The Long View 2007-03-09: Physics, Warrior Robots, Glottochronology, & Reforms Good and Bad

A small sample of the high-temperature superconductor  BSCCO -2223.  By James Slezak, Cornell Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics - Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=864046

A small sample of the high-temperature superconductor BSCCO-2223.

By James Slezak, Cornell Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics - Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=864046

High-temperature superconductors are much like nanotechnology: just another kind of vaporware that has gone nowhere. I should probably update my cocktail party theory of why science can’t seem to do anything cool anymore on this in light of an additional ten years of experience.

Also interesting to note that John J. Reilly was a fan of the national popular vote, and not a fan of daylight savings time, at least as implemented.


Physics, Warrior Robots, Glottochronology, & Reforms Good and Bad

It's about time, that's all I can say:

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli defense firm on Thursday unveiled a portable robot billed as being capable of entering most combat zones alone and engaging enemies with an onboard armory that includes a machine-pistol and grenades.

Click on this totally misleading image to see what the robot really looks like:

I am inclined to think that this is just a minor improvement in SWAT technology rather than the beginning of the end of infantry, but I could be wrong. In 1914, hardly anyone appreciated the implications of the machine gun. In any case, we have a way to go before we see the slinky Cylons of Battlestar Gallactica.

* * *

Why are there no flying cars in the early 21st century? In part because so little came of this:

Twenty years ago this month, nearly 2,000 physicists crammed into a New York Hilton ballroom to hear about a breakthrough class of materials called high-temperature superconductors, which promised amazing new technologies like magnetically levitated trains...But today the heady early promises have not yet been fully filled. High-temperature superconductors can be found in some trial high-capacity power cables, but they have not made any trains levitate. The rise in transition temperatures has stalled again, well below room temperature. Theorists have yet to find a convincing explanation for why high-temperature superconductors superconduct at all.

In those days, Chaos Theory had just recently been the flavor of the month, and was still supposed to be a new, culture-transforming model of causality. Room-temperature superconductors were supposed to provide the hardware component for the new world. Only the geekiest geeks and a few SF writers had a clue about the Internet, which really was an important technological development (and whose effect, as I have argued at tedious length, has been essentially conservative).

Let those of us take a lesson who think that neuroscience will make all things new.

* * *

The peoples of the British Isles are all pretty much cut from the same genetic cloth, according to a piece in The New York Times. For the most part, they have been there since the ice age, if not before, so we can forget about all that Saxon versus Celt business. Well, okay, but genetics is one thing; what are we to make of conclusions like this?

Dr. Oppenheimer has relied on work by Peter Forster, a geneticist at Anglia Ruskin University, to argue that Celtic is a much more ancient language than supposed, and that Celtic speakers could have brought knowledge of agriculture to Ireland, where it first appeared. He also adopts Dr. Forster’s argument, based on a statistical analysis of vocabulary, that English is an ancient, fourth branch of the Germanic language tree, and was spoken in England before the Roman invasion.

The hypothesis that Anglo-Saxon was spoken in England before the arrival of the Angles or the Saxons is, perhaps, counterintuitive, but no doubt the argument is more persuasive in detail. In any case, this attempt to date language change is based on glottochronology. That procedure is based on a reasonable notion for estimating how long one language has diverged from another with the same ancestral language: count the cognates in a list of 100 or 200 basic words in the daughter languages. Morris Swadesh estimated that 14% of that vocabulary would diverge in a millennium. That worked well for the Romance languages, but there were counter examples in different language groups. Sergei Starostin suggested that a count should be made only in "autonomous" changes in the basic wordlist, excluding loan words. With that stipulation, the rate of change falls to 5 or 6 native replacements per millennium.

The problem is that, to apply these rules, we need to already know so much about the histories of the languages in question that the glottochronological estimate will usually be superfluous. Alas.

* * *

Friends of civil peace must regret the failure of the House of the Colorado legislature to pass the National Popular Vote bill, after the Senate had approved it. As the measure's proponents put it:

Under the National Popular Vote bill, all of the state’s electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538).

The most discouraging thing about the opposition to this necessary measure is the transparent nonsense of arguments like this:

Law professor Robert Hardaway from the University of Denver was equally critical.

He said problems with a candidate winning the popular vote but losing the electoral vote are rare, but result in cries for changing the system.

Without the electoral college, close votes would be a nightmare, Hardaway said.

"You think 2000 was bad? You’d have recounts in every precinct, in every state," he said.

In reality, of course, the NPV mechanism does not change the local rules about when a recount can be demanded. No matter how close the national vote, districts with 60% to 40% majorities for one candidate would not have a recount. Districts with electoral results that are close within the definition of local law would have recounts, just as they do today. The NPV does not abolish the Electoral College; the College would still turn pluralities into majorities.

And why is the NPV necessary? It's necessary because if George Bush had won an Electoral College victory in 2004 there would have been gunfire. It is necessary because the US cannot promote democracy abroad if its chief executive is chosen by gerrymander. It is necessary so that the rural populations of the big electoral-vote states are no longer disenfranchised in presidential elections. The last point is maddening: it's the Republican Party that is chiefly handicapped by the current system.

* * *

Brothers and sisters, I can no longer keep silent, since we are just days away from the fulfilment of this scripture:

And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws:

And what is Microsoft doing about it??

IT workers have been waiting three or four hours to get telephone support from Microsoft [regarding the start of Daylight Saving Time on March 11 under the new federal law], whose Exchange Server serves as the official calendar for many of the world's largest businesses.

Aiming to shorten that wait, Microsoft has boosted the number of people addressing the time change issue. Earlier Thursday, the company opened up a "situation room" devoted to monitoring customer issues and providing support to the software maker's largest customers.

Unlike Y2K, this change could be a real nuisance. Supposedly, businesses like this change, because it gives people more daylight in which to shop. Again, I can only ask: why not just institute spring and autumn schedules? If federal offices were directed to open at 8:00 A.M. in March and 9:00 A.M. in November the rest of society would follow suit and we would not need to reset the damn clocks.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-06-01: Reinventing The Wheel

By Alexander Blecher, blecher.info, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44929395

By Alexander Blecher, blecher.info, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44929395

I seriously doubt the proto-clickbait article cited here about mutated super-intelligent children in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and surrounding areas, but I do find the unintentional wildlife reserve created in Ukraine fascinating.


Reinventing The Wheel

 

The fact that Stanley Fish, formerly the prince of postmodern criticism, is now teaching elementary courses in composition is alarming. More alarming still is his opinion piece in The New York Times of May 31, Devoid of Content, in which he explains how he teaches.

His thesis is that elementary writing courses should concentrate on the formal elements of language rather than on the content of what the students write about. That is reasonable enough; but see how he does this:

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students.

That is what they used to teach Latin for. Students who would never be able to read a classical author with profit would nevertheless remember for the rest of their lives what the subjunctive mood is, and what the dative case is for. The very fact that some features of Latin have no analogue in modern English made the exercise all the more valuable.

I like artificial languages, too, but the students would be better served by a serious requirement to study a suitable natural language.

* * *

Here is good news, after a fashion: The Chernobyl nuclear disaster has spawned a generation of ‘mutant’ super-brainy children:

Kids growing up in areas damaged by radiation from the plant have a higher IQ and faster reaction times, say Russian doctors...They are also growing faster and have stronger immune systems.

This could be true. From what I hear, the Ukrainian government has made a serious effort to rehabilitate the areas affected by the nuclear disaster. The social investment has even created a small babyboom. It would be no wonder if the kids produced better vital statistics.

* * *

The Shameless Spengler at Asia Times explains why Benedict XVI is seeking to reverse the medievalizing wrong turn that the Church allegedly made in the 19th century, and why it is vital to the future of the West that he succeed. The column is called The Laach Maria monster. Here are some of the good bits:

The Church did not create Hitler, but the means by which it concocted a fake medieval past made it easier for the race theorists of Nazism to create their own medieval past as well. If it was convenient to concoct an Age of Faith, then why not also concoct a golden age of Aryan supremacy?

I see what he is talking about. In Inventing the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor mentions two German medievalists, Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz, whom he calls "the Nazi Twins," and who were responsible for giving the Füherprinzip faux-medieval fairytale glow. However, I need a lot of convincing to be persuaded that the 19th-century Medieval Revival was chiefly Catholic in inspiration. Rather the opposite, if you look at the history of the Holy Grail. Was Wagner Catholic?

In any case, Spengler also has this interesting aside about the geneology of the liberal wing of the 20th-century liturgical reform:

James Carroll's 2001 bestseller, The Sword of Constantine, makes its villain the miserable Herwegen [the abbot of the Nazi-leaning monastery at Loch Maria], but Carroll discovers to his confusion that he has more in common with the pro-Hitler Benedictines of 1933 than with the present leadership of the Church. As Carroll reports, the "liturgical movement" of the 1920s introduced congregational participation in the Mass, that is, making the "people of God" (whoever might have wandered in) into the actor. Carroll approves, explaining, "No longer do we attend Mass as a collection of isolatos, each on his or her knees, face buried in hands from which dangle rosary beads. We do not approach God alone but as members of a praying community, members of a folk." Benedict XVI rejects the "folk" Mass on the simple grounds that God, rather than the "folk", is the actor in the Mass.

It is a little more complicated than that, but certainly one should look askance at any clergyman who says "community" where "God" would fit better.

* * *

Readers of my site will know that I am a great fan of C.S. Lewis. I was particularly impressed by his description of "joy," a term he uses in a way that is roughly equivalent to "Sehnsucht," or the Welsh "hireath." I knew what he meant, but I thought his treatment of the subject was wholly original. Recently, however, I have been reading Peter Brown's Augustine of Hippo, where I found some material related to this topic.

Augustine, like Lewis, was one of that not inconsiderable class of people who are converted in their early 30s, only to discover that their spiritual lives do not then progress to a state of unshakeable bliss:

Briefly, Augustine had analyzed the psychology of "delight." "Delight" is the only possible source of action, nothing else can move the will...But "delight" itself is no longer a simple matter. It is not a spontaneous reaction, the natural thrill of the refined soul when confronted with beauty...the processes that prepare a man's heart to take 'delight' in his God are not only hidden, but actually unconscious and beyond his control...Delight is discontinuous, startlingly erratic: Augustine now moves in a world of 'love at first sight,' of chance encounters, and, just as important, of sudden, equally inexplicable patches of deadness. (pp 148-9)

I am starting to wonder: has anyone, ever, had an original idea?

* * *

My amazement at the shoddy draftsmanship of the proposed Constitution of the European Union only grows with time. On policy grounds, I object to the International Criminal Court. However, as I have noted, its charter is clear, even inspiring in places, and it is of reasonable length. Again: what is wrong with Brussels?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-04-13: Artificial Languages; Social Security Will Be Cheap; Roman Decapitation; Desperate Islamists

The Origin of the Finnish Peoples

The Origin of the Finnish Peoples

Speaking of Tolkien's languages, Razib Khan recently had this to say:

...the Finns and Estonians speak language is rather peculiar in a Europe dominated by Indo-European tongues (I suspect one reason that Tolkien based Quenya, the high elvish language, on Finnish is that it is so otherworldy to the Germanic ear. The Sindarin language, which was the common tongue of elves in Middle Earth, was based on Welsh). Rather, the distribution to the Uralic languages extends to the east, as far as Siberia. Even the closest affinities to Finnish and Estonian extend eastward, as there are Karelians who live deep in northwest Russia.

John's comment on his made-up languages 


Artificial Languages; Social Security Will Be Cheap; Roman Decapitation; Desperate Islamists

 

All you language-buffs in cyberspace: drop whatever you are doing and go immediately to Lang Maker, a site that archives artificial languages. You will find complete descriptions of the familiar ones there, such as Esperanto and Tolkien's languages. You will also find more obscure ones. Some of these have considerable cults, and even their own literatures.

I used to make up languages when I was in high school. The earlier ones were very Latinate (which makes sense, because I was studying Latin at the time). The later ones were less about language than about logic. What I chiefly remember is that the more logical a system, the more uselessly long its utterances became. There is a lesson in that.

* * *

All discussions about Social Security start with the premise that we will soon be entering a world in which an unprecedentedly small proportion of workers will be supporting an unprecedentedly large dependent population. In last Sunday's New York Times, however, Eduardo Porter argued Maybe We're Not Robbing the Cradle:

But some economists are sanguine about the country's ability to support the elderly and at the same time provide for the young. Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that the decline in fertility rates since the 1960's means that the burden of caring for the young has decreased dramatically - freeing resources to channel to the old.

The overall burden on the employed will grow, but not to unprecedented levels. The ratio of people of working age to those either under 20 or over 65 will decrease to 1.2 in 2050 from about 1.5 today. But this is still an easier load than in 1965, when the country was awash with children, and the ratio of the working-age population to each dependent was only 1.1.

True, the young are cheaper to maintain than the old. In 1990, economists at Harvard and M.I.T., including David M. Cutler and Lawrence H. Summers of Harvard, estimated that people over 64 consume 76 percent more than children.

Still, Mr. Burtless estimated that in 2050 a worker will have to sacrifice 49.6 percent of his or her wages - through taxes or other means - to maintain society's dependents. That is nearly 6 percentage points more than in 2000, but it is merely 0.8 percentage points more than 1965. And the percentage could well be smaller if people work later in life to pay for more of their keep.

This argument is comforting, but there is something fundamentally wrongheaded about it. Supporting old people is a good thing in itself, but it is a pure expense; support for children is an investment, which pays for itself many times over during the course of their lives.

* * *

Speaking of Tolkien and the logic of sentences, here's a dispeptic remark from Mark Steyn, about the upcoming British election, which may rank with Bilbo's Farewell Address at his 144th birthday party

That's also the problem those three party leaders face. I've no reason to disbelieve the crop of polls showing Labour and Conservatives neck and neck, but, unlike American polling, where distinctions between "registered" and "likely" voters are carefully studied, none of us has any clear idea which unloved party will do the least effective job at further depressing the turnout of whatever unenthusiastic faction of its dwindling base is most unresistant to being cajoled to the polls.

And did Bilbo's remarks amount to a compliment? I've never been sure.

* * *

The Vatican's website has done a good job of posting material relevant to the current papal interregnum. Among other things, there is the Apostolic Constitution that John Paul II issued a few years ago, Universi Dominici Gregis, which updated the rules for the next papal conclave, and gave instructions about the government of the Holy See while there is no pope:

A careful historical examination confirms both the appropriateness of [the institution of the Conclave], given the circumstances in which it originated and gradually took definitive shape, and its continued usefulness for the orderly, expeditious and proper functioning of the election itself, especially in times of tension and upheaval.

Precisely for this reason, while recognizing that theologians and canonists of all times agree that this institution is not of its nature necessary for the valid election of the Roman Pontiff, I confirm by this Constitution that the Conclave is to continue in its essential structure; at the same time, I have made some modifications in order to adapt its procedures to present-day circumstances.

The modifications are not dramatic. The chief novelty is that the cardinal-electors will be housed in hotel-like accommodations within the Vatican, rather than in a spartan temporary dormitory in the Sistine Chapel. What struck me, however, is that JPII's Constitution did not address the issue of decapitation: what happens if all the electors are killed or disabled? Before he committed The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown wrote a novel called Angels & Demons that dealt with just that kind of threat. It's a silly book, but a serious issue.

It is possible that I missed something, but the Code of Canon Law does not specify what would happen if a regular election were impossible. Some general provisions say, in effect, that the necessary executive power resides "in the Church" to deal with any situation in which there is factual or legal uncertainty.

We should remember that the pope is the bishop of Rome, and the cardinals are, nominally, members of the clergy of that diocese: each has a titular appointment to some church in the city. Might the actual clergy of the city act if the College of Cardinals cannot?

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the New York Times, Thomas Friedman is writing columns with titles like: The Calm Before the Storm?

[W]hy have there been no terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11? I've got my own pet theory about what's produced this period of calm - and, more important, why it may be coming to an end...It is not only that the Bush administration has taken the fight to the enemy, but that the enemy has welcomed that fight...The Jihadists have always understood that Iraq is the ballgame. Iraq is the big one. Winning there is what really advances their agendas.

The reason things may be getting more dangerous now is that the formation of a freely elected government in Iraq may signal that the Baathist-Jihadist insurgency is being gradually defeated...In short, the more the Jihadists lose in Iraq, the more likely they are to use their rump forces to try something really crazy in America to make up for it.

There is something about spring that incites columnists to dark meditation.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-02-25: The Devil, Babble, & Chant

Mary's Crown of Stars

Mary's Crown of Stars

John has an interesting aside here about the official languages of the EU. With Brexit, the number will in theory drop by one, but in practice, English is already the language all of the European countries have in common with each other.


The Devil, Babble, & Chant

 

As the cost rises of caring for the increasing elderly population, we can expect to see more headlines like this: Justices Accept Oregon Case Weighing Assisted Suicide. That's the case in which the federal government claims that Oregon's assisted-suicide law violates federal drug-control rules, because suicide is not a federally approved use of controlled drugs.

I think the medicalization of suicide is a poor notion, but the State of Oregon is clearly right here: the states define acceptable medical practice, if for no other reason than that there is no detailed body of federal regulation to do so. John Ashcroft's Justice Department did no one any good by pursuing an argument so obviously doomed to fail. In various oblique ways, the impending decision against the federal government will aid the medical euthanasia lobby in the coming renewed effort to extend the Griswald-Roe-Casey autonomy right to include suicide.

* * *

So how many oceans do we have in this solar system now? We can count three of the four Galilean moons, with varying degrees of confidence, and maybe Titan, though the ocean there seems to be made of lighter-fluid and fairy dust and it disappears whenever you try to take its picture. If lots of frozen water will do, then maybe we have to add another one:

A frozen sea, surviving as blocks of pack ice, may lie just beneath the surface of Mars, suggest observations from Europe's Mars Express spacecraft. The sea is just 5° north of the Martian equator...This evidence suggests the plates are not just imprints left by ice that has now completely vanished. Crater counts indicate the age of the plates is about 5 million years.

I am starting to think that we have just been unlucky about where we have been looking on Mars. One of these days, a rover might look around a rock and see an endothermic petunia.

* * *

Meanwhile, extraordinary variety persists on Earth.

The European Union has been operating in 20 official languages since ten new member states joined the legislative body last year...EU institutions currently require around 2,000 written-text translators. They also need 80 interpreters per language per day, half of which operate at the European Parliament.

Note that this translation enterprise is twice as big as that of the UN, which makes do with just six official languages. And as a matter of fact, the EU really runs on English, French, and German. The idea seems to be that the EU has to accommodate all those minor languages because it is not staffed by diplomats, who would be appointed because of their language skills, but by politicians, who are there because someone elected them.

* * *

Peggy Noonan has provided a bit more evidence for the spread of the Second Religiousness, this time in the public statements of Senator Hillary Clinton of New York State:

Forget her prepared speeches, put aside her moderate statements on Iraq and abortion. This is how you know she's running for president in 2008. Ten days ago a reporter interviewed her in the halls of the Senate (another kind of cloister) and asked if she planned to run for president. She did not say, "I'm too busy serving the people of New York to think about the future." She did not say, "Oh, I already have a heckuva lot on my plate." She said, "I have more than I can say grace over right now."

Do prayers have a maximum reference capacity? Now that's a theological toughie.

* * *

My own religion-related activities as limited by my intelligence, as I discovered when I tried to upgrade the page on my website that promotes a local Latin Mass. Since we do mostly Gregorian Chant, I decided to include a sample on the page, so I went the monk's mouth, the Abbey of Solesmes. There were lots of chant samples there, and a disclaimer assured me that no rights attached to the files. Fine. I would just insert one of those RealPlayer files into my page as background.

Those of you who have already encountered RealPlayer and its wicked ways are already laughing.

In contrast, I have nothing but praise for NCH Swift Sound. They provide a menu of free audio recording and editing tools, which are just appetizers for the serious software. That's more than I need, but anyone who works with audio should take a look.

In any case, I did manage an update to my Latin Chant page. One of these days, I should read a book about programming.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2002-06-02

Parkes 64m Radio TelescopeJohn was interested in Fortean phenomena. While this subject provides plenty of opportunity to poke fun at the credulous, every so often fish and frogs really do rain from the sky. One might also note that the spectacular electrical phenomena known as sprites and blue jets have been observed for over a century by pilots, but such reports were widely dismissed until someone managed to catch one on camera.

Cold fusion and reactionless thrusters keep disappointing everyone, but there is a big enough payoff in these things that federal agencies with no sense of humor keep funding small experiments in the hope of a breakthrough.

I am disinclined to dismiss data out of hand. I am also disinclined to give an n of 1 more weight than it deserves. I think John understood this pretty well.

Science!

 

Apropos of nothing in particular, here are some science stories I have been following. They are not quite fringe science. All they have in common is that, if they have substance, the world will never be the same again.

Talking to Extraterrestrials: I have my own, rather convoluted ideas about the likelihood of detecting extraterrestrial intelligence with radio telescopes. The fact is, though, this is one of those questions about which almost all speculation is equally ill-founded. The matter is bound up with fashions in evolutionary theory and often driven by bad metaphysics. There really is no way to settle these issues other than by experiment; that is, to just search.

Let us assume that signals are detected, and the source is near enough for an exchange of messages. This leaves us with the problem of communicating with a non-human intelligence. The difficulties in this connection may have been underestimated. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein went so far as to say that, if a lion spoke, we could not understand it. The idea is that understanding language is as dependent on the nature of the hearer as on the structure and use of the language. Even creatures as closely related as a human being and a lion experience the world so differently that they could not be expected to devise a common code.

Scientists often skip over this problem by asserting that "mathematics is a universal language." This position is known as Mathematical Platonism. It is one of the perennials of philosophy, but so is the position that mathematics is just another arbitrary language. John Barrow, in his wonderful book Pi in the Sky, considered whether and to what degree mathematics is culturally conditioned. He even considered the possibility that we might contact extraterrestrials who have no concept of a "theorem." He came down, grudgingly, on the side of Platonism, though he admitted he had no answer for the old objection that there is no obvious way to connect the Platonic world to this one.

I write about this now because I recently came across some research from Yale that might cast light on the matter. The study concerned the way that autistic people watch movies. Both the autistic subjects and the normal control group were highly intelligent and verbal. Nonetheless, the researchers found that the two groups watched movie dialogue differently. The normals watched the eyes of the characters, while the autistic people watched the mouths.

As with so much else about autism, probably we are just seeing an extreme manifestation of ordinary behavior. If you watch a film in a language you do not know well, for instance, you might find yourself looking at the mouths, too. In any case, what seemed to be happening was that the normals assembled what they saw on the screen into the integral Gestalt we call a person. The autistic people were processing information, without integrating the behaviors they saw into persons. Autistic people can do that, of course, but it takes work.

This could be the kind of problem we might have with extraterrestrials, and they with us. We might be able to mirror signals that refer to the same physical events, but we would not see what the events meant, or indeed that they meant anything. At least initially, the flow of data would not suggest mind or consciousness. We would be lucky to spot the flow as artificial. At that point, we might do well to send for special education teachers.

Black Light: I fell for Cold Fusion from the time when the claims to have produced it first surfaced in 1989. There were so many other wonders in that year; the discovery of a perpetual source of virtually free power seemed to be natural. I was inclined to attribute the early skepticism about the discovery to malice and jealousy on the part of the skeptics. The subject still makes me grumpy.

I still think that, if I wait long enough, some table-top physics will come along to change life as we know it. The best contender at the moment is "black light," ultraviolet radiation produced by an excited plasma. Black Light Power, a New Jersey company, has already built some interesting batteries and generators using proprietary Black Light technology. Even more interesting, NASA has invested some money to pursue Black Light. The technology's proponents say they can make a hydrogen plasma rocket engine that will work in the atmosphere.

The problem is that the technology may require ripping up 20th-century physics. The Black Light people say they have found classical solutions for quantum phenomena. They say they are getting energy from hydrogen atoms below the ground state. They have peer-reviewed articles documenting some novel effects. I don't understand the claims well enough to say whether the hair-raising physics has to be correct for the technology to work.

As we say in New Jersey, it's nice work if you can get it.

Lost Civilizations: When people claim to have found a lost civilization, they are usually either (1) lying; (2) failing to recognize the remains of some known culture; or (3) mistaking natural formations for artificial ones. I was thus somewhat surprised that last year's reports about submerged megalithic structures off western Cuba's Guanahacabibes Peninsula have not gone away. The observations were made by a Cuban-Canadian partnership looking for sunken treasure ships. What they found, using sonar and robot submersibles, looks like an extensive area of roads, walls, and pyramids. A sunken city is not by itself so remarkable. The problem is that this one is 2,000 feet down.

Even in the geologically unstable Caribbean, there is no obvious way this could have happened. The region in question probably once connected Cuba with Central America, but that was on the order of 50,000 years ago. At that time, there were no civilizations. There were some barely human hominids in the eastern hemisphere, but no one in the west.

The odds are still strong that the find will turn out to be natural structures after all. If they are not, then no doubt special explanations will be found to fit the subsidence into known history. Huge, submarine landslides are not unheard of: a ridge might have slid into the sea just a few thousand years ago, raising a great tsunami in the process. To discover that such a thing had happened would be wonder enough.

The alternative is too disconcerting to be wonderful. We would not be talking about Atlantis anymore, but of a city out of Lovecraft.


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