(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘history of science

“There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance”*…

The School of Athens (1509–1511) by Raphael, depicting famous classical Greek philosophers (source)

If only it were that simple. Trevor Klee unpacks the travails of Galileo to illustrate the way that abstractions become practical “knowledge”…

… We’re all generally looking for the newest study, or the most up-to-date review. At the very least, we certainly aren’t looking through ancient texts for scientific truths.

This might seem obvious to you. Of course you’d never look at an old paper. That old paper was probably done with worse instruments and worse methods. Just because something’s old or was written by someone whose name you recognize doesn’t mean that it’s truthful.

But why is it obvious to you? Because you live in a world that philosophy built. The standards for truth that you imbibed as a child are not natural standards of truth. If you had been an educated person in 1200s Europe, your standard for truth would have been what has stood the test of time. You would have lived among the ruins of Rome and studied the anatomy texts of the Greek, known that your society could produce neither of those, and concluded that they knew something that your society could not. Your best hope would then be to simply copy them as best as possible.

This was less true by the time Galileo was alive. This is why an educated man like Galileo would have entertained the idea that he knew better than the ancient Greeks, and why his ideas found some purchase among his fellow academicians (including the then Pope, actually). But still, there was a prominent train of thought that promoted the idea that a citation from Aristotle was worth more than a direct observation from a telescope.

But you live in a different world now. You live in a world in which the science of tomorrow is better than the science of today, and our societal capabilities advance every year. We can build everything the ancients did and stuff they never even imagined possible. So you respect tradition less, and respect what is actually measured most accurately in the physical world more.

Today, this battle over truth is so far in the past that we don’t even know it was ever a battle. The closest we come to this line of reasoning is when new age medicine appeals to “ancient wisdom”, but even they feel compelled to quote studies. Even more modern battles are mostly settled, like the importance of randomized, double-blinded controlled studies over non-randomized, non-controlled studies.

The reason we mark battles is not just for fun or historical curiosity. It’s to remind us that what we take for granted was actually fought for by generations before us. And, it’s to make sure that we know the importance of teaching these lessons so thoroughly that future generations take them for granted as well. A world in which nobody would dream of established theory overturning actual empirical evidence is a better world than the one that Galileo lived in…

On the importance of understanding the roots of our understanding: “You live in a world that philosophy built,” from @trevor_klee via @ByrneHobart.

Apposite (in an amusing way): “Going Against The Grain Weevils,” on Aristotle’s Generation of Animals and household pests.

* Socrates, from Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (probably early third century BCE)


As we examine epistemology, we might send elegantly phrased and eclectic birthday greetings to Persian polymath Omar Khayyam; the philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, epigrammatist, and poet was born on this date in 1048. While he’s probably best known to English-speakers as a poet, via Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of (what he called) the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Fitzgerald’s attribution of the book’s poetry to Omar (as opposed to the aphorisms and other quotes in the volume) is now questionable to many scholars (who believe those verses to be by several different Persian authors).

In any case, Omar was unquestionably one of the major philosophers, mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period.  He is the author of one of the most important treatises 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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May 15, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Protons give an atom its identity, electrons its personality”*…

If an electron were the size of Earth, the experiment could detect a bump the size of a sugar molecule

If the electron’s charge wasn’t perfectly round, it could reveal the existence of hidden particles– and launch a “new physics.” But, as Zack Savitsky reports, a new measurement approaches perfection…

Imagine an electron as a spherical cloud of negative charge. If that ball were ever so slightly less round, it could help explain fundamental gaps in our understanding of physics, including why the universe contains something rather than nothing.

Given the stakes, a small community of physicists has been doggedly hunting for any asymmetry in the shape of the electron for the past few decades. The experiments are now so sensitive that if an electron were the size of Earth, they could detect a bump on the North Pole the height of a single sugar molecule.

The latest results are in: The electron is rounder than that.

The updated measurement disappoints anyone hoping for signs of new physics. But it still helps theorists to constrain their models for what unknown particles and forces may be missing from the current picture…

More at “The Electron Is So Round That It’s Ruling Out Potential New Particles,” from @savagitsky in @QuantaMagazine.

* Bill Bryson


As we ponder perfection, we might spare a thought for Jean Baptiste Perrin; he died on this date in 1942. A physicist, he studied the Brownian motion of minute particles suspended in liquids (sedimentation equilibrium), and verified Albert Einstein’s explanation of the phenomenon– thereby confirming the atomic nature of matter… for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1926.


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April 17, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Smells are the fallen angels of the senses”*…

In an excerpt from his new book, Where We Meet the World: The Story of the Senses, Ashley Ward contemplates the oft-ignored and much-maligned olfactory sense…

Despite the wonderful contributions that smell makes to our lives, it’s undervalued in modern Western societies. Polls conducted in both the US and the UK reported that of our five main senses, smell was the one that people were least concerned about losing, while a study of British teenagers found that half would rather be without their sense of smell than their phone.

Despite the wonderful contributions that smell makes to our lives, it’s undervalued in modern Western societies. Polls conducted in both the US and the UK reported that of our five main senses, smell was the one that people were least concerned about losing, while a study of British teenagers found that half would rather be without their sense of smell than their phone.

It may have to do with olfaction’s checkered past. For much of human history, smells were things to be wary of. The idea that sickness was borne out of noxious smells was the prominent theory in disease propagation for centuries. Clouds of pungency, known as miasmas, released from unclean dwellings, filthy streets, and even the ploughing of soil, were blamed for contaminating the body, leading to any number of maladies. A debilitating fever emerging from marshes and swamps was named after the medieval Italian for bad air: mal’aria. Terrifying epidemics that haunted the world for centuries seemed to be induced by foul, corrupted air.

While odors themselves were regarded with distrust, it seems like every famous man in history who ever felt moved to write about our sense of smell had some derogatory point to make (there’s a notable shortage of opinions from the women of history). Most fall into one of two camps: those who regarded smell as relatively unimportant, and those who associated it with depravity. Plato considered that smell was linked to “base urges,” while others described it as degenerate and animalistic. Aristotle wrote that “man smells poorly” and Darwin asserted that “the sense of smell is of extremely slight service.”

The migration of primate eyes to the front of the face allows excellent stereoscopic vision, compared to the side-of-the-head arrangement favored by many other mammals, but limits the space available for the olfactory equipment. The loss of the snout in apes especially seems only to further restrict the capacity for smell.

Finally, primates in general and humans in particular seem to be losing genes associated with our sense of smell. We have something like 400 working olfactory genes, but sitting in our genetic code are close to 500 olfactory pseudogenes. These are the genetic equivalents of fossils; genes that used to contribute to our sense of smell but that no longer work. In other words, we’ve lost over half of our smell genes across evolutionary time…

Eminently worth reading in full: “How Smell—the Most Underrated Sense—Was Overpowered By Our Other Senses,” from @ashleyjwward in @lithub.

* Helen Keller


As we breathe in, we might we might recall that it was on this date in 1943 that Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann discovered the sensory- enhancing, even altering– that’s to say, psychedelic– properties of LSD.  Hofmann had synthesized the drug five years earlier, but its hoped-for use in treating respiratory problems didn’t pan out, and it was shelved.  On this day, he accidentally absorbed some of the drug through his skin (as he touched its container).  He became dizzy with hallucinations.  Three days later he took the first intentional dose of acid: 0.25 milligrams (250 micrograms), an amount he predicted to be a threshold dose (an actual threshold dose is 20 micrograms).  Less than an hour later, Hofmann experienced sudden and intense changes in perception.  He asked his laboratory assistant to escort him home and, as use of motor vehicles was prohibited because of wartime restrictions, they had to make the journey on a bicycle… which is why April 19 has been celebrated (since 1985) as “Bicycle Day.”


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April 16, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist.”*…

Our environment…

This map shows a slice of our Universe. It was created from astronomical data taken night after night over a period of 15 years using a telescope in New Mexico, USA. We are located at the bottom. At the top is the actual edge of the observable Universe. In between, we see about 200,000 galaxies.

Each tiny dot is a galaxy. About 200,000 are shown with their actual position and color. Each galaxy contains billions of stars and planets. We are located at the bottom. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is just a dot. Looking up, we see that space is filled with galaxies forming a global filamentary structure. Far away from us (higher up in the map), the filaments become harder to see…

For a (much crisper, more vivid, and interactive) version: “The Map of the Observable Universe.”

* Stephen Hawking


As we explore, we might recall that it was on this date in 1616 that The Minutes of the Roman Inquisition recorded the conclusion that Galileo’s writings in support of Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the solar system were “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” The next day, Galileo was called before Cardinal Bellarmine, who (on Pope Paul V’s instruction) ordered Galileo to abandon the teaching. Shortly thereafter, Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus and other heliocentric works were banned (entered onto the Index Librorum Prohibitorum) “until correction.”

Sixteen years later, Galileo “published” Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo)– that’s to say, he presented the first copy to his patron, Ferdinando II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.  Dialogue, which compared the heliocentric Copernican and the traditional geo-centric Ptolemaic systems, was an immediate best-seller.

While there was no copyright available to Galileo, his book was printed and distributed under a license from the Inquisition.  Still, the following year it was deemed heretical– and he joined Copernicus on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum: the publication of anything else Galileo had written or ever might write was also banned… a ban that remained in effect until 1835.

Domenico Tintoretto‘s portrait of Galileo (source)

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February 25, 2023 at 1:00 am

“The sciences of cryptography and mathematics are very elegant, pure sciences. I found that the ends for which these pure sciences are used are less elegant.”*…

Mary, Queen of Scots wrote 57 encrypted messages during her captivity in England; until recently, all but 7 of them were believed lost. Meilan Solly tells the tale of their discovery and decryption…

Over the course of her 19 years in captivity, Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote thousands of letters to ambassadors, government officials, fellow monarchs and conspirators alike. Most of these missives had the same underlying goal: securing the deposed Scottish queen’s freedom. After losing her throne in 1567, Mary had fled to England, hoping to find refuge at her cousin Elizabeth I’s court. (Mary’s paternal grandmother, Margaret Tudor, was the sister of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII.) Instead, the English queen imprisoned Mary, keeping her under house arrest for nearly two decades before ordering her execution in 1587.

Mary’s letters have long fascinated scholars and the public, providing a glimpse into her relentless efforts to secure her release. But the former queen’s correspondence often raises more questions than it answers, in part because Mary took extensive steps to hide her messages from the prying eyes of Elizabeth’s spies. In addition to folding the pages with a technique known as letterlocking, she employed ciphers and codes of varying complexity.

More than 400 years after Mary’s death, a chance discovery by a trio of code breakers is offering new insights into the queen’s final years. As the researchers write in the journal Cryptologia, they originally decided to examine a cache of coded notes housed at the National Library of France as part of a broader push to “locate, digitize, transcribe, decipher and analyze” historic ciphers. Those pages turned out to be 57 of Mary’s encrypted letters, the majority of which were sent to Michel de Castelnau, the French ambassador to England, between 1578 and 1584. All but seven were previously thought to be lost…

What they found and how they made sense of it: “Code Breakers Discover—and Decipher—Long-Lost Letters by Mary, Queen of Scots,” from @meilansolly in @SmithsonianMag.

Jim Sanborn, the sculptor who created the encrypted Kryptos sculpture at CIA headquarters


As we crack codes, we might spare a thought for a rough contemporary of Mary’s, a man who refused to communicate in code: Giordano Bruno. A Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer whose concept of the infinite universe expanded on Copernicus’s model, he was the first European to understand the universe as a continuum where the stars we see at night are identical in nature to the Sun.  Bruno’s views were considered dangerously heretical by the (Roman) Inquisition, which imprisoned him in 1592; after eight years of refusals to recant, on this date in 1600, he was burned at the stake.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 17, 2023 at 1:00 am

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