Friday, March 15, 2013

Getting Lost, a Seismometer in Space, and Viking 'Magic'

Articles comparing us to other animals often emphasize how we aren't as strong or fast as some other creatures. That's true, as far as it goes. We are, however, smart: very smart.

Our intelligence is a sort of 'good news/bad news' proposition.

On the one hand, we have learned how to deal with nearly every environment that's near the surface of Earth: and a few that aren't.

But since we don't have the built-in responses and trick senses that many other creatures have, bad things can happen if we don't use our brains.
  1. Getting Lost, Being Human
  2. First Seismometer in Space
  3. Viking 'Magic?'

Surrounded by Beauty and Wonders

I've been depressed, literally, for decades. Major depression isn't being gloomy, it's a neurochemical glitch, one that's controllable. (February 25, 2010)

But I don't remember being bored: ever. Even waiting in line, although potentially frustrating, is an opportunity to examine fine details of wherever the line forms.

I've got an insatiable thirst for knowledge; and suspect that having ADHD-Inattentive, Aspergers, or something else, helped. That's another topic. Topics. (November 25, 2012)

When I became a Catholic, I didn't have to give up my fascination with the workings of this universe. Instead, I learned why so many folks seem driven to study the physical world. Turns out, it's part of being human. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2293)

I see no conflict between seeking truth and seeking God:
  • God
    • Created everything
      (Catechism, 268)
  • Creation is
    • Good
    • Ordered
      (Catechism, 299)
    • Being completed
      • It is "in a state of journeying"
        (Catechism, 302)
  • We're supposed to seek God
    (Catechism, 1)
  • We can learn about God
    • By studying what He created
      (Catechism, 31-36, 282-289)
    • Through Divine revelation
      (Catechism, 37-38)
  • The universe is beautiful
    • And may be studied
    Catechism of the Catholic Church, 341)
  • Honest research can't contradict faith
    • Because God made the universe
    (Catechism, 159)
  • It's faith and reason
    (Catechism, 50, 156-159)

1. Getting Lost, Being Human

"Why Humans Get Lost"
Tia Ghose, LiveScience (March 11, 2013)

"In 1996, a ranger flying a helicopter over Death Valley, Calif., spotted a minivan in a wash near Anvil Canyon. That was ominous for several reasons: There was no road leading up to the spot, and the area wasn't passable without a four-wheel vehicle...."
The story doesn't have a particularly happy ending. Tom Mahood found the German family's bodies about 15 years later. It's easy to miss landmarks and get disoriented in remote corners of a foreign country: which is what they apparently did, with fatal consequences.

Even folks who live in an area can get careless. Here in Minnesota, search and rescue sometimes turns into search and recovery: winter is a particularly bad time of year to get lost.

A suggestion, by the way: it's easier for search crews to find a ton or so of metal, than a hundred or so pounds of human. 'Stay with your vehicle' is very good advice.

Ancient Ways and the Hippocampus

"...The story reveals how easy it is for people to become hopelessly lost in the wilderness. Humans get lost in part because we don't pay attention and have lost ancient ways of reading the environment to navigate. But humans' way-finding abilities are also less precise than the abilities of other animals.

"While innate navigational ability differs, 'just about everyone can get better,' said Daniel Montello, a geographer and psychologist at the University of California Santa Barbara....

"...Human mental-mapping stems in part from a brain region called the hippocampus, and studies suggest it can be strengthened with practice. For instance, one study found cab drivers in London have bigger and thicker hippocampi than the average person, said Colin Ellard, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Canada and author of the book 'You Are Here' (Doubleday, 2009)...."
(Tia Ghose, LiveScience)
Having "lost the ancient ways of reading the environment" doesn't bother me too much, at least where most Americans are concerned. Very few of us live in the wilderness. I'm more concerned about folks not paying attention: what's called 'situational awareness' sometimes.

Not paying attention can mean getting lost and missing a meeting; or wandering into a dangerous area and missing the rest of your life. I think it's a shame that so many folks seem to use their eyes to keep from running into walls, and little else: and that's yet another topic.

I have Mr. Walton, my high school art teacher, to thank for that observation about eyes, by the way. It helped me learn to see the world: not just look at it.

'Other Animals?!'

It's been a while since I heard an angry response from the reminder that human beings are animals. Maybe I haven't been paying attention to the 'right' folks.

I don't have a problem with the idea that I'm an animal. More about that after this excerpt:
"...It's also true that the human sense of direction is simply less precise than that of many animals. For instance, migratory birds can use internal magnetic compasses or sonar maps to create incredibly detailed mental maps. And many animals' sense of direction is instinctual and is genetically hard-wired.

"In addition, humans have faulty internal senses of direction. For instance, several studies have found that people walk in circles when blindfolded or disoriented (for instance, in an unfamiliar, heavily forested area), Ellard said. African desert ants, by contrast, can march in a straight line for miles...."
(Tia Ghose, LiveScience)
When I look in a mirror, an animal looks back. It would be downright disturbing if I saw any other sort of creature. I'm a human being, and we're animals. We're also equipped with reason and free will: the ability to decide what we will do. (Catechism, 1700-1706, 1730, 1951) (August 31, 2011)

I suspect that some of the 'spiritual' revulsion from the idea that human beings are physical creatures comes from very old notions about spirit and matter. I don't think God made a mistake by designing us with bodies, and that's yet again another topic. (August 31, 2011)

"...Vastly More Places..."

"...'They [African desert ants] have this prodigious ability to keep track of where they are with respect to their initial starting point,' Ellard told LiveScience. 'They have a very accurate internal odometer.'

"But while animals' sense of direction is more precise, we have a much more flexible way-finding ability, Montello said. For instance, migrating animals travel thousands of miles but usually go to specific, pre-determined locations. But humans use landmarks, directional cues, a sense of how far they've traveled, as well as myriad other cues to go vastly more places, often with no prior knowledge.

" 'We travel much wider and farther than a lot of other animals,' Montello said...."
(Tia Ghose, LiveScience)
As Montello pointed out, we travel: a lot. We seem to have been optimized for the climate of eastern Africa, but by now we live or work on every continent, including Antarctica. Granted, Earth's southernmost continent doesn't have permanent residents, yet. But about 4,400 of us work there each local summer, 1,100 stay for the winter, plus about 1,000 folks on ships in Antarctic waters.

A few of us even walked on the Moon for a few days.

2. First Seismometer in Space

(from ESA/IRAP/CNES/TU Delft/HTG/Planetary Visions, vis, used w/o permission)
"Japan's Tohoku earthquake in 2011 was felt by the GOCE satellite...."
"Japan's Huge Tohoku Earthquake 'Heard' From Space"
Becky Oskin, OurAmazingPlanet, via (March 11, 2013)

"Earthquakes rattle the ground, vibrating Earth's surface like the skin of a drum and sending low-frequency sound waves into the sky.

"The tremendous shaking from Japan's Tohoku earthquake in 2011, the fourth-biggest temblor on record, was so powerful the sound traveled into space, a new study reports...."
Nobody on the International Space Station could have heard that 'sound.' It's pitch was too low for human ears to detect. The sound was recorded by a satellite that's designed to measure Earth's gravity field.

Sound Science and a Jiggling Satellite

"...The acoustic waves, called infrasound, jiggled the European Space Agency's GOCE satellite, which measures tiny variations in Earth's gravity field. The satellite was designed to maintain an ultra-stable orbit by automatically adjusting for such variations. Researchers used a computer model to analyze and extract the satellite's response to the infrasound waves and compute their frequency.

"The satellite tracked the acoustic waves twice, passing through the atmospheric disturbance over the Pacific Ocean about 30 minutes after the quake and over Europe at about an hour later. The GOCE satellite was 140 miles (225 kilometers) above Earth. This is the first time a satellite has directly recorded infrasound in space, the European Space Agency said in a statement. The findings will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters. [See how the satellite tracked the infrasound.]..."
(Becky Oskin, OurAmazingPlanet, via
The European Space Agency designed GOCE to measure Earth's geoid, the surface where Earth's gravity is exactly equal. A geoid isn't 'real,' the way the surface of an apple is real: it's a mathematical model, sort of like the equator or lines of longitude.

Knowing Earth's geoid, and tracking it over time, is useful, though: for measuring ocean currents, estimating the size of Earth's ice caps, and exactly where the ocean's surface is.

"Hitched to Everything Else in the Universe"

(ESA, used w/o permission)
"...'Seismologists are particularly excited by this discovery because they were virtually the only Earth scientists without a space-based instrument directly comparable to those deployed on the ground,' Raphael Garcia, lead study author, said in a statement. 'With this new tool, they can start to look up into space to understand what is going on under their feet,' said Garcia, a physicist with the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology in France...."
(Becky Oskin, OurAmazingPlanet, via
I'm as excited by learning about the universe as some folks are by the sports page. Discovering that satellites like GOCE can serve as seismometers adds more data to what seismologists already know about how Earth's crust moves. Eventually we may be able to predict earthquakes. That could save lives, just as storm warnings do today.

In a more philosophical vein, learning that earthquakes send waves into space reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
John Muir, "My First Summer in the Sierra" (1911)
(Apathetic Lemming of the North (October 17, 2010)

3. Viking 'Magic?'

(from Alderney Museum, via LiveScience and, used w/o permission)
"Researchers say this crystal found at the Alderney shipwreck near the Channel Islands could prove fabled Viking sunstones really did exist. (© Alderney Museum)"
"First Evidence of Viking-Like 'Sunstone' Found"
Megan Gannon, LiveScience (March 10, 2013)

"Ancient lore has suggested that the Vikings used special crystals to find their way under less-than-sunny skies. Though none of these so-called "sunstones" have ever been found at Viking archaeological sites, a crystal uncovered in a British shipwreck could help prove they did indeed exist.

"The crystal was found amongst the wreckage of the Alderney, an Elizabethan warship that sank near the Channel Islands in 1592. The stone was discovered less than 3 feet (1 meter) from a pair of navigation dividers, suggesting it may have been kept with the ship's other navigational tools, according to the research team headed by scientists at the University of Rennes in France.

"A chemical analysis confirmed that the stone was Icelandic Spar, or calcite crystal, believed to be the Vikings' mineral of choice for their fabled sunstones, mentioned in the 13th-century Viking saga of Saint Olaf. ..."
A block of calcite crystal in an Elizabethan-era shipwreck doesn't prove that Viking sunstones were made of Icelandic spar. On the other hand, it's likely enough that an English captain knew about sunstones in 1592. That's about five centuries after the 'Viking age,' but knowledge of 11th century navigation tech would still have been useful.

Lindisfarne, Vikings, and Me

Parts of the British Isles were Viking territory a thousand years ago. From the English point of view, the 'Viking age' lasted from 793 to 1066. I probably had relatives on both sides of the Lindisfarne incident, by the way: and that's still another topic.

'Magic,' Science, and Technology

" 'Magic' Viking Sunstone Just Natural Crystal"
Jennifer Welsh, LiveScience (November 1, 2011)

"Before the invention of the magnetic compass, navigating with a sundial would have been difficult, particularly on overcast days. Ancient Viking lore suggests that they had a magical tool to find the sun, even when the star was hidden.

"Researchers have now discovered the crystal that would have made such a magical apparatus possible. The Vikings could have used a common calcite crystal, called an Icelandic spar, to find the sun in the high latitudes where they would have had to battle long twilights and cloudy skies to navigate. This special 'sunstone' could find the direction of the sun even when it was out of view because it plays a trick with the light.

" 'The Vikings could have discovered this, simply by choosing a transparent crystal and looking through it through a small hole in a screen,' study researcher Guy Ropars wrote in an email to LiveScience. 'The understanding of the complete mechanism and the knowledge of the polarization of light is not necessary.'..."
I think 'magic' is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.

Technology that my kids grew up with, like computers and the Internet, might seem like 'magic' to someone my age.

The AI that handles some telephone services isn't all that smart: but machines I can talk with simply didn't exist when I was growing up. These days, I sometimes have to ask whether I'm speaking to another human.

A thousand years ago, someone seeing a viking trader determine his heading by looking into a crystal might think 'magic.' Then again, maybe not.

More of my take on magic, technology, and all that:

Diplomacy, Viking Style

By the way, vikings seemed to appreciate diplomacy. About a dozen centuries back, quite a few vikings had moved their families to part of the Kingdom of Siagrius called Neustria. It had a nicer climate than their homeland, which didn't take much.

I gather that eventually so many vikings lived in Neustria that the King of the Franks had to take decisive action. He told them that they'd have to take over defense of that border of the Frankish Kingdom. The vikings were happy to oblige.

Before long, they were speaking a version of French, acting like good Frankish citizens: and eventually invaded a nearby island. 1066 and all that.

Finally, another of my favorite quotes:
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
(Arthur C. Clark, "Profiles of The Future")
Related posts:

1 Vikings weren't the ravening marauders we heard about up to a generation or so back. Yes, raids did happen: but vikings were also traders, and often settled in other parts of the world. More about that side of my family:


Brigid said...

Missing an article: "being gloomy, it's neurochemical glitch,"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

P.S. That tendency of humans to go in circles when blindfolded might be a survival adaptation. It does keep us in a certain area so we'd be theoretically easier to find.

Brian Gill said...


Got it!

About walking in circles: that sounds reasonable, particularly since there's very seldom just one human around. Like the fellow said, "there's more of you: there's always more of you!"

Brian Gill said...


Got it!

About walking in circles: that sounds reasonable, particularly since there's very seldom just one human around. Like the fellow said, "there's more of you: there's always more of you!"

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.