Memoirs of a Skepchick, so go check it out when you have a chance.

Open thread as usual, though giving any credence to Rebecca's findings unsubstantiated claims about me is FORBIDDEN.

Proceed with your information binge...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Infophile Encoding System

Recent events have led me devise my own encoding system for alphanumericals, similar to ASCII but significantly more ridiculous. Basically, to make it, you start with any two character combination. Take the ASCII decimal representation of the first character, multiply it by 128, add it to the ASCII decimal representation of the second character, and then add 13,256,278,887,989,457,651,018,865,901,401,695,228.

As this is now a working encoding system, recent legal events might have the unintended consequence of making Intelligent Design proponents very mad. The problem here being that their favored abbreviation, ID, is now an illegal copyright circumvention device thanks to how it can be decoded with this system. Oops.

Proceed with your information binge...

Quantum Mechanics for Dummies #2: Observation

Well, it's been a while, but an e-mail exchange not long ago prompted me to get back to this series. If you haven't yet read it (or need a refresher), I recommend you go back and read my first post, on the Wave Nature of Matter. This time, I'm going to be talking about something that can happen to waves and is a very important part of Quantum Mechanics: the collapse (which is closely tied into the concepts of a measurement and an observation).

But before that, we need to cover the concept of eigenstates. (For anyone who already knows about it, this is a vastly simplified explanation, so you're probably safe just skipping past.) Unlike particles, waves don't have discrete positions they'll be in, but rather a range of possible positions they could be found at at any time. Since waves travel, the probability distribution of where it will end up will often change with time. However, there are ways to trap waves, such as a beam of light between two mirrors. In these cases, the wave can only take on discrete stable patterns so that it doesn't end up interfering with itself. These discrete patterns are what are known as eigenstates.

But the probability distribution for a wave won't always fall perfectly into one eigenstate. Often its probability distribution will be a linear sum of multiple eigenstates. Due to interference between the waves of the different states, this pattern won't be perfectly stable and will change somewhat with time, but it will generally do so in a periodic fashion.

This also isn't limited to cases such as light waves. For instance, all particles have a property known as "spin" (if you take that exactly as it sounds, you're close enough). If you measure the spin of a particle such as an electron, you will always get one of only two values, regardless of the orientation of your measuring device: +h/(4π) and -h/(4π) (called "spin up" and "spin down." Think of it as spinning clockwise or counterclockwise).

Both spin up and spin down are eigenstates of the electrons spin, but it's not necessary for the electron to be exactly in one of these states. To generate this, say you take an electron that you just measured to be spin up, then made a second measurement at a right angle to the first. Classically, you would expect to measure a spin of zero, but this isn't one the allowable results. Instead, you'll end up with a 50% chance to measure spin up and a 50% chance to measure spin down.

And here's where things get a bit strange: After you measure it once, if you go back and measure it the same way, you'll always get the same result. It's no longer a 50/50 split. However, if you go and measure it back in the initial direction, it's a 50/50 split here. The implication here is that by measuring the spin of the electron, you somehow changed it - in this case so that it was in a spin up eigenstate with respect to your new measurement.

What's happened here is known as wavefunction collapse. After your first measurement, the electron was spin up in the first direction, which corresponded to a 50/50 split when measuring from the second direction. This 50/50 split was a combination of two eigenstates for the electron. When you then measured it in this direction, one of those states was randomly selected and the electron then became 100% in that state.

And this when the misinterpretations start to happen. The reason for the misinterpretations is the fact that quantum physicists happened to use one particular word in describing it: "observation." In the sense of what happens, an observation simply entails measuring the wavefunction of something, causing said wavefunction to collapse.

But that's not how the word "observation" sounds to the layman. When many hear it, they then think, "So, does this mean that reality is unresolved until I look at it?" People started to believe that quantum states wouldn't resolve until the information from them had filtered its way to a human mind. Even when it came to quantum physics, people wanted to put the human mind on some special pedestal in the universe.

This argument wasn't limited to laymen however. At first, the best quantum theorists couldn't decide themselves what exactly caused the wavefunction to collapse. All they knew was that if they weren't measuring particles, the wavefunction wouldn't collapse, and if you were, then it would. (They tested this by means of the double-slit experiment, which I mentioned in my previous post in this series.)

So, you have scientists not knowing the answer and using a word which heavily implies that human consciousness actually is the answer, and what do you expect happens? People pick it up and start extrapolating, saying that we then must create reality with our minds and be able to control it as we see fit. Even if we were to accept the premise (that being processed by a human mind is what caused the collapse of a wavefunction), this in no way implies that the human mind actually creates or can control reality. The results are still inherently random, whatver the processing mind may wish.

Beyond that, there's actually good reason to believe that it isn't a human mind that causes the collapse of a wavefunction. Let's go back to the case of the double slit experiment, which is our best way of determining whether or not a wavefunction has collapsed. In this case, we'll be shooting electrons from an initial source through one of two slits. One foot beyond the slits is a detector screen. We know that if the electron's wavefunction is uncollapsed at the slits, we'll end up seeing an interference pattern on the screen, while if it's collapsed, we'll see the sum of two diffraction patterns.

If we just let the experiment run, without any detectors, we end up seeing the interference pattern (nothing's causing the wavefunction to collapse). If, instead, we put in detectors at each slit that will notify us if the electron passes through (say by blinking a light on the left or right side), we see the sum of diffraction patterns on the detector screen. Now, what if you were to try this: Have the detectors at the slits and turned on, but don't look at the lights. You could simply disable the feature that has it flashing the lights on the detectors and not store data of which slit the electron passed through, so no human could ever know which way it went.

In this case, we can expect to see one of two outcomes: Either we see an interference pattern, which means that without a human observing it, the wavefunction wouldn't collapse, or we could see a sum of diffraction patterns, which would mean the interaction of the electron with the detector (or some process within the detector after the detection) caused the collapse. This has in fact been done, many times. Very frequently, scientists did experiments using a detector but didn't care which slit was detected, and so they didn't set it up to tell them this data. The result of these tests? The wavefunction collapsed anyways, so human consciousness is not necessary to cause the collapse of a wavefunction.

Why then, do we still see people claiming that it is? Mostly it's do to a poor understanding of the subject. They see words like "observation" and interpret it to mean human observation. Even some professors of quantum physics (including one I had as an undergrad) made this mistake, and then taught it as accepted fact to their students. The only way you can really know for sure on something like this is to go to the experiments themselves. Fortunately, this particular phenomenon is testable, and it has been tested.* Unfortunately, this won't stop some people; I raised this issue up with my professor at one point, and he said testing it was a waste of time because he knew that human consciousness had to be involved. Well, you can't convince everyone.

*Edit to add: Unfortunately, no one seems to have a link to the studies that actually test this, most likely because they were done so long ago that they were never published online anywhere. Actual science has moved on far past this point, while popular science is just starting to get interested in it. I've asked a few people in the know about it, and while some, like the professor mentioned above, still hold to the view that it's human consciousness that does the collapsing, the consensus is pretty clear that the collapse happens long before any human mind looks at whether the particle was detected in either slit.

In fact, even when humans are looking at this, there's so much processing that goes on in the technology that interprets the data that the particle as already traveled and hit the plate at the end before information about which slit it passed through reaches the mind of a human (the "flashing light" is just a metaphor, it's not what's actually done in these experiments). So if it was human thought that was controlling these outcomes, then this result would also have to reach back in time to collapse the particle's wavefunction at some point before it hit the plate.

* * * * *

Other posts in this series:

Quantum Mechanics for Dummies #1: Wave Nature of Matter

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Skeptical Identity Crisis

One thing I've been puzzling over for a while is what to do about imposter skeptics. You know the kind, the people who take a well-accepted scientific theory which they don't like, then take on the mantle of a "skeptic" to criticize it. Nowadays, the most common type is the Global Warming "skeptic." So, after doing some searching around of how the term "skeptic" is generally used, and looking at all variants on it, I think I've figured out a way we can distinguish ourselves from them.

First of all, there's the problem of what to call ourselves. Just "skeptic" won't do seeing as whatever we say about it, others undeserving of it will still use that as well. Also, it leads to getting us confused with the philosophical skepticism movement which believes (but not certainly) that there can be no absolute truth statements. It's an intriguing idea, and pretty close to one of my own beliefs, but it's a different matter than what we do.

So, here's the term I feel is best: "Scientific skeptic." After all, skepticism as we practice it is ultimately the scientific method, and science, when done well, is ultimately a skeptical way to learn about the world. There's also a lot of Critical Thinking mixed in, but that's also a key ingredient the scientific method. Since we use skepticism to figure out what is and isn't true about the world, the very goal of science, I think the label fits perfectly.

And what about these imposters? We can't cede the generic label of "skeptic" to them. Also, most of them aren't really being skeptic at all, they're simply denying things. We could call them "deniers," I guess, but there's one other good idea I found: "pseudoskeptic." What this does is take the "pseudo-" prefix, which means "fake," and add it onto "skeptic." So, not only do we differentiate ourselves from them with it, we call them fakes in the process.

So, what does everything about this? Anyone have any better suggestions?

Proceed with your information binge...

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Physics Q&A #2: The Fundamental Forces (part 1.5)

(If you haven't read the first post on this subject, check it out here.)

Before I get into the latter two of the fundamental forces, I realized that one aspect of physics I take for granted probably isn't well understood by most who haven't done much with particle physics. This aspect is the fundamental particles of the universe; the basic building blocks of everything. I'm making an interlude post here to explain that to everyone, since the knowledge of it is critical to understanding the strong and weak nuclear forces.

There are many dividing lines between the fundamental particles, and I'll go through them one at a time to best sort them out. The first dividing line is between what are known as "Bosons" and "Fermions." Fermions are like solid matter, in that you can never put two of them into the same place (or quantum state). Bosons, on the other hand, can be stacked up without limit in the same place/state. Fermions tend to make up the bulk of matter, while bosons work to mediate forces. There also tend to be conservation laws about the number of Fermions, so you can't just go and create or destroy them. Bosons, however, have no such conservation laws.


First, I'll go over the Bosons seeing as there are fewer of them and no more divisions between them (among the fundamental ones, that is. Many bound groups of particles can also be bosons, and there are extra divisions here). We know that the following fundamental bosons exist:

  • Photon: Photons are little quantum pieces of light, and mediate the electromagnetic force. They have no mass and never decay, so the electromagnetic force has unlimited range. Photons are all their own antiparticles.
  • W+, W-, and Z: The W and Z particles mediate the weak nuclear force. They have very high mass (each ways about as much as an iron atom), and short lifetimes, leading to the weak force having only short range. The W+ and W- are each other's antiparticle, and the Z is its own antiparticle.
  • Gluons: Gluons mediate the strong nuclear force. They have zero mass and don't decay, but the strong nuclear force is still limited to short range for reasons I'll cover in the next part of this mini-series. Gluons are electrically neutral, but have "color charge" which determines attraction from the the strong nuclear force.
There are also two other theoretical bosons that deserve a mention here. The first is the Higgs particle (H), which is a massive uncharged particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model and which is currently being tested for. You might have heard that the Higgs particle is what "gives other particles mass," but this is a common misinterpretation of the theory. It's actually the Higgs field which gives particles mass. The W+, W-, Z, and H particles are all quanta (fundamental pieces, like photons are of light) of this field. If the H particle exists, we might expect to see it interacting through the weak force in a similar way to the Z boson, except working at different energies due to its different mass.

The other theoretical boson is known as the graviton, and it was predicted to mediate the gravitational force similar to how photons mediate the electromagnetic force (see my previous post for exactly how). However, no direct evidence of its existence could be found, and Einstein's model of General Relativity did a much better job of explaining the how and why of gravity, so the graviton has generally been given up on.


Fundamental fermions, unlike bosons, come with another dividing line into two more families: leptons and quarks. The difference here is that quarks feel the strong nuclear force while leptons don't. There also appears to be a nice symmetry between leptons and quarks, as they each have six particles which can be further divided up into three pairs (called "generations," an important concept for the weak nuclear force). For convenience of envisioning how the forces work, we then introduce a property called "isospin" which is equal to +1/2 for one particle of each pair and -1/2 for the other.

Additionally, each of these fermions has a distinct antimatter counterpart to it. These antiparticles have the same mass as the normal particles, but opposite isospin, charge, and color.


Among the leptons is one you've likely heard of: The electron. It also has a light, neutrally charged particle called a neutrino which corresponds to it. There's also the muon and the tau, plus their corresponding neutrinos. However, if your only goal is to understand how the weak force works, you really only need to worry about the electron and its neutrino. A quick fact sheet on them:

Generation 1

Isospin: -1/2
Charge: -1
Mass: Very Low

Isospin: +1/2
Charge: 0
Mass: Extremely low

Generation 2

Isospin: -1/2
Charge: -1
Mass: Medium

Isospin: +1/2
Charge: 0
Mass: Extremely low

Generation 3

Isospin: -1/2
Charge: -1
Mass: High

Isospin: +1/2
Charge: 0
Mass: Extremely low


Quarks are the building blocks of protons, neutrons, and other similar particles. They bind in groups of 2 or 3 through the strong nuclear force to form these particles. Like leptons, there are 6 types of quarks, but to understand the weak and strong forces, you only need to know about the first two (subsequent generations work essentially the same way).

Quarks are affected by the strong nuclear force because they carry what's known as "color charge." Quarks can have one of three colors: red, green, and blue. Quarks of different colors are then attracted to each other. However, there appears to be a law of nature that no particle can exist alone unless it's color-neutral, so you can never see individual quarks. Instead, you see them either in groups of three with one of each color (known as "baryons") or in pairs of one normal quark and one antiquark (antiquarks have opposite colors of regular quarks, anti-red, anti-green, and anti-blue, and these alone cancel out the regular color). Also, unlike electric charge, color charge isn't innate to the type of particle; each quark can have any color (and antiquarks any anticolor), and even oscillate through different colors.

A quick fact sheet on quarks:

Generation 1

Down Quark
Isospin: -1/2
Charge: -1/3
Mass: Low

Up Quark
Isospin: +1/2
Charge: +2/3
Mass: Low

Generation 2

Strange Quark
Isospin: -1/2
Charge: -1/3
Mass: Medium

Charm Quark
Isospin: +1/2
Charge: +2/3
Mass: High

Generation 3

Bottom Quark
Isospin: -1/2
Charge: -1/3
Mass: High

Top Quark
Isospin: +1/2
Charge: +2/3
Mass: Very High (in fact, the highest of any particle known; about the mass of a gold atom)

If you want a convenient chart of these particles, there's one very popular poster you might have seen in your high school physics room which Wikipedia has gotten permission to host online for their article on the Standard Model. It's a bit dated and doesn't mention the Higgs particle, but other than that it's a great reference on the basic properties of the fundamental particles and forces (at least until you're at the point where you've got it memorized).

As before, if you have any questions on any of this, please ask. I'm doing this purely to help your understanding, so be sure to let me know of anything I haven't explained well enough.

Proceed with your information binge...

Consider yourself smitten (or whatever the past tense of "smite" is)

Jerry Falwell is dead. Does being happy about this make me a bad person, or a sane person?

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The 60th Skeptic's Circle

In a flurry of activity, the blog has gone from completely empty to being set up for an elaborate presentation. A stage is set up with a podium just to the left of center. To the right of and behind it is a large screen, presumably for displaying highlighted posts for the current Skeptic's Circle. Soon enough, the lights dim and a spotlight appears, tracking Infophile as he walks to the podium.

Welcome one and all to the latest edition of the Skeptic's Circle, where we highlight the best posts from the last two weeks in critical thinking and in debunking pseudoscience, quackery, denialism, pseudohistory, and frauds. I am particularly honored to be able to host the 60th edition of this since, as many of you are likely aware, the number 60 is quite an interesting number.

The number 60 is the lowest number to be divisible by the first 5 natural numbers (and the 6th as a bonus). This leads it to having a plethora of divisors, making it the most relatively abundant number below 100. It's also notably a unitary perfect number and a semiperfect number.

For an instant, the shadows off to the side of the stage appear to be take on a human form, but it quickly fades. Probably just pareidolia.

Additionally, the number 60 and related numbers show up in numerous places in human culture. The most obvious would be that it's the number of seconds in a minute and the number of minutes in an hour. It's also the number of degrees in each angle of an equilateral triangle. Also, it's divisors sum up to 108, which shows up in many more places in religion and literature.

There's that human-like shadow again. Wait... if it were just irrelevent pareidolia, would it be pointed out in the post like this? Or maybe it's just a test of your skepticism.

But enough about the number 60, onto the circle. While I'd hoped I could get 60 posts for this, I wasn't quite that fortunate. Nevertheless, I doubt you'll be disappointed. Our first post comes from the organizer of the circle himself, Orac from Respectful insolence...

Infophile appears to be triggering a remote in his hand, likely to turn on the screen and start the slide show. The screen switches to show a "Loading..." display for a few moments, and then promptly switches to the dreaded Blue Screen of Death, stating that the system has performed an illegal operation and must be shut down.

Great, just great. I apologize for the inconvenience people, but this should only take a moment. I really should have made sure the company I hired to organize this had upgraded at least to Windows XP, but it's too late for that now. While waiting, why don't you talk amongst yourself. I'll even give you a subject: Why did it take so long for Microsoft to fix this problem.

Infophile strikes a key on the podium to commence the shutdown, and at that moment every electrical device in the room simultaneously shuts off, plunging the auditorium into darkness.

Okay, whose idea was it to run the entire room's electrical functions from the same computer, and not even install a backup? You can't tell me this hasn't happened before. Trust me, I'm going t...

Infophile is abruptly cut off, as if his speech were overwritten by silence. This is followed by a disturbing thud. After a few hectic seconds of worried audience members scrambling to get up to the stage and many others asking about what had happened, the lights switch back on.

Somehow, you managed to get pushed to front, and you can see that Infophile is now lying prone on the stage, showing no signs of life. Looking over his body, you see no obvious signs indicating what might have happened to him, but you're not a doctor (for the purposes of this story), so you can't be sure. While inspecting him, you also find a crumpled note which appears to be listing various websites - perhaps the list of posts submitted for this circle.

Call out, "Is anyone here a doctor?"

Flatten out the note and use the computer to check out the sites for the latest Skeptic's Circle. Yes, it's heartless, but you're a busy person, and this is all fictional anyways.

Proceed with your information binge...

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Fade to Black

Time is fast running out. The deadline for contributing to the next Skeptic's Circle is tomorrow at 9 PM Eastern time, so get your posts written and e-mail a link to TheInfophile {at} gmail {dot} com before time runs out.

Proceed with your information binge...