(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Discovery

“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.


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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)


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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.


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



The Mali Empire in 1337


Abubakari II was a Malian who ascended to the throne in 1310. He controlled most of western Africa and an incredibly wealthy state with more than one million subjects. He (his navy) may have sailed to the Americas in 1311:

More than a hundred years before the Portuguese had cleared Cape Bojador in the Western Sahara, and almost two hundred before Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas, there is some evidence to suggest that Abubakari II, Emperor of Mali, crossed the Atlantic and visited the Americas. The idea even received support from Columbus himself, who wrote in his journal about African journeys from the Guinea coast to the Americas and supposed this was how the South Americans had learned techniques of alloying gold.

At the time, the Malian empire was arguably the richest state on earth. Founded in 1235, by 1310 when Abubakari II came to the throes it had control of most of western Africa, form the inland trading cities of Timbuktu and Gao on the fringes of the Sahara to the Guinea coast. The empire ruled millions of subjects, its three gold mines were responsible for producing more than half of the Old World’s gold and it also profited from the extremely lucrative salt trade. …

[It is from] Inslamic historian al-Umari’s conversations with Mansa Musa [Abubakari II’s successor] that we have our best account of Abubakari’s mission. Apparently, when Abubakari came to the throne in 1310, he ordered two hundred boats to set out to check whether, like the Niger River, the Atlantic Ocean had a far bank. Inorder to maximise the chances of success, a variety of boats was constructed.

Some of them would have been pirogues, which resembled a canoe, while others were probably based on Arab boats such as the dhow. Each of the two hundred vessels had a supply barge attached, with enough dried meat grain and preserved fruit in ceramic jars to last for two years, as well as cotton goods and gold for trade.

Of the two hundred vessels that departed only one returned. The captain reported to the mansa that:

we sailed for a long time, up to the moment when we encountered in mid-ocean something like a river with a violent current. My ship was lost. The others sailed on, and gradually each of them entered this place, the disappeared and did not come back. We did not know what had happened to them. As for me, I returned to where I was and did not enter the current.

It seems that most of the fleet was destroyed in a giant whirlpool. Yet Abubakari II’s curiosity was not diminished by this tale of natural disaster. He determined to make the voyage himself. In 1311 he abdicated, leaving matters of state in the hands of his younger half-brother Musa, and set off at the head of an expedition whose two thousand ships and their supply barges made it ten times as large as the previous one. They sailed off into the Atlantic from where The Gambia is today and were never heard from again.

Powerful but inconclusive arguments have been made to suggest that at least some of the fleet landed in America. The locations usually suggested are Recife in Brazil, or the Caribbean, where the Garifuna, a tribe known to the Europeans as Black Caribs, claimed pre-Columbian African ancestry. Arguments for a pre-Columbian Malian presence in the Americas include the prevalence of the bottle gourd, a native African plant, in South American cultures; the composition of spearheads, indicating the use of Malian gold; linguistic traces of Mandinka languages in the regions where the fleet may have landed; and Columbus’s assertion that he saw black traders working in the Americas when he arrived…

An excerpt from Ed Wright’s The Lost Explorers: Adventurers Who Disappeared Off the Face of the Earth, via the ever-illuminating Delanceyplace.com.

* James Joyce


As we investigate the initial, we might note that this leap-day (like every “last day in February”) is Rare Disease Day— an occasion devoted to raising awareness of and encouraging action on the too-often horrifying ailments that fall outside the spotlight, but that cumulatively are all-too-common.  It’s a great day to adopt an orphan (disease).

logo-rare-disease-day source


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February 29, 2020 at 1:01 am

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


As the number of researcher has grown, the productivity of research has fallen according to a graph in “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, by economists Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones, John Van Reenen and Michael Webb. Credit: Charles I. Jones

Once again, I’m brooding over science’s limits. I recently posted Q&As with three physicists with strong opinions on the topic–David DeutschMarcelo Gleiser and Martin Rees–as well as this column: “Is Science Infinite?” Then in March I attended a two-day brainstorming session–which I’ll call “The Session”–with 20 or so science-y folks over whether science is slowing down and what we can do about it.

The Session was inspired in part by research suggesting that scientific progress is stagnating. In “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, four economists claim that “a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms show[s] that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.” The economists are Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones and Michael Webb of Stanford and John Van Reenen of MIT.

As an counter-intuitive example, they cite Moore’s Law, noting that the “number of researchers required today to achieve the famous doubling every two years of the density of computer chips is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s.” The researchers found similar trends in research related to agriculture and medicine. More and more research on cancer and other illnesses has produced fewer and fewer lives saved.

These findings corroborate analyses presented by economists Robert Gordon in The Rise and Fall of American Growth and Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation. Bloom, Jones, Webb and Van Reenen also cite “The Burden of Knowledge and the ‘Death of the Renaissance Man’: Is Innovation Getting Harder?”, a 2009 paper by Benjamin Jones. He presents evidence that would-be innovators require more training and specialization to reach the frontier of a given field. Research teams are also getting bigger, and the number of patents per researcher has declined.

The economists are concerned primarily with what I would call applied science, the kind that fuels economic growth and increases wealth, health and living standards. Advances in medicine, transportation, agriculture, communication, manufacturing and so on. But their findings resonate with my claim in The End of Science that “pure” science—the effort simply to understand rather than manipulate nature–is bumping into limits…

John Horgan unpacks some of the dynamics that lead him to his gloomy conclusion in “Is science hitting a wall?”  It’s a fascinating, illuminating, and eminently worth the read… even if in the end it’s unconvincing, to your correspondent at least.

Readers might note that analogous sentiments reigned at the end of the 19th century (as per the quote that provides this post’s title).  Max Planck recalled being discouraged by a teacher (around 1875) from pursuing physics: “in this field,”  Philipp von Jolly told Planck, “almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.”  Planck ignored his advice– and became one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, which gave physics a very rich new life during the 20th century.  As we contemplate with Horgan the possible  “end” of its utility, we might take some consolation that brave new models are emerging, theories that might power physics– and science more generally– for at least another century.  Consider, for example, the theory that Stephen Hawking published two weeks before his death, proposing a method of detecting “the multiverse.”

* a quote widely– and incorrectly– attributed to William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, circa 1900.  It is actually a paraphrase of aa 1894 statement made by another great physicist,  Albert A. Michelson.


As we ponder progress, we might spare a thought for Benjamin Franklin; he died on this date in 1790.  One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Franklin was a renowned polymath: a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity.  As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod and the Franklin stove, among other innovations.   And as a social entrepreneur (who grasped the fact that by united effort a community could have amenities which only the wealthy few can afford for themselves), he helped establish several institutions people now take for granted: a fire company (1736), a library (1731), an insurance company (1752), an academy (the University of Pennsylvania, 1751), a hospital (1751), and the U.S. Postal Service (starting as postmaster of the Colonies in 1753, then becoming U.S. Postmaster during the Revolution).  In most cases these foundations were the first of their kind in North America.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

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