Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

By Katie Heaney

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers
and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.

Earlier this year, the horror movie genre was pronounced dead. None of the six horror films released before September managed to break $20 million on opening weekend at the box office, and none ended up earning over $32 million total domestically. The ruling was dramatic and preemptive, of course—full of the same kind of foolishness that makes it possible to say things like “Nobody wants to see movies with women in them”—but still, horror filmmakers and fans alike were worried. It’s doubtful anyone truly believed the genre wouldn’t eventually bounce back, but peak scary movie season comes just once a year.

And then there was Annabelle, the spinoff from last year’s The Conjuring. Critics thought it might break 2014’s horror slump, but the film far exceeded those expectations: It earned $37 million on opening weekend, a higher draw than any horror movie in years, and one of the largest openings for a horror movie ever.

Its financial success does not mean, however, that Annabelle is well-liked. The movie has a dismal three-percent critic rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. At Grantland, Wesley Morris wrote that Annabelle is emblematic of the genre’s recent tendency toward the “passive-aggressive and hilariously, lazily vague.” Audience reviews have been somewhat more generous (on Rotten Tomatoes, 45-percent of viewers said they liked it), but it seems unlikely the movie has a future as even a cult classic. I have a small group of trusty horror fans whom I can consult when I want to know if any of the genre’s new releases are worth a $20 trip to the theater, and the answer for Annabelle has been a resounding “Nah.”

So why did so many people pay to go see it? It had a strong social media presence, for one thing, and for another, people love a freaky doll. But there’s a deeper motive that likely propelled Annabelle beyond its merits: People who wanted to be terrified at some point this year just got tired of waiting. As movie analyst Phil Contrino told the Washington Post, “As a genre, it’s never completely dead, because people always want to be scared.”

Well, some people.

WHAT KIND OF PSYCHOPATH voluntarily submits herself to terror? This is one of many perennial, small-but-polarizing battles that happen each Halloween (pro- and anti-candy corn; people who refuse to wear costumes to costume parties; etc.): those who want to spend October scaring themselves, and those who can’t imagine anything they’d like to do less.

Though not particularly uncommon, the pursuit of fear is intriguing on a psychological level, particularly to those who don’t share it. As such, it has often been the subject of scientific study. A 2005 meta-analysis by Cynthia A. Hoffner and Kenneth J. Levine examined 35 different journal articles that studied the relationship between viewer enjoyment and frightening movies, and they found four common theories that aim to explain the freakish brains that made Paranormal Activity an international hit.

First, and perhaps most famously, Zillman’s (1980, 1996) excitation transfer paradigm states that viewers who experience “fearful apprehension about deplorable events that threaten liked protagonists” also then experience heightened enjoyment when those threats are satisfyingly resolved. More controversially, the same theory holds that horror movies that end “unhappily” (which seems like … most of them) should then produce heightened dysphoria. How, then, to explain the many people who enjoy horror movies that end in terrible, violent, and scary ways?

A second hypothesis involves individual empathy—specifically, and somewhat troublingly, that people with less of it like horror films more. Tamborini (1996) argued that viewers with high levels of empathy should dislike horror films because they react negatively to the suffering of others. But many horror fans, myself included, bristle at this suggestion: I cannot stand watching viral clips of people being embarrassed on local TV, and I don’t enjoy watching people fall. Fantastical horror, it turns out, is different; when heavily violent and torture-based movies were eliminated from these studies, the inverse correlation between empathy and enjoyment dropped.

Another, perhaps stronger variant of this hypothesis relies on an “in someone else’s shoes” definition of empathy, wherein enjoyment of horror films is contingent upon one’s dissociation from the threats present in those films: If you personally aren’t worried about, say, a demonic doll taking control of your home’s inanimate objects, you can more easily enjoy watching it happen to someone else.

Other studies claimed that those who like horror films tend to have three commonly shared traits: sensation-seeking, above-average aggression, and maleness. For the latter two there are important caveats: Aggressive people may seek horror films out, but that does not indicate a causal relationship in either direction. Also, like many of these traits, aggression is self-reported, and human beings are notoriously bad at describing themselves accurately. As for the supposed gender divide: There is some suspicion that more men might say they like scary movies than really do.

I have noticed, too, that male friends who aren’t fans of horror movies phrase their stance as dispassionate preference rather than emotional pattern. “I’m not scared of them,” they’ll say, insistently. “I just don’t like them.”

THIS IS ALL VERY well and good, but none of it quite gets at that distinct feeling of triumphant survival a good scary movie can make you feel when it’s over. It’s like a roller coaster, with more ghosts: Doing it is great, but having done it is even better. It’s also an easy claim to bragging rights: You can say you got through something a lot of people won’t even try to get through, and you didn’t even have to be in any real danger.

And finally, another very good reason to go see Annabelle, or Ouija, or whatever the next one will be, even if they’re not all that good: To sit calmly in a theater next to someone who is hands-in-front-of-her-eyes terrified is perhaps the most enjoyable, and least harmful, form of schadenfreude there is.


How Hillbilly Reality TV Got Way Too Real

How Hillbilly Reality TV Got Way Too Real

by Ryan Broderick

Television networks like TLC and MTV can’t keep mining poor rural Americans for show ideas and then act surprised when their stars implode.

When TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo — a spin-off featuring the family of Alana Thompson, one of the breakout stars of Toddlers & Tiaras — premiered in 2012, critics called it repellent and disturbing, which was not a completely unfair assessment: The family’s favorite meal is a mix of butter and ketchup that Honey Boo Boo’s mother, who is known as Mama June, microwaves into a red slime and pours on to spaghetti for the girls. They call it “sketti.”

It was also a show, however, about a family that enjoyed spending time together and, despite their issues, seemed to genuinely love each other. The majority of the episodes are shockingly mundane — as the show goes on Alana doesn’t even do beauty pageants very often. It seems like the only really outrageous thing about Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was that TLC had the gall to a let poor family from Georgia show the rest of the country how they lived. American audiences gawked along at a family that hung out in garbage dumps and ate roadkill. Its first season was one of TLC’s highest-rated shows ever.

But gawking at the real lives of rednecks is only entertaining if it’s not too real. The news that Mama June is dating convicted sex offender Mark McDaniel was a bridge too far; TLC canceled the show last week, shelving an entire completed new season of episodes. TMZ also learned that TLC is offering to pay for counselors and tutors for the children. The day after the show was canceled, Alana’s sister Anna — now 20 — claims she was allegedly sexually assaulted by McDaniel when she was 8 years old. She told People magazine that McDaniel “would try and touch me and all that stuff.”

It’s an extreme case, but this isn’t even the first legal issue for Mama June; in 2008, she was charged with theft of child support payments. None of this legal murkiness is that unusual in the pantheon of hillbilly reality television, which takes as its starting point the premise that it’s OK to watch poor (usually white) people from the American heartland struggle to cope with the realities of modern life.

The phenomenon hit its stride in 2012, when Duck Dynasty, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, and Buckwild all came out within months of each other, and followed on the heels of the success of shows like 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom, and Toddlers and Tiaras. All of these shows raise the same question: With 45 million Americans living below the poverty line, are we supposed to laugh at these people, pity them, or relate to them? Why — when several of these shows have imploded under the weight of their subjects’ own struggles — do they keep getting made? Is the pressure of being the “right kind of redneck” too much to bear? America has long been comfortable laughing at hillbillies. The hugely popular Ma and Pa Kettle films of the late ’40s and ’50s were spun out from a 1946 film adaptation of a rural slice-of-life novel called The Egg and I. In their first movie, the Kettles and their 15 children move to a modern home and struggle to learn how to live with all the expensive gadgets Pa Kettle wins in a tobacco slogan-writing contest.


There ended up being 10 Kettle films in total, and at the height of their popularity, Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride — the actors who played the titular Ma and Pa Kettle — were the biggest stars in the country.

The Beverly Hillbillies were no different. Paul Henning created the show for CBS in 1962, based on his experiences living in the Ozarks. The show was panned by critics, but became one of the most popular TV shows ever made. Henning went on to make two spin-offs for CBS, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.

CBS then doubled down on hillbilly/rural America-based programming so heavily — including the shows Hee-Haw, The Jackie Gleason Show, Mayberry R.F.D. — that by the late ’60s, the network had earned the nickname “The Country Broadcasting Network.” The oversaturation led to backlash, and CBS began its “rural purge,” canceling 15 shows between 1970-1971. Not even Lassie was spared.

But the famous pop culture hillbillies of 20th century were actors reading from scripts. Their versions of poverty and ignorance ended when the episode was over. It was safe. Today, the real Pa Kettles and Jed Clampetts of the world are speaking directly to people like them. But when you take real Americans who’ve been living under the poverty line and pull them into the pop culture spotlight, the dark reality of what it means to be poor in America comes with them.

In his book Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon (Oxford University Press, 2005), author Anthony Harkins argues that American pop culture becomes obsessed with rural hillbilly culture during moments of economic tension, and mass media rednecks help the American middle class blow off some steam and feel a little more secure: “Well, at least I don’t have it as bad as those people.” Harkins’ theory corresponds roughly with the rise of the “hicksploitative” reality TV phenomenon of the last five years, although it might downplay the transformative effect of having a marginalized group be represented on TV, and it’s a bit of an oversimplification to write off the popularity of something like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or Duck Dynasty as merely an exploitative guilty pleasure for the middle class.

TLC premiered Toddlers and Tiaras and MTV premiered 16 and Pregnant in 2009, at the height of the Great Recession. Both shows are unnervingly similar — even down to the format. Take two or three young women, who are usually from lower-middle-class towns in the American South or Midwest, and then follow them around as they either have a baby or compete in a toddler beauty pageant.

They were huge hits and spun off into their own reality franchises, with dozens of imitators on a diverse array of cable networks. It’s not surprising: The shows are cheap to produce and give a viewer an addictive mix of schadenfreude, existential horror, anthropological fascination — a feeling of “I might have it bad right now, but at least I’m not a pregnant teenager crying in a Burger King parking lot in Georgia or a pageant mom hot-gluing rhinestones on my 4-year-old in the lobby of an Alabama Hotel Marriott.”

MTV’s short-lived Buckwild is a good watershed moment in the new era of hillbilly reality shows. It followed nine young people from Charleston, West Virginia. It was marketed as a “redneck Jersey Shore.” It caused national outrage. In one episode the stars shoot a potato gun at each other; in another they fill the bed of a dump truck with water and jump into it from the second-story window of a house. Most episodes end with the cast getting blackout drunk at a house party and fighting each other until the police have to intervene.

The outrage wasn’t surprising. The Buckwild cast took the American redneck lifestyle to its logical endpoint: mouth-gaped yokels literally sitting naked in the mud, drunk on moonshine, and having sex with each other. But living that way isn’t sustainable.

In February 2013, Buckwild cast member Salwa Amin was arrested by police during a drug raid and charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. Amin pled guilty and was sentenced to one to five years in prison in January 2014. A few days after Amin’s arrest, cast member Michael “Bluefoot” Burford was arrested for an aggravated DUI.

Buckwild wasn’t canceled, however, until the death of 21-year-old breakout star Shain Gandee, who was fired from his job as a sanitation worker several months before filming. In April 2013, Gandee’s body was discovered, along with the bodies of his uncle David Gandee, and friend Donald Robert Myers, in their truck. An autopsy ruled that Gandee, his uncle, and Myers died of carbon monoxide poisoning after their truck got stuck in the mud while the three were off-roading.

That same year, though, other networks were having issues with their authentic hillbilly stars being a little too authentic.

Phil Robertson, family patriarch of A&E’s Duck Dynasty, was given an indefinite suspension by A&E after calling “homosexual behavior” sinful in a GQ interview in December. A&E had to release a statement saying that Robertson’s views were personal ones and didn’t reflect the company’s views on homosexuality. Robertson was reinstated by A&E nine days later. A few months after, in July, Joann Wells, star of My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding spin-off Gypsy Sisters, was arrested for allegedly stealing thousands of dollars from Target. TLC refused to comment on the incident. In August, Will Hayden, a cast member on the Discovery
Channel’s Sons of Guns, was arrested and charged with repeatedly raping a child. Discovery canceled the show after Hayden’s arrest.

The legal troubles of reality stars are not exclusive to rednecks, obviously. Stars from the Real Housewives franchises, Mob Wives, and Jersey Shore have seen their fair share of controversy. But those shows, unlike their hillbilly counterparts, are far more interested in excess and cartoonish party culture.

And the appeal of this new wave of redneck reality TV is more complicated than just middle-class viewers gawking at the poor. There are just as many — if not more — viewers tuning in to see families that actually look like them depicted on television. A lot of people genuinely love Duck Dynasty — it’s a ratings powerhouse and launched a book that sold more than a million copies on Amazon. The show has 8 million Facebook fans. People are not watching Duck Dynasty out of a mean, snarky irony. It’s also safe to assume a lot of their fans share the same religious values as the fundamentalist Christian cast.

The problems arise when these authentic hillbilly “real-life characters” start acting in a way offscreen that doesn’t comport with the relatively safe, contained version we see of them on-screen. You’re going to have a problem if you’re trying to re-create The Beverly Hillbillies with real people — people who are currently fighting a serious meth problem, don’t believe in evolution, and are mired in poverty. Their issues don’t vanish under a spotlight — they usually get worse.

The reality-TV hillbilly isn’t going away any time soon. This week MTV is premiering a new show called Slednecks, which has been described as “Buckwild in Alaska.” In the trailer there are scenes of naked skiing, backwoods keggers, and drunk guys in diapers chopping wood. Hopefully there won’t be another Shain Gandee or Jenelle Evans or Mama June — but it also doesn’t seem too unlikely.


Monkeys are as clever as CHILDREN: Bonobos solve puzzles as well as three-year-olds, study finds

Monkeys are as clever as CHILDREN: Bonobos
solve puzzles as well as three-year-olds, study finds

By Ellie Zolfagharifard

Scottish scientists tested capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees and bonobos
They set up a box containing two pieces of string connected to food
Pulling the unbroken piece of string resulted in the reward of food
Like children, monkeys only completed task when box was uncovered

Monkeys and young children can get up to all sorts of mischief – and recent research suggests that may have far more in common than previously believed.

In a new study, scientists found that non-human primates share the same basic knowledge as a three-year-old child in their understanding of objects.

The researchers behind the study of capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees and bonobos say the results suggest that there is more to their world than meets the eye.

‘We set out to find out how animals conceive the world around them,’ said Dr Amanda Seed, a lecturer at the University of St Andrews.

‘Do they have any idea that objects have abstract properties, like solidity and weight?

‘Or do they rely on learning arbitrary relationships between what you see, what you do and what you get, in the same way that we learn to stop at a red light?’

The research, which involved a simple task using a piece of string, was a collaboration with scientists in Germany, Spain and Italy.

In one variant, the box was covered, with another pair of strings placed on top, while the other task involved the box being open, with the functionality – of the string connecting to the food – completely visible

The team tested different species on two variants of a simple problem: both involved a box containing two pieces of string – one broken and one unbroken – that connected to food.

Only pulling the unbroken piece of string resulted in the reward of food.

In one variant, the box was covered, with another pair of strings placed on top, while the other task involved the box being open, with the functionality – of the string connecting to the food – completely visible.

Both versions provided subjects with the same visual task: to avoid the broken white line and choose the unbroken one.

In the covered version, since the important part of the problem was covered up, the subjects had to use the visual pattern of the objects without being able to see their functional relevance.

Individuals of all species performed much better in the uncovered condition when the pattern ‘made sense’ – when they could see the connected line was a string connected to food – than when it was just a rule to be learned.

Scientists found that bonobos share the same knowledge as a three-year-old child in understanding of objects

Scientists found that bonobos share the same knowledge as a three-year-old child in understanding of objects. ‘This suggests that these species do have object knowledge and that there is more to their world than meets the eye,’ said Dr Amanda Seed, a lecturer at the University of St Andrews

Scientists found that bonobos share the same knowledge as a three-year-old child in understanding of objects

Researchers say the study shows that monkeys, apes and young children find it difficult to learn what to do with an object, unless they can see it in action.

‘We set two tasks with the same outcome, both involved objects that could be seen, but in one the visible object caused the outcome and in the other it didn’t,’ Dr Seed said.

‘We found that the monkeys and apes were only able to solve when they could see the object’s function.

‘Our research shows that learning arbitrary patterns is not actually that easy for primates, and even five-year-old children find it hard.

‘In comparison: choosing a connected string in a functional context is easy. This suggests that these species do have object knowledge and that there is more to their world than meets the eye.’

Is The Human Species Still Evolving?

Is The Human Species Still Evolving?

Bill Nye The Science Guy speculates on the future of mankind

Is there a Homo superius just around the next corner, waiting to take our place? Let’s think about what it would take: If we were to give rise to a new species, something would have to happen to us to create a bottleneck or isolated place for a founder-person and her or his mate to show up and get separated from you and me and our offspring. In the modern world, that is very unlikely. We have airplanes and ships and the Internet.

What if there were an enormous war and all of our intercontinental means of transportation were destroyed? Perhaps then an isolated population of people would live apart from the rest of us for so long that they would no longer be able to successfully interbreed. Just listen to all the dialects we have for speaking English. When human populations are even a little bit separate, they start talking differently. Other bigger changes might happen with more profound separation. Perhaps this could happen somewhere beyond Earth, even, such as in a colony on Mars. Without geographic isolation, I am not sure we can get a new species of hominid, not ever. But that is not the same thing as saying that humans are no longer evolving, because we surely are.

We cannot step away from evolution. Our genomes are always collecting mutations, and we are always making mate selections. Are humans preferentially mating with other humans who are tall? Blonde or not blonde?

Are smart people actually producing significantly smarter offspring, who end up making more money and ever so slowly outcompeting other families? Or is intelligence a losing trait, because highly educated couples tend to have smaller families, so when something goes wrong there are fewer siblings left to carry the genes forward? Or since highly educated men and women have babies later in life than those that don’t squander their best childbearing years in universities, do the babies of the highly educated enter the world with more trouble in childbirth, and are they prone to more subtle gene troubles that result from later mother and fatherhood? Cue the spooky music.

More likely than a future race of hyper-smart people who outcompete the rest of us is a strain of Homo sapiens that can beat a disease. Probably the most important evolutionary sieve that any future person is going to have to get through is going to have to do with germs and parasites. Recall that in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918–1919, some 50 million people were killed by something far too small to even see, let alone hunt and destroy. The Black Death of the fourteenth century may have killed up to 200 million. You and I are descendants of people who just happen to have the genes to fight off deadly viruses and bacteria. Those who survive into the future will probably have resistance to certain diseases that none of us have today.

There are a lot of other ways that evolutionary change will march on, no matter what. Those that survive may have a higher tolerance for drinking milk. Babies in industrialized societies have access to milk like no one before us. Maybe a genetic tolerance for milk will slowly help more of those babies survive until they have kids of their own. There is evidence that people with both especially high and especially low blood sugar levels have fewer offspring. So subtle changes at least will make their way into the human population’s gene pool. It’s going on right now.

Then there is a whole other category of possible human futures that are influenced by our own technologies. I give a great many talks or lectures at universities and for general audiences. I enjoy performing, the part where I’m doing the talking and all, but my favorite part of any evening is when audience members come up to microphones and ask me questions. One of the most common themes is what people call “The Singularity.” This is a supposed imminent time (2029, in some versions of the story) when computers will become as sophisticated as human brains. From there, it is proposed, machines will be able to outcompete humans at just about everything. There will be superior car-parking algorithms, disaster-relief coordination, legal briefs, rocket science, great thinking in general. Taking it to the next logical step, this artificial intelligence will have to be managed carefully, because after all, any of these future brain machines will outthink and outmaneuver us at every practical turn.

If you want to reach toward a science fiction future of human evolution—it’s fun to speculate, so why not?—a much more reasonable, perhaps inevitable, factor is genetic engineering. Medical scientists are already on the verge of being able to ensure that your baby does not suffer from Huntington’s disease or have flat feet. Will it be possible to make babies genetically smarter? Or better baseball players? Is that sort of thing ethical?

As a voter and taxpayer, each of us may have some interesting decisions to make about what’s allowed in medicine. We may have to address genetically modified people among us who came to be through some future outlawed genetic-engineering technique. What would be the status of illicit human clones? The better informed we all are about all this, the better decisions we’ll make.

In contrast, I’m looking out for big changes that come from good old-fashioned Darwinian natural selection. What trait would give a future human baby such an edge that she or he will grow up to produce some amazing new kid that can do something that stands out and will attract a similarly worthy partner with whom to mate? I have heard many women say that they love a guy with a good sense of humor. That one sits well with me for some reason. Will some future guy be so funny, and not so funny looking, that his hilarious sense of humor will win him partners? Will his command of irony be so good that women go wild for him and he mates and reproduces wildly? Legions of present and former stand-up comics hope so.

Whatever the future holds for humankind, I very much hope we are all in it together, that we all continue to remain one species with wisdom enough to preserve as many other hominids and other creatures. I hope we keep using our big brains to understand and appreciate the extraordinary process by which we came to be (and hope to remain) the top species on the planet.

Ebola: The Real Reason Everyone Should Panic

Ebola: The Real Reason Everyone Should Panic

by Zeynep Tufekci

Our Global Institutions are Broken

The conventional (smart) wisdom is that we should not panic about Ebola in the United States (or Europe). That is certainly true because, even with its huge warts, US and European health-care systems are well-equipped to handle the few cases of Ebola that might pop up.

However, we should panic. We should panic at the lack of care and concern we are showing about the epidemic where it is truly ravaging; we should panic at the lack of global foresight in not containing this epidemic, now, the only time it can be fully contained; and we should panic about what this reveals about how ineffective our global decision-making infrastructure has become. Containing Ebola is a no-brainer, and not that expensive. If we fail at this, when we know exactly what to do, how are we going to tackle the really complex problems we face?

Climate Change? Resource depletion? Other pandemics?

So, I have been panicking.

Pandemics have long been among my favorite topics to teach sociology with, not because the subject is cheery, but because they contain so many of the lessons about our modern world.

But this year, it feels like a lesson in despair, about everything that’s broken.

There are dozens of textbooks for introduction to sociology, but they all have a similar chapter order. Somehow, globalization always ends up around chapter seven, the middle of the semester, when the novelty of sociology as a topic has worn off, and the class starts to drag.

But chapter seven would always be a turning point in my class: that’s when many students would sit up and realize that this, more than anything, was their generation’s core problem.

We always started with pandemics: Ebola or the Flu.

Why should you care about the state of health care infrastructure, I’d ask, in Laos or in Gabon, besides the obvious: shared humanity?

Many would offer altruistic reasons: because we care. Of course, I’d say. Of course we should care. Of course. But, imagine you are trying to convince an uncaring organization, a bureaucracy, a self-interested power, people with money who do not want to part with their money, or people who simply don’t care?

Can you convince them they should care?

First, do you know what has killed more people than all of World War I at the end of World War I? Not the war itself. The Spanish Flu, the pandemic that swept the world thanks to increasing transportation technologies, the close quarters of barracks, and discharged soldiers who took it back to their communities.

I’d start with network theory, and our small world. In our increasingly connected world, every virus is but a hop or two away: almost all humans are close enough to someone who flies — maybe except the isolated tribes in the Amazon.

If some people fly, any virus can get to any country. In a historical experiment, social psychologist Stanley Milgram challenged people to send packages around the world only through personal contacts — it took about six hops for most packages to find their way home. (This inspired the famous play and movie “Six Degrees of Separation”, which later inspired the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game.) Today, this would likely be a smaller number because of “hubs” and bridges, people who connect otherwise disconnected clusters, have proliferated.

So, lesson number one: many divides separate us in the world, but we are all connected, very closely. It is truly a global village, of sorts. We are divided, but also united.

Viruses  — which we can only vaccinate against and cannot cure like we can with bacterial infections and antibiotics — also thrive when they come across bridges: between the human and the animal host. Historically, the most dangerous viruses are ones that jump between animals, domesticated or not, and humans. The flu that jumps between poultry or swine, and humans; the filovirus that can survive in the fruit bat, but also jump to a person. Many such viruses thrive at poorer places, especially those where the original, rich ecoystem is intact. And it is poor people who will be the ones who bring their chickens into the hut in the winter, the only place with enough warmth to survive, or hunt in the bush for meat, because they can’t buy it in a supermarket.

Jumping hosts sharpens the skills of a virus to spread and kill more effectively— and few of us have immunity to such new viruses, especially those with heightened abilities.

Lesson number two: there are certainly hotspots for natural emergence of deadly pandemics, and many of them reside in the world’s poorest regions.

The final piece of the puzzle is how epidemics work. Epidemiologists talk of “r nought”, R0, the most basic epidemiological number. It is, simply put, the number of new infections each ill person generates. If it is less than 1, R0 < 1, the infection will tend to die out. Each ill person is not replaced by another ill person. Bigger than 1, every ill person infects multiple people, it will grow exponentially.

It’s like that game: put a single grain of rice into the first chess block. Double it in the next one: two grains of rice. Double it again: four grains. There are 64 blocks in a chess board. Once you go through all 64, you will have 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 grains of rice or about 636,094,623,231,363 pounds. As in trillions.

That’s how exponential math works. It gets big, very quickly.

The only way to stop this is to stop it very early. Otherwise, the avalanche becomes uncontainable.

Lesson three: exponential growth is powerful, and best countered very, very early.

By now, we are in the middle of the class of the middle of the lesson in the middle of the semester, the most dangerous time in terms of losing a student.

But I’d already see some of them start putting all this together, and sitting up.

There is no “r nought” independent of connectivity. The more connections, the more possibilities, the bigger this number.

Globalization, in essence, means we really are one big family, in sickness and in health.

The more connected we are, the easier it is for a virus to spread wide and deep, before we get a chance to contain it.

And that is partially why Ebola is now ravaging through three countries in West Africa: it broke through in cities and large-enough settlements, and due to an accumulation of reasons, including recent civil wars, at a time when they were least equipped to handle it.

Containing an outbreak requires circumscribing the outbreak (isolating and treating the ill, tracing their contacts, isolating and treating them as well) so that it can no longer find new hosts, and healing those who are ill, or mourning those who die. Circumscribing an outbreak is easier when the cases are a few, or a few dozen, or a few hundred.

In fact, we know from previous Ebola outbreaks which parameter brings down the dreaded transmission rate: “the rapid institution of control measures.” It’s that simple.

After thousands of cases, this gets harder and harder.

After millions, it is practically impossible.

That’s what is happening now, in Sierra Leone, and in Guinea, and Liberia. There are almost 10,000 cases in those three countries, and half of those people are already dead. In some places, the fatality rate is up to 70%.

On the other hand, Paul Farmer of Partners in Health, one of my favorite organizations in the world, who just returned from Monrovia, Liberia, estimates that 90% of those who receive proper hydration care should survive. The numbers could well work: of the seven people who were treated in the US, only one has died, and his treatment was delayed. Four are already out of the hospital, and two are reportedly doing well.

And crucially, as with all viruses, survivors of Ebola gain immunity, at least to this strain.

In fact, countries with even slightly better health-care, not at the US level, can control this epidemic by circumscribing it: On October 17th, WHO declared Senegal free of Ebola. Later, Nigeria, too, was declared free. Ebola, because of the speed with which it kills, and the short incubation period, is not that hard to contain if contained early — Ebola has a weakness as a virus: it doesn’t have too long to reproduce before it kills or is beaten by its victim, hence its “r nought” is not that high, compared with other viruses which take a longer time lying stealthily in the body. Ebola’s speed and deadliness, paradoxically, gives us an advantage for containing it—if we act early.

On the other hand, at the current level of meager, vastly under-resourced effort in the core countries, the WHO estimates 10,000 cases per week in just a few months. Cases in Liberia are still doubling every two weeks.

There could be a million cases, CDC estimates, by the end of 2014.

Let that sink in. A million Ebola victims in just a few months.

At that point, we end up with another endemic virus, similar to other ones that still survive like polio (so close to being wiped out but wars keep interfering), measles for which we have vaccines, and HIV and malaria (a parasite) for which we don’t have vaccines and which kill millions every year.

What I just summarized in fewer than 2,000 words or so isn’t even basic epidemiology. It is the basics of basics of basics of epidemiology, and this is something every policy maker on the planet should understand after talking for 10 minutes to an expert of their choice in their own country.

A few weeks ago, the United Nations Secretary general Ban Ki Moon asked for about $1 billion to contain this epidemic, in 2014, before it settled for good. (Travel restrictions work if the affected are small numbers, and will not work when we have millions of cases — a few will get out within the incubation period and remember — this disease does not just travel on dark-skinned people.)

Further, the longer we allow Ebola to experiment on us, the more dangerous it may get. A version with a slightly lower fatality rate along with a longer incubation period may be very, very hard to contain.

One billion dollars. About 1/16th of a WhatsApp. One blockbuster movie.

This is but a rounding error for the global economy. It is a meager amount needed, to forestall having to lose much, much, much more later.

And the United Nations reported that it had received about $100K deposited (you read that right) and only about $250 million were made in commitments, that may or may not arrive in time. (There are other sources of funds but the response is clearly, unequivocally inadequate. Liberia is lacking gloves and plastic buckets. The basics.).

Every day we let this pass as is, the harder it will be to eventually exterminate it — not to mention the unacceptable human misery. And cruelly, the disease is ravaging caregivers most, because as people become more sick, they shed more and more of the virus through their bodily fluids.

Ebola kills the most human of us, first, those who are unwilling to abandon the ill, the dying.

And there is so much to do, so so within our reach.

We can send massive amounts of protective equipment. Liberia doesn’t even have enough plastic gloves  — they reportedly asked for 110,000 because they just have 2,100. When Centers for Disease Control first went to Liberia in August, when there were only a handful of cases, it found that the hospitals had no gloves. This situation should be unthinkable. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Survivors of the disease acquire immunity, at least to this strain, and there are thousands of them now in the most affected countries — poised to be hired and trained, with proper equipment, so that the newly infected can also be cared for properly, and hence also survive in much larger numbers. Many organizations, from Doctors Without Borders to Partners in Health, are very good at providing community based care, by hiring and training locals, so that epidemics can be contained and treated.

Letting Ebola take root would not just cause more deaths we can prevent, but also would require taking away resources in regions already stretched thin. The spikes in hunger and infant mortality are almost inevitable.

By the end of that sociology class, my first-year college students would all get this basic math, and the basic humanity. The course we must take is a no-brainer, from every point of view: a sense of humanity, and if you cannot be moved by that, by a sense of self-interest and rationality.

It’s 2014.

We have one chance to stop this awful disease in its tracks, this year.

In 2015, that option will be gone.

Mass media is too busy generating the wrong panic — the infinitesimal chances of Ebola in the US now, rather than how to roll it back it in West Africa.

The UN is reduced to begging and being ignored.

There is heroic NGO work. Partners in Health — which specializes in hiring and training locals — and Doctors Without Borders —  experienced at moving resources quickly and operating at challenging environments — are both phenomenal organizations — and I’m donating to both what I can this year. I don’t really believe in framing “charity” as a solution at this scale, but I believe in solidarity. However, this should not come down to whether or not a few people donate — our collective institutions should collect and organize these resources, and direct this effort. While PIH and MSF can and will do a lot, this cannot be on their shoulders alone.

So I panic and despair, about what this lack of response says about us, our institutions, our humanity.

How can we make our institutions work, for us, at a global scale? That remains the core challenge of 21st century, without which we will fail at many more tests, at great suffering.

Japan Builds Real (and Awesome) Transformer Robot

Japan Builds Real (and Awesome) Transformer Robot

By Lance Ulanoff

Your dream of a sports car that transforms into a real robot just inched closer to reality.

Brave Robotics, Asratec Corp. and original Transformer creator Tomy Co. Ltd., have joined forced to build J-deite, a one-quarter-scale autobot that starts as humanoid, bipedal robot and transforms into a tiny, roughly 3-foot-long sports car. Sorry, it’s still too small for you to drive.

J-diete Transformer

Despite the diminutive size, the robot is unmistakably part of the Transformer family. Officially known as J-deite Quarter because its one-fourth of the final planned size, the roughly 5 ft tall humanoid robot’s 77 lb-pound body is covered in blue car body panels and the face has the grim, determined look of Optimus Prime.

J-deite is not a toy. As a car, the two-seater can drive up to 6 mph with about 1.5-inches of road clearance. In humanoid mode, it can walk at .6 mph and move its arms, hands and fingers. It runs on V-Sido, a proprietary software system developed by Ishido’s partner Wataru Yoshizaki of Asratec Corp and can operate for roughly one hour on a single charge.

J-deite and Transformer
Kenji Ishida of Brave Robotics (left) and Wataru
Yoshizaki of Asratec Corp work on the Transformer robot.

Between now and 2020 developer Kenji Ishida of Brave Robotics plans to build a full-sized J-deite Transformer that turns into a 16-ft-long car. As Ishiba explains on the project web site, “The goal of Project J-deite is building of a giant transformable robot of 5 m long. It is the same size as a car. An object of the same size transforms, walks, and runs.” It’s not clear, though, if this robot will, when it’s in car mode, also accommodate a driver.

This is actually Ishida’s second Transformer robot. The first one, unveiled in 2012, was desktop sized and didn’t look much like its namesakes.

Transforming and self-configuring robots are becoming a bit of a trend in robotics. Ecole Polytechnique Federerale de Lausanne (EPFL), for example, recently unveiled robots that can turn into furniture (less cool, but more practical).

While the Transformer robot and its abilities are quite real, there is a section of the J-diete Project web site devoted to the discovery of a fictional green-glowing meteorite with interstellar communication properties. Found under the “Story” section on the site, it may be a nod to the Transformers’ arch rival Decepticons’ pursuit of green crystals from the Earth’s core. Perhaps this was the only way they could get Tomy LTD’s blessing. Hasbro, which owns the rights to the Transformers brand and has produced numerous Transformers movies, has been mum on the subject of this robot.



The Physics Behind “Interstellar’s” Visual Effects Was So Good, it Led to a Scientific Discovery

The Physics Behind “Interstellar’s” Visual Effects
Was So Good, it Led to a Scientific Discovery
by Matt Williams

While he was working on the film Interstellar, executive producer Kip Thorne was tasked with creating the black hole that would be central to the plot. As a theoretical physicist, he also wanted to create something that was truly realistic and as close to the real thing as movie-goers would ever see.

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Kip Thorne’s concept for a black hole in Interstellar.

On the other hand, Christopher Nolan – the film’s director – wanted to create something that would be a visually-mesmerizing experience. As you can see from the image above, they certainly succeeded as far as the aesthetics were concerned. But even more impressive was how the creation of this fictitious black hole led to an actual scientific discovery.

In short, in order to accurately create a visual for the story’s black hole, Kip Thorne produced an entirely new set of equations which guided the special effects team’s rendering software. The end result was a visual representation that accurately depicts what a wormhole/black hole would look like in space.

Artist's conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library

This was no easy task, since black holes (as the name suggests) suck in all light around them, warp space and time, and are invisible to all but X-ray telescopes (due to the bursts of energy they periodically emit). But after a year of work by 30 people and thousands of computers, Thorne and the movie’s special effects team managed to create something entirely realistic.

Relying entirely on known scientific principles, the black hole appears to spin at nearly the speed of light, dragging bits of the universe along with it. Based on the idea that it was once a star that collapsed into a singularity, the hole forms a glowing ring that orbits around a spheroidal maelstrom of light, which seems to curve over the top and under the bottom simultaneously.

To simulate the accretion disk, the special effects team generated a flat, multicolored ring and positioned it around their spinning black hole. Then something very weird and inspiring happened.

McConaughey explores another world in Interstellar (top). Thorne’s diagram of how a black hole distorts light. Credit: Kip Thorne

“We found that warping space around the black hole also warps the accretion disk,” explained Paul Franklin, a senior supervisor of Academy Award-winning effects house Double Negative. “So rather than looking like Saturn’s rings around a black sphere, the light creates this extraordinary halo.”

The Double Negative team thought it must be a bug in the renderer. But Thorne realized that they had correctly modeled a phenomenon inherent in the math he’d supplied.

“This is our observational data,” he said of the movie’s visualizations. “That’s the way nature behaves. Period.” Thorne also stated that he thinks he can get at least two published articles out of it.

But more important than that is the fact that Thorne, a thoroughgoing scientist and lover of the mysteries of space and physics, has a chance to show a mass audience some real, accurate science.

The Physics of the Hendo Hoverboard

The Physics of the Hendo Hoverboard

By Rhett Allain

This hoverboard looks like the real deal – unlike the recent fake hoverboard.  Although I’m not exactly sure how the Hendo Hoverboard works, I have a pretty good guess. Let’s look at electromagnetic repulsion physics that it might use.

If you read the description on the kickstarter page, it says:

“The magic behind the hoverboard lies in its four disc-shaped hover engines. These create a special magnetic field which literally pushes against itself, generating the lift which levitates our board off the ground.”

That “pushes against itself” makes me worried. You can’t make yourself fly by pulling up on your belt, can you?  No, you can’t. But there is a way that this could work.

Changing Magnetic Fields

Check out this simple experiment. Here I have a coil of wire connected to a galvanometer (which measures small electric currents). I also have a magnet. If I just hold this magnet inside the coil, nothing happens. Moving the magnet does something interesting.


Image: Rhett Allain

A changing magnetic field induces a current in a conducting wire. Yes, that’s cool – but it’s also important. This physics principle behind many of the electric generators (but not all). The magnitude of this induced electric current depends on how fast the magnetic field is changing. Move the magnet faster and you get a larger current. Keep the magnet stationary and the magnetic field doesn’t change at all and you have zero current.

But now that there is an electric current in loop of wire, that induced current also makes a magnetic field. It turns out that this induced current makes a magnetic field that is in the opposite direction as the CHANGE in magnetic field due to the magnet. Yes. I know that is confusing. Maybe this diagram will help.


If the magnet was moving to the right, the magnetic field due to the magnet (which I labeled Bm) would still be pointing to left, but it would be decreasing in magnitude at the location of the coil. This means that the induced current (and thus the magnetic field due to the loop) would be in the opposite direction as shown in the diagram. Yes, I know this is hard to picture.

Using an Electromagnet

Moving a magnet makes a changing magnetic field. But what about an electromagnet? If I replace the magnet in the diagram with a coil of wire, I can change the magnetic field without even moving coil. Just by changing the current in the one coil, I can induce a current in the other coil. I can continually change the magnetic field in the electromagnet by just having the current oscillate back and forth. It’s actually not that difficult.

Check this out. Here is a large coil of wire hooked straight into an AC outlet. Yes, you probably shouldn’t do this since you could really make something hot. The AC outlet oscillates the current in the wire and produces an oscillating magnetic field on the top. Above that, I have small copper plate. This is what happens when the current is on.

Em 1

Image: Rhett Allain

Boom. Electromagnetic repulsion.  The only difference for the hoverboard is coil of wire is on the top and the copper plate is on the bottom (as the conducting surface). Pretty cool and pretty simple. Ok, I’ll admit that it’s a little bit more complicated than that – but you get the idea. Of course, this is a small demonstration of electromagnetic repulsion. In this following video, Derek (from Veritasium) shows a MUCH bigger and more awesome demonstration of electromagnetic levitation.



The physics for levitation is all there. You just need to work on the engineering to get a hoverboard to work.

Looking at the Hendo Hoverboard


Does this hoverboard need a battery? Yes, it needs a battery. I assume that there is a battery in the board to run the 4 coils on the bottom. How much current to do you need to run through them? I have no idea. It might be fairly large.

I didn’t do a full exploration, but I did take a look at the power needed for my electromagnetic levitation demonstration. Using the Kill-a-Watt, I got about 75 Watts while the thing was hovering. Where does all this energy go? Well, a tiny fraction of it goes into increasing the gravitational potential energy of the disk. This is just a tiny bit. The rest of this 75 watts is lost through an increase in temperature of the wires. Oh, the wires in the coil get hot as well as the conducting surface.

So what kind of power does the Hendo need? I have no idea. I suspect that if they use some clever engineering they can get the power consumption to reasonable levels. If I had to guess (which apparently I do), I would say it’s probably in the 300 Watt range. Of course if they used superconductors, the power requirements would be minimal – except for the power needed to keep the superconductors cold (we don’t have room temperature superconductors yet).

What if you used a ferromagnetic surface instead of something like copper? In that case you would still induce a current in the material. However, you would also cause the magnetic domains in the ferromagnetic material to line up with the magnetic field from the electromagnet. This would cause an attraction between the two and it wouldn’t make the thing hover.

Ok, so the physics for this type of hoverboard seems possible. Looking at other sites talking about this online, I am fairly certain it’s real.  One last physics note: I’m really not sure if a hoverboard powered by electromagnetic repulsion would be frictionless.  I suspect there would be some type of electromagnetic drag as the coil moved over the metal surface – but I could be wrong.

Hendo also has these small developer kits called the Whitebox.  This Whitebox is a small box (and it’s white) with the same hover technology as the hoverboard.  It also has some type of propulsion system in it so that it can move around while hovering (over a conducting surface).  It looks pretty cool.  If Hendo wants to send me one of their little “The Whitebox” developer kits, I would be happy to test it out and give a report.

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

By Paul Hiebert

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.

Another year, another evil clown. It’s almost expected at this point. The latest iteration is Twisty, a quiet yet hulking barrel of horrors who lumbers around 1950s Jupiter, Florida, killing and kidnapping innocent town folk on FX’s American Horror Story: Freak Show. Series co-creator Ryan Murphy said the goal was to “create the most terrifying clown of all time,” to which some might reply, mission accomplished.

Then again, Twisty is just one of many sinister clown characters. Others include the Joker, Pennywise, John Wayne Gacy, and the Insane Clown Posse. Last year, someone dressed as a creepy Bozo started showing up around Northampton in the United Kingdom. Same thing happened not too long ago just outside Bakersfield, California. But the idea of a red-nosed menace isn’t exactly new, either. Edgar Allan Poe’s 1849 short story Hop-Frog, for example, features a murderous court jester; the 1892 opera Pagliacci revolves around a clown who takes the life of both his adulterous wife and her lover.

The result of all these negative portrayals seems to have tarnished the reputation of working clowns everywhere. One study concluded that kids aged four to 16 consider paintings of clowns in hospitals rather scary. “We found that clowns are universally disliked by children,” said a researcher. Last February, the New York Daily News reported that membership at the World Clown Association, a U.S.-based trade group, has declined from around 3,500 to 2,500 over the past decade. In the U.K., a similar organization for performers called Clowns International has seen a nearly 90-percent drop in membership since the 1980s.

“We do not support in any way, shape, or form any medium that sensationalizes or adds to coulrophobia or ‘clown fear,’” Glenn Kohlberger, president of Clowns of America International, another trade group, recently told the Hollywood Reporter in response to Twisty’s perpetuation of the stereotype that clowns are far more frightening than fun. As for Hollywood itself, Kohlberger added: “They can take any situation no matter how good or pure and turn it into a nightmare.”

To hear more about this apparent image crisis, I spoke with a few prominent figures in the clown industry: Randy Christensen, president-elect of the World Clown Association; David Kiser, director of talent for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus; and Shelly Summers, vice president of Clowns Canada, Inc.

What do you think about when you think about clowns?

CHRISTENSEN: I think about joy, creativity, cartoons, and genuineness. I also think about people who care for others who are hurting.

KISER: For me, clowning is a profession. I also see clowns as an entity that has been around since the beginning. I can imagine a group of cavemen sitting around an open fire somewhere, when suddenly one of them falls forward, charring his cheeks. The rest of the cavemen fall backwards off their rocks in laughter. Clowns are a way of laughing at life and each other. They parody everything.

SUMMERS: While it’s definitely become a dying industry, which is unfortunate, I see clowns as happy, pure enjoyment. Clowns are non-sexual, non-religious, non-political. We’re a cartoon character plucked off the screen and placed in front of a child. It’s not about twisting a balloon; it’s about the experience of receiving that balloon.

What do you think the average person thinks about when they think about clowns?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, there’s two camps. I think the vast percentage of people think of child-likeness, circuses, birthday parties, balloons, and silliness. The other camp—about five percent of the population—thinks of strangeness, horror movies, and that clowns are hiding something. That’s why they have a mask on. This makes people uncomfortable.


SUMMERS: I think that depends on the age group. Anybody from teens and up, especially over the past few years, sees clowns as something scary. Children who haven’t been exposed to certain movies see clowns as fun and lively.

As you understand it, when did clowns first become portrayed as something scary?

CHRISTENSEN: Clowning goes back thousands of years. Throughout history, you find prankster characters—a stereotype often associated with clowns. In modern culture, I think one of the key moments was the movie version of Stephen King’s It. Children tell me they’re afraid of clowns because they’ve watched the film, and I’m thinking, It’s an R-rated movie. Who’s letting their kids watch stuff like this?

KISER: I think you have to go way back. This is not a new story.

SUMMERS: Even something as simple as Scooby-Doo has a ghost clown in it.

Evil clowns are so common across various forms of media that they’ve become cliché. Why do you think they keep re-appearing?

CHRISTENSEN: I think it’s easy. Often times it seems the horror genre takes the pure, clean, happy things of childhood and then perverts it. I have a friend who was a ventriloquist. After the Chucky movies came out, there were kids at his shows who would scream.

KISER: I think anytime you take something that is pure and good, upright and happy, then turn it on its ear, a certain part of the population really enjoys it.

What are your thoughts on coulrophobia, the supposed irrational fear of clowns?

CHRISTENSEN: It’s an accurate term, but I would say that out of those who claim to have it, maybe about two percent actually do. For the others, it’s just an easy statement.

Last summer, for example, I was in Texas doing children’s camps. Before I even began—and I’m not in clown make-up or anything—adults came up to me saying, “Just so you know, some people here are terrified of clowns.” I rolled my eyes and thought, Here we go again. On the second day, a retired member of the 82nd Airborne—a big, strong, macho guy—came up to me and said, “I’m one of them. I’m afraid of clowns.” So while this macho guy is scared of me, the second-grade girls love me. I asked him when this fear started, and he told me that when he was a little boy he and his older brother took an entire Saturday to watch all the horror clown movies they could find on the shelf of a video rental store. I had to assure him I’m not that kind of clown.

KISER: I think there is such a thing as a fear of clowns, but I also think it’s become a popular fad.

SUMMERS: There’s a lot of irrational fears these days, but I think coulrophobia is a fear of not knowing what the person looks like under the make-up. When I encounter scared children—I don’t care about adults; adults are being ridiculous if they’re scared of clowns, as far as I’m concerned—I immediately drop down to their level so I’m not hovering over them, and I talk to them. I tell them my name and what we’re going to do for the party or whatever I’m there for. There are ways to handle these situations.

Recent reports indicate that clown organizations are shrinking.
Does any of this have to do with Hollywood’s negative portrayal of clowns?

CHRISTENSEN: I’d say yes. Some people won’t consider clowning as entertainment because of the negative images that keep being painted. Now, it may have some influence, but I don’t think it’s a huge factor. I’ve done this for 34 years, and there’s an ebb and flow to it because many people are hobbyists.

KISER: I don’t think so. For us, I don’t see a shortage of clowns.

SUMMERS: I’m not sure. I love what I do. Yeah, I work weekends, but I also make more money in those two days than most people make all week. If people aren’t as exposed to clowns as they once were, they might not see it as a career path.

Do you think clowns need to undergo a re-branding of sorts?

CHRISTENSEN: Successful performers need to find their niche, since working with a preschool daycare is different than working with a group of 15-year-olds.

KISER: I think it’s important that we as a profession know what we’re doing. Some people don’t have proper timing. In their zeal and gusto to make people smile, they might not always respect people’s personal space. Or maybe they’re loud and noisy when the situation requires the opposite. If we’re going to use the word “professional,” we need to act like professionals. And as humankind and our sense of humor changes, clowns, as the mirror of humankind, also have to change.

SUMMERS: Yeah, and to be honest, that’s our job as members of clown associations. It’s something that could definitely be fixed with our assistance.

What do you think the future holds for clowns?

CHRISTENSEN: I think there’s always going to be a need for clowns. We need comic relief. We need to be able to sit back and laugh—not just at somebody else, but at ourselves. A clown mirrors many things in culture, but it’s more of a carnival fun house mirror.

KISER: As long as there are people on this Earth,
there are going to be clowns on this Earth.

SUMMERS: I think we’re going to see fewer and fewer clowns, and on those clowns we’re going to see less and less make-up. We’ll still have some traditionalists with full whiteface, but they’ll definitely be few and far between.

10 Bizarre Theories About The Pyramids That DON’T Involve Aliens

10 Bizarre Theories About The
Pyramids That DON’T Involve Aliens

by Mark-Strauss

The ancient Egyptians built the pyramids to inspire awe, but could they have known that they would also inspire idiocy? For millennia, individuals have gazed upon these edifices, seeing them not as they are, but as projections of their own beliefs. Here are ten of the strangest theories—no aliens required.

1) The Pyramids Were Built To Store Grain

10 Bizarre Theories About The Pyramids That DON'T Involve Aliens

Medieval Europeans believed the pyramids were granaries described in the Old Testament. Egypt’s pharaoh was disturbed by dreams in which seven lean cows devoured seven fat cows and seven withered ears of grain consumed seven healthy ones. Joseph interpreted the dreams to mean that there would be seven years of abundance in Egypt followed by seven years of famine. He advised pharaoh to begin storing surplus grain.

The description of the pyramids as “Joseph’s Granaries” stretches as far back as the sixth century, when they were identified as such by Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks. The theory was further popularized by works such as The Book of John Mandeville, a hugely popular 14th century travelogue that at one point notes:

I will speak about something else that is beyond Babylon across the Nile River towards the desert between Africa and Egypt: these are Joseph’s Granaries, which he had made to store the wheat for hard times. They are made of well-hewn stone. Two of them are amazingly large and tall and the others are not so big. And each granary has an entrance for going inside a little above the ground, for the land has been ravaged and ruined since the granaries were built.

Inside they are completely full of snakes; and outside on these granaries are many writings in different languages. Some say that they are tombs of the great lords of antiquity, but that is not true….if they were tombs, they would not be empty inside, nor would they have entrances for going inside, nor are tombs ever made of such a large size and such a height—which is why it is not to be believed that they are tombs.

A depiction of the Egyptian pyramids as Joseph’s granaries appears in a 12th-century mosaic on one of the domes of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice (see photo above).

2) Noah Built The Great Pyramid

In 1859, a British publisher named John Taylor published his own book, The Great Pyramid: Why It Was Built and Who Built It. Taylor had never seen the Pyramid of Giza, but, after studying its measurements—which had been compiled by Oxford astronomer John Greaves and the French engineers who had accompanied Napoleon during his expedition in Egypt—he concluded that the massive structure was a repository for the “divine system” of all mathematical truths.

Taylor’s elaborate calculations included the observation that, if you divide the pyramid’s height into twice the side of its base, you end up with a close approximation of pi. And, he argued that the structure was built using a unit of measurement he called the “Pyramid inch,” which was one twenty-fifth of the “sacred cubit” and nearly identical to the British inch. Taylor cited this as proof that the modern system of measurement was divinely inspired.

Taylor believed that Noah, not the Egyptians, was the true architect: “He who built the Ark was, of all men, the most competent to direct the building of the Great Pyramid.”

The argument was not very convincing to the American Metrological Society, which noted in its annual proceedings:

There seems to be something bordering on the ludicrous in the ascription to a man situated as Noah was at that time—a man just escaped from a catastrophe so frightful as the destruction of the whole human race…to begin anew the battle of life amid the wreck of a ruined world a project so wild, so almost stupidly idiotic, as that of heaping up a pile of massive rock a million and a half cubic yards in volume.

3) The Great Pyramid Foretells The Date Of The Apocalypse

Inspired by John Taylor’s writings, Charles Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, undertook his own studies. He concluded that there were even greater divine truths encoded within the Great Pyramid than Taylor had realized.

Smyth’s 664-page book, Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid, published in 1864, “revealed” that Biblical prophecies had been embedded in the architecture. When the passageways are measured in pyramid inches, he argued, one could find a complete chronology of the Earth’s history, both past and future.

Smyth claimed, for instance, that the beginning of a sloping passage called the Grand Gallery marked the birth of Christ and—33 inches later—the Crucifixion (the number 33 corresponding to the year of Christ’s death). Depending upon how one measured the complete length of the Grand Gallery, it terminated at a point between 1,881 and 1,911 pyramid inches. Smyth interpreted this to be the period of Great Tribulation preceding the Second Coming of Christ.

10 Bizarre Theories About The Pyramids That DON'T Involve Aliens

Smyth’s calculations contributed to the belief among some Christians that the Apocalypse would come in 1881. The idea was satirized in a January, 5, 1881 column published in the New York Times:

The distinguished astronomer, as every one knows, has long since proved to his own satisfaction that the pyramid is a neat and handy compendium of history and prophecy…In the great gallery of the pyramid, which, according to this theory, represents the Christian dispensation, there are precisely eighteen hundred and eighty-one notches… hence if the pyramid is trustworthy and really knows its business, we have arrived at the last year of the earth. There are a vast number of people who believe in this remarkable theory of the pyramid, and they are one and all perfectly sure that the pyramid cannot tell a lie and that the private judgment of Piazzi Smyth when interpreting the pyramid is infallible.

These pyramidal Christians are, therefore, preparing themselves for the Last Day, and in case they should happen to be disappointed and to be under the unpleasant necessity of making New Year’s calls in the snow on the First of January 1882, they will probably blaspheme the pyramid and lose all faith in man and stones.

4) Satan Built The Great Pyramid

Joseph T. “Judge” Rutherford, a leader of the early Jehovah’s Witness movement, was determined to put an end to the “Christian Pyramidology” espoused by his predecessor, Charles Taze Russell.

Rutherford wrote a two-part article—appearing in the November 15 and December 1, 1928 editions of the Watch Tower—titled, “The Altar in Egypt,” wherein he declared:

It is certain that the pyramid of Gizeh was not built by Jehovah God; nor was it built at his command. It is more reasonable to conclude that the great pyramid of Gizeh, as well as the other pyramids thereabout, also the sphinx, were built by the rulers of Egypt and under the direction of Satan the Devil. Then Satan put his knowledge in dead stone, which may be called Satan’s Bible, and not God’s stone witness. In erecting the pyramid, of course, Satan would put in some truth, because that is his method of practicing fraud and deceit.

Satan is a wily Foe. He resorts to all manner of schemes to draw men away from Jehovah and his service. One of the most subtle schemes Satan has yet adopted to accomplish that purpose has been and is the use of the pyramid of Gizeh. There are those who rely upon the pyramid who claim to be of Christ and his followers. We now wonder why we ever believed in or devoted any time to the study of the pyramid of Gizeh. Not only will we abandon such a study now, but we will ask God to forgive us for wasting the time that we put in on it and redeem the time by hurrying on to obey his commandments.

5) The Pyramids Were Originally Hills

10 Bizarre Theories About The Pyramids That DON'T Involve Aliens

An article appearing in the October 12, 1884 edition of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette reports on a scientific conference held in Philadelphia, where a paper was presented that offered a unique theory of how the pyramids were constructed:

The object of the paper was to establish the fact that pyramids were built from the top downward…The theory is that the pyramids were isolated hills, used as quarries from which stones were drawn for edifices, and hence the excavations. The hills were, in the course of time—under the management of competing engineers—cut into pyramids as they now appear.

There are instances where isolated hills are found, and the theory is not in that respect wholly incredible. That sovereigns conceived the idea to have the old quarries cut in shape so as to become monuments commemorating events is not at all improbable.

The idea may be the correct one, and if established will explain many things which have been real mysteries to this day in regard to the monster structures known as the Egyptian Pyramids.

6) Atlantis Built The Pyramids

10 Bizarre Theories About The Pyramids That DON'T Involve Aliens

Ignatius Loyola Donnelly, a former Congressman from Minnesota, became obsessed with the legend of Atlantis and, in 1882, published a popular “history,” titled Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. Among his theories, listed in the first chapter of the book:

  • That there once existed in the Atlantic Ocean, opposite the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, a large island, which was the remnant of an Atlantic continent, and known to the ancient world as Atlantis.
  • That the description of this island given by Plato is not, as has been long supposed, fable, but veritable history.
  • That Atlantis was the region where man first rose from a state of barbarism to civilization.
  • That the implements of the “Bronze Age” of Europe were derived from Atlantis. The Atlanteans were also the first manufacturers of iron.

Donnelly argued that, at the height of their civilization, the Atlanteans established colonies around the world—and that the oldest of these was probably in Egypt, “whose civilization was a reproduction of that of the Atlantic island.”

As evidence for his claim that the Atlanteans had set up colonies around the world, Donnelly pointed to the tremendous similarities between the pyramids of Egypt and those of Mesoamerica. It’s a theory that still persists among “true believers” today. But, as archaeologist Kenneth Feder has pointed out, there’s abundant evidence to the contrary:

The pyramids of the Old and New Worlds do not look the same. New World pyramids are truncated with flat tops (that is, their four faces are not triangles, they are trapezoids), while Egyptian pyramids are true geometric pyramids (four triangular faces joining at a common apex). New World pyramids have stairs ascending their faces, Egyptian pyramids do not. New World pyramids served as platforms for temples; Egyptian pyramids were burial chambers for dead pharaohs (only a very few Mesoamerican pyramids contain burials). The construction methods were different; most Egyptian pyramids represent a single construction episode, whereas Mesoamerican pyramids usually represent several building episodes, one on top of another.

Finally, if Mesoamerican and Egyptian pyramids are hypothesized to have been derived from the same source (Atlantis or elsewhere), they should date from the same general period. But Egyptian pyramids were built between about 5,000 and 4,000 years ago. Those in Mesoamerica are all less than 3,000 years old—and most are considerably younger, dating to less than 1,500 years ago. Furthermore, the pyramids on both sides of the Atlantic date to well after the supposed destruction of Atlantis some 11,600 years ago.

Nonetheless, the endurance of this myth was vividly revealed last year, when two German nationals, Dominique Goerlitz and Stefan Erdmann, were arrested for vandalizing the Great Pyramid of Giza:

Goerlitz and Erdmann acknowledged their acts, and even went so far as to post photographs and videos of themselves vandalizing the archaeological sites. However, they claimed their goal was a noble one: to prove their “alternative history” conspiracy theory that the pyramids were not built by ancient Egyptians.

The men are apparently convinced the cartouche identifying Khufu as the creator of the Great Pyramid at Giza is a fake, and they hoped to do an analysis on the pigments to prove they were not as old as the pyramids themselves. In essence, they claimed, pharaoh Khufu simply put his name on (and took credit for) pyramids that had been built thousands of years earlier by people from the legendary city of Atlantis. They accuse mainstream archaeologists of covering up — or willfully ignoring — evidence pointing to non-Egyptian origins of the pyramids.

7) Israel Is Plotting To Steal The Pyramids

Egyptian researcher Amir Gamal recently told Elaph newspaper that Israel has launched a plot to falsify history to show the Jews built the pyramids:

Gamal [said] Israel does not send its own Jewish archeological teams to Egypt because that would expose its plot. Instead, Israel sends missions to Egypt “under the guise of other nationalities” while making sure the leaders of the foreign-archeological missions are Jewish, he said.

In addition to claiming the Jews constructed the pyramids, Gamal said Israel is plotting to prove that the Egyptian King Sheshonq I, the founder of the 22nd Dynasty in the middle of the 10th century BCE, was the Biblical King Shishak. Biblical accounts say Shishak invaded Judah during King Rehoboam’s reign and took treasures from the First Temple in Jerusalem. Gamal believes Israel is seeking to claim that gold and jewelry found at an ancient burial site at Tanis in Egypt are part of Solomon’s treasures.

This is not the first time the alleged role of the Jews in ancient Egyptian history has caused controversy in Egypt. Earlier this year, Egyptian journalist Ahmad al-Gamal called on Cairo to sue Israel for the costs of the 10 deadly plagues visited on the Egyptians during the time of Moses. And, in 2003, a prominent Egyptian legal scholar announced he was preparing a lawsuit against Jews around the world over gold that was stolen during the exodus from Egypt.

8) Levitation Was Used To Build The Pyramids

Levitation appears as a common theme among fringe pyramid theorists. The famed psychic Edgar Cayce—who believed the pyramids were built by a consortium of Atlanteans, Egyptians and Caucasians from southwest Russia—claimed the ancients used their extraordinary mental powers to lift the massive blocks into place.

Andrew Collins, author of the book, Gods of Eden: Egypt’s Lost Legacy and the Genesis of Civilization, cites a 10th-century Arab historian who recorded a folk tale:

Inscribed magical papyri were inserted beneath the stone blocks used in the construction of the pyramids, before the latter were struck by an instrument of some sort, plausibly a rod or stave. Somehow this induced them both to rise into the air and travel for a distance of “a bowshot.”

Collins concludes that:

By striking the stones, the Ancient Egyptians were able to set up some kind of sustained sound vibration that enabled the building blocks to defy gravity and move over the ground for a distance of around 86.5 meters, before they would have to be struck again to achieve the same result. After producing an initial thrust, they would have been able to take advantage of Newton’s First Law of Motion.”

Recent (legitimate) research into the field of “acoustic levitation” has been seized upon as further evidence that the Egyptians—along with the builders of Stonehenge and the statues on Easter Island—had mastered this science.

9) The Pyramids Align With The Constellation Of Orion

10 Bizarre Theories About The Pyramids That DON'T Involve Aliens

Astronomy played a role in the design and construction of the pyramids. The great pyramid of Khufu, for instance, contains four shafts aimed toward the meridian in the sky. When it was built (2,500 BC), these shafts were aimed at the transit points of Thuban, Sirius, Kochab and Orion’s Belt. Apparently, the shafts served to direct the spirit of the dead pharaoh towards these key stars. Thuban and Kochab were circumpolar “Imperishable ones” (stars that never die), while Orion represented the deity Osiris and Sirius his consort, Isis.

But Robert Bauval, in his book The Orion Mystery, took Egyptian astronomy a step further, claiming that that there is a correlation between the location of the three largest pyramids of the Giza pyramid complex and the three stars that form Orion’s Belt. However, that alignment would only be possible if the pyramids had been built 12,000 years ago.

The “Orion correlation theory” remains popular, though it’s been debunked by two prominent astronomers.

Ed Krupp, the director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and a well-known expert in archaeoastronomy noted:

Readers of The Orion Mystery are shown an aerial photograph of Giza paired with a picture of Orion’s Belt. There is something wrong with these images, however. The picture of the pyramids is oriented with north at the bottom of the page. Orion’s Belt, on the other hand, has north at the top. To make the pyramids match the sky, you have to turn Egypt upside down. In fact, all of the book’s maps of Egypt are published upside down, with south at the top.

Although an Orion-mystery enthusiast might argue that the inversion is not really significant, or that the Egyptians deliberately upturned their constellation for arcane reasons known only to them, these rationalizations won’t fly.

And, according to Anthony Fairall, a professor of astronomy in Cape Town:

My own investigation showed that, while the line of the two outer pyramids is set 38 degrees from north, the angle of Orion’s Belt to north in 10,500 BC is close on 50 degrees! Hardy an exact match.

Bauval’s choice of 10,500 BC (when Orion is furthest south in its precessional cycle) also supposedly fits with the Milky Way aligning with the Nile. But the course of the Nile is variable, and we do not now know where it ran in 10,500 BC with any accuracy.

10) Pyramid Power!

The idea that the very shape of the pyramids makes them capable of harnessing regenerative powers probably traces its origins to the first discoveries of the well-preserved mummies in Egypt. In the early 20th century, French researcher Andre Bovis tested the theory by building a scaled-down replica of the Great Pyramid and placing raw meat inside to see if it rotted. Hearing of these experiments, Czech radio engineer Karl Drbal built a cardboard pyramid and claimed that it had actually sharpened his razor blades. In 1959, he was granted a commercial patent for his Cheops Razor Blade Sharpener.

But, pyramid power’s golden age was the 1970s. At the time, San Francisco-based writer Bill Sievert wryly observed that it was the perfect pop phenomenon for the Jimmy Carter era. “It’s simple, it requires no great commitment, and anyone who can afford a piece of cardboard can participate.”

Depending on the literature and advertisements you read, there were no limits to what pyramids could accomplish: sharpen cutlery, age wine, remove the bitterness of coffee, preserve foods, purify tap water, strengthen TV reception, reduce pain and, of course, assist in meditation.

“As has been the case so frequently during the past 500 decades,” Sievert wrote, “pyramids can still make fools of many learned people.”