Ghosts, the Paranormal, and the Big Bang

31 October 2004
Presented by Catherine Hawkins, Chris Smith


Paranormal investigator and vice-president of Society for Psychical Research, Tony Cornell, describes his life spent hunting for hauntings and tackling your spooky experiences during a live Halloween phone-in, and Simon Singh joins us to talk about his latest book - Big Bang - which probes the origins of the universe.

In this episode

Insulin Inhaler Could Spare Diabetics an Injection

Exploding Star Kicked Early Humans Onto Two Legs

A team of German scientists examining material from the seabed beneath the Pacific Ocean think that they may have uncovered an important clue to the processes that kick-started the evolution of mankind. Drilling 15,750 feet below the surface, Gunther Korshinek and his colleagues, from the Technical University of Munich, have found deposits, dating back about 3 million years, of a rare form of iron, called iron-60, which is normally only found in exploding stars. The discovery of these rare iron deposits indicates that a massive explosion occurred close to the earth, around the same time that our earliest ancestors evolved. The team believe that such an explosion would have bombarded the Earth, for up to 300,000 years, in cosmic rays sufficiently strong to alter the climate. At precisely this time in Africa the climate did change quite abruptly - it became drier, the forests retreated, and the savannah opened up. As they lost their forest homes, our ancestors were pushed out of the trees, on to the ground, and then up on to 2 legs.

Caesarian Delivery Increases Baby's Risk of Allergies And Diarrhoea

At a time when record numbers of women are seeking the 'convenience' of birth by caesarian section, researchers have shown that babies born this way face an increased risk of developing allergies and diarrhoea during their first 12 months of life. Researchers followed up a group of 865 babies, 147 of whom had been born by caesarian section. The babies were monitored up to the age of 12 months, and blood samples were also checked for signs of allergies to common foods, including cow's milk. They found that during the follow up period, babies born by caesarian were significantly more likely to suffer from diarrhoea, and twice as likely to show signs of allergies to common foods, compared with babies delivered the normal way. The research suggests that being born by caesarian section prevents a baby from picking up 'good' bacteria from its mother, which can affect the development of the newborn's immune system making it more likely to develop allergies. Click here to jump to the text Article by Jemima Stockton about probiotics and 'friendly bacteria'

How do antidepressants work ?

Depression seems to result from low levels of certain 'feel-good' chemicals in the brain. There are about billion nerve cells in the brain, which talk to each other using electrical signals. When these signals get to the end of one nerve cell they jump to the next at a site called a synapse, using a chemical messenger known as a neurotransmitter. One of the most important of these is a substance called serotonin, and people with depression tend to have low levels of this and similar chemicals. Antidepressants help to push up the levels of of these chemicals, helping to improve mood. St John's Wort is an example of a natural remedy that some people use, which is said to have a positive effect. Of course some people don't suffer from depression, but seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which can be worse at this time of year.

- How long will it be before our current Big Bang theory is out of date?

How long will it be before our current Big Bang theory is out of date?

How long will it be before our current Big Bang theory is out of date?

One thing in science is that you can go out and do an experiment about peoples' claims. If the facts don't fit the theory, then the theory goes straight out the window. Huxley once said that there's nothing more tragic in science than the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact. That's how science works. Scientists are not so arrogant as to say they know everything, but there are things in cosmology that are absolutely certain, for instance the influence of radiation. There are other things that we don't know much about, however, for instance dark matter, and cosmologists are happy to admit this. At the moment it's impossible to say.

- Why don't woodpeckers get brain damage when they hammer into a tree?

why don't woodpeckers get brain damage when they hammer into a tree?

Why don't woodpeckers get brain damage when they hammer into a tree?

In the late 1970s scientists tackled this by using a very fast camera capable of taking 2000 pictures every second. Analysis of these images showed that a woodpecker's head tolerates a force of about 12 thousand times the force of gravity whenever it hits something, which is a considerable force going through its head, so why shouldn't it get brain damage? Well there are various woodpecker adaptations which means they are able to cope with this trauma, and one of them is that their skull bones are quite spongy which mean they can absorb shocks very well. Another adaptation is that a woodpecker's brain is small and so has a very big surface area to weight ratio, and so the force is spread over a large area. The photography also revealed that woodpeckers line their heads up very straight with whatever they tap into, so there's no rotational injury which, at least in people involved in car accidents, is a major cause of brain injury as delicate nerve fibres are torn by the brain trying to twist on itself.

- Why do ghosts float above the floor?

In Mill Road in Cambridge last Halloween I was out trick or treating with my daughter. We arrived at a door and mother and daughter came ...

Why do ghosts float above the floor?

This is interesting because most sightings of ghosts last between 5 and 30 seconds. But this this lasted longer if you saw her the entire time you had a conversation. You couldn't see her feet, which is also a give-away because ghosts don't usually respect floors ! If it is real it sounds like this was someone who probably lived in this house previously. If I were you I would find out a bit more about who lived there and see if it ties up, but a sighting of this duration would certainly raise eyebrows !

- Can ghosts switch on electrical equipment?

Whilst visiting a friend an electric toy belonging to her children suddenly switched on, doors opened and things moved around in the room...

Can ghosts switch on electrical equipment?

There doesn't seem to be enough in this one, I'm afraid. These are things that can't be explained but it needs more for me to say yes or no whether this was a ghost. It needs more examination in more detail such as whether anyone has reported anything like this before.

- What was the apparition I saw as a child?

As a young child I woke up in the middle of night and found a man in red and white pyjamas standing at the end of my bed. He wasn't anyon...

What was the apparition I saw as a child?

This is a well known, and there a lot of cases like this where people wake up and see an old woman or old man at the end of the bed. It has been put down to something psychological, almost like a waking dream. It is the kind of thing that we would like to get photos of, because then we would be more likely to believe it, although ghosts are very difficult to photograph.

- Why can't we photograph ghosts if you can see them?

Why can't we photograph ghosts if you can see them?

Why can't we photograph ghosts if you can see them?

This is a good point, we don't know why they can't be photographed. We don't know what ghosts are - whether they are something that has come back from the dead, or something else entirely. It would be brilliant if we could get photos, or even better would be a video. Stories of people saying they've got names from ghosts are probably not true.

- Can animals see ghosts?

I grew up in an incredibly old house. Our dog was the most placid animal, and yet it would run at the fastest pace possible up the stairs...

Can animals see ghosts?

Animals do react to things that we are unaware of, and are very sensitive to paranormal activity. Regarding the glow, try and get a photograph of it, and we can analyse it.

- Why do ghosts make rooms feel colder?

I lived in a house where the dining room which was always colder than all the other rooms, and both my wife and I could see something in ...

Why do ghosts make rooms feel colder?

It could have been something, but lots of people feel presences in houses. I would need to see a lot more to be convinced.

- Why do we sometimes hear things that we cannot account for?

I lived in a large house in Norfolk on a farm and one night I heard a coach and horses come up the drive, yet we didn't see anything.

Why do we sometimes hear things that we cannot account for?

That's a common thing, but an interesting one. Sounds of ghosts also evade recording, which is what would be needed here, but I think this is probably a likely paranormal occurence.

What is absolute zero?

The temperature of an object is a measure of how much energy it has, and when something has energy the atoms in that object vibrate. The hotter it is the more they vibrate, the colder it is the less they vibrate. As you lower the temperature those vibrations reduce. As you get towards what we call absolute zero, that's when the vibration has almost completely stopped, so you can't get lower than -273 degrees, that's zero degrees Kelvin, matter has not energy or motion at this temperature, hence it's absolute zero.


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