(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Discovery

“Oh the places you’ll go”*…

The amazing life of “Gudrid the Far-Traveled” has, Frank Jacobs argues, been unjustly overshadowed by her in-laws, Erik the Red and Leif Erikson…

She’s been called “the greatest female explorer of all time,” and the “best-traveled woman of the Middle Ages.” Just after the year 1000 AD, she gave birth to the first European baby in North America. And she concluded her global odyssey with a pilgrimage on foot to Rome. Yet few today can name this extraordinary Viking lady, even if they have heard of Erik the Red and Leif Erikson, her father- and brother-in-law…

An extraordinary story: “The Viking woman who sailed to America and walked to Rome,” from @VeryStrangeMaps in @bigthink.

* Dr. Seuss


As we tag along, we might recall that this date in 2014 was purportedly the date of the final battle in Ragnarök, a series of events (many natural disasters) culminating in a catastrophic battle and the end of the world-as-we-know-it: giants and demons approach from all points of the compass and attack the gods (Odin, Thor, Týr, Freyr, Heimdall, Loki, et al.), who meet them and face death like heroes. At the conflict’s end, the sun darkens, the stars vanish, and the earth sinks into the sea. (Happily, afterward, the earth rises again, the innocent Balder returns from the dead, and leads hosts of the just to a life in a hall roofed with gold.)

In the event, of course, the world did not end that day. The prediction had been promoted by the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, England, intended to draw attention to an event that the institution was to hold on that date. In an obvious lift from the 2012 Mayan Prophecy frenzy, the Centre attributed the claim to a “Viking Calendar,” though no such calendar is known to have existed. Authentic scholars were predictably (and understandably) irked, though as philologist Joseph Hopkins noted, the media response was an example of a broad revival of interest in the Viking Age and ancient Germanic topics.

(Historians believe that Gudrid did in fact exist and did make the journeys discussed above.)

Thorwald’s Cross, on the grounds of Kirk Andreas, Isle of Man. It is believed to depict Odin, with a raven or eagle at his shoulder, being consumed by Fenrir at Ragnarök (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 22, 2023 at 1:00 am

“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”*…

Some observations are best considered “interesting, if true”; some, a la Karl Popper, “true, until false”… Consider this very recent paper in Nature

Theories of scientific and technological change view discovery and invention as endogenous processes, wherein previous accumulated knowledge enables future progress by allowing researchers to, in Newton’s words, ‘stand on the shoulders of giants.’ Recent decades have witnessed exponential growth in the volume of new scientific and technological knowledge, thereby creating conditions that should be ripe for major advances. Yet contrary to this view, studies suggest that progress is slowing in several major fields. Here, we analyse these claims at scale across six decades, using data on 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents from six large-scale datasets, together with a new quantitative metric—the CD index—that characterizes how papers and patents change networks of citations in science and technology. We find that papers and patents are increasingly less likely to break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions. This pattern holds universally across fields and is robust across multiple different citation- and text-based metrics. Subsequently, we link this decline in disruptiveness to a narrowing in the use of previous knowledge, allowing us to reconcile the patterns we observe with the ‘shoulders of giants’ view. We find that the observed declines are unlikely to be driven by changes in the quality of published science, citation practices or field-specific factors. Overall, our results suggest that slowing rates of disruption may reflect a fundamental shift in the nature of science and technology.

The full paper: “Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time@Nature

One notes that the quote above– from Lord Kelvin, at the turn of the twentieth century– immediately preceded a couple of decades in which physics was radically redefined and advanced by Planck, Einstein, Bohr, et al. (In fairness to Kelvin, consider this suggestion that his point was more subtle.) As we look forward, we might ponder the ways in which the reorganization of disciplines, the rise of research in other cultures (less constrained by the mores of “conventional” research), the use of AI, and/or some as yet unknown dynamic could challenge the phenomenon– “a narrowing in the use of previous knowledge”– to which the authors attribute diminishing disruption.

[Source of the image above]

* Lord Kelvin, in an address to the the Royal Institution in April of 1900


As we ponder progress, we might send advanced birthday greetings to Wilhelm Wien; he was born on this date in 1864. A physicist, his work helped move past Kelvin’s log-jam. In 1893, he used theories about heat and electromagnetism to deduce Wien’s displacement law, which calculates the emission of a blackbody (a surface that absorbs all radiant energy falling on it) at any temperature from the emission at any one reference temperature. His colleague Max Planck colaborated with Wien, then extended the thinking in what we now know as Planck’s law, which led to the development of quantum theory.

Wien received the 1911 Nobel Prize for his work on heat radiation.

Just before Kelvin’s speech (in 1898) Wien identified a positive particle equal in mass to the hydrogen atom– what we now know as a proton. Wien, in the techniques he used, laid the foundation of mass spectrometry.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 13, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Space is to place as eternity is to time”*…

Josh Worth (@misterjworth), with a mesmerizing interactive reminder that space is vast: “If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel.”

Joseph Joubert


As we scrutinize scale, we might recall that it was on this date in 1988 that NASA, undaunted by distance, launched the Space Shuttle Discovery (which had been out of service for three years), marking America’s return to manned space flight following the Challenger disaster. By its last mission in 2011, Discovery had flown 149 million miles in 39 missions, completed 5,830 orbits, and spent 365 days in orbit over 27 years.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 29, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Christopher Columbus, as everyone knows, is honored by posterity because he was the last to discover America.”*…

When Columbus landed in 1492, the Americas had been settled for tens of thousands of years. He wasn’t the first person to discover the continent. Rather, as Nick Longrich explains, his discovery was the last of many discoveries…

In all, people found the Americas at least seven different times. For at least six of those, it wasn’t so new after all. The discoverers came by sea and by land, bringing new genes, new languages, new technologies. Some stayed, explored, and built empires. Others went home, and left few hints they’d ever been there…

From last to first, here’s the story of how we arrived in the “New World”: “Seven times people discovered the Americas – and how they got there,” from @NickLongrich in @ConversationUS.

* James Joyce


As we ponder precedent, we might that it was on this date that about 300 Seneca warriors defeated a detachment of the British 80th Regiment of Light Armed Foot in the Battle of Devil’s Hole (near Niagara Gorge in present-day New York state). The action was part of what is known as Pontiac’s War, which had begun earlier that year when a loose confederation of Native Americans dissatisfied with British rule in the Great Lakes region following the French and Indian War moved to reclaim control of the land they had historically occupied.

Warfare on the North American frontier was brutal, and the killing of prisoners, the targeting of civilians, and other atrocities were widespread. In an incident that became well-known and frequently debated, British officers at Fort Pitt attempted to infect besieging Indians with blankets that had been exposed to smallpox. The war ended the following year after peace negotiations; and while the Natives were unable to drive away the British, the uprising prompted the British government to modify the policies that had provoked the conflict.

Pontiac urging listeners to rise up against the British (19th century engraving by Alfred Bobbett)


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 14, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Those distinct substances, which concretes generally either afford, or are made up of, may, without very much inconvenience, be called the elements or principles of them”*…

An interactive encomium to the elements…

A review of the Periodic Table composed of 119 science haiku, one for each element, plus a closing haiku for element 119 (not yet synthesized). The haiku encompass astronomy, biology, chemistry, history, physics, and a bit of whimsical flair…

Elemental haiku,” by Mary Soon Lee (@MarySoonLee) in @ScienceMagazine from @aaas.

Robert Boyle, The Sceptical Chymist


As we celebrate chemical compliments, we might send illustratively-arranged birthday greetings to Alexandre-Émile Béguyer de Chancourtois; he was born on this date in 1820. A geologist and mineralogist, he was the first to arrange the chemical elements in order of atomic weights (in 1862). But De Chancourtois only published his paper, not his graph with the novel arrangement; and because it was a geology paper, it was largely ignored by chemists. It was Dmitri Mendeleev’s table, published in 1869, that became the standard– and the model for the periodic table that we know today.


%d bloggers like this: