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Posts Tagged ‘Galileo

“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.

Written by LW

November 22, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Religion is like a pair of shoes… Find one that fits for you, but don’t make me wear your shoes”*…

 

Procession of the Catholic Holy League on the Place de Grève, Paris, 1590-3 (oil on canvas). Such displays of intolerance became increasingly rare with the advent of the modern European state. [source]

Religious freedom has become an emblematic value in the West. Embedded in constitutions and championed by politicians and thinkers across the political spectrum, it is to many an absolute value, something beyond question. Yet how it emerged, and why, remains widely misunderstood.

According to the conventional narrative, freedom of religion arose in the West in the wake of devastating wars fought over religion. It was catalysed by powerful arguments from thinkers such as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Pierre Bayle and Voltaire. These philosophers and political theorists responded to the brutality of the religious wars with support for radical notions of toleration and religious freedom. Their liberal ideals then became embedded in the political institutions of the West, following the American and French Revolutions.

In broad outline, such is the account accepted by most political philosophers and social scientists. But the evidence does not support this emphasis on the power of ideas in shaping the rise of religious freedom, and underestimates the decisive role played by institutions…

Ideas were not enough to realise religious freedom. Crucially, it took political and institutional changes – specifically, the growth and strengthening of the ability of states to create and enforce rules – to make religious freedom in the West possible and appealing. It wasn’t the ideas of Bayle or Spinoza or Locke driving the rise of state power, it was the need to raise resources for governing and war. For the rising fiscal-military state, religious uniformity and persecution simply became too expensive and inefficient…

The first change was the transformation in the scale of European states. In the late Middle Ages, medieval rulers began to invest in building administrative capacity and to raise taxes more regularly. The most dramatic developments, however, occurred after 1500, as a result of developments in military technology that historians label the Military Revolution. This continent-wide arms race, brought on by the development of gunpowder, forced rulers to invest in greater fiscal and administrative capacity.

To pay for larger armies, new taxes had to be raised and a permanent system of government borrowing established. Moreover, there was a shift away from ad hoc, feudal and decentralised tax systems, and a move towards standardisation and centralisation. Rather than relying upon tax farmers, the church or merchant companies to raise taxes on their behalf, rulers invested in vast bureaucracies to do it directly. It was the only way they could pay for their ever-growing armies…

Economic changes complemented the rise of religious freedom, most notably the onset of modern economic growth. As in the Jewish example, greater freedom allowed religious minorities to flourish. French Protestants expelled by Louis XIV brought with them advanced skills and industrial expertise to England, the Netherlands and Prussia. In Industrial Revolution Britain, Quakers and other religious dissenters were overrepresented among businessmen, entrepreneurs and innovators.

The indirect consequences of moving from identity rules to general rules were even more important. Identity rules had limited the scope of trade and the division of labour. As these identity rules were removed – as guilds lost authority, and cities and lords lost their ability to charge internal tariffs – trade and commerce expanded.

The growth of trade, in turn, reinforced the trend towards liberalism. Trade, as Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu argued, encouraged individuals to see the world through the positive-sum lens of mutual beneficial interaction rather than through the zero-sum lens of conflict. Religious freedom began to seem less like a recipe for social disorder and civil war, and more like a win-win proposition…

The history of how religious freedom came to be is a reminder that commitment to liberal values alone is not enough for liberalism to flourish. It requires a suitable political and economic foundation. As the experience of 1930s Germany suggests, religious persecution can quickly re-emerge. We cannot rely on liberal ideas alone to be effective. If we value religious freedom, and other achievements of liberalism, we must look to the vitality of their institutional foundations.

This fascinating essay in its entirety at: “Ideas were not enough.” (Note earlier examples of of religious freedom as both a tool and a result of statecraft, e.g., Genghis Khan’s building of the Mongol Empire.)

* George Carlin

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As we celebrate tolerance, we might send free-thinking birthday greetings to Tommaso Campanella; he was born on this date in 1568.  A Dominican friar, philosopher, theologian, astrologer, and poet, he was an early empiricist and a vocal critic of the Aristotelian orthodoxy (indeed, he wrote and published a defense of Galileo during the great astronomer’s ecclesiastical trial).  For his heterodoxy, he was denounced to the Inquisition and imprisoned.

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Written by LW

September 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants”*…

 

Newton’s reflecting telescope of 1671

On 11 January 1672, the Fellows of the British Royal Society were treated to a demonstration of Isaac Newton’s reflecting telescope, which formed images with mirrors rather than with the lenses that had been used since the time of Galileo. Afterward, the fellows hailed Newton as the inventor of this marvellous new instrument, an attribution that sticks to the present. However, this linear historical account obscures a far more interesting, convoluted story. Newton’s claim was immediately challenged on behalf of two other contenders, James Gregory and Laurent Cassegrain. More confounding, the earliest known concept of using a curved mirror to focus light predated Newton by more than 1,500 years; the final realisation of a practical reflecting telescope post-dated him by more than a half century…

For almost any device, claiming one individual as the inventor is problematic to say the least. Conception, demonstration and implementation can be very different things, and the path connecting them is typically not a line but a long, challenging and tortuous route…

A cautionary tale illustrating the danger of crediting technologies to single inventors: “How many great minds does it take to invent a telescope?

Pair with this explanation of why men so often get credit for women’s inventions– a phenomenon so common that it has a name, “the Matilda effect.”

* Issac Newton

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As we share the credit, we might send scientific birthday greetings to Vincenzo Viviani; he was born on this date in 1622.  A mathematician and engineer, Viviani is probably best remembered as a discipline of Galileo: he served as the (then-blind) scientist’s secretary until Galileo’s death; he edited the first edition of Galileo’s collected works; and he worked tirelessly to have his master’s memory rehabilitated.  But Viviani was an accomplished scientist in his own right: he published a number of books on mathematical and scientific subjects, and was a founding member of the Accademia del Cimento, one of the first important scientific societies, predating England’s Royal Society.

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Written by LW

April 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible”*…

 

Many scientists know the pain of meeting a stranger at cocktail party or sitting down at Thanksgiving and getting this question: So, what’s your research about?

Though trying to distill the function of mRNA in gene expression into a few minutes of intelligible chit chat may seem as hard as earning a Ph.D., the ability to communicate complex research to the general public is of the utmost importance.

So to help academics everywhere, American Association for the Advancement of Science launched the annual “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest. Now in it’s ninth year, the contest requires grad students translate their often complex research into a new format, giving them a different perspective on their work and a chance to communicate their findings with the public. It’s also fun…

The full story (replete with videos of victorious performances) at “Jive to the Academic Beat With This Year’s ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’ Winners.”

* Richard Feynman

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As we let the spirits move us, we might recall that it was on this date in 1993 that the Roman Catholic Church admitted that it had erred in condemning Galileo.  For over 359 years, the Church had excoriated Galileo’s contentions (e.g., that the Earth revolves around the Sun) as anti-scriptural heresy.  In 1633, at age 69, Galileo had been forced by the Roman Inquisition to repent, and spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest.  After 13 years of inquiry, Pope John Paul II’s commission of historic, scientific and theological scholars brought the pontiff a “not guilty” finding for Galileo; the Pope himself met with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to help correct the record.

Galileo (standing; white collar, dark smock) showing the Doge of Venice (seated) how to use the telescope. From a fresco by Giuseppe Bertini

source

 

“Witches was the invention of mankind, son. We’re all witches beneath the skin”*…

 

The history of witchcraft in Britain is a dark one, brimming with trials, persecution and torture, which claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent men and women during the 16th and 17th centuries. But what did you actually have to do to end up in the dock, accused of Devil worship and crimes of witchcraft? Very little, as the following questions, compiled with the help of Owen Davies, professor of social history at the University of Hertfordshire, reveal…

Take the quiz at “Would you have been accused of witchcraft?

* Ian Rankin, The Flood

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As we stir our cauldrons, we might spend a memorial moment honoring two extraordinary explorers who died on this date.  Marco Polo, whose coda to his remarkable travelogue was “I did not tell half of what I saw,” passed away on this date in 1324.

A page from “Il Milione” (aka” Le Livre des Merveilles” (“The Book of Wonders”)… and in English, “The Travels of Marco Polo”

And Galileo Galilei, the Italian physicist, philosopher, and pioneering astronomer, rose to his beloved heavens on this date in 1642.  Galileo (whom, readers will recall, had his share of trouble with authorities displeased with his challenge to Aristotelean cosmology), died insisting “still, it [the Earth] moves.”

Draft of Galileo’s letter to Leonardo Donato, Doge of Venice, in which he first recorded the movement of the moons of Jupiter– an observation that upset the notion that all celestial bodies must revolve around the Earth.

Written by LW

January 8, 2015 at 1:01 am

“The safest place to be during an earthquake would be in a stationary store”*…

 

The United States is currently gripped in a bout of earthquake mania, following a series of significant tremors in the West. And any time Yellowstone, LA, or San Francisco shakes, people start to wonder if it’s a sign of The Big One™ to come. Yet even after decades of research, earthquake prediction remains notoriously hard, and not every building in quake-prone areas has an earthquake-resistant design. What if, instead of quaking in our boots, we could stop quakes in their tracks?

Theoretically, it’s not a crazy idea. Earthquakes propagate in waves, and if noise-canceling headphones have taught us anything, it’s that waves can be absorbed, reflected, or canceled out. Today, a paper published in Physical Review Letters suggests how that might be done. It’s the result of French research into the use of metamaterials—broadly, materials with properties not found in nature—to modify seismic waves, like a seismic cloaking device…

Read all about it in “How a ‘Seismic Cloak’ Could Slow Down an Earthquake.”

* George Carlin

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As we think soothing thoughts of stability, we might send scientific birthday greetings to Vincenzo Viviani; he was born n this date in 1622.  A mathematician and engineer, Viviani is probably best remembered as a discipline of Galileo: he served as the (then-blind) Galileo’s secretary until his death; he edited the first edition of Galileo’s collected works; and he worked tirelessly to have his master’s memory rehabilitated.  But Viviani was an accomplished scientist in his own right: he published a number of books on mathematical and scientific subjects, and was a founding member of the Accademia del Cimento, one of the first important scientific societies, predating England’s Royal Society.

 source

 

Written by LW

April 5, 2014 at 1:01 am

Move over, Magic Eight Ball…

As the salaries, bonuses , and options packages of America’s corporate elite continue to rise, so does their responsibility to arm themselves with the most advanced decision technology.  Those sighs of relief one can hear from behind the doors of C suites and executive washrooms?  They’re the bosses’ relieved reaction to Thinkgeek’s new Schrödinger’s Cat Executive Decision Maker:

When decisions need to be made, sometimes there isn’t a right choice. Hire Bob or Bob? Order pizza or Chinese? Give up your free will to the Schrödinger’s Cat Executive Decision Maker.

To use the Schrödinger’s Cat Executive Decision Maker:

– Ask your question. Any question that can be answered in a binary fashion will do. The cat is extremely bored in the box and will listen to whatever you say. It is open to questions of an executive, legislative, or personal nature. You’ll never know the answer if you don’t ask.

– Slide open the door. At this point, the magic will happen and you’ll see the cat flashing in flux between life and death. You’ll either find this disturbing or intensely magical. We won’t pass judgement on your character based on your reaction, we promise.

– See your decision solidify before you. The cat will be alive (which we interpret as a “Yes”) or dead (or “No”). The almighty Schrödinger’s Cat Executive Decision Maker has spoken. Go and do its bidding. Meow.

As we get cozy with uncertainty, we might recall that it was on this date in 1616 that Cardinal Roberto Francesco Romolo Bellarmino decreed that  Copernican theory is “false and erroneous.”  It was this decree that Galileo violated, for which he was tried and put under house arrest for the last eight years of his life.  Bellarmino was canonized in 1930.

 San Roberto (source)

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