(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘history of science

“It was impossible to tame, like leeches”*…

A replica of the Tempest Prognosticator in the Whitby Museum. (Badobadop/Wikimedia Commons)

Or maybe just not worth it…

If you’re like me, one of the few remaining artifacts of the pre-Internet age that you’re able to regularly revel in is the mail order catalog. I particularly love the desk toys highlighted they show off—often, some of the most luxurious are vintage weather prediction devices. Today’s tedium is about the Victorian “Tempest Prognosticator,” a vintage weather forecast device you’re not likely to see as a desk toy any time soon—because maintaining one also means taking care of a dozen leeches…

George Merryweather, a member of Whitby, North Yorkshire’s then-thriving intellectual scene, masterminded the “Tempest Prognosticator” as a years-long hobby that culminated in its public display in 1851.

As a physician, Merryweather would already have been quite familiar with leeches, but in his essays, Merryweather said he was inspired by a poem, which spoke of how the common “medicinal leech” tends to move up in a jar of rainwater as a storm nears, then settle to the bottom in clear conditions…

To harness this instinct, Merryweather placed 12 leeches in their own jars of rainwater, arranged in a circle to keep each other company. Atop each jar, he rigged a piece of whale bone to a chain that, when yanked, would hit a bell he had placed in the center. As leeches rose to the top of their jars in advance of a storm, they would come into contact with the bone and sound the bell. The more bells that sounded, the more likely there was to be a storm, and the more intense it was likely to be…

At the time, consensus among the leech-invested appears to have emerged that these behaviors were due to the creatures’ innate ability to sense electromagnetic energy gathering in advance of a storm. Merryweather himself was a major proponent of this belief, dedicating a significant portion of his essays to reiterating Michael Faraday’s contemporary work on electromagnetism.

Unfortunately for him, we now know this acknowledgement was likely both unnecessary and uncalled-for. Leeches’ faculties for weather prediction turn out to actually be pretty patchy, and their “instincts” for this are far simpler than it seemed to him at the time. Leeches “breathe” through their body walls by absorbing the dissolved oxygen in the water they inhabit. When atmospheric pressure drops, a fractional amount less oxygen remains dissolved, and they move toward the surface, where the water is more oxygen-rich.

In effect, the “Tempest Prognosticator” was one of the world’s most elaborate barometers…

More of the remarkable story– and what it can teach us– at “The Leech Machine,” from Nathan Lawrence (@NathanBLawrence) in @ShortFormErnie‘s wonderful @readtedium.

* Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), Who Could That Be at This Hour?


As we consult the Almanac, we might recall that on this date in 1949, after two days in which a few flakes fell, Los Angeles “enjoyed” a real snow fall.

Snow at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, La Cañada Flintridge, January 1949. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL Archive.

“No structure, even an artificial one, enjoys the process of entropy. It is the ultimate fate of everything, and everything resists it.”*…

A 19th-century thought experiment that motivates physicists– and information scientists– still…

The universe bets on disorder. Imagine, for example, dropping a thimbleful of red dye into a swimming pool. All of those dye molecules are going to slowly spread throughout the water.

Physicists quantify this tendency to spread by counting the number of possible ways the dye molecules can be arranged. There’s one possible state where the molecules are crowded into the thimble. There’s another where, say, the molecules settle in a tidy clump at the pool’s bottom. But there are uncountable billions of permutations where the molecules spread out in different ways throughout the water. If the universe chooses from all the possible states at random, you can bet that it’s going to end up with one of the vast set of disordered possibilities.

Seen in this way, the inexorable rise in entropy, or disorder, as quantified by the second law of thermodynamics, takes on an almost mathematical certainty. So of course physicists are constantly trying to break it.

One almost did. A thought experiment devised by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1867 stumped scientists for 115 years. And even after a solution was found, physicists have continued to use “Maxwell’s demon” to push the laws of the universe to their limits…

A thorny thought experiment has been turned into a real experiment—one that physicists use to probe the physics of information: “How Maxwell’s Demon Continues to Startle Scientists,” from Jonathan O’Callaghan (@Astro_Jonny)

* Philip K. Dick


As we reconsider the random, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Félix Édouard Justin Émile Borel; he was born on this date in 1871. A mathematician (and politician, who served as French Minister of the Navy), he is remembered for his foundational work in measure theory and probability. He published a number of research papers on game theory and was the first to define games of strategy.

But Borel may be best remembered for a thought experiment he introduced in one of his books, proposing that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard will – with absolute certainty – eventually type every book in France’s Bibliothèque Nationale de France. This is now popularly known as the infinite monkey theorem.


“In the attempt to make scientific discoveries, every problem is an opportunity and the more difficult the problem, the greater will be the importance of its solution”*…

(Roughly) Daily is headed into its traditional Holiday hibernation; regular service will begin again very early in the New Year.

It seems appropriate (especially given the travails of this past year) to end the year on a positive and optimistic note, with a post celebrating an extraordinary accomplishment– Science magazine‘s (thus, the AAAS‘) “Breakthrough of the Year” for 2021…

In his 1972 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, American biochemist Christian Anfinsen laid out a vision: One day it would be possible, he said, to predict the 3D structure of any protein merely from its sequence of amino acid building blocks. With hundreds of thousands of proteins in the human body alone, such an advance would have vast applications, offering insights into basic biology and revealing promising new drug targets. Now, after nearly 50 years, researchers have shown that artificial intelligence (AI)-driven software can churn out accurate protein structures by the thousands—an advance that realizes Anfinsen’s dream and is Science’s 2021 Breakthrough of the Year.

AI-powered predictions show proteins finding their shapes: the full story: “Protein structures for all.”

And read Nature‘s profile of the scientist behind the breakthrough: “John Jumper: Protein predictor.”

* E. O. Wilson


As we celebrate science, we might send well-connected birthday greetings to Robert Elliot Kahn; he was born on this date in 1938. An electrical engineer and computer scientist, he and his co-creator, Vint Cerf, first proposed the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP), the fundamental communication protocols at the heart of the Internet. Later, he and Vint, along with fellow computer scientists Lawrence Roberts, Paul Baran, and Leonard Kleinrock, built the ARPANET, the first network to successfully link computers around the country.

Kahn has won the Turing Award, the National Medal of Technology, and the Presidential Medal Of Freedom, among many, many other awards and honors.


“Nothing from nothing ever yet was born”*…

Lacy M. Johnson argues that there is no hierarchy in the web of life…

… Humans have been lumbering around the planet for only a half million years, the only species young and arrogant enough to name ourselves sapiens in genus Homo. We share a common ancestor with gorillas and whales and sea squirts, marine invertebrates that swim freely in their larval phase before attaching to rocks or shells and later eating their own brain. The kingdom Animalia, in which we reside, is an offshoot of the domain Eukarya, which includes every life-form on Earth with a nucleus—humans and sea squirts, fungi, plants, and slime molds that are ancient by comparison with us—and all these relations occupy the slenderest tendril of a vast and astonishing web that pulsates all around us and beyond our comprehension.

The most recent taxonomies—those based on genetic evidence that evolution is not a single lineage, but multiple lineages, not a branch that culminates in a species at its distant tip, but a network of convergences—have moved away from their histories as trees and chains and ladders. Instead, they now look more like sprawling, networked webs that trace the many points of relation back to ever more ancient origins, beyond our knowledge or capacity for knowing, in pursuit of the “universal ancestors,” life-forms that came before metabolism, before self-replication—the several-billion-year-old plasmodial blobs from which all life on Earth evolved. We haven’t found evidence for them yet, but we know what we’re looking for: they would be simple, small, and strange.

Slime molds can enter stasis at any stage in their life cycle—as an amoeba, as a plasmodium, as a spore— whenever their environment or the climate does not suit their preferences or needs. The only other species who have this ability are the so-called “living fossils” such as tardigrades and Notostraca (commonly known as water bears and tadpole shrimp, respectively). The ability to become dormant until conditions are more favorable for life might be one of the reasons slime mold has survived as long as it has, through dozens of geologic periods, countless ice ages, and the extinction events that have repeatedly wiped out nearly all life on Earth.

Slime mold might not have evolved much in the past two billion years, but it has learned a few things during that time. In laboratory environments, researchers have cut Physarum polycephalum into pieces and found that it can fuse back together within two minutes. Or, each piece can go off and live separate lives, learn new things, and return later to fuse together, and in the fusing, each individual can teach the other what it knows, and can learn from it in return.

Though, in truth, “individual” is not the right word to use here, because “individuality”—a concept so central to so many humans’ identities—doesn’t apply to the slime mold worldview. A single cell might look to us like a coherent whole, but that cell can divide itself into countless spores, creating countless possible cycles of amoeba to plasmodium to aethalia, which in turn will divide and repeat the cycle again. It can choose to “fruit” or not, to reproduce sexually or asexually or not at all, challenging every traditional concept of “species,” the most basic and fundamental unit of our flawed and imprecise understanding of the biological world. As a consequence, we have no way of knowing whether slime molds, as a broad class of beings, are stable or whether climate change threatens their survival, as it does our own. Without a way to count their population as a species, we can’t measure whether they are endangered or thriving. Should individuals that produce similar fruiting bodies be considered a species? What if two separate slime molds do not mate but share genetic material? The very idea of separateness seems antithetical to slime mold existence. It has so much to teach us…

More at: “What Slime Knows,” from @lacymjohnson in @Orion_Magazine.

See also, “Slime Molds Remember — but Do They Learn?” (from whence the image above) and “Now, in addition to penicillin, we can credit mold with elegant design.”

* Lucretius, On the Nature of Things


As we contemplate kinship, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Johann Hedwig; he was born on this date in 1730. A botanist noted for his study of mosses, he is considered “the father of bryology” (the study of mosses… cousins of mold).


Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 8, 2021 at 1:00 am

“‘It’s magic,’ the chief cook concluded, in awe. ‘No, not magic,’ the ship’s doctor replied. ‘It’s much more. It’s mathematics.’*…

Michael Wendl (and here) dissects some variants of the magic separation, a self-working card trick…

Martin Gardner—one of history’s most prolific maths popularisers [see here]—frequently examined the connection between mathematics and magic, commonly looking at tricks using standard playing cards. He often discussed ‘self-working’ illusions that function in a strictly mechanical way, without any reliance on sleight of hand, card counting, pre-arrangement, marking, or key-carding of the deck. One of the more interesting specimens in this genre is a matching trick called the magic separation.

This trick can be performed with 20 cards. Ten of the cards are turned face-up, with the deck then shuffled thoroughly by both the performer and, importantly, the spectator. The performer then deals 10 cards to the spectator and keeps the remainder for herself. This can be done blindfolded to preclude tracking or counting. Not knowing the distribution of cards, our performer announces she will rearrange her own cards ‘magically’ so that the number of face-ups she holds matches the number of face-ups the spectator has. When cards are displayed, the counts do indeed match. She easily repeats the feat for hecklers who claim luck…

All is revealed: “An odd card trick,” from Chalkdust (@chalkdustmag). 

* David Brin, Glory Season


As we conjure, we might spare a thought for Persian polymath Omar Khayyam; the mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, epigrammatist, and poet died on this date in 1131.  While he’s probably best known to English-speakers as a poet, via Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of the quatrains that comprise the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Omar was one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period.  He is the author of one of the most important works on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra (which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle).  His astronomical observations contributed to the reform of the Persian calendar.  And he made important contributions to mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, climatology, and Islamic theology.


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