Native Skeptic

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Superheroes, Ghosts, and the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Believe it or not...but most of us already know more about the Electromagnetic Spectrum than we are even aware of from pop-culture and comic book superheroes. Superman has x-ray vision allowing him to see through objects, while an experiment gone awry exposed Bruce Banner to gamma rays turning him into the Hulk. These are both examples of some very real "energies". However, it is that fascination for science-fiction that can often lead some to stray into an obsession with the just plain fiction.

One day I was watching some ghost hunting show, and I started wondering,   

"why do they use infrared (IR) or electromagnetic field (EMF) meters to "hunt" down paranormal activity, when there has never been evidence for ghosts ever emitting infrared or electromagnetic waves in the first place?"

This point alone would kill the whole show for me, and other programs like it. It does not follow sound logic to test something if there is no evidence to do so in the first place. This type of logical fallacy is known as a false premise. Some of the reasons why it is important not to start an argument or claim this way are identified in this following quote from the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe website,

"...there is a tendency to start with desired conclusions and then construct arguments to support them, many people will happily draw upon logical fallacies to make their arguments. In fact, if a conclusion is not true one must either employ a false premise or a logical fallacy in order to construct an argument that leads to that conclusion. Remember, a sound argument (one with true premises and valid logic) cannot lead to a false conclusion. So in order to avoid using logical fallacies to construct invalid arguments, we need to understand how to identify fallacious logic." (Top 20 Logical Fallacies)
I won't into detail about logical fallacies here, but this is good to point out for those who might be unfamiliar with them, so if you are interested, I recommend checking out the SGU's Top 20 Logical Fallacies section under their resources.

"So, why are these ghostbusting programs so appealing and popular? Is this just due to an unfamiliarity with what "energy" really is?"
Through the wonders of science, we know about every type of energy there is out there in the universe. The physics that applies out there, applies here as well. That's the great part about studying the cosmos, the more we study it, the more we learn about us. There's little to no room for any new or surprising kinds of energy that we don't already know of, and if there was, the evidence would need to be extraordinary. While it is unscientific to ever rule anything out completely, the best we can assert scientifically is that any possibility of this sort is of very, very low probability.

However, as it turns out, most people already know more than they're even aware of about electromagnetic radiation (EM) . EM is simply a scientific term for a bunch of different types of radiation. This specific type of "energy" spreads out as it travels. So, think of light from lamp or radio waves "emitting" from a radio station tower, these are both types of electromagnetic radiation. Radio waves, visible light (colors of the rainbow), x- rays, and even gamma rays are ALL fundamentally the same thing, electromagnetic radiation. Most people do not really think of energy this way, but radio waves are simply a color of light that we can't see!

From the great scientific discoveries made by physicists like Albert Einstein, we know that each single photon contains a certain amount of energy in a bundle or packet, and all forms of EM radiation consists of these unimaginably small subatomic pieces of atoms called photons. For example, the energies found in radio waves are very low, while on the other side of the spectrum, the energies of gamma rays are very high. So, it goes like this on the electromagnetic spectrum from lowest to highest; radio waves, microwaves, visible light, ultra-violet, x-rays, and then followed by gamma rays.

Take a look at this helpful diagram of the EM spectrum from the Science Learning Hub, a national project designed to support the effective teaching of science in New Zealand schools.
-Published August 2010, University of Waikato

Basically, as states on the introduction to the electromagnetic spectrum under the science section of the  Imagine the Universe! site, 

"electromagnetism can be described in terms of a stream of [massless] particles called photons, traveling in a wave-like pattern and moving at the speed of light" (NASA 2011).
Imagine the Universe! is a website a service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Alan Smale (Director), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Bullet time for photons

It takes only a billionth of a second (nanosecond), if you can even imagine, for light to travel and scatter through an empty one-liter bottle. However, it took about the good part of an hour to collect all of the data that goes into the final "ultra-fast" video featured in the clip below. Ramesh Raskar, Associate Professor at MIT's Media Lab points out that,

"photons travel at around a million times faster than bullets" (Raskar 2011).

But, because of the high rate of speed that this special camera can operate at, we can most gratefully watch photons moving through space as they travel the length of a one-liter bottle! A laser pulse emits photons and they enter the camera through a slit opening, getting converted into electrons and then are bounced off in another direction by an electric field. It is a rather fascinating thing to note that as the photons bounce around on the inside of objects, their wave-like properties undergo some contrast of interference. The really cool subtle part that might go unnoticed is, that difference between waves can be quantified into visibility by using what is called "incoherent detection methods", or incoherent wave detection. We can see those particles inside objects, like those used for medical imaging. Think of an ultrasound with light. This type of ultra-fast imaging allows us to study how photons travel through the world more precisely.  

To see a cool experiment done by MIT Media Lab researchers showing a wave of light traveling at the speed of light, check out this video.

In science, electromagnetism gets expressed in terms of energy, frequency or wavelength, depending on the specific types of units that scientists happen to be working with in their particular field of research. Frequencies gets measured in Hertz (Hz), in which one unit is equivalent to one cycle per second. Wavelengths are measured in meters, while energy gets measured in electron volts (eV). *The wavelengths of ultra-violet, x-rays, and gamma rays are too small to really even think about so scientists tend to call these photons by their energies, or electron volts.* The light that is visible to our eyes is all but a small fraction of the energy found within the electromagnetic spectrum. In fact, most people do not even stop to realize that we are constantly being bathed by these types of electromagnetism all of the time!

The people who promote electronic voice phenomena (EVP) as being scientific evidence of paranormal activity are often not considering the vast amount of various energies that are constantly bombarding us. There is atmospheric noise like static electricity, solar noise from the sun, and cosmic noise from other galaxies. But, man-made noise just might take the cake. We put out all sorts of electrical noise, but where humans really excel is in providing so many different kinds of noise with a wide range of frequencies that propagate through space in the same way as radio waves (RF). Try to think about all of the different waves passing through us, because the fact is, we are swimming in a sea of electromagnetic radiation.       

Take a Tour of the Electromagnetic Spectrum in the following video made by NASA. This is a great introduction into electromagnetic waves and their behaviors. It serves as a great web resource and visualization tool for this invisible world that I speak of. But, don't take my word for it...see for yourself!!!


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