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Posts Tagged ‘history

“The heart of science is measurement”*…

 

In October 1958, Oliver R. Smoot (future Chairman of the American National Standards Institute) repeatedly laid down on the Harvard Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, so that some of his Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brothers could measure the entire length of the bridge in relation to his height. At 5 feet 7 inches tall, the bridge was found to be 364.4 “Smoots” long (plus or minus an εar). The prank quickly became the stuff of legend (to this day, graffiti on the bridge still divides it up into Smoot-based sections) until finally, in 2011, the word smoot was added to the American Heritage Dictionary, defined as “a unit of measurement equal to five feet, seven inches.”…

More exceedingly-specific units of measurement, and the stories behind them: “10 Ridiculously Precise Units of Measurement.”

* Erik Brynjolfsson

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As we quantify quantity, we might spare a thought for Richard Bevan Braithwaite; he died on this date in 1990.  A Cambridge philosopher who specialized in the philosophy of science, he focused on the logical features common to all sciences.  Braithwaite was concerned with the impact of science on our beliefs about the world and the appropriate responses to that impact.  He was especially interested in probability (and its applications in decision theory and games theory) and in the statistical sciences.  He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1946 to 1947, and was a Fellow of the British Academy.

It was Braithwaite’s poker that Ludwig Wittgenstein reportedly brandished at Karl Popper during their confrontation at a Moral Sciences Club meeting in Braithwaite’s rooms in King’s. The implement subsequently disappeared. (See here.)

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“The conquest of learning is achieved through the knowledge of languages”*…

 

“When humanity loses a language, we also lose the potential for greater diversity in art, music, literature, and oral traditions,” says Bogre Udell. “Would Cervantes have written the same stories had he been forced to write in a language other than Spanish? Would the music of Beyoncé be the same in a language other than English?”

Between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Today, a third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. Every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker, 50 to 90 percent of them are predicted to disappear by the next century…

Every two weeks a language dies: Wikitongues wants to save them: “The Race to Save the World’s Disappearing Languages.”

And for a more in depth– and fascinating– discussion of the subject, listen to Mary Kay Magistad‘s conversation with Laura Welcher, the director of the Rosetta Project at The Long Now Foundation: “Why half the world’s languages may disappear in this century.”

* Roger Bacon

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As we contemplate conserving the capacity to converse, we might spare a thought for Archibald MacLeish; he died on this date in 1982.  A poet, dramatist, writer, and lawyer, he is probably best remembered for his poem  “Ars Poetica” and his play JB.  But MacLeish also served, from 1939 to 1944 as Librarian of Congress, where he oversaw the modernization of the institution and helped promote The Library– and libraries, the arts, and culture more generally– in public opinion.  Over his career, he won three Pulitzer Prizes, a Bollingen Prize, a National Book Award, a Tony Award (for JB), was named a Commandeur de la Legion d’honneur, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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“Everyone knows Newton as the great scientist. Few remember that he spent half his life muddling with alchemy, looking for the philosopher’s stone. That was the pebble by the seashore he really wanted to find”*…

 

Alchemist Heating a Pot, by David Teniers the Younger (1610 – 1690

Alchemy is one of the most curious subjects in the history of science–it evokes both method and magic in popular imagination. Teniers brilliantly juxtaposes light and shadow in his paintings, leaving the viewer unsure just how illuminating alchemy really is.

Alchemy was practiced in Europe as early as the 1300s and, by the seventeenth century, it had reached in zenith. It was a precursor to modern chemistry, and the methods and instruments that are historically tied to alchemy had a significant impact on the development of scientific tools. (As a historical note, in the seventeenth century, alchemy and chemistry were extremely fluid scientific practices; many contemporary historians of science opt to refer to the science as chymistry to connote the mutability of the two practices.)

At its very core, alchemy focused on the notion of transmutation–the ability of one element to morph into another, especially the ability to turn elements into gold. (If Rumpelstiltskin had only been so lucky!) In order to understand elements on their most basic level—in order to extrapolate how to transmute one into another—alchemy focused its experimental efforts on the processes of distillation, sublimation, and crystallization and how they affected different materials. Exploring these processes, however, required sophisticated tools and technologies as well as scientific means and methods…

Lydia Pine takes us “Inside the Alchemist’s Workshop.”

* Fritz Leiber

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As we go for the gold, we might send elemental birthday greetings to Glenn Theodore Seaborg; he was born on this date in 1912.  A chemist, his discovery and investigation of plutonium and nine other transuranium elements was part of the effort during World War II to develop an atomic bomb; it earned him a share of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Seaborg went on to serve as Chancellor of the University of California, as Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, and as an advisor to 10 presidents– from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton– on nuclear policy and science education.  Element 106 (the last of the ten that Seaborg discovered), was named seaborgium in his honor.

Like so many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, Seaborg became a campaigner for arms control. He was a signatory to the Franck Report and contributed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

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Written by LW

April 19, 2018 at 1:01 am

“We can endure neither our vices nor the remedies needed to cure them”*…

 

Pundits who blame 21st-century-style moral rot for the decline of Rome miss the big picture, a new book by Kyle Harper argues. Against plague and drought, the empire never stood a chance…

At the empire’s peak, the human actors — the political, cultural, economic, and military leaders who set up its institutions — were more than equal to the task. Under Marcus Aurelius, emperor from A.D. 161 to 180, about a quarter of humanity lived under Roman rules and influence. The Roman population swelled, wages rose, cities flowered (at its peak, the city of Rome had perhaps a million inhabitants), and vast trade networks threaded across Africa and into Asia.

But at the time, it was easy for Rome to make successful moves: Nature dealt it an especially good hand. During much of the Roman Climate Optimum (about 250 B.C. to A.D. 150), the empire was blessed with stable weather, abundant rain, and warm temperatures. Romans grew and shipped prodigious quantities of grain, especially in North Africa, and their leaders sometimes went to great lengths to hold wheat prices down, offer subsidies, and make sure citizens could feed themselves.

Then, from the middle of the second century onward, nature began dealing out some rotten hands — in the form of natural disasters and vicious germs — and the empire couldn’t hold its winning streak.

The germs were the most violent and obvious destabilizing forces. For all of the society’s technological sophistication, Roman doctors had no notion of germ theory, and Roman cities hosted a robust resident population of waterborne and airborne diseases —especially malaria, typhoid, and various intestinal ills.

On top of this, the empire’s densely urbanized populations — connected by intricate trade routes — were excellent targets for major pandemics. Harper demonstrates that the Roman Empire was hit by at least three great plagues, each a powerful blow to both its population and civic institutions. During one wave of the second-century Antonine plague, which was likely a form of smallpox, as many as 2,000 people died every day. A century later, a disease that sounds, from accounts written during that era, a lot like hemorrhagic fever (the gruesome Ebola family of diseases) migrated from Ethiopia across the rest of the empire and took a similar toll.

Meanwhile, the climate grew more and more erratic. “In winter there is not such an abundance of rains to nourish the seeds,” wrote Cyprian, an early Christian writer of Carthage. “The summer sun burns less bright over the fields of grain. The temperance of spring is no longer for rejoicing, and the ripening fruit does not hang from autumn trees.”

Drought struck the empire’s breadbasket of North Africa. The combination sent the society reeling, but it was able to recover until the climate swung again. In the fourth century, when the Eurasian steppe also fell under drought, nomadic peoples like the Visigoths and Huns (whom Harper describes as “armed climate refugees on horseback”) began to antagonize and terrorize Roman territories in Europe. Famously, the Visigoth leader Alaric sacked Rome in 410, effectively sounding the death knell of the Western part of the Roman Empire, which eventually fragmented into small, feudal territories…

More of this cautionary tale at “When Rome Fell, the Chief Culprits Were Climate and Disease. Sound Familiar?

And further to Mark Twain’s remark that, while history never repeats itself, it often rhymes, see also  1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed,  the story of the fall of the Bronze Age and the civilizations that had defined it– similarly driven by climate change (and the migration that it spawned).

* Livy, The Early History of Rome

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As we ruminate on all of the meanings of “recycle,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1775 that a seminal event in the formation of the leader of the world’s current “imperial” regime took place, the “Midnight Ride”: Paul Revere and William Dawes rode out of Boston about 10 p.m. to warn patriots at Lexington and Concord of the approaching British.

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Written by LW

April 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”*…

 

As the number of researcher has grown, the productivity of research has fallen according to a graph in “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, by economists Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones, John Van Reenen and Michael Webb. Credit: Charles I. Jones

Once again, I’m brooding over science’s limits. I recently posted Q&As with three physicists with strong opinions on the topic–David DeutschMarcelo Gleiser and Martin Rees–as well as this column: “Is Science Infinite?” Then in March I attended a two-day brainstorming session–which I’ll call “The Session”–with 20 or so science-y folks over whether science is slowing down and what we can do about it.

The Session was inspired in part by research suggesting that scientific progress is stagnating. In “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, four economists claim that “a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms show[s] that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.” The economists are Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones and Michael Webb of Stanford and John Van Reenen of MIT.

As an counter-intuitive example, they cite Moore’s Law, noting that the “number of researchers required today to achieve the famous doubling every two years of the density of computer chips is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s.” The researchers found similar trends in research related to agriculture and medicine. More and more research on cancer and other illnesses has produced fewer and fewer lives saved.

These findings corroborate analyses presented by economists Robert Gordon in The Rise and Fall of American Growth and Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation. Bloom, Jones, Webb and Van Reenen also cite “The Burden of Knowledge and the ‘Death of the Renaissance Man’: Is Innovation Getting Harder?”, a 2009 paper by Benjamin Jones. He presents evidence that would-be innovators require more training and specialization to reach the frontier of a given field. Research teams are also getting bigger, and the number of patents per researcher has declined.

The economists are concerned primarily with what I would call applied science, the kind that fuels economic growth and increases wealth, health and living standards. Advances in medicine, transportation, agriculture, communication, manufacturing and so on. But their findings resonate with my claim in The End of Science that “pure” science—the effort simply to understand rather than manipulate nature–is bumping into limits…

John Horgan unpacks some of the dynamics that lead him to his gloomy conclusion in “Is science hitting a wall?”  It’s a fascinating, illuminating, and eminently worth the read… even if in the end it’s unconvincing, to your correspondent at least.

Readers might note that analogous sentiments reigned at the end of the 19th century (as per the quote that provides this post’s title).  Max Planck recalled being discouraged by a teacher (around 1875) from pursuing physics: “in this field,”  Philipp von Jolly told Planck, “almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.”  Planck ignored his advice– and became one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, which gave physics a very rich new life during the 20th century.  As we contemplate with Horgan the possible  “end” of its utility, we might take some consolation that brave new models are emerging, theories that might power physics– and science more generally– for at least another century.  Consider, for example, the theory that Stephen Hawking published two weeks before his death, proposing a method of detecting “the multiverse.”

* a quote widely– and incorrectly– attributed to William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, circa 1900.  It is actually a paraphrase of aa 1894 statement made by another great physicist,  Albert A. Michelson.

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As we ponder progress, we might spare a thought for Benjamin Franklin; he died on this date in 1790.  One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Franklin was a renowned polymath: a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity.  As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod and the Franklin stove, among other innovations.   And as a social entrepreneur (who grasped the fact that by united effort a community could have amenities which only the wealthy few can afford for themselves), he helped establish several institutions people now take for granted: a fire company (1736), a library (1731), an insurance company (1752), an academy (the University of Pennsylvania, 1751), a hospital (1751), and the U.S. Postal Service (starting as postmaster of the Colonies in 1753, then becoming U.S. Postmaster during the Revolution).  In most cases these foundations were the first of their kind in North America.

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Written by LW

April 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Technology made large populations possible; large populations now make technology indispensable”*…

 

 click here for enlargeable version of the full chart

For most of civilized history, life expectancy fluctuated in the 30 to 40 year range.

Child mortality was all too common, and even for those that made it to adulthood, a long and healthy life was anything but guaranteed. Sanitation was poor, disease was rampant, and many medical practices were based primarily on superstition or guesswork.

By the 20th century, an explosion in new technologies, treatments, and other science-backed practices helped to increase global life expectancy at an unprecedented rate.

From 1900 to 2015, global life expectancy more than doubled, shooting well past the 70 year mark.

What were the major innovations that made the last century so very fruitful in saving lives?…  Interestingly, while many of these innovations have some linkage to the medical realm, there are also breakthroughs in sectors like energy, sanitation, and agriculture that have helped us lead longer and healthier lives…

See the list in full, along with a nifty infographic, at “The 50 Most Important Life-Saving Breakthroughs in History.”

Readers will note that “history” for these folks seems to start in the 19th century… so that one doesn’t find, for instance, the development of domestication or the invention of the plow.  And even then, one could quibble: surely, for example, the understanding of contagious diseases, epidemiology, and medical statistics/cartography that flowed from Dr. John Snow’s mapping of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London belongs on the list.  Still, it’s provocative to ponder.

* Joesph Wood Krutch

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As we realize, with Krutch, that will the sweet comes the bitter, we might spare a thought for Rachel Carson; she died on this date in 1964.  A pioneering environmentalist, her book The Silent Spring— a study of the long-term dangers of pesticide use– challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind relates to the natural world.

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.
– Rachel Carson

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Written by LW

April 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“In comics, we’re all weird together”*…

 

Your correspondent is heading out into the middle of the Pacific for about 10 days, so (Roughly) Daily will be on hiatus.  Regular service should resume on or around April 14…

To keep readers occupied in the meantime, via the ever-illuminating Warren Ellis, “this extremely 1998 webcomics index page.”

* G. Willow Wilson

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As we dig for treasure (of which, there’s plenty), we might recall that it was on this date in 1977 that CBS Records UK began distributing the eponymously-titled first album from The Clash.  (It was officially released four days later.)  Featuring such anthems as “White Riot,” “Police & Thieves,” and “London’s Burning,” it is widely regarded as one of the greatest punk recordings of all time, and ranks high on essentially every “best album” list.

Deeming the material “not radio friendly,” CBS in the US refused to release it until 1979 (on their Epic label, but even then dropped some of the more virulent songs).  Meantime, Americans bought over 100,000 imported copies of “The Clash”, making it the best-selling import album of all time in the U.S.

Cover of the UK release

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Written by LW

April 4, 2018 at 1:01 am

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