VOL. 24 NO. 3 WINTER 2011-12
Apple's Steve Jobs his life
In the recently published Steve Jobs, biographer Walter Isaacson unveils many heretofore hidden details surrounding the life and death of the notoriously guarded genius, whose innovative "i" (standing for "Internet") gadgetry has revolutionized the way humanity interacts in work and play.
Jobs' gaunt appearance in 2003 led to much public speculation about his health. It was not until the following year that he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his pancreas, and his subsequent liver transplant in 2009 seemed a last-ditch effort to salvage a few additional months or years of life from one of the most uniformly deadly of all diagnoses.
But the type of cancer that Jobs had -- an islet cell neuroendocrine tumor -- often offers a far more promising prognosis than does the typical pancreatic adenocarcinoma. Whereas the latter almost uniformly leads to death within a year of discovery, Jobs' cell type, which comprises only 5% of cases, can carry a greater than 50% chance for cure if treated in time. "He was lucky," writes Isaacson, "that it was detected so early -- as the bi-product of a routine kidney screening -- and thus could be surgically removed before it had definitely spread."
Jobs fancied himself a lifelong skeptic -- for instance, he abandoned Christianity at age 13 when his pastor couldn't explain to his satisfaction why God allows famine to claim the lives of innocent children. But his skepticism seems to have been mostly directed toward the conventional rather than the paranormal. As Isaacson puts it, "In the past he had been rewarded for what his wife called his 'magical thinking' -- his assumption that he could will things to be as he wanted."
One relatively benign example: Jobs' belief that he needn't bathe more than once per week when adhering to a strict fruit-and-vegetable diet, which he often did, even as a teenager. A less benign one: That what Penn Jillette would term "NewAge (rhymes with 'sewage')" therapies might prove as effective as the dreaded knife in ridding his body of cancer. From the book: "Specifically, he kept to a strict vegan diet, with large quantities of fresh carrot and fruit juices. To that regimen he added acupuncture, a variety of herbal remedies, and a few other treatments he found on the Internet or by consulting people around the country, including a psychic."
After such "alternative" therapies failed to magically effect a cure, Jobs finally capitulated to the pleadings of physicians and family that he undergo surgery. His wife described for Isaacson "her husband's doctors tearing up with joy" nine months earlier when the needle biopsy results had unexpectedly offered far more than a mere glimmer of hope that their patient might survive for the long haul. But the hiatus may have provided the window of opportunity for his malignancy to spread -- three liver metastases were found. Jobs' ensuing chemotherapy, which worked amazingly well for a time, was uniquely targeted to his tumor cells, thanks to his having "become one of the first twenty people in the world to have all the genes of his cancer tumor as well as of his normal DNA sequenced."
The price tag for that procedure exceeded $100,000, a drop in the bucket for a billionaire. Jobs' magical mystery (de)tour through the world of iPhony cures may have ultimately proven far more costly.
[This article appears as a "News and Comment" item in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.]
Well, not so fast!
In September, physicists at an Italian laboratory reported that they had measured subatomic particles traveling faster than the speed of light. If true, this would violate one of the seemingly unshakable principles in modern physics, first formulated by Einstein, that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. This universal speed limit has been the bane of science-fiction writers ever since. How can we travel to distant stars if it would take years or centuries for one round trip?
The scientists at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy performed measurements over the course of three years, timing the speed of neutrinos coming from the CERN facility in Geneva, Switzerland, 730 kilometers away. Traveling at the speed of light, it should have taken 2.43 milliseconds to make the trip, but on average the neutrinos got there 60 nanoseconds sooner than expected. (A nanosecond is one billionth of a second.)
Scientists around the world were befuddled. How can this be? Will we have to rewrite the basic laws of physics? Woo-woo artists everywhere started speculating that know-it-all scientists were getting a comeuppance, and that proof of psychic phenomena will soon follow. Or could this be another "cold fusion" fiasco, a new earth-shattering discovery soon to be discredited?
As it turns out, neither appears to be the case. There is an important lesson to be learned in watching this exciting report unfold. This is science at its best, not its most ridiculous.
Notice, first of all, how the discovery was reported. The scientists didn't call a press conference announcing that Einstein had been proven wrong and that a new world of physics had begun. The scientists instead reported their findings at a conference of peers at CERN, and set forth the specific ways in which the experiments had been performed, their attempts to triple-check the results, and the uncertainty they felt existed in their measurements. Rather than making room on their mantles for a Nobel Prize, they instead invited their fellow scientists to duplicate the experiments and find its flaws.
Also notice the reaction of the scientific community when presented with a clear description of how the experiments were performed. They immediately began exploring ways in which the findings might be wrong. Perhaps a systematic error in the experiment gave rise to the anomalous results. Perhaps there was uncertainty in the "cloud of neutrinos" that were under observation. Perhaps an electronic malfunction of some sort occurred. No one threw out their physics books.
Since the initial report, the same laboratory asked CERN to "tighten" the cloud of neutrinos being generated and sent to Italy, in order to further refine the parameters of the experiment. In mid-November, they reported that even with this change in the stream of neutrinos, they measured the same 60-nanosecond-faster-than-light speed. This eliminates one possible source of error. But another group of scientists, pointing out that if the neutrinos had indeed traveled faster than light they would have lost a predictable amount of energy, looked for such loss in energy and found none.
Scientists will continue -- as they should -- looking for additional evidence contrary to the "faster-than-light" hypothesis and trying to figure out what (if anything) is wrong with the original experimental design. If they cannot find such systemic errors, then they will need to begin speculating about the ways in which the theory of special relativity may require revision. Some have even argued that special relativity could allow for such a phenomenon under very limited circumstances. Whatever happens, true scientific findings are falsifiable, and scientific theories are always open to disproof and change. Compare that to a typical psychic claim.
As Carl Sagan said, and we often repeat, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof."
The world has been alerted to Ireland's first documented case of "spontaneous human combustion" (SHC). In December 2010, 76-year-old Michael Faherty, badly burned (as were the ceiling and floor immediately above and below him), had been found dead at home lying on his back with his head near an open fireplace. Yet, West Galway coroner Dr. Ciaran McLoughlin states, "This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation." But Mike Green, a retired pathology professor, has his doubts: "I think if the heavens were striking in cases of spontaneous combustion then there would be a lot more cases. I go for the practical, the mundane explanation."
Attorney Mark Anthony is the chief deputy of the court clerk's office in Brevard County. He may not be Mark Antony or Marc Anthony, but that doesn't mean he's not a very special someone in his own right. In fact, he's supernaturally so, or so he says. "I communicate with spirits. I see them. I feel sensations." And why shouldn't he? After all, he's billed on his Website as "The Psychic Lawyer," and in his spare time he helps people overcome their grief by communicating with their dead loved ones. And his new book, Never Letting Go, sounds like a real stocking-stuffer!
According to his ads in the local papers, on Friday, February 10, "internationally acclaimed psychic medium, lecturer and author" John Edward will be appearing at the Doubletree Hotel Tampa Airport to do his Mark Anthony impression. And from his Website: "A John Edward 'group' event is reading intensive. There will be question and answer sessions and messages from the other side. No one attending any John Edward event is guaranteed a reading." But billing himself as "internationally" acclaimed is far too modest. Edward was crowned "Biggest Douche in the Universe" (not merely Earth) in a classic 2002 episode of South Park (watch it here). Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the show's creators, have said that Edward was the unanimous choice of the entire South Park Studios crew. No argument here.
(Tampa Tribune ad, December 3)
TBS was represented for a few seconds in Jeremy Campbell's November 9 story about reincarnation on the 11:00 p.m. WTVT-TV 13 newscast. Terry Smiljanich, who was King George IV in a previous life, had been interviewed on October 13 for the piece, but somehow his footage wound up getting deleted from the Ch. 13 computer (no doubt due to the curse of the double-13). With Terry unavailable at the last minute for a redux, Gary Posner, who recalls having been a mere gravedigger in his previous incarnation, stepped in to save the day.
On November 3, we received an e-mail from Anna Kowalski, a researcher for William Shatner's Weird or What?, a popular Canadian TV series on that country's History Television network. From the program's Website:
We're all fascinated by mysteries and strange phenomena. But is the unexplained really unexplainable? In this irresistible new series, join science fiction legend William Shatner as we investigate all that's weird in the world and attempt to find a logical, scientific explanation. From paranormal phenomena to weird and wonderful creatures, from medical oddities to mysterious disappearances, from bizarre natural disasters to mystical monster attacks, this absorbing series has a deliberately wide brief.
We had Guss Wilder, our in-house video expert, respond to her, but we suspect that she had sent out such feelers to multiple sources, as Wilder was soon advised that she had already found someone to assist her.
Responding to invitations from two relatively new regional skeptics groups, Gary Posner delivered versions of his autobiographical "Metamorphosis from 'Believer' to 'Skeptic'" PowerPoint presentation to the Orlando Skeptics on November 19 and the Suncoast Skeptics (in Sarasota) on December 11. This multimedia lecture, which also covers some of TBS's early investigative efforts that garnered much media attention, was originally created for the 2003 inaugural CFI–Tampa Bay conference in St. Petersburg.
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