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Posts Tagged ‘history of science

“To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself”*…

The human body replaces its own cells regularly. Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, have finally pinned down the speed and extent of this “turnover.” About a third of our body mass is fluid outside of our cells, such as plasma, plus solids, such as the calcium scaffolding of bones. The remaining two thirds is made up of roughly 30 trillion human cells. About 72 percent of those, by mass, are fat and muscle, which last an average of 12 to 50 years, respectively. But we have far more, tiny cells in our blood, which live only three to 120 days, and lining our gut, which typically live less than a week. Those two groups therefore make up the giant majority of the turnover. About 330 billion cells are replaced daily, equivalent to about 1 percent of all our cells. In 80 to 100 days, 30 trillion will have replenished—the equivalent of a new you…

Our Bodies Replace Billions of Cells Every Day: “A New You in 80 Days.”

* Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See


As we sail on the Ship of Theseus, we might spare a thought for Hans Ernst August Buchner; he died on this date in 1902. A bacteriologist, he was a pioneer in the field of immunology, the first to discover a substance in blood, gamma globulins, natural bactericides capable of destroying bacteria.  He also worked with his brother Eduard Buchner, a chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1907 for his work on fermentation (which helped pave the way for our understanding of the work of enzymes); Ernst had died in 1902, and so did not share in the honor.


“People seemed to believe that technology had stripped hurricanes of their power to kill. No hurricane expert endorsed this view.”*…

Tropical Storm Bertha approaching the South Carolina coast, May 27, 2020

For six straight years, Atlantic storms have been named in May, before [hurricane] season even begins. During the past nine Atlantic hurricane seasons, seven tropical storms have formed between May 15 and the official June 1 start date. Those have killed at least 20 people, causing about $200 million in damage, according to the WMO.

Last year, the hurricane center issued 36 “special” tropical weather outlooks before June 1, according to center spokesman Dennis Feltgen. Tropical Storms Arthur and Bertha both formed before June 1 near the Carolinas.

torms seem to be forming earlier because climate change is making the ocean warmer, University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy said. Storms need warm water as fuel — at least 79 degrees (26 degrees Celsius). Also, better technology and monitoring are identifying and naming weaker storms that may not have been spotted in years past, Feltgen said…

With named storms coming earlier and more often in warmer waters, the Atlantic hurricane season is going through some changes with meteorologists ditching the Greek alphabet during busy years…

A special World Meteorological Organization committee Wednesday ended the use of Greek letters when the Atlantic runs out of the 21 names for the year, saying the practice was confusing and put too much focus on the Greek letter and not on the dangerous storm it represented. Also, in 2020 with Zeta, Eta and Theta, they sounded so similar it caused problems.

The Greek alphabet had only been used twice in 2005 and nine times last year in a record-shattering hurricane season. 

Starting this year, if there are more than 21 Atlantic storms, the next storms will come from a new supplemental list headed by Adria, Braylen, Caridad and Deshawn and ending with Will. There’s a new back-up list for the Eastern Pacific that runs from Aidan and Bruna to Zoe.

Meanwhile, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration is recalculating just what constitutes an average hurricane season… But the Atlantic hurricane season will start this year on June 1 as traditionally scheduled, despite meteorologists discussing the idea of moving it to May 15…

With so much activity, MIT’s [Kerry] Emanuel said the current warnings are too storm-centric, and he wants them more oriented to where people live, warning of specific risks such as floods and wind. That includes changing or ditching the nearly 50-year-old Saffir Simpson scale of rating hurricanes Category 1 to 5. 

That wind-based scale is “about a storm, it’s not about you. I want to make it about you, where you are,” he said. “It is about risk. In the end, we are trying to save lives and property”… Differentiating between tropical storms, hurricanes and extratropical cyclones can be a messaging problem when a system actually has a cold core, because these weaker storms can kill with water surges rather than wind… For example, some people and officials underestimated 2012’s Sandy because it wasn’t a hurricane and lost its tropical characteristic… 

Rethinking hurricanes in a time of climate change: “Bye Alpha, Eta: Greek alphabet ditched for hurricane names.”

* Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History


As we accommodate climate change, we might spare a thought for George Alfred Leon Sarton; he died on this date in 1956. A chemist by training, his primary interest lay in the past practices and precepts of his field…an interest that led him to found the discipline of the history of science as an independent field of study. His most influential work was the Introduction to the History of Science (three volumes totaling 4,296 pages). Sarton ultimately aimed to achieve an integrated philosophy of science that connected the sciences and the humanities– what he called “the new humanism.” His name is honored with the prestigious George Sarton Medal, awarded by the History of Science Society.


“Happy accidents are real gifts”*…

Fresco by Bertini, “Galileo and the Doge of Venice”

On the morning of July 25, 1610, Galileo pointed his telescope at Saturn and was surprised to find that it appeared to be flanked by two round blobs or bumps, one on either side. Unfortunately, Galileo’s telescope wasn’t quite advanced enough to pick out precisely what he had seen (his observations are now credited with being the earliest description of Saturn’s rings in astronomical history), but he nevertheless presumed that whatever he had seen was something special. And he wanted people to know about it.

Keen to announce his news and thereby secure credit for whatever it was he had discovered, Galileo sent letters to his friends and fellow astronomers. This being Galileo, the announcement was far from straightforward:


Each message that Galileo sent out contained little more than that jumbled string of letters, which when rearranged correctly spelled out the Latin sentence, “altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi”—or “I have observed that the highest planet is threefold.”

As the outermost planet known to science at the time, Saturn was the “highest planet” in question. And unaware that he had discovered its rings, Galileo was merely suggesting to his contemporaries that he had found that the planet was somehow divided into three parts. Announcing such a discovery in the form of an anagram might have bought Galileo some time to continue his observations, however, but there was a problem: Anagrams can easily be misinterpreted.

One of those to whom Galileo sent a letter was the German scientist Johannes Kepler. A keen astronomer himself, Kepler had followed and supported Galileo’s work for several years, so when the coded letter arrived at his home in Prague he quickly set to work solving it. Unfortunately for him, he got it completely wrong.

Kepler rearranged Galileo’s word jumble as “salve, umbistineum geminatum Martia proles,” which he interpreted as “be greeted, double-knob, children of Mars.” His solution was far from perfect (umbistineum isn’t really a grammatical Latin word, for one thing), but Kepler was nevertheless convinced that, not only had he correctly solved the riddle, but Galileo’s apparent discovery proved a theory he had been contemplating for several months.

Earlier in 1610, Galileo had discovered the four so-called “Galilean moons” of Jupiter: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Although we now know that Jupiter has several dozen moons of varying shapes, sizes, and orbits, at the time the announcement of just four natural satellites had led Kepler to presume that there must be a natural progression in the heavens: the Earth has one moon; Jupiter, two places further out from the Earth, has four; and sat between the two is Mars, which Kepler theorized must surely have two moons, to maintain the balanced celestial sequence 1, 2, 4 and so on (his only question was whether Saturn had six or eight).

Kepler got the anagram wrong, and the presumption that Jupiter only had four moons had been wrong. Yet as misguided as both these facts were, the assumption that Kepler made based on both of them—namely, that Mars had two moons—was entirely correct. Unfortunately for Kepler, his theory would not be proved until long after his death, as the two Martian moons Phobos and Deimos (named after Ares’s sons in Greek Mythology) were not discovered until 1877, by the American astronomer Asaph Hall.

Nevertheless, a misinterpretation of the anagram had accidentally predicted a major astronomical discovery of the 19th century, nearly 300 years before it occurred…

Serendipity in science: “How A Misinterpreted Anagram Predicted The Moons of Mars.”

(For an account of Isaac Newton’s use of anagrams in his scientific communications, see here.)

* David Lynch


As we code and decode, we might recall that it was on this date in 1781 that English astronomer William Herschel detected every schoolboy’s favorite planet, Uranus, in the night sky (though he initially thought it was a comet); it was the first planet to be classified as such with the aid of a telescope.  In fact, Uranus had been detected much earlier– but mistaken for a star: the earliest likely observation was by Hipparchos, who (in 128 BC) seems to have recorded the planet as a star for his star catalogue, later incorporated into Ptolemy’s Almagest.  The earliest definite sighting was in 1690 when John Flamsteed observed it at least six times, cataloguing it as the star 34 Tauri.

Herschel named the planet in honor of his King: Georgium Sidus (George’s Star), an unpopular choice, especially outside England; argument over alternatives ensued.  Berlin astronomer Johann Elert Bode came up with the moniker “Uranus,” which was adopted throughout the world’s astronomical community by 1850.

 Uranus, photographed by Voyager 2 in 1986.


“Man tends to define in terms of the familiar. But the fundamental truths may not be familiar.”*…

Most of us probably do not need to think too hard to distinguish living things from the “non-living”. A human is alive; a rock is not. Easy!

Scientists and philosophers do not see things quite this clearly. They have spent millennia pondering what it is that makes something alive. Great minds from Aristotle to Carl Sagan have given it some thought – and they still have not come up with a definition that pleases everyone. In a very literal sense, we do not yet have a “meaning” for life.

If anything, the problem of defining life has become even more difficult over the last 100 years or so. Until the 19th Century one prevalent idea was that life is special thanks to the presence of an intangible soul or “vital spark”. This idea has now fallen out of favour in scientific circles. It has since been superseded by more scientific approaches. Nasa, for instance, has described life as “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”.

But Nasa’s is just one of many attempts to pin down all life with a simple description. In fact, over 100 definitions of life have been proposed, with most focusing on a handful of key attributes such as replication and metabolism.

To make matters worse, different kinds of scientist have different ideas about what is truly necessary to define something as alive. While a chemist might say life boils down to certain molecules, a physicist might want to discuss thermodynamics…

A comparative survey of the definitions that currently exist concludes…

To properly define life, we might need to find some aliens.

The irony is that attempts to pin down a definition of life before we discover those aliens might actually make them more difficult to find. What a tragedy it would be if in the 2020s the new Mars rover trundles straight past a Martian, simply because it does not recognise it as being alive.

“The definition can actually hinder the search for novel life,” says [Carol] Cleland. “We need to get away from our current concept, so that we are open to discovering life as we don’t know it.”

It is surprisingly difficult to pin down the difference between living and non-living things: “There are over 100 definitions of ‘life’ and all are wrong.

* Carl Sagan


As we strive for beginner’s mind, we might send exploratory birthday greetings to John Theophilus Desaguliers; he was born on this date in 1683. A natural philosopher, clergyman, and engineer, he is best remembered as the experimental assistant to Isaac Newton, who went on to popularize Newton’s work in public lectures and publications. On the strength of that work, Desaguliers was elected to the Royal Society and ultimately became its curator.

In his own work he coined the terms conductor and insulator. He repeated and extended the work of Stephen Gray in electricity. He proposed a scheme for heating vessels such as salt-boilers by steam instead of fire. And he made inventions of his own (e.g., a planetarium), and material improvements to others’ machines, such as Thomas Savery’s steam engine (by adding a safety valve and using an internal water jet to condense the steam in the displacement chambers) and a ventilator at the House of Commons. 


“Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.”*…

No scripture is as old as mathematics is. All the other sciences are younger, most by thousands of years. More than history, mathematics is the record that humanity is keeping of itself. History can be revised or manipulated or erased or lost. Mathematics is permanent. A² + B² = C² was true before Pythagoras had his name attached to it, and will be true when the sun goes out and no one is left to think of it. It is true for any alien life that might think of it, and true whether they think of it or not. It cannot be changed. So long as there is a world with a horizontal and a vertical axis, a sky and a horizon, it is inviolable and as true as anything that can be thought.

As precise as mathematics is, it is also the most explicit language we have for the description of mysteries. Being the language of physics, it describes actual mysteries—things we can’t see clearly in the natural world but suspect are true and later confirm—and imaginary mysteries, things that exist only in the minds of mathematicians. A question is where these abstract mysteries exist, what their home range is. Some people would say that they reside in the human mind, that only the human mind has the capacity to conceive of what are called mathematical objects, meaning numbers and equations and formulas and so on—the whole glossary and apparatus of mathematics—and to bring these into being, and that such things arrive as they do because of the way our minds are structured. We are led to examine the world in a way that agrees with the tools that we have for examining it. (We see colors as we do, for example, because of how our brains are structured to receive the reflection of light from surfaces.) This is a minority view, held mainly by neuroscientists and a certain number of mathematicians disinclined toward speculation. The more widely held view is that no one knows where math resides. There is no mathematician/naturalist who can point somewhere and say, “That is where math comes from” or “Mathematics lives over there,” say, while maybe gesturing toward magnetic north and the Arctic, which I think would suit such a contrary and coldly specifying discipline.

The belief that mathematics exists somewhere else than within us, that it is discovered more than created, is called Platonism, after Plato’s belief in a non-spatiotemporal realm that is the region of the perfect forms of which the objects on earth are imperfect reproductions. By definition, the non-spatiotemporal realm is outside time and space. It is not the creation of any deity; it simply is. To say that it is eternal or that it has always existed is to make a temporal remark, which does not apply. It is the timeless nowhere that never has and never will exist anywhere but that nevertheless is. The physical world is temporal and declines; the non-spatiotemporal one is ideal and doesn’t.

A third point of view, historically and presently, for a small but not inconsequential number of mathematicians, is that the home of mathematics is in the mind of a higher being and that mathematicians are somehow engaged with Their thoughts. Georg Cantor, the creator of set theory—which in my childhood was taught as a part of the “new math”—said, “The highest perfection of God lies in the ability to create an infinite set, and its immense goodness leads Him to create it.” And the wildly inventive and self-taught mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, about whom the movie “The Man Who Knew Infinity” was made, in 2015, said, “An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.”

In Book 7 of the Republic, Plato has Socrates say that mathematicians are people who dream that they are awake. I partly understand this, and I partly don’t.

Mathematics has been variously described as an ideal reality, a formal game, and the poetry of logical ideas… an excerpt from “What is Mathematics?” from Alec Wilkinson— eminently worthy of reading in full.

* Albert Einstein


As we sum it up, we might send carefull-calcuated birthday greetings to Georgiy Antonovich Gamov; he was born on this date in 1904. Better known by the name he adopted on immigrating to the U.S., George Gamow, he was a physicist and cosmologist whose early work was instrumental in developing the Big Bang theory of the universe; he also developed the first mathematical model of the atomic nucleus.

But mid-career Gamow began to shift his energy to teaching and to writing popular books on science… one of which, One Two Three… Infinity, inspired legions of young scientists-to-be and kindled a life-long interest in science in an even larger number of other youngsters (like your correspondent).


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