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  • feedwordpress 09:01:26 on 2018/12/14 Permalink
    Tags: black-body, , , , Max Planck, personification, , , Science,   

    “Humanize your talk, and speak to be understood”*… 

     

    violet_personified

    Personification is weird…yet entirely natural. It’s the odd practice of pretending things are people. When we personify, we apply human attributes to inanimate objects, to nature, to animals, or to abstract concepts, sometimes complete with dramatic stories about their social roles, emotions and intentions. We can observe this linguistically through features like unexpected pronoun use or certain animate verbs and adjectives that are usually only applied to people. A common example is how ships and other vessels traditionally have a feminine gender in English (even if the ship happens to be a “man-of-war“)… There’s a strange empathy in words like “she is alone” applied to an object that can’t possibly have a sense of loneliness. This isn’t the artifice of poetry, but everyday language. On the face of it, the concept of personification seems pretty crazy, the stuff of fantasy and magical thinking…

    You might think, like many a respectable scientist, that it has no place in our earth logic, because not only is it not real, it is objectively false (and therefore unscientific), since inanimate objects do not have feelings or intentions (and if animals do, we can’t possibly know for sure). Yet personification is not only wildly popular in language use (even if we don’t always notice it), it’s a fascinating psychological phenomenon that reveals a lot about social cognition and how we might understand the world…

    How the way we talk about the things around us both shapes and reflects our understanding of the world: “Personification Is Your Friend: The Language of Inanimate Objects.”

    * Moliere

    ###

    As we muse on anthropomorphic metaphor and meaning, we might recall that today’s a relative-ly good day for it, as it was on this date in 1900 that German physicist Max Planck presented and published his study of the effect of radiation on a “black-body” substance (introducing what we’ve come to know as the Planck Postulate), and the quantum theory of modern physics– and for that matter, Twentieth Century modernity– were born.

    Planck study demonstrated that in certain situations energy exhibits the characteristics of physical matter– something unthinkable at the time– and suggested that energy exists in discrete packets, which he called “quanta”… thus laying the foundation on which he, Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, Dirac, and others built our modern understanding.

    220px-Max_Planck_1933Max Planck

     

     
  • feedwordpress 09:01:09 on 2018/12/12 Permalink
    Tags: , cooperation, , , , , Luner Society, , Science, ,   

    “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation”*… 

     

    harvest

    You take a flight from New York to London. Thousands and perhaps millions of people — including ticket agents, baggage handlers, security personnel, air traffic controllers, pilots, and flight attendants, but behind the scenes also airline administrators, meteorologists, engineers, aircraft designers, and many others — cooperated to get you there safely. No one stole your luggage, no one ate your in-flight food, and no one tried to sit in your seat. In fact, the hundreds of people on the airplane, despite being mainly strangers, behaved in an entirely civilized and respectful manner throughout.

    For most of us in the industrialized world, every aspect of our lives is utterly reliant on thousands of such cooperative interactions with millions of individuals from hundreds of countries, the vast majority of whom we never see, don’t know, and indeed never knew existed. Just how exceptional in nature such intricate coordination is — with many unrelated individuals performing many different roles — remains hard to appreciate. Notwithstanding the familiar examples of ants, bees, and other species known for coordinating their behavior, largely with relatives, nothing remotely as complex as human cooperation is found in any of the other millions of species on the planet. And although modern marvels like air travel are very striking examples of large-scale cooperation, human societies have engaged in impressive feats of organized cooperation for many thousands of years. Carving terraces out of mountains, planting and harvesting crops, building granaries, and managing city-states all involved extraordinary levels of cooperation among community members. Hunter-gatherers also coordinated their actions in cooperative endeavors such as group hunting and foraging, as well as through sharing food, labor, and childcare, and when hostility or disputes with other societies arose. How is it that humans came to be the most cooperative species on earth? And how can understanding our evolutionary history help to explain human cultural, cooperative achievements, whether technological or artistic, linguistic or moral?…

    Find out at “On the Origin of Cooperation.”

    * Bertrand Russell

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    As we share and share alike, we might send foresightful birthday greetings to Erasmus Darwin; he was born on this date in 1731.  Erasmus was an accomplished doctor (he declined an offer to be personal physician to Charles III).  He was also a restless inventor, devising both a copying machine and a speaking machine to impress his friends (inventions he shared rather than patenting).  But he is better remembered as a key thinker in the “Midlands Enlightenment”– a founder of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and author of (among other works) The Botanic Garden, a poem that anticipates the Big Bang theory in its description of an explosion, a “mass” which “starts into a million suns,” and Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, which contained one of the first formal theories of evolution… one that foreshadowed the theories of Erasmus’ reader– and grandson– Charles.

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  • feedwordpress 09:01:04 on 2018/12/10 Permalink
    Tags: , Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, decision-making, Doomsday Clock, , , , Science, , ,   

    “Fortune sides with him who dares”*… 

     

    Screen Shot 2018-12-06 at 10.16.00 AM

     

    … or not:

    Does hot weather actually make us hot-headed? Does a warming planet induce us to take more risks? According to new research, there is indeed a correlation: When it comes to rational decision-making, changes in climate shape how individuals think about loss and risk—even if it takes centuries for that evolution to occur…

    New research finds that people living in climatically turbulent regions tend to make riskier decisions than those in relatively more stable environments.  The full story at “How volatile climate shapes the way people think.”

    * Virgil

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    As we feel the heat, we might recall that it was on this date in 1945 that Volume 1, Number 1 of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was published.  Concerned with scientific and global security issues resulting from accelerating technological advances that might have negative consequences for humanity, the group created “The Doomsday Clock” which has featured on its cover since its introduction in 1947, reflecting “basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age.”

    The current “setting” is 2 minutes to midnight, reflecting the failure of world leaders to deal with looming threats of nuclear war and climate change. This is the clock’s closest approach to midnight, matching that of 1953,

    Bulletin_Atomic_Scientists_Cover

    The cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has featured the famous Doomsday Clock since it debuted in 1947, when it was set at seven minutes to midnight.

    source

    Happy Birthday, Ada Lovelace!

     

     
  • feedwordpress 09:01:16 on 2018/12/03 Permalink
    Tags: Anna Freud, , child psychology, clinical trials, , , mermerism, Mesmer, , Science,   

    “MESMERISM, n. Hypnotism before it wore good clothes, kept a carriage and asked Incredulity to dinner”*… 

     

    mesmer

    Detail from a colored etching after C-L. Desrais depicting people gathered around the “baquet” at one of Franz Mesmer’s group animal magnetism sessions — Source.

     

    Patients, mostly women, are sitting around a large wooden tub filled with magnetic water, powdered glass, and iron filings. From its lid emerge a number of bent iron rods against which the patients expectantly press their afflicted areas. A rope attached to the tub is loosely coiled about them, and they are holding hands to create a “circuit”. Through the low-lit room — adorned with mirrors to reflect invisible forces — there wafts incense and strange music, the other-worldly sounds of the glass harmonica (invented by a certain Benjamin Franklin). Meanwhile, a charming man in an elaborate lilac silk coat is circulating, touching various parts of the patients’ bodies where the magnetic fluid may be hindered or somehow stuck. It appears that these blockages, in the ladies in particular, are generally in the lower abdomen, thighs, and sometimes “the ovaria”. The typical session would last for hours and culminate in a curative “crisis” of nervous hiccups, hysterical sobs, cries, coughs, spitting, fainting, and convulsing, thus restoring the normal harmonious flow of the fluid.

    The man in the lilac coat is Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer and this scene could be describing any number of animal magnetism sessions he held in late eighteenth-century Paris. While Mesmer’s antics are perhaps familiar to many today, lesser known is the key role they played in the development of the modern clinical trial — particularly in connection with the 1784 Franklin commission, “charged by the King of France, with the examination of the animal magnetism, as now practiced at Paris”…

    Benjamin Franklin, magnetic trees, and erotically-charged séances — Urte Laukaityte on how a craze for sessions of “animal magnetism” in late 18th-century Paris led to the randomized placebo-controlled and double-blind clinical trials we know and love today: “Mesmerising Science: The Franklin Commission and the Modern Clinical Trial.

    * Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

    ###

    As we ponder proof, we might send thoroughly-analyzed birthday greetings to Anna Freud; she was born on this date in 1895.  The sixth child of Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays (the aunt of Edward Bernays, the “father” of modern propaganda and public relations), she continued her father’s work, with special interest in the young.  Indeed, with  Melanie Klein, she is considered a founder of psychoanalytic child psychology.

    220px-Anna_Freud_1957 source

     

     
  • feedwordpress 09:01:37 on 2018/12/02 Permalink
    Tags: , , Enrico Fermi, , , , , quantum computing, , Science,   

    “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”*… 

     

    quantum computing

    Quantum computing is all the rage. It seems like hardly a day goes by without some news outlet describing the extraordinary things this technology promises. Most commentators forget, or just gloss over, the fact that people have been working on quantum computing for decades—and without any practical results to show for it.

    We’ve been told that quantum computers could “provide breakthroughs in many disciplines, including materials and drug discovery, the optimization of complex manmade systems, and artificial intelligence.” We’ve been assured that quantum computers will “forever alter our economic, industrial, academic, and societal landscape.” We’ve even been told that “the encryption that protects the world’s most sensitive data may soon be broken” by quantum computers. It has gotten to the point where many researchers in various fields of physics feel obliged to justify whatever work they are doing by claiming that it has some relevance to quantum computing.

    Meanwhile, government research agencies, academic departments (many of them funded by government agencies), and corporate laboratories are spending billions of dollars a year developing quantum computers. On Wall Street, Morgan Stanley and other financial giants expect quantum computing to mature soon and are keen to figure out how this technology can help them.

    It’s become something of a self-perpetuating arms race, with many organizations seemingly staying in the race if only to avoid being left behind. Some of the world’s top technical talent, at places like Google, IBM, and Microsoft, are working hard, and with lavish resources in state-of-the-art laboratories, to realize their vision of a quantum-computing future.

    In light of all this, it’s natural to wonder: When will useful quantum computers be constructed? The most optimistic experts estimate it will take 5 to 10 years. More cautious ones predict 20 to 30 years. (Similar predictions have been voiced, by the way, for the last 20 years.) I belong to a tiny minority that answers, “Not in the foreseeable future.” Having spent decades conducting research in quantum and condensed-matter physics, I’ve developed my very pessimistic view. It’s based on an understanding of the gargantuan technical challenges that would have to be overcome to ever make quantum computing work…

    Michel Dyakonov makes “The Case Against Quantum Computing.”

    * Albert Einstein

    ###

    As we feel the need for speed, we might recall that it was on this date in 1942 that a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi, working inside an enormous tent on a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, achieved the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction… laying the foundation for the atomic bomb and later, nuclear power generation.

    “…the Italian Navigator has just landed in the New World…”
    – Coded telephone message confirming first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, December 2, 1942.

    Illustration depicting the scene on Dec. 2, 1942 (Photo copyright of Chicago Historical Society)

    source

    Indeed, exactly 15 years later, on this date in 1957, the world’s first full-scale atomic electric power plant devoted exclusively to peacetime uses, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, reached criticality; the first power was produced 16 days later, after engineers integrated the generator into the distribution grid of Duquesne Light Company.

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  • feedwordpress 09:01:06 on 2018/11/28 Permalink
    Tags: , , Dukinfield Henry Scott, fossil, paleobotany, , Science, seed library, ,   

    “Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth”*… 

     

    veg-seeds

    For centuries, people in agrarian societies shared seeds to help each other subsist from year to year. Today, thanks to intellectual property rights and often well-intentioned laws, our ability to share seeds is restricted. Realizing this, food activists, garden enthusiasts, and community leaders are trying to make it easier by making seeds available through libraries. Surely there’s nothing controversial about that, right? Actually, there is…

    The fascinating history and controversial– but critical– future of seed collection and sharing: “Despite Hurdles, the Seed Library Movement Is Growing.”

    * Genesis 1:29 (King James Version)

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    As we reap what we sow, we might send flowery birthday greetings to Dukinfield Henry Scott; he was born on this date in 1854.  A leading authority in his time on the structure of fossil plants, and the author of the classic Studies in Fossil Botany, which greatly popularized the subject, he laid the foundations of paleobotany.

    200px-Dukinfield_Henry_Scott_1854-1934

    source

     

     
  • feedwordpress 09:01:20 on 2018/11/19 Permalink
    Tags: 536, Dark Ages, , Fujita Scale, , , Plague of Justinian, Science, Ted Fujita, ,   

    “It takes just one big natural disaster to… remind us that, here on Earth, we’re still at the mercy of nature”*… 

     

    ca_1116NID_Dome_Tent_online_CC_cropped

    An 72-meter ice core drilled in the Colle Gnifetti Glacier in the Swiss Alps entombs more than 2000 years of fallout from volcanoes, storms, and human pollution. NICOLE SPAULDING/CCI FROM C. P. LOVELUCK ET AL., ANTIQUITY 10.15184, 4, 2018

     

    Ask medieval historian Michael McCormick what year was the worst to be alive, and he’s got an answer: “536.” Not 1349, when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. Not 1918, when the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people, mostly young adults. But 536. In Europe, “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” says McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past.

    A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,” wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.” Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.

    Historians have long known that the middle of the sixth century was a dark hour in what used to be called the Dark Ages, but the source of the mysterious clouds has long been a puzzle. Now, an ultraprecise analysis of ice from a Swiss glacier by a team led by McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono has fingered a culprit…

    536 chart

    Learn what it was that challenged civilizations: “Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’.”

    * Neil deGrasse Tyson

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    As we ruminate on resilience, we might spare a thought for Tetsuya Theodore “Ted” Fujita; he died on this date in 1998.  A meteorologist, he became known as “Mr. Tornado” for his work in understanding those severe storms and his development of (what’s now known as)  the Fujita scale to measure tornado intensity.

    Thetsuya_Theodore_Fijuta source

     

     

     
  • feedwordpress 09:01:06 on 2018/11/18 Permalink
    Tags: August Kundt, , International Bureau of Weights and Measures, kilogram, , , , , Science, speed of sound,   

    “A measurement is not an absolute thing, but only relates one entity to another”*… 

     

    kilogram

     

    Until now, [the mass of the kilogram] has been defined by the granddaddy of all kilos: a golf ball-sized metal cylinder locked in a vault in France [a replica of which is pictured above]. For more than a century, it has been the one true kilogram upon which all others were based…

    Made of a corrosion-resistant alloy of 90 percent platinum and 10 percent iridium , the international prototype kilo has rarely seen the light of day. Yet its role has been crucial, as the foundation for the globally accepted system for measuring mass upon which things like international trade depend.

    Three different keys, kept in separate locations, are required to unlock the vault where the Grand K and six official copies — collectively known as ‘‘the heir and the spares’’ — are entombed together under glass bell-jars at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, in Sevres on the western outskirts of Paris.

    Founded by 17 nations in 1875 and known by its French initials, the BIPM is the guardian of the seven main units humanity uses to measure its world : the meter for length, the kilogram for mass, the second for time, the ampere for electric current, the kelvin for temperature, the mole for the amount of a substance and the candela for luminous intensity.

    Of the seven, the kilo is the last still based on a physical artifact, the Grand K. The meter, for example, used to be a meter-long metal bar but is now defined as the length that light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second…

    The metal kilo is being replaced by a definition based on Planck’s constant, which is part of one of the most celebrated equations in physics but also devilishly difficult to explain . Suffice to say that the update should, in time, spare nations the need to occasionally send their kilos back to Sevres for calibration against the Grand K. Scientists instead should be able to accurately calculate an exact kilo, without having to measure one precious lump of metal against another…

    More of this weighty story at “The kilogram is changing. Weight, what?

    * H.T. Pledge, Science since 1500

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    As we muse on measurement, we might send well-calibrated birthday greetings to August Kundt; he was born on this date in 1839.  An astronomer-turned-physicist, he developed a method to measure the velocity of sound in gases and solids using a closed glass tube (now known as a Kundt’s Tube).

    AugustKundt source

    We might also spare a thought for another physicist, Niels Bohr; he died on this date in 1962.  A Danish physicist and philosopher, Bohr was the first to apply quantum theory to the problem of atomic and molecular structure, creating the Bohr model of the atom, in which he proposed that energy levels of electrons are discrete, and that the electrons revolve in stable orbits around the atomic nucleus but can jump from one energy level (or orbit) to another– a model the underlying principles of which remain valid.  And he developed the principle of complementarity: that items could be separately analyzed in terms of contradictory properties, e.g., particles behaving as a wave or a stream. His foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum theory won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922.

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  • feedwordpress 09:01:39 on 2018/11/13 Permalink
    Tags: , , Herbert E. Ives, , , Romaine Fielding, Science, ,   

    “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.”*… 

     

    Romaine Fielding

    Romaine Fielding got famous making a bunch of films in nothing flat—something like 100 films in just four years, from 1912 to 1915. Some of the films were probably awful. Others were showered with critical praise. Film was a fledgling medium still trying to find its voice, still battling to evolve from novelty to art. But Romaine rose above the melodramatic din of the silent film era. He was, by some accounts, America’s first movie star and, by even more accounts, among the medium’s first true visionaries…

    Romaine had already lived a lot of life when he began making films in 1912. There were only a dozen film companies in Hollywood. The magazine that would launch our nation’s rabidity for celebrity culture, Photoplay, had just published its first issue. Romaine was 43 and on his fourth name by then: baby William Grant Blandin became Royal A. Blandin became Romanzo A. Blandin who made the leap finally to Romaine Fielding at the dawn of the 20th century.

    There are lots of reasons for adopting pseudonyms and these include shame or aspiration or fear of legal recourse or extralegal recourse or confusion about identity or certainty about identity or general restlessness and for some it is all of this plus the usual feeling of fraudulence and an overdeveloped flair for the dramatic. In 1867 Romaine was born out of wedlock in an Iowa that wouldn’t stand for it and so his first name change was the projection of others’ shame. For the rest of his life he layered on identities, ever grander, though never entirely disingenuous…

    After the success of The Toll of Fear (one of the first great psychological thrillers, made in 1913) Romaine made the cover of Motion Picture Magazine. He was voted America’s Most Popular Player by the magazine’s readers, snagging over 1.3 million of the 7 million votes cast by film buffs.

    This award was a remarkable accomplishment in the pre-Oscars era. He beat out Mary Pickford, an early cinema powerhouse and eventual cofounder of the famed United Artists studio. He beat out Bronco Billy, who had starred in The Great Train Robbery (1903), arguably the first ever Western film…

    The genuinely remarkable tale of an American original: “The Lost Apocalypse of Romaine Fielding.”

    * “Norma Desmond” (Gloria Swanson) in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard

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    As we see stars, we might spare a thought for Herbert Eugene Ives; he died on this date in 1953.  A scientist and engineer who headed the development of facsimile and television systems at AT&T in the first half of the twentieth century, he is best known for the 1938 Ives–Stilwell experiment, which provided direct confirmation of special relativity’s time dilation (though Ives himself did not accept special relativity, and argued instead for an alternative interpretation of the experimental results).

    But relevantly to this post, Ives also led AT&T’s development of video and television. His 1927 transmission–  of images of then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, from Washington, DC to New York– was the first successful long distance demonstration of television. Two years later, he achieved the first successful long-distance transmission of color images.

    220px-Ives_3819812229_f084c217d1_o source

     

     
  • feedwordpress 10:01:05 on 2018/11/07 Permalink
    Tags: , ethology, , , , Konrad Lorenz, , , , Science,   

    “There was no doubt about it: the City was the culmination of man’s mastery over the environment”*… 

     

    population2

     

    The good folks at The Pudding mashed together demographic and geographic data to create an interactive map of the world that allows one to explore the world’s population in 3 dimensions.  See the population in 2015 or in 1990; see them compared; and see the change.  Explore “Human Terrain.”

    And put it in a broader historical context at “Mapping the World’s Urban Population from 1500 – 2050.”

    Then think about how the pace of change might accelerate with the increase of climate-driven migration about which the World Bank is warning: “143 Million People May Soon Become Climate Migrants.”

    * Isaac Asimov, The Caves of Steel

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    As we go to ground, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Konrad Zacharias Lorenz; he was born on this date in 1903.  A  zoologist and ornithologist, he founded the modern field of ethology.  His work– popularized in books like King Solomon’s RingOn Aggression, and Man Meets Dog– revealed how behavioral patterns may be traced to an evolutionary past, and explored the roots of aggression.  He shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for developing a unified, evolutionary theory of animal and human behavior.

    220px-Konrad_Lorenz source

     

     
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