Department of irreproducible results

From the time of the Enlightenment through the 19th Century, ‘reproducible’ science meant that ‘if you do the same experiment you get the same result.’  In the 20th Century this changed.  We now think that all experiments have an element of randomness.  We say, ‘if you do the same experiment, your results are drawn from the same statistical distribution.’

Jonah Lehrer writes in the New Yorker about scientific results that fade over time.   Lehrer cites many examples from the literature of psychology, but also from biology and even physics.  It happens so frequently that we need to keep an open mind about science  and human scientists, the international community, bias, and maybe some deeper factors.  Some of the possible reasons:

  • Publication bias (negative results don’t get published)
  • Unconscious biasing of observations by scientists who want an experiment to work.
  • Financial interest in the outcome of a study (particularly concerning human health).
  • The original result was a statistical outlier - that’s what made it so interesting.

Maybe there’s a different story for each irreproducible result.  Maybe there are factors affecting the experiment that we don’t yet understand, and therein is new science, awaiting to be discovered.

The most interesting hypothesis is that the world is constructed with an element of uniqueness built into each moment.  Maybe ‘reproducible’ even ‘statistically reproducible’ is an approximation, only part of the story.  Maybe anomalies are part of the world’s repertoire, and what we must come to expect.  Sometimes strange things happen that are permanently outside the realm of scientific explanation.

...and yet we give up great opportunities for discovery if we ever throw up our hands and say ‘it was just a fluke’.  It’s true that the greatest discoveries are made by looking deeply into results that seem anomalous, and it’s also true that most anomalies turn out to be just human error, and you can waste a lot of time pursuing an explanation. 

1 March 2012

Sleepers awake

Roger Ekirch of Virgina Tech has a book that, until the last 300 years, people slept in 2 shifts, with a period of activity in the middle of the night.  Gregg jacobs is a doctor at UMass hospital specializing in sleep disorders.

Jacobs suggests that the waking period between sleeps, when people were forced into periods of rest and relaxation, could have played an important part in the human capacity to regulate stress naturally.

In many historic accounts, Ekirch found that people used the time to meditate on their dreams.

‘Today we spend less time doing those things,’ says Dr Jacobs. ‘It’s not a coincidence that, in modern life, the number of people who report anxiety, stress, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse has gone up.’

So the next time you wake up in the middle of the night, think of your pre-industrial ancestors and relax. Lying awake could be good for you.

read more from a BBC article and video

2 March 2012

 Nonconceptual mind is the universal dancing ground of all warriors.

— Shambhala

Auspiciousness is at our fingertips.

3 March 2012

Suppose there were a new technology...

A thought experiment: Suppose it became possible to do everything in your day twice as efficiently.  You could drive to work in half the time it takes now.  You could sleep just 4 hours a night and feel just as alert and well-rested in the morning.  You could read a book with full understanding in half the time, and watch a video on 2x speed without missing a thing.  You could eat a meal in half the time, fully chewed and well-digested.  You could write a letter or a report or a poem in half the time it takes you now. You could get all the benefits of exercise, working out half as long; and you could have the benefits of calm, clarity and concentration that come from meditation, while meditating just half as long as you do.  Of which of these options would you choose to avail yourself?

Ask these questions to discover what activities you value in itself, and what you’re doing for the sake of getting it done.  For me, the surprising discovery was the extent to which goal-oriented activities have acquired an intrinsic value independent of the goal.  This is, I suppose, a form of operant conditioning.  After many years of associating vigorous exercise with the good feeling that follows and the good health that it supports, I can’t imagine trading away exercise for the benefits of exercise.  Learning was once about empowerment and preparation for unknown possibilities in the future, but is now a value in and of itself.  More puzzling is that I lay off prodding and criticizing myself while I’m working, so that I am free to enjoy work in a way that I am rarely free to enjoy entertainment.

— Josh Mitteldorf

But I do know this clock does one very slick trick.
It doesn’t tick tock.  How it goes it tock tick.
So with ticks in its tocker and tocks in its ticker,
It saves lots of time and the sleepers sleep quicker.
– Dr Seuss

4 March 2012

from A Poem of Difficult Hope

Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out for longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.

Wendell Berry

100 million Indians are on strike this week for a national minimum wage.

5 March 2012

Smart enough to take control of my own evolution, thank you...

Since the very simplest multi-celled life half a billion years ago, animals have relied on nerve circuits to help them locate food, flee from predators, avoid extremes of heat and cold, find a mate, modify the genome of the next generation — no, that last one isn’t right.  The nervous system has nothing to do with changing the genome.  Changes to the genome are random   — that’s Darwin’s theory.  The brain can’t choose genes to pass on to the offspring...

Or maybe it can.  Nelson Cabej has a wild theory that evolution is a directed process, and that the nervous system is conscripted to help figure out what genetic changes would be most likely to succeed.  He cites examples of ‘gene recruitment’, meaning that a new gene is not created, but a gene that had been used for one purpose is adopted in another context to do a different job.

The evidence is indirect, and the examples he cites are about epigenetics, rather than gene changes.  But Cabej’s idea fills a void: it is unclear how evolution has managed to be as efficient as it has been, and I suspect that the process of evolution is itself highly-evolved.

Journal article pdf

6 March 2012


There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously.

Thomas Schelling

7 March 2012

Eating meat without killing

Mark Post, who works at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, is at the leading edge of efforts to make in vitro meat by growing animal muscle cells in a dish. His ultimate goal is to help rid the world of the wasteful production of farm animals for food by helping to develop life-like steaks. In the near term, he hopes to make a single palatable sausage of ground pork, showcased next to the living pig that donated its starter cells.

BBC Video last month
Article in Nature

8 March 2012

Conversation with a Goblin

It began as a sort of test, to try if my own conception of myself tallied with his; and it didn’t—not in the very least. In fact, the description he gave of me would have done very well for the typical goblin of fairy-tale, which, as I told him, was precisely how I saw him. He laughed at that, and told me that, as a matter of fact, he had no shape at all, and that my conception of him proved his description of me was the correct one, because I had visualised myself. He said that he would appear to me in any shape that I happened to be thinking of, and naturally I should be thinking of my own. And I could not disprove a thing he said; and when I looked at myself in the cheval glass, I was not at all sure that I did not look like the traditional goblin.

— J. D. Beresford
from the Psychical Researcher’s Tale, in The New Decameron, Vol III

“...Ever since I was a child, I have had the tendency to create a fictitious world around me, to surround myself with friends and acquaintances who never existed. (I don’t know, of course, if they didn’t really exist or if it is me who doesn’t exist.  On such matters, as in all others, one shouldn’t be dogmatic.)”

Fernando Pessoa

9 March 2012

1% inspiration...

‘For 37 years I’ve practiced 14 hours a day, and now they call me a genius.’

— Pablo Sarasate, born this day in 1844, was a virtuoso musician, who composed showpieces for the violin.  (The reason his music has survived the century is that it’s always entertaining and melodic, and it doesn’t make you think about how hard it is to play (though, of course, it is that). 

Listen to Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, performed by Itzak Perlman, part 1 part 2.
Listen to Nathan Milstein playing Introduction and Tarantella by Sarasate.


9 March 2012

Cold fusion

Those of you who follow this column have read my speculations about cold fusion twice already in the last three months.  If I’m writing about it again, does that mean that I am out of ideas and inspirations?   

Actually, what it means is that I’ve done enough homework to be substantially certain (as of today) that cold fusion is real.  There are dozens of smart physicists around the world who have been working on it, with a total budget that is tiny tiny compared to DoE research for more conventional ideas that will soon be obsolete.  But the scientific community is flipping, and with a huge expansion in research, the technical problems will be solved soon.

Watch this video (actually 8 videos, 90 minutes and it starts slowly) through to the end, and see if you don’t agree with me.

Cold fusion seems to scale naturally to home-size units.  We will get our electric power, our heat and hot water all from one small device in the basement which costs very little to operate, and whose environmental impact is a tiny fraction of what we do now.

Can you remember what the Internet did to democratize the information economy, news and entertainment? Cold fusion will have an effect of comparable magnitude on the energy economy: transportation, manufacture, plastics and other materials, agriculture, and home appliances.

— Josh Mitteldorf

11 March 2012

Evolutionary enlightenment

I believe that those of us in the twenty-first century at the leading edge of consciousness and culture urgently need a mystical spirituality and a source of soul liberation that points us not beyond time but toward the future that we need to create. I believe the spiritual impulse today is calling us not away from the world but toward that next big step we need to take in our world. The next step will not emerge by itself – it must be consciously created by human beings who have awakened to the same impulse that is driving the process.

Andrew Cohen

The exterior of the cosmos is matter; the interior is consciousness.

12 March 2012

 ‘The earth is art.  The photographer is only a witness.’

Yann-Arthus Bertrand, born this day in 1946


Bertrand speaks to us through our eyes, teaches us about the beauty and fragility of the planet he loves.  Home is a full-length, HD movie with one stunning view of the earth after another, sewn-through with a warning about loss of species, habitats and natural wonders.  Bertrand has made it available free on YouTube.

13 March 2012


When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before,

like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.

Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings.

Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
    like the diligent leaves.

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.

In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.

— Mary Oliver (The Leaf and the Cloud

14 March 2012

The sound of bombs not exploding: ten years after

Sitting on the grass as far as I could see, 650,000 people made the biggest silence I ever heard. As the silence deepened, I thought: This is the sound of bombs and landmines not exploding, of rockets not launched, and machine guns laid aside. It is possible for us all.

In war-torn Sri Lanka, this was Peace Samadhi Day, March 15, 2002, perhaps the largest meditation for peace in the history of the world. Organized by the nongovernmental Sarvodaya movement, the meditation both supported the cease-fire recently negotiated with Norwegian help between the Sinhalese-identified Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger secessionist party, and celebrated the launching of Sarvodaya’s “village-to-village, heart-to-heart” Link-Up program.

Article in YES Magazine by Joanna Macy

When we feel our connections to future generations, we can remain steady and determined despite the immediate challenges we face.

15 March 2012

Where do brains come from?

The brain is a learning machine.  Already at birth, it seems to contain more information than there is in all the DNA that told the body how to make it.

Mathematicians have a scheme for quantifying information, so it makes sense to talk about how much information there is in DNA.  You can also talk about how much information is in the wiring diagram for the brain.  Think of it as the instruction set for creating a computer chip:  How many lines of instructions would you need to specify how each transistor is to be connected to the others?  In humans, there are trillions of brain cells, but only billions of DNA codons.

Presumably, all the information needed to build a brain (and the rest of the body, too) is encoded in an animal’s DNA.  What can it mean that the brain is constructed based on such a small amount of information?  Presumably, it means that the instructions aren’t as specific as you might think.  The DNA doesn’t tell every neuron which other neurons to connect to.  Instead, there are more general rules about how dendrites should grow out of nerve cells and seek partners.  But still the damn thing works.  It’s as if I asked you for instructions for building a computer, and you told me to just hook up a trillion transistors so that each one is talking to about a hundred others, and I wired them up at random, and then found in the end that I had a working computer.

“What this means is the last (common) ancestor of the hemichordates and the vertebrates, even though it presumably did not have a vertebrate-like nervous system, had some very complex and vertebrate-like mechanisms for establishing its body plan,” Pani says. “And one of the broad implications is that weird, squishy marine animals can be very informative in terms of understanding the evolution of vertebrate development and genetics in a way that you wouldn't expect.”

Here’s an article at PhysOrg that describes structures in a sea worm that are thought to be ancestor to the vertebrate brain.  It’s a start.

16 March 2012

Life isn’t about finding yourself.
Life is about creating yourself.
— George Bernard Shaw



It’s really about both. Self-examination is an important part of the process.

17 March 2012

It’s true

I am extravagantly wealthy. Ten fingers, each independently and simultaneously slaves to my will. Two lungs that pull energy from an ocean of air, just when I want to use it. Arms. Legs. Lips and tongue. An immune system to defend me.

But most precious of my treasures is attention, which I can direct as I please, and choose in each moment:

     What do I want to learn about?   How can I help?

— Josh Mitteldorf

18 March 2012

Transcendental experiences

It was William James who first subjected religious inspiration to scientific scrutiny.  He sought to describe The Varieties of Religious Experience but stopped short of claiming that the experiences could be ‘explained’ in evolutionary or psychological or neurological terms.

A hundred years later, Jonathan Haidt seeks to do just that.  His hypothesis is that we are evolutionarily programmed to experience a kind of ecstasy when we merge our individual fate for a larger community.  Has he succeeded in de-mystifying the mystical experience?   

Listen to Haidt’s TED talk on the subject.

My take is that Haidt is on to something, but there are further mysteries he does not address. –JJM

19 March 2012


Low-anchored cloud,
Newfoundland air,
Fountain head and source of rivers,
Dew-cloth, dream drapery,
And napkin spread by fays;
Drifting meadow of the air,
Where bloom the dasied banks and violets,
And in whose fenny labyrinth
The bittern booms and heron wades;
Spirit of the lake and seas and rivers,
Bear only purfumes and the scent
Of healing herbs to just men’s fields!

Henry David Thoreau

20 March 2012

Johann Sebastian Bach, born 21 March, 1685

“On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

— Brahms, writing in a letter to Clara Schumann about Bach’s Chaconne in D-minor from Partita #2 for solo violin, BWV#1004
Listen to Hilary Hahn, Part 1Part 2

In earlier times when the “composer’s intent” was less sacred and musicians paid tribute to the music of others by transcribing and arranging it, there were many people who, like Brahms found a world beyond the violin in this chaconne.  Mendelssohn and Schumann both wrote out piano accompaniments that fill the harmonies that Bach implied on the violin.  Brahms himself wrote out a transcription for piano left hand.  And in the 20th Century, Busoni wrote a piano score, and Stokowski created a version for full orchestra.  In all, IMSLP lists a dozen transcriptions.   All this translation and transcription is, of course, perfectly consistent with the art that Bach himself practiced, adapting and transcribing works of his contemporaries.

21 March 2012

Leonardo’s dream

...realized with an athlete’s burst of power, combined with hi-tech materials and computerized control of wings.

Using videogame controllers, an Android phone and custom-built wings, a Dutch engineer named Jarno Smeets has achieved birdlike flight.

Smeets flew like an albatross, the bird that inspired his winged-man invention, on March 18 at a park in The Hague.

“I have always dreamed about this. But after 8 months of hard work, research and testing it all payed off,” Smeets said on his YouTube page.

Smeets got the idea from sketches of a futuristic flying bicycle drawn by his grandfather, who spent much of his life designing the contraption but never actually built it.

When Smeets began studying engineering at Coventry University in England, he realized the physics of a flying bicycle just didn’t pan out. Instead, he drew inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci’s wing drawings to build his flying machine. Along with neuromechanics expert Bert Otten, Smeets brought his design into reality

The design is based on mechanics used in robotic prosthetics. The idea is to give his muscles extra strength so they can carry his body weight during the flight.

Smeets (and his arms) did just that today with the help of a pair of 37-ounce wings made out of fabric, according to a press release.

— from a Wired article.  More videos at

22 March 2012

For lo, the winter is past

Listen to the last part of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony #3, in a four-hand piano arrangement by the composer.


...the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

23 March 2012


But nature is a stranger yet:
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.

To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.

— Emily Dickinson

24 March 2012

The way science is supposed to work

By the early 1980s, the world’s elite theoretical physicists had come to a consensus that the best candidate for a Grand Unified Theory was SU(5).  This was a mathematical structure that was elegant and beautiful, if not exactly simple, and had the potential for explaining the bestiary of all known elementary particles. 

They focused on a prediction of the theory: that protons would not last forever, but would decay with a lifetime of 1032 years.  You may be excused for thinking that the difference between forever and 1032 years is splitting hairs.  But, in fact, a tank containing 50,000 tons of water has 1034 protons in it, so if only you could watch it very, very closely, you might be able to see one pop every week or so.  Thus was born the Super Kamiokande observatory, under a mountain near Hida, Japan.  Radiation detectors and computer analysis of the kind of radiation observed could, in theory, detect the decay of a single proton in the huge tank.

By 1990, it was clear that no protons had been observed to decay.  As a result, the theorists scrapped the SU(5) theory and went back to the drawing board.  No one talks about SU(5) any more. 

I think of this as one of the finest moments in science.

— Josh Mitteldorf

Maybe the Higgs boson will meet the same fate.

25 March 2012

Government not afraid to do the right thing

Germany has turned a corner in its energy policy, away from nuclear power, toward solar panels, wind farms, and small, renewable sources. 

“The German energy transformation is as challenging as the first moon landing,” said Peter Terium, who in July takes over as chief executive officer of RWE, Germany’s second-largest utility. “It’s a huge challenge we’ll be able to master only if everyone works together.”

Germany is among the first nations to grapple with a global need to upgrade power stations. By 2035, at least $10 trillion of investment is needed to add 5,900 gigawatts of generation worldwide, more than five times the capacity of all U.S. utilities, the International Energy Agency estimates. Half of that will come from renewable...“If Germany succeeds, it could be a role model for economies all over the world.”

read more from Bloomberg News

26 March 2012

How God punishes sinners

Benjamin Franklin demonstrated in 1752 that buildings could be protected from lightning by metal rods attached above, and connected into the ground below. Hence began the debate over whether buildings should be so protected. Good old-fashioned religion dictated that God could do whatever He wanted. But the most enlightened Christians of the day held that God acted not through miracles but through Natural Law. Lightning was His favored tool for meting out punishment for sinners, swift and tightly focused.  Lightning rods were an interference with God’s will.

Church spires seemed to be targets of lightning more often than other buildings, and the reason for this association was deeply debated. Churches in America and Europe began tentatively to adopt the new technology, until the Boston earthquake of 1755 caught them up short. It seemed to be true that when God’s choice of a measured, targeted response was thwarted, He resorted to instruments more general and more devastating.

A good number of the new-fangled rods were removed. Elsewhere, adoption continued at a cautious pace, as sextons continued to be fried in the belfry. In a town outside Venice, thousands of pounds of munitions were stored in a church basement, and when the steeple was struck by lightning in 1767, an explosion ensued that destroyed 1/3 of the town and killed thousands. A decade later, lightning rods were still controversial.

The story was chronicled by Andrew Dickson White, founder of Cornell University.

“A true and noble theology can hardly fail to recognise, in the love of Nature and care for our fellow-men thus promoted, something far better, both from a religious and a moral point of view, than any efforts to win the Divine favour by flattery, or to avert Satanic malice by fetichism.”

27 March 2012

Happiness runs in a circular motion
Thought is like a little boat upon the sea
Everybody is a part of everything anyway
You can have it all if you let yourself be.

Listen to Donovan

28 March 2012

Building his dreams

Here’s a man who has built ‘ancient’ temples, in undergorund caves he carved out beneath his house in the Italian Alps, realizing his visions with the help of dozens of volunteer excavators and craftsmen. 

The ‘Temples of Damanhur’ are not the great legacy of some long-lost civilisation, they are the work of a 57-year-old former insurance broker from northern Italy who, inspired by a childhood vision, began digging into the rock.

It all began in the early Sixties when Oberto Airaudi was aged ten. From an early age, he claims to have experienced visions of what he believed to be a past life, in which there were amazing temples.

Around these he dreamed there lived a highly evolved community who enjoyed an idyllic existence in which all the people worked for the common good.  More bizarrely still, Oberto appeared to have had a supernatural ability: the gift of "remote viewing" - the ability to travel in his mind's eye to describe in detail the contents of any building.

‘My goal was to recreate the temples from my visions,’ he says...

In 1977, he selected a remote hillside where he felt the hard rock would sustain the structures he had in mind.

A house was built on the hillside and Falco moved in with several friends who shared his vision. Using hammers and picks, they began their dig to create the temples of Damanhur—named after the ancient subterranean Egyptian temple meaning City of Light—in August 1978. As no planning permission had been granted, they decided to share their scheme only with like-minded people.

Volunteers, who flocked from around the world, worked in four-hour shifts for the next 16 years with no formal plans other than Falco’s sketches and visions, funding their scheme by setting up small businesses to serve the local community.

—Read more and view more photos at the Daily Mail

29 March 2012

Politicization of science

Central planning of scientific research could only work, Polanyi argued, if scientific discovery was the product of specifiable, rule-driven methods—that is, if it were wholly rational. Reflecting on his own scientific career, Polanyi concluded instead that scientific knowledge arose from a mélange of social processes that no purported method could capture.

In place of scientific method, Polanyi trumpeted the importance of “tacit knowledge.” No practicing scientist learned the craft of research from books or articles, Polanyi argued. Rather, they had to practice craftlike skills, which they internalized via social relationships like apprenticeship training. Scientists developed an aesthetic sense for what counted as good science, according to Polanyi, and used any means available to convince colleagues from rival research schools to believe a given result. Scientists often formed their beliefs from an immersion in particulars that resisted explicit articulation; he likened the experience to religious conversion. To Polanyi, the routines of scientific research could never be captured by recipes, and therefore any effort to steer the direction of research, or subject science to central planning, was bound to fail.

— from a book review about Michael Polanyi and the Paradoxical roots of “Social Construction” in science

...and he stopped short of considering the deliberate perversion of science for profit and political ends.

30 March 2012

’Tis all thy fault — Nay, thine!


O, WHO shall from this dungeon raise
A soul enslaved so many ways ?
With bolts of bones, that fettered stands
In feet, and manacled in hands ;
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear ;
A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins ;
Tortured, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart ?


O, who shall me deliver whole,
From bonds of this tyrannic soul ?
Which, stretched upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go ;
And warms and moves this needless frame,
(A fever could but do the same),
And, wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die
A body that could never rest,
Since this ill spirit it possessed.


What magic could me thus confine
Within another’s grief to pine ?
Where, whatsoever it complain,
I feel, that cannot feel, the pain ;
And all my care itself employs,
That to preserve which me destroys ;
Constrained not only to endure
Diseases, but, what’s worse, the cure ;
And, ready oft the port to gain,
Am shipwrecked into health again.


But Physic yet could never reach
The maladies thou me dost teach ;
Whom first the cramp of hope does tear,
And then the palsy shakes of fear ;
The pestilence of love does heat,
Or hatred’s hidden ulcer eat ;
Joy’s cheerful madness does perplex,
Or sorrow’s other madness vex ;
Which knowledge forces me to know,
And memory will not forego ;
What but a soul could have the wit
To build me up for sin so fit ?
So architects do square and hew
Green trees that in the forest grew.

Andrew Marvell was born this day in 1621

31 March 2012

Albrecht Dürer

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design