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  • feedwordpress 08:01:22 on 2018/03/14 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , Science,   

    “All numbers are by their nature correct. Well, except for Pi, of course. I can’t be doing with Pi. Gives me a headache just thinking about it, going on and on and on and on and on…”*… 


    It’s Pi Day!

    In celebration, a few amusing– and illuminating– links:

    The history of pi

    Pi day magic revealed

    10 stunning images show the beauty hidden in pi

    The history of Pi Day

    How to Memorize Pi if You’re a Word Person (from whence, the image above)

    * Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys


    As we enumerate endlessly, we might pause for a piece of pi(e)…


    … in celebration of Albert Einstein’s birthday; he was born on this date in 1879.


    “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”


  • feedwordpress 09:01:04 on 2018/03/04 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , Napier Shaw, Science, tephigram, ,   

    “Men argue. Nature acts.”*… 


    Scientists have converged on climate change predictions that a growing majority of Americans accept.  Still, it can be hard to understand– at a visceral level– what a warming globe might mean.  Here’s some help: a clever tool from Greg Schivley, a civil and environmental engineering PhD. student at Carnegie Mellon University (with help from Ben Noll; inspired by Sophie Lewis).  Enter some key birth dates to project how the climate will have changed from your grandma’s birth to when your kids retire.  The chart’s temperature changes are based on NASA’s historical and projected climate scenarios.

    Climate change and life events

    * Voltaire


    As we sweat it out, we might send temperate birthday greetings to Sir William Napier Shaw; he was born on this date in 1854.  A meteorologist and member of the Royal Society, he developed the tephigram, a diagram of temperature changes still commonly used in weather analysis and forecasting.



  • feedwordpress 09:01:37 on 2018/02/19 Permalink
    Tags: , , , Science, scientific revolution, Steven Pinker, , , , war on science   

    “Two polar groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, at the other scientists… Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”*… 


    A contempt for science is neither new, lowbrow, nor confined to the political right. In his famous 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” C.P. Snow commented on the disdain for science among educated Britons and called for a greater integration of science into intellectual life. In response to this overture, the literary critic F.R. Leavis wrote a rebuttal in 1962 that was so vituperative The Spectator had to ask Snow to promise not to sue for libel if they published the work.

    The highbrow war on science continues to this day, with flak not just from fossil-fuel-funded politicians and religious fundamentalists but also from our most adored intellectuals and in our most august institutions of higher learning. Magazines that are ostensibly dedicated to ideas confine themselves to those arising in politics and the arts, with scant attention to new ideas emerging from science, with the exception of politicized issues like climate change (and regular attacks on a sin called “scientism”). Just as pernicious is the treatment of science in the liberal-arts curricula of many universities. Students can graduate with only a trifling exposure to science, and what they do learn is often designed to poison them against it.

    The most frequently assigned book on science in universities (aside from a popular biology textbook) is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. That 1962 classic is commonly interpreted as showing that science does not converge on the truth but merely busies itself with solving puzzles before lurching to some new paradigm that renders its previous theories obsolete; indeed, unintelligible. Though Kuhn himself disavowed that nihilist interpretation, it has become the conventional wisdom among many intellectuals. A critic from a major magazine once explained to me that the art world no longer considers whether works of art are “beautiful” for the same reason that scientists no longer consider whether theories are “true.” He seemed genuinely surprised when I corrected him…

    The usually extremely optimistic Steven Pinker (see here, e.g.) waxes concerned– if not, indeed, pessimistic– about the place of science to today’s society: “The Intellectual War on Science.”

    * C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959)


    As we rein in our relativism, we might send heavenly birthday greetings to the scientist who inspired Thomas Kuhn (see here and here), Nicolaus Copernicus; he was born on this date in 1473.  A Renaissance polyglot and polymath– he was a canon lawyer, a mathematician, a physician,  a classics scholar, a translator, a governor, a diplomat, and an economist– he is best remembered as an astronomer.  Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres; published just before his death in 1543), with its heliocentric account of the solar system, is often regarded as the beginning both of modern astronomy and of the scientific revolution.

    Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe. Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind – for by this admission so many things vanished in mist and smoke! What became of our Eden, our world of innocence, piety and poetry; the testimony of the senses; the conviction of a poetic – religious faith? No wonder his contemporaries did not wish to let all this go and offered every possible resistance to a doctrine which in its converts authorized and demanded a freedom of view and greatness of thought so far unknown, indeed not even dreamed of.

    – Goethe


  • feedwordpress 09:01:07 on 2018/02/14 Permalink
    Tags: , Ferris Wheel, George Ferris, , luck, , Science, serendipity, ,   

    “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny’”*… 


    Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin is commonly used as an example of serendipity in science

    Scientific folklore is full of tales of accidental discovery, from the stray Petri dish that led Alexander Fleming to discover penicillin to Wilhelm Röntgen’s chance detection of X-rays while tinkering with a cathode-ray tube.

    That knowledge often advances through serendipity is how scientists, sometimes loudly, justify the billions of dollars that taxpayers plough into curiosity-driven research each year. And it is the reason some argue that increasing government efforts to control research — with an eye to driving greater economic or social impact — are at best futile and at worst counterproductive.

    But just how important is serendipity to science? Scientists debating with policymakers have long relied on anecdotal evidence. Studies rarely try to quantify how much scientific progress was truly serendipitous, how much that cost or the circumstances in which it emerged.

    Serendipity can take on many forms, and its unwieldy web of cause and effect is difficult to constrain. Data are not available to track it in any meaningful way. Instead, academic research has focused on serendipity in science as a philosophical concept.

    The European Research Council aims to change that…

    On the heels of yesterday’s post on the history of dice, and the way they evolved over the centuries to be “fairer”– to favor chance– another post on luck…  more specifically in this case, on whether it’s all that it’s cracked up to be.  Scientists often herald the role of chance in research; a project in Britain aims to test that popular idea with evidence: “The serendipity test.”

    * Isaac Asimov


    As we contemplate contingency, we might send elaborately-engineered birthday greetings to George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.; he was born on this date in 1859.  An engineer and inventor, he had built a successful career testing and inspecting metals for railroads and bridge builders when…

    … in 1891, the directors of the World’s Columbian Exposition [to be held in 1893] issued a challenge to American engineers to conceive of a monument for the fair that would surpass the Eiffel Tower, the great structure of the Paris International Exposition of 1889. The planners wanted something “original, daring and unique.” Ferris responded with a proposed wheel from which visitors would be able to view the entire exhibition, a wheel that would “Out-Eiffel Eiffel.” The planners feared his design for a rotating wheel towering over the grounds could not possibly be safe.

    Ferris persisted. He returned in a few weeks with several respectable endorsements from established engineers, and the committee agreed to allow construction to begin. Most convincingly, he had recruited several local investors to cover the $400,000 cost of construction. The planning commission of the Exposition hoped that admissions from the Ferris Wheel would pull the fair out of debt and eventually make it profitable. [source]

    It carried 2.5 million passengers before it was finally demolished in 1906.  But while the Fair’s promoters hopes were fulfilled– the Ferris Wheel was a windfall– Ferris claimed that the exhibition management had robbed him and his investors of their rightful portion of the nearly $750,000 profit that his wheel brought in.  Ferris spent two years in litigation, trying (unsuccessfully) to recover his investment.  He died despondent and nearly bankrupt (reportedly of typhoid, though some suggest that it was suicide) in 1896.

    The original 1893 Chicago Ferris Wheel




  • feedwordpress 09:01:11 on 2018/02/12 Permalink
    Tags: , Cosmopsychism, Fang Lizhi, , , , Philip Goff, , Science,   

    “We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness”*… 


    Ockham’s razor is the principle that, all things being equal, more parsimonious theories – that is to say, theories with relatively few postulations – are to be preferred. Is it not a great cost in terms of parsimony to ascribe fundamental consciousness to the Universe? Not at all. The physical world must have some nature, and physics leaves us completely in the dark as to what it is. It is no less parsimonious to suppose that the Universe has a consciousness-involving nature than that it has some non-consciousness-involving nature. If anything, the former proposal is more parsimonious insofar as it is continuous with the only thing we really know about the nature of matter: that brains have consciousness…

    One of the thinkers quoted in (Roughly) Daily’s recent piece on panpsychismPhilip Goff, has elaborated on his argument that the Universe and everything in it is conscious.  Cosmopsychism, as he now calls the notion, might seem crazy; but as he explains, it provides a robust explanatory model for how the Universe became fine-tuned for life: “Is the Universe a conscious mind?

    * Max Planck


    As we ascribe some level of sentience to absolutely everything, we might send brave birthday greetings to Fang Lizhi; he was born on this date in 1936.

    An astrophysicist, vice-president of the University of Science and Technology of China, who published published a paper (in 1972) on a topic central to the argument for cosmopsychism– the Big Bang theory, previously a forbidden topic in China (Marxists claimed that the universe was infinite)– which met condemnation from the Communist Party.  He became an advocate of intellectual freedom and civic reform, whose liberal ideas helped inspire the pro-democracy student movement of 1986–87 and, finally, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989– and for which he was expelled from the Communist Party and forced into exile.



  • feedwordpress 09:01:58 on 2018/02/10 Permalink
    Tags: , Constantin Fahlberg, cookie, Girl Scouts, , Ira Remsen, saccharin, Science,   

    “The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies”*… 


    Girl Scout Cookies come in a dizzying variety. Between cool Thin Mints and decadent Peanut Butter Patties, there’s a flavor that appeals to everyone. Which is helpful to the girls in the American youth organization, who sell the cookies to learn business skills and raise funds.

    It’s a big operation, so much so that seemingly similar cookies differ across the United States. Since two commercial bakers provide the cookies to different parts of the country, one scout’s Peanut Butter Patty is another’s Tagalong. Even the recipes are slightly different. But all Girl Scout cookies have a common ancestor. Surprisingly, it was kind of boring.

    It was an innocuous beginning for a glorious, cookie-filled century. The recipe for the original cookie was provided by local Scouting director Florence E. Neil and printed in the July 1922 issue of The American Girl Magazine (now defunct and unrelated to the current, doll-related American Girl magazine). It was very simple: a cup of butter (or “substitute”) mixed with sugar, eggs, vanilla, milk, and flour. Baking the mix in a “quick” oven produced super simple sugar cookies.

    But simplicity was likely necessary, as the scouts baked the cookies themselves. According to the Girl Scouts, this recipe was distributed to 2,000 scouts in the Chicago area who likely needed something quick, simple, and inexpensive to sell. The ingredients for a batch of six to seven dozen cookies clocked in at 26 to 36 cents, which in today’s money is less than six dollars. The scouts could sell a dozen cookies for about the same amount, making a tidy profit…

    The tasty tale in its entirety at “The First Girl Scout Cookie Was Surprisingly Boring.”

    * Neil Gaiman, American Gods


    As we take just one more, we might send almost, but not quite cloying birthday greeting to Ira Remsen; he was born on this date in 1946.  A physician and chemist who became the second President of Johns Hopkins University, he is perhaps best remembered as the discoverer (with Constantin Fahlberg) of the artificial sweetener saccharin.



  • feedwordpress 09:01:30 on 2018/01/29 Permalink
    Tags: Bernard Brunhes, , brachistochrone problem, , , , , , , Science,   

    “We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born”*… 


    This animation shows the movement of the north magnetic pole at 10-year intervals from 1970 to 2020. The red and blue lines indicate “declination,” the difference between magnetic north and true north depending on where one is standing; on the green line, a compass would point to true north. Visual by NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information

    In scenario planning, one tries to identify the “driving forces”– the social, political, ecological, technical, and economic dynamics afoot– in the environment that are both likely to impact our future materially and outside our control; one then to knits the possible outcomes of those forces into alternative futures, plausible sketches of the opportunities and challenges that one might face.

    There is a special class of driving force, what scenario planners call a wild card: a possibility that has relative low probability in the (usually 10 year) time horizon, but that, should it occur, would have massive consequence.  Wild cards are often things like major earthquakes or geo-political conflicts… or environmental catastrophes.  While one plans for the implications of the scenarios and their defining driving forces, one plans against wild cards; one creates action plans for the scenarios, contingency plans for the wild cards.

    As climate change is slowly but surely converting yesterday’s wildcards (sustained droughts, regular, catastrophic wildfires and storms, etc.) into “regular” driving forces, it is perhaps prudent to look at some of the wildest cards that remain…

    One day in 1905, the French geophysicist Bernard Brunhes brought back to his lab some rocks he’d unearthed from a freshly cut road near the village of Pont Farin. When he analyzed their magnetic properties, he was astonished at what they showed: Millions of years ago, the Earth’s magnetic poles had been on the opposite sides of the planet. North was south and south was north. The discovery spoke of planetary anarchy. Scientists had no way to explain it.

    Today, we know that the poles have changed places hundreds of times, most recently 780,000 years ago. (Sometimes, the poles try to reverse positions but then snap back into place, in what is called an excursion. The last time was about 40,000 years ago.) We also know that when they flip next time, the consequences for the electrical and electronic infrastructure that runs modern civilization will be dire. The question is when that will happen…

    The shield that protects the Earth from solar radiation is under attack from within. We can’t prevent it, but we ought to prepare. Learn more at “The Magnetic Field Is Shifting. The Poles May Flip. This Could Get Bad.”

    * Albert Einstein


    As we ponder powerlessness, we might recall that it was on this date in 1697 that Isaac Newton received a copy of Johann Bernoulli’s long-standing mathematical challenge, the brachistochrone problem: “To determine the curved line joining two given points, situated at different distances from the horizontal and not in the same vertical line, along which the mobile body, running down by its own weight and starting to move from the upper point, will descend most quickly to the lower point.” (Bernoulli coined the name from Gr. brachistos, shortest; and chronos, time.)

    Newton solved it the same day, and forwarded his solution to the Royal Society—anonymously.  When Bernoulli read the solution, he shrewdly guessed it was Newton’s work.  By legend, he said, “I recognize the lion by his paw.”

    Bernoulli and Newton



  • feedwordpress 09:01:24 on 2018/01/16 Permalink
    Tags: dimensions, generator, , , , , Science, string theory, , Van de Graaff   

    “Doubtless we cannot see that other higher Spaceland now, because we have no eye in our stomachs”*… 


    An ” Amplituhedron“, an illustration of multi-dimensional spacetime

    Our architecture, our education and our dictionaries tell us that space is three-dimensional. The OED defines it as ‘a continuous area or expanse which is free, available or unoccupied … The dimensions of height, depth and width, within which all things exist and move.’ In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant argued that three-dimensional Euclidean space is an a priori necessity and, saturated as we are now in computer-generated imagery and video games, we are constantly subjected to representations of a seemingly axiomatic Cartesian grid. From the perspective of the 21st century, this seems almost self-evident.

    Yet the notion that we inhabit a space with any mathematical structure is a radical innovation of Western culture, necessitating an overthrow of long-held beliefs about the nature of reality. Although the birth of modern science is often discussed as a transition to a mechanistic account of nature, arguably more important – and certainly more enduring – is the transformation it entrained in our conception of space as a geometrical construct.

    Over the past century, the quest to describe the geometry of space has become a major project in theoretical physics, with experts from Albert Einstein onwards attempting to explain all the fundamental forces of nature as byproducts of the shape of space itself. While on the local level we are trained to think of space as having three dimensions, general relativity paints a picture of a four-dimensional universe, and string theory says it has 10 dimensions – or 11 if you take an extended version known as M-Theory. There are variations of the theory in 26 dimensions, and recently pure mathematicians have been electrified by a version describing spaces of 24 dimensions. But what are these ‘dimensions’? And what does it mean to talk about a 10-dimensional space of being?…

    Experience says we live in three dimensions; relativity says four; string theory says it’s 10– or more… What are “dimensions” and how do they affect reality? Margaret Wertheim offers a guide: “Radical dimensions.”

    * Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions


    As we tax our senses, we might spare a thought for Robert Jemison Van de Graaff; he died on this date in 1967.  A physicist and engineer, he is best remembered for his creation of the Van de Graaff Generator, an electrostatic generator that creates very high electric potentials– very high voltage direct current (DC) electricity (up to 5 megavolts) at low current levels.  A tabletop version can produce on the order of 100,000 volts and can store enough energy to produce a visible spark. Such small Van de Graaff machines are used in physics education to teach electrostatics; larger ones are displayed in some science museums.

    Boy touching Van de Graaff generator at The Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum. Charged with electricity, his hair strands repel each other and stand out from his head.




  • feedwordpress 09:01:36 on 2018/01/13 Permalink
    Tags: Act Against Multiplication, , , , Elisabeth of Bohemia, Henry IV, , , Science,   

    “The ghost in the machine”*… 


    Pity (detail), by William Blake, c. 1795

    How is it that mind and body manage to interact and affect each other if they are such different things? This question was pressed on Descartes in the spring of 1643 by a young woman of twenty-four, Elisabeth von der Pfalz, also known as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. When others raised such difficulties, Descartes tended to brush them aside. But he listened to the princess…

    Anthony Gottlieb tells the remarkable story of the correspondence between René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—a debate about mind, soul, and immortality: “The Ghost and the Princess.”

    * Gilbert Ryle (The Concept of Mind, in part a critique of Descartes’ mind-body dualism)


    As we try to get it together, we might that it was on this date in 1404 that King Henry IV signed into law the Act Against Multiplication– which forbade alchemists to use their knowledge to create precious metals… and effectively, thus, outlawed chemistry in England.  Since the time of Roger Bacon, alchemy had fascinated many in England.  The Act of Multipliers was passed by the Parliament, declaring the use of transmutation to “multiply” gold and silver to be felony, as a result of concern that an alchemist might succeed in his project– and thus bring ruin upon the state by debasing the national currency and/or furnishing boundless wealth to a designing tyrant, who would use it to enslave the country.  The Act was in force until 1689, when Robert Boyle and other members of the vanguard of the scientific revolution lobbied for its repeal.



  • feedwordpress 09:01:02 on 2017/12/16 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , limits to knowledge, Margaret Mead, Martin Rees, Science, , understanding   

    “The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”*… 


    Complex nature

    Albert Einstein said that the “most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible.” He was right to be astonished. Human brains evolved to be adaptable, but our underlying neural architecture has barely changed since our ancestors roamed the savannah and coped with the challenges that life on it presented. It’s surely remarkable that these brains have allowed us to make sense of the quantum and the cosmos, notions far removed from the ‘commonsense’, everyday world in which we evolved.

    But I think science will hit the buffers at some point. There are two reasons why this might happen. The optimistic one is that we clean up and codify certain areas (such as atomic physics) to the point that there’s no more to say. A second, more worrying possibility is that we’ll reach the limits of what our brains can grasp. There might be concepts, crucial to a full understanding of physical reality, that we aren’t aware of, any more than a monkey comprehends Darwinism or meteorology. Some insights might have to await a post-human intelligence…

    Abstract thinking by biological brains has underpinned the emergence of all culture and science. But this activity, spanning tens of millennia at most, will probably be a brief precursor to the more powerful intellects of the post-human era – evolved not by Darwinian selection but via ‘intelligent design’. Whether the long-range future lies with organic post-humans or with electronic super-intelligent machines is a matter for debate. But we would be unduly anthropocentric to believe that a full understanding of physical reality is within humanity’s grasp, and that no enigmas will remain to challenge our remote descendants…

    Martin Rees (Lord Rees of Ludlow), cosmologist and astrophysicist, Astronomer Royal since 1995, past Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and former President of the Royal Society, on the limits of human understanding (and how we might transcend them): “Black holes are simpler than forests and science has its limits.”

    For a “companionable” take on the character of the knowledge that we do (seem to) have, see “Is Quantum Theory About Reality or What We Know?“.

    * J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927)


    As we prepare to call (an artificially-intelligent) friend, we might send acutely observant birthday greetings to an astute student of the human animal, anthropologist Margaret Mead; she was born on this date in 1901.  Best-known for her studies of the nonliterate peoples of Oceania, she was 23 when she first traveled to the South Pacific, to conduct research for her doctoral dissertation. The book that resulted, Coming of Age in Samoa, was– and remains– a best-seller.




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