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Posts Tagged ‘Jules Verne

“This potential possibility need only play a role as a counterfactual, according to quantum theory, for it to have an actual effect!”*…

Contemplate counterfactuals: things that have not happened — but could happen — a neglected area of scientific theory…

If you could soar high in the sky, as red kites often do in search of prey, and look down at the domain of all things known and yet to be known, you would see something very curious: a vast class of things that science has so far almost entirely neglected. These things are central to our understanding of physical reality, both at the everyday level and at the level of the most fundamental phenomena in physics — yet they have traditionally been regarded as impossible to incorporate into fundamental scientific explana­tions. They are facts not about what is — the ‘actual’ — but about what could or could not be. In order to distinguish them from the ac­tual, they are called counterfactuals.

Suppose that some future space mission visited a remote planet in another solar system, and that they left a stainless-steel box there, containing among other things the critical edition of, say, William Blake’s poems. That the poetry book is subsequently sit­ting somewhere on that planet is a factual property of it. That the words in it could be read is a counterfactual property, which is true regardless of whether those words will ever be read by anyone. The box may be never found; and yet that those words could be read would still be true — and laden with significance. It would signify, for instance, that a civilization visited the planet, and much about its degree of sophistication.

To further grasp the importance of counterfactual properties, and their difference from actual properties, imagine a computer programmed to produce on its display a string of zeroes. That is a factual property of the computer, to do with its actual state — with what is. The fact that it could be reprogrammed to output other strings is a counterfactual property of the computer. The computer may never be so programmed; but the fact that it could is an essential fact about it, without which it would not qualify as a computer.

The counterfactuals that matter to science and physics, and that have so far been neglected, are facts about what could or could not be made to happen to physical systems; about what is possible or impossible. They are fundamental because they express essential features of the laws of physics — the rules that govern every system in the universe. For instance, a counterfactual property imposed by the laws of physics is that it is impossible to build a perpetual motion machine. A perpetual motion machine is not simply an object that moves forever once set into motion: it must also gener­ate some useful sort of motion. If this device could exist, it would produce energy out of no energy. It could be harnessed to make your car run forever without using fuel of any sort. Any sequence of transformations turning something without energy into some thing with energy, without depleting any energy supply, is impos­sible in our universe: it could not be made to happen, because of a fundamental law that physicists call the principle of conservation of energy.

Another significant counterfactual property of physical sys­tems, central to thermodynamics, is that a steam engine is possible. A steam engine is a device that transforms energy of one sort into energy of a different sort, and it can perform useful tasks, such as moving a piston, without ever violating that principle of conserva­tion of energy. Actual steam engines (those that have been built so far) are factual properties of our universe. The possibility of build­ing a steam engine, which existed long before the first one was actually built, is a counterfactual.

So the fundamental types of counterfactuals that occur in physics are of two kinds: one is the impossibility of performing a transformation (e.g., building a perpetual motion machine); the other is the possibility of performing a transformation (e.g., building a steam engine). Both are cardinal properties of the laws of phys­ics; and, among other things, they have crucial implications for our endeavours: no matter how hard we try, or how ingeniously we think, we cannot bring about transformations that the laws of physics declare to be impossible — for example, creating a per­petual motion machine. However, by thinking hard enough, we can come up with more and better ways of performing a pos­sible transformation — for instance, that of constructing a steam engine — which can then improve over time.

In the prevailing scientific worldview, counterfactual proper­ties of physical systems are unfairly regarded as second-class citi­zens, or even excluded altogether. Why? It is because of a deep misconception, which, paradoxically, originated within my own field, theoretical physics. The misconception is that once you have specified everything that exists in the physical world and what happens to it — all the actual stuff — then you have explained every­thing that can be explained. Does that sound indisputable? It may well. For it is easy to get drawn into this way of thinking with­out ever realising that one has swallowed a number of substantive assumptions that are unwarranted. For you can’t explain what a computer is solely by specifying the computation it is actually per­forming at a given time; you need to explain what the possible com­putations it could perform are, if it were programmed in possible ways. More generally, you can’t explain the presence of a lifeboat aboard a pirate ship only in terms of an actual shipwreck. Everyone knows that the lifeboat is there because of a shipwreck that could happen (a counterfactual explanation). And that would still be the reason even if the ship never did sink!

Despite regarding counterfactuals as not fundamental, science has been making rapid, relentless progress, for example, by devel­oping new powerful theories of fundamental physics, such as quantum theory and Einstein’s general relativity; and novel expla­nations in biology — with genetics and molecular biology — and in neuroscience. But in certain areas, it is no longer the case. The assumption that all fundamental explanations in science must be expressed only in terms of what happens, with little or no refer­ence to counterfactuals, is now getting in the way of progress. For counterfactuals are essential to a number of things that are cur­rently explained only vaguely in science, or not explained at all. Counterfactuals are central to an exact, unified theory of heat, work, and information (both classical and quantum); to explain mat­ters such as the appearance of design in living things; and to a sci­entific explanation of knowledge…

An excerpt from Chiara Marletto‘s The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey Through the Land of Counterfactuals, via the invaluable @delanceyplace.

[Image above: source]

* Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness


As we ponder the plausible, we might send superlatively speculative birthday greetings to an accomplished counterfactualist, H.G. Wells; he was born on this date in 1866.  A prolific writer of novels, history, political and social commentary, textbooks, and rules for war games, Wells is best remembered (with Jules Verne and Hugo Gernsback) as “the father of science fiction” for his “scientific romances”– The War of the WorldsThe Time MachineThe Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, et al.


“How many things have been denied one day, only to become realities the next!”*…

Electricity grids, the internet, and interstate highways are enormous in scale, yet we take them for granted

In 1603, a Jesuit priest invented a machine for lifting the entire planet with only ropes and gears.

Christoph Grienberger oversaw all mathematical works written by Jesuit authors, a role akin to an editor at a modern scientific journal. He was modest and productive, and could not resist solving problems. He reasoned that since a 1:10 gear could allow one person to lift 10 times as much as one unassisted, if one had 24 gears linked to a treadmill then one could lift the Earth… very slowly.

Like any modern academic who prizes theory above practice, he left out the pesky details: “I will not weave those ropes, or prescribe the material for the wheels or the place from which the machine shall be suspended: as these are other matters I leave them for others to find.”

You can see what Grienberger’s theoretical device looked like here.

For as long as we have had mathematics, forward-thinking scholars like Grienberger have tried to imagine the far limits of engineering, even if the technology of the time was lacking. Over the centuries, they have dreamt of machines to lift the world, transform the surface of the Earth, or even reorganise the Universe. Such “megascale engineering”  – sometimes called macro-engineering – deals with ambitious projects that would reshape the planet or construct objects the size of worlds. What can these megascale dreams of the future tell us about human ingenuity and imagination?

What are the biggest, boldest things that humanity could engineer? From planet lifters to space cannons, Anders Sandberg (@anderssandberg) explores some of history’s most ambitious visions – and why they’re not as ‘impossible’ as they seem: “The ‘megascale’ structures that humans could one day build.”

* Jules Verne (imagineer of many megascale projects)


As we think big, we might send very carefully measured birthday greetings to (the other noteworthy) John Locke; he was born on this date in 1792. A geologist, surveyor, and scientist, he invented tools for surveyors, including a surveyor’s compass, a collimating level (Locke’s Hand Level), and a gravity escapement for regulator clocks. The electro-chronograph he constructed (1844-48) for the United States Coast Survey was installed in the Naval Observatory, in Washington, in 1848. It improved determination of longitudes, as it was able to make a printed record on a time scale of an event to within one one-hundredth of a second. When connected via the nation’s telegraph system, astronomers could record the time of events they observed from elsewhere in the country, by the pressing a telegraph key. Congress awarded him $10,000 for his inventions in 1849.


“Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho”*…



Ok, enough bickering and fighting. Let’s settle this once and for all in the only way I know how – going into a topic in way too much detail.

As we prepare to enter the year 32 ADH (a.k.a. After Die Hard), the world is gripped by a constantly nagging question.

No, it’s not “Why does everyone call Hans Gruber and his gang ‘terrorists’ when they were clearly bank robbers?”

Today we’re going to use data to answer the question “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?”

Along the way, we’re going to test Die Hard’s Christmas bona fides against all movies in US cinemas for the past thirty years, using a variety of methods…

Stephen Follows tackles a perennial poser: “Using data to determine if Die Hard is a Christmas movie.”

[Image above: source… which also weighs in on the Die Hard question.]

* Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), reading what John McClane (Bruce Willis) had written on a dead terrorist’s shirt


As we just say Yippie-Ki-Yay, we might recall that it was on this date that Phileas Fogg completed his circumnavigation of the globe in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days.  (As the book was published in 1873, the putative year of the journey was 1871 or 1872.)

In 1888 American journalist Nellie Bly convinced her editor to let her attempt the feat.  She completed her round-the-world journey in 72 daysShe completed her round-the-world journey in 72 days.


First edition of Verne’s tale


Your correspondent is headed into his annual Holiday hiatus; Regular service will resume on or around January 2…  Meantime, many thanks to all for reading– and Happy Holidays!


Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Ignorance is the softest pillow on which a man can rest his head”*…


Chinese porcelain pillow, Song Dynasty (960–1279)

So far as we know, the earliest pillows date back over 9,000 years to Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq. Formed from stone, the top was carved in a half-moon shape to support the neck. The idea obviously wasn’t comfort, at least not immediate comfort. The basic function of the pillow was to keep the head off the ground and prevent insects from crawling into mouths, noses, and ears. Ancient Egyptians and Chinese also used similar pillows, though each culture had its own reasons for them…

Learn how the pillow evolved in function–and happily, in form– at “Pillows Throughout The Ages.”

* Michel de Montaigne


As we lay down our heads, we might send grateful birthday greetings to the extraordinary Jules Verne, imaginative writer non pareil (c.f., e.g., here);  he was born in Nantes on this date in 1828.

Best known for his novels A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869–1870), Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) and The Mysterious Island (1875), Verne is the second most translated (individual) author of all time, behind Agatha Christie.  He is considered, with H.G. Wells, the founder of science fiction.

Verne was startlingly prescient: Paris in the 20th Century, for example, describes air conditioning, automobiles, the Internet, television, even electricity, and other modern conveniences very similar to their real world counterparts, developed years– in many cases, decades– later.   From the Earth to the Moon, apart from using a space gun instead of a rocket, is uncannily similar to the real Apollo Program: three astronauts are launched from the Florida peninsula– from “Tampa Town” (only 130 miles from NASA’s Cape Canaveral)– and recovered through a splash landing.  And in other works, he predicted helicopters, submarines, projectors, jukeboxes, and the existence of underwater hydrothermal vents that were not invented/discovered until long after he wrote about them.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 8, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”*…


Robot-assisted farming

It’s easy to chuckle at the prognostications of yore– where’s my jet pack?!?  But as long-time readers will recall, there was one writer whose predictions were uncannily on the money:  Jules Verne.

His Paris in the 20th Century, for example, describes air conditioning, automobiles, the Internet, television, even electricity, and other modern conveniences very similar to their real world counterparts, developed years– in many cases, decades– later.   From the Earth to the Moon, apart from using a space gun instead of a rocket, is uncannily similar to the real Apollo Program: three astronauts are launched from the Florida peninsula– from “Tampa Town” ( only 130 miles from NASA’s Cape Canaveral)– and recovered through a splash landing.  And in other works, he predicted helicopters, submarines, projectors, jukeboxes, and the existence of underwater hydrothermal vents that were not invented/discovered until long after he wrote about them.

Verne’s writings caught the imagination of his countrymen.  As Singularity Hub reports,

Starting in 1899, a commercial artist named Jean-Marc Côté and other artists were hired by a toy or cigarette manufacturer to create a series of picture cards as inserts, according to Matt Noval who writes for the Smithsonian magazine. The images were to depict how life in France would look in a century’s time, no doubt heavily influenced by Verne’s writings. Sadly, they were never actually distributed. However, the only known set of cards to exist was discovered by Isaac Asimov, who wrote a book in 1986 called “Futuredays” in which he presented the illustrations with commentary…

In what some French people might consider an abomination, one illustration depicted the modern kitchen as a place of food science. While synthetic food in commercial products is sadly more common today than we’d like to admit (sorry Easy Cheese lovers, but I’m calling you out), the rise of molecular gastronomy in fine dining has made food chemistry a modern reality. It may seem like food science has its limitations, but one only needs to consider efforts to grow meat in a laboratory to see how far technology may go…

“Food Science”

See them all at “19th Century Artists Predicted the Future in This Series of Postcards.”

[A re-post, inspired by this piece in Upworthy.]

* Niels Bohr


As we console ourselves that, while the future may be another country, we may still speak the language, we might recall that it was on this date in 1888 that William Seward Burroughs of St. Louis, Missouri, received patents on four adding machine applications (No. 388,116-388,119), the first U.S. patents for a “Calculating-Machine” that the inventor would continue to improve and successfully market.  The American Arithmometer Corporation of St. Louis, later renamed The Burroughs Corporation, became– with IBM, Sperry, NCR, Honeywell, and others– a major force in the development of computers.  Burroughs also gifted the world his grandson, Beat icon William S. Burroughs.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 21, 2016 at 1:01 am

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