In the 2016 blockbuster “Doctor Strange,” among the titular superhero’s powers (as the “Master of the Mystic Arts”) is astral projection, or the ability to separate his physical body from his spiritual one. This is done in spectacular fashion onscreen, enhanced by cutting-edge computer generated effects featuring an extended fight scene between two people in spirit form. (Of course, fights usually involve physical force such as punches and kicks, so how exactly two immaterial entities could affect each other remains a bit of a mystery.)
Astral projection is fun and fascinating — but is it real?
The idea that humans can leave their bodies during dream states is ancient. Countless people, from New Agers to shamans around the world, believe that it is possible to commune with cosmic intelligence through visions and vivid dreams experienced during astral projection, also known as out-of-body experiences. Surveys suggest that between 8 and 20 percent of people claim to have had something like an out-of-body experience at some point in their lives — a sensation of the consciousness, spirit, or “astral body” leaving the physical body. While most experiences occur during sleep or under hypnosis, some people claim to do it while merely relaxing.
Though originally a private, quasi-religious meditative practice it has — like many New Age beliefs — been commercialized. Astral travel can be big business, and there are many books, seminars, DVDs and other materials that promise to teach students how to leave their physical bodies and access other dimensions. Do they work? Who knows?
It may be a profound experience, but the fundamental problem is that there’s really no way to scientifically measure whether or not a person’s spirit “leaves” or “enters” the body. The simplest and best explanation for out-of-body experiences is that the person is merely fantasizing and dreaming. Because there is no scientific evidence that consciousness can exist outside of the brain, astral projection is rejected by scientists.
Why hasn’t astral projection been proven scientifically? Some claim it’s because mainstream scientists are closed-minded and refuse to even look at evidence that doesn’t fit their narrow worldview. However, in science those who disprove dominant theories are rewarded, not punished. Proving the existence of psychic powers, astral projection or alternative dimensions would earn the dissenting scientists a place in the history books, if not a Nobel Prize.
Scientifically testing the validity of astral travel should be quite simple; for example, you might hide 10 unknown objects at different locations and then ask a person to project their consciousness to each place and describe exactly what’s there. Either the descriptions match or they don’t.
We need not resort to such artificial tests, since the real world provides countless opportunities for astral projection to be demonstrated beyond any doubt. If proven, astral travel would be incredibly useful to the world. There would be no need to send humans into very dangerous conditions — such as nuclear disasters — to determine what the situation is. People whose consciousnesses can fly and move through walls would save lives during natural disasters such as earthquakes, easily moving through rubble and collapsed buildings to locate survivors and direct rescue workers to them. Astral projectors, like psychics, would be invaluable to police during mass shooting and hostage situations, describing exactly how many suspects there are, where in the building they can be found, and other crucial details. The absence of these individuals during life-or-death situations is revealing.
Practitioners of astral travel insist that the experience must be real because it seems so vivid, and because some of the experiences are similar, even for people from different cultures. But it’s not surprising that many people who try astral projection have similar experiences — after all, that’s what the term “guided imagery” is: when an authority (such as a psychologist or astral travel teacher) tells a person what they should expect from the experience.
According to researcher Susan Blackmore, author of “Beyond the Body: An Investigation of Out-of-the-Body Experiences,” people who experience astral travel “have been found to score higher on measures of hypnotizability and, in several surveys, on measures of absorption, [a] measure of a person’s ability to pay complete attention to something and to become immersed in it, even if it is not real, like a film, play, or imagined event.” Out-of-body experiencers are more imaginative, suggestible, and fantasy-prone than average, though have low levels of drug and alcohol use, and no obvious signs of psychopathology or mental illness. [Related: Out-of-Body Hallucinations Linked to Brain Glitch]
Though astral projection practitioners insist their experiences are real, their evidence is all anecdotal — just as a person who takes peyote or LSD may be truly convinced that they interacted with God, dead people, or angels while in their altered state. Astral projection is an entertaining and harmless pastime that can seem profound, and in some cases even life-changing. But there’s no evidence that out-of-body-experiences happen outside the body instead of inside the brain. Until the existence of an astral plane can be proven — and made accessible — there’s always the continuing adventures of the Sorcerer Supreme.
Smallpox-Related Viruses Are Still a Threat to Humans, Experts Warn
By Rachael Rettner, Senior Writer |
Smallpox has been eradicated for decades, but other, related “poxviruses” are still around and continue to pose a risk to humans, experts say.
In fact, cases of human infection with viruses in the same family as thesmallpox virus are appearing in growing numbers.
What’s more, in recent years, researchers have discovered several never-before-seen poxviruses that cause illness in people. In one case, a woman in Alaska who thought she had a spider bite turned out to have an infection with a new poxvirus, and doctors never determined exactly how she became infected.
“Poxviruses continue to pose a threat,” Dr. Brett Petersen, a medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Poxvirus and Rabies Branch, said during a talk at an infectious disease conference called IDWeek, held in San Diego earlier this month. For this reason, there is a “need for continued vigilance and increased surveillance” for cases of poxviruses, Petersen said. [The 9 Deadliest Viruses on Earth]
Poxviruses are oval or brick-shaped viruses with large genomes, according to the CDC. Infections with poxviruses typically cause skin lesions or rashes. Perhaps the most famous poxvirus, the variola virus, causes smallpox, a highly contagious and sometimes fatal disease that was declared eradicated from the world in 1980 thanks to a global vaccination campaign, according to the World Health Organization. (Eradication means that cases of the disease no longer occur naturally anywhere in the world.)
But after the eradication of smallpox, researchers saw an increase in cases of some other diseases caused by poxviruses. In particular, there has been a rise in cases of monkeypox, which is closely related to smallpox; both belong to the poxvirus family called orthopoxvirus. (The two diseases have similar symptoms, but monkeypox is less deadly than smallpox: The fatality rate for monkeypox is 10 percent, versus 30 percent for smallpox.)
Human cases of monkeypox occur primarily in Central and West Africa, and the virus is transmitted to humans from the fluids of animal carriers, including rodents and primates.
Other African countries have seen rises in monkeypox as well. In just the last month, 36 suspected cases of monkeypox have been reported in Nigeria, according to The Conversation. If confirmed, the cases would be the first in the country since 1978.
Doctors in the western world also have reason to be on the lookout for monkeypox and related poxviruses. In 2003, the United States experienced an outbreak of monkeypox tied to a shipment of animals from Ghana. In total, nearly 50 confirmed or probable cases of monkeypox were reported in six U.S. states during the outbreak, according to the CDC. “These diseases are never as far away as we think,” Petersen said.
Researchers also continue to discover new types of poxviruses in various parts of the world. In the Alaska case, which occurred in 2015, the woman went to the doctor because she had a lesion on her right shoulder, along with fever, fatigue and tender lymph nodes, according to a report of the case, published in June. Her doctors thought she might have chicken pox or shingles, but testing revealed that she had a type of orthopoxvirus that had never been seen before.
It took six months for the lesion to fully disappear, but the woman eventually recovered and did not transmit the infection to anyone else, the report said.
That case shows that there are “previously undiscovered, unrecognized, unknown poxviruses … that are still being discovered to this day,” Petersen said during his talk.
Efforts to discover exactly how the woman contracted the virus turned up empty. She had not traveled out of state, but her partner had traveled to Azerbaijan about four months earlier. Azerbaijan is next to the republic of Georgia, where another new orthopoxvirus was discovered, in 2013. But testing of her partner’s items from the trip, such as clothes and souvenirs he brought back, did not show any evidence of orthopoxvirus DNA.
Testing of small mammals near the woman’s home (such as shrews, voles and squirrels, which can carry orthopoxviruses), and testing of household areas that the small mammals may have touched, also came back negative. Still, the researchers said they were able to collect only a limited number of mammals from around the home. At this time, the most likely explanation for the patient’s infection is that she was exposed to the virus around where she lived, near Fairbanks, Alaska, the report said.
“This discovery of a novel orthopoxvirus is the latest in a growing number of reports of human poxvirus infection published in recent years,” the researchers said in their report.
One hypothesis for the increase in such infections is the cessation ofsmallpox vaccination, because such vaccination may have provided protection against other poxviruses, the researchers said.
“Continued emergence and re-emergence of orthopoxviruses is expected,” the researchers wrote.
Petersen also noted that even though smallpox has been eradicated, the virus that causes the disease has not been completely wiped off the planet. Some stocks of the virus still exist in labs in the United States and Russia. And there’s also concern that the virus could be used as a bioweapon. Earlier this year, scientists in Canada announced that they hadre-created the horsepox virus, a relative of smallpox, in a lab using DNA fragments. The findings suggest scientists could also make the smallpox virus in a lab.
“Unfortunately, we’re still talking about smallpox,” Petersen said. “[But] hopefully, we’ll never see another case.”
Puerto Rico is an archipelago in the Caribbean Sea consisting of a main island and a handful of smaller ones. It is part of the Greater Antilles, a grouping of the larger islands in the Caribbean. Its location has made Puerto Rico an important and strategic port for centuries.
It has also made the island a target for hurricanes. The most recent storm, Hurricane Maria, struck on Sept. 20, 2017. The Category 4 storm caused catastrophic damage only two weeks after the Category 5 Hurricane Irma skirted the island and crippled much of its infrastructure.
Politically, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an unincorporated U.S. territory. Its people are U.S. citizens but they don’t have some of the rights other Americans have, such as the right to vote for president.
Weather and climate
Puerto Rico lies in the tropical region at a latitude of 18.25 degrees. The climate is consistent throughout the year with an average temperature of 79 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius), according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The wet season lasts from May through October, although rain tends to fall year-round. August tends to be the wettest month on average and is also the start of hurricane season.
The average rainfall in the northern part of the island is about 61 inches (155 centimeters) and the southern part of the island is about 36 inches (91.4 cm). Some coastal regions receive up to 150 inches (381 cm) of rain per year, while the mountains register around 200 inches (508 cm).
Puerto Rico has been hit by several powerful hurricanes, including the devastating Hurricane Maria. Hurricane Maria knocked out power and communications on the entire island, destroyed many structures and roads, unleashed flash floods and wiped out most of the island’sagriculture. It is estimated that it will take several months to restore power to the island.
The most destructive hurricane on record in Puerto Rico is Hurricane San Ciriaco, according to the Hispanic American Historical Review. The hurricane, which made landfall in Aug. 8, 1899, is still on record as the longest-lived Atlantic hurricane, at nearly 28 days. The hurricane destroyed about 250,000 homes, nearly all the crops, and left the majority of the population without access to food or clean water. Nearly 3,400 people lost their lives.
The main island of Puerto Rico is about 110 miles (177 km) long (west to east) and 35 miles (56.3 km) wide (north to south), and covers 3,515 square miles (9,104 square km) — slightly less than three times the size of Rhode Island, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. It is also almost twice the size of Delaware.
Several small offshore islands are part of Puerto Rico, but only two are inhabited year-round: Vieques and Culebra. Vieques lies about 7 miles (11.3 km) east of the main island and is approximately 21 miles (33.8 km) long by 4 miles (6.4 km) wide. About 9 miles north of Vieques is Culebra, which is approximately 7 miles (11.3 km) by 5 miles (8 km). The island of Mona lies 41 miles (66 km) west of the main island. It is only 7 miles by 4 miles (11 by 7 km) and is a protected nature preserve. The nearby Mona Passage is a key shipping lane to the Panama Canal, according to the CIA.
Puerto Rico is surrounded by some very deep waters, including the Puerto Rico Trench, which is the deepest trench in the Atlantic Ocean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). ThePuerto Rico Trench is 497 miles (800 km) long with a maximum depth of 26,247 feet (8,000 m) at Milwaukee Deep. For comparison, the average depth of the Atlantic Ocean (not including adjacent seas) is 12,881 feet (3,926 m). The trench is part of a subduction zone between the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates.
The region is very active seismically — an average of five earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 1.5 occur near Puerto Rico every day. The shocks occur because the North American plate is drifting westward relative to the Caribbean plate at about three-quarters of an inch (2 cm) per year, according to the NOAA. The uplifting of a tectonic plate due to a large shift formed the island, as well as the other islands in the area.
Río Camuy in the northern part of the island is part of the third largest subterranean river and cave system in the world. The caves were discovered in 1958, and 16 passages have been found and over 7 miles have been explored. The largest cave is Cueva Clara, which is 695 feet (211 km) long.
Puerto Rico is a very diverse region, with a mountain range, coastal plains, a desert and a rainforest. The main mountain range is known as LaCordillera Central, and runs east-west across the center of the island. The highest point on the island is Cerro de Punta, at 4,389 feet (1,338 m).
Flora and fauna
The El Yunque rainforest lies in the eastern part of the island at the highest elevations of the 28,000-acre Yunque National Forest, which is part of theU.S. Forest System. It is the only rainforest that is protected in the United States. Although the rainforest is one of the smallest protected regions, it is one of the most diverse.
It rains four times a day in the rainforest, according to El Boricua magazine. Annual rainfall is about 240 inches (610 cm), which translates to over 100 billion gallons of water. The temperature underneath the canopy stays around 73 F (22.8 C) year-round. These conditions are perfect for many types of plants and trees to thrive. There are thousands of native plants and trees, including at least 240 species of trees (with 23 known to exist only in this forest), 150 species of fern, 50 species of orchids and many species of vines and mosses.
No large animals reside in the rainforest, but countless small animals do. These include 50 species of birds (including the endangered Puerto Rican parrot), 11 species of bats, eight species of lizards and 13 species of thecoquí frog, the national mascot. There are also many types of snakes, insects and rodents.
There are at least 700 species of plants in the Guanica Reserve, including 48 endangered plants and 16 that are endemic to the region, including the gumbo limbo tree and the guayacán tree. The largest variety of birds on the island, at least 185 species, lives in the reserve. That includes most of the 16 species native to Puerto Rico, such as the Puerto Rican woodpecker and the endangered Puerto Rican nightjar. There are also countless reptiles and amphibians within the reserve, including the national coquí frog.
History of Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico, originally known as Borikén (“land of the brave lord”), was originally inhabited by the Taino tribe. The Taino people were a subgroup of the Arawak people of South America, and the group that inhabited Puerto Rico was traced back to a village in what is now Venezuela, according to El Boricua. The Taino were very peaceful and lived in several different villages across the island. They specialized in a unique style of pottery, farming and fishing.
The Taino welcomed Christopher Columbus when he landed in Puerto Rico in 1493 on his second voyage from Spain. Famed for their hospitality, they even showed Columbus the gold nuggetsin the river and told Columbus to take all he wanted. Columbus named the island San Juan Bautista (after St. John the Baptist) and the town in which he landed Puerto Rico (“rich port”) due to the gold in the river. Over the years, the name of the town and island were swapped.
Juan Ponce de León, a former lieutenant under Columbus, arrived in 1508 and turned Puerto Rico into Spain’s most important military outpost in the Caribbean due its location and natural resources. Colonization by the Spaniards soon followed, as well as the importation of slaves from Africa. Within a year, Ponce de León had conquered most of the island, enslaving or killing many of the inhabitants. The Spanish government saw this as a success and named Ponce de León as the first governor of Puerto Rico in 1509.
It is estimated that the population of the Taino went from between 30,000 and 50,000 at the time Columbus landed in 1493 to approximately 4,000 by 1514 and to about 1,150 by 1530, according to the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University. Many of the Taino died from European diseases, due to their lack of immunity. Many others were killed while trying to defend their land, or by committing suicide when captured and enslaved. Some hid in the dense forests, while others took refuge on nearby islands. Many of the enslaved native islanders who survived worked side-by-side with enslaved Africans. They mined gold and farmed high-demand crops such as sugar, coffee and tobacco.
The richness and location of the island made it a prime target for bothpirates and invasion attempts by other countries, according to Frommer’s. Smugglers also took advantage of the Spanish forces concentrating in San Juan, and made huge profits working out of less-protected areas.
Government and people
After centuries of Spanish rule, the territory of Puerto Rico was transferred to the United States in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. It was established as an unincorporated territory, which meant there was no plan to make it a state. (During the westward expansion period, the United States created incorporated territories that could and did become states, according to the History Channel.)
Puerto Ricans were granted full U.S. citizenship in 1917. However, Puerto Ricans living on the island cannot vote for president (they can if they reside in a U.S. state), and their delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives cannot vote except in committees. Puerto Ricans can serve in the U.S. military, and they pay into the Social Security system. They don’t have to file a U.S. federal income tax return if their only income was from sources within Puerto Rico, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
Puerto Rico became a United States Commonwealth in 1952, which gave the island more autonomy over local matters, including elections, taxes, education, health, housing and culture. However, the U.S. Congress and the president still control matters such as citizenship, immigration, defense, currency and trade, according to Jorge Duany, a professor of anthropology at Florida International University. Congress or the president can veto any decision made by the island’s legislature. It creates a situation in which Puerto Rico “belonged to but was not part of the United States,” he wrote.
In recent years, there have been several referendums on statehood and independence. In the most recent vote, a nonbinding referendum on June 11, 2017, about 97 percent of voters — more than half a million people — chose statehood. There were 7,800 votes for free association/independence and more than 6,800 votes for the current territorial status, according to the Associated Press. However, turnout was low — only 23 percent — and only Congress can incorporate the islands into a state. It’s unlikely that statehood will happen, Lillian Guerra, a history professor at the University of Florida, said in the History Channel article.
Puerto Rican culture is based on a blend of Taino, African and Spanish traditions, food, music, art and language. There are also influences introduced by immigrants from China, Italy, France, Germany and Cuba. American culture has also mingled with Puerto Rico’s since it became a U.S. territory, according to Smithsonian magazine.
Cocina Criolla, the local name for Puerto Rican cuisine, has its roots in Taino, Spanish and African specialties and cooking styles with influences from European and Chinese immigrants. The Taino people lived primarily on tropical fruit, corn, yuca and seafood. When the Spanish arrived, they introduced many types of food, including rice, wheat, olives and olive oil, beef, pork and garlic. Enslaved Africans brought okra, taro and plantains. The Spanish also introduced sugarcane and coffee to the island. Sugarcane was used to distill rum, which today is still a favorite drink in Puerto Rico. Today’s cuisine focuses on many of the same ingredients, using indigenous ingredients and many imported ones to create a unique dining experience.
Several instruments that are traditionally used in Puerto Rican music date back to the Taino people. One such instrument is the güiro, according to the Music of Puerto Rico website. The güirois a hollowed-out gourd with notches on one side that is played by rubbing a stick along the notches.
Several instruments were adapted from the six-string guitar brought over by early Spanish settlers, including the requinto, bordonua, cuatro and tiple. Percussion instruments such as panderetasand maracas were also very popular. Dances were choreographed to match the music (and the music’s name). They included the bomba, plena and variations of the salsa.
Puerto Rican art also shows a blend of the many cultures in the island’s melting pot. Taino art included jewelry made from gold, shells and stones. The Taino also crafted pottery and baskets, and worked with wood and stone. Religious figures that date back to the 16th century were influenced by the Spanish settlers and were known as Santos, according to the website Welcome to Puerto Rico. Santos were typically carved or molded by craftsmen using clay, stone, gold and wood. These may have been preceded by what the Taino called “cemi,” highly revered small statues that stood within the villages. Large, ornate papier-mâché masks that date back to medieval Spain, tribal Africa or both are very popular during carnival time.
Puerto Rico is home to about 3.4 million people. About 4.9 million Puerto Ricans live elsewhere in the United States. Puerto Rico is one of the most densely populated islands in the world with an average of nearly 1,000 people per square mile.
The capital of San Juan is located on the north shore of the main island. There are 78 municipalities, including the islands of Culebra and Vieques.
The official languages are English and Spanish.
The U.S. dollar is the official currency.
The Puerto Rican flag, adopted in 1922, has a white star in a blue triangle on the left with three red alternating with two white stripes on the right.
Several words that are commonly used in the English language originated from the Taino language, including hurricane (huracán), barbecue (barbacoa), and hammock (hamaka).
The national bird is the reina mora, also known as the stripe-headed Tanager. The national flower is the flor de maga, also known as the Puerto Rican hibiscus. The national tree is the ceiba, also known as the silk-cotton tree. The national symbol is the coqui frog.
X-Rays Reveal Ghostly Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots
By Laura Geggel, Senior Writer |
The ghostly, unfinished portrait of a woman believed to be Mary, Queen of Scots has been found underneath the 16th-century portrait of a man dressed in a black doublet, according to new research.
Art conservators discovered and identified Mary’s hidden portrait by using X-ray photography. The black-and-white X-ray images revealed a woman with similarities to other near-contemporary portraits of the queen, said Caroline Rae, a research fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art, in London, England, who is doing the research in conjunction with the National Galleries of Scotland.
Rae made the finding while she was studying the portrait of the man dressed in a black doublet, who is known as Sir John Maitland, 1st Lord Maitland of Thirlestane, the lord chancellor of Scotland. The 1589 painting is attributed to Adrian Vanson, an artist with ties to the royal family; he was the court painter of James VI of Scotland, who was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Rae used X-rays to examine the painting because this wavelength of light can penetrate through paint layers, but is stopped by pigments that contain heavy metals, such as lead white. In this case, the X-ray images show lead white depicting Mary’s face, as well as the outlines of her dress and hat.
An analysis of the portrait revealed a face with a strong resemblance to Mary, Queen of Scots. For instance, the woman looks like two miniatures painted of the queen by the well-known English miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard (1547 to 1619). Moreover, other clues — the woman’s head is tilted sideways; her hand, which is resting on her waist, is holding something; and she’s wearing a wired cap and square-necked dress — also look like other portraits of Mary, Rae said.
“[The discovery] aids in illuminating our understanding of Adrian Vanson, a Netherlandish émigré artist who came to Jacobean Scotland to seek a new life and quickly ascended to the status of Crown painter,” Rae said.
After abandoning Mary’s portrait, the artist turned Mary’s dress into the lord’s black doublet and modified Mary’s right hand to be the lord’s right hand. This finding “explains why the portrait of the Scottish Chancellor was so awkwardly painted,” Rae told the Independent.
The Queen, originally known as Mary Stuart, was a controversial figure in her day. Mary, the great-grandniece of King Henry VIII of England, became Queen of Scots before she was less than 1 year old. A marriage with a French dauphin who later became king made her France’s queen consort, but when her husband died of an ear infection, she became a widow at age 18 and returned to Scotland.
Mary then married her cousin, Henry Stewart, and together they had a son — James VI. But she was later forced to abdicate the throne, based on accusations that she was involved with his murder. Later, Mary was imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth in 1568, and executed in 1587, two years before the date on the finished portrait. [Photos: Hidden Portrait by Edgar Degas Revealed with X-Rays]
Vanson may have covered up the portrait after Mary’s execution, the researchers said. However, it’s unlikely Vanson ever saw Mary in person. Rather, “it shows that portraits of the queen were being copied and presumably displayed in Scotland around the time of her execution, a highly contentious and potentially dangerous thing to be seen doing.”
The public can see the X-ray images at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, in a new display that will last for several months.