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Posts Tagged ‘history of science

“The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion”*…

A dog dressed as Marty McFly from Back to the Future attends the 25th Annual Tompkins Square Halloween Dog Parade in New York October 24, 2015.

“The past is obdurate,” Stephen King wrote in his book about a man who goes back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination. “It doesn’t want to be changed.”

Turns out, King might have been onto something.

Countless science fiction tales have explored the paradox of what would happen if you do something in the past that endangers the future. Perhaps one of the most famous pop culture examples is Back to the Future, when Marty McFly went back in time and accidentally stopped his parents from meeting, putting his own existence in jeopardy.

But maybe McFly wasn’t in much danger after all. According a new paper from researchers at the University of Queensland, even if time travel were possible, the paradox couldn’t actually exist…

Find out why: “Paradox-Free Time Travel Is Theoretically Possible, Researchers Say.

* Albert Einstein


As we ponder predestination, we might send cosmological birthday greetings to Enrico Fermi; he was born on this date in 1901.  A physicist who is best remembered for (literally) presiding over the birth of the Atomic Age, he was also remarkable as the last “double-threat” in his field:  a genius at creating both important theories and elegant experiments.  As recently observed, the division of labor between theorists and experimentalists has since been pretty complete.

The novelist and historian of science C. P. Snow wrote that “if Fermi had been born a few years earlier, one could well imagine him discovering Rutherford’s atomic nucleus, and then developing Bohr’s theory of the hydrogen atom. If this sounds like hyperbole, anything about Fermi is likely to sound like hyperbole.”


Written by LW

September 29, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see”*…

Detail from Richard Waller’s “Tabula colorum physiologica …” [Table of physiological colours], from Philosophical Transactions, 1686 — Source.

One of the most demanding challenges for early modern scientists was devising how best to visually portray their discoveries to the public. In the absence of any sort of technology for automatic visualisation, like cameras or scanners, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century natural philosopher had to rely on drawings and subsequently woodcuts, etchings, or engravings to turn an experimental finding into a reproducible and publicly accessible demonstration. This was a laborious, expensive, time-consuming, and often problematic operation. Negotiated between several parties involved in the world of image-making, such as draughtsmen, engravers, and printers, the results were inevitably compromises between the intentions of the researcher and the possibilities of the printing press. For example, what a drawing could express with shading, washing, and chromatic nuances, printed illustrations could only approximate through a binary system of black and white, resulting from the pressure of an inked copper plate against a page.

The problem of efficient imaging was particularly felt during the early years of the Royal Society, a scientific institution founded in London in the early 1660s and today still regarded as one of the most prestigious institutions of scientific research in the world. In its early decades of activity, the Royal Society established itself as one of the central forces of the Scientific Revolution, with renowned members such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Members of the Society used to meet on a weekly basis to discuss ongoing research on a variety of subjects, such as physics, mathematics, biology, astronomy, mechanics, geography, and antiquarianism.

Soon after its foundation, the Royal Society sought new ways to increase visibility and maximise its public reach. From this emerged the Philosophical Transactions, a monthly peer-reviewed journal, the first of its kind, featuring extracts from the Royal Society’s weekly research meetings. Founded in 1665 by the Society’s Secretary Henry Oldenburg and still published to this day, the Transactions are regarded as the first and longest-running scientific journal in history, as contributions were the result of original explorative studies into natural and mechanical matters informed by the Society’s culture of experiment — part of what today we generally call science.

The Transactions were printed in small quarto format (about 17x22cm) with up to about a dozen articles per issue and could be purchased for the price of one shilling, about £5 today. The journal was a pioneering learned publication, with exceptional frequency and aimed at a diverse public of curious researchers. As such, especially in the early years, its contributors were often preoccupied with how best to communicate their ideas and discoveries through the immediacy of mass-producible visual media. A closer look into a selection of these articles demonstrates the extent to which natural philosophers were prepared to re-invent the production and consumption of images with new and often odd strategies for representing the world. This was a process of endless hands-on experimentation, often pushing beyond the traditional confines of the printing house…

From infographics to digital renders, today’s scientists have ready access to a wide array of techniques to help visually communicate their research. It wasn’t always so: “‘More Lively Counterfaits’– Experimental Imaging at the Birth of Modern Science.”

* John Tukey


As we “show don’t tell,” we might spare a thought for Earle Dickson; he died on this date in 1961.  Dickson, concerned that his wife, Josephine Knight, often cut herself while doing housework and cooking, devised a way that she could easily apply her own dressings.  He prepared ready-made bandages by placing squares of cotton gauze at intervals along an adhesive strip and covering them with crinoline.  In the event, all his wife had to do was cut off a length of the strip and wrap it over her cut.  Dickson, who worked as a cotton buyer at Johnson & Johnson, took his idea to his employer… and the Band-Aid was born.


“Evidently, the fundamental laws of nature do not pin down a single and unique universe”*…

For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky Original printing of the Flammarion engraving, from 1888.
Artist unknown; from Camille Flammarion, L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire

The name of the image—the “Flammarion engraving”—may not ring a bell, but you’ve seen it many times. It depicts a traveler wearing a cloak and clutching a walking-stick; behind him is a varied landscape of towns and trees; surrounding all is a crystalline shell fretted with countless stars. Reaching the edge of his world, the traveler pushes through to the other side and is dazzled by a whole new world of light and rainbows and fire.

The image was first published in 1888 in a book by French astronomer Camille Flammarion. (The original engraving was black and white, although colorized versions now abound.) He notes that the sky does look like a dome on which the celestial bodies are attached, but impressions deceive. “Our ancestors,” Flammarion writes, “imagined that this blue vault was really what the eye would lead them to believe it to be; but, as Voltaire remarks, this is about as reasonable as if a silk-worm took his web for the limits of the universe.”

The engraving has come to be seen as a symbol of humanity’s quest for knowledge, but I prefer a more literal reading, in keeping with Flammarion’s intent. Time and again in the history of science, we have found an opening in the edge of the known world and poked through. The universe does not end at the orbit of Saturn, nor at the outermost stars of the Milky Way, nor at the most distant galaxy in our field of view. Today cosmologists think whole other universes may be out there.

But that is almost quotidian compared to what quantum mechanics reveals. It is not just a new opening in the dome, but a new kind of opening. Physicists and philosophers have long argued over what quantum theory means, but, in some way or other, they agree that it reveals a vast realm lying beyond the range of our senses. Perhaps the purest incarnation of this principle—the most straightforward reading of the equations of quantum theory—is the many-worlds interpretation, put forward by Hugh Everett in the 1950s. In this view, everything that can happen does in fact happen, somewhere in a vast array of universes, and the probabilities of quantum theory represent the relative numbers of universes experiencing one outcome or another. As David Wallace, a philosopher of physics at the University of Southern California, put it in his 2012 book, The Emergent Multiverse, when we take quantum mechanics literally, “the world turns out to be rather larger than we had anticipated: Indeed, it turns out our classical ‘world’ is only a small part of a much larger reality.”…

If multiverses seem weird, it’s because we need to revamp our notions of time and space: “The Multiple Multiverses May Be One and the Same.”

* Alan Lightman, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew


As we find one in many, we might send relativistic birthday greetings to Victor Frederick “Viki” Weisskopf; he was born on this date in 1908. A theoretical physicist who contributed mightily to the golden age of quantum mechanics, Weisskopf did postdoctoral work with Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Wolfgang Pauli and Niels Bohr. He emigrated from Austria to the U.S. in 1937 to escape Nazi persecution. During World War II he was Group Leader of the Theoretical Division of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, and later campaigned against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.


Written by LW

September 20, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”*…




I have a confession. As a physicist and psychiatrist, I find it difficult to engage with conversations about consciousness. My biggest gripe is that the philosophers and cognitive scientists who tend to pose the questions often assume that the mind is a thing, whose existence can be identified by the attributes it has or the purposes it fulfils.

But in physics, it’s dangerous to assume that things ‘exist’ in any conventional sense. Instead, the deeper question is: what sorts of processes give rise to the notion (or illusion) that something exists? For example, Isaac Newton explained the physical world in terms of massive bodies that respond to forces. However, with the advent of quantum physics, the real question turned out to be the very nature and meaning of the measurements upon which the notions of mass and force depend – a question that’s still debated today.

As a consequence, I’m compelled to treat consciousness as a process to be understood, not as a thing to be defined. Simply put, my argument is that consciousness is nothing more and nothing less than a natural process such as evolution or the weather. My favourite trick to illustrate the notion of consciousness as a process is to replace the word ‘consciousness’ with ‘evolution’ – and see if the question still makes sense. For example, the question What is consciousness for? becomes What is evolution for? Scientifically speaking, of course, we know that evolution is not for anything. It doesn’t perform a function or have reasons for doing what it does – it’s an unfolding process that can be understood only on its own terms. Since we are all the product of evolution, the same would seem to hold for consciousness and the self.

My view on consciousness resonates with that of the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who has spent his career trying to understand the origin of the mind. Dennett is concerned with how mindless, mere ‘causes’ (A leads to B) can give rise to the species of mindful ‘reasons’ as we know them (A happens so that B can happen). Dennett’s solution is what he calls ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea’: the insight that it’s possible to have design in the absence of a designer, competence in the absence of comprehension, and reasons (or ‘free-floating rationales’) in the absence of reasoners. A population of beetles that has outstripped another has probably done so for some ‘reason’ we can identify – a favourable mutation which produces a more camouflaging colour, for example. ‘Natural selection is thus an automatic reason-finder, which “discovers” and “endorses” and “focuses” reasons over many generations,’ Dennett writes in From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017). ‘The scare quotes are to remind us that natural selection doesn’t have a mind, doesn’t itself have reasons, but is nevertheless competent to perform this “task” of design refinement.’

I hope to show you that nature can drum up reasons without actually having them for herself. In what follows, I’m going to argue that things don’t exist for reasons, but certain processes can nonetheless be cast as engaged in reasoning…

Distinguished neuroscientist and psychiatrist Karl Friston argues that the special trick of consciousness is being able to project action and time into a range of possible futures: “The mathematics of mind-time.”

See also: “How the Brain Creates a Timeline of the Past” (source of the image above).

* Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex


As we get our minds around our minds, we might spare a thought for Oliver Wolf Sacks; he died on this date in 2015.  A neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author, he had an active clinical practice, but is more widely-remembered for his writing, mostly case studies from his clinical experience and memoir in which which he treats himself as a clinical subject.  Awakenings, for example, recounted his experience treating post-encephalitic patients with a new drug (levodopa); it was a best seller that served as the basis of a BBC Discovery documentary and was adapted into a feature film.  Widely honored for his prolific work, Sacks was the recipient of the 2001 Lewis Thomas Prize for excellence in scientific writing.

250px-9.13.09OliverSacksByLuigiNovi source


Written by LW

August 30, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable”*…


FL covid


Data visualizations that make no sense...




work from home

More at “WTF Visualizations.”

* Mark Twain


As we celebrate clarity, we might spare a thought for the mathematician, biologist, historian of science, literary critic, poet, and inventor Jacob Bronowski; he died on this date in 1974.  Bronowski is probably best remembered as the writer (and host) of the epochal 1973 BBC television documentary series (and accompanying book), The Ascent of Man (the title of which was a play on the title of Darwin’s second book on evolution, The Descent of Man)… the thirteen-part series, a survey of the history of science–  from rock tools to relativity– and its place in civilizations, is still an extraordinary treat.  It’s available at libraries, on DVD, or (occasionally) on streaming services.




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