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Posts Tagged ‘history of science

“Nearly all the grandest discoveries of science have been but the rewards of accurate measurement”*…

… and, as Christie Aschwanden explains in her consideration of James Vincent‘s new book, Beyond Measure, that progress has been hard won– and has had cultural consequence…

… [Swiss meteorologist Jean-André de Luc] set out to find the true boiling point of water, but instead of finding a single answer to the question, de Luc instead found “only a multitude of phenomena forced into homogeneity by this single, restrictive term,” Vincent writes. (Scientists eventually turned to the steam produced by boiling water as a more reliable measure of temperature.)

And so it has gone with many types of measurements, Vincent observes. “The quest for precision — the desire to burrow ever more closely into the weft of reality — unveils only irregularity on a far greater scale.” The same might be said of science writ large, and Vincent’s recounting of the development of some science’s most well-used measures are classic tales in the history of scientific discovery. The meter, for instance, was originally intended as a unit of distance based on the Earth’s meridian until careful surveys showed that these meridians weren’t as perfect and unchanging as previously believed.

“Beyond Measure”offers engrossing accounts of the role that measurement has played in scientific progress, including its roles in medicine, math, and quantum mechanics, but the book is about much more than science. Vincent also presents a deep history of measurement’s role in society. “Measurement is not an intrinsic feature of the world, but a practice invented and imposed by humanity,” he writes.

Throughout human history, measurement has often provided a means for exerting power. For instance, the Roman Empire created a method for measuring land called the centuriatio that divided territory into grids. The system “not only simplified property rights and tax collection,” but also provided a way to portion out farmland to veterans and make roads amenable for marching troops, Vincent writes: “The survey, in other words, helped fund, direct, and reward Rome’s imperial war machine.”…

How the quest to quantify has shaped scientific progress and human society: “The Surpisingly Imprecise History of Measurement“- @cragcrest on @jjvincent in @undarkmag.

[Image above: source]

* Lord Kelvin

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As we contemplate quantification, we might send carefully-measured birthday greetings to Malcolm Purcell McLean; he was born on this date in 1914. A transportation entrepreneur, he parlayed his experience as a trucker into the development of the modern shipping container— which revolutionized transport and international trade in the second half of the twentieth century. Containerization led to a significant reduction in the cost of freight transportation by eliminating the need for repeated handling of individual pieces of cargo, and also improved reliability, reduced cargo theft, and cut inventory costs (thus, working capital needs) by shortening transit time.

When McLean died in 1987, then Secretary of Transportation Norm Minetta said:

Malcom revolutionized the maritime industry in the 20th century. His idea for modernizing the loading and unloading of ships, which was previously conducted in much the same way the ancient Phoenicians did 3,000 years ago, has resulted in much safer and less-expensive transport of goods, faster delivery, and better service. We owe so much to a man of vision, “the father of containerization,” Malcolm P. McLean.

In an editorial shortly after his death, the Baltimore Sun wrote that “he ranks next to Robert Fulton as the greatest revolutionary in the history of maritime trade,” and Forbes Magazine called McLean “one of the few men who changed the world.” On the morning of McLean’s funeral, container ships around the world blew their whistles in his honor.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 14, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”*…

Royal Society, Crane Court, off Fleet Street, London: a meeting in progress, with Isaac Newton in the chair. Wood engraving by J. Quartley after [J.M.L.R.], 1883. Credit: Wellcome Library

Geoff Anders unpacks the the social, cultural, and political dilemma facing science…

In November of 1660, at Gresham College in London, an invisible college of learned men held their first meeting after 20 years of informal collaboration. They chose their coat of arms: the royal crown’s three lions of England set against a white backdrop. Their motto: “Nullius in verba,” or “take no one’s word for it.” Three years later, they received a charter from King Charles II and became what was and remains the world’s preeminent scientific institution: the Royal Society.

Three and a half centuries later, in July of 2021, even respected publications began to grow weary of a different, now constant refrain: “Trust the science.” It was a mantra everyone was supposed to accept, repeated again and again, ad nauseum

This new motto was the latest culmination of a series of transformations science has undergone since the founding of the Royal Society, reflecting the changing nature of science on one hand, and its expanding social role on the other. 

The present world’s preeminent system of thought now takes science as a central pillar and wields its authority to great consequence. But the story of how that came to be is, as one might expect, only barely understood…

How “science” has become a political and cultural lightning rod, and what we can do about it: “The Transformations of Science,” from @geoffanders in @palladiummag.

Apposite (and sad): RIP, Bruno Latour.

* Carl Sagan

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As we excavate epistemology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1916 that Margaret Sanger, her sister, Ethel Byrne, both nurses, and an associate, Fania Mindell opened the Brownsville Clinic in Brooklyn– the first family planning and birth control clinic in the United States. (The first such clinic in the world opened in Amsterdam in 1885.)  The police quickly closed the facility; Sanger served 30 days in jail.  But she and her colleagues gamely re-opened; and in 1917, Sanger helped organize the National Birth Control League, which would later become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Sanger (center) at the Brownsville Clinic

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“What is the pattern that connects the crab to the lobster and the primrose to the orchid, and all of them to me, and me to you?”*…

Crab-like body plans have evolved independently at least five times. As Jason P. Dihn explains, biologists are still trying to figure out exactly why…

In 1989, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed a thought experiment: What would the world look like if we turned back time and replayed the evolutionary tape? “I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again,” he concluded. Maybe not. But crabs might.

Evolution just can’t stop creating crabs. Believe it or not, the flat-and-wide body plan has evolved at least five different times. The process is called carcinization, and it’s inspired comics, memes and entire subreddits.

Still, biologists don’t know why crabs keep evolving. Figuring it out would satisfy the online masses, sure, but it would also be a step toward solving other important scientific mysteries. For instance, why some species share evolutionary paths while others forge unique ones (looking at you, platypus)…

Convergent evolution: “Evolution Only Thinks About One Thing, and It’s Crabs,” from @JasonPDinh in @DiscoverMag.

Will crabs need to (re-)evolve a sixth time? “Alaska’s snow crabs have disappeared. Where they went is a mystery.”

(Image above: source)

* Gregory Bateson

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As we fiddle with phylogeny, we might spare a thought for Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild; he died on this date in 1937. A British banker, politician and soldier, he is best remembered for his pursuit of his passion— zoology and his collection of species. At its largest, Rothschild’s collection included 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds’ eggs, 2,250,000 butterflies and 30,000 beetles, as well as thousands of specimens of mammals, reptiles, and fishes. They formed the largest zoological collection ever amassed by a private individual (and are now part of the Natural History Museum). He named dozens of animal taxa, published Novitates Zoologicae, and authored or co-authored scores of scientific papers.

Related: “How Bird Collecting Evolved Into Bird-Watching.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 27, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”*…

Sometimes less is more…

Scientists have identified evolutionary modifications in the voice box distinguishing people from other primates that may underpin a capability indispensable to humankind – speaking.

Researchers said… an examination of the voice box, known as the larynx, in 43 species of primates showed that humans differ from apes and monkeys in lacking an anatomical structure called a vocal membrane – small, ribbon-like extensions of the vocal cords.

Humans also lack balloon-like laryngeal structures called air sacs that may help some apes and monkeys produce loud and resonant calls, and avoid hyperventilating, they found.

The loss of these tissues, according to the researchers, resulted in a stable vocal source in humans that was critical to the evolution of speech – the ability to express thoughts and feelings using articulate sounds. This simplification of the larynx enabled humans to have excellent pitch control with long and stable speech sounds, they said.

Sound production mechanisms in people and nonhuman primates are similar, with air from the lungs driving oscillations of the vocal cords. Acoustical energy generated this way then passes through the pharyngeal, oral and nasal cavities and emerges in a form governed by the filtering of specific frequencies dictated by the vocal tract.

“Speech and language are critically related, but not synonymous,” said primatologist and psychologist Harold Gouzoules of Emory University in Atlanta, who wrote a commentary in Science accompanying the study. “Speech is the audible sound-based manner of language expression – and humans, alone among the primates, can produce it.”

Paradoxically, the increased complexity of human spoken language followed an evolutionary simplification.

“I think it’s pretty interesting that sometimes in evolution ‘less is more’ – that by losing a trait you might open the door to some new adaptations,” Fitch said…

Pivotal evolutionary change helped pave the way for human speech,” from Will Dunham @Reuters.

[Image above: source]

* Leonardo da Vinci

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As we simpify, we might send thoughtfully-analyzed birthday greetings to Karl Gegenbaur; he was born on this date in 1826. An anatomist and professor, he was the first to demonstrate that the field of comparative anatomy offers important evidence supporting of the theory of evolution— of which, he became one of Europe’s leading proponents.

Gegenbaur’s book Grundzüge der vergleichenden Anatomie (1859; English translation: Elements of Comparative Anatomy) became the standard textbook, at the time, of evolutionary morphology, emphasizing that structural similarities among various animals provide clues to their evolutionary history. In a way that prefigured the research featured above, Gegenbaur noted that the most reliable clue to evolutionary history is homology, the comparison of anatomical parts which have a common evolutionary origin.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 21, 2022 at 1:00 am

“To achieve style, begin by affecting none”*…

The first issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society

From Roger’s Bacon, in New Science, a brief history of scientific writing…

Since the founding of the first scientific journal in 1665, there have been calls to do away with stylistic elements in favor of clarity, concision, and precision.

In 1667, Thomas Sprat urged members of the Royal Society to “reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men delivered so many things, almost in an equal number of words.” Some 200 years later, Charles Darwin said much the same: “I think too much pains cannot be taken in making the style transparently clear and throwing eloquence to the dogs” (Aaronson, 1977).

Darwin and Sprat eventually got their way. Modern scientific writing is homogenous, cookie-cutter, devoid of style. But scientific papers weren’t always like this.

Writing in The Last Word On Nothing blog, science journalist Roberta Kwok explains how old articles differ from their modern counterparts:

Scientists used to admit when they don’t know what the hell is going on.

When philosopher Pierre Gassendi tried to capture observations of Mercury passing in front of the Sun in 1631, he was beset by doubts:

“[T]hrown into confusion, I began to think that an ordinary spot would hardly pass over that full distance in an entire day. And I was undecided indeed… I wondered if perhaps I could not have been wrong in some way about the distance measured earlier.”

They get excited and use italics.

In 1892, a gentleman named William Brewster observed a bird called a northern shrike attacking a meadow mouse in Massachusetts. After tussling with its prey, he wrote, “[t]he Shrike now looked up and seeing me jumped on the mouse with both feet and flew off bearing it in its claws.”

They write charming descriptions.

Here’s French scientist Jean-Henri Fabre rhapsodizing about the emperor moth in his book, The Life of the Caterpillar (1916):

Who does not know the magnificent Moth, the largest in Europe, clad in maroon velvet with a necktie of white fur? The wings, with their sprinkling of grey and brown, crossed by a faint zig-zag and edged with smoky white, have in the centre a round patch, a great eye with a black pupil and a variegated iris containing successive black, white, chestnut and purple arcs.

All this to say: Scientists in the pre-modern era wrote freely, despite calls to do away with that freedom. At some point, narrative and literary styles vanished and were replaced with rigid formats and impoverished prose.  The question now is: Have we gone too far in removing artistry from scientific writing?

For a well-argued case that we have– “the way that we write is inseparable from the way that we think, and restrictions in one necessarily lead to restrictions in the other”– read on: “Research Papers Used to Have Style. What Happened?,” from @RogersBacon1 and @newscienceorg.

* E. B. White, The Elements of Style

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As we ponder purposive prose, we might spare a thought for Johann Adam Schall von Bell; he died on this date in 1666. An expressive writer in both German and Chinese, he was an astronomer and Jesuit missionary to China who revised the Chinese calendar, translated Western astronomical books, and was head of Imperial Board of Astronomy (1644-64). Given the Chinese name “Tang Ruowang,” he became a trusted adviser (1644-61) to Emperor Shun-chih, first emperor of the Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911/12), who made him a mandarin.

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