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Men in Black at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History

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On Saturday, February 5, 2011, my audio book producer John Wagner and I took a break from endless hours of my reading aloud (with John editing out my countless mistakes) my next book, The Believing Brain, which ironically includes chapters on UFOs, aliens, and conspiracy theories. Ironic because for this break John and I took what we thought would be an uneventful tour of the beautiful new National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

This is definitely a museum well worth visiting for a comprehensive tour of all things atomic. It was originally opened in 1969 as the Sandia Atomic Museum, but then changed in 1973 to the National Atomic Museum to include a broader history of the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and finally morphed into the new building that now houses the collection, which includes replicas of the Fat Man and Little Boy bombs (see photograph), along with a B-29, a B-52, an F-105, an A-7, an Atomic Cannon, a Titan II Rocket, a Minuteman Missile, a Jupiter Missile, a Thor Missile, and hundreds more smaller items inside the museum building itself, including these two amusing early uses of atomic energy for “health” purposes:

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1. The Spectro-Chrome Device, “invented around 1911, was used in the practice of Spectro-Chrome therapy. The inventors believed that every element exhibits a certain color. Ninety-seven percent of a human body is made up of four main elements: oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon. The color waves of these elements were thought to be blue, red, green, and yellow respectively. Illness was thought to occur when one or more of these colors became out of balance, either too dim or too brilliant. The Spectro-Chrome Device treated the afflicted part of the body with the proper amount of color and light to restore balance in the body. Once balance occurred, the patient should recover.” The operative word here is “should”.

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2. The Revigator: “This large pottery crock was lined with Radium ore. Instructions on the jar suggest that you fill it every night with water and drink an average of six or more glasses daily. After its discovery by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898, Radium was considered a ‘cure-all’ until the early 1920s.” The operative word here is “crock”.

We were also quite impressed with the array of nuclear-tipped missiles, including these two (see below), one of which had been in space and survived the reentry. Can you tell which one?

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Then something really weird happened. As John and I were strolling along the exhibits talking about this and that, I wondered out loud if they had any examples of the sand that was turned into glass in the Trinity atomic bomb test explosion on July 16, 1945 at White Sands, New Mexico. Just then the museum docent who had kindly joined us to offer more detailed narratives to accompany the printed plaques, explained that they did, indeed, have a display of said sand-to-glass fusion, and there it was, beautiful in its horrific creation. We chatted it up with the docent for a time, at which point I asked if it is possible to go to White Sands and see the glass in situ. She said, “no, it has all been taken away.” I said, “who took it away, and where is it?” She responded rhetorically: “Right, who took it, where, and why?” I repeated the question and she repeated the rhetorical answer.

“Uh, what are you saying? Someone secreted it away?” “Yes, right, it’s gone and no one knows where,” she explained unhelpfully. “But someone must know,” I pleaded.

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At this point she hinted that there are many government secrets still surrounding nuclear weapons. Of this I am quite certain, since governments do keep secrets in the interests of national security, but she seemed to be speaking of a different sort of secret. I probed for more examples of such secrets. “When you go outside,” she offered, “you will see a B-29 bomber, like the one that dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Look at the serial number on the tail. It says 451748. But if you go inside the cockpit and look behind the pilot seat you will find another serial number for that plane: 451749.”

“Okay, so someone messed up,” I suggested. “After all, the people who spray paint numbers on planes are probably not the engineers who design and build planes for Boeing. So what?”

“Well, I looked into that matter myself when I was restoring the plane,” she continued breathlessly, “and it turns out that plane number 451749 disappeared over the South China Sea in a mysterious explosion in the early 1950s. Supposedly one of the bombs armed itself inside the B-29 and then detonated itself.”

“Is that possible?” I queried, wondering just where this story was going but suspecting it was about to take a dramatic turn into conspiratorial waters.

“Have you ever heard of a bomb arming itself and then detonating itself?” she queried. I had to admit that I hadn’t, but I also signaled to her that I didn’t know much at all about bombs and what they are capable of doing, but then suggested that I could certainly imagine how the same people who spray paint the wrong serial number on the tail of a plane could easily screw up while arming a bomb and cause it to explode. Human error happens not infrequently in operating complex machinery.

“Well, I’ll tell you—that doesn’t happen,” she countered my feeble objections. “That plane was shot down or intentionally destroyed.” Okay, shot down. Intentionally destroyed. By whom, enemy fighter planes or an anti-aircraft missile over enemy territory? “No, it was destroyed by our own government.” Why? “Because the crew saw something.” What? What did they see? “Remember, this was not long after Roswell….”

Okay, here we go, we’re on my turf now! Aliens, UFOs, Roswell, New Mexico. The alien encounter in 1947. The crew, she said, probably had a UFO encounter of some sort, and they were silenced. “Wow, that’s incredible,” I enthused. “How can I look into this further?” At this point my erstwhile conspiratorialist grew quiet, warning me in a voice too fervent by half: “You can try but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. I made some calls myself and finally got a hold of a two-star general, who told me ‘I don’t know what happened and you don’t either.’”

“What did you take that to mean?,” I pushed. “He was telling me that if I didn’t drop my investigation of what really happened to plane number 451749, that Men-In-Black would come pay me a visit,” she explained unhesitatingly and with enough dramatis that I would get the message myself.

So…there it is. That’s all I know from my brief visit and having conducted no further investigations. If anyone reading this knows, or knows someone who knows…or who has a Friend-of-a-Friend who knows someone who knows what happened to B-29 plane number 451749, I would really like to know myself. And if there are any M.I.B. out there planning to come visit me, bring an extra pair of those cool black sunglasses for me.

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Murder, Mass Die Offs, and the Meaning of Randomness

The following is an op-ed originally published in the Los Angeles Times, Tuesday January 11, 2011 (under a different title and slightly shorter).

The media once again scrambled this past week to find the deep underlying causes of shocking events. We saw it in the rush to explain the tragic murder of six people in a shopping center in Tucson. And we saw it in the rush of stories about mass die offs of birds and fish around the country.

In the case of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a shopping center in Tucson, attention has turned to the motives of the shooter, 22-year old Jared Loughner, whose political ramblings about returning to the gold standard and about excessive control by the government have sent the media searching for answers in the vitriol of right-wing talk radio, the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement, and the bellicose divide between Democrats and Republicans in Congress and elsewhere.

The mass die offs of fish and birds has spurred a number of deep causal theories, including suggestions that the apocalypse is near and that secret government experiments were to blame, such as HAARP, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Alaska that studies the ionosophere that is run by DARPA, the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which admittedly does sound like something concocted by the writers for the television series X-Files.

We live in a causal universe, so all effects do have causes, but before we turn to grand overarching causal theories such as political rhetoric or government experiments, we must always remember the clustering effect of randomness and how our brains tend to look for and find deeper meaningful patterns even where none exist. Toss a handful of pennies into the air and you will notice that they do not land randomly on the ground. They cluster into apparently nonrandom patterns in which some are closer and others are farther apart. There is nothing inherently hidden in such a clustering effect—no concealed forces under the ground causes the pennies to fall as they do. It’s just chance. But our brains abhor randomness and always seek meaning.

The National Institutes of Mental Health estimates that about 1% of the population suffers from schizophrenia, and that more than 25% of us have some kind of diagnosable mental disorder. As well, psychologists estimate that 1–3 percent of the U.S. population suffers from psychopathy, or the inability to feel empathy and an almost complete lack of moral conduct. Using the conservative figure of 1% and a U.S. population of 300 million people, this means that some 3 million people with either psychosis or psychopathy are walking among us, as well as tens of millions more whose mental health is askew in some way. And many of those who need it aren’t receiving treatment. Given these statistics, events such as the shooting in Tucson are bound to happen, no matter how nicely politicians talk to one another on the campaign trail or in Congress, no matter how extreme Tea Party slogans are about killing government programs, and no matter how stiff or loose gun controls laws are in this or that state. By chance—and nothing more—there will always be people such as Jared Loughner who do the unthinkable.

According to Audubon Society biologist Melanie Driscoll, about 5 billion birds die each year in the United States from a variety of causes. Because of the clustering effect of randomness it is inevitable that some of those billions of birds will die in apparent nonrandom clusters. The 5,000 red-winged blackbirds that died in Arkansas, for example, looks like an ominous cluster when scattered about the ground, but there are over 200 million red-winged blackbirds in the U.S., and according to Driscoll they fly in flocks of 100,000 to 2 million. Although 5,000 birds falling dead out of the sky sounds positively apocalyptic, it represents a scant 0.0025% of the total population.

Of course there are specific causes for specific events. We will, in time, learn of the particular personal and social conditions behind Jared Loughner’s heinous act. And biologists are already identifying the causes of each fish and bird die off. The Arkansas blackbirds, for example, died during a New Year’s eve fireworks display, which may have been a contributing factor. Biologist Driscoll notes that “they cannot see well in the dark and we know they were seen crashing into buildings and cars and poles. Necropsies show blunt force trauma to brain and breast.” Others died near power lines that are thin and hard to see at night. The American Bird Conservancy notes that of the 5 billion annual bird deaths, about 1 billion birds are killed each year in collisions with buildings, communication towers, windmills, and other human-made structures. We just never hear about them unless such deaths happen in clusters and are reported in the media, thereby triggering a type of mass hysteria that leads to conspiratorial thinking and what I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.

Patternicity is what our brains do. We can’t help it. We see those clusters of events and naturally seek out deep causal meaning in some grand overarching theory. But as often as not events in life turn on chance, randomness, and statistical probabilities that are largely beyond our control. So calls for “an end to all overt and implied appeals to violence in American politics”—such as that just issued by MoveOn.org—may make us feel better but they will do nothing to alter the inevitability of such one-off events in the future.

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Conspiracy Central Dealey Plaza, JFK, and LHO

Dealey Plaza

On Tuesday, December 7, I walked through and around Dealey Plaza in Dallas where JFK was assassinated by a lone assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (LHO). Or was he? A lone assassin, that is? Yes, he was, but that is not what anyone giving informal tours of the plaza will have you believe if you give them a few minutes (and a few bucks).

I was in town filming a documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The subject was conspiracy theories, so it was with some irony that we happened to be filming on December 7 because there are many conspiracy theories surrounding that date as well, a date that will live in infamy, as Franklin Roosevelt so crowned that fateful day in 1941, because he supposedly either helped orchestrate the attack on Pearl Harbor or else he knew about the attack and allowed it to happen in order to galvanize the American public into supporting England against the Nazis and getting the United States into the war.

There is no more to the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory than there is that President Bush helped orchestrate 9/11 or knew about the pending attack and allowed it to happen in order to unite the American public into supporting his wars of aggression in the Middle East. Nevertheless, there is something particularly appealing to conspiracy theorists when they describe “what really happened” in their alternative universe of events. You can see it in their eyes when they begin to talk about what “they” want or don’t want you to know about said event.

This was certainly the case for me when I interviewed several conspiracy theorists hanging around Dealey Plaza that day. Their eye light up and they grow ever more animated (and even agitated) as their story grows in complexity about all the different people, elements, and events that almost miraculously (it would be a miracle in most re-tellings) came together to assassinate JFK. One fellow had so many people involved in the assassination that they would have needed a small sports arena to meet to plan out the day. This improbability seems to bother conspiracy theorists not one tiny bit, as they spin out their narratives, drawing you down their causal pathway that resulted in the end of Camelot.

The most striking thing about being in Dealey Plaza for me was how small it is. Perhaps because the assassination itself was bigger than life we expect the geography to match the eventuality, but that is certainly not the case here. Two X’s on the street mark where JFK was hit: first in the throat causing his arms to move up and splay out, and second where the bullet found its cranial mark and literally blew his brains out (and, according to one conspiricist there, sent the skull cap flying across the street and onto the adjacent lawn). What is astounding is how close both X’s are to the sniper’s nest in the Book Depository building. Both from the street level looking up and from the window looking down (there is a museum on the sixth floor from which you can gain the perspective of the assassin), it seems clear that Oswald could hardly have missed. Given the fact that he was designated a sharpshooter by the Marines during his time in the service, and the fact that Kennedy’s car was traveling less than 10 miles per hour after making the sharp left turn onto Elm street, one is left whispering under one’s breath, “Kennedy was a sitting duck.”

Look at the two photographs (at the top of this post), each taken from one of the X’s on the street (I tried to snap a pic from the sniper’s nest, but this must be a problem for the museum because in addition to “No Photography” signs there is a guard standing there the entire time). The window from which Oswald fired is the square window on the far right of the building, second from the top.

Is it really necessary to invent additional assassins when it is obvious that one could have done the job? No. LHO acted alone in killing JFK. QED.

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The Conspiracy Theory Detector

How to tell the difference between true and false conspiracy theories
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This past September 23 a Canadian 9/11 “truther” confronted me after a talk I gave at the University of Lethbridge. He turned out to be a professor there who had one of his students filming the “confrontation.” By early the next morning the video was online, complete with music, graphics, cutaways and edits apparently intended to make me appear deceptive (search YouTube for “Michael Shermer, Anthony J. Hall”). “You, sir, are not skeptical on that subject — you are gullible,” Hall raged. “We can see that the official conspiracy theory is discredited…. It is very clear that the official story is a disgrace, and people who go along with it like you and who mix it in with this whole Martian/alien thing is discrediting and a shame and a disgrace to the economy and to the university” [sic]. Hall teaches globalization studies and believes that 9/11 is just one in a long line of conspiratorial actions by those in power to suppress liberties and control the world. (continue reading…)

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Paranoia Strikes Deep

Why people believe in conspiracies
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After a public lecture in 2005, I was buttonholed by a documentary filmmaker with Michael Moore-ish ambitions of exposing the conspiracy behind 9/11. “You mean the conspiracy by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to attack the United States?” I asked rhetorically, knowing what was to come.

“That’s what they want you to believe,” he said. “Who is they?” I queried. “The government,” he whispered, as if “they” might be listening at that very moment. “But didn’t Osama and some members of al Qaeda not only say they did it,” I reminded him, “they gloated about what a glorious triumph it was?”

“Oh, you’re talking about that video of Osama,” he rejoined knowingly. “That was faked by the CIA and leaked to the American press to mislead us. There has been a disinformation campaign going on ever since 9/11.” (continue reading…)

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