Thoughts and Prayers FTW!….?

At each tragedy — disasters and mass murders and the random horrors of life, people offer thoughts and prayers.  In personal matters, in the exchange of affection and support between one person and the next, it’s what you say; it’s what I’ve said at hard times:  I’m thinking of you; I’m thinking about your family; it’s hard…I hope you’re ok.  Plenty of people have said the same to me.

But then there are the thoughts and prayers that get spoken of ritually after the big ones, the losses that become statistics, like many here, perhaps, I see red:  the Norman Vincent Peale blandness of positive thinker elevates my bile, and the cloying, promise of prayers that always sound — to my ears alone, maybe — like someone saying to those who are suffering that the pain is somehow good for them, part of the divine plan.

Well, now there’s a scientific investigation into what thoughts and prayers actually do in times of broadcast sorrow.  Here’s the question the researchers tried to answer, and a couple of possible answers:

…for those who think and pray, what are the actual effects of thoughts and prayers?

Here’s one speculation: Because thoughts and especially prayers focus people on human suffering, they spur concrete action. They’re not pathetic at all.

Here’s another speculation: Thoughts and prayers turn out to be a substitute for concrete action. They give people a sense that they have done something significant when they actually haven’t — and therefore make them unlikely to do anything else.

So, which is it?

Well, as far as thoughts go, neither, really.  But when it came to prayer…

Under the baseline condition, the average donation was $1.87, with slightly higher numbers for religious participants ($1.98) than for atheists and agnostics ($1.75).

In the prayer condition, the average donation was $1.23. That’s a statistically significant reduction from $1.98. In Thunstrom’s view, “the act of praying crowds out monetary donations.”

That same effect held through a second test:

In a follow-up experiment limited to Christian participants who said that they believed in God, Thunstrom replicated her finding when asking about Hurricane Florence, which caused serious destruction in the Carolinas in September. In the baseline treatment, participants donated an average of $2.06. In the prayer condition, they donated significantly less: an average of $1.51.

Caveats of course:  this is one study, or rather a write up of one study by Cass Sunstein.  It’s in behavioral economics, which is a very tricky field in which to design good experiments.  The number of participants ain’t huge, and so on.

But  heck, or rather, hell…this may well be another case of what happens a lot in econ:  a formal validation of social wisdom we already knew.  The notion that  the loud crowd with their hotline to heaven might be much more hat than cattle in the game of doing actual good in the world is not exactly a new thought.  But still, it’s always satisfying when SCIENCE confirms that the worst we think of our neighbors is actually so.

And with that:  open thread!

Titian: St. Jeromebetween 1570 and 1575.  Not a great reproduction of this amazing painting, and perhaps not fair to conflate this saint w. present day ostentatious religion-peddlars, but I have long had particular affection for this version of Jerome’s kitty cat.

Intriguing Science Discovery: Just in Time for the Winter Solstice!

Oh, look, the opening to a plague movie that actually involves The Plague!:

The finding suggests that the germ may have devastated settlements across Europe at the end of the Stone Age in what may have been the first major pandemic of human history. It could also rewrite some of what we know of ancient European history.

The finding came about as the researchers were analyzing publicly available databases of ancient DNA for cases in which infections might have claimed prehistoric victims. They focused on the previously excavated site of Frälsegården in Sweden. Previous analysis of a limestone tomb at the site found that an estimated 78 people were buried there, and they all had died within a 200-year period. The fact that many people died in a relatively short time in one place suggested they might have perished together in an epidemic, lead study author Nicolás Rascovan, a biologist at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France, told Live Science. The limestone tomb was dated to the Neolithic, or New Stone Age, the period when farming began.

The researchers discovered the previously unknown strain of plague in the remains of a woman at the Frälsegården site. Carbon dating suggested she died about 4,900 years ago during a period known as the Neolithic Decline, when Neolithic cultures throughout Europe mysteriously dwindled.

Based on her hip bones and other skeletal features, they estimated the woman was about 20 years old when she died. The plague strain found with her had a genetic mutation that can trigger pneumonic plague — the deadliest form of historic and modern plague — suggesting the woman likely died of the disease…
Read more

Pulling into Nazareth*

Because every now and then we can take note of undiluted coolth that has exactly no political content.

The news came a few days ago, but on cosmic time scales that’s still hot of the presses:  LIGO, the twin instrument gravitational wave detectors, in collaboration with the European VIRGO detector, announced the discovery of four new black-hole collisions, measured in the gravity waves given off by those titanic wrecks.

That’s hot stuff:  the report of the first gravity-wave detection came just two years ago, paying off a prediction first made (tentatively) by Albert Einstein almost exactly a century earlier in his general theory of relativity.

In its most compact form the general theory boils down to a single equation, just one short line of symbols.  The quip is that in relativity, it all boils down to space and time telling matter and energy where to go, while energy and matter tell spacetime what shape to be.  A gravity wave is that joke in action: matter-energy in violent motion jostles spacetime into waves we can, only in the last few years, actually see.

Since the first time human beings detected a gravity wave in the wild, 2015 ten more events have been recorded — nine more black hole collisions and one neutron star smash-up.  In that short time, gravity wave research has gone from theoretical possibility to a breakthrough discovery to a branch of observational astronomy.

That is: gravity waves are no longer strange, singular events (or not that strange, and not truly rare).  Instead, they’re becoming objects of investigation in which statistics are starting to accumulate:  there’s now a catalogue of gravity wave events, which is astronomy’s way of letting itself know there’s a newly observable sky up there.  New properties are being explored — one of the events recorded in this latest run opens the exploration of gravity wave polarization.  Perhaps most important, the neutron star collision produced an electromagnetic signal as well as a gravitational one — meaning that folks using conventional light gathering telescopes could also observe the event.

That’s genuinely transformative, the capstone to the 2oth century sequence of discovery that transformed how we see the night sky — an extension of human perception greater, perhaps, even than that Galileo launched with his telescope.

From the middle of the century forward, our ability to look into the night sky expanded throughout the electromagnetic spectrum, from gamma rays to radio waves.  The universe became richer, more detailed, more beautiful and more strange…as you can see below in the multi-spectrum image of the Milky Way:

It’s important to realize that these aren’t just pretty pictures.  The details of the radiation that an object gives off is a window on the physics that produces one signal or another; the distribution of the energy released in across the electromagnetic spectrum is a probe of the life, times, and history of a star, a galaxy, or the cosmos as a whole.  What makes the birth of multi-messenger astronomy so sweet is that it adds a whole new mode of inquiry — as more detections accumulate of events that produce both light and gravitational waves, researchers will be able to build an ever richer picture of how our universe actually works.

Doing so won’t affect the price of eggs. It won’t solve climate change.  It won’t make it easier to navigate the Maze on the Oakland approaches to the Bay Bridge.  It is just beautiful, and that only for those who’ve got the taste for abstract forms of beauty.  As the remnants of stars collide, reality judders — and we can now watch it happen (or happened…as each of these events happen billions of light years distant, which means they occurred billions of years in the past).

It boils down to this, for me, and maybe for you:  we have all the evidence we need, overflowing daily, of the crap human beings do, and the misery — often in our names — that people do to each other and the world.  I find it joyful, and at least a bit of an antidote, to remember that our species, our tax dollars, and some of our contemporaries, can perform something so difficult, disinterested, and purely, deeply, ridiculously cool.

Open thread.

Images:  Pietro Rotary, Girl looking through a telescopebefore 1762.

CMG Lee, Comparison of photographs of the Milky Way at different wavelengths2007.

*With apologies to DougJ for borrowing his schtick…and a bonus performance of what lies behind the title:



Open thread for cool discoveries yet to happen!

Mars Landing Tomorrow: The Oatmeal Explains All

I love The Oatmeal. I love that NASA and JPL are having Matthew Inman live tweet the 7-minutes of terror.

And if we can keep landing on Mars, I believe we can solve Climate Change. Yes, it might (ok, probably) just come down to 7-minutes of terror there, too, but I believe.

Open thread

Basic Science For Global Warming


In order to understand discussions of global warming, you need a few basic scientific facts. I’m stripping them down so they’re easy to remember.

Thermodynamics is an imposing word that means “movement of heat.” Thermodynamics fundamentally establishes boundaries on what chemical reactions can take place and what other kinds of work can be done. Facts derived from thermodynamics cannot be bent or gotten around. Heat is a type of energy, so I’ll use the two words interchangeably here.

Fact #1: Carbon dioxide and water result from the production of energy by burning fossil fuels. In order to make them into something else, energy must be supplied. Not only that, but more energy must be supplied than was produced by burning, sometimes a lot more.

Any claim that a process can turn carbon dioxide back into fuels, or that water can supply hydrogen as a fuel, should be met with the question “Where does the energy come from?” If the answer is non-carbon power, the claim may be worth pursuing. If the claim says nothing about energy sources, more information is needed.

Fact #2: Separating something from a mixture requires energy. The lower the concentration, the more energy is required.

Carbon dioxide is about 400 parts per million in the atmosphere, or 0.04%. That is a very low concentration. Any claim of taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere should be met with that same question, “Where does the energy come from?”

Windmills get their energy from wind, solar cells from sunlight, and plants and algae from sunlight. Some of the schemes involving them may seem to counter Facts #1 and #2, but careful energy tracing will show that they do not.

Electricity and hydrogen, while clean in their immediate area, are only as clean as their sources. They are energy carriers rather than energy sources – they put a source of energy, say a nuclear reactor, into a form you can tuck into your car or home.

That’s all the thermodynamics you need to understand most of global warming.


Video from National Geographic.


Late Night ‘News of the Weird’ Open Thread

Let’s be fair: The programmers behind this stunt are, statistically, liable to be lousy dancers themselves. We won’t even discuss their concept of ‘popular music’…