And here it is, ladies and gentlemen, your moment of Norse.

Today I encountered a line of beauty products with the curious name of Voluspa.

Question: Was the name chosen at random, simply because it contains the three letters “spa?” Or is there a plan for a whole advertising campaign: “Pamper yourself like Freyja on the eve of Ragnarök?”

Published in: on September 3, 2010 at 22:14  Comments (4)  
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That’s great, it starts with an earthquake, every 26.2Myrs.

It’s not often that reading a research paper makes me literally jump up in my seat and yell “Holy shit!,” but that’s what I did when I saw figure 1.

A fascinating new paper is up on the arXiv today about the Nemesis Hypothesis. This hypothesis originated in the 1980’s, when people noticed that mass extinctions tended to happen every 27 million years or so, and it was suggested that this may be because some hard-to-see star — perhaps a red dwarf — is orbiting with our sun in a very eccentric orbit, passing close to us only every so often and in the process pulling in hordes of comets from the Oort cloud and bringing about death and destruction. (A second periodicity, of roughly 62M years, also exists; it’s known that these extinctions also seem to be tied to oscillations in the sea level, so comets are considered a less likely source and there’s no analogous Nemesis2 hypothesis that I know of)

What the new paper did was accumulate a very detailed record of extinction rates over the past 500Myrs, using all of the best datasets available, and produce a plot of the fraction of species going extinct per unit time. The Fourier transform of this curve is simply shocking: it shows two extremely clear peaks at periods of 62 and 26.2Myr, respectively. Amazingly, these peaks are clear enough to rule out the Nemesis hypothesis; if the periodicity were due to a star’s motion, it would actually have to be less perfectly regular  than the experimental data, because the star’s motion would be perturbed by other stars, the galactic disk, and so on. (Good summary paper of that)

I was up much later than I should have been reading through these papers and thinking through the results. Some things seem clear:

  1. These guys seem to have done fairly serious numeric analysis. I’m not qualified to evaluate their data sources and prospective issues from that side, so I’ll have to wait for the specialist community to weigh in, but I didn’t see any red flags in the paper. From looking at the Nemesis papers, it seems pretty clear that if their statistical analysis is good, then Nemesis is genuinely ruled out; I couldn’t think of any variations on that hypothesis which would survive this data.
  2. The peaks on the graph in this paper are holy-shit sharp and distinct. Something is happening with clockwork regularity that wipes out most of life on Earth.

I’m now spending some time thinking about this and about what these spikes may mean. One interesting question is whether the 62My and 26.2My peaks are related or if they’re caused by completely disjoint phenomena. Interestingly, there’s another bump on the graph at about 17My, although it looks like it’s just above the level of statistical significance, not quite big enough to tell for sure if it’s a real signal. If there is a bump there, then these bumps have the odd property of being evenly spaced in frequency space, at intervals of about 0.02 My-1. The pattern of frequencies ω0+nω1 is familiar from many differential equations — e.g., it’s the pattern of energy levels of a quantum-mechanical harmonic oscillator — so it’s something which could naturally emerge from a fairly wide range of physical phenomena.

On the other hand, the two could be wholly separate, or they could be the only two real spikes. It’s going to be hard to tell without staring some at the raw data, and even then we may not have enough precision to really know. One thing which I do suspect we’ll be able to determine from this dataset is whether either of the two cycles could be coming from purely biological or other complex systems such as Clathrate guns — such systems seem less likely to have extremely precise and stable periods. Honestly, the first thing that pops into my mind when I see this level of stability is pulsars or astrophysical jets; we don’t know a lot about super-long-period pulsars, but because they have such long periods it would be awfully hard to know a lot about them by nature. Call this the “Cosmic Death Ray Hypothesis.” Other interesting possibilities could be long-frequency oscillations of the Sun, or something resonating in the structure of the Earth… although the latter seems a bit less precise to me.

Definitely time to look at the raw data. A lot of this hypothesizing depends on just how tight the error bounds on this data really are. If they’re as tight as they seem from the graphs, this is an amazing source of data.

The good news: We’re still about 16My from the next predicted peak in this cycle, so we’ve got a little while to figure it out. Before the cosmic death rays come to get us.

ETA: There’s a good post about this on the arXiv blog which gives some more context.

Published in: on July 12, 2010 at 11:16  Comments (4)  
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Well, crap.

It looks like the US may have actually managed to do something which will change the situation in Afghanistan in the long term, not just the short term: discovered large mineral deposits.

It’s going to take a while to process the potential implications of this. Afghanistan has been an isolated place, ruled by tribal warlords and resisting any lasting change from foreign invasions for the past 2,300 years, in no small part because it has so little value to a conqueror; its positional strategic value is limited by the fact that it’s so damned difficult to hold and to cross, its natural resources were nil, and it had little population. People would invade it as a buffer zone (Brezhnev), or to get from one place to another (Alexander, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane) or to deal with some group causing trouble (Auckland, Lytton, Bush), but nobody ever held it for a long period of time.

But now there’s an estimated $1T of resources in the ground. On the one hand, local warlords are going to want to get in on the action; but they don’t have anything like the technical or logistical capability to extract resources effectively and sell them on the market. That suggests “large foreign investment,” which would normally be a euphemism for large companies setting up shop and extracting whatever they can, leaving behind as little as possible… but in an area quite as heavily-armed as this one, the normal techniques of this won’t work. I could imagine Western companies coming in if they were backed by a heavy mercenary force, or Chinese companies coming in backed by government troops. Western forces would be backed by governmental forces too, primarily US, assuming that the US had any sense in this — because if there are that many resources in the area, on top of its location, this place suddenly got a great deal more strategic, and keeping it out of the wrong hands (such as China’s) is an important policy goal. Russia is obviously going to want in as well, and I’ll bet that they’re going to use their other resources in Central Asia (e.g., their ability to secure countries where the US needs to maintain military bases to support operations in Afghanistan) in order to ensure that they get it.

Looks like it may be time for another Great Game in the area. I do wonder exactly when people realized the extent of resources available — it may shed some interesting light on the decisions people have been making over the past several years.

Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 21:26  Comments (14)  
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More madness.

A fascinating little clip, courtesy of Warren Ellis’ blog, of a video from Westboro Baptist Church. (The “God Hates Fags” crew) They got together to sing a song called “God Hates The World,” to the tune of “We Are The World.” It’s morbidly fascinating – you don’t get to see real, unabashed dystheism in the world very often. They aren’t even preaching “repent or else;” the message is very clear, God hates you and everybody else, nothing you can do will change it, he’s going to burn everyone in Hell.

It’s sort of like seeing the cultists of the Elder Gods from H. P. Lovecraft come to life; their god is going to wake up and destroy the world, but presumably they’re still worshipping him so that they’ll be eaten last?

Published in: on December 20, 2007 at 23:54  Comments (4)  
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Go Northwest, young man!

The latest round of news about polar ice melting being a lot faster than any models have expected — new satellite data from the ESA. What’s exciting about this one is that they show that the Northwest Passage, a fabled sea route from Europe to Asia via the northern coast of Canada that would shortcut both the Panama Canal and the much longer Cape Route, which explorers searched for in vain from the 15th century to the 20th, is for the first time in recorded history navigable by sea traffic from one end to the other.

Let the gold rush begin.

Published in: on September 15, 2007 at 19:04  Comments (6)  
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The ice models are wrong.

Polar ice retreating much faster than climate models predict.

Something I’ve been saying for a while: The ice modeling in the current gold-standard models (like GISS-E) is Just Plain Wrong: it doesn’t adequately account for positive feedback in ice-melting, such as the way meltwater changes the ambient environment for ice, or the way that ice melt affects ambient atmospheric properties. A calculation like that is pretty much guaranteed to predict that ice melts only very slowly and adiabatically, instead of quickly and with marked “tipping points”.

Conclusion: We’re going to have a seasonally navigable North Polar Sea a lot sooner than many people anticipate.

Published in: on April 30, 2007 at 13:12  Comments (18)  
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Your unreassuring headline for the day

From the Washington Post: “Secret Panel to Govern Domestic Wiretapping.”

You know, in any normal sort of world, that headline would be rather alarming. But it actually represents a significant improvement from the situation a day ago, where domestic wiretapping was governed by the personal fiat of various individuals in the Departments of Justice, Defense, and Homeland Security.

Not to say that I believe that those three organizations will miraculously stop all wiretaps (and other forms of surveillance, both focused and broad-spectrum) that are not governed by the FISC.

Published in: on January 17, 2007 at 17:19  Comments Off on Your unreassuring headline for the day  
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Dialogue in my office

Me: Here’s a headline you don’t see in civilized countries. “Fatah Gunmen Attack Parliament.”
Officemate: Sure you do. Whenever Fatah comes and attacks people’s parliaments.

Only in the Middle East…

Published in: on June 12, 2006 at 13:03  Comments (12)  
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