Amazing how time flies

It‘s fair to say I stopped being an employed, practicing physicist in the year 2000, when I left the Max-Plack-Institute for Metals Research and joined Hewlett Packard Consulting & Integration.

According to Google Scholar I have published 45 „things“ that Google records in their list, most of them scientific papers but a few of them other things, such as proceedings of scientific conferences.

Nowadays, even more important than the number of articles that a scientist publishes is often the „citation index“ – or, the number of times another scientist has cited their work.  According to Google Scholar, here‘s what my citation index looks like over time:

The graph shows how many papers written by other scientists cited my work.

If you ask me, it‘s pretty incredible. Even though I have been publishing papers since the mid-1990‘s, and even though I stopped doing scientific research in the year 2000 – it seems the peak of my citations only occurred some years afterwards. There are lots of reasons for that – you have to pick things apart at the level of individual papers and collaborators – but I find it interesting nonetheless: if true more broadly, it means that scientists are not famous for what they do right now, but for what their work will lead to in a few years‘ time!

Possessed artist – or brain parasite?

This is late Swiss artist H.R. Giger (1940 – 2014):

He is famous as the creator of the terrifying extraterrestrial creature in the Alien movie series, which looks like this:

Well, there is also museum in the Swiss town of Gruyère that has literally hundreds of his works spread out over many floors. Sadly, you are not allowed to take photographs inside the museum, so I tried to respect that. But outside of the museum there are a few of his pieces, such as:



Now to be honest I don’t really know anything about H. R. Giger, although I am sure there are people who do, so what follows may seem a bit absurd – but please bear with me.

The first thing that hits you is that all of the hundreds of pieces are very nearly the same, the Alien creature being perhaps the penultimate version of what you see. But they are all just tiny variations on this theme.

Now keeping this in mind when you see the flabbergastingly huge number of pieces, most of them very large and requiring a signficant time investment to create, the first thing I thought of was obsession – as if he were a mad character with a single image in his brain that he could not free himself from.

And THAT led me to the speculation that perhaps he was not mad. Perhaps he was the victim of a disease similar to toxoplasmosis gondi. There are in fact hundreds of different “zombie parasites” that infect animals and cause dramatic changes in their behavior.  Perhaps a parasite had infected his brain and was creating images he could not free himself from.



William Tell was here

Well, I don’t know if he was or he wasn’t.

But according to the legend, he was captured by a tyrant, lept off a boat to freedom, climbed up to exactly where I am now, and founded the Swiss Confederacy. And unbelievably, all this happened more than 600 years ago.

Today it is a little park called the Tellsplatte, and you can get a spectacular view of the snow-covered Swiss mountains in the late summer, as well as the lake, Vierwaldstättersee.

Here’s a slightly different view:

Amazing pilgrimage site – Lourdes and UFO’s

I’ve long been fascinated with pilgrims and their pilgrimages – people who are so devout as to make substantial investments of time and money and effort to visit religious sites.

Recently I visited arguably the oldest pilgrimage destination in the western world, and you can see my pictures here: Santiago de Compostela.  It’s tucked into a remote corner of Spain, and even today it requires quite some time and effort to reach.

And this is an equally famous pilgrimage destination, Lourdes:

Just like Santiago de Compostella, Lourdes is in a very remote section of France. Even with an automobile, it is very difficult and time-consuming to reach.

As I usually do, I visited during the off season, in the middle of winter.  Except for one family, I was alone in the entire complex which has grown in size to host tens of thousands of visitors each day. The pious believe that the spring water that flows out of a cave is holy and can cure illness – and it’s amazing to see the huge engineering effort, in which this water is diverted into channels so that the pilgrims have easy access. For a one euro donation you can buy a little glass water bottle.

A connection with UFO’s?

What I find most fascinating about Lourdes is the story of the apparition.  In 1858 a peasant girl reported seeing a number of apparitions of a woman. Here’s the amazing part: she never attributed the apparitions to Christian figures or the Virgin Mary; she only reported seeing an apparition.  It was other people in the village who assumed that what she saw was the Virgin Mary.

A few years later, in Portugal, three children also reported seeing the apparition of a woman; like the apparition at Lourdes, this was later attributed to the Virgin Mary (Our Lady of Fatima).

So . . . could it be that the peasant girl in Lourdes, and later the three children in Portugal, witnessed something extraterrestrial in origin – or perhaps a time traveller from the future?  Some people believe so, and you can read more about it here.

Joshua trees and giant sloths

This is a picture of a Joshua tree that I took in the Mohave desert:

And this is an artist’s view of the giant sloth, which roamed the Mohave desert until their extinction about 11,000 years ago:

Joshua trees are an endangered species, and scientists now believe that the demise of the giant sloth had led to their endangerment. The sloths would eat the flowers of the tree, and the seeds would be disbursed in their dung. Without any more sloths, it is harder for the trees to reproduce.

Just imagine the giant sloth bending over to eat some flowers:

A new view of science – Introduction

What is science?

Archaeologists say that humans migrating into new areas have always made species become extinct; the mammoths and mastodons and giant sloths are just a few examples of many. But our generation now threatens catastrophic changes to all human life.  And yet the lawmakers we elect, no matter in what country, are overwhelmingly lawyers and businessmen that have never been trained to look at the world in the same quantitative way that scientists and engineers learn.  Understanding terms like theory and scientific fact has never been more important – and yet in the last 10+ years that I’ve seen such critical scientific issues discussed, it is precisely these terms that lead to confusion and are used as excuses to push political agenda over fact based decisions.

Every school child learns about science and the scientific method: scientists make a hypothesis, then carry out experiments to prove or disprove it.  It sounds simple to understand, and it is easy to explain and teach.  But I worked for many years as a research scientist, and I could never reconcile my own work with that approach. And what’s worse: in hidden form it suggests that one scientific reality exists, that this one reality can be uncovered and understood, and that a paradigm shift (an often occuring and needed process in science) is confidence-destroying proof that scientists have made mistakes and can’t be trusted.

In subsequent blog posts, I’ll dig a bit deeper into the problems and shortcomings I see with the classical description of science – and I’ll propose a new formulation that I hope overcomes many of these difficulties.





In this blog series, I describe a new approach to understanding science and the scientific method.  As a research scientist, I was quite unsatisfied with the standard approach to teaching and understanding these topics.  I believe my new approach is easier to understand and also overcomes many of the shortcomings of the traditional approach.


A viral contribution to the development of human intelligence?

For a long time I have had an idea about how viral pathogens may have contributed to the development of human intelligence.

This is a picture of the vericella zoster virus:

This is a picture of herpes simplex virus:

Once you are infected with either of these viruses, and after the initial infection subsides, the virus will retreat but continue to live dormant in your nerve cells.

Here’s the truly amazing part: these dormant viruses are sensitive your to emotional mood!  After infection, at times of emotional stress, both viruses can re-emerge and become infectious again: vericella zoster expresses itself as shingles, an intensely painful disease; and herpes can again erupt and cause severe skin eruptions and infections of the mucous membranes.

So . . . think about what affect these diseases might have had on our ancestors, tens of thousands of years ago?  If the early precursors of these diseases were more severe and had a higher mortality (as they usually do), then these viruses  might have had a significant impact on the development of human intelligence: those people who were more intelligent and could think more rationally would be better able to control their stress, so they could inhibit these diseases, live longer and produce more offspring; those people  who were less intelligent and could think less rationally would be less able to control their stress, so they would be more likely to be re-infected and therefore removed from the breeding population.

Succinctly put, my hypothesis is this: these viruses may have been a driving force that helped shape the development of human intelligence, or possibly favor one species (such as homo sapiens) over another (such as homo neanderthalensis).

Of course, I am a physicist by training, not an evolutionary biologist – so this idea is purely speculation on my part. I’ve tried discussing it with two professors of evolutionary biology, including a very famous professor at Stanford – and unfortunately, they seemed (much) less enthralled by the idea than I am.  Since the effects of these viruses are mainly in human flesh and not bones, it is doubtful the archaeological record could provide much elucidation.