Profiteroles – by LuisGarcia

Tricky, but worth it.

200ml/7fl oz cold water
85g/3oz unsalted butter
pinch salt
115g/4oz plain flour
3 medium eggs, beaten

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 250C

2. To make the pastry, place the butter and water into a large saucepan.

3. Place over a low heat to melt the butter. Increase the heat and shoot in the flour and salt all in one go.

4. Remove from the heat and quickly beat the mixture vigorously until a smooth paste is formed, stirring continuously to dry out the paste. Now, this is tricky to explain, but try to imagine the inch of air above the mix is an ingredient that you are trying to mix in. The more air you get in there, the better they’ll rise. (Handy hint: you can also cheat a bit and add a pinch of bicarbonate of soda with the flour.)

5. Once the paste curls away from the side of the pan, transfer the mixture into a large bowl.

6. Beat in the eggs, a little at a time, stirring vigorously until the paste is smooth and glossy. This takes a bit of experience, and you may need one more or one less egg than I’ve said, depending on how it mixes.

7. Continue adding the egg until you have a soft dropping consistency. The mixture will be shiny and smooth and will fall reluctantly from a spoon if it is given a sharp jerk.

8. Lightly oil a large baking tray. Dip a teaspoon into some warm water and spoon out a teaspoon of the profiterole mixture. Rub the top of the mixture with a wet finger and spoon on to the baking tray.

9. Cook them for about 5 minutes in the top of the oven, then reduce the temp to 200C for about 15 more minutes.

profiterolessm

For a delicious savoury starter, mix some goats cheese with some steamed vegetables for the filling.

If you prefer them sweet, add half a teaspoon of sugar in with the butter.

Secular Books for Kids – by Octavia

About the author:

My favourite picture book writer and illustrator of the moment! Peter Sís was born in Brno, in (the now) Czech Republic, in 1949 – and so grew up in the Soviet Bloc, behind the Iron Curtain, with all the oppressive political climate that entails. His picture book The Wall chronicles this time, and the difficulties of keeping artistic freedom and freedom of speech. In 1982, he was sent by the Czech government to Los Angeles for a film project, and when that fell through applied for and received asylum in the United States. Correspondence with Maurice Sendak (famously known for Where the Wild Things Are) led to him getting work with book publishers as an illustrator for children’s books. Sís has won numerous awards for his work since.

While Sís illustrates books written by others, the ones below are some of those he has written and illustrated himself. They texts tend to have the same themes running through them: science and nature, exploration and travel, and the importance of thinking and dreaming for oneself instead of doing or believing as one is told. My two favourites are the science biographies of Galileo and Darwin, but the others are pretty good too.

Peter Sís’ website can be found here.

BOOKS OF THE MONTH:

Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei

starryThere are three things that immediately stick out as being traits of a Peter Sís book. The first is the absolute intricacy of the illustrations. Every corner is used for the fine brush and pen work, and every corner is filled with the bizarre and the fantastic. The second is the characteristic merger of fantasy and landscape, where the normal is submerged and underlined by what lies beneath (often a truer indicator of events that the surface normality). The third is the often-present dual nature of the text. The main story is told in large, typed text suitable for younger children, while their older siblings can amuse themselves deciphering the handwritten notes that stagger drunkenly across the page, fleshing out the main story as they go.

All these traits are present in Starry Messenger, which traces the story of Galileo from birth to death, and focuses quite strongly on his trial for heresy following the publication of his anti-Biblical astronomical ideas.

The illustrations are simply stunning, and the mirroring between them emphasises Galileo’s singularity. “In the city of Pisa, a little boy was born with stars in his eyes”: his birth is pictured as a little boy swaddled in a star-studded blanket – but this little boy is surrounded by dozens of similarly wrapped children, and each child has pictured on their blanket the role that they will play as adults. Shepherds, priests, cheese-makers… all are individually rendered with as much care as Galileo himself, and this “one among many” motif is continued in the next picture of childhood. Dozens and dozens of children playing with various toys fill a 360° town square, and like Where’s Wally, you have to search for Galileo, who is off by himself playing with stars. Much later a more sinister version of “one among many” has Galileo standing in the centre of dozens and dozens of individually rendered cardinals, who stare down with contempt at him, and at the demonic fantasy creatures that are half-embedded around him, a symbol of his heresy: “He was tried in the Pope’s court, and everyone could see that the stars had left his eyes”.

Be warned that there is one picture of Galileo locked in prison, with the dim ghosts of torture victims filling the walls around him, and if you do not want to have to explain to your child burnings at the stake, hangings, the rack, and other assorted monstrosities then you might want to wait until they’re old enough to take it.

Nevertheless, this is one of the best books out there for getting across the story of Galileo to young children, especially in a freethought context. It doesn’t dwell on what happened to other unfortunates in this situation, and neither does it dwell on Galileo backing down from what he believed in the face of torture and death, but the intelligent child will pick this up regardless. It gives the opportunity to discuss the historical role of the Catholic Church in squashing scientific research and freethought, and the horrible position that many freethinkers faced at the time – as well as the validity of science as a method of (eventually) uncovering the truth about the natural world. I can’t recommend this book highly enough – look at it a dozen times, and you will still find in it things you hadn’t seen before. (Don’t worry if you don’t have kids – get a copy for yourself anyway!)

The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin

treeIf The Starry Messenger was aimed at younger children, The Tree of Life is for those a little bit older. The text is smaller, and there’s a lot more of it. Of course, that means it has a lot more detail packed in it – especially in Sís’ usual mixture of texts. Descriptions are in various fonts (the less obtrusive the more revolutionary) and extracts from Darwin’s journals appear in handwriting for that little touch of verisimilitude.

Despite a sour moment when Darwin appears to insult my country (“I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place”) I decided to look the other way, my innate generosity having been touched by the early image of him crammed into a horrible school dormitory, praying with a heap of other (indistinguishable) boys like ants in an ant-hill, and lorded over by a headmaster who boasts “I have never flogged the same boy twice in a week”. I can be nice like that. And he did run away from demonstrations of children being operated upon sans anaesthetic. (Dear old Dad was not impressed at such med. school dilettantism and the only thing missing from his complaint “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching” is the long-suffering tone, but I am sure that any one of us who has had parents can provide that gratis).

Tree of Life can be divided into three parts: life before Beagle, Darwin’s voyage around the world, and his work (primarily focusing on The Origin of Species) when he returned. The first part is the shortest, and makes use of the technique Sís showed in Starry Messenger – crowds of identical individuals indicating a blindly conformist attitude or society, with the stand-out mind getting the hell out of Dodge. The voyage of the Beagle is covered in more detail. There are maps, a cross-section of the ship, and many drawings of plants, animals, and fossils. The main explanation, though, is done through snippets of Darwin’s journals, where naturalist descriptions and humanist observations are combined with humorous and offbeat remarks (my favourites being “Kill a Chilotan fox with a geological hammer” and “The meat [of land iguanas] when cooked is white. Relished by those whose stomachs rise above all prejudices.” Ha! All is forgiven, Charlie).

The final section is the most informative. Sís takes an interesting tactic by running three separate narratives side by side for several pages – Darwin’s public life, his private life, and his secret life (the latter focusing on his thoughts on evolution, and the development of The Origin of Species). Many of the major figures of the time are introduced, including the oft-relegated and over-nice Alfred Russel Wallace, and Sís does not forget to include the contretemps between Thomas Huxley and a rather bloated Bishop Wilberforce. Science definitely comes out on top!

There’s a lot more humour running through Tree of Life than there is Starry Messenger, but then the threat of torture and execution is missing in this one. Still, it’s a welcome change. I won’t embarrass myself by revealing how many reads it took me to catch the fossilised reconstruction of Mylodon holding the wedding bouquet over Charles and Emma Darwin, but it was quite a few! A reasonable excuse is the wealth of detail in the illustrations. Sís is always so detailed that something new appears in his drawings nearly every time you pick up one of his books. Tree of Life and Starry Messenger are both particularly good examples of this. Every freethinking child should have a copy of these two books on their shelf, and it is to be hoped that Sís will follow them up with the life stories of other famous scientists. (I for one would like to see him do Alfred Wegener or Marie Curie – he’s contactable on his website, so enough requests might persuade him to do it!)

Best of the Rest.

wallAs described above, Sís grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Communist Czechoslovakia. As a child, he wore the Young Pioneer’s Red Scarf and stood guard in front of a giant statue of Stalin. In the late 1960s, however, when Sís was an adolescent, input from the outside world began to seep through into his previously closed world, bringing with it illicit books, Coca-Cola, blue jeans, rock bands, and long hair. In the Prague Spring of 1968, however, this brief glimpse at a life of freedom (especially, for the young artist, artistic freedom) was brough to a close when the Soviet Union invaded the country to bring a halt to its political liberalisation. Sís uses all his usual tricks (imaginary landscapes, journal entries, and maps) to trace his own development as an artist. Black and white illustrations change to colour (the scene of youths doggedly painting a wall, despite official harrassment, is a powerful one), and illustrate the growing influence of the West.

The faces of the government officials, transformed into pigs, is reminiscent of Animal Farm, and the journal entries are fascinating reading – they chronicle Sis’ growing awareness of the enforced political and artistic conformity of his life, with shades of Orwell’s other major fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four: “There is a story in our schoolbook about a Russian man who is a class enemy. He hides his wheat harvest in his cellar instead of giving it to the village cooperative. His son, who is a Young Pioneer, finds out and reports it. The family kills the boy. His name is Pavka Morozov. He is a hero. We are told that if we see our parents doing wrong, we should report them”. History via picture book – it’s fasinating and informative: the little beggars won’t know they’re learning.


keysThe mythological Prague of Sís’ childhood is recreated in The Three Golden Keys. Written for his daughter Madeleine (she reappears in the Madlenka series), Sis and his hot air balloon get sent off course and he ends up in the Prague of some decades back – apparently deserted but for weird shapes wandering the streets. (They’re not even the same shapes – note the subtle picture to picture changes in his old house.) To unlock his childhood home, Sis needs three golden keys, and he traipses round Prague while being delivered dual shots of key and legend. Three of the historical tales of Prague are included as little stories of their own within the picture book – the legend of the Golem, Prince Bruncvik, and clockmaker Hanus. The pictures as are beautiful, as usual, and anyone who has spent any time at Prague will be picking out bits of it that they know and recognise in the drawings. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of The Wall, but it is a nice little semi-anthology for younger children, before starting them on life behind the Iron Curtain.

tibetA particular aspect of Sís’ childhood is explored in Tibet: Through the Red Box. His film-maker father having been sent by Soviet Union to teach documentary film-making in China, became lost and spent fourteen months wandering through Tibet. He kept a diary of his journey, and when he returned it was too a son who had fallen very ill and was confined to bed. Sís recalls the stories his father told him, and these intersperse the diary entries that tell part of the story. Initially, a third narrative device of inserting the child Peter’s experience of colour (for instance: “Red was the color of my youth – red flags, red stars, red tulips, blood…”) seems obtrusive and jarring, but it ties together in the end with his father’s experiences in the Tibetan palace of Potala. The illustrations differ from Sís’ usual, drawing on Tibetan themes (especially the mandala) rather than his usual Eastern European roots.

smalltaleA Small Tall Tale From the Far Far North is a retelling of a Czech folk legend – a man called Jan Welzl who escaped the harshness of Eastern European life in the late 1800s for even greater hardship: thirty years spent travelling in “dreadful privation and suffering” [Welzl’s own words] in Siberia, Alaska, and Northern Canada. This is obviously too great a story to be condensed into a child’s picture books, so Sís sensibly gives a summary of Welzl’s life in a prologue and epilogue, using the bulk of the book to provide snapshots of his life. Sís’ trademark fantasy landscapes are on full show here – dynamited caves have great, leering grins, half-submerged monsters peek out from tiny pools, a traditional Eskimo tale is incorporated into the shape of a whale… The sheer amount of fine detail packed into each of the illustrations is amazing, and absolutely typical of Sís. It’s a delightful accompaniment to the story of a man who decided to strike out on his own path.

madlenkaMadlenka tells the story of a little girl who is so excited about her loose tooth that she must tell all her friends and neighbours. These come from all corners of the globe, so Madlenka’s trip around her neighbourhood block is a world tour in miniature. Alright, the neighbours are complete stereotypes (the French baker, the Indian newsagent, Latin American greengrocer…) but that’s more than made up for by Sís’ continuing run of brilliant illustrations, complete with keyholes, 360° panoramas, and fantasy-intruding-on-real-life illustrations (check out the animal trees on the African savannah – especially the giraffe-tree, which has Madlenka’s school friend hiding between its legs) and the German opera-come-folk tale, complete with a bewigged swordsman being shot out of a cannon.

madsdogAll these characters return in Madlenka’s Dog, where Madlenka, who is desperate for a dog of her own, has to make do with an imaginary one. So she puts a leash on it and wanders round the neighbourhood, just as she did when her tooth was loose. Sís again uses his 360° panoramas and keyholes, but this time introduces pop-up flaps as well – when Madlenka meets her neighbours and introduces them to her invisible dog, these flaps reveal the neighbours as they were as children, with their own dogs – all types and breeds. The fantasy perspective is less present than in the previous book, although when Madlenka meets her school-friend Cleopatra, who has an imaginary horse, the two of them escape into several pages of make believe, with dogs and horses popping up in all sorts of strange places.

komodoThe fascination with animals (and their discovery in strange places) continues in Komodo! where the parents of a little boy obsessed with dragons (and very amiable parents they are too – check out the living room wallpaper!) take him to Indonesia to check out the famous Komodo dragon. This book is for younger children, and the otherwise ubiquitous handwritten notes don’t appear here – although there is quite a sophisticated snark at eco-tourism, as the Komodo dragon hides from the hordes of people descending on his island and expecting him to perform for them. The little boy decides that following the crowds around isn’t for him, and wanders off on his own. Naturally this independence of mind is rewarded when he sees a Komodo dragon and they do not, although the ending I was hoping for (boy gets eaten when assuming wild creature is friendly) did not actually occur. The kid is clever and independent, but we all know that in real life he’s up for the Darwin Award… Personally, this is least interesting of the Peter Sís books I know, but if your kid is into strange beasts and Where’s Wally (the crowd scenes reoccur frequently, and you’ll have to search to find the protagonist) then it might be worth getting a copy.

So you want to be a scientist? – by Octavia

But can’t do maths or chemistry, and the sight of blood makes you go all queasy? Or do you already have a job that you actually like, but are haunted by the road not taken? Maybe you just can’t spare the odd decade to go back to school and get your PhD…

Well fear not, fellow Nexites! From now on, Nexus will give you a way to fulfil that childhood dream in one easy step. Each month in “So you want to be a scientist…?” we’ll direct you to one site where you can do your bit for science and research without leaving the comfort of your chair, and without your having to waste time and temper learning calculus or biochemistry or any other of those other intellectual beasties that make you cringe in the middle of the night having woken from another nightmare of high school lab classes.

This month, we’re introducing the Galaxy Zoo Project.

Galaxy Zoo.

JoonToons – by Dylan Foley

Dylan Foley is an atheist/skeptic/humanist musician and author based out of Boston, Massachusetts who is involved in a myriad of projects ranging from gypsy jazz/ska/circus rock to free improvisation to surf to death metal. “JoonToons”, his latest solo project, is an album of children’s music designed to appeal to people of all ages. The songs of “JoonToons” are culminated from a variety of Foley’s early musical influences, such as Woody Guthrie and Shel Silverstein, as well as traditional sources of Irish folk and blues.

The arrangements of the songs are atypical of those found in children’s music, featuring organic under-production and real instruments, including voice, guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass and harmonica (there are no synthesizers on the album). Aside from its overarching tone of playful humor, the themes of the album strongly emphasize individuality and skepticism. One fan, a mother of three, has described it as “the album toddlers will hide from their parents.”

“JoonToons” was chiefly inspired by a close friend of the artist who recently began operating a line of home-made children’s clothing, which bears the same name as the album. First time customers of the online JoonToons store (here) receive a CD copy of the “JoonToons” album for free. The album is also available for free download here by clicking the CLICKHERE banner to go to the “JoonToons” page (or by clicking the link below). The music of Captain Pablo Presents, another of Foley’s projects, may also be found on this site.

Dylan Foley may be contacted at whatamoniker@comcast.net

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JoonToons

UFO and Ancient-Astronaut Paradoxes – by Loren Petrich

Here, I will discuss some problems with the extraterrestrial-spaceship hypothesis of UFO’s (Unidentified Flying Objects), and problems with the related hypothesis of “ancient astronauts”. UFO’s was the term that the US Air Force invented for “flying saucers”; it has been generally accepted because of its greater sobriety. The ancient-astronaut hypothesis does not refer to the likes of John Glenn, but to the work of the likes of Erich von Däniken, its best-known exponent. Here are those paradoxes:

“I Saw It with my Very Own Eyes”

This argument, or some variant involving the eyes of others, is widely used by UFO enthusiasts. The trouble with that argument is that objects do NOT come with name tags on them, and one has to infer what they are. One’s observations may be entirely correct, but one’s interpretations can be way off, especially if one is observing something unfamiliar or surprising. So, IMO, the most trustworthy observers of unfamiliar phenomena are those who try to state their observations in as un-interpreted a way as possible, because otherwise, it may be difficult to tell what it was that they really saw.

An important special case of this principle is distance determination. If one makes a visual observation of anything beyond a few feet/meters away, its parallax across one’s eyes will be so small as to be undetectable, so ANY distances one concludes are pure interpretation of observations. Any observer who is careful about this deserves respect; any observer who dogmatically insists on a measurement of distance by perception deserves the opposite.

Another interesting special case is the interesting misperception that one is being followed around by some celestial body. This is a side effect of their great distance; as one moves, one produces a parallax that is too small to see. This misunderstanding has even happened to professional aircraft pilots, such as military pilots.

One counterargument is that these sorts of arguments would indicate that human visual perception is to fallible to be usable. But a counter-counterargument is to consider the nature of UFO reports; they are reports of extraordinary events, and extraordinary events are much more newsworthy than ordinary events, especially if they are rare. Thus, if one sees Venus 100 times and never thinks that it represents anything unusual, while once becoming convinced of having been followed around by that planet, it is the latter sort of event that would be the more newsworthy of the two.

“Pictures Don’t Lie”

But their takers may. The UFO business has had a very long history of photographic fakery. Robert Sheaffer in his years at Northwestern University made numerous fake UFO pictures to attempt to show the late Dr. J. Allen Hynek how easily one could pull it off with modelmaking and analog-imaging techniques. Digital-imaging techniques allow one to do much better; with computer hardware and software now available for only a few thousand dollars, one can produce extremely impressive fakes.

What is especially interesting here is the rarity of detailed UFO video, despite video captures of numerous rare events. It may simply be very difficult to make a good fake one, one that does not look like a model on a string, though that may change as advancing computer hardware and software makes it possible to construct a plausible fake UFO movie without an inordinate expense of both time and money.

“They’re Covering It Up!”

This has the question of motivation; supposedly, some important US government agency feels that something bad will happen if the truth gets out. However, that is not the usual reason to cover something up; usually it is some sort of embarrassment that gets that treatment. Furthermore, numerous scandals have been revealed in Washington, DC over the decades. The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, CIA shenanigans such as plans to assassinate Fidel Castro, Iran-Contra, then-President Bill Clinton’s sex life, … have all been exposed in very gory detal; that makes it unlikely that such a coverup could be successfully maintained for nearly four decades.

The Advanced-Technology Problem

UFO enthusiasts point that these alleged extraterrestrial spaceships undoubtedly have technology much in advance of ours, but they go on further to claim that we are in no more position to judge their capabilities than (say) someone living in the Amazon jungle would have to judge a helicopter’s capabilities. The difficulty there, however, is that we have much more genuine knowledge than someone who had been living in the Amazon jungle would have, and we do seem to have made some important progress in understanding many phenomena. Our ability to discuss this kind of question ought to be at least one indicator.

Furthermore, this argument can easily be stretched to explain anything, and therefore really nothing; it is deficient in falsifiability. How would one be able to tell if something was not the result of sufficiently advanced technology?

Lights at Night: You’ll Be Spotted

Why is this a difficulty? It is because the main purpose of night lights on vehicles is to advertise their presence, so as to keep others from colliding with it. Consider bicycles, motorcycles, cars, buses, trucks, trains, boats, ships, helicopters, and airplanes. Many of them do have headlights for illuminating what’s ahead, but these are visible over only part of the sphere of directions.

And if one wants to do some espionage, it is important not to let oneself be spotted. And night lights do exactly the opposite — advertise one’s presence.

Avoiding collisions could even done by watching out for Earthling aircraft, which conveniently advertise their presence.

However, one can think of counterhypotheses; for example, that these illuminated craft are some kind of experiment being performed on us Earthlings to see how we react, or even some kind of monstrous practical joke.

Supersonic Flight: No Sonic Booms?

Many reported UFO’s can fly supersonically — and without producing a sonic boom. However, according to a great body of theory, computer simulations, and observations, shocks (jumps in density, velocity, and pressure) — and therefore sonic booms — will always appear from supersonic motion. My Ph.D. thesis had involved hydrodynamics calculations and supersonic motion, so I can claim direct knowledge of this problem. Sonic-boom suppression would require some sort of manipulation of the surrounding air that is far in advance of our technology, if it is feasible at all.

Furthermore, boomless supersonic flight would be *very* valuable for airplane manufacturers — if it could be achieved, because it would remove a major drawback of supersonic flight. Supersonic airliners are currently restricted to flying over oceans and other thinly populated areas for this reason, and boomless supersonic flight would also be valuable for military aircraft, since a sonic boom could give them away.

The “Flying Saucer” Shape

Why are UFO’s seen up close so often reputed to be disk-shaped? And why is this the case, even though the aerodynamics of that shape are almost certainly suboptimal? This may date from the mangling of Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 report of objects “that skipped like saucers” into “flying saucers”, which has an amusingly incongruous ring. Thus, the term “flying saucer” stuck, despite UFOlogists’ preference for a more dignified term.

The saucer shape seems to me to have suboptimal aerodynamics, as indicated from the performance of flying-wing airplanes, those with the closest approximation to that shape. They have a reputation as fuel guzzlers, which indicates that their lift-to-drag ratio is not very good; that shape is valued for its low radar cross section, one possible merit of a saucer shape. One counterargument is the performance of “lifting-body” aircraft, which are roughly potato-shaped with stubby wings. However, their greater front-to-back extension and their wing stubbiness makes them un-saucerlike.

The best shape for traveling through a fluid is a missile or torpedo shape; this is the shape of swimming animals like fish, cetaceans, and squid; this is also the shape of submarines and airplane fuselages. Airplanes’ main depatures from a missile shape are due to their necessity of making lift and controlling their flight; wings and tailfins are rather thin surfaces.

One could argue that with very advanced technology, one can use whatever shape one wants to and overcome poor aerodynamics with some high-tech brute force. However, that tends to waste energy, which has to be carried aboard the craft, unless some really advanced technology enables getting around that (high-density energy storage, low energy consumption, extraction of energy from environment, transmission of energy). In the absence of such technology, we may assume that an extraterrestrial spyplane would have to be shaped something like an Earthling missile or airplane. But they are not often reported with that shape.

There is a circumstance in which shape does not matter much, however, and that is if the craft is traveling very slowly by airplane standards, less than about 20-30 mph/kph. However, this does not account for all the UFO’s that reportedly travel faster than that.

This is also true of vehicles that operate solely in outer space; most Earthling spacecraft are irregularly-shaped, because outer space is essentially a vacuum, meaning that it gives resistance too small to measure. Not surprisingly, these spacecraft are carried up inside of missile-shaped enclosures. An interesting example of this contrast is in the Apollo spacecraft; the Command and Service Modules had to travel through the Earth’s atmosphere on their way to the Moon, while the Lunar Module was stowed behind it, behind a partial-cone-shaped enclosure. The first two modules had a streamlined shape, while the third one had an irregular shape. These shapes were memorialized in the Apollo 9 codenames “Gumdrop” and “Spider”; it is easy to guess which module got which code name.

So IMO the most plausible hypothesis is that the saucer shape is a byproduct of that misbegotten term, “flying saucer”; from this discussion, the most likely shape of an extraterrestrial spaceship that travels fast in the Earth’s atmosphere would be a missile or airplane shape. However a very slow one or an outer-space one would likely have an irregular shape.

What do the UFOnauts Look Like?

There is the serious question of what the UFOnauts look like. They are usually depicted as humanlike in appearance, with the degree of resemblance varying. What I find rather curious is that they all seem to be tailless, that there is none of them that looks like (say) what an intelligent theropod dinosaur would have looked like, tail and all. And why aren’t there a lot of robotic-looking ones? Such as one that looks like a mechanical spider.

We can expect some convergence, because living in the same Universe that we do will generate similar solutions to shared problems; that has happened many times in Earth life. However, in all these cases, there are numerous differences in detail between the various outwardly-similar evolutionary inventions:

  • *Wings (birds, bats, pterosaurs, insects)
  • *Camera-like eyes (vertebrates, squid/octopus)
  • *Gripping claws (scorpions, lobsters/crabs)
  • *Hooves (odd-toed ungulates, even-toed ungulates, etc.)
  • *Filter feeding (basking and whale sharks, manta rays, baleen whales)
  • *Streamlined shape with control surfaces (squid, fish, ichthyosaurs, cetaceans)
  • *Two-leggedness (dinosaurs/birds, kangaroos, hominids)
  • *Flatness for living on a seafloor (flounders, goosefish)
  • *Wood (several lineages of trees and bushes: Paleozoic lycopods, conifers, ginkgos, bamboo, palm trees, probably several dicot ones)

Why don’t the UFOnauts Tell Us Anything Interesting?

There are several people who have claimed that they have been contacted by benevolent UFOnauts. However, these UFOnauts have not revealed anything really interesting, such as the solution to certain important mathematical problems; instead, there are such banalities as that we ought to be nice to each other and not threaten to use nuclear bombs on each other. According to “The Demon-Haunted World”, Carl Sagan had sometimes been challenged to give some question to ask some extraterrestrials by some who claim to have contacted them. Mathematical-theorem questions would go unanswered, while “Shall we be good?” and similar questions would get answered.

Those who claim that the UFOnauts have showed them other parts of the Solar System, like George Adamski, have had some interesting tales to tell, but their accuracy can easily be checked by comparing their stories to the findings of later space-exploration. George Adamski claimed that he had met inhabitants of Venus, Mars, and Saturn (why not Jupiter?) who looked almost exactly human, only better-looking. These inhabitants could survive under Earth conditions without any special protection. And they had established bases on the Moon. However, Venus has a very hot and thick atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide, which has fried every space probe ever sent into it, Mars has a cold and very thin atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide that water cannot be liquid in, and Saturn has an atmosphere of mostly hydrogen and helium — and no condensed surface.

Where is All the Ancient Astronauts’ Infrastructure?

These long-ago extraterrestrial visitors had supposedly launched rockets and built airfields(!), such as the Nazca lines. However, the Nazca lines could not be airfields, because they lack much of the necessary infrastructure. The “runways” are unpaved, while good paving is a necessity for serious-sized aircraft. And there are no central airport areas, no control towers, no fuel tanks, no maintenance facilities, no runway lights, and no other familiar airport items.

The situation for rockets is even worse. Those with any serious size need launchpads, service towers, assembly buildings, propellant storage tanks, and other such stuff familiar from such well-known spaceports as the Kennedy Space Center and the Baikonur Cosmodrome. So where are the ancient spaceports? None of the ancient-astronaut advocates have pointed out any clear examples of any such facilities with infrastructure like that of Kennedy or Baikonur; all they point to is mysterious ancient ruins that show little direct evidence of advanced technology.More broadly, this point applies to the general lack of high-tech junk. None has yet been found, despite such junk being a very interesting find if it could be found.One possible way to recognize such junk would be to look for parts that have to fit other parts. In Earthling industries, there are widely-shared conventions for the sizes and shapes of such parts; this enables parts manufactured on different production lines and by different manufacturers to fit together. In such conventions, sizes are usually some simple multiples or fractions of some favorite unit of measure; this is why there exist separate sets of English-unit and metric-unit nuts and bolts, for example. Thus, if extraterrestrial visitors had used nuts and bolts in their construction, they would likely have used a few standard sizes of these fasteners, but those sizes would have differed from the corresponding sizes in corresponding Earthling fasteners. And they may possibly be left-handed instead of right-handed, as most Earthling screwed fasteners are.

A good example of this principle in action in a higher-order design can be seen in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Two separate teams, in the United States and the Soviet Union, had made their spacecraft capable of docking with other spacecraft, yet their docking systems were incompatible with each other. Which meant that a docking module had to be built for the mission, with one end capable of docking with an Apollo spacecraft and the other end with a Soyuz spacecraft. And there is every good reason to expect the same principle to be true of extraterrestrial visitors’ designs.

Why didn’t the Ancient Astronauts Tell Us Anything Interesting?

This is parallel to a similar question about present-day UFOnauts, and is related to one well-known backtracking: that the visitors had not built those mysterious ancient monuments but had instead taught people how to do it. However, the question arises of why teach one thing and not another. There are lots of simple things, or at least things that do not require a lot of mathematical and similar background, that these visitors could have taught our ancestors, but did not:

  • *The Earth is shaped like a ball, and the inhabitants on the other side do not fall off because falling down is due to massive objects attracting each other. As a result, the inhabitants at the other side fall upward relative to us. This is an answer to what might be called Lactantius’s Paradox (Divine Institutes 3:24). When one considers that an extraterrestrial visitor could easily notice the Earth’s shape as he/she/it approaches it, the absence of that revelation is especially remarkable.
  • *The sky is not a bowl or box overhead but a vast, airless void. The air goes only a few days’ journey upwards and becomes too thin to breathe in about half a day’s journey — and the celestial bodies are much, much farther than that.
  • *The sky looks blue in the daytime because it acts like a thin fog which the Sun lights up. Bodies of water look blue because they reflect the sky.
  • *The stars seem to move because the Earth is slowly spinning.
  • *Phases of the Moon result from only the parts of the Moon facing the Sun being illuminated; the rest of the Moon being visible in crescent phase is due to illumination by the Earth.
  • *The Moon is a battered airless desert; it is a ball 1/4 the size of the Earth.
  • *The Sun is a giant fireball bigger than the Moon’s path around the Earth, and the stars are sunlike objects at great distances.
  • *The Earth travels around the Sun, dragging its air with it; that is why we do not feel a great wind.
  • *There is a difference between angular size and linear size; one only directly sees angular size and has to deduce linear size indirectly.
  • *Eclipses of the Moon are nothing to lose sleep over, except if one wants to watch them, because they are caused by the Moon entering the Earth’s shadow. There is certainly no need to lose sleep over monsters trying to eat the Moon or sorcerers trying to control it. Likewise, eclipses of the Sun are caused by the Moon moving in front of the Sun, and are also nothing to be afraid of.
  • *Eclipses do not happen every new and full Moon because the Moon’s path is tilted relative to the Sun’s; they happen at different times of the year because the paths’ intersection line moves backward with a period of 18 and 2/3 years.
  • *The Morning Star and the Evening Star are one and the same object, an Earthlike object that is covered with clouds and that travels around the Sun like the Earth does, though closer.
  • *Objects keep on moving at constant speed unless some outside force intervenes, such as friction from its environment that drags it until it shares its environment’s speed.
  • *Fire rises because air swells as it gets heated, making it get pushed up by the other air.
  • *Clouds are not solid objects but giant masses of fog that one can travel through.
  • *The oceans do not fill up because water slowly boils off from them. This water is then blown in the air and may be blown a long distance before it comes out of the air as clouds. From the clouds, rain may fall, and this rain may eventually flow back into the oceans, completing the circle. Thus, water goes around and around and around…
  • *Living things have features that are helpful for them to survive and have descendants; everything they do is in some way selfish. Even an unselfish act like a honeybee dying as it stings nevertheless helps close relatives: the other bees in that bee’s hive.
  • *Rotting meat gets maggots in it because flies lay their eggs in it; keep flies away, and the meat will stay maggotless.
  • *Bread rises becauses of a kind of mold too small too see that lives in the bread. Wine and beer are also the result of that tiny mold in action; that mold produces a liquid that causes drunkenness, a liquid that can be boiled off. Some other sorts of tiny mold cause rotting and disease; cooking food and boiling water will kill that mold. Also, be sure to dispose of rotting stuff and dung carefully, so one does not catch tiny bad mold from them.
  • *The seat of the mind and emotions is the brain and not the heart or other such organ. The heart’s reactions to emotions are essentially that: reactions.
  • *The heart pumps blood, which moves in a complete loop. It goes inside of blood vessels that branch and branch and branch until they are too small to see; the blood then goes into other vessels that join and join and join and eventually reach the heart again.
  • *A “nothing number” is completely meaningful; numbers less than nothing are also meaningful. Imagine assets for greater than zero and debts for less than zero.
  • *One can easily represent large numbers by using a place system, in which one writes a sequence of basic numbers, numbers that are only 0 to 9 that are understood to be multiplied by appropriate multipliers and then added. The rightmost has a multipler of 1, and each succeeding leftward one gets a multiplier that is the previous multiplier multiplied by 10.
  • *One can represent decimal fractions in the same way; one puts a mark and then writes basic numbers rightward; each succeeding one has a multiplier 10 times less.
  • *One can represent an object’s position in space by a set of three numbers: forward distance, rightward distance, and upward distance. Backward, leftward, and downward distances can be represented by numbers less than zero. One can also imagine time as a kind of position.
  • *If one has formed an opinion, one can put that opinion to the test by asking what that opinion’s consequences are and seeing if those consequences are correct.
  • *For an opinion to be worth considering, it must be capable of being falsified; something that is always true does not really say anything new. Consider an oracle that states that a battle will result in a great victory, but not which side will win. That oracle has not stated anything very meaningful, because it would be correct if either side won.
  • *One good way of testing various opinions is to try to set all factors equal while changing only the one that is related to some opinion. Thus, if you think that some kind of plant needs to be watered, you take two identical examples of that plant, plant them in the same kind of soil and give them the same illumination, but water one and not the other.
  • *When developing and testing opinions, do not be ashamed of failure; an opinion can be partially correct, and one can use one’s experience to develop better ones.
  • *A convenient way to do writing of language is to have one letter for each speech sound.

The large majority of these discoveries were made in historical times; there is an abundance of well-documented times and places where many or most of them were unknown. So those ancient astronauts were not doing their job!!! 🙂

Plognark’s Cartoon Corner!

thestupiditburns

Community Profile: Matt

mattHow did you find out about online freethought communities, and what’s your favourite thing about them?

I found the online secular community some time around my freshman year of college, when I was in the midst of my deconversion. I believe I first discovered infidels.org and their subsequent forum through a link I found while reading various arguments on the skepticsannotatedbible.com forums.

As for “favorite thing”, I’m just glad that there exists small as they may be, bastions of sanity and reason. Living in Texas, I appreciate such communities as we are a rare breed in the general public.

What board or fora are we most likely to find you in and what will you be talking about?

I have accounts at several fora (forums?) such as Heathen Hangout and Richard Dawkins net, but I spend 99% of my online time at RantsnRaves. A bunch of us started RnR back in May 2007, and I’ve been its sysadmin since the beginning. This means I spend way too much time dealing with behind-the-scenes issues and not enough time participating in actual interesting subjects, but it keeps me busy and I couldn’t ask for a more interesting hobby (I’m most definitely not an IT guy).

Additionally, I am addicted to roller coasters and spend time at themeparkreview.com. I’m also a gadget freak, so I keep an eye on engadget on a daily basis. I also am a Total FARKer, however I mainly lurk.

If you had to spend your life marooned on a tropical island with three people that you’ve met online from this community, who would they be, and why?

Wow, this is a tough one. There’s a bunch of people I admire and appreciate, but all of us have eccentricities that would likely be magnified to the point were I can’t stand them. There’s just so many ways to go here: I could take three of the best and brightest scientists and engineers so that we could build some sort of vessel to escape, or I could go with one man and two women to build *cough* a new society on the very island. The latter certainly hits the spot from an evolutionary perspective.

However, if we’re all doomed to die anyway and neither of the above ideas are feasible, I’d likely go with those full of wit and rhyme so at least I’d go out happy: I’m thinking of Boro Nut and Queen of Swords. Perhaps the third will be rlogan, as he has master survival skills.

Which freethought or humanist thinkers have most inspired you?

Thomas Jefferson is the first one that comes to mind. Numerous others of the enlightenment era as well.

What’s your least favourite religious verse, and why?

If I had to pick simply one least favorite verse, it would likely be Genesis 6:17: “And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die.” That’s all it takes to invalidate the Bible on moral, historical, and scientific bases, but it shows the cruel and primitive nature of such creations, and it is sad to know that modern peoples accept this verse as good.

If you could get rid of one stupid anti-freethought argument, what would it be? Why do you hate this one above all the rest?

I hate to sound redundant, but I must echo RBH from last month: I find the “religion is necessary to be moral” argument completely annoying. I often retort with “If the only thing preventing you from turning into a mass-murdering child rapist is fear of your god, please don’t ever become an atheist”, which I think addresses the point sufficiently enough. The best argument against this, however, is how we live our lives.

Invisible Pink Unicorn or Flying Spaghetti Monster?

I’m a Pastafarian, however, I don’t reject the concept of a holy binary between the IPU and the FSM. They are separate, yet the same. 🙂

So what is it you do with your life when you’re not hanging around here, anyway?

I work full time at a local community hospital in critical care. I am also taking classes part-time working towards my Masters in nursing, in order to become a Nurse Practitioner. I have a 8 month old son who I absolutely adore, and watching his growth and development is amazing. When I find time outside all of this, I am planning our next vacation, due to my aforementioned rollercoaster addiction.

What’s your favourite book, and why?

House of God by Samuel Shem, M.D.

It’s an interesting look into the psyche of medicine from a fictional standpoint. It’s aging a bit, but still very relevant.

What’s the most embarrassing song you sing and dance to when you’re absolutely sure no-one else is around?

For starters, I don’t dance. My wife put a stop to that years ago. However, I tend to crank up and sing along to anything from The Who, Third Eye Blind, Metallica, Eve 6, or Counting Crows. I take a guilty pleasure to 80’s music and early 90’s rap.

What’s the one thing you want to do with your life before shuffling off this mortal coil?

Ride every roller coaster on Earth, but in doing so, see the world. I’m not particularly fond that with the exception of a vacation here and there, I’ve barely been outside of Texas let alone the U.S.

What’s your poison? How much of it is needed to drive you under the table?

Are roller coasters poison? If so, I was certainly “driven under the table” and beat up by riding The Boardwalk Bullet at Kemah 12 times in a row before they retracked it. I guess video games would be a poison, too, as it doesn’t take much to get me addicted to one, with the detrimental real life social deficits that accompany playing mmorpgs until 3 am, so I try to avoid them as I get too easily sucked in.

Lucky #13: Who do you nominate to be interviewed for next month’s issue?

Hmm… I’d like to read about “obscured by clouds” from RDnet.