Month: January, 2023

Solving The Mystery Of The Somerton Man With Professor Derek Abbott – Episode 22

Derek Abbott is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Adelaide in Australia who, along with genetic researcher Colleen Fitzpatrick, finally solved the mystery of the Somerton Man, an unidentified man found dead on a beach in Australia in 1948. He joins me to talk about his decades-long quest to find this man’s identity, how the discovery was finally made, and the stunning advancement in DNA technology that has happened only in the last few years.

If “The Universe Isn’t Real…” Then What Is It?

The Nobel Prize for Physics in 2022 made for some pretty big headlines because it acknowledged that the universe is not “locally real.” But that phrase doesn’t necessarily mean what a lot of people think it does. Here’s what it actually means, and why it is worthy of the biggest prize in physics.


A few months back in October of 2022, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to John Clauser, Alain (Ah-lawn) Aspect, and Anton Zeilinger (Zigh-ling-er). And you probably saw some headlines about it.

A few months back in October of 2022, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to John Clauser, Alain (Ah-lawn) Aspect, and Anton Zeilinger (Zigh-ling-er). And you probably saw some headlines about it.
Nobel Prizes usually make headlines but these were a bit more bombastic than most. Claiming that they won it for proving that the universe… isn’t real.
And you thought this channel gives you an existential crisis.
But in this case, we’ve got a rare switcheroo, where the news headlines will make you question the nature of reality and I’m here to say… Eh.
When did I become a debunking channel?
The fact that this was awarded the Nobel Prize is really more of a confirmation of theories that have already been widely accepted by the science community – I’ve even talked about it here before.

But, it is interesting stuff. And it does reinforce that the universe is way weirder than we can possibly imagine. On the smallest scales anyway.
So let me do my amateur best at breaking this down. No, the universe is not locally real. But here’s what that actually means.
So on this channel, I get corrected a lot. Like… A lot. I’m sure many of you are warming up your fingers to straighten me out in the comments already.

One thing and this is super pedantic but hey, we’re talking about internet comments here, is whenever I use the word “theory” in the casual, general audience way.
Like if I said I have a theory about why butts have cracks, people will be quick to point out that it’s not actually a theory… it’s a hypothesis. And then ask if I’m okay.
And yes, in a scientific sense, my buttcrack idea is a hypothesis to be tested and not a theory to serve as a basis for knowledge.

But the word “theory” does have a more casual use that laypeople use in the everyday world that doesn’t mean the exact same thing as a research scientist would use it.
And this is kind-of the same thing, when physicists say, “The universe is not locally real,” there’s a different scientific meaning to those words than the layperson might hear.

Luckily for science communicators and nerdy websites, that layperson meaning is pretty clickbaity.

So let’s break this down, what does it mean that the “universe is not locally real?”

Also keep in mind I’m not an actual scientist. But I’ll do my best. Now… let’s go back in time.

Whoa… too far. Let’s jump ahead a little.

All right this works. So ever since scientists and philosophers existed, they have pondered the nature of light. Because some experiments seemed to show it behaving like a wave, some like a particle.
This was a problem that vexed the greatest thinkers of their day like Thomas Young and Sir Isaac Newton.
Flash forward to 1905, Albert Einstein built on the work of Max Planck to show light can be divided into discrete quantities, called photons. In other words, he showed that light was a particle. And there was much rejoicing.

The problem is… they only acted like particles when they were emitted and absorbed. When they were moving through space, they acted like waves. Which was an annoying thing that all quantum objects seemed to do.

Or, according to Max Born, the German-Polish mathematician and grandfather to Olivia-Newton John… No, really. As he said about his work with quantum collisions,  “One does not get an answer to the question, ‘What is the state after collision?’ but only to the question, ‘How probable is a given effect of the collision?’  From the standpoint of our quantum mechanics, there is no quantity which causally fixes the effect of a collision in an individual event.”

The Realist Debate

What Born was advocating for, here, is called the statistical approach to quantum mechanics, or QM.
And to translate that for all us non-grandfathers of Olivia Newton John, it basically means that until a quantum particle is measured, it has no definite values. It only exists as a statistical probability.
It’s like saying that when an archer fires an arrow, from the moment it leaves the bow until it hits the target, it only exists as a cloud of probabilities.

Obviously with a macro object like an arrow or a baseball or a cow (Monty Python), that’s totally absurd, but in the quantum world, that’s how things work. And that was proven true in experiment after experiment after experiment.

And that’s QM, quantum mechanics, many of you already know about this, but it was a radical new science at the time, promoted by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Max Born, they’re considered the founding fathers of QM.
Does that make quantum mechanics Olivia Newton-John’s father…? I’ll stop now.

One person who wasn’t on board with statistical QM was Einstein. Einstein HATED this idea. In fact, he wrote in a letter to Max Born in 1947: “I cannot seriously believe in it because the theory cannot be reconciled with the idea that physics should represent a reality in time and space, free from spooky action at a distance.”
Stick a pin in “spooky action at a distance.”

We’ll get back to that.

Einstein and those like him became known as “realists” because they believed that a particle was a particle was a particle was a particle, it was a real thing from start to finish. The whole idea that a tiny piece of physical matter could become a math equation was ridiculous.(meme of Einstein with caption, “Get Real”)

Likewise, statistical thinkers like Born, Heisenberg, are Bohr became known as non-realists. Because they believed that’s exactly what happens.
I should point out that individual theories vary, and there are probably as many nuances as there are people who take each side.

So, to go back to our original statement, “The universe is not locally real,” the “real” part of that refers to that argument, whether or not unmeasured particles exist as a physical particle or a statistical probability.
In other words… Einstein was wrong. But he didn’t go down without a fight.

There was a famous conference that happened right in the middle of this melee called the Fifth Solvay Conference where Einstein and Bohr had it out in a big debate, and Einstein challenged other realists to prove the non-realists wrong, which led to a whole slew of thought experiments, the most famous of which is Schrödinger’s cat.

Schrödinger’s Cat 

Apparently Erwin Schrödinger had a great aunt who was a crazy cat lady, so it was only natural that he imagined shutting one of them in a box.
Most of you are probably familiar with Schrödinger’s Cat, the idea being that you put a cat in a box with a vial of poison that would break or not break according to the behavior of a quantum particle, the argument being that if unmeasured particles are just probabilities, then until you look in the box, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time, which is obviously ridiculous.
Which…  I always thought that Schrödinger’s Cat was meant to explain quantum mechanics, like it was an educational tool, but he was actually arguing against it.

I think a lot of people get that confused, I know I did.
Something else that a lot of people don’t know is that in that same paper where he outlined this thought experiment, he also first coined the term “entanglement.”
This was actually inspired by another paper that year from Einstein and two other physicists, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen.
In this paper, they tried to prove the realist case using the concept of entanglement, but it was so new, it didn’t have a name yet.  It was actually Schrödinger who named it in his cat paper.

Quantum Entanglement

So, entanglement, what is that exactly? Simply put, it’s when the value of a property in one quantum object implies the value of the matching property in another.  (beat) Simpler put, it’s when the properties of two particles are linked.

Electrons, for example, have a property called spin.  It’s possible to entangle two electrons so their spin will measure as opposites. So if you measure the spin of one electron as clockwise, you know the entangled electron spins counter-clockwise.
Although… electron spin is not the same as like the spin of a basketball, it’s a different thing based on angular momentum but for both our sanities, let’s save that for another time.
But still, even if particles are entangled, you only know that after measurement. Before that, values of both particles only exist as statistical probabilities.

The EPR Paradox

So Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen asked what happens when entangled objects are separated, and you measure the values of one of them. Does the other one snap out of statistical probability? And if so, how does it know to do that?
This is the “spooky action at a distance” that I was talking about earlier, also known as the EPR Paradox. Named after Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen.

In the paper, they argued that there must be something else going on here, you can’t just have two particles communicate with each other across space and time, that just makes no sense.
They suggested that if you can predict a quantum object’s properties, something has to make those predictions come true.  They named that “something” hidden variables.

Non-realists say hidden variables don’t exist.  Physics is pure statistics.  There’s nothing but math all the way down. Which is the most hellish version of reality I can think of…
In the years after the EPR paper was published, there were several different hypotheses put forth with different takes on hidden variables, the problem was the technology hadn’t progressed to the point that this could actually be tested.
Einstein spent the last years of his life trying to solve this problem, and never quite got there. In fact it would be nine years after he died before someone figured out a way to test if the universe is real.

Locality and Realism

That test had to do with the “local” part of the headline.
In physics, locality means no two objects can influence each other faster than the speed of light.  Einstein believed in locality.  It was a big part of his special theory of relativity.
So “local” doesn’t necessarily mean close to each other – light from Alpha Centauri is “local” – it just takes 4.3 years to get here.
So to Einstein, a complete theory of physics would explain particles as real and their influences as local.  In other words, “locally real.”
But some in the realist camp aren’t so picky.

Bohm’s EPR and the Universe According to Bell

Take Pilot Wave Theory. I did a video about this a while back, it was proposed by David Bohm, anyway, with pilot wave theory, the  universe is real, but not local.

And in the paper where he proposed Pilot Wave, Bohm and his academic advisor Yakir Aharonov outlined a theoretical experiment to test the paradox using our old friend particle spin.
“Theoretical” is the key word here. They didn’t actually know how to pull it off.

Aharonov is still alive, and his niece is a quantum computer scientist mentions different ways of changing axes, which is why I gloss over the detail

But in 1964, the Irish physicist John Bell read the paper and was inspired to figure out the spin experiment.

Yes, so far in this video, I have talked about Born, Bohr, Bohm, and Bell.

Anyway, what Bell did was he came up with two formulas, one that would reflect a universe with locally-real hidden variables, and one that reflected non-realist QM.
And long explanation mercifully truncated, when Bell ran the formulas, he found they disagreed. The outcomes were fundamentally different in the universe with hidden variables from in the one without.

And his big takeaway from all that razzmatazz is that local hidden variables and quantum mechanics don’t mix, an idea now called Bell’s Theorem. Or, Bell’s Inequality.
In mathematics, an inequality is any formula where the two sides are not equal so like 1 + 2 = 3 is an equality but 2 + 2 > 3 is an inequality. In Bell’s example, QM does not equal hidden variables. So there you go.

But to prove this theorem requires more than fancy math, you’ve gotta do an experiment, which he proposed and called it the Bell Test, because he liked putting his name on things.
But once again, the technology to perform the test didn’t exist yet.
Coming up with runnable Bell tests, and using the results to shed light on physics is how John Clauser, Alain Aspect, and Anton Zeilinger won the Nobel Prize.  And I mean “shed light” literally.

John Clauser

Because they used photons to test the Bell inequality.  Photons act differently than the particles Bohm and Aharonov proposed checking for spin.
In 1969, John Clauser teamed up with physicists Abner Shimony and Michael Horne, and physics student Richard Holt, to work out how to use them in a Bell test.

By the way, I know I’m throwing a LOT of names out there right now, you don’t need to know exactly who all these people are, but I’m saying their names because they are reflected in some terms that you might have heard before, so it’s just context, bear with me.

Anyway, they broke from the initial idea that Bell had because Bell imagined measuring the spin of particles as perfectly up or perfectly down. Which is incredibly hard with photons.
So Clauser and his colleagues just… relaxed that rule

The result was an experimental setup that uses light to test the Bell inequality while accounting for imperfect results. And in 1969, it was named the CHSH Inequality. And now you know why I said all those names earlier.
And you’re going to have to forgive me for being intentionally vague for the purposes of this video, this is literally stuff that Einstein couldn’t come up with. I know my limits.
But simply put, any experiment that violates the CHSH inequality disproves hidden variables and is considered proof of statistical quantum mechanics.

Still with me? All right.

Three years later (1972), Clauser and his colleague, Stuart Freedman, ran the first successful Bell test.  And their results violated the CHSH inequality.
And somewhere in the afterlife, Einstein cried.

Actually Clauser was also disappointed.  He later admitted he wanted to “shake the world” with a hidden variable win.  But he’ll just have to settle for a Nobel Prize.
But, he shared this prize with two other people, because there were still some loopholes in the theory and they helped close them.
So let’s talk about Alain Aspect real quick.

Alain Aspect

First of all, the year after Clauser’s big experiment, so 1973, Richard Holt ran a separate test.
Holt if you remember was one of the H’s in CHSH. I… don’t know which one.
But his test actually satisfied the CHSH inequality.  So maybe hidden variables were a thing!

But his hidden variable acted like a ghost in the machine.  It was kinda determined by how the measurement was done.
But Alain Aspect broke the tie by introducing a random element to his measurements so that the measuring devices couldn’t influence each other.
Specifically, he changed the polarization of photons while they were on the way to a filter.  The filter would either block photons or let them through, depending on the polarization.

This randomness let Aspect prove his measuring devices weren’t pre-determining the outcome.  Anyway, this was a big hit in the physics community, and it continually violated the CHSH inequality in multiple runs in labs all over the world.
This was another nail in the coffin to the hidden variables theory, and a big win for the non-realists.

Anton Zeilinger

But the theory still wasn’t 100%. There were still a couple objections and loopholes that the realists would point out, and that’s when Anton Zeilinger stepped in and said, “Hold my Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.” Apparently he’s a huge Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan.
So Zeilinger did his test in 1998, but long before that, he had worked with entangled particles.  There’s actually a type of entanglement called the GHZ state.  The Z stands for Zeilinger.

His experiment addressed one of the objections to Aspect’s test, which was that his method of polarization was “predictable into the future.”  In other words, his randomization wasn’t random enough.(on screen: In collaboration with Gregor Weihs, Thomas Jennewein, Christoph Simon, and Harald Weinfurte) — dated 2008 on the PDF; I think this is a revision, as the submission date to arxiv is in 1998

So what they did was they used a “physical random number generator” that took the form of a light-emitting diode and a beam-splitter.
The light from the diode was nonpolarized, so the chance of its exiting the splitter in one of two directions was as random as anything science can get.

They also placed their measuring devices so far apart, they could  eliminate any chance of communication.
And, as you may have guessed, it worked. It closed the last loopholes and objections to the Bell test and to date anyway, no result has seriously challenged the completeness of statistical quantum mechanics.

In other words… the “non-realists” were right. Einstein and the realists were wrong. Quantum mechanics is super weird.

You Still Gotta Work

So, none of this is anything you haven’t already heard. We all know the quantum world is weird, hell, it’s a major plot point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This year’s Nobel Prize simply honors the physicists whose work proved this theory beyond a shadow of a doubt. And rightfully so.
But because of the language used in the announcement, there were all these headlines saying “the universe isn’t real” like they proved simulation theory or something, which… No.

Frankly, I take offense to this because it’s MY job to give people existential dread, buddy.
So no, this doesn’t change anything about the world you live in, you still have to go to work tomorrow. Sorry.

Quantum Computing

On the upside, the more we understand about quantum mechanics, the better our future quantum computers can be.
Anton Zeilinger in particular has built a career on using entanglement to push the boundaries of quantum computing.
Maybe someday there will be a Nobel Prize for quantum computing and the headlines will say, “God is found in cheese.” Somehow.

So listen, when it comes to quantum physics.. I’m a filmmaker.
There’s some details that I totally left out in this video because as I said before, I know my limits, but I’m putting links to everything in the description. Lots of links.
I just thought I’d talk about this because I did get a lot of requests about it. It took me a while to get this out so hopefully it maybe filled some gaps in what you’ve already seen. Because I know a lot of other people have covered it.

The Harpe Brothers: America’s First Serial Killers

In the chaos following the American Revolutionary War, a pair of bandits known as the Harpe Brothers went on a vicious killing spree across the frontier. They are now considered the first serial killers in America.


Now, the Mason gang could be ruthless, but even they were shocked by the Harpes’ actions. The gang asked them to leave after they got into a habit of taking travelers to the top of the bluff, stripping them naked, and then throwing them off.

Legend says that after his head was placed in the tree, a witch removed the skull, ground it into powder, and used it as a healing potion for a relative. When travelers retold the story, they swore they could hear laughter coming from the nearby bushes and trees.

Near Dixon, Kentucky is a junction in the road where US Highway 41 meets State Highway 56. It’s labeled on the map at Harpe’s Head Road State Historic Site.

It’s name hints at one of the most notorious crime sprees in US history, bred from the very war that created the country as we know it.

This is the story of the Harpe Brothers, America’s first serial killers.

Before we begin, I want to give a quick warning that we’re going to talk about some pretty nasty stuff in this video. In fact, it’ll be a miracle if this video doesn’t get demonetized.

Don’t think just because we’re talking about historical events that it’s somehow tamer or more sanitized because it was a “simpler time”. If anything, it’s the opposite.

This may be one of those episodes where you send the kids to the other room. Put a different video on for them – here, I’ll link to a video about smart animals. That’s cute.

They gone? Okay, let’s begin.

First let’s set the scene. It’s the late 1700s. The United States as we know it didn’t exist yet. Tensions between the colonies and the British empire were at an all-time high.

Protests broke out in multiples cities. In 1770, British troops fired on a group of protesters in Boston, killing three on the spot, with two more dying later from their wounds. This came to be known as the Boston Massacre.

Although like most things in history, the word “massacre” is an embellishment. The “peaceful protesters” were more like a drunken mob descending on 9 redcoats who panicked and fired into the crowd.

But still… tension.

Three years later, The Boston Tea Party happened when protestors dumped more than 300 chests of British tea into the harbor to protest the Tea Act.

Which led to the most caffeinated fish of all time.

All of this came to a head when fighting began in Lexington and Concord, setting off the American Revolutionary War in 1775.
But just like the Boston Massacre isn’t quite as one-sided as we were brought up to believe, not everyone in the colonies were on board with the revolution. There were a lot of people who were doing kinda good with the British and wanted to stay with them.

Like think about how divided we are today, they were just as divided but they were actually at war. Acts of violence broke out between neighbors on the the different sides all the time.

This was especially true on the frontier, which at the time was territories like Kentucky and Tennessee.

The idea of “the frontier” is almost more of an abstract concept these days, there’s nothing really like it today to compare it to.

The frontier wasn’t just unsettled, wild land, it was kind-of lawless; every man for himself, there was no authority to turn to if you got in trouble.

And there were plenty of ways to get in trouble. Roads were little more than well-worn Indian trails through overgrown forests where around every corner and behind every tree there could be a gang of bandits waiting to rob you. Or hostile natives ready to protect their land with violence.
And it’s in this violent, divided world that the Harpe Brothers emerged.

So, another thing about this time period is it was a time of myths and legends like Johnny Appleseed and Daniel Boone. Bigger than life heroes who tamed the wilderness and created a path for manifest destiny.

But where you have bigger than life heroes, you’ll also find bigger than life villains. And that was the Harpe Brothers.

So it’s a challenge to discern what is fact and legend with their story. These are events that took place over 200 years ago involving some seriously shady dudes.

The story is that they grew up in a family of loyalists who sided with the Crown, and things escalated to the point that one day a mob of revolutionaries attacked their family and lynched their parents.

The Harpe brothers fled into the wilderness where they were taken in by an Indian tribe. The tribe taught them how to survive in the bush and even more importantly, how to fight and kill like warriors.

And after that, they spent the rest of their lives using those skills to take revenge against the entire human race, murdering anybody they came across and displaying cruelty beyond all human comprehension. That’s the story.

There are a few problems with this story, for one thing the Harpe Brothers weren’t brothers at all. They were actually cousins.

Both of their fathers were Scottish immigrants who settled in North Carolina and they grew up together.

Their names were Micajah and Wiley, but they took on the nicknames “Big” and “Little” Harpe. Because, you know, one was bigger than the other.

Not the most creative nicknames I’ve ever heard but they got the job done.

Micajah “Big” Harpe was slightly older and, obviously, bigger. Contemporary accounts described him as the more impulsive and violent of the two and he often used his size to get his way.

Wiley “Little” Harpe was the brains of the duo, much more strategic and conniving, but just as ruthless.

As for the rest of their origin story, it’s not known for sure whether their parents were really murdered by revolutionaries, but as Loyalists they definitely had targets on their backs. And this tension and ostracism definitely would have shaped their attitudes toward the world as they grew up.

And the bit about being taken in by Indian tribes, again, it’s hard to say if that really happened to them but white settlers intermingled with Indian tribes all the time, especially on the frontier.
In fact, I was just reading a book where they were talking about how some of the earliest settlers actually abandoned their European communities to join the Indians because they preferred their way of life.

Especially in the Northeast, the Haudenosaunee tribes, the Five Nations were far more egalitarian and democratic than the Europeans that were obsessed with social classes.

In fact, the argument has been made that those values rubbed off on the colonists and set them on a course for independence and democracy. Like I mentioned the Boston Tea Party earlier, they dressed as Mohawk Indians when they did that as a symbol of the type of democracy that they wanted.
But, as I mentioned, some were loyal to the British, and that’s the side that the Harpe Brothers were part of.

And as the Revolutionary War took hold, they joined a Tory gang in North Carolina that waged guerrilla warfare against patriot colonists.

That’s one way of putting it, the other way is the war gave them a good excuse to assault, steal, and murder people.

They did actually join the British in a couple of battles including the Battle of Blackstock in 1780 and Cowpens in 1781.

And then the Americans defeated the British at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 and the war ended, meaning those colonial patriots they had been terrorizing and fighting against were now in charge.

So they got the hell out of North Carolina and went west into Tennessee, which was just a territory at the time, mostly Indian country.

By the way, that’s another thing that the story of the Harpe Brothers teaches us, you know, the way we learn about history is that the United States won the war, and everything was good, all was right with the world.

But the truth is a lot messier than that, like I said before there were major fractures over the Revolutionary War and those fractures didn’t just disappear once the war was over. In fact the violence of the war years only intensified hostilities and reprisals.

So yeah, they moved to Tennessee where they were out of the jurisdiction of state authorities.

And they took with them a trio of women, named Maria Davidson, Susan Wood, and Sarah Rice. Again, details are fuzzy here but some say they were wives and accomplices of the Harpe brothers, others say they were kidnapped.

There is a record of Wiley Harpe marrying Sarah Rice, but apparently they kinda “shared” the women.

So either a polyamorous Bonnie and Clyde situation, or two monsters with a harem of kidnapped victims.

Either way, they hid out in the Cherokee-Chickamauga village of Nickajack, near modern-day Chattanooga, for 12-13 years.

They ran a pig farm and earned a reputation as men you did not mess with because they would not hesitate to murder you.

I mean, the frontier was chock full of rogues and bandits hiding from authorities and preying on travelers and new settlers, but even amongst the bad guys, the Harpe Brothers stood out.

In fact, they weren’t alone, they had a band of other outlaws with them, one of whom was a guy named Moses Doss.

And maybe this gives some kind of clue to their relationship with the women, but at some point Moses became concerned for them. Perhaps he expressed his concern to the brothers, or maybe he threatened to go to authorities, but either way, they uh… killed him.

This is going to be a recurring theme.

By the spring of 1797, they were living in a cabin on Beaver’s Creek near Knoxville, Tennessee. And this is when something changed. And the Harpe Brothers went on the move.

One story is that people started noticing that their pig farm had run out of pigs but they still seemed to come to market to sell pigs all the time. And also a lot of other people’s pigs were going missing. So, they did the math.

And they’d probably been stealing pigs for a long time but in 1796, Tennessee became a state, meaning there was now some kind of law and order in the area. So it was time to hit the road.

And it started with a man named Johnson whom they met at a bar, or “rowdy groggery”.

The story goes that they met the man and noticed he had a bit of a full coinpurse. And they convinced him to travel with them.

This wasn’t unusual back then, like I said, the roads were dangerous, so people tended to travel in groups. The Harpes convinced him that they could keep him safe. Instead, they killed him and took his money.

A passerby found his body floating in the Holston River a few days later. It was ripped open and filled with stones, which kinda became a trademark of the Harpe Brothers, they would fill the body with stones and dump it in a river to make it sink to the bottom.

Which is kinda horrifying because even with all the killings that we know they committed, there are probably tons more we don’t know about because the bodies were never found.

The Harpes then moved east toward the Cumberland Gap to meet up with their wives.

They killed twice more while on the Wilderness Road. The first time was a pair of travelers named Paca and Bates.

The second time was a young man named Langford. But like their other victims, they didn’t dispose of the body very well.

Langford’s body was found and a nearby innkeeper recognized it, figuring out the Harpes committed the crime.

With their rate of violence escalating, a posse formed and chased the Harpes, who were caught on Christmas day in 1799. They were imprisoned in Stanford, Kentucky.

Enough evidence was found for a trial in the district court in Danville, Kentucky. But just before the trial date in March, the Harpes escaped.

In April, the Kentucky governor placed a $300 reward on each of their heads. That’s about $7000 in today’s money.

Now one might think that they would consider that too close for comfort and lay low for a while. They didn’t. They kept on killing people.
They headed west where they killed two more men on the trail, then near the mouth of Saline Creek, they came across three men who were camping and joined them for some s’mores.

I’m kidding, they killed them.

They eventually found themselves at an area called Cave-In-Rock in southern Illinois, which was a stronghold of the river pirate Samuel Mason.

The Mason gang used the cave as a hideout and from there would attack supply boats heading up the Ohio river. And this seemed like as good a place as any for the Harpes to settle down for a while with their wives and three children. Oh yeah, they had some kids at this point.

And this was a good fit for a while. But eventually the Harpes found a way to cause trouble.

Keep in mind, the Mason gang was one of the most ruthless bands of pirates around, but even they saw the Harpes’ brutality and were like, dude, chill.

Because the Harpes got a kick out of taking travelers to the top of the bluff, stripping them naked, and then throwing them off the cliff. Like you do.

So yeah, the Mason gang kicked them out. And this really speaks to what made the Harpes stand out. There were tons of thieves who would kill to protect themselves or serve their own interests, but the Harpes… they killed for sport. They got off on it.

Once they were dismissed from the Mason gang, they headed back into eastern Tennessee and continued their killing spree.
In July 1798, they killed a farmer named Bradbury, a man named Hardin, and a boy named Coffey.

More bodies were soon discovered:

  • William Ballard – disemboweled and thrown into the Holston River
  • James Brassel – his throat slashed and found on Brassel’s Knob
  • John Graves and his teenage son – their heads axed in south-central Kentucky

And in Logan County, Kentucky, they killed a little girl, a young slave, and an entire family who were sleeping at a campsite.

They also killed and disemboweled a man named Trowbridge in August.

With the violence escalating and a bounty on their heads, they found themselves being chased by various posses. In one close call, with a posse bearing down on them, Big Harpe’s infant daughter was crying and threatened to give them away. So he bashed her head against a tree.

Later he would confess genuine remorse for this. It’s the only murder he claimed to feel bad about.

But it was in the summer of 1799 when it all finally caught up to the Harpe Brothers.

They came upon the home of Moses Stegall in Webster County, Kentucky, and purchased a room for the night.

While there, they killed an overnight guest named Major William Love.

They then entered the kitchen and demanded Mrs. Stegall make them some food. She obliged, but when her four-month old boy started crying… well, we know how Big Harpe dealt with crying babies.

And when Mrs. Stegall screamed at the sight of Big Harpe cutting her son’s throat, they killed her as well. Then burned the cabin down.
This event would be the Harpes’ undoing. When Moses Stegall came home and saw what happened, he quickly formed a posse.
Vigilante justice was about to take hold.

By the time Stegall’s posse caught up with them, they had already murdered two more men named Hudgens and Gilmore.
As the posse closed in around their camp, Little escaped, but Big was chased down. They managed to shoot him once in the leg and once in the back.

And the legend has it that as he lay there bleeding out, he confessed his killings to the men who stood over him, waiting for him to die.

That’s when Moses Stegall took Big’s own butcher knife… and cut off his head.
According to the story, he did it while Big was still alive, and he did it as slowly as possible to extend the agony. Micajah’s last words were, “You’re a Goddamned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.”

Once it was over, Moses took Big’s head and impaled it on the limb of a tree near the intersection of a local road to serve as a warning for other would-be bandits.

That spot is the infamous Harpe’s Head Road that I mentioned at the beginning of this video.
But Little got away. He headed west again with the women and returned to the Mason Gang at Cave-In-Rock under the alias of John Setton.

He managed to stay alive for 4 years before his insatiable greed got the best of it.

Turns out, Mason had a $2,000 bounty on his head. That’s equivalent to almost $50,000 today.

So, Little and another pirate turned on Mason and decapitated him.

They took the head in for the reward money. As he began to leave with the money, a victim from an earlier riverboat attack recognized him.

Authorities immediately arrested him, but he escaped…. again. Maybe his nickname should’ve been Willy and not Little.

A posse caught up with him and he was finally brought to justice. Tried, sentenced, and hung.

And just to make sure he was dead, they cut off his head and placed it on a spike along the Natchez Trace as a warning to other outlaws.
This was February of 1804, and their bloody spree of violence finally came to an end.

The three women were arrested and tried, but the community took pity on them. Again, there’s still debate around whether they were willing accomplices or kidnap victims, but in this case they were seen as victims. Or they were able to convince people they were anyway.

Perhaps a piece of evidence that swayed the jury was the fact that – that whole thing where Micajah murdered his own child? Apparently that happened several times.

There were three children – between the five of them – that survived. But apparently they had several more children. All of which were dispatched in the interest of expediency.

It’s hard to imagine a mother willingly staying with someone who does that to their children, or actively participating in it. But of course… there are female psychopaths too.

Regardless, the three of them went on to marry, raise families, and live in peace.
In the end, the Harpes claim to have killed 39 people. But that number may be closer to 50 or higher. Like I said before, the way they disposed of bodies means there could be a lot that went uncounted.

The Harpe name became synonymous with violence, lawlessness, and unspeakable evil. And many family members changed their last names to hide the fact that they were related to them.

Some just dropped the “e,” while others changed their names significantly. In fact, the rumor is that Wyatt Earp was a descendant of the Harpe Brothers.

But in a way… and bear with me because this could get pretentious for a second… Aren’t we all descendants of the Harpe Brothers?

The United States, for all it’s positives, has always had a dark underbelly to it.

Those tensions that were created in the fire of the revolution, the tensions that created the Harpes… they’re still around. They don’t take the same form they used to, they’ve evolved over time. But they’re still there – woven into the fabric our history.

We celebrate great heroes from the revolution but forget that revolution is messy and created fractures that led to unspeakable violence.

There are similar fractures in society today. Fractures that manifest in evil and violent acts with relentless, overwhelming regularity.

Am I working too hard on this? I’m just saying that there are lessons to be learned from the Harpe brothers. This isn’t just a salacious story about a couple of serial killers, they were serial killers formed by the very birth of this nation. Every rose has its thorn.

This Company Wants To Build Offices In Space

Orbital Reef is a collaboration between Blue Origin, Sierra Space, Boeing and several other companies and organizations, and their plan is to build a private space station featuring zero-gravity work space for others to lease, just like an office building. Featuring modules for science research, manufacturing, and media production. But how likely is it to succeed?


Since the birth of science fiction, filmmakers have had to get creative with their depictions of weightlessness in space travel.
From the early days of Destination Moon in the 1950s up through Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, wires were the method of choice.
Today wires can be digitally removed but in the old days great pains were made to make the wires disappear into the background. Such as painting the wires the same color as the void behind it or lighting specifically to avoid the wires.
Kubrick came up with the idea of hanging the actors on a wire and shooting from below, using the actors’ bodies to hide the wires.
Kubrick of course also came up with the famous rotating set to simulate artificial gravity.
And Star Wars used the ingenious method of… just ignoring it.
But nothing sells zero gravity like the real thing, which is why Ron Howard famously shot scenes for Apollo 13 on the NASA KC-135, affectionately known as the “Vomit Comet” which flies in steep parabolas to create a weightless experience for roughly 30 seconds at a time. This created some groundbreaking footage that edited seamlessly with the rest of the scenes shot on soundstages.
But even that pales in comparison to the Russian film Vyzov (The Challenge), in which a doctor has to fly to the International Space Station to perform surgery on a cosmonaut in space. And they did this… by actually flying up to the ISS
In October of 2021, Director Klim Shipenko and actor Yulia Peresild spent 12 days on the ISS shooting scenes for the film, which should take up about 35 minutes of the film’s run time. Keep an eye out for that to come out in March of this year.
At the same time, you’ve probably heard that NASA will be flying Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman to the ISS to shoot scenes on an unnamed $200 million film, where it’s expected he’ll actually do a space walk. Because, you know… Tom Cruise.
All of this is interesting, maybe even exciting but the fact is, pretty soon shooting films in space might become commonplace. Because there’s a company that’s developing a permanent entertainment studio in space. And a hell of a lot more.
The company is called Orbital Reef, and if you haven’t heard of it, it involves Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Space, and several other companies and institutions.

Their goal is to become one of the first in a new generation of commercial space stations after the ISS shuts down around 2030.

They were awarded $130 million back in December 2021 through NASA’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development program. And in August 2022, they passed a critical system definition review with NASA.
This basically affirmed that its planned architecture was sound and the project could proceed further in the design phase.

So yeah, with Artemis kicking into gear and the ISS on its way out, NASA’s basically handing Low-Earth Orbit over to the private sector while it focuses on deep space. So there’s actually several private space stations in the works, I’ll get to some of those later in this video but first let’s talk about Orbital Reef.

According to its website, Orbital Reef will orbit at about 402 kilometers (250 miles) above Earth. And the general idea is for it to be an orbital business park.

So just like today a company might rent office or warehouse space, with Orbital Reef, you could lease access to pre-formulated spaces… in space.

Modules where companies can do microgravity research, technology development, manufacturing products, as well as space tourism and, yes, media and film production.

Hence the company’s slogan: Your address in orbit.
From space flight to seeing the Earth from outer space to floating free and weightless, the company will offer flight plans, training, and activities for short or long visits.

As CEO of Sierra Space Tom Vice said,

“We are on the doorstep of the most profound industrial revolution in human history. An industrial revolution marked by the transition from the last 60 years of space exploration to a future where humanity extends our factories and cities into space. It isn’t solely about tourism – it is about unlocking the next great discoveries using the microgravity factories that we will build just 250 miles above the Earth’s surface.”

Sierra Space claims that these microgravity factories and services could revolutionize every industry and be a major growth contributor to the U.S. and world economies.

And this isn’t really hyperbole, there’s a lot of things we’ve discovered over the years that can be manufactured much better in microgravity, like biological tissue for example.

We all love the idea of being able to 3D print organs for people who need transplants, well a big hurdle to overcome is that if you start laying down cells in regular Earth gravity, they just kinda pool together and can’t take the form they need to take. This actually works much, much better in microgravity.

So someday you might be able to get a new liver 3D printed using your own stem cells in space. And that’s just one example, there are dozens of other applications.

So, another company that’s part of Orbital Reef is everybody’s favorite space punching bag, Blue Origin. And look, I’ve been spicy about Blue Origin in the past, but I’ll be nice today, I promise.

Space is hard…

But Blue Origin has a big role to play here because if you’re going to build a business park in space, you need a heavy lift vehicle to put all that payload up there, and exactly what the New Glenn is designed to do.

And it does tie in to Blue Origin’s overall mission of moving industry off Earth and into space.

The question becomes how close are we to seeing the New Glenn get off the ground? (struggle – regroup) It has been delayed. It was originally scheduled for launch in 2020, that got pushed to early 2021, then late 2022, and now… Yeah, it’s delayed.

Blue Origin is a lot more secretive than say SpaceX, so we really don’t know how far along they are – we’ve seen pathfinder prototypes, we’ve seen a drone ship to land in the ocean that has now been scrapped…
The most recent thing we’ve seen is them testing the fairings in the water at Kennedy Space Center in December 2022.

They may be testing to see if they can recover and reuse the fairings, like SpaceX does with the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

New Glenn’s payload fairings are made from a pricey carbon composite, and it is designed to be as reusable as possible so it’s not out of the question that they’d want to reuse them.

But it seems like the main holdup with New Glenn is the development of their BE-4 engines, which the first stage will have 7 of them.

The BE-4 is a massive and powerful engine that will run on methane and oxygen just like the SpaceX Raptor engine, and they’re designed to be reusable.

But they’ve run into multiple issues with the engine development, in testing it wasn’t burning as long as it should, there were issues with the turbopump, some high-level team leads left the company, it’s been a clusterf–

There have been issues.

The hope is that the engines will be ready to get New Glenn off the ground some time this year but as of this recording, the BE-4s are still not flight-qualified.

In the meantime, Blue Origin has continued launching New Shepherd missions using their smaller BE-3 engine, except they’ve actually put a hold on those for a while because of… well… engine issues.

Space is hard.

Anyway, the other major partner in Orbital Reef is Sierra Space, who do have some exciting things happening.

Sierra Space is the company behind the Dream Chaser space plane, which I did a video on space planes a while back, linkie-poo around here somewhere but the long and short of it is it’s kind-of a miniature Space Shuttle.

And I am a fan.

Its first vehicle named Tenacity is set to start running a series of NASA missions to the International Space Station in 2023.
In August, Sierra Space announced that the Dream Chaser would be used for a 2024 cargo mission to transport several life science experiments to the space station for Yuri, a German space biotech company.

Sierra Space will send at least six cargo missions to the space station using Dream Chaser. These are all uncrewed missions but the plan is to eventually launch crew up to the ISS and of course, Orbital Reef.

It was actually in the running for the Commercial Crew contract that went to the Crew Dragon and Starliner but it did get picked for cargo missions.

The ship will lift off from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and it’ll be able to land on conventional runways.
One argument for the Dream Chaser that I found interesting was that if a crew member on the ISS became severely injured or ill, coming back in a vehicle that can land on a runway anywhere in the world would make it a lot easier to get them to a hospital on the ground than, say, landing in the ocean and everything that goes along with that.

But yeah, the hope is to see Tenacity make its first flights this year, but it’s being delayed because they’re going to launch on the new Vulcan Centaur rocket from ULA, and that’s been delayed, also because of engine issues.
Yeah, they’re using a new engine that’s still in development, it’s called the… BE-4 engine.  It’s Blue Origin that’s holding it up.  Excuse me…
Okay, to be fair, Blue Origin did just deliver the first 2 BE-4 engines to ULA a few months back in October so maybe we’ll see something happen in 2023. (a beat) Is it mean to point out that the original deadline was 2017? And I guess COVID didn’t help.

Space is hard, space is hard, space is hard…

There are some other partners working on Orbital Reef, and they include Arizona State University, Boeing, Genesis Engineering, and Redwire Space.

  • Arizona State University is leading the University Advisory Group, a global consortium of universities for research advisory services and public outreach.
  • Boeing is leading the development of Orbital Reef’s operations and maintenance and science module, and Starliner crew capsule.
  • Genesis Engineering Solutions is developing the Single Person Spacecraft for routine operations and tourist excursions.
  • Redwire Space is leading microgravity research payload development and operations, large deployable structures, and the Orbital Reef digital twin.

The long and short of it is Orbital Reef is working on an “if you build it, they will come” model. They’re building the facilities and leasing them out to anybody who can use it, basically giving people a microgravity platform for whatever use case they may have.

Other companies are taking different approaches.

Remember that $130 million grant that NASA awarded Orbital Reef? Well, NASA also awarded two other companies developing space stations.

They awarded $160 million to Houston-based Nanoracks for its Starlab project.

Nanoracks previously worked with NASA to build the Bishop Airlock which is currently on the ISS, but Starlab would be an all-in-one, continuously crewed, commercial space station for research and commercial industrial work.
Nanoracks plans to launch Starlab in 2027 on a single flight, in collaboration with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin.

This station is designed for four astronauts. It’ll have power, volume, and payload capability equal to the ISS.

Starlab will also include the George Washington Carver Science Park, which has four operational departments:

  • A biology lab
  • A plant habitation lab
  • A physical science and materials research lab
  • An open workbench area for researchers and commercial customers

The hotel company Hilton is also collaborating on Starlab by helping make crew suites less utilitarian and more like extended stay accommodations.

This isn’t the first time Hilton has worked with Nanoracks. In 2020, DoubleTree hotel brand cookies were baked in special ovens on the ISS, marking what Hilton said were the first cookies baked in space.
Another group that received a NASA grant was Northrop Grumman, who received $125.6 million for a project described as a design that

“… leverages flight-proven elements, such as the Cygnus spacecraft that provides cargo delivery to the International Space Station, to provide a base module for extended capabilities including science, tourism, industrial experimentation, and the building of infrastructure beyond initial design.”

There will be multiple docking ports allowing for future expansion to support crew habitats, labs, airlocks, and artificial gravity facilities to support various customers.

Northrop’s space station will support four permanent crew members at the beginning, expanding to an eight-person crew over time, with an operating lifetime of about 15 years.

And then of course there’s Axiom space, they’re working on a private space station that will build on top of the ISS and then detach itself and become its own thing.

But before they get to that point, they’re the ones who are going to build the set for that Tom Cruise movie I was talking about at the beginning.

They’re doing it in partnership with a British company called Space Entertainment Enterprise (SEE) said in January 2022 that it’s building an inflatable module called the SEE-1 specifically for film and video production.

It’ll be six meters across when fully expanded and have facilities for film, music, and sporting events.

Which sounds to me like someone’s gonna have to come up with a zero gravity sport. Pickleball eat your heart out.

As president and chief executive of Axiom Space Michael Suffredini said,

“Adding a dedicated entertainment venue to Axiom Station’s commercial capabilities in the form of SEE-1 will expand the station’s utility as a platform for a global user base and highlight the range of opportunities the new space economy offers.”

Which is a very corporate way of saying they want to shoot the first Hollywood movie in space.
Not to be outdone, Orbital Reef announced this last September at the International Astronautical Congress that they have signed a deal with Centerboro Productions to portray the space station in a film titled HELIOS.

The film will be set in 2030 and tells the story of the spaceship HELIOS and its crew on an urgent mission to the ISS.

A solar flare hits the station, and its up to an astronomer and Air Force general to team up and save humanity.

Orbital Reef will be featured as a critical resource by the HELIOS crew.

Principle photography for the film is planned to begin in 2023. Assuming it doesn’t get delayed by Blue Origin somehow.
I tried.

One final thought, for me personally, the real value is spaceflight is is serves as a cauldron for innovation that filters down to the rest of us here on the ground. Because in case I didn’t mention it… Space is hard.

So much of what we take for granted in our daily lives are only possible because of some innovation that was developed in space.

So I’m hopeful in the coming decade with multiple stations providing research and manufacturing to dozens of companies, we could see a flood of spinoff technologies on a level that we’ve never seen before.


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