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  • 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

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    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.

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  • 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)

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    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.

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  • 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)

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    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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  • feedwordpress 09:01:41 on 2017/12/10 Permalink
    Tags: , , Computer programming, , flash, flash photography, , , Science,   

    “A flash of revelation and a flash of response”*… 

     

    “A Cellar Dive in the Bend,” c.1895, by Richard Hoe Lawrence and Henry G. Piffard

    All photography requires light, but the light used in flash photography is unique — shocking, intrusive and abrupt. It’s quite unlike the light that comes from the sun, or even from ambient illumination. It explodes, suddenly, into darkness.

    The history of flash goes right back to the challenges faced by early photographers who wanted to use their cameras in places where there was insufficient light — indoors, at night, in caves. The first flash photograph was probably a daguerreotype of a fossil, taken in 1839 by burning limelight…

    In its early days, a sense of quasi-divine revelation was invoked by some flash photographers, especially when documenting deplorable social conditions. Jacob Riis, for example, working in New York in the late 1880s, used transcendental language to help underscore flash’s significance as an instrument of intervention and purgation. But it’s in relation to documentary photography that we encounter most starkly flash’s singular, and contradictory, aspects. It makes visible that which would otherwise remain in darkness; but it is often associated with unwelcome intrusion, a rupturing of private lives and interiors.

    Yet flash brings a form of democracy to the material world. Many details take on unplanned prominence, as we see in the work of those Farm Security Administration photographers who used flash in the 1930s and laid bare the reality of poverty during the Depression. A sudden flare of light reveals each dent on a kitchen utensil and the label on each carefully stored can; each photograph on the mantel; each cherished ornament; each little heap of waste paper or discarded rag; each piece of polished furniture or stained floor or accumulation of dust; each wrinkle. Flash can make plain, bring out of obscurity, the appearance of things that may never before have been seen with such clarity…

    Find illumination at “A short history of flash photography.”

    * J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace

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    As we glory in the glare, we might send elegantly-calculated birthday greetings to Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (née Byron); she was born on this date in 1815.  The daughter of the poet Lord Byron, she was the author of what can reasonably be considered the first “computer program”– so one of the “parents” of the modern computer.  Her work was in collaboration with her long-time friend and thought partner Charles Babbage (known as “the father of computers”), in particular, in conjunction with Babbage’s work on the Analytical Engine.

    Ada, Countess of Lovelace, 1840

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  • feedwordpress 09:01:23 on 2017/12/05 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , physical laws, , , Science, ,   

    “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination”*… 

     

    Perhaps Arthur C. Clarke was being uncharacteristically unambitious. He once pointed out that any sufficiently advanced technology is going to be indistinguishable from magic. If you dropped in on a bunch of Paleolithic farmers with your iPhone and a pair of sneakers, you’d undoubtedly seem pretty magical. But the contrast is only middling: The farmers would still recognize you as basically like them, and before long they’d be taking selfies. But what if life has moved so far on that it doesn’t just appear magical, but appears like physics?

    After all, if the cosmos holds other life, and if some of that life has evolved beyond our own waypoints of complexity and technology, we should be considering some very extreme possibilities. Today’s futurists and believers in a machine “singularity” predict that life and its technological baggage might end up so beyond our ken that we wouldn’t even realize we were staring at it. That’s quite a claim, yet it would neatly explain why we have yet to see advanced intelligence in the cosmos around us, despite the sheer number of planets it could have arisen on—the so-called Fermi Paradox…

    Caleb Scharf on the possibility that alien life could be so advanced it is indistinguishable from physics: “Is Physical Law an Alien Intelligence?

    For a very different perspective (albeit, one seemingly rooted in a more narrowly-defined understanding of “life”), see “A Key Evolutionary Step May Mean Intelligent Alien Life Doesn’t Exist in the Universe.”

    * Albert Einstein

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    As we think through the thought experiment, we might send uncertain birthday greetings to Werner Karl Heisenberg; he was born on this date in 1901.  A theoretical physicist, he made made important contributions to the theories of the hydrodynamics of turbulent flows, the atomic nucleus, ferromagnetism, superconductivity, cosmic rays, and subatomic particles.  But he is most widely remembered as a pioneer of quantum mechanics and author of what’s become known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1932 “for the creation of quantum mechanics.”

    During World War II, Heisenberg was part of the team attempting to create an atomic bomb for Germany– for which he was arrested and detained by the Allies at the end of the conflict.  He was returned to Germany, where he became director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, which soon thereafter was renamed the Max Planck Institute for Physics. He later served as president of the German Research Council, chairman of the Commission for Atomic Physics, chairman of the Nuclear Physics Working Group, and president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

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  • feedwordpress 09:01:23 on 2017/12/05 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , physical laws, , , Science, ,   

    “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination”*… 

     

    Perhaps Arthur C. Clarke was being uncharacteristically unambitious. He once pointed out that any sufficiently advanced technology is going to be indistinguishable from magic. If you dropped in on a bunch of Paleolithic farmers with your iPhone and a pair of sneakers, you’d undoubtedly seem pretty magical. But the contrast is only middling: The farmers would still recognize you as basically like them, and before long they’d be taking selfies. But what if life has moved so far on that it doesn’t just appear magical, but appears like physics?

    After all, if the cosmos holds other life, and if some of that life has evolved beyond our own waypoints of complexity and technology, we should be considering some very extreme possibilities. Today’s futurists and believers in a machine “singularity” predict that life and its technological baggage might end up so beyond our ken that we wouldn’t even realize we were staring at it. That’s quite a claim, yet it would neatly explain why we have yet to see advanced intelligence in the cosmos around us, despite the sheer number of planets it could have arisen on—the so-called Fermi Paradox…

    Caleb Scharf on the possibility that alien life could be so advanced it is indistinguishable from physics: “Is Physical Law an Alien Intelligence?

    For a very different perspective (albeit, one seemingly rooted in a more narrowly-defined understanding of “life”), see “A Key Evolutionary Step May Mean Intelligent Alien Life Doesn’t Exist in the Universe.”

    * Albert Einstein

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    As we think through the thought experiment, we might send uncertain birthday greetings to Werner Karl Heisenberg; he was born on this date in 1901.  A theoretical physicist, he made made important contributions to the theories of the hydrodynamics of turbulent flows, the atomic nucleus, ferromagnetism, superconductivity, cosmic rays, and subatomic particles.  But he is most widely remembered as a pioneer of quantum mechanics and author of what’s become known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1932 “for the creation of quantum mechanics.”

    During World War II, Heisenberg was part of the team attempting to create an atomic bomb for Germany– for which he was arrested and detained by the Allies at the end of the conflict.  He was returned to Germany, where he became director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, which soon thereafter was renamed the Max Planck Institute for Physics. He later served as president of the German Research Council, chairman of the Commission for Atomic Physics, chairman of the Nuclear Physics Working Group, and president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

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  • feedwordpress 09:01:23 on 2017/11/22 Permalink
    Tags: , Caleb Scharf, , , , Paolo Frisi, , Science, ,   

    “Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science”*… 

     

    Caleb Scharf wants to take you on an epic tour. His latest book, The Zoomable Universe, starts from the ends of the observable universe, exploring its biggest structures, like groups of galaxies, and goes all the way down to the Planck length—less than a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a meter. It is a breathtaking synthesis of the large and small. Readers journeying through the book are treated to pictures, diagrams, and illustrations all accompanied by Scharf’s lucid, conversational prose. These visual aids give vital depth and perspective to the phenomena that he points out like a cosmic safari guide. Did you know, he offers, that all the Milky Way’s stars can fit inside the volume of our solar system?

    Scharf, the director of Columbia University’s Astrobiology Center, is a suitably engaging guide. He’s the author of the 2012 book Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Universe, and last year he speculated in Nautilus about whether alien life could be so advanced as to be indistinguishable from physics.

    In The Zoomable Universe, Scharf puts the notion of scale—in biology and physics—center-stage. “The start of your journey through this book and through all known scales of reality is at that edge between known and unknown,” he writes…

    Another entry in a collection that long-time readers know your correspondent cultivates, visualizations of relative scale (inspired by Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten—see, e.g., here, here, here, and here): “This Will Help You Grasp the Sizes of Things in the Universe.”

    * Edwin Powell Hubble

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    As we keep things in perspective, we might spare a thought for Paolo Frisi; he died on this date in 1784.  A mathematician, astronomer, and physicist who worked in hydraulics (he designed a canal between Milan and Pavia) and introduced the lightning conductor into Italy, he is probably best remembered for his compilation, interpretation, and dissemination of the work of other scientists, especially Galileo Galilei and Sir Isaac Newton.

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    Your correspondent is headed into the Thanksgiving Holiday– and so into a brief hiatus in posting.  Regular service will resume on Sunday the 26th… or when the tryptophan haze clears, whichever comes first.

     
  • feedwordpress 09:01:59 on 2017/11/20 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , mass, matter, , Science, ,   

    “Energy is liberated matter, matter is energy waiting to happen”*… 

     

    We’ve certainly come a long way since the ancient Greek atomists speculated about the nature of material substance, 2,500 years ago. But for much of this time we’ve held to the conviction that matter is a fundamental part of our physical universe. We’ve been convinced that it is matter that has energy. And, although matter may be reducible to microscopic constituents, for a long time we believed that these would still be recognizable as matter—they would still possess the primary quality of mass.

    Modern physics teaches us something rather different, and deeply counter-intuitive. As we worked our way ever inward—matter into atoms, atoms into sub-atomic particles, sub-atomic particles into quantum fields and forces—we lost sight of matter completely. Matter lost its tangibility. It lost its primacy as mass became a secondary quality, the result of interactions between intangible quantum fields. What we recognize as mass is a behavior of these quantum fields; it is not a property that belongs or is necessarily intrinsic to them.

    Despite the fact that our physical world is filled with hard and heavy things, it is instead the energy of quantum fields that reigns supreme. Mass becomes simply a physical manifestation of that energy, rather than the other way around…

    Modern physics has taught us that mass is not an intrinsic property: “Physics Has Demoted Mass.”

    * Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

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    As we watch all that is solid melt into air, we might spare a jaundiced thought for Trofim Denisovich Lysenko; he died on this date in 1976.  A Soviet biologist and agronomist, he believed the Mendelian theory of heredity to be wrong, and developed his own, allowing for “soft inheritance”– the heretability of learned behavior. (He believed that in one generation of a hybridized crop, the desired individual could be selected and mated again and continue to produce the same desired product, without worrying about separation/segregation in future breeds.–he assumed that after a lifetime of developing (acquiring) the best set of traits to survive, those must be passed down to the next generation.)

    In many way Lysenko’s theories recall Lamarck’s “organic evolution” and its concept of “soft evolution” (the passage of learned traits), though Lysenko denied any connection. He followed I. V. Michurin’s fanciful idea that plants could be forced to adapt to any environmental conditions, for example converting summer wheat to winter wheat by storing the seeds in ice.  With Stalin’s support for two decades, he actively obstructed the course of Soviet biology and caused the imprisonment and death of many of the country’s eminent biologists who disagreed with him.

    Interestingly, some current research suggests that heritable learning– or a semblance of it– may in fact be happening, by virtue of epigenetics… though nothing vaguely resembling Lysenko’s theory.

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  • feedwordpress 09:01:57 on 2017/11/10 Permalink
    Tags: Brian Nosek, , Higinbotham, , , Open Science, Science, Tennis for Two, , Video game   

    “Nature is objective, and nature is knowable, but we can only view her through a glass darkly–and many clouds upon our vision are of our own making”*… 

     

    Sometimes it seems surprising that science functions at all. In 2005, medical science was shaken by a paper with the provocative title “Why most published research findings are false.” Written by John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford University [see here and here], it didn’t actually show that any particular result was wrong. Instead, it showed that the statistics of reported positive findings was not consistent with how often one should expect to find them. As Ioannidis concluded more recently, “many published research findings are false or exaggerated, and an estimated 85 percent of research resources are wasted.”

    It’s likely that some researchers are consciously cherry-picking data to get their work published. And some of the problems surely lie with journal publication policies. But the problems of false findings often begin with researchers unwittingly fooling themselves: they fall prey to cognitive biases, common modes of thinking that lure us toward wrong but convenient or attractive conclusions. “Seeing the reproducibility rates in psychology and other empirical science, we can safely say that something is not working out the way it should,” says Susann Fiedler, a behavioral economist at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods in Bonn, Germany. “Cognitive biases might be one reason for that.”

    Psychologist Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia says that the most common and problematic bias in science is “motivated reasoning”: We interpret observations to fit a particular idea…

    How the co-founder of the Open Science Framework and the Center for Open Science is tackling human biases in science: “The Trouble With Scientists.”

    * “Nature is objective, and nature is knowable, but we can only view her through a glass darkly–and many clouds upon our vision are of our own making: social and cultural biases, psychological preferences, and mental limitations (in universal modes of thought, not just individualized stupidity)”     – Stephen Jay Gould

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    As we share and share alike, we might spare a thought for William “Willy” A. Higinbotham; he died on this date in 1994.  A physicist who was a member of the team that developed the first atomic bomb, he later became a leader in the nuclear non-proliferation movement.

    But Higinbotham may be better remembered as the creator of Tennis for Two, the first interactive analog computer game and one of the first electronic games to use a graphical display, which he built for the 1958 visitor day at Brookhaven National Laboratory.  It used a small analogue computer with ten direct-connected operational amplifiers and output a side view of the curved flight of the tennis ball on an oscilloscope only five inches in diameter. Each player had a control knob and a button.

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    The 1958 Tennis for Two exhibit

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  • feedwordpress 08:01:51 on 2017/11/04 Permalink
    Tags: academic journals, hedgehog, , , illuminated manuscripts, , , Science, scientific communication, scientific journals,   

    “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing”*… 

     

    Hedgehogs rolling on the ground to collect grapes for their young, as illustrated in the Rochester Bestiary (England, c. 1230): London, British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r. Hedgehogs were said to creep into vineyards when the grapes were ripe, to climb the vines and shake the fruit down to the ground. Then, rather than eating this bounty on the spot, they would turn onto their backs and roll around, impaling the grapes with their sharp quills. They could then trundle off back to their burrows, carrying the grapes on their spines, as a meal for their young. The bestiary writers allegorized this as a warning of the clever stratagems of the devil in stealing man’s spiritual fruits.

    Longstanding readers of our Medieval Manuscripts Blog may know that we have a penchant for hedgehogs. In 2012, we published a post entitled The Distinguished Pedigree of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle,based on the accounts of their behaviour in medieval bestiaries. In 2014, we brought you a hedgehog beauty contest, no less, featuring images of five of our favourites. And most recently we focused on the heraldic hedgehog in the 13th-century Dering Roll.

    We’ve now discovered this fantastic animation, based on the drawings of hedgehogs in one of the British Library’s medieval bestiaries (Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r). De Herinacio: On the Hedgehog was made by the amazing Obrazki nunu and Discarding Images. We hope that you love it as much as we do! Maybe it will inspire more people to explore and reinvent our wonderful collections…

     

    More at the British Library’s “How To Be A Hedgehog.”

    * Archilochus, as quoted in Isaiah Berlin’s wonderful The Hedgehog and the Fox.

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    As we roll in it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1869 that the first issue of the journal Nature was published.  Taking it’s title from a line of Wordsworth’s (“To the solid ground of nature trusts the Mind that builds for aye”), its aim was to “provide cultivated readers with an accessible forum for reading about advances in scientific knowledge.”  It remains a weekly, international, interdisciplinary journal of science, one of the few remaining tat publish across a wide array of fields.  It is consistently ranked the world’s most cited scientific journal and is ascribed an impact factor of approximately 38.1, making it one of the world’s top academic journals.

    Nature‘s first first page

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