My Novels

Monday, January 30, 2006

Still Gonna Die

Life is going along splendid -- well, not considering the fact that all of us are going to die. You'd think though, from all the health news briefs, we could prevent it by how we live, what we eat, how we act. Sometimes you just gotta laugh, it seems so silly.

Fact is, we're mortal.

Fact is, due to being mortal, we are going to die.

Fantasize all you want about immortality (via religion, whatever) but folks, so far there's no proof of life beyond death. And nothing to prevent death is on the horizon.

Now why this rant? I sometimes just get sick of hearing all the conflicting information about "preventive measures" we should take to prolong our lives, as if there were a means of utterly eliminating death altogether.

Here's lyrics from a country song that pretty much says it best:

Gonna Die

So you're takin' better care of your body
Becoming more aware of your body.
Responding to your body's needs.
Everything you hear and read about diets,
Nutrition and sleeping position and detoxifying your system,
And buying machines that they advertise to help you exercise.
Herbs to revitalize you if you're traumatized.
Soaps that will sanitize.
Sprays to deodorize.
Liquid to neutralize acids and pesticides.
Free weights to maximize your strength and muscle size.
Shots that will immunize.
Pills to re-energize you.

But remember that for all your pain and gain
Eventually the story ends the same...

You can quit smokin', but you're still gonna die.
Cut out cokin', but you're still gonna die.
Eliminate everything fatty or fried,
And you get real healthy, but you're still gonna die.
Stop drinkin' booze, you're still gonna die.
Stay away from cooze, you're still gonna die.
You can cut out coffee and never get high,
But you're still gonna, still gonna, still gonna die.

You're still gonna, still gonna, still gonna die.
Still gonna, still gonna, still gonna die.
You can even give aerobics one more try,
But when the music stops playin', you're still gonna die.
Put seat belts in your car, you're still gonna die.
Cut nicotine tar, you're still gonna die.
You can exercise that cellulite right off-a your thigh.
Get slimmer and trimmer, but you're still gonna die.
Stop gettin' a tan, you're still gonna die.
You can search for UFO's up in the sky
They might fly you to Mars where you're still gonna die.

You're still gonna, still gonna, still gonna die.
Still gonna, still gonna, still gonna die.
And all the Reeboks and Nikes and Adidas you buy
You can jog up to heaven and you're still gonna die.

Drink ginseng tonics, you're still gonna die.
Try high colonics, you're still gonna die.
You can have yourself frozen and suspended in time,
But when they do thaw you out, you're still gonna die.
You can have safe sex, you're still gonna die.
You can switch to Crest, you're still gonna die.
You can get rid of stress, get a lot of rest,
Get an AIDS test, enroll in EST,
Move out west where it's sunny and dry
And you'll live to be a hundred
But you're still gonna die.

You're still gonna, still gonna, still gonna die.
Still gonna, still gonna, still gonna die.
So you'd better have some fun
'Fore you say bye-bye,
'Cause you're still gonna, still gonna, still gonna die.

--Written by Shel Silverstein
Performed by Bobby Bare, Jerry Reed, Waylon Jennings and Mel Tillis -- The Old Dogs album


The two miniature ponies are doing fine. It's amusing though to watch Festus being protective of his gal, Ginger. If the two larger horses are nearby, he positions himself between Ginger and them. She follows him around, letting him lead! :-) He's a gelding, but obviously hasn't forgotten he was once a stud.

Yesterday we bought wormer, and DH wormed both miniatures. I have been giving them treats occasionally, hoping to win Ginger's trust. I'd love to brush her, but it's a bit soon yet; she's still nervous and settling into this new place. But Festus is one happy little horse since he has his gal back with him!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Tip on pets for kids

Ladies & Gentleman,
DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT buy miniatures/Shetlands, etc. for a kid's pet if you don't have adequate living quarters to keep them. Or if you don't want to PAY for boarding.

We finally have the other small horse here, but I believe she would be classified as a Shetland pony. The owner still didn't want to sell, even though we ended up offering $250.00. Please understand this mare has already had a colt, and it died. The owner had no idea when or where she was bred, because the man who sold it to her had bought a bunch of minis at a horse auction. He didn't much care about the particulars, in other words.

At any rate, the lady owner said she'd board the horse with us when we offered to feed/care for it at $35.00 per month. She was supposed to have her niece's father (where the horse was at) bring it over today; but they never did. My nephew came by today, and we got him to go with DH and lead the mare over here. Then I paid my nephew to trim/pick out hooves on both horses; their hooves were in appalling shape. The mare has lice in her mane, and she's a mess. You know, this kind of neglect/treatment makes me feel murderous toward people!

The woman kept saying she bought this mare for her niece; but DH said the mare is not as gentle as Festus, and was probably more than the little girl could handle. The aunt, of course, wanted to sell the mare for the same price she paid to buy her -- but the mare has been neglected, and needs care to hopefully restore her health. At least she'll get good care here. When I think of that tiny, cramped pen with the mud hole where these two horses were kept I want to scream! And it also makes me realize I could NEVER breed any animal and sell it UNLESS I knew EXACTLY where it was going. Even DH keeps track of the horses he's sold.

So I repeat folks, DO NOT buy ANY kind of pet for a child UNLESS you know for certain it will be cared for!!!

Here's a picture, though it's not too great since I snapped this in a hurry.

You can see Ginger is a good bit larger than Festus

With that, I'm outta here for now.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Books and more

I'm sitting here watching Oprah interrogate James Frey about his memoir, A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, and it's simply excruciating. It must be terribly embarrassing and humilating to have blatant lies come back to bite you in the @ss publicly. Whoo, I sure don't envy him. Nor am I defending him when I say: "People, do you honestly believe that all memoirs, biographies, autobiographies are the complete and unvarnished truth?" Please. Even in courses taught about writing such material, there are directions on how to embellish for dramatic impact as well as using "selective" memories since obviously one cannot record EVERY event and person in their lives in one short book. However, Frey seems to have gone to extremes and created more fiction than fact. Not good.

That said, let me add that I tried to read the book, but it was so horrible I put it down. NOT due to the overly dramatic details, rather the atrocious writing. Sentences that ran on and on and on and on with "and" linking whole paragraphs as one sentence. It could have been edited, but actually needed rewriting entirely.

Now Oprah is interrogating the editor and publisher, getting a lot of runaround. Frankly, anyone who would publish that book, due to the bad writing alone, should probably be out of business. The state of book publishing in this country has gotten so poor though, that most publishers wouldn't know good writing if it bit them on the @ss.

Oprah can't seem to win on the book club deal; she's damned if she does, damned if she doesn't when it comes to current books. Maybe last season was a better idea: she only recommended classic literature. Last night I watched an older movie based on the novel, "Tess of D'Urberville" by Thomas Hardy. It was fairly good, but the book was better -- and it has stood the test of time.

I'll get off my soapbox now.

We still haven't bought the other miniature mare. The owner wants $300.00, but she did call this morning and ask how much we'd charge for boarding the mare. DH is trying to decide, but I want him to offer $200.00 for the mare; his other offer was lower. Today I drove by where the mare is, and she was lying on her side just barely out of that big mud hole in that cramped/tiny pen. I HATED seeing that, and one way or another, I'm going to make sure she has better living arrangements. Soon.

In the meantime, I'm enjoying Festus. Yesterday one of our quarter horses managed to knock a plank loose, and Festus went into the pasture with the two large horses. They got along fine, and had no problems. However, I feel uneasy when he is in there without supervision, so I kept an eye on him until DH got home and repaired the fence. Now if the mare, Ginger, comes here we'll have more secure quarters for them both. They will have the smaller stable and older red barn to use, as well as a big lot for now. Eventually, we may fix the front part of the pasture just for them. IF we ever decide to breed/sell miniatures (and we're undecided about that) they could have half the 5-acre pasture.

I'll close today by posting several photos.

The two Quarter horses & Festus

Harley checks out Festus

Old church I saw on our Sunday drive

Another old church in nearby small town

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Meet Festus, Our Miniature!

Yep, I'm happy today because last night DH bought our first miniature horse!

I had noticed a couple of miniature horses at a house not far from us on my bicycle rides. The people had small kids, and were keeping these miniatures in a very, very cramped pen. I hated seeing that, because there was just not enough room for the horses. Back in the summer I said something to DH about asking if the people might consider selling the mini's, but he never talked to them. The horses escaped several times, and I think people in the neighborhood were complaining, since it's near a subdivision.

Anyhow, Friday on my bike ride I noticed the pen had become nothing but a huge mud-hole; I felt SO sorry for the miniatures! DH still wouldn't stop to ask about them, but here's the weird thing: Last night the lady who has the miniatures called US, and she was desperate to sell hers. Apparently one is a female mini, and owned by the lady's sister; but she's also thinking of selling it.

Anyhow, when I figured out who was calling, I kept making motions with my hands, saying to DH I wanted those horses! He didn't even act interested! After he hung up though, he said would go look at them after supper. But that I wasn't going! He knows I'd have paid whatever they were asking, and they started out wanting $300.00 for the male gelding mini. Believe it or not, mini's are selling for more than large horses these days. At any rate, DH bought the miniature male gelding and got saddle/tack to go along with him. And DH only paid $150.00. So we now have a miniature horse and his name is: Festus!!! I thought that was so cute!

Here's a photo of him with the other horses (we only have these two now); we're keeping them separate most of the time, but have let him in with them enough to get acquainted and when DH can make sure they don't hurt Festus.

Festus has very thick wooly hair, his winter coat. But he is a chestnut color, and will be beautiful in the spring when he sheds this hair. For now, it keeps him warm. We may still buy the other mini too, if the woman's sister will sell her to us. Since Festus is a gelding though, there won't be any breeding going on. By the way, those little kids were riding Festus; one little girl saddled him up, and rode him all over the yard, DH said. But the kids know where he's at, so they can stop by and see him if they want to.

So I'm sure in a better mood NOW! :-)

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Dreary January Days...

Dreary, dreary day here. The sky is a nasty underbelly of greyish pond scum, matching by depressive mood exactly. NOT a happy camper, and no reason except just the January gloomy well as my infamous restlessness during this month.

I've done some drastic, crazy things in January due to sheer boredom, to simply break the bleakness of dark days. In fact, I have even been thinking of just getting in my car and driving to some unknown destination, take a room and be totally alone for awhile. I do have cravings for solitude occasionally, and I do mean solitary time -- no one around, no phones, no TVs/Radios, etc. Doubt I will do this right now, but it is a tempting idea.

I finished the Thomas Cook novel, "Red Leaves," last night; as predicted, it was a great, fast-paced mystery. Highly recommended, along with ALL his novels.

Here's an interesting news article about one of last night's film awards:

Globe win for suicide bomber film

Palestinian film-maker Hany Abu-Assad was perhaps the most surprised man at the Golden Globes on Monday as his drama of suicide bombers crossing into Israel, "Paradise Now," was named the year's best foreign language film.

Abu-Assad, who works out of Holland but is now looking for a house in Hollywood Hills, had expected to lose as he did earlier this month to martial arts comedy "Kung Fu Hustle" at the Broadcast Film Critics awards.

He said he just assumed that too many people had either not seen his film or simply assumed it was too controversial. After all, Palestinian films are a rarity in the United States, especially ones that try to explain the politics of despair.


I'm glad this film won an award. We NEED to know more about the mindset of such suicide bombers, otherwise we are NEVER going to succeed in curbing this kind of terrorist violence. Bombing them off the map IS NOT, I repeat IS NOT working! If you have an optimistic idea it is, just look at the latest news from the Iraq war.

And now for news from our mad world:

Cannibal on murder charge again

FRANKFURT, Germany (Reuters) -- A convicted German cannibal returned to court on Thursday for a retrial to determine if his killing and eating of a willing victim amounted to murder.

Photographers' flashbulbs greeted the arrival in a packed court of a handcuffed Armin Meiwes, a computer repairman who had cut up and consumed a man he had met via the Internet.


Guess you just never know who you'll meet on the net, huh? Again, ladies and gentlemen, I declare that we are living in a mad, mad world populated by exceedingly mad humans.

And I'll end this post with a little ditty that underscores the above statement, as well as the increasingly insane world of the mass print publishing industry:

Rejected by the Publishers

Published: January 4, 2006

Submitted to 20 publishers and agents, the typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of two books were assumed to be the work of aspiring novelists. Of 21 replies, all but one were rejections. Sent by The Sunday Times of London, the manuscripts were the opening chapters of novels that won Booker Prizes in the 1970's. One was "Holiday," by Stanley Middleton; the other was "In a Free State," by Sir V. S. Naipaul, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature. Mr. Middleton said he wasn't surprised. "People don't seem to know what a good novel is nowadays," he said. Mr. Naipaul said: "To see something is well written and appetizingly written takes a lot of talent, and there is not a great deal of that around. With all the other forms of entertainment today, there are very few people around who would understand what a good paragraph is."

Friday, January 13, 2006

Books, Life and Thoughts

The problem with saying a novel is good when you are only halfway through it may be wrong. It may NOT be good, sometimes depending on the end. As a novelist, I've always felt that the ending of my novels/short stories are extremely important; it underlines the main theme. Would I change the ending if it would mean print publication. No. How can I be certain? Because that exact situation occurred in my past work.

I had sent a manuscript into a publishing house, had a specific genre editor very interested. She suggested some minor changes, which I complied with, but when she said the ending would have to be different, I withdrew the manuscript. So I know a contrived ending (usually by an editor) when I read one; that seems to have been the case with the novel I just read: "Carrie Pilby" by Caren Lissner

There are many brilliant passages, deep philosophical/intellectual thoughts/ponderings throughout the novel, so it's still a worthwhile read. But the ending not only ruins the novel, it simply makes the whole story seem implausible. I won't reveal why, since that would be a spoiler for other readers, but it is obvious to a seasoned novelist. The worst aspect is that the ending maligns the protagonist who is an honest, moral, extremely brilliant young woman; it calls her whole philosophy of life into question. You end up thinking she is dumb by the stupidity of the decision she makes at the end. Was that the intent of the author? I don't think so. More likely it was probably the advice of a genre editor in order to make the story "fit" the chick lit category (i.e. a semblance of ending with a positive outlook for the protagonist). About the only thing worse than bad fiction is dishonest fiction. It's always better that a writer be true to their vision even IF they never get published, IMO.

End of rant.

I went to town yesterday, dropped by the library and got several promising novels. The first one I'll read I'm sure IS an excellent novel: Red Leaves by Thomas Cook, one of my favorite authors. I also got four DVD movies; the library has a small selection that can be checked out. And I finally got "A Million Little Pieces," by James Frey.

Tomorrow DH and I are going to a horse sale in a neighboring county. He wants to look for horse trailers, since he only has one available to sell now. If it's not too cold, it should be interesting. We had downpours all morning, with storms, but now it's sunny and windy. Tonight is supposed to be near 30 though, and only in the 40s tomorrow.

Here's an interesting quote I found online, regarding those with high I.Q. in unsuitable environments for their intellectual gifts:

The second kind of social adaptation may be called the marginal strategy. These individuals were typically born into a lower socio-economic class, without gifted parents, gifted siblings, or gifted friends. Often they did not go to college at all, but instead went right to work immediately after high school, or even before. And although they may superficially appear to have made a good adjustment to their work and friends, neither work nor friends can completely engage their attention. They hunger for more intellectual challenge and more real companionship than their social environment can supply. So they resort to leading a double life. They compartmentalize their life into a public sphere and a private sphere. In public they go through the motions of fulfilling their social roles, whatever they are, but in private they pursue goals of their own. They are often omnivorous readers, and sometimes unusually expert amateurs in specialized subjects. The double life strategy might even be called the genius ploy, as many geniuses in history have worked at menial tasks in order to free themselves for more important work. Socrates, you will remember was a stone mason, Spinoza was a lens grinder, and even Jesus was a carpenter. The exceptionally gifted adult who works as a parking lot attendant while creating new mathematics has adopted an honored way of life and deserves respect for his courage, not criticism for failing to live up to his abilities. Those conformists who adopt the committed strategy may be pillars of their community and make the world go around, but historically, those with truly original minds have more often adopted the double life tactic. They are ones among the gifted who are most likely to make the world go forward.
--From: The Prometheus Society

I'll close with this picture of the view out my living room window:

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Sad news

I had a sad, bad weekend. I lost one of my cats, "Buddy/Little Bud." He was only four years old, but had suffered from a variety of ailments. The worst was his problem developing kidney stones; he'd been on medication and a special diet of dry food most of his life.

Late Saturday night he seemed to have a stroke -- his eyes had been weird for two years -- one dilated while the other remained narrow occasionally. I assumed (and the vet did too) that he had a brain tumor which sometimes caused this. At any rate, I had decided some time ago that when/if he suffered a stroke, I would NOT subject him to the vet's tests, etc. He also had leukemia, and both his littermates died with it their first year. He was unable to walk after the stroke, could not co-ordinate his movements, was lethargic, would not eat, etc.

I prepared a special enclosed place for him on the sunporch, and monitored him that night and all day Sunday. He died Monday morning. Buddy HATED the vet, would start yowling if I even started to put him in the carrier. No doubt he had bad memories of the time he had to have a stone removed! So I let him die peacefully at home in his familiar surroundings, with the other cats nearby but unable to bother him.

I'll miss the little rascal; he was my faithful lap cat every night while I watched TV. That is how he got his name, being my "Little Bud."

In Loving Memory, R.I.P.

Otherwise, we're having incredibly beautiful, springlike weather. I went on a bike ride the past two days, though I probably won't today. Rain last night created a muddy mess of the dirt road alongside our house, where I ride when I go on my regular excursion.

I'm reading an excellent novel, my first episode with "Chick Lit." I found it in the library, and absolutely LOVE the main character; she is an intellectual/brainiac and (not that I'm on that level) but thinks a great deal like I do. Here's a link for anyone who wishes to read this novel:

Carrie Pilby By Caren Lissner

I'll close with this quote:

"Most civilized nations compensate for the inadequacy of wages by providing relatively generous public services such as health insurance, free or subsidized child care, subsidized housing, and effective public transporation. But the United States, for all its wealth, leaves its citizens to fend for themselves. What is hard for the non-poor to see is poverty as acute distress: the lunch that consists of Doritos or hot dog rolls, leading to faintness before the end of the shift. The 'home' that is also a car or van." -- Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Remembering the Coal Miners

My paternal grandfather was a coal miner. He spent 20 years in the coal mines, and often told many tales of those years. As did my grandmother. They actually lived in a coal mining town, during the horrible 30s Depression Era. No wonder my grandmother always yearned to get back to the land and farm, as they did eventually.

I am always sad, and somewhat stunned, to be reminded that in this day and age of "technological progress" we still have men going into the horrid, dank, deep coal mines to help us have "energy." Think about them when you turn on a light, or enjoy creature comforts; some sacrifice their lives so that we may do so.

Here's a link to something I wrote about my grandfather's experience in the mine:

The Beckoning Voice --Short True Paranormal Experience

Until tomorrow, when MOST of us will see the dawning light of day...

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

New Year's Resolutions?

No, I'm NOT making any this year. I thought about trying to get below 100 lbs, but it would probably end up being an impossibility. Plus, even if I did, I might not stay there all the time. I'd LOVE to always weigh less than 100 lbs, but since I seem to be healthy at my current weight (105 as of today), I can't complain. I always get regular, daily exercise too, and eat right. So I'm not going to stress over dieting!

Yesterday DH watched football on TV all day, staying off his leg/foot. He had the day off, due to New Year's being on Sunday. I, however, worked like crazy. We had a 75 degree day, brilliant sunshine and I took advantage of it to get out and wash windows. I did my kitchen windows, the cat's sunporch windows, and two bedroom windows. I also washed my car, and did several outdoor tasks I'd put off.

I ended the day with a long bike ride, and took a few photos along the way. I plan to start riding the bike again every day it isn't too cold or rainy. That may only be occasionally, and I'll use the airbike when I can't get outdoors, but I NEED the outside biking because it is better, and I enjoy the fresh air, the scenery -- which improves my mood.

Here's a picture I took of a huge tree at an old homeplace along my ride:

I'll end this entry with an article from New Scientist about "unsolved scientific riddles." Just when you think there is nothing mysterious left for scientist to ponder, think again. And for any of those who are bored, think there's nothing left to discover in the cosmos, well, here's your wake-up call!

13 things that do not make sense

* 19 March 2005
* news service
* Michael Brooks

1 The placebo effect

DON'T try this at home. Several times a day, for several days, you induce pain in someone. You control the pain with morphine until the final day of the experiment, when you replace the morphine with saline solution. Guess what? The saline takes the pain away.

This is the placebo effect: somehow, sometimes, a whole lot of nothing can be very powerful. Except it's not quite nothing. When Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin in Italy carried out the above experiment, he added a final twist by adding naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of morphine, to the saline. The shocking result? The pain-relieving power of saline solution disappeared.

So what is going on? Doctors have known about the placebo effect for decades, and the naloxone result seems to show that the placebo effect is somehow biochemical. But apart from that, we simply don't know.

Benedetti has since shown that a saline placebo can also reduce tremors and muscle stiffness in people with Parkinson's disease (Nature Neuroscience, vol 7, p 587). He and his team measured the activity of neurons in the patients' brains as they administered the saline. They found that individual neurons in the subthalamic nucleus (a common target for surgical attempts to relieve Parkinson's symptoms) began to fire less often when the saline was given, and with fewer "bursts" of firing - another feature associated with Parkinson's. The neuron activity decreased at the same time as the symptoms improved: the saline was definitely doing something.

We have a lot to learn about what is happening here, Benedetti says, but one thing is clear: the mind can affect the body's biochemistry. "The relationship between expectation and therapeutic outcome is a wonderful model to understand mind-body interaction," he says. Researchers now need to identify when and where placebo works. There may be diseases in which it has no effect. There may be a common mechanism in different illnesses. As yet, we just don't know.

2 The horizon problem

OUR universe appears to be unfathomably uniform. Look across space from one edge of the visible universe to the other, and you'll see that the microwave background radiation filling the cosmos is at the same temperature everywhere. That may not seem surprising until you consider that the two edges are nearly 28 billion light years apart and our universe is only 14 billion years old.

Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, so there is no way heat radiation could have travelled between the two horizons to even out the hot and cold spots created in the big bang and leave the thermal equilibrium we see now.

This "horizon problem" is a big headache for cosmologists, so big that they have come up with some pretty wild solutions. "Inflation", for example.

You can solve the horizon problem by having the universe expand ultra-fast for a time, just after the big bang, blowing up by a factor of 1050 in 10-33 seconds. But is that just wishful thinking? "Inflation would be an explanation if it occurred," says University of Cambridge astronomer Martin Rees. The trouble is that no one knows what could have made that happen.

So, in effect, inflation solves one mystery only to invoke another. A variation in the speed of light could also solve the horizon problem - but this too is impotent in the face of the question "why?" In scientific terms, the uniform temperature of the background radiation remains an anomaly.
“A variation in the speed of light could solve the problem, but this too is impotent in the face of the question 'why?'”

3 Ultra-energetic cosmic rays

FOR more than a decade, physicists in Japan have been seeing cosmic rays that should not exist. Cosmic rays are particles - mostly protons but sometimes heavy atomic nuclei - that travel through the universe at close to the speed of light. Some cosmic rays detected on Earth are produced in violent events such as supernovae, but we still don't know the origins of the highest-energy particles, which are the most energetic particles ever seen in nature. But that's not the real mystery.

As cosmic-ray particles travel through space, they lose energy in collisions with the low-energy photons that pervade the universe, such as those of the cosmic microwave background radiation. Einstein's special theory of relativity dictates that any cosmic rays reaching Earth from a source outside our galaxy will have suffered so many energy-shedding collisions that their maximum possible energy is 5 × 1019 electronvolts. This is known as the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin limit.

Over the past decade, however, the University of Tokyo's Akeno Giant Air Shower Array - 111 particle detectors spread out over 100 square kilometres - has detected several cosmic rays above the GZK limit. In theory, they can only have come from within our galaxy, avoiding an energy-sapping journey across the cosmos. However, astronomers can find no source for these cosmic rays in our galaxy. So what is going on?

One possibility is that there is something wrong with the Akeno results. Another is that Einstein was wrong. His special theory of relativity says that space is the same in all directions, but what if particles found it easier to move in certain directions? Then the cosmic rays could retain more of their energy, allowing them to beat the GZK limit.

Physicists at the Pierre Auger experiment in Mendoza, Argentina, are now working on this problem. Using 1600 detectors spread over 3000 square kilometres, Auger should be able to determine the energies of incoming cosmic rays and shed more light on the Akeno results.

Alan Watson, an astronomer at the University of Leeds, UK, and spokesman for the Pierre Auger project, is already convinced there is something worth following up here. "I have no doubts that events above 1020 electronvolts exist. There are sufficient examples to convince me," he says. The question now is, what are they? How many of these particles are coming in, and what direction are they coming from? Until we get that information, there's no telling how exotic the true explanation could be.
“One possibility is that there is something wrong with the Akeno results. Another is that Einstein was wrong.”

4 Belfast homeopathy results

MADELEINE Ennis, a pharmacologist at Queen's University, Belfast, was the scourge of homeopathy. She railed against its claims that a chemical remedy could be diluted to the point where a sample was unlikely to contain a single molecule of anything but water, and yet still have a healing effect. Until, that is, she set out to prove once and for all that homeopathy was bunkum.

In her most recent paper, Ennis describes how her team looked at the effects of ultra-dilute solutions of histamine on human white blood cells involved in inflammation. These "basophils" release histamine when the cells are under attack. Once released, the histamine stops them releasing any more. The study, replicated in four different labs, found that homeopathic solutions - so dilute that they probably didn't contain a single histamine molecule - worked just like histamine. Ennis might not be happy with the homeopaths' claims, but she admits that an effect cannot be ruled out.

So how could it happen? Homeopaths prepare their remedies by dissolving things like charcoal, deadly nightshade or spider venom in ethanol, and then diluting this "mother tincture" in water again and again. No matter what the level of dilution, homeopaths claim, the original remedy leaves some kind of imprint on the water molecules. Thus, however dilute the solution becomes, it is still imbued with the properties of the remedy.

You can understand why Ennis remains sceptical. And it remains true that no homeopathic remedy has ever been shown to work in a large randomised placebo-controlled clinical trial. But the Belfast study (Inflammation Research, vol 53, p 181) suggests that something is going on. "We are," Ennis says in her paper, "unable to explain our findings and are reporting them to encourage others to investigate this phenomenon." If the results turn out to be real, she says, the implications are profound: we may have to rewrite physics and chemistry.

5 Dark matter

TAKE our best understanding of gravity, apply it to the way galaxies spin, and you'll quickly see the problem: the galaxies should be falling apart. Galactic matter orbits around a central point because its mutual gravitational attraction creates centripetal forces. But there is not enough mass in the galaxies to produce the observed spin.

Vera Rubin, an astronomer working at the Carnegie Institution's department of terrestrial magnetism in Washington DC, spotted this anomaly in the late 1970s. The best response from physicists was to suggest there is more stuff out there than we can see. The trouble was, nobody could explain what this "dark matter" was.

And they still can't. Although researchers have made many suggestions about what kind of particles might make up dark matter, there is no consensus. It's an embarrassing hole in our understanding. Astronomical observations suggest that dark matter must make up about 90 per cent of the mass in the universe, yet we are astonishingly ignorant what that 90 per cent is.

Maybe we can't work out what dark matter is because it doesn't actually exist. That's certainly the way Rubin would like it to turn out. "If I could have my pick, I would like to learn that Newton's laws must be modified in order to correctly describe gravitational interactions at large distances," she says. "That's more appealing than a universe filled with a new kind of sub-nuclear particle." “If the results turn out to be real, the implications are profound. We may have to rewrite physics and chemistry.”

6 Viking's methane

JULY 20, 1976. Gilbert Levin is on the edge of his seat. Millions of kilometres away on Mars, the Viking landers have scooped up some soil and mixed it with carbon-14-labelled nutrients. The mission's scientists have all agreed that if Levin's instruments on board the landers detect emissions of carbon-14-containing methane from the soil, then there must be life on Mars.

Viking reports a positive result. Something is ingesting the nutrients, metabolising them, and then belching out gas laced with carbon-14.

So why no party?

Because another instrument, designed to identify organic molecules considered essential signs of life, found nothing. Almost all the mission scientists erred on the side of caution and declared Viking's discovery a false positive. But was it?

The arguments continue to rage, but results from NASA's latest rovers show that the surface of Mars was almost certainly wet in the past and therefore hospitable to life. And there is plenty more evidence where that came from, Levin says. "Every mission to Mars has produced evidence supporting my conclusion. None has contradicted it."

Levin stands by his claim, and he is no longer alone. Joe Miller, a cell biologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, has re-analysed the data and he thinks that the emissions show evidence of a circadian cycle. That is highly suggestive of life.

Levin is petitioning ESA and NASA to fly a modified version of his mission to look for "chiral" molecules. These come in left or right-handed versions: they are mirror images of each other. While biological processes tend to produce molecules that favour one chirality over the other, non-living processes create left and right-handed versions in equal numbers. If a future mission to Mars were to find that Martian "metabolism" also prefers one chiral form of a molecule to the other, that would be the best indication yet of life on Mars. “Something on Mars is ingesting nutrients, metabolising them and then belching out radioactive methane.”

7 Tetraneutrons

FOUR years ago, a particle accelerator in France detected six particles that should not exist. They are called tetraneutrons: four neutrons that are bound together in a way that defies the laws of physics.

Francisco Miguel Marquès and colleagues at the Ganil accelerator in Caen are now gearing up to do it again. If they succeed, these clusters may oblige us to rethink the forces that hold atomic nuclei together.

The team fired beryllium nuclei at a small carbon target and analysed the debris that shot into surrounding particle detectors. They expected to see evidence for four separate neutrons hitting their detectors. Instead the Ganil team found just one flash of light in one detector. And the energy of this flash suggested that four neutrons were arriving together at the detector. Of course, their finding could have been an accident: four neutrons might just have arrived in the same place at the same time by coincidence. But that's ridiculously improbable.

Not as improbable as tetraneutrons, some might say, because in the standard model of particle physics tetraneutrons simply can't exist. According to the Pauli exclusion principle, not even two protons or neutrons in the same system can have identical quantum properties. In fact, the strong nuclear force that would hold them together is tuned in such a way that it can't even hold two lone neutrons together, let alone four. Marquès and his team were so bemused by their result that they buried the data in a research paper that was ostensibly about the possibility of finding tetraneutrons in the future (Physical Review C, vol 65, p 44006).

And there are still more compelling reasons to doubt the existence of tetraneutrons. If you tweak the laws of physics to allow four neutrons to bind together, all kinds of chaos ensues (Journal of Physics G, vol 29, L9). It would mean that the mix of elements formed after the big bang was inconsistent with what we now observe and, even worse, the elements formed would have quickly become far too heavy for the cosmos to cope. "Maybe the universe would have collapsed before it had any chance to expand," says Natalia Timofeyuk, a theorist at the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK.

There are, however, a couple of holes in this reasoning. Established theory does allow the tetraneutron to exist - though only as a ridiculously short-lived particle. "This could be a reason for four neutrons hitting the Ganil detectors simultaneously," Timofeyuk says. And there is other evidence that supports the idea of matter composed of multiple neutrons: neutron stars. These bodies, which contain an enormous number of bound neutrons, suggest that as yet unexplained forces come into play when neutrons gather en masse.

8 The Pioneer anomaly

THIS is a tale of two spacecraft. Pioneer 10 was launched in 1972; Pioneer 11 a year later. By now both craft should be drifting off into deep space with no one watching. However, their trajectories have proved far too fascinating to ignore.

That's because something has been pulling - or pushing - on them, causing them to speed up. The resulting acceleration is tiny, less than a nanometre per second per second. That's equivalent to just one ten-billionth of the gravity at Earth's surface, but it is enough to have shifted Pioneer 10 some 400,000 kilometres off track. NASA lost touch with Pioneer 11 in 1995, but up to that point it was experiencing exactly the same deviation as its sister probe. So what is causing it?

Nobody knows. Some possible explanations have already been ruled out, including software errors, the solar wind or a fuel leak. If the cause is some gravitational effect, it is not one we know anything about. In fact, physicists are so completely at a loss that some have resorted to linking this mystery with other inexplicable phenomena.

Bruce Bassett of the University of Portsmouth, UK, has suggested that the Pioneer conundrum might have something to do with variations in alpha, the fine structure constant (see "Not so constant constants", page 37). Others have talked about it as arising from dark matter - but since we don't know what dark matter is, that doesn't help much either. "This is all so maddeningly intriguing," says Michael Martin Nieto of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "We only have proposals, none of which has been demonstrated."

Nieto has called for a new analysis of the early trajectory data from the craft, which he says might yield fresh clues. But to get to the bottom of the problem what scientists really need is a mission designed specifically to test unusual gravitational effects in the outer reaches of the solar system. Such a probe would cost between $300 million and $500 million and could piggyback on a future mission to the outer reaches of the solar system (

"An explanation will be found eventually," Nieto says. "Of course I hope it is due to new physics - how stupendous that would be. But once a physicist starts working on the basis of hope he is heading for a fall." Disappointing as it may seem, Nieto thinks the explanation for the Pioneer anomaly will eventually be found in some mundane effect, such as an unnoticed source of heat on board the craft.

9 Dark energy

IT IS one of the most famous, and most embarrassing, problems in physics. In 1998, astronomers discovered that the universe is expanding at ever faster speeds. It's an effect still searching for a cause - until then, everyone thought the universe's expansion was slowing down after the big bang. "Theorists are still floundering around, looking for a sensible explanation," says cosmologist Katherine Freese of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "We're all hoping that upcoming observations of supernovae, of clusters of galaxies and so on will give us more clues."

One suggestion is that some property of empty space is responsible - cosmologists call it dark energy. But all attempts to pin it down have fallen woefully short. It's also possible that Einstein's theory of general relativity may need to be tweaked when applied to the very largest scales of the universe. "The field is still wide open," Freese says.

10 The Kuiper cliff

IF YOU travel out to the far edge of the solar system, into the frigid wastes beyond Pluto, you'll see something strange. Suddenly, after passing through the Kuiper belt, a region of space teeming with icy rocks, there's nothing.

Astronomers call this boundary the Kuiper cliff, because the density of space rocks drops off so steeply. What caused it? The only answer seems to be a 10th planet. We're not talking about Quaoar or Sedna: this is a massive object, as big as Earth or Mars, that has swept the area clean of debris.

The evidence for the existence of "Planet X" is compelling, says Alan Stern, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. But although calculations show that such a body could account for the Kuiper cliff (Icarus, vol 160, p 32), no one has ever seen this fabled 10th planet.

There's a good reason for that. The Kuiper belt is just too far away for us to get a decent view. We need to get out there and have a look before we can say anything about the region. And that won't be possible for another decade, at least. NASA's New Horizons probe, which will head out to Pluto and the Kuiper belt, is scheduled for launch in January 2006. It won't reach Pluto until 2015, so if you are looking for an explanation of the vast, empty gulf of the Kuiper cliff, watch this space.

11 The Wow signal

IT WAS 37 seconds long and came from outer space. On 15 August 1977 it caused astronomer Jerry Ehman, then of Ohio State University in Columbus, to scrawl "Wow!" on the printout from Big Ear, Ohio State's radio telescope in Delaware. And 28 years later no one knows what created the signal. "I am still waiting for a definitive explanation that makes sense," Ehman says.

Coming from the direction of Sagittarius, the pulse of radiation was confined to a narrow range of radio frequencies around 1420 megahertz. This frequency is in a part of the radio spectrum in which all transmissions are prohibited by international agreement. Natural sources of radiation, such as the thermal emissions from planets, usually cover a much broader sweep of frequencies. So what caused it?

The nearest star in that direction is 220 light years away. If that is where is came from, it would have had to be a pretty powerful astronomical event - or an advanced alien civilisation using an astonishingly large and powerful transmitter.

The fact that hundreds of sweeps over the same patch of sky have found nothing like the Wow signal doesn't mean it's not aliens. When you consider the fact that the Big Ear telescope covers only one-millionth of the sky at any time, and an alien transmitter would also likely beam out over the same fraction of sky, the chances of spotting the signal again are remote, to say the least.

Others think there must be a mundane explanation. Dan Wertheimer, chief scientist for the SETI@home project, says the Wow signal was almost certainly pollution: radio-frequency interference from Earth-based transmissions. "We've seen many signals like this, and these sorts of signals have always turned out to be interference," he says. The debate continues. “It was either a powerful astronomical event - or an advanced alien civilisation beaming out a signal.”

12 Not-so-constant constants

IN 1997 astronomer John Webb and his team at the University of New South Wales in Sydney analysed the light reaching Earth from distant quasars. On its 12-billion-year journey, the light had passed through interstellar clouds of metals such as iron, nickel and chromium, and the researchers found these atoms had absorbed some of the photons of quasar light - but not the ones they were expecting.

If the observations are correct, the only vaguely reasonable explanation is that a constant of physics called the fine structure constant, or alpha, had a different value at the time the light passed through the clouds.

But that's heresy. Alpha is an extremely important constant that determines how light interacts with matter - and it shouldn't be able to change. Its value depends on, among other things, the charge on the electron, the speed of light and Planck's constant. Could one of these really have changed?

No one in physics wanted to believe the measurements. Webb and his team have been trying for years to find an error in their results. But so far they have failed.

Webb's are not the only results that suggest something is missing from our understanding of alpha. A recent analysis of the only known natural nuclear reactor, which was active nearly 2 billion years ago at what is now Oklo in Gabon, also suggests something about light's interaction with matter has changed.

The ratio of certain radioactive isotopes produced within such a reactor depends on alpha, and so looking at the fission products left behind in the ground at Oklo provides a way to work out the value of the constant at the time of their formation. Using this method, Steve Lamoreaux and his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico suggest that alpha may have decreased by more than 4 per cent since Oklo started up (Physical Review D, vol 69, p 121701).

There are gainsayers who still dispute any change in alpha. Patrick Petitjean, an astronomer at the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris, led a team that analysed quasar light picked up by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile and found no evidence that alpha has changed. But Webb, who is now looking at the VLT measurements, says that they require a more complex analysis than Petitjean's team has carried out. Webb's group is working on that now, and may be in a position to declare the anomaly resolved - or not - later this year.

"It's difficult to say how long it's going to take," says team member Michael Murphy of the University of Cambridge. "The more we look at these new data, the more difficulties we see." But whatever the answer, the work will still be valuable. An analysis of the way light passes through distant molecular clouds will reveal more about how the elements were produced early in the universe's history.

13 Cold fusion

AFTER 16 years, it's back. In fact, cold fusion never really went away. Over a 10-year period from 1989, US navy labs ran more than 200 experiments to investigate whether nuclear reactions generating more energy than they consume - supposedly only possible inside stars - can occur at room temperature. Numerous researchers have since pronounced themselves believers.

With controllable cold fusion, many of the world's energy problems would melt away: no wonder the US Department of Energy is interested. In December, after a lengthy review of the evidence, it said it was open to receiving proposals for new cold fusion experiments.

That's quite a turnaround. The DoE's first report on the subject, published 15 years ago, concluded that the original cold fusion results, produced by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and unveiled at a press conference in 1989, were impossible to reproduce, and thus probably false.

The basic claim of cold fusion is that dunking palladium electrodes into heavy water - in which oxygen is combined with the hydrogen isotope deuterium - can release a large amount of energy. Placing a voltage across the electrodes supposedly allows deuterium nuclei to move into palladium's molecular lattice, enabling them to overcome their natural repulsion and fuse together, releasing a blast of energy. The snag is that fusion at room temperature is deemed impossible by every accepted scientific theory.

“Cold fusion would make the world's energy problems melt away. No wonder the Department of Energy is interested.”

That doesn't matter, according to David Nagel, an engineer at George Washington University in Washington DC. Superconductors took 40 years to explain, he points out, so there's no reason to dismiss cold fusion. "The experimental case is bulletproof," he says. "You can't make it go away."

--From issue 2491 of New Scientist magazine, 19 March 2005, page 30