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Posts Tagged ‘history of science

“Neuroscience for the last couple hundred years has been on the wrong track”*…


In 2009, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara performed a curious experiment. In many ways, it was routine — they placed a subject in the brain scanner, displayed some images, and monitored how the subject’s brain responded. The measured brain activity showed up on the scans as red hot spots, like many other neuroimaging studies.

Except that this time, the subject was an Atlantic salmon, and it was dead.

Dead fish do not normally exhibit any kind of brain activity, of course. The study was a tongue-in-cheek reminder of the problems with brain scanning studies…

More on why we should be cautious of the “breakthrough insights” in neuroeconomics, neuromarketing, et al. at “BOLD Assumptions: Why Brain Scans Are Not Always What They Seem.”

Pair with “Electrified- Adventures in transcranial direct-current stimulation.”

* Noam Chomsky


As we practice phrenology, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to John Hughlings Jackson; he was born on this date in 1835.  A neurologist, he was one of the first to observe that abnormal mental states may result from structural brain damage; and his studies of epilepsy, speech defects, and nervous-system disorders arising from injury to the brain and spinal cord remain among the most useful and highly documented in the field.  Jackson’s definition (in 1873) of epilepsy as “a sudden, excessive, and rapid discharge” of brain cells has been confirmed by electroencephalography; his epilepsy studies initiated the development of modern methods of clinical localization of brain lesions and the investigation of localized brain functions.



Written by LW

April 4, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”*…


Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Triumph of Death” c. 1562


Researchers at Oxford University have compiled a “scientific assessment about the possibility of oblivion”

The scientists from the Global Challenges Foundation and the Future of Humanity Institute used their research to draw up a list of the 12 most likely ways human civilization could end on planet earth.

“[This research] is about how a better understanding of the magnitude of the challenges can help the world to address the risks it faces, and can help to create a path towards more sustainable development,” the study’s authors said.

“It is a scientific assessment about the possibility of oblivion, certainly, but even more it is a call for action based on the assumption that humanity is able to rise to challenges and turn them into opportunities.”

* Joesph Heller, Catch-22


As we count the ways, we might send heavenly birthday greetings to Nicolaus Copernicus. the Renaissance polyglot and polymath– he was a canon lawyer, a mathematician, a physician,  a classics scholar, a translator, a governor, a diplomat, and an economist– best remembered as an astronomer ; he was born on this date in 1473.  Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres; published just before his death in 1543), with its heliocentric account of the solar system, is often regarded as the beginning both of modern astronomy and of the scientific revolution.

Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe. Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind – for by this admission so many things vanished in mist and smoke! What became of our Eden, our world of innocence, piety and poetry; the testimony of the senses; the conviction of a poetic – religious faith? No wonder his contemporaries did not wish to let all this go and offered every possible resistance to a doctrine which in its converts authorized and demanded a freedom of view and greatness of thought so far unknown, indeed not even dreamed of.

– Goethe


“Getting struck by lightning is like winning the lottery, except of course, not as lucky”*…


On the coast of Venezuela, in the small fishing village of Ologa, lies a square kilometer that is struck by more lightning than anywhere else on the planet almost every other night of the year.  Reuter’s photojournalist Jorge Silva offers an illustrated tour at “Venezuela’s eternal storm.”

* Jarod Kintz


As we take cover, we might send highly-charged birthday greetings to Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta; he was born on this date in 1745.  Volta was a physicist who studied what we now call electrical capacitance; he developed (separate) means to study both electrical potential (V ) and charge (Q ), and discovered that for a given object, they are proportional.  This is often called “Volta’s Law”; the unit of electrical potential is universally called the “volt.”  For all of this, Volta may be best remembered as the inventor of the first battery (which he called the “voltaic pile“).



Written by LW

February 18, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not”*…



Controversy is essential to scientific progress. As Richard Feynman said, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Nothing is taken on faith, all assumptions are open to further scrutiny. It’s a healthy sign therefore that psychology studies continue to generate great controversy. Often the heat is created by arguments about the logic or ethics of the methods, other times it’s because of disagreements about the implications of the findings to our understanding of human nature. Here we digest ten of the most controversial studies in psychology’s history…

From “the Stanford Prison Experiment” and “the Milgram ‘Shock Experiments'” to “Voodoo correlations in social neuroscience” and “Libet’s Challenge to Free Will”– The British Psychological Society‘s “The 10 most controversial psychology studies ever published.”

(Lest one wonder whether all of this has any purchase in the real world, this review of Hooked…)

* Carl Jung


As we brace ourselves on our lab benches, we might spare a thought for Gustav Theodor Fechner; he died on this date in 1887.  A philosopher and physicist with a keen interest in human behavior, Fechner is recognized (with Wilhelm Wundt and Hermann von Helmholtz) as the founder of experimental psychology.  He formulated the rule known as Fechner’s law–that, within limits, the intensity of a sensation increases as the logarithm of the stimulus– a result indicative of his approach to studying the relationships between physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions they cause.  His approach, which came to be known as Psychophysics, has been influential ever since.



Written by LW

November 18, 2014 at 1:01 am

“One man’s insanity is another man’s genius”*…


Calvin- “I’m a misunderstood genius.”
Hobbes- “What’s misunderstood?”
Calvin- “Nobody thinks I’m a genius.”

– Bill Watterson

Tom Siegfried (former editor of Science News) writing in Nautilus:

The geniuses of popular notoriety aren’t the only great minds of scientific history. [We tend to] overlook many deserving names—the unsung geniuses overshadowed by more publicity-savvy rivals or under-appreciated because of when and where they lived. Presented below are my Top 10 of those insufficiently recognized scientific geniuses of all time, listed in chronological order.

Keep in mind that this is science and math only, so no Shakespeare, no Bobby Fischer, no Lennon and McCartney. Also, nobody still living is eligible—wouldn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.

And remember, for list-making purposes, genius shouldn’t simply be thought of as high IQ. It’s more a combination of intellectual capacity and what was achieved with it. Geniuses transcend the time in which they live, contributing insights that allow future scientists to be smarter than the geniuses of the past. All the people listed here did that…

Consider, for example…

6. Antoine Parent (France, 1666-1716)

Parent applied his versatile intellect to a vast scope of scientific fields. He investigated physics and astronomy, cartography and geometry, chemistry and biology, and even music. He was most astute in analyzing practical matters such as friction’s effect on motion and stresses on structural beams, and attempted to compute the theoretical maximum efficiency of machines. For his exemplar he chose water wheels, widely used to harness the power of flowing streams for such tasks as sawing wood or milling grain. Parent got the wrong answer, but nevertheless laid the groundwork for the second law of thermodynamics. Parent’s harsh criticism of Descartes’ science earned him no friends among his French colleagues, though, who considered Parent to be tactless and aggressive. After he died of smallpox, one obituary writer commented that Parent “had goodness without showing it.”

5. Mary Somerville (Scotland, 1780-1872)

She was the Carl Sagan of the 19th century, one of the most respected and prolific popularizers of science of her age. Her one year of formal schooling (at age 10) triggered enough curiosity that she taught herself algebra and geometry (mostly in secret, as her father disapproved). She married and moved to London, but her husband died young, so she returned to Scotland and to science. When asked to translate Laplace’s works on celestial mechanics into English, she turned the translation into a popular explanation, launching a career of writing books that conveyed the cutting edge of 19th-century science to the wider literate public. Her work, universally praised by the scientific community, combined the genius of insight with the ability to convey it.

Check out the full roster at “Top Ten Unsung Geniuses.”

* Joyce Carol Oates


As we repack our Pantheon, we might spare a thought for Blessed John (Johannes, Ioannes) Duns Scotus, O.F.M.; he died on this date in 1308.  One of the most important philosophers of the High Middle Ages (with his arch-rival, William of Ockham), he was a champion of a form of Scholasticism that came to be known as Scotism.

But he may be better remembered as a result of the slurs of 16th Century philosophers, who considered him a sophist– and coined the insult “dunce” (someone incapable of scholarship) from the name “Dunse” given to his followers in the 1500s.


Written by LW

November 8, 2014 at 1:01 am

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


The discovery of high-temperature superconductors, the determination of DNA’s double-helix structure, the first observations that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating — all of these breakthroughs won Nobel prizes and international acclaim. Yet none of the papers that announced them comes anywhere close to ranking among the 100 most highly cited papers of all time.

Citations, in which one paper refers to earlier works, are the standard means by which authors acknowledge the source of their methods, ideas and findings, and are often used as a rough measure of a paper’s importance. Fifty years ago, Eugene Garfield published the Science Citation Index (SCI), the first systematic effort to track citations in the scientific literature. To mark the anniversary, Nature asked Thomson Reuters, which now owns the SCI, to list the 100 most highly cited papers of all time. (See the full list at Web of Science Top 100.xls or the interactive graphic [above].) The search covered all of Thomson Reuter’s Web of Science, an online version of the SCI that also includes databases covering the social sciences, arts and humanities, conference proceedings and some books. It lists papers published from 1900 to the present day.

The exercise revealed some surprises, not least that it takes a staggering 12,119 citations to rank in the top 100 — and that many of the world’s most famous papers do not make the cut…

Read more (and find an enlargeable version of the infographic above) in Nature’s “The top 100 papers.”

* Isaac Newton


As we iterate “ibid.,” we might send send leak-less birthday greetings to a man who facilitated the writing of several of these papers:  George Safford Parker; he was born on this date in 1863. While working as a telegraphy instructor in Janesville, Wisconsin, he became dismayed by the unreliability of his students’ pens.  He experimented with ways to prevent ink leaks; and in 1888, founded the Parker Pen Company.  The next year he received his first fountain pen patent.  By 1908, his factory on Main Street in Janesville was reportedly the largest pen manufacturing facility in the world.  Parker eventually became one of the world’s premier pen brands, and one of the first brands with a global presence.



Written by LW

November 1, 2014 at 1:01 am

“I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine”*…


From Harvard’s Houghton Library (where your correspondent is currently ensconced), a pair of plates (click here for larger) from Jean Errard‘s Instruments mathematiques mechaniques, 1584.  Errard, who was a pioneering mathematician, engineer, and developer of military fortifications, is thought by some scholars to have based these drawings on thoughts from Archimedes.  In any case, they’re a treat.

* Hugo Cabret (in Brian Seltznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret)


As we muse on mechanization, we might send well-suspended birthday greetings to John M. Mack; he was born on this date in 1864.  At the turn of the 20th century, mack and his brother Augustus developed a successful gasoline-powered sightseeing bus; then in 1905, they joined with three other brothers to form the Mack Brothers Motor Car Company.  They continued to build sightseeing buses, but shifted their focus increasingly to heavy-duty trucks; then, in 1909, they produced the first engine-driven fire truck in the United States.  With financing from J.P. Morgan, the company grew into what we now know as the Mack Truck Company.



Written by LW

October 27, 2014 at 1:01 am

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