Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Thursday, July 28, 2011

How Many Angels Can Dance On The Head Of A Pin?

SN1987 A

More than the number of stars in the Milky Way!

Sudbury Neutrino Detector located 2000
meters underground.  Note the men. 

Back in February of 1987 a large blue super giant star died in the region of space known as the Large Magellanic Cloud.  The visible evidence of this event, known as a super nova explosion, was first discerned by an observatory in Chile.  However, three hours before the super nova was visible, an increase in the neutrino flux was detected in several neutrino detectors around the world, twenty five neutrinos altogether for about 13 seconds.

Vanishing small, with almost zero mass, moving along at almost the speed of light, neutrinos are extremely hard to detect. X number of neutrinos can pass through Y number of light years of solid lead without any interaction.  Twenty seven point six bazzillion are flying though your body right now.    So why did I use variables instead of numbers, well there seems to be a variety of opinions on that question, and right now I would prefer to count dancing angels only on one pin head.

Artist's conception of a neutrino
 passing through 1 light year of
 lead.  Note! Not drawn to scale.  

Anyhow the point of all this is that you can use increases in neutrino flux to warn astronomers to get the optical telescopes fired up and get the coffee brewing in the may be a long night.  The theory is that before the supernova goes bang, the dense stellar core collapses and wham neutrinos fly off like rats leaving a sinking ship.  So many neutrinos that detectors on Earth seen 25 extra ones for an event that occurred 168,000 light years away. The supernova was named SN1987 A and you can read about it and neutrinos at Wikipedia:

Wikipedia, SN 1987 A

Wikipedia, Neutrino

Here is another interesting article on neutrinos and supernovas:

The Astrophysics Spectator, Neutrinos and Supernova 1987A

So what does this have to do with counting angels dancing on the head of a pin?    Well nothing really, but it was today's fascinating fact to keep an un-gainfully retired old man off the streets.  It also sort of modeled something that I observed with my blog, and that is what I am really writing about.

I use an Internet application called StatCounter to monitor the activity on my blog.  I only do this because its free, and it serves to give me a daily dose of humility.  What StatCounter tells me for the most part is about 30 to 50 people a day come to have a look at the "pichers" and damn few read anything.  Yet I mindlessly continue to droll out inane drivel and think it high art--but like I say, it serves to keep an old man out of the streets or bars, so what the hell.

On July third I basically plagiarized (with due credit) an article out Scientific American on the physical limits of further brain evolution.

Navigating The Finite, July 3, 2011, The Future of Human Intelligence

In that article I quoted several passages from David Eagleman's book Incognito:

"The cells are connected to one another in a network of such staggering complexity that it bankrupts human language and necessitates new strains of mathematics. A typical neuron makes about ten thousand connections to neighboring neurons. Given the billions of neurons, this means there are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy." *

He gets a bit more specific later:
"In a single cubic millimeter of brain tissue, there are some one hundred million synaptic connections between neurons."**

Unwittingly with this post coupled with StatCounter, I created an "Ooops" detector.  Ooopses are massless bodies that travel at the speed of human conversation.  So I, again unwittingly, set up my detectors on July 3.  For about two weeks I got the usual amount of hits on the post, normal background, a couple hits every other day or so, always on an image search, with a visit length generally less than 20 seconds.  People are lookin' at the "pichers".  Nobody is reading anything--they seldom ever do. Really I should delete all this and just post pictures every now and again.

Then, about a week ago, I noticed this post was getting hits on Google text searches, always with some combination of the words "one cubic millimeter has more ___________ than stars in the Milky Way."   Fill in the blank with connections, synapses, cells, or neurons.  So the first alarm of the "ooops" detector went off...hits on this post doubled or tripled, text searches, and always the same phrase with the wrong volume unit.  In the book it is a cubic centimeter not cubic millimeter.  Being retired with nothing else to do, I got curious, what the hell is going on?  This lasted for a couple of days.  Something isn't right.  I did a couple of Google searches and found nothing out of the ordinary, although I didn't go real deep.  The hits dropped off a bit but were still going strong so I posed the question on  Someone replied that Eagleman was going on a book tour.  But that didn't seem to account for the specificity of these Google text searches.  It just seemed to me that something was up.

This morning I got up and checked Quora, nothing new.  So then I did another Google search, BINGO!  We have a visual on those "ooops", and it is a something of a "SuperOoops."

The Astronomist: A Cubic Millimeter Of Your Brain

Appearing on controversial television shows is always a good way to get noticed.  Well my good friend (yeah...he is another friend that doesn't realize that he is my friend...but I like the guy none the less) David Eagleman appeared on the Colbert Report on July 21, 2011...about three hours before the first "ooops" registered on StatCounter. Oh dear!

Colbert Report: David Eagleman

The above video is 5:44 minutes long.  And it clearly shows the metaphorical core collapsing right out of Eagleman's mouth.

Eagleman: "... that one cubic millimeter of brain tissue has as many connections as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy."

Colbert: "Bullshit!"

Eagleman: "Its true."

Colbert: "Really?  Really one cubic millimeter?"

Eagleman: "Yes!"

All shit, Dave!  Damn it!  So wham, in goes the metaphorical stellar core with one frigging word--shit not even a word, more of a prefix really, and out fly the ooopses that started to register on on my StatCounter "ooops detector."

Shit!  I knew something was up but I never suspected that Eagleman misquoted himself.  What the hell are you going to do?  It's out there now.  I went back on to and answered my own question.  I wrote Eagleman's personal assistant an email stating what I had found, and then wrote a comment on the Astronomist's post stating that Eagleman misquoted himself, and gave the correct quotes shown above.

I don't find the fact that Eagleman made a mistake all that terribly fascinating or horrific.  He is only human and he simply misquoted himself.  I don't believe in my heart that there was any intention to bullshit people or make fantastic claims, I just think the mind went one way and the tongue another, and let's face it, it is just one of those gee whiz factoids put out for slobs like me, not the basis of some theory or vast calculation. What is fascinating to me is that I detected this situation on my shit ass, back water, simple minded blog.  People must have heard this claim and thought like Colbert, "bullshit" and then started to Google it.  I have had blog posts up on Eagleman since May 4th and hardly a peep other than image searches.  But let him appear on the Colbert Report and boom an "ooops" turns into a "SuperOoops."  

Two things strike me about this whole episode.  1) How very connected the world is getting.  2) The almost absurd  influence that television shows such as the Colbert Report can exert on a society.  In some respects it is rather frightening.

Edit 7-29-11:  David Eagleman wrote the following note at the Astronomist's post  noted above:
This is David Eagleman. First, thank you for your blog post and careful analysis. Indeed, I (embarrassingly) misspoke my units on national TV -- immediately after it came out of my mouth I wanted to make the correction, but as you can imagine, things move pretty quickly on Colbert. As the above reader correctly noted, I meant to say cubic centimeter (not millimeter), which contains ~10^11 connections. As you can verify, I have the units correct in the book. I'm hoping to retrospectively clean up my verbal error online. Thanks for your help in doing so.

Bravo!  David, bravo indeed!

Image Credits:

 SN 1987A:   Wikipedia, SN 1987 A

Sudbury Neutrino Detector:  
Wikipedia: Neutrino detector

Neutrino Interacting With Lead:  Me.  


*Eagleman, David (2011). Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (pp. 1-2). Pantheon. Kindle Edition.

**Eagleman, David (2011). Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (p. 173). Pantheon. Kindle Edition.


  1. I saw him on Colbert and thought about your blog, since that's where I first read about Incognito. I thought he was pretty funny and a good sport. Never caught the ooops. Numbers, especially very large ones, baffle me, so I try to keep my brain clear of them as much as possible.

  2. Oddly enough in this particular case, where he made the mistake, you are not talking about really huge numbers...shades of Carl Sagan's billions and billions.

    Imagine taking a one side of a match book cover and cutting a very small but not microscopic square so that the length of the sides of the square equaled the thickness of the cover. That would roughly be a cubic millimeter--roughly for the purpose of a conversation, not in oh let's get out the micrometers and prove this idiot wrong. You would have no problem seeing it lie in the palm of your hand, but if you dropped it on a carpet, you would have a difficult time finding it. A millimeter is roughly 1/25 of an inch. So a cubic millimeter is a cube measuring approximately 1/25 of an inch on each side. A cubic centimeter is a cube measuring not quite 4/10 of an inch on each side, somewhat smaller than a sugar cube although I don't have a sugar cube to measure. (You know 4 months ago, I had calipers in my desk, my cubical was next to the lunch room, so there was a sugar cubes handy, and there were enough smokers around that I could easily got a match book cover. Now I must exist in a veritable desert of handy things to have around. Hmmm! Tough shit, I still love being retired!)

    So we are not talking huge differences visually in the sense of having objects in your hand. But mathematically a cubic centimeter is exactly 1000 times larger than a cubic millimeter, what scientists or engineers would call 3 orders of magnitude larger--each order being 10 times larger. So to scale Eagleman's error into something easier to visualize, imagine trying to park 1000 cars in a single car garage.(Again a very rough approximation.)

    A centimeter is only 10 times longer than a millimeter in one dimensional linear length, but a volume is side X side X side. 10 X 10 X 10 = 1000. Eagleman knows the difference. Like I say, the mind went one direction and the tongue wagged in another direction. It was an unfortunate wag of the tongue, but certainly not earthshaking.

    Eagleman is a very good sport, and very charismatic. He probably is not doing himself any favors in the scientific community promoting his "Possibilian" notions, which as long as he maintains a separation between science and Possibian thought, which I believe he is, fine! I have no problem with that, and it pretty much mirrors my own beliefs. But the flavor I am getting from some of the things I have read, is that he is not singing with the scientific choir and is regarded something on the order of a talking head rather than a true assessment that I do not agree with.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I deleted my comment above because it had the wrong date. Here is the above comment with the correct date.

    Eagleman visited the Astronomist and posted a correction. See the edit 7-29-11 added in the text above.

    Pssst. I am the reader that posted the correct quote from the book in the comments over at the Astronomist... (He said as he pats himself on the back).

    Eagleman also sent me an email thanking me for alerting his administrative assistant about this situation. My respect and admiration (already somewhat stratopheric--I am an Eagleman groupie after all) for David Eagleman has increased immensely over this incident.