Bizarre 307-million-year-old “monster” fossil identified

One of the weirdest-looking creatures ever to have existed has finally been analyzed and categorized. The “Tully Monster” (named after its discoverer Francis Tully, who found the fossils in Illinois nearly sixty years ago) has long puzzled scientists. But a team of researchers recently used scanning electronic microscopes to explore its internal structure, and their findings have allowed them to explain the animal’s lineage. From arstechnicabizarre-monster-fossil

The “Tully monster,” a mysterious animal that swam in the inland oceans of Illinois more than 300 million years ago, left behind a tantalizingly detailed map of its body in a well-preserved package of fossils. Unfortunately, nobody could figure out what the creature was for half a century—until now.

[W]here did Tullimonstrum fit into the history of life in the seas? A team of researchers has just […] analyzed the fossils using scanning electron microscopes, which allowed them to explore the anatomy of the Tully monster inside and out.
[…] “The buccal apparatus of Tullimonstrum suggests that it grasped food with its bifurcate anterior projection and rasped pieces off with the lingual apparatus,” the authors conclude. Which is to say, the Tully monster used that long, toothy protrusion from the front of its body to grab food, and then it ripped bites off using a long, powerful tongue. And it needed that weird-ass eye arrangement to see what it was doing at the end of its mouth proboscis.

Cool stuff! You can read more here.

The Seattle windshield pitting epidemic: a textbook case of mass hysteria

Mass hysteria, per Wikipedia’s definition, is “a phenomenon that transmits collective delusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumors and fear.” You may be familiar with famous incidents of mass hysteria such as the Dancing Plague of 1518 or the Salem witch trials, but you likely haven’t heard of a much more mundane yet relatably close-to-home instance: the Seattle windshield pitting epidemic of 1954. Considered by experts to be a “textbook” case of collective delusion, residents of Bellingham, Seattle, and other communities of Washington reached a state of panic when they began noticing “holes, pits, and dings” in their windshields.

[O]riginally thought to be the work of vandals[,] the rate of pitting was so great that residents began to attribute it to everything from sand flea eggs to nuclear bomb testing.
Originating in Bellingham in March, police initially believed the work to be vandals using BB guns. However the pitting was soon observed in the nearby towns of Sedro Woolley and Mount Vernon and by mid-April, appeared to have spread to the town of Anacortes on Fidalgo Island.
Within a week, the news and the so-called “pitting epidemic” had reached metropolitan Seattle. As the newspapers began to feature the story, more and more reports of pitting were called in. Motorists began stopping police cars to report damage and car lots and parking garages reported particularly severe attacks. […] By April 15, close to 3,000 windshields had been reported as affected.
Finally, Sergeant Max Allison of the Seattle police crime laboratory stated that the pitting reports consisted of “5 per cent hoodlum-ism, and 95 per cent public hysteria.” By April 17, the pitting suddenly stopped.

While troubled motorists propounded a number of theories to explain the pitting, ranging from “cosmic rays” to a shift in the earth’s magnetic field, the likeliest explanation is that “natural windshield pitting had been going on for some time, but it was only when the media called public attention to it that people actually looked at their windshields and saw damage they had never noticed before.”

Apparently, Earth is sprouting dark matter “hairs”

The great thing about astrophysics is that… it’s all weird. And not much is weirder than dark matter (a “hypothetical kind of matter that cannot be seen with telescopes but accounts for most of the matter in the universe”; “one of the greatest mysteries in modern astrophysics”). Should we be surprised that the Earth is growing a dark matter mullet? Well, maybe.

While dark matter is itself unobservable, scientists can track it based on the trail it leaves. And according to a recent study published in the Astrophysical Journal, “some of those trails might come in the form of “hairy” filaments draped around Earth.” The Washington Post goes on:

If Earth is indeed wearing a dark matter toupee, it could be great news for astrophysicists.

“If we could pinpoint the location of the root of these hairs, we could potentially send a probe there and get a bonanza of data about dark matter,” lead study author Gary Prézeau of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement.

Fine-grained streams of dark matter mixed up with matter matter are crisscrossing through our solar system as we speak. Earth’s gravity would bend these streams into dense filaments that Prézeau compares to strands of hair. The densest part of the filament — the “root,” if you will — would have a black matter density a billion times higher than the original stream.

According to the research, these roots might be as close as 600,000 miles away, with the fine tips of the filaments would reach out about twice as far.

Because these roots would boast such a dense trove of dark matter, locating and studying them could give us one of our best ever chances of detecting the mysterious stuff directly.

Strange stuff indeed.

A Boltzmann brain is a hypothesized self-aware entity

… which “arises due to random fluctuations out of a state of chaos,” according to Wikipedia. Confused? The idea is this: there is a surprising degree of organization in our world, in apparent conflict with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which holds that total entropy in a closed universe will never decrease (some see this as justification for belief in a creator deity).

Ludwig Boltzmann proposed that “we and our observed low-entropy world are a random fluctuation in a higher-entropy universe.” Even “in a near-equilibrium state,” Wikipedia explains, “there will be stochastic fluctuations in the level of entropy. The most common fluctuations will be relatively small, resulting in only small amounts of organization, while larger fluctuations and their resulting greater levels of organization will be comparatively more rare.”

Here’s where “Boltzmann brains” come in:

If our current level of organization, having many self-aware entities, is a result of a random fluctuation, it is much less likely than a level of organization which only creates stand-alone self-aware entities. For every universe with the level of organization we see, there should be an enormous number of lone Boltzmann brains floating around in unorganized environments. In an infinite universe, the number of self-aware brains that spontaneously randomly form out of the chaos, complete with false memories of a life like ours, should vastly outnumber the real brains evolved from an inconceivably rare local fluctuation the size of the observable universe.

If I were a Boltzmann brain (as, apparently, is statistically likely), could I ever know? Would it matter? A new form of a debate philosophers have waged for years – let’s call it neo-solipsism.