RealClearScience Newton Blog

The Mystery of Thismia Americana, the Parasitic Plant Found Only in Chicago

Ross Pomeroy - March 24, 2018

"WHAT HAPPENED TO Thismia americana?"

It's a question that fascinates botanists around the world, but one that few in the general public have probably ever considered, despite the fact that it has been asked for well over a century.

In August 1912, University of Chicago graduate student Norma Pfeiffer was exploring a damp, low-lying prairie near the wetlands surrounding Chicago's Lake Calumet when she spotted a small, glabrous, white plant with delicate streaks of blue-green ringing the mouth of the flower. It was unlike anything else in the surrounding area.

Indeed, as she soon realized after finding additional specimens over the ensuing months, the plant was unlike anything else in the entire country.

We'll Never Know For Sure How Everything Began

Ross Pomeroy - March 19, 2018

Roughly 13.8 billion years ago, the Universe as we know it expanded from an infinitely hot and dense singularity in space and time, first in a furious torrent of rapid cosmic inflation for a fraction of a second, and then in the more calm manner we see today – gradual, yet accelerating expansion fueled by dark energy.

This fleetingly describes the Big Bang model of cosmology, the most successful theoretical explanation for our grand Universe. Backed by boatloads of observational evidence, we can be very sure of its veracity. Caltech astrophysicist Sean Caroll even described the Big Bang as "100 percent true."

But that percentage of surety dwindles to nothing when discussing the singularity that supposedly started it all. Where did it come from? What came before it? What caused it to "bang" in such a big way? As Carroll admitted, this singularity and its accompanying "bang" are essentially stand-ins for what we don't – and currently can't – actually know.

“It’s the time at which we don’t understand what the Universe was doing," he said on Science Friday.

When an English Lit Major Tried to School Isaac Asimov

Ross Pomeroy - March 12, 2018

Celebrated science fiction author Isaac Asimov is as legendary as the stories he crafted. His numerous books  sparkled with riveting characters, engrossing worlds, and thought-provoking themes, crafted from the raw ingredients of intellect and experience, and welded together with immense dedication. This dedication extended beyond his books and biochemistry lessons (Asimov was a professor at Boston University) to the great many people who reached out to him in some fashion.

"My estimate is that Isaac received about 100,000 letters in his professional career," his brother Stanley wrote in 1996. "And with the compulsiveness that has to be a character trait of a writer of almost 500 books, he answered 90 percent of them."

One of these correspondences was with a self-described "English Lit major" who challenged what he perceived as Asimov's intellectualy superior ignorance for expressing "a certain gladness at living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the universe straight."

The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." The implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

What the Media Can Learn from Physics and Cosmology

Ross Pomeroy - March 5, 2018

Last week, astronomers from Arizona State University and MIT announced that they had detected light from the Universe's "Cosmic Dawn." The primordial signal, dated to a mere 180 million years after the Big Bang, emanated from hydrogen that had absorbed energy from the very first stars ever to shine. Paired with this grand discovery was an exhilarating surprise: the gas that comprised the early universe was colder than expected, hinting at the presence of cold dark matter!

Now, this is an incredible find, so one might think the scientists would race to blare it from the nearest media platforms – newspaper, television, Twitter, etc. – the second they discovered it.

But no. Perhaps the coolest fact about this finding is that after detecting the remarkable signal, the discoverers' first inclination was to disprove it. As Elizabeth Gibney reported for Nature News:

The finding was so stark that the researchers spent two years checking that it didn’t come from an instrumental effect or noise. They even built a second antenna and pointed their instruments at different patches of sky at different times. “After two years, we passed all of these tests, and couldn’t find any alternative explanation,” says Bowman. “At that point, we started to feel excitement.”

Simple Questions Counter Claims of Alien Visitation

Ross Pomeroy - March 1, 2018

Is Earth being visited by aliens? The present preponderance of UFO sightings certainly seems to suggest this. Peter Davenport, who maintains the National UFO Reporting Center, has been overrun with thousands of reports of sightings from all across the United States over the past decade. From strange cylinders blocking the moon's light, to low-flying bird-like white pyramids, to "chevron" shaped craft, people are seeing all kinds of mysterious objects.

Those objects probably aren't aliens, however. Simple skeptical questioning easily counters such a claim.

First off, why are all the smartphone videos depicting UFOs of such poor quality? Most are fuzzy, grainy, or out-of-focus. Why aren't there any videos that clearly document close-up encounters? For example, in 1978, police constable Jim Blackwood of Clarenville, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada says he witnessed an alien craft hovering stationary a few hundred feet away his squad car for two hours. During the ordeal, he supposedly had time to attempt rudimentary contact with the visitor.

“I activated the roof lights of my police car and it activated lights at the same time," he told The Packet.

Why We Should Genetically Modify Coffee

Ross Pomeroy - February 22, 2018

Remember the Gros Michel banana? If you're under the age of seventy, you probably don't. That's because in the 1950s a fungal disease called Panama disease essentially wiped out commercial production of the Gros Michel. In just a few years, growers were forced to switch from the rich, creamy, and physically hearty Gros Michel to the bland, easily bruised, "junk" cultivar of banana we're familiar with today: the Cavendish.

Now, the same fate that befell the banana could swallow up the most popular drink in the world: coffee.

Between 60 and 65% of the coffee produced in the world is produced from the Arabica plant, with the more bitter Robusta variety making up almost all of the rest. While vastly inferior in taste and often relegated to instant coffee swill, Robusta is undeniably more robust to produce, yielding 60% more beans at a greater growing temperature range while resisting insects and disease, including the dreaded coffee rust.

It is coffee rust that now threatens the global supply of Arabica. As Chemical and Engineering News recently reported, roughly 15 percent of production is lost to rust each year and it affects crops worldwide. Forty percent of Colombia's coffee crop was wiped out by rust in 2008 alone, destroying livelihoods and impoverishing families in the process. Considering that Arabica is basically inbred, with just 1.2 percent genetic diversity, there is little chance it will ever develop resistance. Conventional breeding efforts are underway to create a more resilient version of Arabica, and have been for fifty years, but they probably won't be able to keep up with coffee rust forever, especially considering the disease's effects and scope are exacerbated by climate change, which is producing hotter, more humid conditions in prime growing areas – perfect for fungus. Fungicides and strategic growing practices help, but they are imperfect solutions which are difficult to implement on a wide scale.

The Weirdest Ideas About Bird Migration

Ross Pomeroy - February 19, 2018

Each year, the ten-inch-long, 100-gram Arctic tern flies between 40,000 and 50,000 miles on a winding migratory course that takes it from its breeding grounds in and around the Arctic Circle, down to the tips of South America or Africa, even down to Australia, and all the way back. Tallying all of these journeys over the bird's thirty-year lifetime yields a collective trek equal to three round trips to the Moon! That such a tiny bird can accomplish such a monumental feat is patently ridiculous, and yet it is very real.

Typical flight paths of the Arctic tern.

The notion that birds can migrate over vast distances must have seemed even more outlandish to early scientists. The Greek philosopher Aristotle was one of the first to grapple with the mystery of birds' seasonal disappearances and reappearances. As zoologist Lucy Cooke recounted on a recent episode of the Infinite Monkey Cage, the sage thinker considered three options: birds migrate to far-off lands, they transform into other birds, or they hibernate. Aristotle ruled out migration rather quickly, thinking it the most absurd. On transformation, he thought more deeply.

"Frequently one species would arrive from the north just as another species departed for more southerly latitudes," Frederick C. Lincoln wrote in the Fish and Wildlife Service's circular on bird migration. "From this [Aristotle] reasoned the two different species were actually one and assumed different plumages to correspond to the summer and winter seasons."

Aristotle mused that redstarts might annually morph into robins and garden warblers would change into blackcaps and vice versa.

Who Are the Real Corporate Shills?

Ross Pomeroy - February 14, 2018

A massive corporate food fight has broken out, and American consumers are caught in the messy crossfire... along with the truth.

On one side, there's the organic industry, with $47 billion in sales in 2016. On the other side, there are industries that produce and sell genetically-engineered crops and synthetic pesticides. Monsanto, with $14.6 billion in sales in 2017, leads this team.

Much of the advocacy and arguing in this fight does not originate from industry itself. Each side has its loosely connected surrogates. The organizations U.S. Right to Know and Just Label It! lead Team Organic. They call for labeling GMO foods, often argue that GMOs are dangerous, and suggest that the pesticide glyphosate is a potentially dangerous carcinogen. The Genetic Literacy Project, GMO Answers, and Cornell's Alliance for Science are a few of the headliners for Team GMO, insisting that evidence indicates GMOs are safe and glyphosate is a generally safe and effective pesticide.

Each side regularly hurls op-eds, articles, and snarky Tweets at the other, which largely go unread and unheard by the general public. One argument, the focus of this article today, seems to have made it into the mainstream, however. RationalWiki has succinctly dubbed it the "shill gambit," and describes it thusly:

Albert Einstein's Forgotten Inventions

Ross Pomeroy - February 8, 2018

Albert Einstein's unsurpassed prowess in physics needs no introduction, but lesser known is that his creative genius and curiosity extended beyond the realm of relativity and photoelectrics into tinkering and inventing. Over his life, Einstein filed patents for a range of innovative products.

The first, and most successful, of his exploits was a refrigerator. In the 1920s, nascent refrigerators used highly toxic, corrosive, or flammable compounds like sulfur dioxide or methyl formate as refrigerants. When passed through tubes and chambers while being pressurized and depressurized, these chemicals could efficiently cool a target chamber. However, moving them around required motors, and thus moving parts, which were subject to breaking down or leaking. When Einstein read a news article about an entire family in Berlin who died in their sleep by breathing in leaking refrigerant fumes, he resolved to do something about it.

He and his colleague Leo Szilard thus spent the early 1930s designing a refrigerator that utilized calmer chemicals – butane, ammonia and water – as well as an ingenious electromagnetic pump. The system required no internal moving parts and was completely sealed. All it needed was an external heat source in the form of a contained natural gas flame.

Clarified and annotated version of original Einstein Refrigerator drawing with colors showing phases.

Alas, Einstein and Szilard's refrigerator was not at all efficient and it was very loud. Moreover, freon soon arrived on the market as a safe, non-toxic refrigerant to remedy the problem Einstein originally sought to solve. But while Einstein's refrigerator fizzled out roughly eighty years ago, engineers are now exploring ways to make his design more efficient and useful in everyday life. One young designer adapted it to create an electricity-free vaccine cooler for use in the developing world.

Conservatives Might Actually Be More Anti-Vaccine, But It Doesn't Matter

Ross Pomeroy - January 29, 2018

Liberals are often lambasted for being more anti-vaccine than conservatives. With so many out-of-touch (usually liberal) Hollywood elites raising false alarms about the safety of vaccines, that view is understandable. But though the anti-vaccination movement has many high-profile liberal provocateurs, the movement itself scythes across ideological boundaries. It's a massive myth that anti-vaxxers are mostly liberal.

In 2014, RCS' own Alex Berezow reported that states with the highest rates of kindergarten vaccine exemption tended to vote for Barack Obama in 2012, while the states with the lowest rates of vaccine exemption more often went for Mitt Romney.

"The bottom line is that the CDC data makes it very difficult to argue that conservatives and liberals share equal blame in the anti-vaccine war. Anti-vaxxers are clearly more associated with the political Left," he wrote.

But if you repeat that analysis with the latest exemption data from the CDC along with election results from 2016, you'll find that the rift has evaporated. Of the ten states with the highest rates of vaccine exemption, five went for Clinton and five went for Trump. Of the ten states with the lowest rates of vaccine exemption, six went for Trump and four went for Clinton.

How People 'Cure' Cancer with Alternative Medicine

Ross Pomeroy - January 25, 2018

You've no doubt heard the story, whether from a book, news report, or even a friend or family member. It's an inspiring tale, of overcoming impossible odds in the face of widespread doubt and haunting despair. Of fighting to live and refusing to die. Of uncovering a wonderful secret, a secret that must be shared!

Cancer is a terrible disease, a formidable wall that experience and evidence tells us is arduous and painstaking to surmount. This bleak situation leads many to unevidenced treatments, essentially seeking a path around the wall rather than climbing directly over it. Radiant and hopeful, the path is paved with wholesome "natural" treatments like cleanse diets, acupuncture, meditation, and homeopathy. Harsh "unnatural" treatments like chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and immunotherapy are nowhere to be seen.

Dr. Ian Gawler supposedly cured his terminal bone cancer with coffee enemas, a vegetarian diet, and meditation. Belle Gibson claimed to cure her brain, spleen, uterus, kidney (and many other) cancers via exercise, fruits, vegetables, colonic irrigations, and a variety of unproven remedies. Ann Cameron insisted that she halted her stage four cancer with "carrot juice, nothing else."

So how did these individuals do it? How did they beat their cancers with remedies that defy reason and evidence? Well, there's a simple explanation. They didn't.

'Raw' Water Is Insulting

Ross Pomeroy - January 22, 2018

In 2015, 844 million people lacked access to even a basic drinking water service. These people, almost entirely from developing areas in Africa and Asia, are forced to play roulette by drinking water potentially contaminated with bacteria and viruses that cause diseases like diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio, as well as a variety of parasitic infections. Globally, a half million people die each year from diarrhea contracted via contaminated drinking water, many of them children. Another 240 million suffer from schistosomiasis, a parasitic infestation of flatworms originating from snail feces.

Here in the United States, we generally don't have to worry about waterborne illness. That's because our tap-water travels through a rigorous system of mechanical filtration and chemical treatment which expunges contaminants, resulting in H2O that's clean, refreshing, and among the safest in the world.

Yet the founders of Live Water and other purveyors of the upstart "raw" water movement seek to offer wealthy Americans a way to avoid this unequivocally salubrious system. They believe that "raw" untreated water harvested from streams and springs is much healthier.

Mukhande Singh, the apparently naive founder of Live Water, admits he only recently found out that water is irradiated and treated. This profound ignorance, no-doubt exacerbated by a privileged upbringing, leads him to say brainless things like this:

'Of Pandas and People': A Brief History of the Original Intelligent Design Textbook

Ross Pomeroy - January 11, 2018

Surprisingly enough, Of Pandas and People, the original creationist textbook intended for public schools, starts off pretty well. The very first paragraph is a quote from astrophysicist and science communicator Carl Sagan.

"As long as there have been human beings, we have posed the deep and fundamental questions… on the origins of consciousness; life on our planet; the beginnings of the Earth; the formation of the Sun; the possibility of intelligent beings somewhere up there in the depths of the sky; as well as, the grandest inquiry of all - on the advent, nature and ultimate destiny of the universe."

The book's sensible beginnings end abruptly here, however. As Carrie Poppy notes at the Skeptical Inquirer, the authors of Pandas snipped Sagan's quote before the crux of his message:

"For all but the last instant of human history these issues have been the exclusive province of philosophers and poets, shamans and theologians. The diverse and mutually contradictory answers offered demonstrate that few of the proposed solutions have been correct."

The Six Stages of a Failed Psychological Theory

Ross Pomeroy - January 8, 2018

With the publication of his exhaustingly researched and skillfully reported article, "LOL Something Matters," science writer Daniel Engber convincingly demonstrated that the "backfire effect," the notion that contradictory evidence only strengthens entrenched beliefs, does not hold up under rigorous scientific scrutiny. Bluntly stated, the "backfire effect" probably isn't real.

The debunking of this longstanding psychological theory follows similar academic takedowns of ego depletion, social priming, power posing, and a plethora of other famous findings. Indeed, much of what we "know" in psychology seems to be false.

There's a good reason for this: psychology, as a discipline, is a house made of sand, based on analyzing inherently fickle human behavior, held together with poorly-defined concepts, and explored with often scant methodological rigor. Indeed, there's a strong case to be made that psychology is barely a science.

Seeing how disarray defines psychology, it makes perfect sense that the field's leading theories are vulnerable to collapse. Having watched this process play out a number of times, a clear pattern has emerged. Let's call it the "Six Stages of a Failed Psychological Theory."

How to Actually Hunt a Ghost

Ross Pomeroy - January 4, 2018

Late at night, the lights off, armed with only a thermal camera, Ghost Hunters' Jason and Steve walk along a corridor in a decrepit mansion on the campus of Southern Vermont College. Suddenly a human figure silently strolls from left to right across the camera's viewfinder roughly thirty feet down the hall. The two investigators think it's a ghost's thermal signature, especially considering the heated apparition seemed to walk through two closed doors!

That, or it was a clever piece of editing.

We may never know for sure. Ghost Hunters wrapped up it's final season in 2016 and lead investigator Grant Wilson insists that they were forbidden from faking "evidence" on the show.

But even if the popular program wasn't fraudulent outright, the show's investigators still had no idea how to properly probe the paranormal.

The (Ultimate) Top Ten Science Stories of 2017

Ross Pomeroy - December 30, 2017

The year 2017 is almost behind us, and it blasted by. So it's only natural to look back at the twelve preceding months and wonder, "What the heck happened?" In case you need any help remembering, RealClearScience has you covered (as far as science goes that is). We've aggregated our definitive list of top stories from all of the other lists published at prominent outlets of science news.


Our methods are the same as always: We performed a Google search for "top science stories" lists, selecting only those from go-to RCS sources. Points were awarded to each story based on its ranking. For example, on a typical "top ten" list the #1 story earned ten points, #2 earned nine, #3 earned eight, and so on. Lists that had fewer than ten rankings were normalized to a 10-point scale. For the lists that did not rank the stories, each story earned 5.5 points, which is the average score if you add together all the digits from 1 to 10 and divide by ten.

The List:

Why Do So Many Celebrities Ignore Science?

Ross Pomeroy - December 14, 2017

Coming up with a list of celebrities who support unscientific notions, push pseudoscience, or espouse conspiracy theories is all too easy. Such a catalog includes Jim Carrey, Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mayim Bialik, Robert de Niro, Kim Kardashian, Kyrie Irving, Michael Phelps, Paul McCartney, Ben Stein, David Beckham, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Neil Young, Tom Brady, Jenny McCarthy, Charlie Sheen, Rob Schneider, Kirstie Alley, Doctor Oz, and Bill Maher, among many, many others. On the other hand, compiling a list of celebrities who openly support science is much more difficult. Natalie Portman, Amanda Peet, Tom Hanks, Brian May, Alan Alda, John Oliver, Seth McFarlane, Penn Jillette, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Danica Mckellar, and Jimmy Kimmel all would be on it.

Why do so many celebrities seem to take leave of their mental faculties and not only embrace, but even popularize products, ideas, and policies that go against scientific evidence?

Timothy Caulfield, the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and a professor at the University of Alberta, may be the foremost expert on the topic. He hosts a television series on celebrity pseudoscience and authored the book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? Caulfield hypothesizes that the intense and pressured environment of fame can push celebrities to unscientific beliefs. As he told RealClearScience:

Often their careers depend, to some degree, on appearance. This may make them more susceptible to pseudoscience suggestions in the realm of health and beauty. There may a desire to try anything that might work. The same phenomenon plays out with professional athletes. Anything for an edge. Tom Brady is a great example of how this can play out. He seems to genuinely believe his science-free diet and exercise regimens work. He then becomes a powerful, attractive testimonial for pseudoscience. Look how he is playing at 40 years old! How can you argue with results. But it is just an anecdote, not real science.

The Top 10 Websites for Science in 2017

Ross Pomeroy - December 4, 2017

As the year comes to a close, RealClearScience likes to take stock of all the terrific (and downright awful) science journalism and communication of the past eleven months, and examine who produces the very best. Out of the hundreds of blogs and websites which we monitor daily, these outlets rise to the top:

20 - 11. Though the Internet seems to always number lists in tens, we feel that, in this case, a lot of quality websites would not receive recognition. So, in no particular order, here are the sites and blogs that crack our top twenty:

Scientific American


The Biggest Myth About the "Bee Apocalypse"

Ross Pomeroy - November 29, 2017

In 2006, an ominous term entered the public lexicon: colony collapse disorder. The mysterious, somewhat vague word describes instances where entire colonies of honeybees abruptly disappear, leaving behind their queens. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) has since fueled claims of an ongoing "bee apocalypse," which summarizes the perilous plight of our pollinator pals.

But despite panicked claims of an apocalypse, managed honeybee colonies in the United States have actually been rising since 2008. In fact, as of April 2017, U.S. honeybee colonies are at their highest levels in more than 23 years! According to University of Sussex Professor Dave Goulson, perhaps the foremost expert on bees, the trend is the same globally.

Herein lies the biggest myth of the "bee apocalypse": that there actually is one. Fret not, bees aren't going extinct anytime soon. Our food supply is not imminently imperiled.

Now, this doesn't mean that bees aren't facing tough times right now. Just because domesticated honeybees, which are raised like livestock, are in greater abundance, that doesn't mean that their wild counterparts – around 20,000 species of them – aren't threatened.

The Worst Theoretical Prediction in the History of Physics

Ross Pomeroy - November 25, 2017

Quantum mechanics has a dark energy problem.

When it comes to scientifically mysterious concepts that begin with the word "dark," dark matter attracts most of the public attention. Dark energy, however, constitutes 68.3% of the mass of the universe compared to dark matter's paltry 26.8% (and normal matter's minuscule 4.9%). It is truly the more consequential of the two "dark" concepts.

Yet we'll never likely be able to "catch" a particle of dark energy as scientists are striving to do with dark matter. That's because dark energy is – most likely – just the energy inherent to space, itself, perhaps arising from Quantum foam, composed of virtual particles that flit in and out of existence. As Einstein reminds us, the energy delivered by these virtual particles briefly protruding into space has mass.

When astronomers attempt to measure dark energy's density in space, they come up with roughly 10^−9 joules per cubic meter, a microscopic but influential amount. However, this observed value, known as the cosmological constant, isn't remotely close to that which is predicted by the time-tested quantum field theory. As detailed in the textbook General Relativity: An Introduction for Physicists:

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