(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘invention

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned”*…

… or, as Confucius would have it, “real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Happily Wikenigma is here to help…

Wikenigma is a unique wiki-based resource specifically dedicated to documenting fundamental gaps in human knowledge.

Listing scientific and academic questions to which no-one, anywhere, has yet been able to provide a definitive answer. [949 so far]

That’s to say, a compendium of so-called ‘Known Unknowns’…

Consider, for example…

How do marine turtle accurately migrate thousands of kilometers for nesting?

Can Beal’s conjecture be proved?

Can one solve the “envelope paradox”?

Do “naked singularities” exist?

What is the etymology of the word “plot” (which appears only in English)?

What were the purposes of “Perforated Batons,” man-made historical artifacts formed from deer antlers, dating back 12,000-24,000 years and found widely across Europe?

What are the function, importance, and evolutionary history of human “inner speech”?

One could– and should– go on: Wikenigma, via @Recomendo6.

* Richard Feynman


As we wonder, we might spare a thought for a man who embodied curiosity, Marvin Minsky; he died on this date in 2016.  A biochemist and cognitive scientist by training, he was founding director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Project (the MIT AI Lab).  Minsky authored several widely-used texts, and made many contributions to AI, cognitive psychology, mathematics, computational linguistics, robotics, and optics.  He holds several patents, including those for the first neural-network simulator (SNARC, 1951), the first head-mounted graphical display, the first confocal scanning microscope, and the LOGO “turtle” device (with his friend and frequent collaborator Seymour Papert).  His other inventions include mechanical hands and the “Muse” synthesizer.


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January 24, 2023 at 1:00 am

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”*…

Zeno shows the Doors to Truth and Falsity (Veritas et Falsitas). Fresco in the Library of El Escorial, Madrid (source)

As Joel David Hamkins explains, an ancient puzzle leads ultimately to a remarkable observation on the malleable nature of infinite sums…

The Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea (c. 490–430 BC) argued in antiquity that all motion is impossible. It is simply impossible to walk through town or even across the room, to go from here to there. What? We know, of course, that this is possible—we walk from here to there every day. And yet, Zeno offers us his proof that this is an illusion—we simply cannot do it.

Zeno argued like this. Suppose it were possible for you to move from some point A to another distinct point B.

Before you complete the move from A to B , however, you must of course have gotten half way there.

But before you get to this half-way point, of course, you must get half way to the half-way point! And before you get to that place, you must get half way there.

And so on, ad infinitum.

Thus, to move from A to B , or indeed anywhere at all, one must have completed an infinite number of tasks—a supertask. It follows, according to Zeno, that you can never start moving—you cannot move any amount at all, since before doing that you must already have moved half as much. And so, contrary to appearances, you are frozen motionless, unable to begin. All motion is impossible.

Is the argument convincing? On what grounds would you object to it? Do you think, contrary to Zeno, that we can actually complete infinitely many tasks? How would that be possible?

It will be no good, of course, to criticize Zeno’s argument on the grounds that we know that motion is possible, for we move from one point to another every day. That is, to argue merely that the conclusion is false does not actually tell you what is wrong with the argument—it does not identify any particular flaw in Zeno’s reasoning. After all, if it were in fact an illusion that we experience motion, then your objection would be groundless…

Learning from an enigma– plus “the most contested equation in middle school” and more: “Zeno’s paradox,” from @JDHamkins.

* Niels Bohr


As we interrogate infinity, we might send-well-groomed birthday greetings to Frank Joseph Zamboni, Jr.; he was born on this date in 1901.  An engineer and inventor, he is best known for the modern ice resurfacer, seen at work at hockey games and figure skating competitions (completing its rounds, Zeno notwithstanding); indeed, his surname is the registered trademark for these devices.



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January 16, 2023 at 1:00 am

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

Some observations are best considered “interesting, if true”; some, a la Karl Popper, “true, until false”… Consider this very recent paper in Nature

Theories of scientific and technological change view discovery and invention as endogenous processes, wherein previous accumulated knowledge enables future progress by allowing researchers to, in Newton’s words, ‘stand on the shoulders of giants.’ Recent decades have witnessed exponential growth in the volume of new scientific and technological knowledge, thereby creating conditions that should be ripe for major advances. Yet contrary to this view, studies suggest that progress is slowing in several major fields. Here, we analyse these claims at scale across six decades, using data on 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents from six large-scale datasets, together with a new quantitative metric—the CD index—that characterizes how papers and patents change networks of citations in science and technology. We find that papers and patents are increasingly less likely to break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions. This pattern holds universally across fields and is robust across multiple different citation- and text-based metrics. Subsequently, we link this decline in disruptiveness to a narrowing in the use of previous knowledge, allowing us to reconcile the patterns we observe with the ‘shoulders of giants’ view. We find that the observed declines are unlikely to be driven by changes in the quality of published science, citation practices or field-specific factors. Overall, our results suggest that slowing rates of disruption may reflect a fundamental shift in the nature of science and technology.

The full paper: “Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time@Nature

One notes that the quote above– from Lord Kelvin, at the turn of the twentieth century– immediately preceded a couple of decades in which physics was radically redefined and advanced by Planck, Einstein, Bohr, et al. (In fairness to Kelvin, consider this suggestion that his point was more subtle.) As we look forward, we might ponder the ways in which the reorganization of disciplines, the rise of research in other cultures (less constrained by the mores of “conventional” research), the use of AI, and/or some as yet unknown dynamic could challenge the phenomenon– “a narrowing in the use of previous knowledge”– to which the authors attribute diminishing disruption.

[Source of the image above]

* Lord Kelvin, in an address to the the Royal Institution in April of 1900


As we ponder progress, we might send advanced birthday greetings to Wilhelm Wien; he was born on this date in 1864. A physicist, his work helped move past Kelvin’s log-jam. In 1893, he used theories about heat and electromagnetism to deduce Wien’s displacement law, which calculates the emission of a blackbody (a surface that absorbs all radiant energy falling on it) at any temperature from the emission at any one reference temperature. His colleague Max Planck colaborated with Wien, then extended the thinking in what we now know as Planck’s law, which led to the development of quantum theory.

Wien received the 1911 Nobel Prize for his work on heat radiation.

Just before Kelvin’s speech (in 1898) Wien identified a positive particle equal in mass to the hydrogen atom– what we now know as a proton. Wien, in the techniques he used, laid the foundation of mass spectrometry.


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January 13, 2023 at 1:00 am

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”*…

Liam Grace-Flood on the near universal comedy of technological failure…

… I’ve always been more interested in the failed inventions that aren’t just paving stones on the road to success. The kind of attempts that are so bad that you have to wonder “are they serious?” – like a nose stylus (pictured above) for using your phone in the bath when your hands get wet.

There are many variations on the idea of ‘failed invention.’ Rube Goldberg machines are overly-complicated contraptions, designed to accomplish simple tasks. Kludges and jugaads are hacky devices assembled from what’s available – usually creating something much weirder than if you started from scratch. There’s a whole genre of life hack TikToks where creators, in the quest to create as much content as possible, don’t stop to ask if what they’re creating makes any sense at all. But I’d say the genre of bad invention with the most nuanced and interesting relationship to failure is Chindogu.

Chindogu is a Japanese word meaning “weird tool.” These (almost) useless inventions might address a challenge, but they also create bigger problems. Iconic Chindogu inventions include chopsticks with a fan attached for cooling hot food and a onesie with mop-like fringe, harnessing the untapped crawling power of your baby to clean the floor. While inventions like these are usually not practical for their intended purpose, they can still be charming, evocative, and funny, and give us something that successful inventions can’t. They offer a moment’s deviation from some prescribed path to success, a pause in the slog of value creation, to allow a moment’s worth of weird joy…

A warm and wonderful appraisal of the innovative spirit (that doubles as a last-minute Holiday gift list): “On Chindogu,” in @the_prepared.

(Image above: source)

* Thomas Edison


As we celebrate snafus, we might send well-designed birthday greetings to someone who successfully connected products with users, Walter Dorwin Teague; he was born on this date in 1883.  An industrial designer, architect, illustrator, graphic designer, writer, and entrepreneur, he is often called the “Dean of Industrial Design,” a field that he pioneered as a profession in the US, along with Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, and Henry Dreyfuss.  He is widely known for his exhibition designs during the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair (including the Ford Building), and for his iconic product and package designs, from Eastman Kodak’s Bantam Special to the steel-legged Steinway piano.



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December 18, 2022 at 1:00 am

“So these are the ropes, The tricks of the trade, The rules of the road”*…

Morgan Housel shares a few thing with which he’s come to terms…

Everyone belongs to a tribe and underestimates how influential that tribe is on their thinking.

Most of what people call “conviction” is a willful disregard for new information that might make you change your mind. That’s when beliefs turn dangerous.

History is driven by surprising events but forecasting is driven by obvious ones.

People learn when they’re surprised. Not when they read the right answer, or are told they’re doing it wrong, but when they experience a gap between expectations and reality.

“Learn enough from history to respect one another’s delusions.” -Will Durant

Your personal experiences make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world but maybe 80% of how you think the world works.

Unsustainable things can last longer than you anticipate.

It’s hard to tell the difference between boldness and recklessness, ambition and greed, contrarian and wrong.

There are two types of information: stuff you’ll still care about in the future, and stuff that matters less and less over time. Long-term vs. expiring knowledge. It’s critical to identify which is which when you come across something new.

Small risks are overblown because they’re easy to talk about, big risks are discounted and ignored because they seem preposterous before they arrive.

You can’t believe in risk without also believing in luck because they are fundamentally the same thing—an acknowledgment that things outside of your control can have a bigger impact on outcomes than anything you do on your own.

Once-in-a-century events happen all the time because lots of unrelated things can go wrong. If there’s a 1% chance of a new disastrous pandemic, a 1% chance of a crippling depression, a 1% chance of a catastrophic flood, a 1% chance of political collapse, and on and on, then the odds that something bad will happen next year – or any year – are … pretty good. It’s why Arnold Toynbee says history is “just one damn thing after another.”

Many more affecting aphorisms at: “Little Rules About Big Things,” from @morganhousel @collabfund.

* “Rules Of The Road,” by Cy Coleman and Caroline Leigh (famously recorded by Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole)


As we ponder precepts, we might send prophylactic birthday greetings to Samuel W. Alderson; he was born on this date in 1914.  A physicist and engineer of broad accomplishment, Alderson is probably best remembered as the inventor of the crash test dummy.  Alderson created his first dummies in 1956 to test jet ejection seats for the military.  But with the passage of the Highway Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966 (on the heels of the stir created by Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed), Alderson found a much broader market.  (From the first experiments on car safety in the 1930s, cadavers had been used to assess risk and damage; the dummy had obvious advantages.)  Alderson continuously improved his dummies, and later branched out to produce medical “phantoms” for simulations– e.g., synthetic wounds that ooze mock blood.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 21, 2022 at 1:00 am

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