Have You Ever Heard Of Panpsychism?

What do you think of the idea that all matter AND all energy is sentient? Sentient meaning able to both perceive and/or feel things. Well, what you think of that might influence your idea of panpsychism. Panpsychism is a philosophical view with its roots deep in ancient thinkers, in fact, many believe that its earliest followers were actually pre-Socratic. This philosophy hold that consciousness (and even souls) are a universal and primordial feature of all things - from leaves to energy to people and air. 

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Let's break it down even more - the word "Pan" means everywhere, and the word "Psyche" is the soul/mind. Put these two together and you have Panpsychism: the belief that the soul is everywhere. 

Panpsychism also seeks to explain how life can result from decidedly nonliving mater, as well as how consciousness can result from non-conscious matter. In fact, it makes short work of this dilemma with its conclusion: all things have consciousness. 

Now, you might be thinking...Tess, what is this hippie nonsense? And, I agree - to an extent. But one interesting feature of this blog is the ability to dive deeper into new ideas, and I found this one particularly enamoring. But, to soothe the skeptics I will let you in on a little secret: Panpsychism has two major flaws.

1. "The Problem of Aggregates" - This is the idea that consciousness cannot spread over the universe, as John Searle, a UCB philosopher puts it "like a thin veneer of jam...there has to be a point where my consciousness ends and yours begins." 

2.  The second point following the problem of aggregates is: if consciousness is everywhere...why doesn't it animate every.single.leaf in visible ways? Or hey, why not the ladder in your garage? Or why does dead matter not have consciousness or if you take a brain and step on it, despite being the hub of consciousness, there is no longer consciousness?

But contemporary thinkers are trying to suss out these problems, particularly psychiatrist and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi. He has created the idea of "Integrated Panpsychism" which posits that consciousness depends on a "physical substrate but is not reducible to it." While our expereince are linked to our brains...but is different from our brains. Thus any system that has a level of integrated information above zero...likely has "a very minute conscious expereince" 

There are two principled assumptions: 

1. Conscious states are highly differentiated and informationally, very rich. 

2. Each of these experiences are highly integrated. Chistof Knoch, the author of the Scientific American linked above, makes a great point, " You cannot force yourself to see the world in black and white; its color is an integrated part of your view. Whatever information you are conscious of is wholly and completely presented to your mind; it cannot be subdivided."

With these assumptions we can come to the conclusion that in order to be conscious requires a two things: 1) You need to be a single, integrated entity and two 2) You must have a  large repertoire of highly differentiated states. 

Thus, a bunch of disconnected items like the photos in your grandmother's photo album, beads on a necklace, or books on a shelf are not integrated They lack consciousness and do not have the appropriate mental properties to meet the above 2 requirements of consciousness. 

However, others say that all of the above positing and rules and stipulations are...to complicated.

For example, Seattle University professor Dnaiel Dombrowksi writes: "[Panpsychism] “suggests that every instance of reality is mind-like or at least exhibits some slight ability to feel the difference between itself and the rest of what is." If we can imagine that a human has consciousness why can't a dog or an insect or a tree branch. We're all made up of atoms and individuals cells and mater, right?

So why study this at all? What caught my eye about this complicated, zany, out-there theory? I was reading an article on JStor Daily about it, while looking for ideas about how the universe is growing - as space is a popular topic on the blog. And, I found this quote in the article (linked above), "If panpsychism is true, and if, as postulated by some contemporary physicists, the cosmos is expanding, might we not think of the universe as literally a mind expanding, a world soul growing up?" Benjamin Winterhalter, the author of this Jstor Daily article, wrote these words and I just had to share the whole idea with you! Because, well, thinking of the universe as a mind expanding and a soul growing up is a whole lot more comforting than many of the other theories I've heard. 

The above image is from Flickr User Ivan and it is of a brain nebula. It is liscensed under creative commons 2.0 generic!

The Delicious Thrill Of Being Spooked

We have been dreaming up ways to get scared for thousands of years. From folklore monsters to playing bloody Mary in sleepovers to creepypasta. It appears humanity has a long history of scaring ourselves silly...and enjoying it. But why?

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Fear, and all the physical sensations that come with it, has long been linked to some ancient survival response to perceived threads. Now, not every person enjoys this feeling. If they did, wouldn't we have more year-round haunted houses? But for those of us who enjoy feeling fear, there may be a few legitimate reasons why we would totally pay for a year-long pass to a haunted house.

Dopamine is a big part of why people like to get spooked. One of the main hormones released during scary and thrilling activities is dopamine. Dr. David Zald, who studies and teaches psychological sciences, with a focus on neuroscience, at Vanderbilt, recently came out with a study that suggests that people process Dopamine differently. 

According to Dr. Zald, there are "brakes" on individual's Dopamine release + re-uptake in the brain. Well, so? This means that some people will enjoy scary/spooky/risky situations because of their brakes, while others will not enjoy them at all.

Margee Kerr, Ph.D., sociologist, and author of “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear,” also has something to add to how we process fear can make us feel good. According to her, “Our body is a refined, well-oiled machine getting ready to fight or flee. So if we're in a situation where we know we're safe like a haunted house, scary movie, or roller coaster, think of it as hijacking the flight response and enjoying it." She even goes as far as saying, “This is similar to a high arousal state, not sexual, but like when we're happy, laughing, excited, or surprised. Those chemical signatures look similar to when we're scared; it's just a different context.”

So, like many things in life - context is key!

Like Kerr sugests, for anyone to truly enjoy a good scare is to know that we're in a "safe" environment. Thus, if a serial killer you'd seen on the news before started chasing you, you'd probably not be enjoying that at ll. However, if a guy dressed in a Jason mask in a haunted-field attraction started chasing you, you'd probably feel "safe" being scared, and even enjoy it.

But, it isn't just endorphins like Dopamine that puts us in a better place to enjoy being scared. In fact, there are a lot more reasons according to professionals who study the brain, like Dr. Zald. Being scared can also have some pretty positive after-effects, like gaining confidence. 

The above picture is liscensed under creative commons 2.0 and is by Flickr user Dako Huang.

 

 

5 Decades of Fire: Life in Centralia, PA.

When we think of ghost towns in America, we typically think of stone foundations found in the middle of the forrest, like in the Pine Barrens of NJ. Or, we think of the dusty abandoned boom-towns of the west. But very rarely do we think of ghost towns as being on fire for 50+ years. That is, until, you consider Centralia, PA.

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 Centralia, PA was never a big town. Once it was a semi-successful coal mining town with about 1,000 residents. But now it is a cesspit of fire pits, smoldering grounds, and surprise sinkholes. But, how did it get like this?

Well, as I mentioned before Centralia was a coal-mining town. The main mining was done almost directly underneath the town, too. In 1962, the crew set a purposeful fire to burn a landfill but that fire soon grew out of control. Sadly, the men did not realize that the landfill which they had set fire to was an old strip-mine pit, connected to a maze of abandoned underground mining tunnels full of coal right below town.

Although they were able to extinguish most of the above-ground fires, the fire would continue to feed on the outskirts of town and slowly, but surely, make its way to town center - which made the town uninhabitable. In fact, there was so much coal underground that scientists estimate the fire could keep burning underground for the next 200+ years. 

As time has passed from 1962 more and more holes have opened, spewing sulfurous gas, parts of the street remain constantly hot to the touch, and the ground swells, bubbles, and breaks. But, the town wasn't completely left to fend for itself until 1980. In 1980, there was a $42 million relocation plan set in place which incentivized most of the townspeople to relocate, save for less than a dozen hold-outs. Many of the homes were demolished and signs of life remained small and bleak. According to experts who have studied the town, the fire grows at about 75-feet per year.

Kevin Krajick, in article written for Smithsonian Magazine, describes what Centralia looks like today: "Vegetation has been obliterated along a quarter-mile strip; sulfurous steam billows out of hundreds of fissures and holes in the mud. There are pits extending perhaps 20 feet down: in their depths, discarded plastic bottles and tires have melted. Dead trees, their trunks bleached white, lie in tangled heaps, stumps venting smoke through hollow centers." He continues, describing the last inhabitants of this desolate place, "Today Centralia exists only as an eerie grid of streets, its driveways disappearing into vacant lots. Remains of a picket fence here, a chair spindle there ― plus [John] Lokitis and 11 others who refused to leave, the occupants of a dozen scattered structures."

One thing I find very poignant is that while these people still believe in their town...the government doesn't, not really any way. The United States Postal Office revoked the town’s zip code in 2002.

There are many reasons why I think people want to remain where they are. Past residents speak highly of how Centralia used to be this slice-of-pie American coal town. In fact, some who believed they were force and/or didn't have a chance to "fight back" and remain in their homes regret giving up the houses their parents left them or the houses they built or the houses their families had owned for generations. 

Some may argue that these people must be "stuck". They aren't stuck, in fact the remaining townspeople had to spend about 20k in lawyers fees in order to remain in their owns and in their town. The town that had been home for them for decades. All of these people had the chance to be paid to leave, but instead they paid for the pleasure of staying. They take pride in their lawns, some even mowing abandoned lots near their houses. They stay abreast of the temperatures of the fire and any potential threats that may arise. They even hold events every year when former residents come back and visit. These are not people that are stuck - these are people that made a choice.

Technically, those who remain in Centralia are squatters. The government demolished over 600 buildings and now owns the town completely. However, no one has been evicted or forced out yet. 

The above image is from Wikimedia Commons user Macaddct1984

We Can Thank Mucus For Cleaning Our Oceans

If you've been following the AL blog long enough, you probably know that I'm in love with the ocean and one of my favorite things to explore on the blog are all the crazy things we're learning about the ocean every day. Earlier this month, the journal of Science Advances, published an article on "the role of giant larvaceans in oceanic carbon cycling." If it sounds dry, it really isn't. Mostly because, ya know, giant larvaceans are pretty snotty. 

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The ones we're talking about today are called "Bathochordaues". These alien-looking creatures have a little mouth, almost too little to function - so it "outsources" the actual filtration process required to feed. 

So, what is their filtration system since their mouth is so little? Well, it's a little graphic...and mucusy. Every day, the creatures blows a huge, sticky, mucus balloon. Throughout the day, the balloon snags all kinds of goodies, as animals drift through it. Each trapped morsel contains a little bit of carbon. Once the creature is full, it discards and unlatches the snot bubble and the bubble begins to sink. Thus, some of the carbon trapped within the bubble descends to the sea floor.

This sinking carbon appears to play a monumental role in supporting deep-sea life. How? Well, by transferring carbon it can be buried and stored long term. Given larvaceans abundance in other parts of the world, "these organisms likely play a crucial role in the global carbon cycle."

While these snot bubbles are just asking to be studied - but, because they're mucus...they're super hard to "catch" and study. In fact, they're so delicate that they tend to disintegrate, even at the slightest touch. This means that putting them in a jar, or catching them in a net, is damn near impossible. 

But, luckily, humans are almost as ingenious as the ocean and the Monterey Bay Area Research Institute (MBARI) decided to develop a technology to make this strange substance easier to analyze and study. 

It's called the "Particle Image Velocimetry" (PIV). Typically, it is used to study how water moves...but they adapted it to work more acutely to snot bubbles. They attached a PIV laser, with camera, to an ROV and sent it into the depths of the Californian coast.

When the camera of the ROV finally spotted a larvacean, the researchers activated the PIV laser. This laser spread a thin sheet of light over the animal, its dwelling, and every particle inside the snot bubble.

It was also proven that, through this process larvaceans can filter all of Monterey bay’s water from about '300 to 1,000 feet deep in less than two weeks, making them the fastest known zooplankton filter feeders'.

This is a huge leap forward in being able to analyze all kinds of deep-sea research, which I definitely expect to see some updates in the next few months.

 

The above image is from the NOAA Photo Library's Flickr Account. It is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). 

Mushrooms Are Weird (And Glowing Mushrooms Are Weirder)

We've known how weird mushrooms are for a long time. How weird? Well, for starters we know they grow towards sunlight, but now what they use sunlight for...oh, and earth used to be covered in giant mushrooms. But, one thing is coming out of the shadows recently: why and how some mushrooms glow.

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The process of process of fungal bioluminescence seems a bit...off. But, a new article in the Science Advances Journal that is shedding new light on this phenomena. The team behind the Science Advances article on the subject was made up of an international team of researchers. These researchers analyzed extracts from two different glowing mushrooms, first, Brazil's Neonothopanus gardneri and then Vietnam's poisonous Neonothopanus nambi.

The authors note “Future work on the isolation, characterization, and heterologous expression of the luciferase will stimulate the development of fungal bioluminescence–inspired applications,” which could help with projects like draining streetlights, litmus tests for toxins, and even candy!

The first thing they discovered is that the bioluminescence of mushrooms is similar to the enzymes found in other bioluminescent animals. These two enzymes, luciferin and luciferase, combine with energy and oxygen. Once this happens, a chemical reaction happens and the compound oxyluciferin is created. This is an excited state and is not really sustainable for long, so it releases its energy in the form of light.

However, the mushrooms were doing one thing a little differently: although they were using the two enzymes, they ended up creating their own proprietary blend similar to excited oxyluciferin.

And here's where the fungi gets a little sexy, according to the scientists this proprietary blend is "promiscuous". What this means, in fungi terms, is that it can mix and mingle with multiple types of luciferin. And it is this specific approach that allows the bioluminescence to be more than green - in fact, the mushrooms can glow a whole variety of different colors.

This research, and what will be built upon it, will help further pave the way for bioluminesence inspired applications.

The above mushroom image is not related to the story and may or may not be bioluminescent. It is liscensed under creative commons and is from Flickr User Kalle Gustafsson.

 

Did We just Figure Out How To Build On Mars?

Scientists recently found that simulated Martian soil can be packed together into a sturdy, brick-like material...without ANY additional ingredients to hold it together. This is a pretty big deal considering when and if we get to Mars we want to maximize the amount of life-support and other necessities the astronauts can take with them.

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This means that real Martian soil could be utilized as a tool for building structures, habitats, and more on the surface of Mars - making human missions a little less complicated.

So, how did we get here? Well, a group of engineers were testing simulated Martian soil, specifically called "Mars soil simulant."This simulant is a collection of rocks which have the same chemical makeup as the dirt found on mars, they even tried to mimic the shape and size of Martian grains! After some testing, the engineers figured out that adding juuuust the right amount of pressure was enough to form the soil into trim, stiff blocks...that are stronger than steel-reinforced concrete!

This is a lot more simple than how we currently make our construction materials on earth. Usually there is an adhesive or binder introduced to the material in order to get the materials to keep a fixed shape. 

Yu Qiao, a structural engineer at UC San Diego, and the lead researcher, says “It gives the soil strength when it’s compacted." Of course, we're still not 100% sure of this, as the test subject was just a simulated soil. But, it is a great inspiration to think that there will be some usable materials on Mars. The less people have to rely on shipped materials, back-up cargo, and other missions...the better.

Not to mention, because of the gravity, things like building, swinging a hammer, and other construction-based tasks are easier on the body.

Before Qiao and his team began working on this, many other scientists have tried finding similar solutions to building on Mars. For example, bringing microbes o Mars that could feed on human waste, thus creating a binder materials. Others have proposed that perhaps bringing some kind of heating device to bake the soil into bricks would help. However, we might just need a few good hammers.

The above image is from Wikimedia Commons and is liscensed under Creative Commons - source is credited as 'ESA/DLR/FU Berlin.

 

The Stories Behind The Stories

If you enjoy astonishing legends, there's little doubt that you've at least looked into the grim (pun-intended) origins of many fairytales. Many believe that fairytales are meant to teach us lessons and do so in the form of exaggeration, magic, and even repurposing historical events into something other worldly. And, there seems to be something strange about utilizing such horrifying, vulgar stories to soothe children and make them subconsciously remember the lessons of Snow White and Jack and the Beanstalk. However, are fairytales simply warnings in sheeps' clothing or, are they are a more complicated part of human history?

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In recent times - despite all the technology and seeming lack of wonder left in the world - there seems to be a fairytale resurgence. Marina Warner, a fairytale historian, says that fairytales have so much allure because they are "stories that try to find the truth and give us glimpses of greater things." And, if one drops the idea that fairytales are only for warnings (and children) i becomes clearer as to why there is a resurgence in the tech age. But how can a fairytale, quite literally something other worldly, hold so much truth about our own world?

Well, perhaps the need to move beyond reality is at the root of that tie to our world. Warner, in her new book, notes that fairytales, "untrue" stories, show a "need to move beyond the limits of reality" in the audience that is captivated by them. Ellen Handler Spitz, a writer for the New Republic, links this to a psychological belief of Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel who writes, "Man has always endeavored to go beyond the narrow limits of his condition." So, is the creation and enjoyment of fairytales a way to push our own beings farther and farther away from what we think our limits are?

Perhaps.

Furthermore, the psychological element of the fairytale helps us to understand why we get so involved in the lives of actions of characters who are so under-described. Most fairytales aren't first person perspective, so we rarely get true interiority. In addition to that, many fairytales are lead by the action of the character, not necessarily their thoughts. Their motives appear clear. But what about ours?

Handler Spitz proposes something interesting, "when confronted with texts of this kind, whether scriptural, mythical, or faerie, we are hooked not only by what is given, the positive imagery, but by the very gaps—“the negative spaces”—as we might say in visual arts." So, it is precisely these scant descriptions and closed-interior characters that make fairytales so alluring. They allow the audience, us, to insert themselves momentarily into this fairytale. You might think, "What would I do?", "How would I feel", "Where is the nearest city to this village", "How do fairies fly?", "Where do centaurs come from?" ,"How wonderful!" or "How scary!" - all these thoughts and more dance across your mind when you read a fairytale. It is through this that we become the message-makers and answer-holders.

But we still watch the re-tellings, see the adaptations, read the modern takes on classic tales...because we want to think more about them. We want new and different ways to picture the unimaginable, and, more importantly, more opportunities to place ourselves into the unimaginable. 

The above image is liscensed under creative commons 2.0., thanks to the NYC Public Library!  It is an illustration of Cinderella at the Ball!

John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee, the Un-Hangable Man

The death penalty isn't really that prevalent in the 21st century. However, for centuries the death penalty, and even public executions, were completely the norm. And, for most of that time, they were believed to have as close as a 100%-death guarantee as possible. Unless, of course, you're Babbacombe Lee.

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Now, don't go feeling sorry for ol' Babbacombe Lee. He was first on the stand to hang for the absolutely brutal murder of Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse in November of 1884 in the small village of what became his nickname: Babbacombe.

Although he cried his innocence, the circumstantial evidence was enough to paint him guilty, as well as a large unexplained cut on his arm. He was sentences to hang at Exeter prison. Per usual, the executioner tested the mechanics of the trap door below the scaffold, the rope, etc. All in all, it was set to be a perfectly normal day at the job.

That was until they tried to hang Babbacombe three times, and each time the trap stuck.

In fact, this was so bizarre that Babbacombe had his death sentence commuted to a life sentence. British Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, said of this decision "It would shock the feelings of anyone if a man had twice to pay the pangs of imminent death.”

He went on to serve 22-years in prison and was, surprisingly, released in 1907. But, for a long time nothing was known about the rest of his life.

Until a 2009 study found this man's final chapter. According to this study, his grave was placed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was believed he died in 1945 and lived a completely different, almost normal life in America - even starting a new family. He deserted his wife and two daughters in Britain after his release from prison and they went on to workhouse, which was not an easy life in England during the early 20th century.

Whether he was a murderer or not, one thing is for certain: he was a very lucky man.

The above image is liscensed under Public Domain - it has nothing to do with the above story and is, in fact, the Execution Of Lord Ferrers At Tyburn.

 

Have You Ever Had Wordnesia?

Have you ever written or typed a word, one you've typed a million times before, and suddenly been struck by how odd it is spelled or how weird it looks? Don't worry - that's totally normal. And, there's even a word for it: Wordnesia!

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The problem is directly tied to the issue that arises when you can't spell a simple word, or when very familiar words suddenly seem like flummoxing entities you can't just get quite right. There is a down side: we don't know why it happens. Typically, though, it doesn't seem to be a major side effect of anything alarming and is, more or less, common and fleeting. 

Matthew J.X Malady, who has been researching the glitch ever since he couldn't remember how to spell "project", interviewed Charles A Weaver III, a a psychology and neuroscience professor at Baylor University to try and get to the bottom of this strange phenomena. 

The first thing one should realize, according to Dr. Weaver, is that while we read we have a very practiced part of our brain that responds more or less automatically. This explains why, most of the time, we can still get through reading something that has spelling mistakes. 

But where does Dr. Weaver think this strange issue stems from? "My guess, in the phenomenon you’re talking about, is that, very briefly, the automatic parts hit a speed bump and go, ‘that can’t be right." Think of kind of like breathing or blinking. You do it constantly without thinking twice about it. But, the moment that you think about blinking or breathing, it suddenly becomes the focus of what you're doing and causes some disruptions in the automatic part.

Basically, "anytime that you engage conscious monitoring of those parts that ought to be automatic, you get a hiccup," says Dr. Weaver. So, when you brain hiccups while reading or writing, you suddenly forget how to write words you've written a million times without thinking.

I should also mention that, while writing this blog post, I have stopped multiple times and misspelled many common words including, but not limited to: misspelled, blinking, and automatically. Weird how that goes, huh?


The above image is from Flickr user popofatticus and is liscensed under creative commons 2.0. 

 

Does Dark Matter Not Exist?

A mysterious force, known as dark matter, has baffled scientists for decades. Many scientists think dark matter is responsible for the accelerating growth of the universe. However, a new study purports that dark matter might just be an illusion.

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If it does indeed exist, it is estimated that dark energy would make up roughly 68% of the energy that we can currently observe. Despite this large percentage, it is only 10 to the negative-27th kilograms per square meter...which makes it near impossible to see in the laboratory. Furthermore, the idea of dark energy helps us to explain things, for example the overall shape of the Universe and even the patterns of matter that we can see in space but can't quite explain.

And, although it is currently assumed to be correct...it hasn't been wholly proven. However, it is not without it's potential and it is fundamental to our understanding of the universe. In fact, it was Einstein himself who proposed the cosmological constant as a way to explain exactly why all the mass scattered throughout the Universe..."wasn't pulling back together under the attraction of its own gravity." But, like I said, there isn't a whole lot of concrete proof...it's just a theory that fits into our understanding of the observable universe. A theory that was later disproved by Hubble, who was able to prove that the universe was expanding.

So why even mention the cosmological constant? Well, in this piece from early 2017 it was proven that, while the universe WAS expanding...it's expansion rate is starting to speed up. Now, back to the dark matter. Dark matter + the cosmological constant we get the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (ΛCDM) model, which aims to explain how the universe evolved.

The ΛCDM model, in this case, assumes a uniform expansion that progressively gets faster and faster. Why? Well, because of an increasing push of dark energy that works to overcome the pull of other matter that is distributed, more or less, evenly throughout space.

Now, NASA released a new study putting all these big ideas together in this release. Researchers used these theories, along with new data, and have argued that previous approximations of what the universe consists of have largely ignored influences of large scale structures within the Universe.

Dr László Dobos, co-author of the paper "Explaining the accelerating expansion of the universe without dark energy" says,  "Our findings rely on a mathematical conjecture which permits the differential expansion of space, consistent with general relativity, and they show how the formation of complex structures of matter affects the expansion..These issues were previously swept under the rug but taking them into account can explain the acceleration without the need for dark energy."

Though, it should also be pointed out, the proposed model is not without its faults. The model Dobos and her partner created makes its own necessary assumptions. But, if it is in fact able to stand up to further scrutiny it could become incredibly important in proving how the Universe's expansion is accelerating without the need for negative pressure.

The argument for dark matter, at this point in time, is still largely up in the air.

 

 

 

the above image is from flickr user Katie187 and is liscensed under creative commons 2.0.

Winston Churchill & Aliens

Thinking of Winston Churchill likely brings to your mind a number of things: England, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, World War II, and more. But what about aliens? Yep, Winston Churchill was very curious about our universe. In fact, in a recently found essay from 1939, he writes about aliens, our universe, and more.

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The essay itself was found in a galaxy far, far away. Okay, it wasn't that far but it wasn't found it England! In fact, it was unearthed in the Churchill museum in Fulton, Missouri. As noted, it was first written in 1930. However, it appears to have been edited again by Churchill sometime in the 1950s. The essay itself is not some long document on UFOs, aliens, and more - so don't get too excited. But, it is an 11-page authenticated essay by Churchill himself.  

In the journal it was found in, he titled the essay "Are we Alone in the Universe?"

Timothy Riley, the museum's director, invited astrophysicist Mario Livio, to review the essay and give his thoughts on it. After reviewing the piece, Livio remarked how similar it was to today's scientific process in trying to figure out if there is life on other planets. In fact, he told Space.com "[I] was even more astonished, because I saw that this great politician is musing about a real scientific topic, an intriguing scientific topic, [and] he is reasoning about this in the same way that a scientist today would go about it."

In a surprisingly humble move, Churchill muses "I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures," he continues on with this train of thought, writing "or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time."

The essay structure itself is quite interesting...

1. He first sets up to define what life is, and settled on "comparatively highly organized life,"

2. Then he mentions places that would be smart places to look for life (water, or where it is feasible for water to exist)

3. Then he asks what are the necessary ingredients for life to exist

4. From #3, he believed that only Venus and Mars would have these necessary ingredients - so that is where life should be searched for first. Like Goldilocks, all the other planets are too hot or too cold. He also considered the existence of exoplanets which, at this time, were not proven.

Livio commented about Churchill's organization "This chain of logic is astounding, in my opinion, for a politician," 

It is interesting to think that this famous politician, known and respected for so many decades and even today, actively and critically thought about life on other planets. And not only mused if it exists, but what exact conditions would be needed to sustain it and where we should be looking for it. 

 

The above picture of Winston Churchill is liscensed under Public Domain of the UK. 

Squids and Octopi Continue to Baffle (and Amaze) Scientists

Many marine biologists continue to be enamored with the study of Cephalopods, in particular squids and octopi. In early April 2017, researchers discovered something even more alien about these baffling creatures: they can edit their DNA.

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In a study published in Cell, an academic journal, Joshua Rosenthal’s published his work and insight on the RNA editing abilities in squid. First, let's have a quick lesson on how MOST creatures DNA works: typically RNA acts as a middleman in how DNA makes proteins and faithfully transmits the message in the genes. And, typically, these creatures have no say in how it is transmitted. Except, as it comes to light, octopi, squids, and cuttlefish can change or edit the message that gets read out to make proteins.

This is particularly interesting because it seems to be the reason behind their slow evolution. The article in Cell goes as far as saying that this editing process lead to "positive selection of editing events slows down genome evolution.” Rosenthal adds, "Editing is important enough that they’re forgoing standard evolution,” 

What is even more interesting is the fact that most organisms posses the enzyme needed for gene editing. However, it just isn't widely used. One of the largest reasons it isn't used is because it can cause more damage than it does good. Scientists have investigated it, but, according to an article in Wired, largely abandoned the research into it, as it wasn't entirely worthwhile.

Queue Rosenthal and his team of researchers. Squid DNA/RNA first became of interest to him because he realized it was a little bit different each time he looked at it. As Wired says, "Where the genetic material of humans, insects, and other multi-celled organisms read like a book, the squid genome reads more like a Mad Lib." 

However, the conclusion of the article in Cell presents only a hypothesis: that these creatures used DNA editing to maintain a more complex brain structure instead of going through a natural evolutionary process. It is this brain structure, likely a product of RNA editing, that allows these animals to do all the amazing things they are well-known for: camouflage themselves, using tools, solve puzzles, and even communicate.

The above image comes from Flickr user damn_unique and is liscensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

The Contemporary Hermit: Exploring Christopher Knight's 3 Decades of Silence

Beowulf is one of the most pervasive stories in our written history (in the Western canon, at least). In fact, it is believed to be one of the oldest stories that was written down. And, its pervasiveness tells us something about the importance of the community during this time period (as does the work of the Pearl Poet and several other unknown early authors). This story brings to mind strong themes about community, customs, and leadership. Recently, I came across the story of Christopher Knight and became slightly obessed. How a man could go against these long-lasting desires of humans to communicate, to live together, and to be in the world as units (whether it be a family unit, a mead hall, and beyond). Why did this man drive into the woods and never leave?

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I want to start with a little background on Christopher Knight, and you can read more at the links above. He was born in 1965, and grew up in a relatively normal middle-class family in Massachusetts. Although he notes his parents were not over emotional or talkative, there were no signs of abuse or misconduct on their part. In fact, in more than one interview he shifts his reason for hermitage off his parents and often even calls them good parents. He also got along fine with his brothers, although when they visited him in jail almost 30 years after seeing him, they said they didn't recognize him. In high school he was noted as having good grades, but little-to-no social life and barely any friends, if any. He graduated early and, like one of his older brothers, took a 9-month course at a technical school in Waltham, Massachusetts and shortly thereafter got a job he took a job installing home and vehicle alarm system.

The only strange thing about his family? They never reported him missing. It is suspected that they hired at least one private investigator, but no report was ever made to the police.

However, the lack of report isn't wholly bizarre. Knight drove to Maine in 1986 at the age of 20, and never returned. At this point, he was a grown(ish) adult and perhaps his parents and family figured he deserved and/or wanted privacy. They speculated that he likely went to Texas and/or the Rocky Mountains...for reasons I'm still not clear on. 

It was a late summer day in 1986 when he made the long drive from Massachusetts to Maine, driving, not knowing exactly where he wanted to go, until he was out of gas. In an extensive interview with GQ he said, "I drove until I was nearly out of gas. I took a small road. Then a small road off that small road. Then a trail off that." He parked the car. He placed the keys in the center console. "I had a backpack and minimal stuff. I had no plans. I had no map. I didn’t know where I was going. I just walked away."

Because it was still summer and relatively warm out, Knight didn't have to worry too much about food and shelter. He largely foraged for food, including eating roadkill, during these first few weeks alone. However, he soon began craving vegetables and other foods that he missed from home. This is when the stealing began. Although, he notes, he always felt bad about the stealing. By the time he was caught in 2013, he would have committed roughly 1,000 burglaries (he committed about 40 peryear). He was even more scared, interestingly enough, because he did not want to get caught and taken back to society.

Although he fled from society, modernity, community...it was what allowed him to thrive during his time as a hermit. 

He roamed the woods for two years, but finally found the perfect place for his campsite, and where he would spend the next 25-years at in peaceful solitude. He only re-entered society in the dead of night, usually around 1 or 2am, to steal what he could.

And he didn't just steal food, no, his collection was impressive: he had a box spring mattress, books, pillows, countless propane tanks, disposable razors, a radio, alcohol, laundry detergent, and more. Although he lived in the woods, he still survived off of modern inventions and commodities. In fact, he had so much stuff that, in the event any one ever approached his camp, he had a go-bag and enough inventory hidden in a nearby cave that he could start anew without too much strife.

In 2013, he was caught and taken to trial. He served a sentence of 7-months in jail and then released. However, his release would be dependent on him staying in society and either keeping a job or continuing his education. I find that this is one of the worst punishments to give a hermit- of-volition - they must return to society and they can never seek the asylum of nature, for an extended time period at least. At the end of his sentence, and countless hours interviewed by GQ journalist, Michael Finkel, he told him-after being asked countless times-why he disappeared. He left because he felt content in the woods in a way he did not feel content in society. He braved harsh winters, contemplated suicide, and acted as a thief for almost 30 years just for the feeling of contentedness. 

This makes him an interesting figure.  Why? Well, most hermits can be categorized into three types: protesters, pilgrims, and pursuers. Protesters are leaving society for "x" reason, pilgrims leave for a religious journey, and pursuers leave to find higher knowledge or truth for art, writing, or other studies. But Knight doesn't fit cleanly into any of these - his quest for contentedness was not recorded by himself, he kept no journals or video diaries or anything of the like. He does not consider himself religious. And, well, he didn't have that many issues with society at large.

Knight is a person who did not feel content around other people. Painfully shy for most of his life, he found social interactions inextricably complicated and, largely, unfruitful. So he left. He was not comforted by people, only what they produced. And herein lies what is truly fascinating about Knight: was he an outlier of the human race? As mentioned earlier, the need for human interaction for security, well-being, success, creativity, and relationship-building have been present for thousands of years. So, how and why did Knight reject something so wholly that one would think would be engrained in his nature?

He just did not fit in. He did not feel at peace in the world. So, he went and found his own piece of the world (although, it was, technically, on private property) and made his peace there.

Does this make him crazy? an outlier? a person of interest? or just a person? 

These questions have been plaguing me for days and I think the answer is...just a person. Some people's happiest places are with family at the dinner table, others at the beach with a good book, and some at a coffee-shop buzzing with activity. Why can't Knight's be in the woods, alone. Is it really any stranger than the rest of us? Or, perhaps, he was just brave enough to do what he wanted.

 

 

The above image comes from Flickr user Simon Gehrig, and is liscensed under Creative Commons 2.0. It is unrelated to the above story. 

 

The SPANISH Witch Trials

As AL's resident (and self-proclaimed) Witch expert and fanatic, I wanted to bring to your attention another view of the Witch Trials. In the 17th century specifically, there was a huge spike in Witch Trials around the world (although this spike would is merely one jump in the timeline of Witch Trials through history). However, most of the ones stories we hear from that time, especially in America, are of the Salem Witch trials, or Witch Trials in the U.K. and Ireland. But, during this time period, there were Witch Trials going on around the world. Keep reading for a little taste of the Spanish Witch Trials - but, be forewarned, there might be more to come!

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Like I said above, these specific Spanish Witch Trials took place during the 17th century, but were by no means the only Witch Trials to take place in the country's history. They are known as the Basque Witch Trials and the actual trial specifically began in January of 1609, but it was after 2+ years of serious Witch hunting.

Similarly to other Witch Trials during this time period, and throughout history, they were motivated for religious reasons. These trials were specifically to cater to attacking those who still performed 'Pagan' rituals, especially herbalists, healers, and mid-wives. It is important to note that these sorts of people also had special standing and respect in the community, and thus power, that the new government did not like and that threatened Catholicism. This is one of the main reasons these groups of people were so heavily persecuted. Muslims, Jews, and Protestants were also among the accused. 

The Basque word for Witch was "Sorginak", which was also the word for female attendents of the Goddess Mari held a Witches' Sabbath every Friday, these gatherings were called akelarre. Here it was said that Mari and her consort, Sugaar, met in caves to create storms and wreak havoc. More specifically, some of these people had been tried for practicing Witchcraft at Olabidea or Infernuko erreka, which translates to “Hell’s stream.” 

Sorginaks, in particular, share some common Witchlore that will be familiar to many. For example, they could shape-shift into cats and it was said that they specifically bothered Catholic women. More unique to Sorginak's was the fact that they practiced most of their magic in caves, particularly the Zugarramurdi cave.

During this time, roughly 7,000 people in the area were accused of Witchcraft. Of these 7,000, a few thousand were deemed guilty in the initial trial, or remained suspects, and continued on to harsher review. The first phase of these trials ended in 1610, when 31 of the accused people were sentenced. Roughly a dozen of the accused were burnt at the stake. However, it is important to note a fair amount of people succumbed to the torture, which is how many confessions were received, and died without being "properly" tried.

One other interesting thing to note about these trials was the thread of skepticism that moved throughout the trial process and proceedings. The recordings of the trial took up almost 11,000 pages, and it was clear that each of these cases were looked at with a high level of scrutiny. One judge in particular, who was the youngest of the 3 judges and more 'liberal' judge, named Salazar. About the trials in general he believed he had found no substantive proof of witchcraft on his travels, or in the light of pursuing many of the confessions.  This, obviously, did not bode well for Salazar. The two other judges, Alonso Becerra y Holquin and Juan del Valle Alvarado, unsurprisingly  accused Salazar as being in league with the Devil. However, Salazar stayed true to his belief that not only were many of the accused not Witches, but that Witches didn't exist at all and that no one should be further prosecuted. 

This was elevated to the Central Office of the Inquisition, and many in the main office seemed to agree with the younger judge as well. This is likely why, although the huge number of the accused, only about a dozen people were put to death.

The above picture was taken by Flickr user Urko Dorronsoro and is one one of the Witch caves in Basque. It is liscensed under creative commons.

How Long Does it take to make a Smeagol?

And by a Smeagol, I mean a cave fish. Cave fish are a whole different breed of fish, and many of them can be traced back to open-water swimmers. So how does this strange process happen...and why?

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First, a little background on what cave fish are. As I mentioned up top, cave fish were once open water swimmers. While there are over 150 species of cave fish, many cave fish are threatened and can only live in small ranges. They typically have reduced pigment, as compared to other fish, and smaller eyes.

According to a study released just a few days ago, it only takes a few hundred years to make a Smeagol, excuse me..*Gollum, Gollum*. However, cave fish take a little longer - but not as long as we once thought. A new fish discovered in Germany - the first European cave fish to be discovered - is giving scientists more insight in to the process of becoming a cave fish.

Okay, but what does finding a new cave fish have to do with it? Don't we find them semi-regularly? Well, we do...but not in Europe. In fact, it was thought that cave fish could not colonize in Europe because of ice-age glaciers. Until just a few thousand years ago (12 to be exact) Europe, and all of its caves, were under ice...which then blocked ANY connection be above, and below, waterways. This would make any fish dwelling in caves impossible.

But, then the ice started to melt...and that's where our little fishy friend comes into play.

The fish shares many of the same characteristics as other cave fish - it is pale, small, and even has whisker-barbs sprouting from its head. It is believed to be of the loach family and even though it was found over year ago, still has no name...scientific or otherwise. But, because 12,000 years ago Europe was covered in ice, and as that ice slowly melted underwater springs and pathways began to open, it must have taken 12,000 years, or less, for cave fish to completely branch off from their ancestors.

However, I should say that calling this a Smeagol fish is a bit of an exaggeration. As noted, it took a few thousand years for this loach relative to turn into a true cave-dweller. However, Smeagol's life span wasn't even a tenth of that! According to Tolkien, Smeagol/Gollum was roughly 589 years old when he died. Although this is QUITE old for a hobbit, it isn't even a thousand years. So, if he died at 589...the Smeagol -> Gollum transition (similar to normal fish -> cave fish) likely took somewhere between 100-400 years. A few years after Smeagol stole the ring, he went into hiding in a cave near Goblin Town and there he remained undisturbed for 471 years. When he met Bilbo, Bilbo describes him not as a hobbit...but as Gollum - sallow-skined, strange-eyed, and living in almost total darkness in a wet cave. Sounds a little bit like our new cave fish, doesn't it?

 

This photo is unrelated to the above story and was taken by Flickr user m01229, and is liscensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

A Massive Pharaoh Has Been Unearthed

In early March archaeologists, from Egypt and Germany, unearthed the remains of an ancient Egyptian statue they believe could depict one of history's most famous rulers. Although there aren't many clues as to which Pharaoh it directly depicts, there is one hint - the inscription: Nebaa.

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This discovery was made by the joint effort Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities and researchers from the University of Leipzig. This was especially helpful considering that there were multiple factors that made this a tough dig site, such as a rising water-table, industrial waste, and even a growing rubble pile.

It was discovered in a working class neighborhood in Cairo. Cairo is built over the ancient city of Heliopolis.  It has been submerged in ground-water for goodness knows how long. In fact, it is believed to be King Psammetich I, who ruled Egypt from 664 to 610 BC. This means it could be up to 3,000 years old. Originally, it was thought it was a depiction of Ramses, given its proximity to a temple worshipping Ramses. But, as noted earlier, they know believe it to be King Psammetich. 

So far, they have found the bust of the statue, the head, the crown, an ear, and a fragment of the right eye. The statue is believed to be roughly 26-feet long. It is constructed from quartzite. 

However, this wasn't the only artifact discovered. The archaeological team also discovered a limestone statue of Pharaoh Seti II the grandson of Ramses II. 

 

The above picture is not related to the story and is by Flickr User Chris Buckridge. It is liscensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

 

Earth's Oldest Fossils Could be the Push for Discovery of New Life in the Universe

Early this month, researchers made an exciting announcement - the discovery of what they believe to be the oldest fossilized sign of life. But what does this finding have to do with the discovery of life on other planets?

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The fossil is from a rare piece of earth's oceanic crust. This unique sample revealed micro-meter sized tubes. These tubes are believed to be the remnants of long-dead, iron-eating bacteria. It is surmised that, based on similar currently-living specimens, that they lived on the ocean's floor near hydrothermal vents. But how long-dead were these creatures? Well, it estimated that they were alive somewhere between 3.8 and 4.3 billion years ago.

This is important because it pushes the creation of life to just a few hundred thousand years of the planet's creation, according to the journal Nature.

So what does this have to do with push for finding life on other planets?

Well, scientists have surmised that Mars also had large pools of water at one time. In fact, there is some, albeit weaker, evidence that Mars also had oceans. Based on this theory that there was water on Mars at some point, it follows that, matched with a thicket atmosphere and all the chemicals needed to create life...that there was in fact, (microbial) life.

According to planetary scientist Jeffrey Johnson with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, "Unlike Earth, and even Venus, there are significant areas on Mars' ancient surface that are really well preserved and provide great places to search for past habitable environments and the bio-signatures they might contain,"

Thus, it could provide analog to Mars' timeline of life and increase interest in further investigation of life on Mars!

This photo is of Mars and is not directly related to the story. It is liscensed under Creative Commons 2.0, and is from Flickr User by Kevin Gill.

 

A Ghost Ship Found Almost 100 Years Ago is Still a Mystery

96 years ago, a 5-masted, 225-foot schooner crashed into the shoals of Hatteras, NC. The ship's sails were fully engaged, and, as Coastguard searched the ship they did not find the crew that engaged these sails. The only living soul aboard the ship was a cat, oddly enough, with six-toes. One of the only clues of this strange shipwreck? The ship's name: Carroll A. Deering.

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Locals spoke about the mystery constantly, as the coastguard and FBI investigated the ship. In fact, there were 5 total investigations by different government and private institutions to try and figure out what, how, and why the Deering met its fate on the shores of Hatteras.

The 225-foot Deering left Boston and picked up a load of coal in Norfolk in late 1920, bound for South America. The Deering company hired W.B. Wormell to replace Capt. William Merritt, who became too sick to make the voyage.

Joe Shwarzer, the director of the North Carolina Maritime Museums, says "This is still one of the great unsolved maritime mysteries...There are any number of potential explanations for it.”

However, we do know a little bit about the Deering and its journey before it turned into a ghost ship. The Deering company hired W.B. Wormell to replace the previous captain, who was too sick to make the long voyage. Lucky for him, eh? It left Boston to pick up coal from Norfolk in late 1920, and it was bound for South America, and then would make its way back to Boston.

 The ship was making its way back home when it was sighted on January 28th, 1921. This is supported by a report lightship at Cape Fear, south of Wilmington. It was spotted again on January 31st, at approximately 6:30am by Andrew Gray, a member of station 183. Gray spotted the schooner stranded on the outer edge of Diamond Shoals. Several other reports were made of the stranded ship, however, rough waves that morning prevented any rescue boats from heading out.

When rescue crews were able to get close enough to investigate by sight, they reported no signs of life...or the life boats. Rescue crews returned four days later and boarded the boat, as the weather had calmed down by this time.

Upon boarding found food on the galley stove, clothing in lockers, 3 pairs of boots in the captain’s cabin, and even a bed that had been recently slept in, according to a 1921 Virginian-Pilot report.

Theories abound on what happened to the crew - and why they would leave food and supplies on board. For example, given the extreme weather it is possible that they could have tried to make for land but drowned or wrecked in the process.

Or, equally as believable, it is possible that the crew was distressed and the steamboat, the Hewitt, picked them up. Sadly, the Hewitt sank a few days later...potentially taking the Deering crew with it.

 The Bath, N.C., Daily Times had a slightly more nefarious conclusion - that pirates had raided the ship and killed and/or enslaved the crew. However...wouldn't true pirates, ya know, steal everything they could (like the boots and food that were noted as being left)? Though, 3 other ships disappeared around this same time and it was thought to be the work of pirates or rum-runners.

Even more nefarious, there were papers found at a Russian communist office in New York which called for its members to seize any U.S ships they could. Thus, the Deering could have been one of the targets (according to reports of the day.)

At the end of it all though? We don't know. Despite several searches of the eastern seaboard no bodies, evidence, or clues were found that would lead us to discovering the Deering's true fate.

One thing does remain of the crew - their six-toed cat, which, according to locals, has produced a long-lasting progeny of equally-toed cats amongst the island. 

 

The above image is from Flickr user Apasciuto and is liscensed under creative commons. It is not related to the story - simply an image of the ocean!

Why Are Swordfish So Fast?

Swordfish are some of the most notoriously fast creatures in the ocean. In fact, they can allegedly reach up to 60 miles per hour. Which, for a fish, is pretty darn impressive. But, although this is undoubtedly one of the most-recognizable fish, on menus and in the sea alike, parts of their being are still a bit alien to us.

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Cue John Videler, of Leiden & Groningen University, who has studied the physics behind swimming fish for much of his career. Swordfish have always been of interest to him, not just because of their quickness, but also because they are great swimmers. 

Their efficiency is largely due to the ingenious design of their bill. Basically, when swordfish swim layers of water flow along the surface of its bill. However, the faster it gets the currents that are made by these layer can create drag. The bill, once doused in oil, is also porous and rough to further limit turbulence and decrease drag.

What else did John Videler and other researchers discover? Well, that there is a baseball-sized gland in their heads with slathers lubricating oils all their heads to help further increase their speed and is another drag-reducing aspect of swordfish.

The oil production also explain another quirky feature of the swordfish - they are one of the only fish with a "concave hollow at the front of their heads an slight inward-curving bowl that, counter-intuitively, ought to increase drag," according to National Geographic writer, Ed Young. Videler believes that this hollow is in fact shaped so that the water that zips by is create an area of low pressure, allowing the oil to be sucked out of the gland and then coat the bill.

Although this is an interesting theory, it is important to note it is still a working theory. Videler intends to conduct more experiments to further prove this idea. 

The above image is from Flickr User Jocelyn Kinghorn is not related to the story. It is licensed under creative commons 2.0.

 

The Push for Driverless Cars to be Home-Like Spaces

There does not seem anything really warm and inviting about driverless cars. However, some of the people developing the technology apparently want these cars to become extensions of our homes. Places where we can have conversations with travel companions, eat a meal, and even play videogames in. Okay, I know you can do most of these in the car already, but the idea is it will feel more like a living room and less like, well, a car.

In an interview with Inverse, Kota Kobayashi says "People don't actually do that much on planes...It came down to these three things: relaxation, entertainment, and productivity." And that is what Kobyashi expects out of self-driving cars. He follows up with, "Inside a car is a quite private, intimate space, which is different from the public space of an airplane,” said Kobayashi. “A very good example of intimacy is having sex. Most people aren’t going to do that in a public space.”

Okay, okay...now it's getting a bit strange. But - he is making a point. Fully driverless cars won't just offer us convenience, but they'll become extensions of home, office, or even coffee shop. 

Oh, and did I mention he doesn't expect cars to be a one-size fit all automobile. What do I mean by this? Well, there is the idea that there will be different 'kinds' of cars to purchase, and not the typical binaries of small vs big, luxury vs affordable, and red vs blue. Instead, there is the idea that, eventually, there will be sleeping cars, meeting cars, and even family-friendly cars. 

So, although most people see driverless cars as a breakdown of communication (no more friendly banter with uber drivers, happy chats on the way to work with a carpool group, etc) many who support the technology believe that they will be intimate and comfortable spaces where we can further engage as we would at the home, office, or other social spaces. 

The above image is of Google's in-house riverless car and is liscensed under cc by-sa 4.0