Category Archives: Science

Baird, Christopher S.: How does water dowsing work? (2015)

  A water witch or dowser, redrawn from a sixteenth-century woodcut. Adapted from   A water witch or dowser, redrawn from a sixteenth-century woodcut. Adapted from Gilluly, Waters, and Woodford (1959)..

A water witch or dowser, redrawn from a sixteenth-century woodcut. Adapted from Gilluly, Waters, and Woodford (1959)..

One of my fascinations has to do with the many paranormal beliefs humans hold as true. I have done so myself at times. At least until science explained what was really going on. Scientific explanations are soooooo very much more fun than the paranormal one. In the case of the myth of water dowsing the scientific explanation could end up saving you a lot of money and perhaps even your life.

When an object, such as a marble on a roof ridge, is in a state of unstable equilibrium, a small movement (such as the breeze nudging the marble to one side) becomes a large movement (such as the marble shooting off one side of the roof). This event could be misinterpreted as a powerful, hidden agent on one side of the house drawing the marble towards it. The belief in water dowsing arises out of this type of misinterpretation. Public Domain Image, source: Christopher S. Baird


In the sense that it finds underground water, water dowsing does not work. Water dowsing involves the claim that a person can locate underground sources of water without using any scientific instruments. Typically, the person that is dowsing holds sticks or rods and walks around a property in the hopes that the rods will dip, twitch, or cross when he walks over the underground water. The dowsing rods do indeed move, but not in response to anything underground. They are simply responding to the random movements of the person holding the rods. The rods are typically held in a position of unstable equilibrium, so that a small movement gets amplified into a big movement. The movements of the rods do not seem like they are coming from the small vibrations in the dowser’s arms, since these vibrations are so small and the rod’s movements are so large. From the false assumption that the movements of the rods are not coming from the small random vibrations of the dowser’s arms, people then make the illogical leap that the movements must therefore be caused by something powerful that is out of sight, i.e. underground water. Since successfully locating underground water can save a farmer the trouble of digging several wells that end up dry, and since scientific approaches can be expensive, there is a strong incentive for people to want water dowsing to work.

Unstable equilibrium describes a state where all the forces on an object cancel out but the slightest deviation from the point of equilibrium causes the object to fly off. For instance, if you place a marble on exactly the top edge of a sharply-ridged roof, the marble will sit there motionless since the forces pulling it down either side of the roof cancel out. However, if the slightest breeze blows past the marble, it will give the marble a small bump toward one side of the roof. The forces will no longer cancel and the marble will shoot down one side of the roof. Since the marble was in a state of unstable equilibrium, gravity was able to amplify a small movement invisible to humans (the bump from the gentle breeze) into a large movement (the marble rolling down the side of the roof). To the naked human eye, it looks like a power agent exists only on one side of the house and is drawing the marble towards it. If we didn’t understand the concept of unstable equilibrium, we may be tempted to say that there is underground water only on the one side of the house which pulled the marble down that side. Belief in water dowsing operates on this type of misunderstanding.

The rest of the article can be found on Science Questions With Surprising Answers

Take the Red Pill: The Truth Behind the Biology of Sex

I found this ( version of the Prader Scale easier to relate to.

I did not know how complicated and fluid gender is. Great article.

Disrupting Dinner Parties

Morpheus offers the pills in the MatrixThis is the first part of a series about the complex biological realities of sex. Though the posts build on one another, each can be understood alone.

Content note: this post contains images and language that may not be safe for work.

1. Introduction

I first learned about the social construction of sex from a lovely trans woman named Kiki.

She said, “You may have heard before that gender is socially constructed, while sex is biological. But I’m here to tell you that what you’ve heard isn’t true. Sex is socially constructed too. So are you ready for the truth? Are you going to take the red pill or the blue pill?”

Three years later, I was diagnosed by my gynecologist with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which means that my body produces hormones intermediate between “typical men” and “typical women.” What I learned from Kiki gave me context in which to understand…

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Aaronson, E.; Wilson, T.D. & Akert, RM: Social Psychology

Social Psychology - Aronson Wilson Akert

Social Psychology by Elliot Aronson (University of California, Santa Cruz), Timothy D. Wilson (University of Virginia) and Robin M. Akert (Wellesley College) is one of the books that has made the greatest difference in my life. In fact, I would call it the “great eye-opener” for me, enabling me to acknowledge my own right to truth. An immensely painful journey was what lay ahead of me, one that went against what I had previously thought true. Of course, this did not happen solely due to Social Psychology, but Social Psychology was what enabled me to ask the right questions about the world.

As you might have guessed from the title, Social Psychology is a book about social psychology. It happens to be meant for students taking psychology classes and costs a whole lot. The version I have, is the second edition published in 1997. The current edition is the eight and updated from my older one.

Today I just added a few trailers and films to the left sidebar. From my own observations and the examples in Social Psychology getting ourselves to see another person as “other” allows us to accept and do unto others actions we would not so easily accept being done or doing to our own people. We/them, people/objects, worthy/unworthy or good/evil labels added to other people allows us to rationalize what we do and accept. Some of the experiments that illustrate this gave results that were somewhat surprising at the time. The famous Stanford prison experiment showed how seemingly decent people did terrible things to others given the right circumstances. Stanley Milgram and his team showed how far people were willing to go in hurting others given a uniform was present.

I doubt being autistic/aspergian makes it any easier/worse to discover how convoluted human thinking is. At first I resisted, then I observed and read some more.  Eventually, I had to accept that I was no different than others, and that acceptance has made it slightly easier to recognize what is going when it happens and to adjust my own actions. And when I rationalize, am being a hypocrite or join in group thinking something goes off in my brain and I am able to decide whether I want to continue the behavior.

Perhaps the greatest advantage to being aspergian (at least a highly functioning one) shows itself in what happened once I realized that the authors of Social Psychology might be correct. We go off on tangents in our lives and become extremely interested in something. I need the written word. Television and films often overwhelm me. But books and the computer screen are fine. So I read A LOT. Which is what I did and do regarding social psychology processes.

Now, with 50 being right around the corner, I find it impossible to view others as evil/bad/them once I get time to take a breath and think. Often I disagree with their way of thinking. Sometimes I think that people are incredibly stupid with the tools they use to get their point across. But to them it all makes sense. Some people think of me as bad/less/outsider/evil and that is fine. Sad, but fine. Why should they be exceptions to the social influences we all come under?
Definitely recommended.

O’Huigin, Domhnall: Bow before your New Masters

Reblogged from Quora:

Hypothetical Questions: Which species would take over the world if humans went extinct?



Domhnall O’Huigin, Have a look at, don’t cost nothing.

Wellitwon’tbefecking dolphins, that’s for sure. Fishy*feckers. Because:

  1. No opposable thumbs.
  2. No means of creating fire/combustion, whose use for cooking is theorised to be responsible for some of our intelligence [1] and which having is a pre-requisite for escape velocity.**
  3. No means of locomotion on land.
  4. Pseudo-fish scumbags who lie about all day, hitting the pfish chronic [2].
Pictured: Pseudo-fish scumbags. Base image source:

And it won’t be chimpanzees, orang-outans, gorillas, dogs, cats or bats. Sorry crazy cat-people. Why? Because that isn’t how evolution works. Evolution does not have a goal like “become sentient, take over the planet”, evolution is a thing that happens to a population when mutations prove favourable for survival.

Monkeys* do not become intelligent monkeys given enough time: they get – as a species – to continue existing, that’s the ‘prize’.

So it is worth reiterating, absent mankind and given zillions of years of the status quo, we will never see these species take over the world.

My candidate, my boy, for taking over the crown of Top of The World [3] is possibly the most alien order of life mankind has ever encountered….I give you: the octopus!

The octopus! Yesterday! Image: Boing Boing.


Utterly, utterly alien, here are some fun facts about the octopus.

  • They have three hearts. Almost like Klingons.
  • They are highly intelligent and are believed to have individual personalities [4].
  • They have four pairs of arms and can move on land as well as under water. The dexterity of their arms in combination is easily the equal of opposable thumbs and being able to move on land, they have no hard and fast obstacle to mastering fire.
  • They have vertebrate-like eyes, evolved independently. Beautiful, pretty, vertebrate eyes…
  • They are supremely able problem-solvers in terms of interacting with their environment, for example in the pursuit of food but have also been observed to play. They also build houses to protect them from under-sea weather [5].
  • There is growing evidence for octopus intelligence in general terms.
  • They appear to be evolved for:

selection of vertebrate-like neural organization and activity-dependent long-term synaptic plasticity. As octopuses and vertebrates are very remote phylogenetically, this convergence suggests the importance of the shared properties for the mediation of learning and memory. [6].

So, unlike chimps, cats, whatever, octopuses*** are already intelligent, they are just not technologically advanced in terms of manipulating their environment. This doesn’t count against them though in the terms of the question, it just means they haven’t got there yet.

After all, where were we a mere 60,000 years ago? Not launching rockets into space and trying to design interplanetary craft, that’s for sure. We were hiding from Castoroides in caves and the like. So their current status means nothing as regards to the question as written.

In summary therefore, their ascendance is a matter of when, not if.

I, for one, welcome our Cthulhoid Overlords!

Bow before your New Masters, mon-keigh! Image source:

* I know.
** yeah, yeah: organic bio-ships which use silk cables as Space elevators. I’ve read Hothouse too. Next!
*** look it up, it’s legit.

[1] Cooking Up Bigger Brains

Puff, puff, pass: Young dolphins deliberately chew puffer fish to get high with each other
[3] Top of the woild! White Heat
[4] Personality in octopuses
[5]‘Home’ choice and modification by juvenile Octopus vulgaris (Mollusca: Cephalopoda): specialized intelligence and tool use?
[6] The Octopus: A Model for a Comparative Analysis of the Evolution of Learning and Memory Mechanisms

Sadedin, Suzanne: How the Woman got her Period (Quora, 2014)

Jean-Christophe Lousse, Jacques Donnez Laparoscopic observation of spontaneous human ovulation. Fertil. Steril.: 2008, 90(3);833-4 PMID:18440526
Jean-Christophe Lousse, Jacques Donnez Laparoscopic observation of spontaneous human ovulation. Fertil. Steril.: 2008, 90(3);833-4 PMID:18440526


Contrary to popular belief, most mammals do not menstruate. In fact,it’s a feature exclusive to the higher primates and certain bats*. What’s more, modern women menstruate vastly more than any other animal. And it’s bloody stupid (sorry). A shameful waste of nutrients, disabling, and a dead giveaway to any nearby predators. To understand why we do it, you must first understand that youhave been lied to, throughout your life, about the most intimate relationship you will ever experience: the mother-fetus bond.

Source: Parenting with love

Isn’t pregnancy beautiful? Look at any book about it. There’s the future mother, one hand resting gently on her belly. Her eyes misty with love and wonder. You sense she will do anything to nurture and protect this baby. And when you flip open the book, you read about more about this glorious symbiosis, the absolute altruism of female physiology designing a perfect environment for the growth of her child.If you’ve actually been pregnant, you might know that the real story has some wrinkles. Those moments of sheer unadulterated altruism exist, but they’re interspersed with weeks or months of overwhelming nausea, exhaustion, crippling backache, incontinence, blood pressure issues and anxiety that you’ll be among the 15% of women who experience life-threatening complications.

From the perspective of most mammals, this is just crazy. Most mammals sail through pregnancy quite cheerfully, dodging predators and catching prey, even if they’re delivering litters of 12. So what makes us so special? The answer lies in our bizarre placenta. In most mammals, the placenta, which is part of the fetus, just interfaces with the surface of the mother’s blood vessels, allowing nutrients to cross to the little darling. Marsupials don’t even let their fetuses get to the blood: they merely secrete a sort of milk through the uterine wall. Only a few mammalian groups, including primates and mice, have evolved what is known as a “hemochorial” placenta, and ours is possibly the nastiest of all.

Hemochorial placenta a disadvantage for humans
Source: Colorado State University

Inside the uterus we have a thick layer of endometrial tissue, which contains only tiny blood vessels. The endometrium seals off our main blood supply from the newly implanted embryo. The growing placenta literally burrows through this layer, rips into arterial walls and re-wires them to channel blood straight to the hungry embryo. It delves deep into the surrounding tissues, razes them and pumps the arteries full of hormones so they expand into the space created. It paralyzes these arteries so the mother cannot even constrict them.

What this means is that the growing fetus now has direct, unrestricted access to its mother’s blood supply. It can manufacture hormones and use them to manipulate her. It can, for instance, increase her blood sugar, dilate her arteries, and inflate her blood pressure to provide itself with more nutrients. And it does. Some fetal cells find their way through the placenta and into the mother’s bloodstream. They will grow in her blood and organs, and even in her brain, for the rest of her life, making her a genetic chimera**.

Cell free fetal DNA shedding into maternal bloodstream | Source: Wikipedia commons
Cell free fetal DNA shedding into maternal bloodstream |
Source: Wikipedia commons

This might seem rather disrespectful. In fact, it’s sibling rivalry at its evolutionary best. You see, mother and fetus have quite distinct evolutionary interests. The mother ‘wants’ to dedicate approximately equal resources to all her surviving children, including possible future children, and none to those who will die. The fetus ‘wants’ to survive, and take as much as it can get. (The quotes are to indicate that this isn’t about what they consciously want, but about what evolution tends to optimize.)

There’s also a third player here – the father, whose interests align still less with the mother’s because her other offspring may not be his. Through a process called genomic imprinting, certain fetal genes inherited from the father can activate in the placenta. These genes ruthlessly promote the welfare of the offspring at the mother’s expense.

How did we come to acquire this ravenous hemochorial placenta which gives our fetuses and their fathers such unusual power? Whilst we can see some trend toward increasingly invasive placentae within primates, the full answer is lost in the mists of time. Uteri do not fossilize well.

The consequences, however, are clear. Normal mammalian pregnancy is a well-ordered affair because the mother is a despot. Her offspring live or die at her will; she controls their nutrient supply, and she can expel or reabsorb them any time. Human pregnancy, on the other hand, is run by committee – and not just any committee, but one whose members often have very different, competing interests and share only partial information. It’s a tug-of-war that not infrequently deteriorates to a tussle and, occasionally, to outright warfare. Many potentially lethal disorders, such as ectopic pregnancy, gestational diabetes, and pre-eclampsia can be traced to mis-steps in this intimate game.

What does all this have to do with menstruation? We’re getting there.

From a female perspective, pregnancy is always a huge investment. Even more so if her species has a hemochorial placenta. Once that placenta is in place, she not only loses full control of her own hormones, she also risks hemorrhage when it comes out. So it makes sense that females want to screen embryos very, very carefully. Going through pregnancy with a weak, inviable or even sub-par fetus isn’t worth it.

Endometrium | Source: Wikipedia Commons
Endometrium | Source: Wikipedia Commons

That’s where the endometrium comes in. You’ve probably read about how the endometrium is this snuggly, welcoming environment just waiting to enfold the delicate young embryo in its nurturing embrace. In fact, it’s quite the reverse. Researchers, bless their curious little hearts, have tried to implant embryos all over the bodies of mice. The single most difficult place for them to grow was – the endometrium.

Far from offering a nurturing embrace, the endometrium is a lethal testing-ground which only the toughest embryos survive. The longer the female can delay that placenta reaching her bloodstream, the longer she has to decide if she wants to dispose of this embryo without significant cost. The embryo, in contrast, wants to implant its placenta as quickly as possible, both to obtain access to its mother’s rich blood, and to increase her stake in its survival. For this reason, the endometrium got thicker and tougher – and the fetal placenta got correspondingly more aggressive.

But this development posed a further problem: what to do when the embryo died or was stuck half-alive in the uterus? The blood supply to the endometrial surface must be restricted, or the embryo would simply attach the placenta there. But restricting the blood supply makes the tissue weakly responsive to hormonal signals from the mother – and potentially more responsive to signals from nearby embryos, who naturally would like to persuade the endometrium to be more friendly. In addition, this makes it vulnerable to infection, especially when it already contains dead and dying tissues.

The solution, for higher primates, was to slough off the whole superficial endometrium – dying embryos and all – after every ovulation that didn’t result in a healthy pregnancy. It’s not exactly brilliant, but it works, and most importantly, it’s easily achieved by making some alterations to a chemical pathway normally used by the fetus during pregnancy. In other words, it’s just the kind of effect natural selection is renowned for: odd, hackish solutions that work to solve proximate problems. It’s not quite as bad as it seems, because in nature, women would experience periods quite rarely – probably no more than a few tens of times in their lives between lactational amenorrhea and pregnancies***.

We don’t really know how our hyper-aggressive placenta is linked to the other traits that combine to make humanity unique. But these traits did emerge together somehow, and that means in some sense the ancients were perhaps right. When we metaphorically ‘ate the fruit of knowledge’ – when we began our journey toward science and technology that would separate us from innocent animals and also lead to our peculiar sense of sexual morality – perhaps that was the same time the unique suffering of menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth was inflicted on women. All thanks to the evolution of the hemochorial placenta.

Suzanne Sadedin, PhD in Zoology from Monash University.
The evolution of menstruation: A new model for genetic assimilation
Genetic conflicts in human pregnancy.
Menstruation: a nonadaptive consequence of uterin… [Q Rev Biol. 1998]
Natural Selection of Human Embryos: Decidualizing Endometrial Stromal Cells Serve as Sensors of Embryo Quality upon Implantation
Credits: During my pregnancy I was privileged to audit a class at Harvard University by the eminent Professor David Haig, whose insight underlies much of this research. Thanks also to Edgar A. Duenez-Guzman, who reminded me of crucial details. All errors are mine alone.
* Dogs undergo vaginal bleeding, but do not menstruate. Elephant shrews were previously thought to menstruate, but it’s now believed that these events were most likely spontaneous abortions.
** Scientists Discover Children’s Cells Living in Mothers’ Brains (Thanks to Robyn Adair for the link).
*** I initially said 7-10 times based on my course notes, but haven’t been able to source that statistic so I’m assuming I misheard. One older published estimate for hunter gatherers was around 50, but this relied on several assumptions that suggest it’s a significant over-estimate. In particular, it includes 3 whole years of menstruation before reproduction (36 periods) for no obvious reason.

We can make an estimate from studies of the Hadza of Tanzania, who reach puberty around 18, bear an  average of 6.2 children in their lives (plus 2-3 noticeable miscarriages) starting at 19, and go  through menopause at about 43 if they survive that long (about 50%  don’t). Around 20% of babies die in their first year; the remainder  breastfeed for about 4 years. So this is 25 years of reproductive life, of which about 20 are spent lactating, and 4.5 pregnant. That would leave only about 6 periods, but amenorrhoea would cease during the last year of lactation for each child, so this figure is too low. On the other hand,  this calculation ignores the ~50% of women who died before menopause,  miscarriages, months spent breastfeeding infants who would die, and periods of food scarcity, all of which would further reduce lifetime  menstruation. Stats from:

Photographs added by humanitysdarkerside

NASA/Skywalker Sound: Riding the Booster with Enhanced Sound (2012)

This does indeed make it a certain thing that I am a bit nerdy. I was riveted for the whole 8:31 minutes. Riveted.

No fakery. Just enhancement.

Ethical Ocean: X-mas vs. the environment: What is Santa’s Carbon Footprint

The mid-winter holidays are a difficult time for a lot of people. Some years a lot of religious traditions come together to celebrate what is deemed to be a joyous occasion. At other times the mid-winter holidays becomes a lonely time for a great many. For me the reason X-mas is a difficult time of year for me is because of all of the people I have to deal with and the change from daily routine. After all these years, I have found a way to deal with that. One thing that is in fact becoming increasingly difficult for me to figure out the purpose and sense of is gifts.

When I was little, my parents struggled to make ends meet. At that point in history here in Norway I imagine this was probably more the rule than the exception. X-mas was a welcome time when we children would get things we needed. We children might not appreciate all of our gifts equally, but new things weren’t an everyday occurrence. My parents were happy. It was also a time of plenty food-wise.

Our little family has not had to struggle financially. We aren’t rich by a long stretch but we have always had enough and more. Our children have never really wanted for anything. To me it makes no sense that we should receive gifts that are to us personally. What does make sense is the kind of gift that helps those who need it more in some way.

At the same time I admit to loving book gifts or the gift I got from one of my sisters-in-law this year (a building-set lamp). I cannot help feeling bad about it all though. Which is why posting the below infographic from Ethical Ocean makes sense to me:

Santa's Carbon Footprint Infographic

via Ethical Ocean – eco friendly products, fair trade and vegan shopping.

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