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The ADD Apocalypse is Among Us!

The first issue concerning the supposed Attention Deficit Disorder epidemic is the skepticism surrounding it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children diagnosed with the disorder has skyrocketed from 5% to 15%. In raw numbers, 3.5 million children are taking medication for the disorder; a massive increase from the 600,000 that took medication for it in 1990.

In an article written by the editorial board of The New York Times entitled, “An Epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder,” pointed out how so many medical professionals benefit from the overprescribing ADD/ADHD medication, so much so, that it is becoming progressively difficult to find objective information regarding the nature of the disorder.

Mentioned in the article, “Prominent doctors get paid by drug companies to deliver upbeat messages to their colleagues at forums where they typically exaggerate the effectiveness of the drugs and downplay their side effects. Organizations that advocate on behalf of patients often do so with money supplied by drug companies, including the makers of A.D.H.D. stimulants. Medical researchers paid by drug companies have published studies on the benefits of the drugs, and medical journals in a position to question their findings profit greatly from advertising of A.D.H.D. drugs.”

Also from the The New York Times, Alan Schwartz wrote an article that makes a similar observation called, “The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder.” The article talked about Keith Conners, a doctor who’s been fighting to legitimize attention deficit hyperactivity disorder for more than 50 years, and his current attitude about the rise in ADD/ADHD diagnoses.

In the article, Dr. Conners was quoted to have said, “The numbers make it look like an epidemic. Well, it’s not. It’s preposterous. This is a concoction to justify the giving out of medication at unprecedented and unjustifiable levels.”

To make matters worse, ADD/ADHD medication is marketed as harmless, comparing its side-effects to that of aspirin. But there are potential dangers that are overlooked. In “An Epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder,” it was mentioned that, “in rare cases, psychosis, suicidal thoughts and hallucinations, as well as anxiety, difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite.”

The Food and Drug Administration also warned that ADHD medications may, in rare cases, cause priapism – a prolonged and painful erection – in in males of all ages.

Add 3

A. Dopamine and Attention Span

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and neurotransmitters are chemical substances in the brain that are utilized to stimulate our behavioral and emotional functions. ADD/ADHD is a neurological dysfunction. It is associated with the brain’s chemical system rather than the social and emotional influences around us.

Research suggests that the impulse and behavior problems in ADD/ADHD could be caused by low levels of Dopamine in the brain.

In the article, “Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)” by Dr. Joseph M. Carver, it was mentioned that, “The impulse and behavior problems found in Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) appear related to low levels of Dopamine in the brain. When dopamine levels are normal, we can repress the urge to do or say something in public, grab something interesting on a desk, blurt out our opinion, or touch/poke someone who has just walked within our physical range. Low levels of dopamine in the brain make control of impulsive behavior almost impossible in the ADHD Child/Adult.”

Needless to say, if a person with ADHD is sitting in a classroom with a teacher holding a lecture and there is a fly on the wall, the fly on the wall is as equally important to him as the lecture. The impulse to notice it, or to touch it, or to playfully wonder if the fly understands the lecture, will be quite difficult for him to ignore because of low dopamine levels in his brain.

Naturally, the usual medication prescribed for people with ADHD are medicines that will boost Dopamine levels in the brain (e.g. Ritalin), to increase attention and to decrease impulsivity.


B. Other Causes of Dopamine Disorders

But to what cause can we attribute the sudden rise in ADD cases? In our introduction, it was suggested that medical professionals are eager to prescribe ADD medication. However, it can’t be the sole factor responsible for increased diagnoses. For one, people who were diagnosed probably went to get treatment, or had their children treated, for attention deficit. The fact is that more and more people are finding it difficult to focus. However, lack of focus and dopamine disorders are not exclusive symptoms of ADD and ADHD. There are several reasons why such disorders may occur in both adults and children.

For one, dopamine disorders are not limited to the brain’s inability to produce it. It can also be caused by damage to the D2 receptor due to sustained exposure to high levels of dopamine. When D2 receptors malfunction, a person’s reward system malfunctions as well.

To a person with less sensitive D2 receptors, the fly on the wall is as equally important as the lecture, because neither experience provides a rewarding feeling. As a result, this person actively seeks out other, more novel, experiences to achieve a feeling of reward.

To simplify, anything that can produce sustained high levels of dopamine can damage the D2 receptor. The problem is that anything from sleep deprivation, to junk food consumption, drug use, pornography (debatable), Facebook, and Internet use can cause D2 receptor sensitivity to fluctuate. Needless to say, extended exposure to these stimuli may create symptoms that are often misdiagnosed as ADD or ADHD.

Just to clarify, there is no evidence that lack of sleep, junk food, porn or Facebook will give a person ADD or ADHD. However, there is evidence that these stimuli can cause a decline in D2 receptors and produce ADD-like symptoms such as restlessness and an inability to focus.

This particular hypothesis has been orbiting the issue of ADD/ADHD for a long time. In fact, there are doctors who doubt the very existence of ADD/ADHD as an actual disorder, claiming that ADD/ADHD should be considered symptoms of a disorder rather than being considered disorders themselves. An article was published in entitled, “Doctor: ADHD Does Not Exist.” The writer of the article was Dr. Richard Saul, writer of the book, “ADHD Does Not Exist: The Truth About Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder.”

Saul writes, “In my view, there are two types of people who are diagnosed with ADHD: those who exhibit a normal level of distraction and impulsiveness, and those who have another condition or disorder that requires individual treatment.”

Add 2

C. Conclusions

If you find it difficult to focus, it’s probably not because you have ADD or ADHD. There’s a 95% chance that you’re just not sleeping well, or you’re eating too much fat, or you’re watching too much porn, or you’re spending too much time on Facebook.

Prolonged attention deficit, lack of motivation, and inability to focus can be the results of a vicious dopamine fluctuation cycle. People stay up late because of several online distractions. They’re sleep deprived and to keep them awake, the body compensates by dumping dopamine into their system. The dopamine dump damages the receptors and the person’s reward system, causing him to prioritize immediate rewards (such as Facebook “likes”) over long-term rewards.

The person wants immediate rewards because he’s not getting feelings of fulfillment and reward because his dopamine receptors are desensitized. So, he stays up late for online validation. Because he’s sleep deprived, his body craves for fat and he goes on binges. Fat damages receptors too. So, his receptors are further damaged.

There are theories that suggest that pornography has a similar effect on a person’s dopamine receptors. Exposure to intense stimuli spikes dopamine production in the brain. The receptors protect themselves by being less sensitive. So, the next time a person seeks a similar high, he’s going to require a higher dosage. Damaged receptors require higher forms of stimuli to produce feelings of pleasure, reward and fulfillment.

It sounds science-y, but it’s rather simple. If someone has a habit of screaming in your ear, you will develop a tendency to cover your ears whenever that person is around, in order to protect yourself. The next time that person wants to have the same effect on you, he has to scream louder.

So, sleep well and don’t damage those receptors!



Callaghan, T. (2010, March). “Understanding junk food “addiction” in lab rats.” Retrieved on: April 25, 2014. From:

Carver, J. “Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)” Retrieved on: April 25, 2014. From:

“Desensitization: A Numbed Pleasure Response.” Retrieved on: April 25, 2014. From:

Macrae, F. (2010, September). “Facebook and internet ‘can re-wire your brain and shorten attention span’” Retrieved on: April 25, 2014. From:

Schwartz, A. (2013, December). “The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder.” Retrieved on: April 25, 2014. From:

Saul, R. (2014, March). “Doctor: ADHD Does Not Exist.” Retrieved on: April 25, 2014. From:

ScienceDaily. (2014, February). “Eat spinach or eggs for faster reflexes: Tyrosine helps you stop faster.” Retrieved on: April 25, 2014. From:

The New York Times Editorial Board. (2013, December). “An Epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder.” Retrieved on: April 25, 2014. From:

Volkow, N. (2012). “Evidence That Sleep Deprivation Downregulates Dopamine D2R in Ventral Striatum in the Human Brain.” Retrieved on: April 25, 2014. From:

WebMD. (2009). “Tyrosine.” Retrieved on: April 25, 2014. From:

Wintour, P. (2009, February). “Facebook and Bebo risk ‘infantilising’ the human mind” Retrieved on: April 25, 2014. From:

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People with High Self-Esteem are More Likely to be Assholes

There is a general opinion that people with high self-esteem live happier lives and are
less susceptible to depression should they face obstacles, or even encounter failure. The
wellness industry is filled with advice on how to acquire and improve self-esteem.
Furthermore, the general advice is, more often than not, different variations on how to
learn to increase one’s self-esteem.

Although there are loose correlations between happiness or success and self-esteem, there
is no proof of causality. With regard to happiness and success (factors often attributed to
self-esteem), even scientists are not sure whether self-esteem is the cause or the
consequence. In fact, it was even suggested that both self-esteem and happiness could be
the product of a genetic predisposition, in the same way that depression is.

One of the most overlooked issues with regard to this subject is the fact that there are
two kinds of self-esteem:

1. Explicit Self-Esteem

2. Implicit Self-Esteem

In a research report entitled, “Unconscious Unease and Self-Handicapping: Behavioral
Consequences of Individual Differences in Implicit and Explicit Self-Esteem” written by
Leah R. Spalding and Curtis D. Hardin, the researchers explained the distinction between
explicit and implicit self-esteem.

The explicit version is primarily a collection of positive opinions we consciously
recognize in ourselves. Implicit self-esteem is the automatic positive responses we have
when we encounter symbols and stimuli that we associate with ourselves.

The bigger distinction is probably in the formation of both forms of self-esteem. Explicit
self-esteem is the product of rational and conscious processing. When good looking guys
like us look in the mirror and tell ourselves, “Damn, I’m sexy,” we’re exhibiting a form of
explicit self-esteem. In other words, it’s our perception of our own actual self.

Implicit self-esteem is more intuitive. It comes from our earliest unconscious processing
of experiences that affect us. It’s similar to the Oedipus Complex. How our primary
caregiver has treated us in our youth can affect us deeply until we are old. Researchers
say that this type of self-esteem reflects our intuition about how we should be treated, or
is a reflection of the ideal self.

self-esteem 1

A. High Implicit Self-esteem

The first point I found really interesting was the devastating emotional damage
discrepancies between a person’s explicit and implicit self-esteem can bring.

A study was done by Daan H. M. Creemers and company called, “Damaged self-esteem is
associated with internalizing problems.” In this study it was revealed that the discrepancy
between a person’s implicit and explicit self-esteem is associated with depressive
symptoms, suicidal thoughts, and general loneliness.

Initially, the assumption I made was that these negative emotional symptoms came from
having high explicit self-esteem (bragging) and having low implicit self-esteem (being
insecure). I’ve always thought that bragging about something untrue or demonstrating a
value that isn’t there (e.g. fake confidence) can be bad for a person’s psyche.

However, research suggests otherwise. It’s actually worse to have a high implicit
(subconscious) self-esteem and a low explicit (conscious) self-esteem.

Researchers write, “Damaged self-esteem (high implicit self-esteem and low explicit self-
esteem) was related to increased levels of depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and
loneliness, while defensive or fragile self-esteem (low implicit self-esteem and high
explicit self-esteem) was not.”

As it was explained in the article, this has to do with how each variant of self-esteem is
developed. Here are two simple scenarios that would further clarify the situation:

Scenario 1 – a person with low implicit self-esteem and a high explicit self-esteem:

A girl with a predisposition towards chubbiness is bullied throughout her formative years.
She’s called “fatty” from preschool to college. After college, she loses her baby fat. One
day, she looks at the mirror and realizes, “Whoa! I’m hot now” (high explicit self-esteem).
She may appreciate her looks, the actual self she has now. She may receive compliments here
and there. However, her years of being chubby (low implicit self-esteem) will not make her
feel entitled to such compliments, and if ever she doesn’t receive one, she’s not going to
feel bad.

Scenario 2 – a person with high implicit self-esteem and a low explicit self-esteem:

An attractive quarterback is worshipped throughout his formative years. After college, he
gains weight and loses his popularity, but he still feels entitled to female worship (high
implicit self-esteem). However, when he tries to approach women, he consciously recognizes
the he gets rejected 9 times out of 10 (low explicit self-esteem). His actual self, and his
reality, does not live up to the ideal self that is ingrained in his subconscious.

People with high implicit self-esteem have an ingrained sense of entitlement. When reality
does not represent their expectations of what they deserve, the problems become
internalized in the form of depressive symptoms.

Given the negative consequences of high implicit self-esteem, one might think that it’s
safer to focus on a high explicit self-esteem instead. However, doing so has its own set of


B. High Explicit Self-Esteem

There’s an article from The Atlas Society called, “Is High Self-Esteem Bad for You?” by
Robert Campbell. In that article, Campbell discussed the research of Jennifer Crocker, a
professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. According to her study, self-esteem
has a tendency to fluctuate. And these fluctuations maybe unhealthy, especially when a
person derives his self-esteem from external factors such as good looks, academic
performance, income, etc.

Campbell writes, “Deriving one’s self-esteem from certain “external” contingencies, such as
appearance, is associated with potentially destructive behavior, including alcohol and drug
use, and eating disorders.”

The research suggests that when good looking guys like us look in the mirror and tell
ourselves, “Damn, I’m sexy,” we’re deriving esteem from an external contingent (our good
looks), which could lead to potentially destructive behavior, especially, if the contingent
is threatened.

This idea is further emphasized in a report written by Roy F. Baumeister called, “When Ego
Threats lead to Self-Regulation Failure.”


C. Self-regulation Failure

There are three hypotheses that are crucial in Baumeister’s research:

1. High self-esteem causes people to overestimate what they can accomplish and therefore
select goals that may be too difficult for them.

2. The hypothesized advantage of people with high self-esteem depends on superior and
extensive self-knowledge.

3. Their hypothesized disadvantage depends on the intrusion of egotism into the decision
process as to inflate their predictions and distort their judgment.

To simplify, people with high self-esteem often overestimate their abilities. If they have
extensive self-knowledge, if they know their limitations, they will have many advantages.
However, people with high self-esteem sometimes have an inflated ego, and the presence of
this ego causes these people to make irrational decisions.

Three basic observations were made by the researchers to exhibit different types of self-
regulation failure after an ego threat:

1. When people with high self-esteem fail, they respond by being more persistent, even when
it’s counter-productive.

2. When people with high self-esteem are criticized, they try to “repair” their public
image by insisting on rating themselves even more favorably than they did before.

3. When their high opinion of themselves is challenged, they have a tendency for self-
sabotage. Sometimes they handicap themselves or under-prepare so they can take more credit
if they succeed.

When the high self-esteem person’s view of himself is threatened by another person or
circumstance, an ego threat, they behave irrationally.

Upon further investigation on the type of irrational behavior high self-esteem people get
involved with, it was discovered that there are direct correlations between high self-
esteem and violence, especially when an ego threat is present.

Erica Goode, in her article, “Deflating Self-Esteem’s Role in Society’s Ills” discusses how
self-esteem’s role has been inflated and how low self-esteem has been demonized by society.

In this article, Erica Goode talked about a study done by Dr. Nicholas Emler. The study
mentioned how “no link was found between low self-esteem and delinquency, violence against
others, teenage smoking, drug use or racism.” High self-esteem, however, “was positively
correlated with racist attitudes, drunken driving and other risky behaviors.”

This tendency towards violence is something Baumeister has previously implied in the study,
Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-

According to that study, low self-esteem does not cause aggression, crime, or violence.
Instead, violence and aggression are often a result of threatened egotism. A person who has
an inflated, unstable, or tentative belief in his own superiority may be most prone to
causing violence. People like these have a tendency to express hostility when they are
confronted with an inferior version of their self-concept.


D. Conclusions

There are many problems on the issue of high self-esteem. Another problem with regard to
high self-esteem is the general assumption that it’s a good indicator of ability. However,
as Dr. Baumeister says, “You can think well of yourself because you accurately appreciate
what you’re good at. You can also think well of yourself just ’cause you’re a conceited
snob. And the self-esteem is the same in either case.”

Dr. Baumeister seems to be the main antagonist of self-esteem promotion. He challenges the
idea that high self-esteem is worth developing. For years, he’s been trying to point out
that the self-help industry, with its blind promotion of self-confidence, is moving in the
wrong direction.

I would have to agree with Dr. Baumeister here. I think high self-esteem is overrated. For
one, it’s not an indicator of a person’s ability. Any asshole can have high self-esteem. In
fact, most assholes do. People who have high self-esteem are prone to arrogance, they take
pointless risks, and they have a tendency to resort to violence when their self-concept,
however distorted, is threatened by another person or a difficult situation.

I think it’s time people take a closer look on the actual science behind the common
misconception that improving a person’s self-esteem is a reliable umbrella solution to
solving personal issues.



Baumeister, R. Boden, J. Smart, L. (1996). “Relation of threatened egotism to violence and
aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem” Retrieved on April 23, 2014. From:

Baumeister, R. (1993). “When Ego Threats lead to Self-Regulation Failure” Retrieved on
April 23, 2014. From:

Campbell, R. (2003, July). “Is High Self-Esteem Bad for You?” Retrieved on April 23, 2014.

Creemers, H. M. Daan. (2013, April). “Damaged self-esteem is associated with internalizing
problems.” Retrieved on April 15, 2014. From:

Goode, E. (2002, October). “Deflating Self-Esteem’s Role in Society’s Ills.” Retrieved on
April 23, 2014. From:

Hardin, C. & Spalding, L. Psychological Science (1999). “Unconscious Unease and Self-
Handicapping: Behavioral Consequences of Individual Differences in Implicit and Explicit
Self-Esteem” Retrieved on April 23, 2014. From:

Harvard Health Publications. (2007, June) “Importance of high self-esteem: Implicit vs.
explicit self-esteem.” Retrieved on April 23, 2014. From:

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The Scientific Method and the Thrill of the Hunt

*Reflections from CERN Philippines School

Two years ago, the world was rocked by the news of a certain ‘God particle’ or the Higgs Boson being discovered. It was nicknamed the ‘God particle’ for it is a giver of mass. The story behind the nickname is actually more complicated than we thought. It used to be called the toilet particle and then the “god damned” particle because it was very hard to find. They just dropped the damned for god was more attractive. Any particle that interacts with the Higgs field will feel some kind of resistance (Here’s a video). You can think of a spoon that you can easily move around air or vacuum but you’ll feel that resistance when you try to stir a pot of honey. That honey is like the Higgs field and the spoon is the particle that gains mass.


The Higgs now looks like a simple concept for some people, so what was the hullabaloo all about? Fifty years ago a number of theoretical physicists wrote about what we now call the Higgs field and mechanism. Peter Higgs, 2013 Nobel laureate for physics (with Francois Englert), was the first to note that there was a massive particle associated with the symmetry breaking. The field and the particle were just like figments of their imagination. They used math and the known laws of physics to predict their existence. Lo and behold, they have found the particle after a long time in a 27-km circular collider in CERN.

A story like this in science is not new. Albert Einstein made testable predictions in his General Theory of Relativity (GR). Arthur Eddington’s team first confirmed his theory by observing the 1919 solar eclipse. Other expeditions made further confirmation and until now experiments, huge observations show GR is correct even in regions up to 3.5 million light years away from us. There is also the story of silent man Paul Dirac, developing an equation that predicted the existence of antiparticles that correspond to most kind of particles. It has the same mass and opposite charge of a particle. Then there’s also the recent BICEP2 detection of primordial gravitational waves which, if confirmed by another independent research groups like the European Space Agency’s Planck, may just have provided direct evidence of cosmic inflation.

The examples above show us a process in science. You make a guess, you test if it is correct and if it does not try something else. In school, we call it the scientific method (although it’s not as clean as we think it is). Richard Feynman beautifully describes this method in his 1964 lecture in Cornell University.

“In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.”

What now for particle physics?

With the Higgs found and the Standard Model looking like it all its puzzle pieces have been put in place, is there anything else to search for? It turns out that the Higgs may just be a Higgs and that the particle physicists all over the world are looking for its cousins or brothers and sisters through more precise and accurate measurements in particle collisions. The Large Hadron Collider has just begun warming up for its reopening in 2015 at an energy scale of 13-14TeV, about twice as large that of the energy used when the Higgs was found. With that higher energy, researchers can now scour the rubble from the collisions at an even higher resolution. Keeping in mind the famous equation E = mc2, this also means that heavier particles may be produced. The production rate of known particles will be enhanced and that will allow for more precision measurements.

With the Standard Model accounting for merely 4% of what constitutes the universe, we certainly are far from having a complete understanding of nature. More physics, new ways of thinking and new technologies are necessary. But with the upgrade in the LHC, two paramount searches are underway – the search for supersymmetric particles and what dark matter is. Supersymmetry is not only beautiful mathematically, but it also gives out testable predictions. Dark matter on the other hand, accounts for some discrepancies between what have been observed in galaxies and what have been predicted by current models in cosmology. All observations point to the existence of dark matter. We just have to figure out what constitutes dark matter and if there are really any supersymmetric particles.

The search for the smallest of things is massive. It requires the collaboration of thousands of researchers from over 100 countries in the world. Not to mention, it costs billions of dollars. Is it worth it? Well, for most scientists, satisfying one’s “holy” curiosity is enough. Even if we already know that this search spurs the development of new technologies that are economically beneficial, personally, experiencing the thrill of the hunt alone is worth more than whatever practical benefit it can give. Particle smashing, scouring the rubble, building machines that replicates the big bang – sounds like fun to me.

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FF Podcast (Audio) 36: Watching Your Words

FF Podcast (Audio) 36: Watching Your Words

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) 36 - Watching Your Words

This week, we talk with Carlos Celdran about an encounter with the anti-RH and about watching your language around children.

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Cosmos Returns

Rebooting any beloved piece of popular culture always courts cynicism and dread. (Not to say that previous experiences have been successful at silencing the pessimists.) In popular science, there are very few touchstones as revered as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. So, its revival under the helm of Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane raised not a few eyebrows—regardless of his creative caliber.

Sagan’s A Personal Voyage delivered to the general public the story of the universe in a manner that captured its romance without sacrificing the integrity of science. Carl Sagan, after all, was the most famous science communicator at the time. His impact on the world still ripples to this day.

Over thirty years have passed since the original Cosmos. As a product of the 80’s, it carries the tropes of its time—the grainy chroma keying, the sharp synths, and the cheesy 3D graphics. Viewing it today, these hallmarks seem to only emphasize the depth of Sagan’s message and that it retains its value even through eyes spoiled by modern special effects. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, A Personal Voyage was more than a cavalcade of science factoids. It cemented in popular consciousness the importance of science in culture and philosophy.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts this generation’s Cosmos—subtitled, A Spacetime Odyssey. After Sagan’s death, Tyson has become the perennial science communicator and his taking over for Carl is not only appropriate, but almost necessary for the new show.

Sagan’s co-writers, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, reprise their roles. In the first episode, A Spacetime Odyssey revisits, but not retreads, much of the original. They retain key metaphors that have stood the test of time, such as the Cosmic Calendar, which reframes the universe’s 13.8 billion year history into twelve months of an Earth year. And yet, they pay homage to rather than dwell on the writing of A Personal Voyage. Druyan and Soter could have rested on the now-classic turns of phrase they used decades ago, but their poetry here is as impactful and refreshing as ever.

What will be missed, however, are A Personal Voyage’s live acted dramatization of historical events. A Spacetime Odyssey instead uses cartoons. The animation is not as fluid or appealing as I would have liked, but the matter they presented more than made up for any lack in its technical prowess.

The first episode relates the story of a man not as popular among the heroes of science, Giordano Bruno. He is portrayed as a man who refused to follow tradition and faith when evidence clearly pointed away from them. In his studies of Copernicus and Lucretius, he was convinced that not only was the Earth not at the center of the universe, our Sun was just another star in an ocean of other suns, surrounded by their own earths. For this, he was burned alive.

The show presents all these without apology and without sentimentality. This is how the world treated people who thought differently and were not shackled by dogma. In showing Giordano Bruno’s story, A Spacetime Odyssey dares to go further and more bluntly than the original in challenging conventional unscientific thinking. As anti-science movements get more and more virulent with the power of modern media and indoctrination, shows like these provide a vital prophylactic.

Much of the science that reaches the masses has been neutered by the subtle bigotry of the expectation of propriety from the religious majority—the unspoken rule that science shouldn’t ruffle feathers lest it turn away more people. But science works by questioning everything and refusing to be satisfied by what others merely insist upon without evidence—values that A Spacetime Odyssey repeats throughout the first episode.

It cannot be stressed enough how important it is that MacFarlane brought this show to America through Fox, a big network television channel accessible to anyone there. Here in the Philippines, it is carried by National Geographic, on cable TV. One can only hope that one of our own over-the-air networks will carry it someday as RPN-9 did for the original.

Standing Up in the Milky Way, the first episode of the new series ends on a fitting tribute to Carl Sagan but, avoiding the risk of becoming indulgent and saccharine, does not linger on it. Instead, it uses the tribute to invite the viewer to continue on the voyage that Carl introduced to millions a generation ago. Science improves and develops over time, giving us more things to love about the things we thought we knew. And that’s exactly what Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has done in its debut.

Image Credit: National Geographic Channel Asia

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FF Podcast 32: Flesh-Eating Disease in the Philippines?

FF Podcast 32: Flesh-Eating Disease in the Philippines?

This week, we talk about the story propagated by ABS-CBN’s Bandila program regarding a supposed mysterious flesh-eating disease engulfing Pangasinan.

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FF Podcast (Audio): James Randi (Conversations for a Cause)

FF Podcast (Audio): James Randi (Conversations for a Cause)

James Randi

Conversations for a Cause returns with an interview with The Amazing Randi. We ask him about The Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge and his experiences in testing fantastic claims by people who call themselves psychic.

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A Conversation with DJ Grothe of JREF

A Conversation with DJ Grothe of JREF

This week, we talk with DJ Grothe, President of the James Randi Educational Foundation. We discuss freethought, scientific skepticism, and social justice activism.

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A Conversation with Russell Blackford, philosopher and author

A Conversation with Russell Blackford, philosopher and author

This week, for Conversations for a Cause, we talk with Russell Blackford, philosopher and co-author of 50 Great Myths About Atheism. We talk with him about misconceptions about atheism. Then, we discuss his views on theology and the ethics of human enhancement.

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Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

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A Conversation with Guy P. Harrison

A Conversation with Guy P. Harrison

This week, for Conversations for a Cause, we talk with Guy P. Harrison, author of 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God. We discuss skepticism, critical thinking, and his latest book, Think: Why You Should Question Everything.

You may also download the episode file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

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The World Through A Glass Darkly

[This piece is the first installation in a series on scientific reasoning and skepticism.]

Look at the picture below. Which part of the block looks darker, the one on top or the one on the bottom?

Shading optical illusion

Actually, they’re exactly the same color. You can see this if you cover the middle portion of the grey object using your index finger. Now study the next picture below and examine the tiles labeled A and B. What is the color of tile A? How about tile B?


What if I tell you that tiles A and B have the same color? If you don’t believe me (and it’s right that you don’t, because wtf they’re not the same color), save this picture and examine it using appropriate software. You can also print the picture on paper, cut out the tiles in question, and compare their colors side by side.

It is often said that we see the world through a glass darkly. What this means is our perception of the world is not perfect but rather goes through a flawed filter, the proverbial darkened glass. In reality, our perception of the world is not merely distorted by physical obstructions like dark glasses; our very minds are riddled with cognitive biases that are at the very core of how we perceive the universe. The dark glass we see the world through is part of who we are. It is us.

Why do we see tiles A and B above as having different colors? Before we answer that question, take a look at the picture below.

Shaded circles 1

Because of the shading, the circles appear three-dimensional. The fact that we perceive depth just because of shading is already interesting. Even more interesting is the fact that to nearly everyone, the same group of circles appear to bulge out (they are “eggs”) and the same group appear to cave in (they are “cavities”). Which of the circles look like eggs and which look like cavities? Assuming all of you who read this are humans, most of you will see the circles on the left as the eggs and the circles on the right as the cavities. The left portion of the picture looks like a flat surface with several bumps while the right portion reminds us of a golf ball’s surface.

It’s also interesting to note that it’s difficult to see it the other way around. Go ahead, try it. Imagine the circles on the left as cavities and those on the right as eggs. (Personally, I find the former more difficult to do than the latter.)

Scientists think our tendency to see the circles on the left as the convex eggs is due to our mind’s innate assumption that light always comes from above. For the left circles to be cavities, light would have to come from underneath. Our brains seem to find this latter scenario unlikely. In fact, our mind’s assumption that light always comes from above is so strong that the convex eggs pop out from among the cavities in the picture below.

Shaded circles 2

If you invert the picture above, the circles would exchange roles; the ones that used to be cavities will become the eggs and vice versa. I encourage you to give it a try. You can view the page with your head upside down or, if you’re reading this on a laptop or a tablet, try flipping your device and see the eggs become cavities.

Once you or your gadget is upright again, look at the picture below.

Shaded circles 3

Like last time, you will see eggs and cavities, but this time it’s easy to imagine either group as the eggs. Unlike last time, you can easily shift from the point of view that the upper circles are eggs to the view that the lower circles are the eggs. Our minds can easily imagine a scenario where light comes from the left to the scenario where light comes from the right.

Since our brains are products of our evolutionary history, so are our minds. We are descendants of creatures who had minds that allowed them to survive their world long enough to pass on their genes, and in their world light usually came from the Sun. In the sky, the Sun can be found to one’s right, one’s left, or above, but never below. Our minds have therefore evolved to use shortcuts that disregard the scenario of light coming from underneath.

The visual data our brain receives from our eyes are not enough to create an exact simulation of the world. From the last picture above, we see that the shading of the circles can be interpreted in at least two ways. In fact, the shading can be interpreted in many other ways; our brains just picked two among them. Another way to interpret the last image is as set of flat circles with uneven shading, but our brains disregarded that option, too. Evolution produced human minds that usually assume evenly shaded surfaces.

The mind’s problem of coming up with an accurate picture of the world given the visual data from the eyes is what engineers would call an ill-posed problem; there are more unknowns than there are given, and so no one correct solution can be derived from the given. In order for our ancestors to survive, that is, in order for them to find predators lurking nearby before they become said predator’s lunch, their minds had to evolve shortcuts that assume certain things about the world. Those assumptions may not always be true, but they are true often enough to be useful. An example of such assumption is the one that light always comes from above and never from underneath. We carry that innate assumption, that cognitive bias, with us. Today it may allow us to see eggs and cavities in a picture on a screen, but a million years ago it allowed our ancestors to avoid that lion waiting behind that stand of grass.

Let’s go back to the question of why tiles A and B in the second picture appear to have different colors even though they’re exactly the same. Because of the context, our minds are made to think that tile B is in the shadows. This, in turn, makes our visual processing system compensate for the shadow, “subtracting” the shade from the raw data to produce a final simulation that is erroneous, one in which tiles of the same color appear to have different hues. Because of a similar cognitive process, we see tiles A and B in the picture below as tiles with different shades, even though they’re exactly the same shade of grey.


Intuitively, we feel as if our brains simply interpret raw information coming from our senses. But as mentioned, the data from our sense organs are not enough to tell us everything we need to know about our surroundings. Because of this, our minds process the information from our senses, adding countless assumptions that may be false and disregarding many scenarios that are possible before creating a final simulation of the world. Our perceptions are heavily processed, extremely edited, assumption-laden finished products and not the raw information we usually think they are. Such is the dark glass through which we see the world.

How then, you ask, do we know what’s behind the dark glass? How can we see the world from outside our tinted windows? In other words, how do we know what’s really real? The answer: we turn to science.

In the next installation in this series, we will explore several more cognitive biases and then explain how the methods of science allow us to use our senses to transcend the limitations of those very senses we use, giving us glimpses of the reality that throbs and thrives on the other side of the dark glass.

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On Proof, Presumption, and the Existence of God

The debate on the existence of God cannot be resolved on the basis of proof. While atheists claim that theists fail to prove that God exists, theists respond by saying that atheists fail to prove that he doesn’t. Atheists would then say that the burden of proof lies on him who asserts and not on him who denies, and theists would point out that saying there is no god is also a positive claim that equally requires proof.

And so the outcome of the debate will most likely depend not on proof, but on presumption, because presumption determines which side has the burden of proof to overcome such presumption.

Presumption is defined as “an act of accepting that something is true until it is proved not true.” In law, this refers particularly to a rebuttable presumption (as opposed to a conclusive presumption), that is, presumed as such until defeated by proof to the contrary.

But are presumptions arbitrary? For instance, can atheists just presume that God does not exist while theists can presume that he does, leading to yet another stalemate? Another definition of presumption says that it’s not: “a legal inference as to the existence or truth of a fact not certainly known that is drawn from the known or proved existence of some other fact.”

If we are to apply the above definition to the existence of God, it would help to focus on the operative words and phrases: an inference drawn from the known or proved existence of some other fact. In other words, based on our present knowledge of the universe, which is more sensible to presume, that God exists, or that he doesn’t?

Centuries ago, before Darwin published his theory of natural selection, it would seem utterly foolish to presume that there is no Creator given the beauty and diversity of life around us, from the largest mammals to the tiniest anthropods. Today, however, our scientific knowledge would easily overcome any reasonable presumption of truth on the biblical story of creation.

Centuries ago, when Hume said that we cannot derive an ought from an is, it would be reasonable to presume that morality (or what we ought to do) can only come from the dictates of a Creator who defined right and wrong and bound us with the duty to do what is right. Today, with the achievements in evolutionary biology, while we do not claim to derive moral oughts from the acts that tend directly or indirectly to help perpetuate our genes, we can at least point out that the claim that God is the good is not just an unwarranted presumption but an empty tautology, a matter of arbitrary definition and not a logical conclusion.

Based on the above examples which show what we presently know of some other facts about this world, it would seem more plausible to infer that there is probably a naturalistic explanation for things that seem to require supernatural supposition to make up for our ignorance, such as the beginning of life and of the universe itself.

And while some philosophers might point out that the above arguments presuppose that all truths are scientific truths and all proofs must be empirical proofs, and that such assumptions cannot themselves be proven by the scientific method, it must be pointed out as well that science does not claim to hold a monopoly on truth. However, if one were to presume, science deserves the presumption of veracity because it has consistently been shown to work: cure diseases, predict typhoons and tsunamis, make our lives longer and better. On the other hand, would philosophers board an aircraft whose navigation and safety systems have only been logically proven to exist?

The God question then becomes a matter of presuming the negative until a clear and convincing proof that can survive scientific scrutiny surfaces to defeat such presumption. Of course, one can always presume the existence of God, but such presumption cannot be said to be supported by science. And while science does not claim to know all the answers, it is nevertheless associated with finding answers that can be verified with reasonable certainty.

* * * * *
Image credit: Jong Atmosfera

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Why Our Leaders Should Be Technologists

Digital Art by Richard C. Base

Digital Art by Richard K. Base

If I may venture why our country is in such a dire state, it is because we have a huge lack of leaders who are technologists. Just look at our current crop of leaders: we have mostly lawyers, actors, celebrities and even ex-convicts (as well as convicts-to-be). How our government is run reflects this quite accurately. Go to almost any government office and see.

You will see “lawyers” who make you go around in circles and who burden you with a lot of procedures and requirements to follow. You will see “actors” pretending to work but are actually playing Candy Crush or chatting with their officemates — and yes, this happens even in relief operations in Tacloban as related by a volunteer through her facebook account where she says, “It breaks my heart seeing bottled waters outside the warehouse spread like garbage, rice grains scattered like no one cares, relief boxes literally being dumped by trucks without thinking that whatever inside maybe damage, reliefs outside the warehouse soaked in the rains, and you DSWD staff at the warehouse spending your day talking/chatting/seating while there are a lot of things need to be done ASAP”).

You will see “celebrities” who want to take credit for work done by others, who want their faces and names stamped on projects funded by people’s money. And of course, there are always the ex-convicts and convicts-to-be who are very good at finding ways to line their own pockets.

For the past few years, and particularly in the last decade alone, technologists have been at the forefront of changing how people act, interact and live — and their impact is felt not just in their locality but all over the world. How many people are now dependent on Google, Facebook and Twitter? How many billions and trillions of transactions take place using the internet, cellphones and tablets?

It is clear that the leader of the future, who will have the most influence and impact, should be a technologist. The leader himself may not be a scientist or an engineer per se, but he must have the heart of one. He must be keenly interested in technology and what it can do. Because above all else, a technologist wants only one thing: to solve problems.

And boy, do we have a ton of problems in our country.

How can technology solve our problems? Let me give 3 examples.

  1. Garbage. Do you know that there are some European countries who have solved their garbage problems to the point that they have to import garbage from other countries because they have none left to burn for their own use? On April 30, 2013, The New York Times reported that the City of Oslo in Norway has developed a way to convert “household trash, industrial waste, even toxic and dangerous waste from hospitals and drug arrests” to heat and electricity. Other cities in Sweden, Austria and Germany are also building such plants.Can you imagine what this one technology alone can do for our country? Where is the Philippine delegation to Oslo to study this? At the very least, even if we find the technology too expensive or impractical, we can work out some sort of deal to export our garbage to them. That would be a win-win situation.
  2. Prosthetics. Traditional prosthetics are prohibitively expensive. People who lose a hand, foot, nose or any other body part may find it economically impossible to replace these. A prosthetic hand that can grab things, for example, would cost somewhere between US$20,000 to US$30,000 (around PHP1M or more).However, we have an already existing technology called a 3D Printer which is changing the game in prosthetics. The Huffington Post recently ran a story about a dad who used a 3D printer to print a prosthetic hand for his son who was born without a left hand. His estimated cost was around US$2,000 for the printer and around US$10 for the materials (total cost of around PHP100,000). The plans and schematics for the hand were downloaded free. The Guardian UK also published an article about affordable prosthetic facial parts that can be generated by 3D printing instead of the more traditional and expensive method of making a cast and mold. A traditional prosthetic nose, for example, might cost P200,000 but a 3D printed one would only cost P20,000. That costs even less than an iPhone. Now, what if we had 3D Printers in every public hospital? How many more of our poor, disabled countrymen would now be able to afford prosthetics? How many lives would benefit? They might even be fit for some jobs now instead of being reduced to begging in the streets. Hello, Mayors and Congressmen. Are you paying attention?
  3. Water. The recent devastation brought about by Typhoon Yolanda showed how precious and important water is in the affected areas. However, water is also heavy, bulky and difficult to transport. Since around 2009, a British company call Lifesaver Systems (which is currently actively involved in disaster relief for the Philippines) has developed portable water containers with built-in filters that are so fine that you can literally fill the container with filthy, muddy water and it will produce clean, drinkable water.Those in calamity-stricken areas no longer need to wait for bottled water to arrive. They can simply use the container and get water from the nearest river (or any water source, no matter how dirty). A video demo shows the company’s CEO mixing a tank of river water with mud, sewage and garbage. He then takes a pitcher of the foul mixture and puts it in a Lifesaver Bottle. He pumps the bottle a few times, opens the top and pours clean water in a glass that he then drinks himself. Perhaps, instead of spending millions on election paraphernalia, our leaders could instead invest in these life-saving technologies. After all, nobody (except you and your relatives — and not all of them, mind you) really wants to see your smug faces splattered all over our walls, streets and lampposts, and the best preparation for disaster is innovative planning and willful action not some pretty speech on national television.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao. Also appears in Freethinking Me.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman by profession and an educator by obsession. You may email him at [email protected]. View previous articles at

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What You Need To Know About Comet ISON

In the coming days, stargazer the world over are swooning like fanboys and fangirls over the arrival and surprising intensification of Comet ISON. In this article, we will give some of the reasons why astronomers all around the world are geeking out over the comet. We will also give some tips that will be helpful in hunting for this celebrity comet.


Comet ISON is virgin stuff

Comet ISON was discovered by amateur astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novitchonok using telescopes run by the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON). According to calculations of its orbit, Comet ISON is a “dynamically new” comet. This means that this visit to the inner Solar System is Comet ISON’s first, and probably also its last.

The Oort Cloud

The Oort Cloud. [Photo credit:]


This makes planetary astronomers jizz in their pants because closely studying a first time visitor to the inner Solar System is a chance to peer into the origin of the Solar System itself. Some comets, for example the famous Halley’s Comet, are periodic comets. This means they periodically shuttle between the Kuiper Belt, that region beyond Neptune’s orbit to which Pluto belongs, and the inner Solar System. Thus, periodic comets are used to getting baked by the Sun’s heat and radiation. Dynamically new comets like Comet ISON, on the other hand, are former denizens of the part of the Solar System called the Oort Cloud. The icy bodies that form the Oort Cloud are believed to be remnants from the formation of the Solar System some 4.6 billion years ago. As Comet ISON approaches the Sun, the stuff it is made of will be exposed to the Sun’s heat and radiation for the very first time ever since the Solar System’s formation, so the gas and dust it will release can tell us about what kinds of stuff there were around during the time of the planets’ formation.


Comet ISON will live life dangerously by grazing the Sun

Comets have very eccentric, that is elongated, elliptical orbits. This explains why they are sometimes very far from the Sun and also sometimes very near it. A class of comets called sungrazers put the mythical Icarus to shame by getting so close to the Sun that the star’s tremendous gravitational field starts to tear at them. Many of these sungrazing comets do not survive their close approach to the Sun in one piece. Of the sungrazers that bite the dust, some evaporate completely while others dive into the Sun. Others still break into several large pieces that, taken as a team, put on a spectacular show. One good example is the Comet Ikeya-Seki, a sungrazing comet that broke into three to five large pieces as it approached the Sun. Comet Ikeya-Seki is considered one of the brightest comets of the previous century, reaching a brightness that made it visible in the sky even during noon. Like Comet Ikeya-Seki (which graced the sky on 1965) and the dazzling Comet Lovejoy (which put on a show last 2011), Comet ISON is also a sungrazer.

A sungrazer comet. [Photo credit:]

The sungrazing Comet Lovejoy of 2011. [Photo credit:]


An orbiting body’s closest approach to the Sun is called its perihelion. Comet ISON will reach perihelion this 28th of November. During this time, it will be three times closer to the Sun than Mercury ever gets.

Sungrazer comets always put space geeks on the edge of their seats because it is so hard to predict whether a sungrazer will survive its perihelion. Many astronomers think that Comet ISON’s prospects for survival are high, but until the 28th of November the jury is still out.

Aside from glancing off the Sun, Comet ISON has one additional claim to fame of being unique among sungrazers. Most sungrazers belong to a family called the Kreutz Sungrazers, a family of dangerously living comets that have related orbits and are believed to be fragments of the same parent comet. Both Comet Ikeya-Seki and Comet Lovejoy, as well as many other famous sungrazers, belong to the Kreutz family. Comet ISON is not part of this gang.


Comet ISON’s story is always a cliffhanger

The closer a comet gets to the Sun the brighter it shines, reflecting the most light from the Sun when it’s near perihelion; like nearly everything in the Solar System, comets do not produce much of their light, but instead merely reflect the Sun’s. It is therefore not surprising that sungrazers have the potential to be really bright, a fact illustrated by Comet Ikeya-Seki and Comet Lovejoy.

This lead some writers to prematurely hail Comet ISON as “the comet of the century”. Early this year, it became clear that this is certainly an exaggeration. This lead some astronomers to swing to the opposite side of the optimism spectrum by predicting that Comet ISON will be a dud.

Astronomers are not new to comets that do not perform as was initially hoped. The most famous example was the Comet Kohoutek of 1973. Kohoutek was considered an astronomical PR disaster because of the hype that grew around it and the subsequent lackluster performance. Some astronomers fear that Comet ISON might be a Kohoutek Part II.

Comet Kohoutek did not live up to the hype. [Photo credit:  Photo credit:]

Comet Kohoutek did not live up to the hype. [Photo credit: Photo credit:]


Well guest what, in recent nights Comet ISON surprised everyone by suddenly brightening! It still is not as bright as previous optimistic estimates predicted, but recent developments also give the lie to the pessimists’ projections. In other words, Comet ISON is frustrating most attempts to divine its maximum brightness.

What was just said is not an indication that astronomers are clueless but rather an illustration of the amazing variety of comets; there are just so many kinds of comets that it’s very difficult to predict the behavior of the next comet based on the behavior of its predecessors. This lead the great comet hunter David H. Levy, of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 fame, to famously say, “Comets are like cats; they have tails, and they do precisely what they want.”


That’s all fine and good, but where in the freakin’ sky do I find this cat?

Right now there are three requirements if you want to see Comet ISON. First, you must wake up really early, around 5 in the morning. Second, you must look for the constellations Virgo and Libra. If you don’t know how to find these faint constellations, fear not. If you look toward the easter horizon at the early hours of the morning, you will be inevitably looking at these two constellations. The third requirement is a modest pair of binoculars. As of this writing, Comet ISON is already barely visible to the naked eyes on a dark sky. Using a pair of binoculars allows you to see Comet ISON as a faint smudge with a distinct tail.

The screenshot shown below is from the freeware Stellarium, a free software that you can download from this link. In the screenshot Comet ISON is indicated by its official name, C/2012 S1 (ISON). The position shown would be the spot where Comet ISON can be found at around 5:15 AM on November 23 in Manila.

Where to find Comet ISON this Saturday morning. (Screenshot courtesy of Stellarium.)

Where to find Comet ISON this Saturday morning. (Screenshot courtesy of Stellarium.)


As the date of perihelion approaches, Comet ISON will move farther from the location of Mars in the constellation Leo and towards the center of Virgo, to the direction of the Sun.


Do I need to buy expensive telescopes just to see this thing soon?

Fortunately, you don’t have to. As of this writing, Comet ISON is bright enough to been seen through a modest pair of binoculars, and its getting brighter and brighter by the hour. Many stargazers have even noted that the comet is visible via the naked eye in dark locations, and it might intensify further to be visible even in urban vantage points! If this prediction proves accurate, Comet ISON will probably put on a good show after its perihelion next week and further into December.

At any rate, Comet ISON’s claims to fame are enough to make it a comet worthy of intense observation. Whether it will be among the brighter comets of recent years or a modest naked-eye comet, Comet ISON will be among the most closely observed comets in history, and everyone is invited to join in this celebration of human curiosity.

A November 17 photo of Comet ISON taken by Austrian astrophotographer Michael Jäger. Note that the comet's beautiful and long tail is still too faint to be seen with any detail via naked-eye observation. [Photo credit: Michael Jäger]

A November 17 photo of Comet ISON taken by Austrian astrophotographer Michael Jäger. Note that the comet’s beautiful and long tail is still too faint to be seen with any detail via naked-eye observation. [Photo credit: Michael Jäger. Photo taken from article on Comet ISON.]

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