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Posts Tagged ‘history of science

“MESMERISM, n. Hypnotism before it wore good clothes, kept a carriage and asked Incredulity to dinner”*…

 

mesmer

Detail from a colored etching after C-L. Desrais depicting people gathered around the “baquet” at one of Franz Mesmer’s group animal magnetism sessions — Source.

 

Patients, mostly women, are sitting around a large wooden tub filled with magnetic water, powdered glass, and iron filings. From its lid emerge a number of bent iron rods against which the patients expectantly press their afflicted areas. A rope attached to the tub is loosely coiled about them, and they are holding hands to create a “circuit”. Through the low-lit room — adorned with mirrors to reflect invisible forces — there wafts incense and strange music, the other-worldly sounds of the glass harmonica (invented by a certain Benjamin Franklin). Meanwhile, a charming man in an elaborate lilac silk coat is circulating, touching various parts of the patients’ bodies where the magnetic fluid may be hindered or somehow stuck. It appears that these blockages, in the ladies in particular, are generally in the lower abdomen, thighs, and sometimes “the ovaria”. The typical session would last for hours and culminate in a curative “crisis” of nervous hiccups, hysterical sobs, cries, coughs, spitting, fainting, and convulsing, thus restoring the normal harmonious flow of the fluid.

The man in the lilac coat is Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer and this scene could be describing any number of animal magnetism sessions he held in late eighteenth-century Paris. While Mesmer’s antics are perhaps familiar to many today, lesser known is the key role they played in the development of the modern clinical trial — particularly in connection with the 1784 Franklin commission, “charged by the King of France, with the examination of the animal magnetism, as now practiced at Paris”…

Benjamin Franklin, magnetic trees, and erotically-charged séances — Urte Laukaityte on how a craze for sessions of “animal magnetism” in late 18th-century Paris led to the randomized placebo-controlled and double-blind clinical trials we know and love today: “Mesmerising Science: The Franklin Commission and the Modern Clinical Trial.

* Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

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As we ponder proof, we might send thoroughly-analyzed birthday greetings to Anna Freud; she was born on this date in 1895.  The sixth child of Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays (the aunt of Edward Bernays, the “father” of modern propaganda and public relations), she continued her father’s work, with special interest in the young.  Indeed, with  Melanie Klein, she is considered a founder of psychoanalytic child psychology.

220px-Anna_Freud_1957 source

 

“Aside from velcro, time is the most mysterious substance in the universe”*…

 

Time

Detail from Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory

 

In normal life, you open the car door before getting into the car. Operation A happens before operation B. That’s the causal order of things. But a new quantum switch weirdly enables two operations to happen simultaneously. From Science News:

The device, known as a quantum switch, works by putting particles of light through a series of two operations — labeled A and B — that alter the shape of the light. These photons can travel along two separate paths to A and B. Along one path, A happens before B, and on the other, B happens before A.

Which path the photon takes is determined by its polarization, the direction in which its electromagnetic waves wiggle — up and down or side to side. Photons that have horizontal polarization experience operation A first, and those with vertical polarization experience B first.

But, thanks to the counterintuitive quantum property of superposition, the photon can be both horizontally and vertically polarized at once. In that case, the light experiences both A before B, and B before A, Romero and colleagues report.

While this is deeply weird and amazing, it unfortunately doesn’t occur at the human scale but rather in the quantum realm where measurements are in the nanometers. Still, quantum switches do have clear applications in future communications and computation systems.

Indefinite Causal Order in a Quantum Switch” (Physical Review Letters)

From the ever-illuminating David Pescovitz at Boing Boing: “Weird time-jumbling quantum device defies ‘before’ and ‘after’.”

* Dave Barry

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As we check our watches, we might send timely birthday greetings to Louis Essen; he was born on this date in 1908.  A physicist, he drew on his World War II work on radar to develop the first generally-accepted scientific measurement of the speed of light (one that has held up well as measurement techniques have advanced.).

But Essen is probably better remembered as the father of the atomic clock: in 1955, in collaboration with Jack Parry, he developed the first practical atomic clock by integrating the caesium atomic standard with conventional quartz crystal oscillators to allow calibration of existing time-keeping.

Atomic_Clock-Louis_Essen

Louis Essen (right) and Jack Parry (left) standing next to the world’s first caesium-133 atomic clock

 

Written by LW

September 6, 2018 at 1:01 am

“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

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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.

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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

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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

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“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

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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“).

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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”*…

 

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

 source

Written by LW

November 8, 2014 at 1:01 am

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